Re-Imagining Paradise by Rita Nakashima Brock

By Rita Nakashima Brock
Voices of Sophia Breakfast, Presbyterian General Assembly
June 19, 2006
Birmingham, AL

printed here by verbal permission of the author)


In 1993, at Re-Imagining, we celebrated women’s life-affirming theologies and put our experiences and knowledge at the center of the church and its future. When we stepped out toward that future, we were making a path as we walked, and we didn’t know what we would find, but our determination to keep on moving forward cost some of us a great deal; some of us even lost jobs. But I am here to tell you today, that, while it may have seemed like we were making a totally new path, there were others long ago who have walked this way and left a trail of crumbs. Their traces were nearly covered up by a death-worshipping, imperial form of Christianity, but those nourishing morsels are still there”bread for our journey. Imperial theologians went down a different road that has worn a long deep rut, a rut is a grave without an end. We, on the other hand, are forging the road for a life-affirming Christianity.

One of the great controversies to emerge from Re-Imagining was our rejection of the atonement, the idea that the torture and execution of Jesus Christ saved the world. My theological career has been spent dismantling that doctrine. I want to tell you today that I am convinced that atonement theology is the deepest betrayal of Christianity ever perpetrated. It is not just one way to understand salvation, but a betrayal of salvation, a doctrine that abandoned the life and ministry of Jesus Christ for loyalty to Caesar and his legions.

I base this conclusion on research Rebecca Parker and I have been doing for half a decade. This research began with a simple fact: For the first thousand years of Christian art, Jesus Christ was not depicted dead. It literally takes him a thousand years to die. We are so used to gory images of crucifixion, it is hard to imagine the kind of faith and spirituality that was celebrated by first millennium Christians. But we decided to try to imagine such a faith.

In July 2002, we set out on a pilgrimage to the Mediterranean world to understand what the visual world of early churches could tell us. We knew that visual images, like other arts such as poetry, music, and dance, imprint faith more deeply than discursive words and ideas (a hard thing for a theologian to admit!), and the visual world of the early church was the primary text for a culture in which literacy was a specialized skill for a privileged few who could afford books.

We began our pilgrimage in Rome, in the catacombs. In the cool, dimly lit caverns, we saw Jesus as a shepherd with a lamb on his shoulders like Orpheus or held in the lap of his mother Mary. Many images captured the story of rescue from danger, like Jonah, Susanna, Daniel, and Meshak, Shadrak, and Abednego,these last three are nattily attired in Persian fashions with pantaloons, flowing capes, and puffy hats that are echoed in images of the three magi. Other images suggested healing, such as Jesus raising Lazarus or the paralytic carrying his own bed. The Samaritan woman drawing water from the well was also there, as were images of baptism.

From Rome we went to Ravenna to examine its fifth and sixth-century churches. In the fifth-century St. Apollinare Nuovo, are 26 mosaic scenes. They are the first to depict Jesus’ life story as a sequence, and they begin with the wedding in Cana. The thirteen scenes of his passion begin with the Last Supper, which depicts the moment when Jesus says he will be betrayed,five of the thirteen passion scenes show Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. Panel ten shows Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross to Golgatha. One would expect to see the crucifixion on panel eleven. Instead an angel sits before a tomb, speaking to two women swaying forward like Gospel choir singers. I could swear they were singing the Sophia blessing. The remaining panels showed the stories of Doubting Thomas (John 20:19-29) and the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-43), images of the resurrection.

Images of the death of Jesus were unknown to early Christians. Instead, the art of their churches placed them in a lush visual environment. They were surrounded by stars in night skies, sparkling rivers, verdant meadows, craggy mountains, and exuberant fauna and flora. The Christ they saw was the incarnate Christ, vibrantly alive, the incarnation of Sophia. These beautiful images saturated our consciousness until, at last, we understood: In church, the worshppers stood in paradise.

The paradise we saw was not an imaginary, idealized afterlife, and certainly not perfect. It was, in fact, often rather homely and ordinary in its loveliness, depicted with irregular forms and rough edges. Nor was it a return to a primordial Garden of Eden. It was something else. It was this world, permeated and blessed by the presence of God, as Gen. 2 said it was. In landscapes fed by the four rivers of paradise, the apostles and saints stood serenely, clothed in white robes of glory, joined by the living community of saints gathered around the Eucharist table. The images of paradise captured the craggy, scruffy pastoral landscape and agricultural fecundity of the Mediterranean world. It was not heaven, the mysterious realm of God, which was shown by puffy clouds of white, red, and blue, from which the hand of God extends to bless the earth below.

