As soon as we encounter religious language (such as the word “Christian” in the title above), our minds take us to a category of metaphysical ideas beyond time and space about God, the soul and heaven. We may be deeply committed to some of those ideas, or we may regard them as foolishness. Either way, it is a realm beyond general human experience.
This pattern of thought has been acquired over a lifetime. It assumes first that the world is what it is and what it has always been. Second, it assumes that the central events of religion—salvation, redemption, accountability for our sins, forgiveness—happen individually and relate primarily to another realm of existence.
Our book (If Not Empire, What?) tries to swim against this current of thought. We read the Bible as an argument rooted deeply in and focused on human history.
Thus in chapter 3, we say “biblical faith is about how YHWH is saving Earth and its inhabitants from destructive paths and dead ends.” Where does this “saving” happen and how? In chapter 5, we say, “YHWH’s truth [takes] on flesh and blood within history as men and women live in public ways that others observe, experience and desire because those ways embody peace, nurture community and prepare the way for justice.”
Generally, Christians do not make such claims because they assume the central figure in their faith, Jesus of Nazareth, made very little impact on human history. He did not change how the world works, in other words, but changed how our souls are/can be regarded in the metaphysical realm beyond Earth.
Anthony W. Bartlett is not such a Christian. He is the author of Virtually Christian (O-Books, 2011), where he argues that the compassion of Jesus has “changed our relationship to creation through a transformational sign system. The giving of Christ has entered deeply into the world, producing at the world’s heart the powerful engine of Christian virtuality” (p.29).
In other words, Bartlett claims the world is “virtually Christian.”
It’s an astonishing claim. A “virtually Christian” world would not be as destructive and violent as our world, right?
But Bartlett persists. He says that the love of Jesus in the face of violence released an elemental “photon of compassion” into the world, an element that over time has altered what humanity perceives to be the meaning of life. Because compassion is now at the center of human meaning, the world works differently. Jesus did that.
Perhaps this is what the Apostle Peter meant when he described Jesus as “the one ordained by God as the judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). Perhaps this is what the Apostle Paul meant when he said that God “will have the world judged in [justice] by a man whom [God] has appointed” (Acts 17:31). And why the author of Ephesians said God has “made Jesus the head of all things” (1:22).
All of this bears more discussion and requires going much further than this blog can achieve into anthropology, semiotics and a close reading of popular culture. But we will try to tackle aspects of Bartlett's message in the future.
For now, try to imagine how your worldview would change if you regarded the world as “virtually Christian.”