The Destructive Power of Religion By Ellens – Book Review
Book Review by Wendell Krossa
Harold Ellens’ “The Destructive Power of Religion”, is a four volume set on violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Ellens makes the point that that religious ideas (e.g. apocalyptic themes) have been deeply embedded in human consciousness and have powerfully influenced how people think, feel, and respond in life, often for the worse.
Ellens is disappointing, though, by not offering a clear presentation of unconditional as the effective alternative to the violence of life. He mentions unconditional a few times here and there, but that is all. Many of his contributors engage the same old attempts to reform religion, trying to defend religions like Christianity as basically good, but just a bit deformed by some unfortunate “pagan” additions… like the core theme of violence in God.
My conclusion is that it is futile to try to reform the core themes of religion, to come up with Mennonite solutions like “nonviolent atonement”. Why hang on to these central religious categories and metaphors? Why try to redefine them in some less barbaric manner, dressing nasty in nice? Atonement still means payment and punishment. It still involves yielding to the felt need to appease divine threat, and the felt need for salvation. Historically, that has always been most essentially about some form of violent sacrifice. Putting lipstick on these old pigs does not fundamentally reform them in the end. But reformism doggedly continues to employ the old categories of atonement or Salvationism and this only confuses and distorts the reality of unconditional. The religious reformist endeavor to present the new wine of unconditional in terms of the old categories of conditional religion only ends up ruining the new unconditional reality.
(Note other comment below on The Futility of Reformism)
Ellens is useful for his good point that the old violent religious metaphors and themes have long been deeply embedded in human consciousness where they shape human emotion and action for the worse.
To comprehensively solve problems like violence in life for the long term, we need to go to the deepest roots of embedded ideas that re-enforce our worst drives, and replace them with a clear presentation of unconditional and more humane ideas. Each one of us has an animal inheritance of base and inhumane drives, a core animal brain. The ideas or beliefs that we hold can incite our worst drives toward harmful expression. However, we can embrace ideas or beliefs that counter our worst impulses, and that inspire us to more humane response and action.
Our animal brain is oriented to a tribal mentality of us versus them, to exclude and dominate our enemies, and to oppose and destroy them. Religious beliefs, long embedded in human consciousness, have affirmed and incited these brutal animal impulses toward harming others. For instance, people have long held beliefs in gods that favor one group (true believers), and that exclude and oppose other groups (unbelievers).
Religion, over its history, has thereby made sacred our most base drives. Early people projected these inhuman drives onto their gods, creating deities that similarly reacted with rage at human imperfection, that were dominating kings and tyrants that favored one group over another, and that destroyed the outsider or enemy.
We see this projection of base inhumanity onto gods in Zoroastrian dualism. Dualism in Zoroastrianism is the existence of, yet complete separation of, good and evil. This is recognised cosmically as opposing forces within the universe, and morally as opposing forces within the mind. That religious mindset has been beaten into human consciousness over subsequent millennia, and has moved down through Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and even into modern secular versions. As one Ellens’ contributors notes, we find this way of thinking still present all through modern story-telling – in comics, video games, movies, novels, and television stories. Everywhere today in story telling we find someone portrayed as the good person, then offended or assaulted in some way by a bad person (the enemy). Then the good person resorts to violence in order to destroy the bad person. It is the common story pattern of stasis, disruption, and resolution, often violent resolution. And so “justice” is done, and everyone leaves satisfied that all is right again with life.
The main theme of this simplistic story-telling is the use of violence to solve all problems. It involves eye for eye justice, payback, punishment, and destruction of enemies. This theme is drilled into young kids’ minds, tens of thousands of times, over their early life. Violence as the solution to all problems. The brutal themes of this story-telling bring out the worst of our inherited drives.
If we are really going to solve the problem of violence for the long term, then we need to make some serious changes at the very foundations of human worldviews. Ellens is helpful on this.
We now know of much better ideas or beliefs that counter our worst impulses and inspire us to express a truly human spirit, that inspire us to authentic human response and action. Unconditional is the highest ideal that can inspire humanity toward unconditional forgiveness, unconditional inclusion of all, and unconditional generosity toward all. And we rightly project this onto deity, to understand that God is unconditional love.
