Betraying the order of this world

This reading scripture (Matthew 10) at it’s best, in light of Girard (emphasis mine):

Then we have those passages where Jesus recognizes that what he has come to bring will not produce peace and social harmony, but rather the reverse: it will divide families. He knew very well that from the moment when the paradigm of the innocent victim is installed, which is what he comes to do, the normal human mechanism for creating peace is over, that is, the all-against-one of sacralized victimization, apparently blessed by god, has broken down. And those who live this out will be considered impious and traitors; and they will be, because that person will be betraying the order of this world.

Because of this, the person who perceives someone as unjustly persecuted, the one who gives a cup of water to someone held by others to be a traitor, a vile threat, an element of contamination, that person will have a prophet’s reward, because they will in fact have acted as a prophet by perceiving that the one considered evil is hated without a cause.

-James Alison, Raising Abel, p.87

Turning God into Satan

Alison’s commentary on this passage from John 8 is particularly keen.

What do you get when you take God (Yahweh) and make him out to be demanding sacrifice, always pushing burden of the law down upon us (like an accuser). Yep, you’ve just flipped God into Satan.

They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.  Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”

-John 8:39-47 (ESV)

Alison’s comments:

“These notions of paternity are radically and incompatibly different: one notion is that of a father who, however unblemished his pedigree seems to be, in practice leads his children to lying and killing. Jesus links this father to the murder of Abel by Cain (John 8:44). We might call him the father of the founding murder; traditionally he is known as the devil, and the devil understood not as a mythical figure, red, with horns like the Greek god Pan, with a trident in his hand “all the better to roast you with,” but that much more worrying figure, a satanized god, someone who seems to be God but is in fact an obstacle, an accusation, the whisperer behind the lynch.

Jesus is saying, in reality, to his interlocutors: the God who has been reveaing himself to Israel during all this time IS NOT the one who you say; your interpretation and use of God turn him into Satan; only my interpretation of him is faithful to who God truly is.”

-James Alison, Raising Abel, p.64

Exercise: How do we kill the prophets?

And he said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation. Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.”

-Luke 11:46-52 (ESV)

Our problem must be learning not to say, “If I had been there, I would have had no part in that lynch, when our forebears killed the prophets…” but to wonder about the ways, hidden to us, in which we ARE participating in exactly those same mechanisms, after the manner of the blindness of our forebears.

-James Alison, Raising Abel, p.142

Keeping Jesus less special (and more special in big ways)

Jesus was the God-man. 100% Man and 100% God. When we ascribe to him too many special attributes, we begin to lose the human side. He becomes too mystical and ethereal, unable to identify with our own temptations, pain and sufferings. This is what the gnostic heresy aimed to do at nearly every turn. Certainly Jesus DID have many special attributes, but not anything you can dream up. For starters, he was not omnipresent.

I’ve heard a convincing case made by some charismatic theologians that Jesus did all his miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by some special “son of God” power that only HE possessed. That’s why he didn’t do any miracles until after he had been baptized and the dove descended on him. He also told his followers they would do greater things by the same holy spirit.

Here is another special attribute we sometimes assume Jesus must have had: a fully-formed Reformation-style articulation of why he was going to the cross. But we are the ones trapped in death and tell all our stories and ideas within that framework. Even if we escape death (through Jesus), the END of our life plays a prominent part in the story we tell ourselves. Here, Alison suspects that Jesus might not have been thinking about it in quite the same way. He was not afraid of death or restrained by it. He knew it had no hold on him. Even as a man, he knew he was completely outside of that system.

So Jesus was able to see what was going to happen to him, not thanks to some prophetic gift in the sense of special, secret inside information about what was going to happen at the next step, but in the much more radical sense of the prophetic gift of one who, possessed by the life and vivaciousness of God, was able to understand exactly the workings of a culture shot through with death. Because of this he was able to go to his death as if it were not. And not only to go toward it as if it were not, but to make of it a show, a sign so that others might live in the same way.

-James Alison, Raising Abel, p.60

This post is kind of a mess. Sorry!

Anyway, I just think that Jesus mind must have been different from ours in a really “big picture” kind of way. When we imagine what Jesus must of thought (while we read through the Gospels) I think we make the mistake of starting with ourselves and then simply augmenting our intellect or power so as to imagine ourselves in Jesus’ shoes.

We are walking down the road and we see a sick man. Jesus was walking down the road and sees the same sick man but realizes that he is oppressed by a demon. He commands the demon to come out and the sick person is healed. We imagine that if that were us, we would still be ourselves, walking along, but with a special spiritual sense that allows us to detect the demon and zap it. But with this imaginative exercise, we still maintain all our sinful baggage, especially (when applying Girard) our dependence on others to define our desires and our personal identity. We are not so good at imagining to be Jesus as we think. So we can come to incorrect conclusions about what he did and what his teachings mean. The disciples did all the time!

