Mimesis and atonement

mimesisLooking forward to diving into this wonderful collection when it reaches the top of my list. It’s third in line: Mimesis and Atonement: René Girard and the Doctrine of Salvation (Violence, Desire, and the Sacred) by Michael Kirwan and Sheelah Treflé Hidden. Here’s the foreward by Rowan Williams, as succinct a statement of the implications of Girard’s theories for the Christian doctrine of atonement as you’ll find:

Rene Girard’s comprehensive and still controversial theories about the origins of culture continue to be discussed in relation to an ever-widening range of disciplines; recent collections of essays have explore their connection with evolutionary biology and neuroscience, as well as with the more familiar areas of anthropology and literary criticism, and an increasing number of studies have looked at the relevance of Girardian analyses to the concrete problems of modern politics and international relations. But the theological agenda has always been a central aspect of Girard’s own concerns and a major area of impact for his theories. Girard has consistently argued that the narrative of the gospel, the narrative of the paradigm case of an expelled and executed innocent, a scapegoat, turns inside out the categories of archaic religion (including the archaic religion that masquerades as modernity). If human culture rests on a ‘founding murder’, the basic act of expelling an arbitrarily designated figure to carry the unbearable tensions of the community outside its boundaries and so remove their burden, then Christianity, to quote Girard’s own formulation is ‘a founding murder in reverse’.

That is not an immediately transparent formulation. But it means something like this: Human beings are – before they realize it, independently of their realizing it – driven again and again to repeat, with ever greater ingenuity, the pattern of foundational violence. Culture goes on reinventing scapegoats, and humans are permanently and paralyzingly involved in this mechanism, struggling to make peace and to secure boundaries by acts of exclusion, which guarantee that anxiety and division will continue. ‘Sacral violence’ is a human addiction, because we have never learnt of ourselves what a community of shared identity might be that was based on something other than this. The uncomfortable truth about a lot of Christian theologies of atonement has been that they claim that there has been one simple and ultimately effective application of sacral violence in the death of Christ. Christ, the innocent carries our sins; he is thus identifiable s ‘the victim we have always been looking for’ – and Girard’s most challenging theological insight is that this is exactly what the death of Christ cannot and must not be.

His argument is that we have to digest a paradox: Christ’s death is the inversion of the mechanism in such a way that it exposes the self-destructive character and irrational nature of the mechanism, rather than satisfying its requirements once and for all. Rather than as the victim we have always been looking for, the supremely effective victim of sacred exclusion, Christ’s effectiveness is in showing that we can be delivered from our addiction to that pattern and establishing another kind of common identity. Our human helplessness is outmaneuvered by a freedom of action that is completely beyond our negotiated efforts to establish peace. The act of God is there first: an act which in its universal invitation and non-exclusionary love holds open the possibility of a communal identity that is shareable by all. This is what the ministry of Jesus already affirms and it is what the events of Easter embody. The new community is not created by the ‘successful’ slaughter of the innocent (which in the gospels is connected with the fragmentation or destruction of the fellowship of Jesus’ followers) but by the triumphant and undeniable reaffirming of Jesus’ proclamation in the resurrection, vindicating his anti-violent gospel and exhibiting the contradictory and death-dealing nature of the scapegoat mechanism itself. Instead of the cross of Christ being the long-awaited answer to our question about how we might ‘finally’ make the mechanism work, it dissolves the entire working of sacral violence and casts the emphasis on the free act of a divine agent beyond all rivalry, negotiation or competition. God is ‘inimitable’ and needs no imitative struggle to attain divine identity; God’s radical generosity is thus uniquely able to expose the self-subverting arbitrariness of human exclusion.