Some quotes from Ellens…
“The problem with metaphors, as Freud and Jung taught us so well, is that they are hatched in the unconscious, accrue their rich and fruitful meaning there, and carry out their function mainly at hidden levels of the psyche, not readily accessible to analysis or discipline…” “It is my conviction that the main psychosocial and political problem in modern and postmodern culture arises from the apocalyptic worldview willed to us by that ancient ambiguous religion…this ultimate dualism (good versus evil) then becomes the model for explaining the meaning of everything, and this schizophrenia is internalized to the unconscious level in every aspect of Western culture and every Western person…”
“The unconscious dynamics of this metaphor (i.e. atonement as an act of grace) have to do with the image or model of God as being so enraged that the only way he can get his head screwed back on right is to kill somebody, us or Christ…”
He argues that one of the most damaging of all metaphors is the ‘eye for eye’ metaphor or ideal and it has wreaked immense damage over history. He says, “By reason of pathogenic metaphors we continue to recreate destruction, even disaster, in each new generation…”
“The crucifixion of Jesus is an image and a metaphor right at the center of the Master Story of the Western world for the last 2000 years, which radically contradicts the grace ethic it purports to express and cuts its taproot by the dominant model of solving ultimate problems through resort to the worst kind of violence. With that kind of metaphor at our center, and associated with the essential behavior of God, how could we possible hold, in the deep structure of our own unconscious motivations, any other notion of ultimate solutions to ultimate questions or crises than violence- human solutions that are equivalent to God’s kind of violence?…”
“There is at the core of our collective selves a divine monster, who, when he gets to feeling a little crazy about something like our human frailty, goes out looking for somebody to murder. Are we stuck with a monster god in our inaccessible psyches?…the real tragedy of violence lies in the fact that it is a state of the soul or psyche, conditioned and twisted by specific religious archetypes”.
Some further material from Ellens on Fundamentalism… Ellens lists five components of fundamentalism such as Biblicism, apocalyptic, dualism, Salvationism, and the belief in the final end to history (apocalypse and ultimate destiny in heaven or hell). He says, “Fundamentalism and Orthodoxy are first of all a psychological phenomenon and only secondarily a religious thing”
“(Fundamentalism) is about a lack of flexibility in theory and method…it is a rigid structuralist approach that has an obsessive-compulsive flavor to it…it is the mark of those who have a very limited ability to live with the ambiguity inherent to healthy human life…it dogmatically insists that it is the one and only possible formation of the truth…it is a psychopathology that drives its proponents to the construction of orthodoxies in whatever field it is…it refuses to be open to any new insight that might be generated by the ongoing, open-ended human quest for understanding…”
“Fundamentalist psychology is known to produce not only rigid models of thought and worldviews but also rigidity in other aspects of life, such as regulation of home life and views…Evangelical families produce a higher level of physical and sexual abuse of children than the general population…” “(Fundamentalism) is a proclivity toward rigid thought and life and a pathological lack of openness to more universalizing insights or perspectives on truth and life”.
“(Hitler, Osama bin Laden, Stalin, Ariel Sharon) these are people for whom early resort to massive violence was the ultimate solution to all major problems seems an addiction…” “Fundamentalism is a psychology that insists addictively that its view of reality and truth is the only authentic one, and is the whole truth. Therefore any other perspective is willfully false, ignorant, and dangerous to the truth. It is for the good of the non-Fundamentalist that the Fundamentalist truth be imposed upon them…” “(It is) open neither to review nor critique. It is inflexibly closed to any continued acquisition of truth, insight, modification or expansion…”
He then goes into varies versions of fundamentalism…Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, and so on. And this critical point, the Fundamentalist’s sense of feeling threatened and needing to take preventative action….“Frequently led by strong often militant, aggressive, charismatic leaders…they perceive themselves to be variously threatened as individuals, communities or as a nation”.
At the end of this essay Ellens notes this…”we find our way without triumphalism or a resort to the arrogance of power. Power properly and humanely applied is one thing. Arrogant power is quite another. Ignorant arrogance is the worst of all”.