If Jesus thought differently than us (and he did), it must be in big ways, not isolated incidents of special knowledge. That is more like a normal prophet would have behaved.

Catholics and protestants talking past each other a bit about faith

In a footnote, James Alison makes an interesting note about how the word “faith” and “hope” are used by different groups of theologians:

Almost everything that I have said in the previous section could have been said by a Protestant theologian, and probably better than by me, for we have been looking at what they call “justification by faith” and not by works, which is the central axis of their confession and of their protest.

Footnote: Faith and hope tend to come intertwined in the Reformed presentation, so that what is understood by faith is something much closer to what we understand by hope. That is, they emphasize the element of faith which consists in a confident resting in God’s love, the subjective element of faith. Catholic theologians tend rather to highlight faith in its dimension of the knowledge of the absolute and unambiguous goodnes and loving kindness of God, reserving the more subjective element for the treatise on hope.

-James Alison, Raising Abel, p.170

So some of the ideas that reformation Christians (including myself) wrap up in the idea of “faith” are not absent from Roman Catholicism, but rather given a lot more attention when talking about “hope”. This doesn’t mean there are not a lot of significant differences in the definitions, just that the differences are sometimes exaggerated because not everyone is on the same page.

Turning the judgement of AIDS on its head

This is a potent example.

I was accustomed to hearing talk of AIDS as a punishment from God or a judgment on such and such a behavior. Along with this attitude went another which suggested that, since these people deserve what has befallen them, it’s not worth the bother of doing something to alleviate the problem. And here’s the irony of the thing: God’s judgement is very real and very terrible, but its working is the inverse of what such people imagine. By separating ourselves from our sisters and brothers in need, alleging reasons of religion to boot, we run grave risk of eternal fire, because God’s judgment arrives as the clamor of the neighbor in need. The judge is judge as victim. Whoever attends them confronts no judgment. Those who do not have already separated themselves into goathood. I think that AIDS, for example, might be interpreted as a judgement of God, but it works as a question: a catastrophe has occurred; are you prepared to ignore the judgment of this world and stretch a hand toward those who are on their way out of existence? Or are you separating yourself into goathood, thinking yourself a sheep?

-James Alison, Raising Abel, p.158

How often have we heard that AIDS is some kind of curse on gay people or the sexually promiscuous? Look at all the preachers who proclaimed hurricane Katrina was a judgement against New Orleans for partying too much or against America in general for facilitating lots of abortions. Note how many suggested that the recent earthquake in Haiti was judgement against those folks for making some sort of voodoo covenant years ago. This is serious! It see’s Yahweh as Zeus, throwin’ down lightning bolts at people (rather inconsistently it seems). How does Jesus say God judges? Who gave a cup of cold water to the least of these. Here we see judgement not as a violent act of God, but a test for us to respond to.

Later in the book, Alison alludes that the idea of “AIDS as the judgement of God” driving a wedge between “us and them” as being one of his primary motivations for writing on the topic.

I think there is a bit more to the “judgement of God” than this, but I think we have here a VERY important perspective to keep in mind – one that is heard too infrequently.

The mechanics of transmitting original sin

I think one of the handy uses of Girard’s theory is that it does a good job of explaining, from a psychological/sociological standpoint, how Original Sin is passed down to each member of the race of Adam (us). Now, there are other dimensions in which original sin is passed down. It is more than just a psychological phenomenon – but a deep spiritual corruption. What we are looking at here is the MECHANICS of how it is played out. Sin doesn’t just “magically” get tacked on to each newborn baby. There is, more or less, an observable way in which it is transmitted.

On one hand, there is genetics. Adam’s physiology was the same as ours, except that he was initially designed to live forever. The early patriarchs lived for many hundreds or years. Gradually, sin and death deteriorated our genetics so that by about 1500 BC, we are down to what we would consider the normal human lifespan (typically less than 100 years). So that is one way: Sin and death are in our blood, in our genes. Our bodies reflect the curse. Even Lazurus (whom Jesus raised from the dead) got sick and died again a few years later.

Ah, but if we follow the theory of imitative desire to its logical ends, we come up with another way that sin is ALWAYS transmitted: by imitating our parents and those around us. It’s the only thing we have to work with as babies learning how to be human beings. And what do we imitate? Vessels full of envy, strife, misdirected love, and so on. We can’t help it. Alison deals with this idea here: (The language is a bit murky. I had to read it twice. Emphasis mine.)

…we build our identity both by receiving the identity which is given to us by what is other than us and, at the same time, by erecting fronteirs of negation of our dependence on that other. And it is not simply that we are, ourselves, reacting against something like an invasion from outside, as though there were an original “I” within the hostile elements without, but rather that the sort of desire which we receive from the other already includes elements of rejection and ambivalence. That is, everything that enables me to have an “I” already includes these elements of rejection and denial. By saying this I am not saying anything other than what the Church has always said when it affirms that the whole person is, from conception, and in every case, formed from within by “Original Sin”.