The fourth-century Ephrem of Syria (c. 306-373), wrote thousands of hymns, especially for women’s choirs. He was a lay church leader, theologian, biblical commentator, and the most popular poet in all fourth-century Christianity. He captured this life-affirming vision of paradise in hundreds of poems. He says:

Paradise surrounds the limbs
with its many delights:
The eyes, with its handiwork,
the hearing, with its sounds,
The mouth and the nostrils,
with its tastes and scents . . . (Hymn VI, 3)
My hunger takes delight
in the breath of its fragrance,
For its scent gives nourishment to all
at all times,
And whoever inhales it
is overjoyed¦ (Hymn IX, 15)

Ephrem also wrote hundreds of hymns about women as stellar examples of faith. He preferred the marginalized women of the Bible, like Tamar and the Samaritan Woman. He liked uppity women. He praised their boldness, their courage, and their willingness to dispute with Jesus. I doubt he would have found the Davinci Code interesting, since it demotes Mary of Magdalene from the pre-eminent Apostle to Mrs. Jesus! He didn’t think women needed men to be important. Women themselves were types of humanity all could emulate. His understanding of paradise was not something promised to Christians later, but a world that was theirs at their baptism because they were given new spiritual eyes, the eyes of Sophia, so they could see the spirit incarnate in life. Ephrem’s works were translated into all the Christian languages of the Mediterranean world and sung in churches everywhere.

Ephrem’s poetry and hymns proclaimed what Christians knew: that by his defeat of death and his resurrection, Jesus Christ re-opened the gates of paradise on the earth, especially in the church. Through immersion into earth’s waters, which flowed out from paradise, the baptized received the indwelling spirit of God. Jesus became human so we might become divine. The newly baptized gained the power to grow in wisdom together and ascend to God. In the communion feast, paradise could be tasted, seen, and felt in its healing power and joy as it was celebrated with the risen Christ, who joined together the living and the departed in the great feast of life, of Eucharist.

In paradise, Christians found the courage to resist the many forces of sin and death that dominated the politics of their time. Living together in the beloved community enabled them to struggle against the forces of empire in the world and hold fast to each other and to the church. For them, the paradise of this world was not perfection, but the place of struggle. When imperial persecutors asked them to renounce this paradise, many stood firm in faith, choosing to die rather than surrender paradise. They also understood that Christians were not always moral, even when they tried to be good citizens of paradise, so they held each other accountable to the ethics of just and loving relationships and they regarded all violence, even in just war, as a mortal sin. Justin Martyr of the second century notes that the baptized traded in their weapons of war and renounced coercion. Penance was their means of rehabilitation sinners, a medicine for sick souls who needed support, encouragement, and a community to pray for them”only by such community support could they become again what God intended them to be. Although the Theodosian Code of 438 instituted military service for Christians, the church’s ethical stand against shedding human blood remained. Emperor Theodosius himself was ex-communicated by his bishop, Ambrose of Milan, when he ordered a massacre of rioters in Thessalonica.

As Rebecca and I began to understand paradise, nearly everything we had previously understood about Christian history, theology, and ritual began to shift. It was as if we had been climbing a long mountain trail until, at a sudden turn, the switchbacks opened onto a new vista. We could see behind us the terrain we had trudged through ??“ an arid Golgotha landscape of sharp, barren rocks that had left us thirsty, sore, and spent. Opening before us were vast meadows, lush and green, surrounded by sparkling snow-covered peaks, their cascading waterfalls flowing into rivers.

What happened to the vision of this world as paradise? Where and how did Christianity shift from a focus on life in paradise to an obsession with atoning death and redemption through violence? How did it come to be that in the course of its second millennium, Western Christianity replaced paradise with a crucifixion-centered understanding of salvation, despaired at the extent of human sin and its inevitability, and isolated people with guilt to seek their own individual salvation?