How this maps in detail on to the range of classical Christian theologies of redemption is not a simple matter; some formulations already imply just this paradoxical reversal, some embody in emphatic form precisely the mechanism Girard thinks must be exploded, and it is not straightforward to tell which is which. Some expositions of substitutionary satisfaction may surprise us by effectually subverting their own terms; an apparently liberal bit of exemplarism may lead us straight back into sacral violence of a new kind. We are in need of careful and imaginative readings of our tradition in the light of Girard’s remarkably fertile models – and this is what the present collection splendidly does for us. Atonement theologies can constitute one of the most frustrating areas of doctrinal reflection and analysis, a territory populated by ‘ignorant armies clashing by night’, with stereotypes thrown around and a failure to attend to the detail of argument. Thinking through these questions with Girard on one hand, and the gospel on the other, is (appropriately) a salutary experience. It will not allow us to settle with a theology that simply presents God as responding to the terms in which we put our question, which is always a seduction to be resisted in theology; Girard obliges us to think what difference it might make theologically if we genuinely try to make sense of the act of God in the passion of Jesus as the act of a radical freedom from the fear of otherness, a radical freedom from competition. Whatever account of the redeeming work of Christ we emerge with will at least not be just a repetition of the crudest forms of sacrificial economy – and in recalling us to these basic ‘grammatical’ considerations about how the act of God is to be imagined, it will have implications for many more areas of the theological task, so that this is not just a book about one topic but an invitation to think about the method of a whole discipline. It is a book that should help theology to be more itself.

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The beginning is near

Beginning Near

Ran across a Michael Hardin observation from Rachel Nuwer’s BBC article (a portion of which follows) that brought Girard to his mind:

Whether in the US, UK or elsewhere, the more dissatisfied and afraid people become, Homer-Dixon says, the more of a tendency they have to cling to their in-group identity – whether religious, racial or national. Denial, including of the emerging prospect of societal collapse itself, will be widespread, as will rejection of evidence-based fact. If people admit that problems exist at all, they will assign blame for those problems to everyone outside of their in-group, building up resentment. “You’re setting up the psychological and social prerequisites for mass violence,” Homer-Dixon says. When localised violence finally does break out, or another country or group decides to invade, collapse will be difficult to avoid. (BBC Article here; emphasis mine.)

The dynamics of identity formation and its personal and social manifestations are fascinating and sobering. I can’t help but start of 2018 with some wise advice from Loder and Frankl on the relevance and depths of the matter:

In Jesus Christ, the two sides of the self’s relationship to the Holy are revealed. In Jesus’ intimate relationship to the Father, whom he called Abba (“Papa”), he epitomized the transcendent movement of the self; through this relationship, he did only what he saw the Father doing. In effect, he composed the “world” after the Father and in accordance with the Father’s composition of the world. In this, Jesus revealed what it means to be truly human. On the other hand, by doing what the Father was doing, he revealed the nature of God as one who loves the world sacrificially. Thus for the self, the consequence of transformation at the hands of the mediating Christ is to be led into conflict with all other “worlds” and into a sacrificial love for the world which the Father composes and sustains.
— James Loder

Its definition [i.e., of convictional knowing] resides in Christ and its power in his Spirit, but its enactment is the particular ‘duty’ of each one who has been so loved by God. I say duty — the word suggested by Kierkegaard for the motive that lies behind ‘works of love’ — not to inflict moral conscience on a gracious act of the Spirit of God. Rather, to continue to love as one has been loved by God is the only way to abide in the transformation effected by his Spirit. This is what gives ultimate sanction to our claim that convictional knowing is the way of love; the only way to participate in it is to give love as it was given. To fail to give love is implicitly to participate in self-destruction or in the destruction of the self as spirit.
— James Loder

Through the coinherence of eternity and existence in love, the ethical significance of relationality emerges. Without an extended examination of Kiekegaard’s position on love (especially set forth in Works of Love), it is possible to describe the irreducibly relational nature of love. In the Great Commandment, there are no external standards to go by. After first loving God with our whole being so that “the God relationship [becomes] our conscience,” then we are told to love our neighbors as ourselves. The command begins and ends in relationality, and it works because if one must love his neighbor as himself, then the command, like a pick, wrenches open the lock of self-love and thereby wrests it away. In other words, since the eternal and the existential coinhere in love, there can be no other external criteria to justify love or to explain its duties which are not ipso facto less or lower than the relational reality of love itself. The very familiarity of the Great Commandment tends to obscure its radical ethical nature, but its basic power lies in the claim that relationality—not empirical fact, nor moral principle, nor rational argument—is the irreducible nature not only of love’s ethic but of human beings in themselves.
— James Loder

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life, I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”
Viktor E. Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning)

We’re gonna need such wisdom in the days to come.

Having struck the iceberg

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How interesting that as I logged on to post this, my first thoughts for 2018, a friend should share a BBC article entitled “How Western Civilization Could Collapse.” We don’t talk about politics much at all here, so let’s get our one political post out of the way for 2018. I’m still in process on some of this, but I wanted to share what expectations I feel I’ve come to embrace and why.