This page explores the most profoundly humanizing discovery in history- that the defining core of reality and life (i.e. Ultimate Reality) is Unconditional Love. What makes this discovery so profound is expressed in the adjective “unconditional”. This is not just about love as the historic human ideal that we are all familiar with. Unconditional points to something far more profound- a transcendent and scandalous love that demands no conditions before forgiving, including, or bestowing unlimited generosity. Absolutely none. Stay focused on this unconditional feature until you can feel the scandal and the wonder of it. It is the essence of authentic liberation, like nothing ever before in all history. The consequences of this discovery in terms of ethical, philosophical, theological, social, political, and other implications, are more than just life-changing. They are beyond astounding. Unconditional changes everything. It takes things nuclear.
Note: We discover unconditional as it emerges and develops in humanity and we then reason from humanity out to all else. The best of the human spirit points to the meaning of all else, including views of deity.
Unconditional should now replace these destructive features at the core of human consciousness. Unconditional will liberate the human spirit entirely. Unconditional holds the potential to spark the greatest liberation movement ever. A liberation that begins in the depths of human consciousness and frees us to engage the authentically humane in every area of existence. Unconditional goes to the deepest root causes of inhumanity, those ideas or beliefs that have long validated inhuman feeling, response, and behavior. It then changes everything at that foundational level for the better. It replaces the old themes with an entirely new center, or foundation, a core ideal that inspires the best in the human spirit. It becomes the most potent reality ever to solve issues like violence, tribalism and exclusion, fear, offense and retaliation, and anxiety (temporal and existential). Unconditional now frees us to become fully human. It revolutionizes and solves everything in life and death. And it answers all the great questions about the meaning and purpose of existence.
This is about exploring the root causes of what went wrong in ancient thought and discovering the most potent solution- the unconditional treatment of all.
Yes, Jesus’ teaching is included in the Christian New Testament. But it does not constitute the foundational teaching of Christianity. The teaching of Paul is true foundational Christianity, not that of Jesus. And Paul’s core teaching is entirely opposite to that of Jesus, (we are talking basic theology here, the way that Paul and Jesus viewed God and related ideas, the most basic of all religious beliefs).
(Note: And what then of the harsher things attributed to Jesus in the gospels? Researchers have noted that Paul influenced the other New Testament writers and hence that may explain a lot of the harsher things that were later attributed to Jesus in the gospels, things put in his mouth that contradict his core themes)
The effort to reform Christianity is admirable but ultimately it proves to be misguided endeavor. I believe that much of the reformism effort is shaped by the sense of obligation to Biblicism, the belief that the material in the Bible is somehow inspired by God, that it is a revelation from God and so its contents must be honored and preserved. Biblicists believe that all the varied elements of scripture must be harmonized, or held in tension somehow, the nasty along with the nice. This erroneous belief in divinely inspired scripture undergirds most reformism.
The problem with reform efforts is that the most basic Christian teaching- the core teaching- is entirely opposite to the unconditional message of Jesus. This is the great contradiction of Christianity. And be clear on this- the entirely opposite Christian teaching that I refer to, this teaching is foundational Christianity. The nasty stuff on divine retaliation, punishment, and destructive violence is not just later added material that distorts an original nice foundation. No. The nasty stuff is the foundational material.
The book of Romans is Paul’s formal statement of the basic beliefs of Christianity. And to laser in a bit more, in Romans 1-5 he states the absolutely most foundational ideas of the Christian religion. In these chapters he states the essence of the Christian religion. These are the core themes that he employs to create Christianity. Yes, Christianity is his baby (James Tabor, Christianity is Paul’s religion- “Christianity…is Paul and Paul is Christianity”).
And there is nothing in these early Romans chapters that can be explained away as just metaphorical. The claim that biblical themes are just metaphorical is often another futile effort to try to alleviate the sting of harsh inhumanity. No. In Romans 1-5 Paul is speaking of real wrath, real blood atonement (the supreme condition), and real justice as punishment. And real destruction for those who do not believe his view of things. This Romans teaching is not just unfortunate nasty aberrations to true Christianity. It is not later distortion of some original better message, such as the teaching of Jesus. Romans is Paul’s formal statement of the foundational themes of his new religion.
So lets not continue the delusion that Christianity is something other than the message of Paul, or that it can become something other than what Paul originally created it to mean. That is to promote ongoing confusion.