Like detectives in search of a murder victim, we followed a trail of clues that led us, finally, to a body. We found Jesus’ corpse for the first time at a considerable distance from the Mediterranean world, in the forests of the far north of Europe, where the Rhine wends its way to the North Sea. Saxon artists in the tenth century, carved the first crucifixions’ three-dimensional, life-sized, wooden figures. The oldest to survive, the Gero Cross, was created around 965 and hangs in the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany. Jesus hangs on the cross, slumped in death, his eyes closed, his mouth slackly open.

A hundred and fifty years before this Saxon crucifixion was carved, Charlemagne, whom the Pope crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in the year 800, waged a terror campaign to subdue the Saxon tribes. He used Latin Christianity as his propaganda tool. The Saxons had their own version of Christianity that suited their tribal confederacy, which practiced a form of democracy. But they were forced under the threat of death to be re-baptized the first use of the sword to misionize. In addition, Charlemagne’s court theologians like Pascasius Radbertus argued that the Saxon Eucharist had the dead Christ on its table, NOT the risen Christ. They said his death judged the Saxons for their sins against him. Bishop Hincmar said the priest should kill Christ on the table and declare him dead. In other words, the priest was the murderer at a feast of death.

Saxon theologians insisted on the traditional theology of the living, risen Christ at the table. Their theologians, like Gottschalk, were flogged and imprisoned, and their texts were burned. After a hundred years of debate, the dead body won, and the Western Eucharist became a feast with murder and death. The new Eucharist created a state of anxiety around partaking of the Eucharist, for a person could eat and drink damnation, doomed to die forever. No longer a feast of communion with life, it inscribed judgment and fear of punishment into its core ritual, commemorating saving death.

The Gero Cross was the clue that unraveled the mystery of how Christianity abandoned paradise in this world: it lost its moral bearings about violence. When Charlemagne used the sword to conquer his enemies in Christ’s name, he began to unmoor Christianity from its moral stand against shedding human blood, to the objection of most bishops of his time. After a century of communion with a corpse, Charlemagne’s Saxon victims began to create images of the dead Christ, perhaps at first in protest to show what Charlemagne’s violence had done to them and their Christ. After the tenth century, images of Jesus’ death began to multiply and to become increasingly grotesque as ideas of paradise in this world began to fade. It seems Christians could not both wield the sword and embrace paradise in this world, especially after murder had entered their feast of paradise and replaced life with death.

The decisive point arrived in 1095, when Pope Urban II launched the first crusade in an attempt to quell the feudal violence plaguing Europe. Urban declared that war was not only just, it was holy, a pilgrimage that served God and enacted love for one’s kin. By killing Jews and Muslims, crusaders would earn forgiveness for all their sins and be assured of a place in paradise after death, not after baptism. This moral confusion about violence postponed paradise as a reward for killing. Holy war was the means to get there.

In 1098, 3 years after the launch of the Crusades, Pope Urban’s friend Anselm of Canterbury formulated an explicit theology of atonement, proposing that God became human in Jesus in order to die on the cross and pay the penalty for humanity’s sins. Anselm described Jesus’ death as a gift pleasing to God and failed even to mention the resurrection. Death now saved, not resurrection and life. His theology of death functioned as war propaganda, supporting crusaders who imitated Christ’s self-sacrifice. Death became the passageway into salvation. To kill or be killed for God became the fastest route to paradise. Justice was defined as punishment for sin, not rehabilitation of sick souls. The doctrine of original sin came to define the human condition, not the spark of divinity we shared with Christ.

A focus on redemptive suffering and death marks the second millennium of the Christian West. The Crusades set the model of conquest and colonization that would embed itself in the history of Europe. By the fourteenth century, apocalypticism and hope for the destruction of this world came to mark much of European piety. The early church thought the end of the world was the end of Roman oppression, not the destruction of paradise. A nostalgia for paradise reemerged in the colonization of the New World. Columbus and his ilk knew paradise was no longer open, but they wanted the gold that flowed out from its rivers. Others such as the Purtitans thought they could re-create it in a pristine wilderness, untainted by human hands??”they did not see Native Americans as human.

In tracking the medieval corpse of Jesus to the New World, we uncovered how deeply the colonial search for paradise has informed the history of the United States, its achievements and its injustices, its impulses towards justice and equity and its dehumanization of the other, its romance with wilderness and its consumptive relationship to natural world, its hunger for peace and its faith in violence and in a violent God. The dominant American culture lives now in the aftermath of the destruction of paradise. That aftermath carries the legacies of colonization, racism, militarism, and the exploitation of the earth and its peoples, legacies that have put our earthly paradise at enormous risk.