I’ve always been conservative – politically and socially. A big part of that no doubt was due to my early conversion to faith. And there’s still a conservative tendency in me toward political and social restraint. I think it’s generally true that Republicans do a better job at championing “personal responsibility” than Democrats and that Democrats are better at championing “social responsibility.” I actually think the country does better when these two strike a balance and give us a broadly sensible set of laws and policies.

However, the increasing polarization of views (which I suppose is a natural tendency but which has irreversibly exceeded our ability to manage) has made constructive compromise between the two impossible. Personally I think our Republic is in an irreversible decline to political and cultural fragmentation and ultimate dissolution which will amount to nothing less than the end of America as we know it; a kind of sociocultural Malthusian catastrophe. I know that sounds alarmist, but it seems to me to follow, with little alarm, from the conditions we have created for ourselves. And if history means anything, then we can expect our final dissolution to involve widespread violence. No surprises there.

It seems to me that Democratic and Republican platforms are now, despite their legitimate differences on more optimistic days, merely the stern and bow of a Titanic racing toward the ocean floor. If there was a day when Christian participation in the political process might have made a difference to America’s becoming a “lasting and enduring” nation (brighter days ahead, the American dream, a bastion of freedom and morality, etc. – if that was ever the Church’s call in Christ, I doubt it), it appears obvious to me such participation for such reasons is today impossible. Christian faith tends toward other ends. We are called to an urgent and singularly prophetic form of faith, subversive and cruciform, that speaks up and cares for the poor and the marginalized in Jesus’ name and that embodies within the relations that constitute its life and worship values and freedoms which human government can neither grant nor deny – to believe, to serve, to love, to speak truthfully, to honor one’s neighbor, and to suffer like Christ.

What about politics? What about exercising my civil duty to vote? What about believing in and working toward America’s being the nation God wants her to be? Like I said, at this point I think the Titanic has struck its iceberg. And fatally striking an iceberg relativizes one’s perspectives and plans.  There’s no saving the ship per se. There is only saving lives – an in form consistent with the sinking of the ship. So hows that translate into participating in the political process here and now? To the extent I do participate, I think there’s a switch in me from Republican political and social sentiments to Democratic ones (and I can hardly believe I’m writing the words myself). The post-Trump GOP isn’t the same party I grew up with. Or if it is, then I’m not the same person. Do I think a thoughtful, principled vote for Trump was ever possible? Actually, yes. As hard as it is to imagine, I can imagine it, but that’s another post. What grieved me is not that somebody happened to believe that Trump – overall – could secure America’s best interests better than Hillary. The line in the sand for me was the evangelical insistence upon the choice being a matter of faith, of defending the faith, of bringing the Kingdom, of Trump as God’s anointed one, of reversing the erosion of freedoms many believe to be essential to their continuing to be the Church in the world, and most grievously, doing so for a candidate who embodied vices Evangelicals have long decried as antithetical to their faith.

At this point I simply want to support systems (as fallen as they all are) that at least contribute to our caring for the poor and the marginalized (i.e., that “social responsibility” that I always thought Dems did better at) as we race toward inevitable political and social dissolution. In other words, fighting for tax-exempt status, for the right not to serve gay customers, for boycotting coffee brewers who say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” — the whole sordid mess of collapsing our moral vision of what God suffered in Christ into the fortunes of an American Republic believed to have been raised by God to mediate Messianic blessing to the world — all amounts to squabbles over how to arrange chairs on our sinking Titanic. Throughout the past year I seemed to conclude that while the State sinks, I’d simply rather us be as immediately compassionate to folks on board than advertise future cruise destinations and invest in improvements when we pull into New York – ’cause that ain’t happening.

As I enter 2018 I’m thankful for so much, but I see a storm gathering on the horizon. As it gathers, I’m contemplating what faith will mean without America as we know it, not what America must remain because faith requires it.

Jesus’ creative imagination

icon3I’m so thankful I’ve come into James Alison’s work, and especially to encounter in The Joy of Being Wrong his fullest articulation of the gospel in light of Girard’s insights. Besides the insights themselves, Alison articulates things simply and artfully, without undo complication or repetition. And apart from his slightly misinformed prejudice toward ‘transcendental’ thinking (which despite his objections cannot help but pop up here and there), he better describes what I’ve been aiming at for some time. Here’s a wonderful passage from Ch 9 (“The Trinity, Creation, and Original Sin”) that expresses well the trinitarian logic behind what had to be “inaugurated” by the Son – concretely, historically, paradigmatically – but brought to universal participatory reality by the Spirit. (Note: By “ecclesial hypostasis” Alison means the realization of the Son’s ‘personal’ identity in the Church.)