Paul’s larger context in Romans 1-5 is an angry God zealous to punish and destroy sinners. Paul repeatedly states, beginning in chapter 1, that God is angry (“wrath of God”) with imperfect people. The demanded solution to appease the wrathful God?… a blood sacrifice (atonement) as full payment for sin. A violent murder of an innocent victim as the way of salvation.This supreme condition must be met in order for people to be saved from the wrath and destruction of God. And there is the added condition that you must believe this message of Paul (have faith) or you will be destroyed by God.
Here are Paul’s words- “God will give to each person according to what he has done…to those who reject the truth (i.e. reject Paul’s views, his gospel, his Christ myth)… there will be wrath and anger…” Romans 2:6. This is a clear statement that God engages eye for eye justice, rewarding the good and punishing the bad. Even worse, in the next chapter Paul says that all have sinned and therefore all deserve God’s wrath. All are in the bad people category subject to God’s eye for eye, or punishing justice.
Paul then states that God had waited to punish people’s sins until he could do so fully in Jesus’ death. He was then able to demonstrate his eye for eye or payback justice in Jesus… “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement…to demonstrate his justice…to fully punish the previously unpunished sins (my paraphrase of the subsequent verses)”. And the additional demanded condition is that people had better believe this eye for eye justice or they will be destroyed by God’s wrath. This is not Anselm or other later theologians distorting Christian atonement, making it something nastier than Paul intended it to be. No. This is Paul stating the most basic of Christian beliefs, the foundational themes of Christianity and they are already as nasty as they can be.
Nothing here in Paul’s statement of basic Christian atonement belief remotely expresses anything of the unconditional forgiveness and unconditional inclusion that was taught by Jesus. Jesus’ core theme of unconditional treatment of all people is entirely opposite to the core theme of Christianity which is the fulfillment of a supreme condition of atonement (i.e. Christ dying to pay for sin before God can forgive).The justice of God that Paul teaches is highly conditional- reward the good, punish the bad.
Once again, Paul is setting forth in Romans the most foundational themes of Christian belief. This is the most basic Christianity. And it simply has nothing to do with Jesus’ core message that God was unconditional love and treated all people unconditionally. Paul’s teaching- his theology- is entirely opposite to the theology of Jesus. Unconditional, as taught by Jesus, means that there is no angry, punishing God. It means there is no demand for a blood payment or atonement. For Christianity to embrace the unconditional message of Jesus would entail the complete denial of its foundational beliefs as set forth in Romans 1-5.
Look at the contradiction carefully- Christian atonement, as stated in Romans, is a clear statement of eye for eye justice (the full payment or punishment of sin). But eye for eye justice is exactly what Jesus clearly rejected in his most basic statement of ethics and theology (Matthew 5:38-48). The contradiction between Jesus and Christianity is so profound (two entirely opposed beliefs) that the two positions cannot co-exist, or be merged, in any manner. The teaching of Jesus cannot therefore be used to reform or explain basic Christianity. The outcome of such attempts is to confuse, weaken, and distort the core unconditional theme of Jesus. This is what the Mennonites do with their “nonviolent atonement” (see further below on this page).
Christianity has never been fundamentally about Jesus’ teaching, even though that teaching is included in the New Testament. Christianity is most fundamentally about Paul’s teaching. It has been correctly noted by researchers that Paul almost entirely ignored what Jesus said, and instead focused on creating his myth of Christ to explain that Jesus was a god-man sent from heaven as a sacrifice to pay for humanity’s sin, to appease God’s wrath. Paul’s message was about a supreme condition to be fulfilled before forgiveness could be offered to people, and forgiveness only to those who would believe his Christ myth. This is entirely contrary to Jesus’ teaching that God is unconditional love and forgives without demanding any condition be met first.
So there is endless confusion over this claim that Jesus’ teaching is real Christianity. This assumption appears to be behind much Christian reform effort. Reformists argue that we just need to clear away the nasty stuff on punishing wrath and violent blood atonement and focus on the nice stuff in Jesus and then you get true, original Christianity. Not true. Paul’s Christ myth with its angry deity, demand for violent atonement as payment/punishment, and threat of ultimate destruction for unbelievers, this is real original and fundamental Christianity. Paul ignored Jesus’ message of no conditions required and, to the contrary, created a supreme condition of a great sacrifice to appease the wrath of God. A supreme condition that had to be fulfilled before forgiveness could be made available. This is Christianity in its most basic form. And it has nothing to do with the unconditional message of Jesus.
