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There is a prevailing truism in American politics: with a black man having been elected president, it will be only a matter of time before a woman and even a gay person is elected; but America will never accept an atheist. The most recent polls seem to support this as they continue to describe this country as extremely religious, even though the major Christian denominations are experiencing steady decline. Presidents invariably end their speeches by invoking the blessing of God on the United States of America. Indeed, George W. Bush declared that Jesus was his favorite philosopher. And, as the next presidential election season begins to heat up, no candidate will be asking Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett to join the team of advisors.

America is a Christian nation, a godly people. This is as certain as our dollar bills. Just look on the back of one. “In God we trust” rests underneath the guarantee of the United States of America, above the “ONE” and between two circular mandalas. The left mandala features a solid masonic pyramid surrounded by vegetation, with the divine eye hovering over all. A new world order is declared in Latin under the divine nod. Meanwhile, on the right  an imperial eagle, carrying an American shield and under a magical Solomonic seal of thirteen stars, extends its wings and holds in its talons an olive branch of peace and the arrows of war.

We don’t need to go beyond the back of a dollar bill to discover America’s theology. It is quite clear that we have a sense of the divine, articulated in symbols that have rumbled through time from the empires of Egypt and Rome. This theology rests on the recognition of power. Pyramid and eagle forcefully display this. And that is as it should be, for the ancients (far more realistic than many of us) understood that the divine world was all about power. The ancients would invoke the divine whenever they recognized that they were in situations beyond their control. Their myths gave them a coherent frame in which to cope with the damage and uncertainty of living in this world. These myths also gave them a rationale for justifying why the few were dominant and the many expendable. But, most of all, such mythic language gave them access to power— to invoke, to save, and to thrive. How fitting, then, are these symbols to support our currency, our economy, and our class structure. Each of our transactions sustains and encourages this desirable flow of power. Presidential candidates will be seeking to siphon this flow in their direction. How else will our exceptional enterprise survive?

Before getting too carried away with this potential circulation of power, it might be telling to ask what is missing from this symbolic assembly. Since many of us consider America a Christian land, should we not ask if there is any hint of Jesus of Nazareth around these national avatars of power? In fact, if these images intimate what the divine means for us—prosperity and power—where would Jesus fit in? If we remove the fourth-century imperial do-over from the earliest fragments of Jesus’ words and deeds, we find a peasant crushed by a pyramid of power. His crucifixion was confirmation that the Empire’s gods had him in their clutches.

To make matters worse, his followers were considered atheists, for they did not support the economic and political system sustained by the gods. Indeed, if you listen to what he had to say, you would never see him as imperial or presidential timber. How could anyone countenance the idea of falling into the arms of an enemy and coming out the better for it? Who would dare think that the marginal and socially misfit could be worth anything? Why would anyone waste time on losers or eat with just anybody? To operate on the conviction that life has depth and is ultimately reliable flies in the face of any realistic assessment of the world. In fact, the god envisioned by Jesus is no god at all. In terms of our own currency, Jesus had no god. Today he would be seen as an atheist. His god did not play then to the way power works nor does it play now. To imagine a god showering benefits on the “makers and takers,” the “workers and wasters,” indiscriminately and without the fear of ultimate retribution is simply a recipe for social chaos and disaster. There has to be a clutching talon of control as well as the eternally vigilant eye, maintaining security and surveillance. No one wants to risk losing “a good thing.”

But isn’t that what that peasant proposed in paradox, about preserving life by losing it? Wasn’t that a platform of nonsense? How can one expect more from reality, more than our predicted earnings? Could we ever think that there was something more, that our deepest desires might come true? How could we run an economy without determining everyone’s dreams in advance? Why would anyone dare to go beyond the reptilian reactions of our brainstem: is life more than fight or flight? It is folly to forgive others unless they grovel before us first, isn’t it? Can we really ever expect to be truly surprised? Who can count on the compassion of others? No, such are the pipedreams of someone who does not know what the power plays of a god are all about. Indeed, that godless one even had the gall to suggest that we are missing something, as if we were blind, with a massive timber in our eye!

—Arthur J. Dewey, Xavier University
"Jesus of Nazareth—Presidential Timber?"
The Fourth R Issue 27-6
November-December 2014

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Also In This Issue

Kettle Logic: A Deconstructive Sermon (Robert M. Price)
The Torah Is a Braid: Different Concepts of God (Richard Trudeau)
The Humanist’s Goal Is Becoming Human (Harry T. Cook)
Book Review: Holy Misogyny: Why the Sex and Gender Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter by April D. DeConick (Glenna Jackson)
Why pick up The Gospel of Jesus? (Art Dewey)
Hands on Faith (Catherine Maresca)