In rounding the arduous turn to a new vista, we must construct a path to a Christianity adequate for its third millennium, a faith that affirms life in this world and that resists violence. Christians have always sought to see our faith, our history, our relationship to the world and to other faiths, and our future in a ways relevant to our concrete historical lives. We must embrace a faith that takes pleasure in our senses and the physical world, a faith that honors the earth, brings joy to life, and recognizes we all posses the spark of Sophia. I believe we must uncover and widen the old path in paradise, and recognize again that this world is sacred soil, it IS holy ground.

The government of the United States is dominated today by a medieval form of Christianity that supports an American Empire, with its corporate and military collusion of powers. This is an oft-repeated story. Empires have come and gone, shaping Christianity to dominate and oppress others, uniting church and hate. They have justified their violence by claiming that God would create a new and better world by destroying this one, which they had made miserable by their own war profiteering, conquest, and colonization. They fulfilled their own prophecies by their departures, but, until the end of the twentieth century, they lacked the technological means to take the entire world out with them.

Christians have a long history of resisting empire, its economic and political domination, its religious propaganda, and its uses of violence and fear, a history that runs all the way to the present age. We must retrieve a faith that affirms our love of each other, ourselves, and the earth and remains deeply skeptical of the human will to power and the need to think of ourselves as innocent and good. We need a faith grounded in wisdom, in Sophia, that resists evil and is astutely political. Such faith is far stronger than that which needs state coercion and military might behind it. We must hold fast to a life-giving, life-affirming Christianity that has survived since its earliest beginnings, despite imperial attempts to repress or destroy it and despite theological ideas that have betrayed it.

Kalon, the Greek word for the beautiful is related to kalein, call. Beauty calls to us through epiphanies, the places where two worlds meet, where the invisible spirit is embodied in matter. It is the love of beauty, of our eros for the world, for each other, our children, and our children’s children that calls to us with urgency in these times. We must rekindle Christian traditions that hold fast to what we love and to what is beautiful. We must resist violence, cultivate the virtues that make community work, and embrace love in all its complicated, conflicted, diverse forms. This engagement of love, embodied in heart, soul, mind, and bodily strength, lies at the core of our work for justice, freedom, human rights, sustainable life, and peace. So keep making that path in paradise, so we can re-imagine it, and save it.


Rita Nakashima Brock is an award-winning author, and a respected international lecturer and scholar who worked for two decades as a professor of religion. From 1997-2001, Dr. Brock directed the Fellowship Program at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, formerly known as the Bunting Institute, one of the nation’s premiere research institutes for women, called “America’s think tank for women” by the Boston Globe. From 2001-2002, she was a Fellow at the Harvard Divinity School.

Among her books are Journeys By Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, Casting Stones: Prostitution and Liberation in Asia and the United States, and Proverbs of Ashes. Her current book project is Saving Paradise, forthcoming in the spring of 2007.

check out an excerpt of her book Saving Paradise

in the Book section of this website.


4 responses to “Re-Imagining Paradise by Rita Nakashima Brock

  1. I would be interested to know what you do with this:

    1 Corinthians 1:22-24 (NKJV)

    For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

  2. Revisionist history anyone?

    This is a joke…right?

  3. What a tragedy to the glory of Christ that the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA should permit a heathen to address any breakfast approved by the denomination! To deny the atonement is to suppress the truth as Paul observes in Romans 1. Of what do you suppose the apostle was writing in Romans 1:22 – “Professing themselves to be wise they became fools”?

  4. Yes, Rita Nakashima Brock is right. ” We must rekindle Christian traditions that hold fast to what we love and to what is beautiful. We must resist violence, cultivate the virtues that make community work, and embrace love in all its complicated, conflicted, diverse forms. This engagement of love, embodied in heart, soul, mind, and bodily strength, lies at the core of our work for justice, freedom, human rights, sustainable life, and peace.”
    I Agree! Let us not be deterred by all the doomsayers who cling rigidly to what was, in fear of a creation embedded in change as its source of learning and expanding reality.
    see: God Going Rogue Who God is Not Heaven, A Gated Community?

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