The following is an excerpt from Earthing the Cosmic Christ of Ephesians by John P. Keenan. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.
Christians hear the words of Ephesians in their liturgies perhaps more than any other New Testament scripture, for the trinitarian motif interwoven into this Letter eloquently expresses the centrality of Christ in the life of the faith community. Nonetheless, when we read this first-century text today, some parts of it do cause us to hesitate. We puzzle over its earth-centered cosmos with demonic powers hovering in the near heavens; wince at its supersessionist posture toward the Mosaic covenant; feel embarrassed by its sectarian rhetoric; and shake our heads at Greco-Roman social norms that we could not possibly apply or endorse in today’s world.
Thus if we are to appreciate the meaning that the Letter to the Ephesians holds for us in this moment, we must sift through its chapters and verses to winnow out views and social practices that, although valid in the first century, are not real options for us today, and seek therein the wisdom practices and grace-laden blessings that have nourished Christ communities down through the ages. We cannot simply set this ancient text aside as outdated, for by virtue of its being included in our canon of sacred scripture, its ongoing history holds deep significance for us. The collected scriptures of any religious faith—read and contemplated over the centuries—comprise the fountainhead and normative repository of meaning for that tradition and as such hold enduring, traditional importance for its faith communities.
We need to look first at Ephesians in the context of its own time and place of origin insofar as possible, employing the commonly-accepted critical and historical methods of scholarly exegetes. To that end, we consult the commentaries of leading scripture scholars, but also works on Greco-Roman culture to consider the philosophies and cosmologies that dominated the world in which Ephesians was written. And we confront the numerous challenges that this text presents for us today—its earth-centered cosmology, its supersessionist nullification of Torah, its sectarian boundary lines, and its first-century social norms.
I find it curious that many New Testament scripture studies both make note of—but then in their detailed commentaries fail to discuss any further—the ancient earth-centered cosmology of Ephesians, in which Christ above the skies vanquishes threatening daemons that hover over us. This despite the fact that modern astrophysics has given us a wonderful new vision—one of an ever-expanding cosmos that is so immense it beggars the imagination, and whose origin story embraces the common cosmic origins of all peoples of every faith around the globe. This vast new perspective effectively undercuts the very cosmological foundation of Ephesians, wherein Christ is placed above multiple spheres layered over an earth deemed to be the center of the cosmos—a very small cosmos indeed, as we now know.
Beyond its outdated Greek cosmos, Ephesians presents us with another stumbling block in the form of social mores that we can no longer espouse. Clearly, the predominant cultural norms and social ethics of our modern world would bar us from accepting the slavery, patriarchy, and misogyny that are assumed in descriptions of the Ephesian Christ household. Moreover, supersessionist attitudes expressed in this letter are jarring to us in a time when we are discovering profound new understandings of Christians and Jews as siblings bound together from our very beginning, and when we are ever more aware of the compelling need to repent of the recurrent animosity and violence toward Jews that have sullied Christian history. Meanwhile, our increasing awareness of other great religious traditions in this world urges upon us the importance of abandoning our religious sectarianism and of looking at our Christian tradition in the context of the global theological commons. It is this that leads me to look back in time and across the globe to the sixth-century Chinese master of Mahāyāna Buddhism Tiantai Zhiyi (538–97). I find that his teaching of a “threefold truth” promises to mirror, and to illumine, the early expression of trinitarian thinking that is embedded in this letter to the Ephesians, offering rich new perspectives on the central—and yet often misunderstood—Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
We do not, however, take up Zhiyi’s teaching of a threefold truth solely as a theme that conveniently resonates with the Christian Trinity. Zhiyi offered this teaching as an all-encompassing hermeneutic—a “hermeneutic of emptiness” that insists upon the impossibility of human beings ever capturing ultimate truth in languaged concepts. He developed this broad approach to aid his Chinese followers in their attempt to understand the vast textual inheritance of Buddhism. I would propose that we Christians can benefit from a similar approach to our own scriptures. Christian writings do occasionally express or imply a similar understanding about the inexpressibility of the ultimate—the unknowability of God—but our tradition has never applied that perspective broadly or consistently to our theologies. Even now Christians are prone to employ the ontological language of Plato and Aristotle, with the assumption that words actually can and do correspond to the reality of all that is. Zhiyi would teach us, however, that it is only after we empty every one of our definitive statements about reality that we can ratchet down the register of our truth claims and thereby recover conventional, ordinary speech.
Throughout this verse-by-verse commentary on the Letter to the Ephesians, I rely upon many excellent resources—studies of Greek thought, ancient physics and modern astrophysics; studies by contemporary Jewish New Testament scholars who are as familiar with our canon as any Christian interpreter; the threefold thought of Mahāyāna Buddhist Master Zhiyi; and works on the ethical implications of patriarchal power in our own time. In sum, my re-reading of the first-century Letter to the Ephesians is an effort to spur fresh thinking in four major areas: cosmology; attitudes toward Jews and Judaism; general sectarian and patriarchal biases; and the broader perspective that is possible within an interfaith theological commons. All of which may portend some difficulty for readers to keep these various themes in mind. But then, rarely is ancient scripture—or religious belief—altogether clear-cut.
Praise for Earthing the Cosmic Christ of Ephesians
“John Keenan has done it again. This is a sparkling and engaging addition to his ongoing comparative theological project of using a Mahayana Buddhist flashlight to discover unexpected riches as well as abiding inadequacies in the books of the New Testament. Under the guidance of the Mahayana Master Zhiyi’s notion of threefold truth, Keenan both illuminates and personalizes Ephesians’ nascent Trinitarian understanding of God. This book will speak to both academics and contemplatives.”
—Paul Knitter, Union Theological Seminary
“Rarely does a deeply serious theological work read with such ease, such a thrill of discovery. John Keenan’s new book on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is both profound in its insights and exciting. Keenan brings a Buddhist perspective to bear on this pseudo-Pauline letter that has found a place of huge importance in Christian liturgy and theology as he reads Trinitarian theology in the context of Tiantai Zhiyi’s threefold path. As ever, Keenan finds congruencies and distinctions that illumine both Christian and Buddhist traditions. This book will challenge many readers in our identity-focused world, but I believe Keenan’s clear-eyed force of argument and benevolent tone will go a long way toward a fresh reading of Paul’s self-emptying drive to enlightenment or, in Christian terms, salvation. This book is truly splendid: fresh, eloquent, and welcome to seekers and scholars alike.”
—Jay Parini, Middlebury College, author of Jesus: The Human Face of God
“In familiar daring and creative fashion, John Keenan reads the letter to the Ephesians open to new and promising insights gained from his engagement with Buddhist philosophy. Few theologians in our day have the set of competencies needed to confront the cosmological and ethical challenges of the text, and offer a new framework of interpretation through which its core message can be understood afresh.”
—Catherine Cornille, Boston College
About the Author
John P. Keenan is Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Newport, Vermont, and Professor Emeritus of Religion at Middlebury College. He was trained at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia and in the Buddhist Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of The Meaning of Christ: A Mahayana Theology (1989), The Gospel of Mark: a Mahayana Reading (1995), and The Wisdom of James: Parallels with Mahayana Buddhism (2005).