…By making of his going to his victimary death a creative and deliberate act Jesus is bringing into being a certain visible and contingent practice which is a creation in the obvious human sense of a work of art, something never before imagined or brought into being by any human interpretative and imaginative conception. The creative fulfillment of the Father’s creation is not the sudden bringing into being of some abstract and general universal which annuls the contingent telling of the human story. It is a creative bring into being of a particular and contingent practice which is itself to be the constant possibility of the untelling of the human story and the making of the human story bear the weight of creatively reflective the Father’s creation.

In bringing into being, then, this contingent practice, Jesus was literally creating the possible historical terms of reference by which the Holy Spirit could become a historical reality, and it is thus he who sends the Holy Spirit from the Father. In his going to the Father he has brought about the historical possibility in contingent, linguistic, practical, institutional terms which make it possible for the Father to send the Holy Spirit. The ecclesial hypostasis is the creative living out of the historical practice inaugurated by Jesus’ going to the Father: that is, the ecclesial hypostasis is the visibility of the Son’s sending of the Holy Spirit. This the Holy Spirit is the constant keeping alive of the practice inaugurated by the Son. The Spirit is the Spirit of Truth bringing into being, original creation, whose presence in this world takes the form of an advocate uncovering the lies of the world and defending the children of God who are being brought into being from the persecution of the Accuser, the liar from the beginning. So the Spirit keeps alive the historical practice inaugurated by the Son, turning that practice into the paradigm by which sin, righteousness, and judgment are to be understood. Sin is being locked into aversion to the possibility of the belief which Jesus is bringing into being: aversion to being drawn into a self-giving living out of desire made possible by Jesus’ having creatively forged a human living, unaffected by death. Righteousness is the love which brings into being by creative self-giving up to death because it is not moved by death. Judgment is the way in which this self-giving death reveals and thus brings to an end the lie of the necessity of victimary death which is the governing principle of this world.

pente1The Spirit, then, will make it possible for this paradigm to become creative truth. It makes constantly visible and keeps in practice creative possibilities inaugurated by the Son’s self-giving to death. It does this in such a way that we are always able to find our way forward from being children of the homicidal lie to being children of the Father. It is important that this being guided into truth be understood not to be an essentially negative thing, as though what is daring and creative is our involvement in the world and what the Holy Spirit has come to do is guide us back to our real origins and so permit us to be what we really are—the model of the return to the womb. The understanding at work here is exactly the reverse: our being guided into truth is our being opened into creative imitative use of the paradigm brought into being by the Son: it is truth that is daring dynamic reflection of God that is being brought into being. Compared to this, all the apparent creative darings of the world are so many stillbirths.

This, I suggest, is what enables us to understand something of the image of the woman in travail which we find in John 16:20-24. Jesus’ going to his death of course produces sorrow for the disciples and joy for the world. However, what Jesus is bringing about in his going to his death is like a woman in travail. In fact his going to his death is the constitutive labor pain by which creation is able to bring forth the children of God which had not been able to come to light while creation was under the order of “this world.” Jesus, the Son, is the human being who has always been coming into being, and now he really will come into being, through this labor pains, in the creative lives of the disciples who will manifest him. This is why they will ask nothing of him in that day, but will ask the Father in his name, because in that day they will be the son, the person of the son will have been brought to birth in them, and thus they can and will ask the Father directly. The joy which has been Jesus’ from the beginning will be theirs, because it is the joy of being the son, and is an unalienable part of the sonship which has been brought to creative fruition in them.

