To say that my faith changed overnight would be a lie. It would probably make for a more intriguing story—something similar to Paul’s Damascus Road event—but it would ultimately be false. I simply had too much to dig through, too much to learn. But as I went deeper down the Rabbit Hole, that hum, that something, kept getting louder and clearer. Sure, many of my questions only lead to more questions, and from those questions yet more questions, but oddly, I was generally okay with it. After all, glimpses of a God who is wholly good could be seen every now and then, and the more I dug, the more frequently this occurred. Eventually I was driven off and away from the atheistic/theistic fence that I spent so long on, which was a very comforting thing indeed.
Like I said earlier, my initial exposure to a theology centered, not on God’s Janus-faced nature, but on God being “love and light” (1 John 1:5, 4:8), was from Thomas Talbott. After reading his aforementioned article, I picked up a few of his books as well as a variety of others from thinkers like him—folks such as Robin Parry and Eric Reitan, for instance. From there, I focused my attention on some of the early church fathers Talbott and Parry would mention in their writings, namely, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, and Gregory of Nyssa. What I discovered, and much to my pleasant surprise, was that Christianity in the first few centuries looked nothing like it did in the twenty first. All of these doctrines that modern Western Christians clung so tightly to were open for debate back then, including (gasp!), universal reconciliation. Augustine, the father of Western theology, even admitted that “indeed very many . . . deplore the notion of the eternal punishment of the damned and their interminable and perpetual misery.” 2 St. Basil the Great states something similar: “The mass of men (Christians) say that there is to be an end of punishment to those who are punished.” 3
This was dumbfounding, but true nonetheless.
The proof is in the pudding: just take a look at this compilation of quotes from some of the early church fathers regarding universal salvation. 4 These are but a few that you can find at tentmaker.org:
“We think, indeed, that the goodness of God, through his Christ, may recall all his creatures to one end, even his enemies being conquered and subdued . . . for Christ must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet.” ~ Origen of Alexandria
“All men are Christ’s, some by knowing him, the rest not yet. He is the Savior, not of some and the rest not. For how is he Savior and Lord, if not the Savior and Lord of all?” ~ Clement of Alexandria
“In the end and consummation of the Universe all are to be restored into their original harmonious state, and we all shall be made one body and be united once more into a perfect man and the prayer of our Savior shall be fulfilled that all may be one.” ~ St. Jerome
“While the devil thought to kill One [Christ], he is deprived of all those cast out of hades, and he [the devil] sitting by the gates, sees all fettered beings led forth by the courage of the Savior.” ~ Athanasius of Alexandria
“For it is evident that God will in truth be all in all when there shall be no evil in existence, when every created being is at harmony with itself and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord: when every creature shall have been made one body.” ~ Gregory of Nyssa
If you try saying some of these same things now, you’ll get labeled all sorts of things—false prophet, false teacher, wolf in sheep’s clothing, deceived by Satan, of a reprobate mind, and my personal favorite, member of a “circle-jerking cult.” It’s true, I, along with my best friend, actually got called this. And for the record, that accusation is false. I promise. Well, there was this one time . . . oh, never mind.
Refocus, Matthew . . .
Now, during this time of voracious reading, while much of my reconstruction was fruitful, certain questions lingered, and even bothered me a bit. Sure, I was content enough to accept that if God existed, then he was probably more like Jesus than anything else. And if his mission was to save people, then he was going to save everyone—lest I find myself either unsaved or having something to boast in (Eph 2:9). But what was I supposed to do with the God of the Bible, for instance? What was I to do with the story about Phinehas? What about Onan and his family? What about the genocidal commands? What about the command for Abraham to slaughter Isaac? What about how God’s response to humanity’s violence in the book of Genesis was to use more grandiose violence? How was I supposed to explain all of this aggression attributed to God without becoming a Marcionite, that is, without simply chucking out the Old Testament? As I understood things, even if God eventually saved everyone, then it does not follow that he is somehow justified to use violence against his creation—not if he is to be called “good” anyway.
How was I ever going to understand these things?
Well, one day, I would discover an answer—nay, a way of answering—questions like the ones above, ultimately thanks to the work of a French anthropologist named René Girard. But the very first “Girardian” material that I read was courtesy of Michael Hardin, a theologian using Girard’s anthropological insights to not only explain how and why so much violence was erroneously projected onto God, but how and why Jesus was a figure actually worth following. And while I do not want to be overly dramatic, it was as if Morpheus himself was in front of me with a red pill in his right hand and a blue pill in his left—and like Neo, down went the red pill, allowing me to see the cultural matrix humanity has been plugged into since the foundation of the world.
Now, if I had to sum up Girard’s mimetic theory in one paragraph—a difficult task indeed—it would go a little something like this . . . 5
Human beings are mimetic, or in other words, imitative, beings. We copy each other in the most obvious of ways. This includes a copying of the desires of others. Because of this, we get into rivalries with one another, and where there is rivalry, there is violence on the horizon. When it inevitably comes, and when it escalates enough, throughout an entire society or civilization for instance, it has to be deferred onto a scapegoat. If not, the entire society could collapse from the mayhem. But when violence does get transferred onto a member or subgroup, the masses become unified and peace ensues. From all against all violence to all against one—catharsis! Our cultures and religions, then, arise because of this process.
If none of that made sense to you then that is fine. This is not really a pedagogical book anyway. If you want a primer on the mimetic theory, then pick up my book From the Blood of Abel. I flesh out the details there. But anyway, what this anthropological reality did for me personally was that it gave me the key to understanding why human beings—including the human beings who wrote the Scriptures—tell stories the way they do. It elucidated why, for example, the story of Phinehas reads the way it does, where peace ensues after a scapegoat—an interracial couple in this instance—gets eliminated from the community. Those assholes were responsible for the plague, they had to go, and when they do, we will have catharsis. Thanks to Girard, I can now call “bullshit!” and have a way of explaining why.
(But let’s not take this to mean the true source of revelation came from Girard. Sure, Girard helped distill things in such a way where I could intellectually understand why myth reads the way it does, but ultimately, it is the gospel of Christ Jesus that allows us to see with new eyes why our myths are such. In short: Gospel interprets myth.)
After my “Girardian discovery,” I spent a few years reading as much as I could. I read multiple books by Girard, a bunch by James Alison, everything by Michael Hardin, as well as at least one work by folks such as Gil Bailie, James G. Williams, Jean-Michel Oughourlian, Scott Garrels, Mark Heim, and many others. It was an exciting time for me, although terribly difficult on my pocketbook. But it was so worth it. I would have never been able to learn and grow as much as I did during these years without the brilliant works of those just listed.
And during this time, I got the itch to start writing myself. I was by no means a Girardian scholar—hell, I was not a scholar of anything—but, I had been around the block and back, and had been reading pretty much the entire time. I had gone from feeling like a trapped conservative Evangelical who reluctantly believed some people would be tormented for all of eternity, to a borderline atheist who thought all things Christian were complete crap, to whatever I was at this point. I guess the best word would be “heretic,” as I now believed God was just like the non-violent Jesus of Nazareth in character and that, in the end, he was going to reconcile all of humanity—nay, the entire cosmos!—to himself. So, based on my having a history of polar opposite worldviews, needless to say, I had plenty to write about.
So begin writing I did. And, as they say, the rest is history.