Recently, while poring over a section from the Bible with my Catholic tutor, we came across a passage that surely must be the most irritating one in all of Scripture to a secular liberal.
No, it is not Genesis 1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” which to a Marxist is the first step in the denial of human agency and restrains our power to make a perfect world.
Nor is it the Flood—“And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, birds, cattle, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm upon the earth, and every man” (Genesis 7:21)—which I once heard cited by a distinguished liberal thinker at Princeton who said he could not believe in a God that had committed genocide.
It’s not the inequality-of-the-sexes passages, such as Ephesians 5:22, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord,” which offend the feminist no matter how much they are tempered by a man’s proper devotion (Ephesians 5:28, “Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies”).
And let’s not forget those passages that seem to bear out Marx’s characterization of religion as class warfare. Here is one: “Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed” (1 Timothy 6:1). They anger progressives these days, no matter how much Christianity fostered the abolitionist movement before the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement 100 years later. When it comes to slavery in the Bible and elsewhere, anything short of conspicuous outrage is shameful.
There is something even more upsetting in the Bible. It appears in Acts 10, when Peter tells the story of Jesus in miniature to Cornelius and his family and friends. The episode begins when an angel appears to Cornelius, a centurion in Caesarea, and instructs him to send men to Joppa to summon “one Simon who is called Peter.”
Peter arrives and, first, calms these Gentiles who worry about the law that forbids a Jew from visiting the house of “anyone of another nation,” assuring them, “I should not call any man common or unclean.” Cornelius explains what the angel commanded him to do, and Peter announces, “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality.” Everyone is welcome; Jesus is “Lord of all.”
Our liberal likes that part, certainly, and perhaps the details of Jesus’s life that follow, too. Peter recounts the bare points: “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit . . . how he went about doing good and healing . . . They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and made him manifest . . .” We get the basics, spoken in a just-the-facts cadence with the casual confidence that, once they are heard, they will be believed no matter how wondrous the events described.
But then comes this, almost as a side note: “. . . and made him manifest . . . not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses.”
Only a few saw Him with their own eyes, Peter says. To the liberal mind, that’s the most scandalous claim of all. How does this partiality square with the no-partiality Peter affirms at the outset? A man coming back to life is one thing, but to appear only to a select company, well, that sounds suspicious. It smacks of favoritism, which is the midwife of inequality. When Peter first arrives at Cornelius’s house, the man “fell down at his feet and worshipped him,” to which Peter replied, “Stand up; I too am a man.” Now we are to accept that Peter and the apostles are no ordinary men. They are God’s chosen witnesses.
This changes everything. The universal message from above is now the possession of an earthly coterie below. The life and death and return of our Savior now has a political meaning, one of hierarchy, which in turn means exclusion. That’s how the secularist hears this little qualification.
As moderns, we are tempted to judge spiritual matters in just this way, by their political effects. William James condensed the approach into a neat semantic formula in 1898: “The ultimate test for us of what a truth means is indeed the conduct it dictates or inspires.” We judge religious doctrines by the behaviors they encourage. The idea that Christ rose on the third day and defeated death is realized when, for instance, priests promise the downtrodden unification with Jesus in the hereafter and thus counsel them to accept their oppressed earthly lot—just the kind of pacifism Marx objected to and moderns abhor. Liberals appraise the notion of a virgin giving birth by how that ideal of purity tells women that they can’t pursue the joys of sex before they’re wedded to a man.
Liberals perform this translation of divine truth into human acts all the time. It’s a counter-faith that tests religious dogma only in social practice, not by its spiritual content. The remarkable thing about Acts 10:41 is that they don’t have to do any translation at all. The assertion has nothing metaphysical or supernatural about it. It doesn’t highlight the resurrection of Jesus. It identifies a few men as specially chosen witnesses of it. They saw and heard; others didn’t. From now on, they have authority, which is to say there will be a church and a hierarchy, pathways of ordination and canonization, a catechism and a magisterium, and, of course, certain individuals who run the whole thing.
The more cynical among us take Peter’s curt parenthesis as a clumsy power grab. Peter never was very good at eloquence, we have to admit. He can’t even dramatize the details of the Passion with any skill. God did this, Jesus did that, here we are. No poetry of the Beatitudes, no moving parables, no memorable figures of a city on a hill or house divided, just an undistinguished man making flat promises. Why believe him when his words are so self-aggrandizing?
There is nothing new in the skepticism. It’s a standard feature of anti-clericalism from the Enlightenment forward. You don’t have to be secularist to voice it. Pagan spiritualist William Blake put it this way in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses . . . Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslaved the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects; thus began Priesthood.
Once upon a time, that is, everything was divine: spirits inhabiting all objects, nymphs in the rivers, and a genius loci presiding over every town. Then a group of people seized those animations, fashioned an orthodoxy, and denied the first religious truth—“All deities reside in the human breast”—saying instead that it rests in those selected by God.
The egalitarian sentiment has deep implications. As Ralph Waldo Emerson stated in his famed Address, Jesus poses a hard but simple challenge: “Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.” Every man, in other words, has the potential to be the Son of God, for “God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his World.” Why, then, take God’s word at secondhand, even from those who knew Jesus in the flesh? Let us “dare to love God without mediator or veil.”
No systems and no mediators, and thus no one who says, “God came to us, not to you.” Let’s not be deceived, say our modern skeptics. The religious message, Peter’s message, is the work of canny people who turn the faith to selfish ends. Singular access to the divine wins them followers and fame. Peter establishes a hierarchy of witness because he expects to gain the upper hand, to rule and dominate. But what does he get?
Let’s see . . . beaten by the Sanhedrin guards (Acts 5), imprisoned by Herod Agrippa and expecting the same death sentence James has suffered (Acts 12), and executed in Rome.
Let’s step back even further. Is the liberal discomfort with the “chosen few” a political objection? Not really. The fact that God shows himself in a particular time and place in human history to anyone—that’s the real problem. Why then and there, in Palestine 2000 years back? Why at any one time rather than all times? Why doesn’t it happen to us, now, in our time and place? God should be ours too, directly, not seen through the eyes of dead men. We don’t want that inferior role.
At root, liberals object to the Incarnation. God’s entrance into the world at a specific point in time subordinates the rest of time to that one moment: “In the days of Herod, king of Judea . . .” This creates a hierarchy within creation. To him “every knee shall bow,” and not just to God above but to Christ among us, and with him the apostolic authorities he has appointed to bear witness to him.
We should not rebel against Peter’s “only-to-us” assertion. It is a valuable lesson in humility. That the risen Lord appeared in a long-gone era and to a few rustic working men curbs the vanity of modern thinking. It tells us in the twenty-first century that God’s presence is a gift that we receive not just from on high but from the hands of others who work in a long chain of handing-on. And in the great cloud of witnesses, not everyone has the first place, which means not everyone has the same place.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?