-James, Alison, Raisin Abel, p.114

We all grow up imitating Cain. However many generations we may be removed, he’s still there, helping form part of the foundation of our early childhood development.

To explain the gospel, you kind of need to have the end in sight

How are we going to tell a story which has no end, at least as far as we know such ends? To ask this question is, already, to ask about the eschatological imagination, which is what we’re trying to do in this book. We are trying to observe the apostolic group’s developing attempt to tell Jesus’ story when there is no known way to tell a story that is not girded about by death, and we are trying to do this because we cannot do without it if we are to try to tell the same story as they, which is to say, if we are to be faithful to the teaching of the apostles.

-James Alison, Raising Abel, p.28

Raising Abel

I was excited on Thursday when my copy of James Alison’s Raising Abel arrived in the library loan pool. He’s one of the few Christian writers who has discovered Rene Girard’s work and is attempting to take it further. Budget cuts at the office have forced everyone to take some unpaid vacation, so I took the opportunity to drink coffee and read the entire book in one sitting today. This book is about eschatology. Sort of.

For starters, Alison is Roman Catholic. As far as eschatology is concerned, he might as well be on another planet. You would think a book about the end times might use phrases like “post-millenialism”, “pre-millenialism”, “dispensationalism” or maybe images from Revelation like “lake of fire”, “white throne of judgement”, etc. But no. Those are largely contemporary protestant ideas for predicting the future. Alison spends almost the entire time in the Gospels, looking really closely at what Jesus said. This is at once both more universally appealing and somewhat frustrating. It turns out the book has very little to say DIRECTLY about the eschatology. It just gives you a bunch of alternate perspectives and readings of Jesus’ parables and the apostles writings that let you come to your own conclusions about a whole host of things.

Parts the book were great, and I probably have seven or eight short posts coming up with a few excerpts. His short introduction to Girard’s mimetic theory is excellent and easy for anyone to understand (something I’ve been trying to do myself for a while). I was surprised to find a convincing argument that human beings are the source of all violence. He provides an adequate framework for seeing even the (seemingly) sometimes angry, vengeful God of the old testament as NOT demanding sacrifice. It turns out it is US that demand the sacrifice. This has implications in the realm of theodicy that work out to some killer good answers to some of the stickier questions about the problem of evil.

His readings of Jesus’ parables and discussions on the nature of hope I definitely found helpful. The parables are almost all ironic in some fashion. If you come up with an interpretation of them that takes everything straight up, it’s very likely you are missing an important point.

Probably the most developed chapter is titled “The Apocalyptic Imagination and the Delayed Parousia”. In it he deals head on with the fact that the apostles gradually and rather drastically evolve the language they use to describe Jesus’ return. At first it sounds like it’s just around the corner. Then it’s a bit more subdued. Then there are lots of assurances to the people that it’s OK that Jesus hasn’t come back yet – that patience is really important. Hmmm, maybe this is actually going to take a while and not look like what we thought. Without saying outright that the apostles were “wrong” about Christ’s return, he traces how it seems that their own understanding and description of eschatology developed from 33-90 AD. A bit controversial to be sure, but I’m really glad someone is asking these hard questions.

The book is a major contribution in applying Girard’s theory to several different big aspects of Bible study. It holds up pretty well too.

I do have to say though, I was a bit disappointed with some of the later chapters. They were just too darn abstract. It really just confirms my suspicions that the “things hidden since the foundation of the world” is a very deep well that has only begun to be drawn from. There is some obvious work right here – taking some of Alison’s more abstract ideas about eschatology, grace, and time and coming up with some concrete applications and simplified explanations.

On a side note, I stand in awe of folks that can read and write fluently in many languages! However, this book was translated from Spanish and sometimes it really shows. Watch out for the really odd sentence here and there.

The sign of true conversion

Look carefully at this. Apply Girard’s mimetic theory to testimonies or stories of conversion, we are given (I think) a really useful ruler to judge their legitimacy. (Note that I’m not necessarily talking about an initial salvation conversion here, though it could be):

…there is no story at all of our participation in creation, according to the flexible paradigm of the heavenly story, which is not what is usually called a story of conversion.

By a story of conversion I don’t mean one of those accounts of how I was bound by this or that vice, had an overpowering experience, and have now managed to leave it all behind me – though such changes are by no means to be belittled when they happen. However, they are incidents, and not stories.

Someone can give up doing something held a vice only to turn into a persecutor of those who lack his same moral fiber.

That is not a Christian conversion.

Authentic converts always write a story of their discovery of mercy, which means that they learn to create mercy, and not despite, for others.

-Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination, p. 92

Do you turn from your vice only to beat with a stick everyone else with the same struggle? I have done this, even if my spite was only in my thoughts, I’m sure it bled through to my relationships. For what it’s worth, this pretty much excludes all theological conversions that are followed by a “cage phase”. True repentance must be followed by a new-found capacity for mercy, not an enhanced self-righteousness.