Paul is like many in other traditions who pick up on great human ideals such as love, freedom, mercy, and grace, but then mix these great humane ideals in with the most barbaric expressions of inhumanity such as retaliation, punishment, and destruction. Themes that distort, cancel, and bury the better ideals. Paul tries to explain the nicer ideals in terms of the more brutal ones (i.e. Jesus’ death as an expression of divine love or grace) but this just does not work. It just does not get anywhere near real unconditional as taught by Jesus. It misses the scandal and wonder of Jesus’ great breakthrough.
So you cannot refocus Christianity on the nice bits found in Jesus and still be truly Christian. If you try to “reframe” Christianity in terms of Jesus’ unconditional teaching then you have rejected the core teaching of Christianity regarding necessary atonement (i.e. that Jesus died to pay for our sins and save us from Hell).
It is ultimately a waste of effort to try to mix and merge, or harmonize, these two contradicting opposites. These two entirely opposite theologies. To get this clear, to see how opposite Paul’s Christianity is to Jesus’ gospel, compare the core of Jesus’ gospel in Matt.5:38-48 with the core of Paul’s theology in Romans 1-5, and 12.
The best way to understand the teaching of Jesus and its relationship to Christianity is by way of Thomas Jefferson’s comment that Jesus’ teaching is like diamonds buried in a dunghill. You salvage the diamonds, not the dunghill. You clean off the diamonds properly and do not try to preserve the dung that they have been buried in. Be very clear on the difference between the two. The Mennonites, like many others, try to reform or “reframe” Christianity by using basic Christian categories like atonement. This only confuses, distorts, and continues to bury the great unconditional insight of Jesus.
In the end, it is more helpful to just get rid of the nasty stuff altogether. Recognize the valuable diamonds in the dunghill (again, Jefferson’s phrase) and understand that only the diamonds are worth keeping. And throw the rest away. Clean off the diamonds fully and properly. Reform efforts only result in muddying the water and this prevents people from clearly seeing the scandalous wonder of unconditional that Jesus taught. You cannot see Jesus clearly if you try to read him through Paul’s atonement and salvation categories. The Mennonites try this reforming/reframing approach and fail.
Again, to state it as clearly as possible- Romans 1-5 is the foremost statement of basic Christianity. Compare it with the Matt.5:38-48 statement of Jesus’ core teaching. Note the absolutely contrary theologies in these two passages. You will then see how impossible it is to claim that the highly conditional atonement theology of Christianity can be used to express the unconditional theology of Jesus. Jesus’ new wine of unconditional simply cannot fit into the wineskin of supreme conditional atonement that is Christianity. Highly conditional Christianity simply cannot express the core unconditional message of Jesus. To embrace unconditional as taught by Jesus, is to reject entirely the conditional eye for eye justice (i.e. full payment/punishment for sin) of Christianity.
Christian reform endeavors (again, as admirable as the intent may be) are a waste of time and effort. They only end up weakening and distorting the great breakthrough discovery of Jesus regarding unconditional. The new wine of Jesus needs a completely new wine-skin. The nasty stuff is just not worth the effort to salvage. Just let it all go. It does nothing to help people appreciate the wonder of unconditional. Let the felt obligation to some form of Biblicism go. Don’t waste any more time and effort trying to preserve something of the dunghill.
Ellens has some good comment throughout his work but overall is disappointing for not offering a clear presentation of unconditional as the potent response to the issues he deals with. He, and his contributors are still very much into Biblicism at various levels, trying to reform and salvage Christianity. I applaud any and all effort at moderating and universalizing even within religion, but this does not deal properly with the root problem, beliefs that embody inhumane ideals.
The best way to understand the teaching of Jesus and its relationship to Christianity is by Thomas Jefferson’s comment that there are diamonds in the dunghill. You salvage the diamonds not the dunghill. You clean off the diamonds properly and do not try to preserve the dung they have been buried in. But be clear on the difference between the two. The Mennonites and others illustrate this reformism, reframing effort and how using basic Christian categories like atonement only confuses, distorts, and buries the great unconditional insights of Jesus. New wine needs new wine skins. Nothing less will do.