The Need for Critical Consciousness

Gary Pence

Christianity is inevitably abusive when it lacks critical consciousness. For then its stories and precepts are hypostasized and absolutized in ways injurious especially to women and children. The traditional doctrines of the atonement, which idealize suffering as redemptive, are an example. Often enough these doctrines themselves reflect the abusive childhoods of their creators. For example, St. Augustine's childhood abuse must have influenced his doctrine of original sin and especially his understanding of the "scourge" of God.

It may be bold to designate a critically conscious faith the "faith of a heretic," as Walter Kaufmann does in The Faith of a Heretic (1959). However, Christian faith is intrinsically heretical. Its origin was as a heretical Jewish sect. The object of its faith, Jesus, was himself a critically conscious heretic who contradicted his own tradition. Yet he is understood by Christians to be the fullness of the Godhead, the full manifestation of the nature of God, so that the story about Jesus becomes the "canon within the canon" for understanding all of Scripture.

In contrast to biblical fundamentalism, which ascribes equal authority to each and every biblical text, the story about Jesus becomes the interpretive principle by which to norm one's understanding of the Bible and one's experience of one's own life. The story about Jesus reveals God in a complex and ambiguous way open to various and even contradictory readings. In that way the revelation of God mirrors the ambiguity of reality itself. (Bernard Loomer)

Today we can see Jesus as an anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment, disestablishmentarian prophet in opposition to every received, conventional, official dogma. He denounced the scribes and Pharisees, the mainline theologians, of his day. He repudiated conventional customs, rituals, and assumptive values. His suffering and death represent, not a romanticization of suffering or its glorification as redemptive, but God's empathy for and identification with human brokenness. His suffering and death also contradict the conventional male heroic role and constitute, therefore, a reframing of ideal maleness. They represent an implicitly feminist attack on any assumption that it is woman's proper role to suffer and die for others. Hence, Jesus' maleness, because of its character and its acting out, is an attack on sexism, not a reinforcement of it.

We see all of this today because we read the story alongside the emerging stories of men, women, and children during the 2000 years since Jesus' life. That is, their stories inform our understanding of Jesus' story, causing us to see in it elements that earlier generations missed. This expresses the interactivity, the non-hierarchical character of God, whose being is influenced by the creation even as the interpretation of the story is influenced by our stories. So now we are able to see the relationship of Jesus to men, women, children and men's, women's, children's relationship to him as revelatory of God's being. (Rita Nakashima Brock).

The implication of this iconoclastic Christ is its legitimation of our own revisions of Christian understanding in the light of new knowledge. No articles of Christian teaching are exempt from critical reflection. No doctrines are sacrosanct. We have the story of Jesus, and that is enough. The abstractions that we derive from that story are open to continual assessment, critique, and revision. Hence, doctrines of original sin, atonement, redemption, salvation, law, Gospel, eschatology are all open to discussion, revision, or elimination. Not to treat our abstractions critically is to be faithless, idolatrous, substituting "doctrines of men" for faithfulness to Jesus and to the God whom he fully embodies and reveals.

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Healing Religion's Harm
Gary Pence, Ph.D.