Later in this same chapter Alison further discusses the structure of Jesus’ creative imagination as the context and means by which Jesus transforms his victimization into the demythologizing of religious violence and sacrifice. By “creative imagination” Alison is not talking about the science of ‘right brain’ vs ‘left brain’ or the prophetic imagination so important to Israel’s religious experience and tradition, but the transforming presence in us of the historical truth of Christ’s way of life made accessible to us through his death/resurrection. Alison:

At this stage of our analysis there seems no way of getting around a particular feature of the Johannine witness. This is John’s sense of marvel at the extraordinary nature of Jesus’ creative imagination. It is not merely that John puts into Jesus’ mouth certain utterances of extraordinary boldness concerning his preexistence and so forth. What is more remarkable is that John depicts the structure of God’s creative process as the human creative imagination of Jesus…the creative content of an imagination that is in no way touched by death, how it is possible for a human imagination that is in no way marked by death to bring into being what amounts to the most prodigious human invention ever, the human structure by which what had appeared to be human nature is revealed, changed, and empowered to become something different.

Those who protest at the Johannine divine utterances concerning preexistence and unicity with the Father do not protest enough. Such phrases in themselves are positively innocuous compared to the grandeur of John’s comprehensive lying in behind them. Those who protest are perhaps locked unwittingly into the sort of Docetism or Monophysitism which they seek to denounce in these phrases, because they do not perceive that the real boldness of John’s conception is that all this divinity was made present as a human creative imagination…

The original man, then, with creative imagination intact because in no way shaded into futility by any sort of involvement with death, came among us and imagined into being the unleashing of the extraordinary possibility of our being allowed actively to share in that creative imagination and practice, bringing about our free creative movement into what we were originally to be.

Giving thanks this Thanksgiving

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“Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in every circumstance, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1The 5.17-18)

“Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Eph 5.19-20)

“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” (Colossians 3:17)

I can hardly believe some of these convictions of St. Paul. Rejoice “always”? Pray “without ceasing”? Give thanks “in all things”? But I’ve drawn a drink often enough from the flow of this living stream to know this is the sort of thankful, grateful being is possible and that it is what I wish to be. As we head into the packing, the traveling, and the stuffing of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, I wanted to reflect a bit, not on what “thankfulness” is in any deep, metaphysical sense (no metaphysical talk allowed during Thanksgiving!), but instead on what characterizes thankful people.

(Before I get into my reflections, I want to ask you to take a moment to ponder this miracle of thankfulness, gratitude and the undying creative imagination and desire for beauty (all of which are just the name we give to ‘human being’ as we know it is intended to be).

To be thankful is…

…to know I need others. If I give thanks, I’m acknowledging my need of others, and of God. I’m not Atlas, on any conceivable level. I’m incomplete through and through. I’m learning to appreciate how deeply and profoundly connected to others and to all things we are. No one of us accomplishes anything independently of God or independently of the contributions of others. All our stories are interwoven. No story is sealed off from the rest. Who I am is on the inside of who others are in whose lives I’ve participated and who are on the inside of who I’m becoming. I am not first somebody – sealed up, self-contained, having arrived, having accomplished, having believed – only then to step into the connections and relationships of life. No – from the start we are connected, we need God and others, and our lives and especially our success are a participation in, and an expression of, the lives and successes of others.

For some, just acknowledging this is torture. For to need others is to be “vulnerable” and thankful people are vulnerable people. They know they need. Moreover, the more thankful one is, the more one knows one needs, not just on some levels, but on every level of existence. Name something of value, some cherished desire. Whatever you have in mind involves you in some relationship of need and dependency. Being thankful means seeing that essential connectedness and the dependencies upon the presence and contributions that form a web of living relationships which are your life.

…to know I have something to be thankful for. To be thankful, secondly, is to realize that something specific I need, something I’ve desired, has come to me, has been provided me. Being thankful requires us to be specific, to be thankful for something or someone. Name it. Describe it. Then say why that for which you’re thankful is valuable and important to you. That kind of thoughtful openness and responsiveness is mature godliness. Thankfulness opens our mind and heart up to the world, to others, and to God. Thankful people live in that openness. That’s why, if you notice, open-hearted and open-minded people are thankful people.

…to know I am not alone. Thirdly, not only is thankfulness the acknowledge of my need of others, and not only is it acknowledgement of the provision of something I need, but it is also the discovery through these that I’m not alone. I cannot be thankful for something and believe I am alone and godforsaken. That’s not possible. If I need God and others, and if God and others are where and how something I need has been provided, then this can only mean I am not alone. God is here with me – in the all things in which St. Paul urges us to be thankful. God sees, he provides, and even if all others happen to forsake me, he will not leave, and so I am not alone. How do I know this? I know it primarily because it happened to the man, Jesus, whose confidence that God was with him in the darkest hour was confirmed by God’s raising him from the dead. “You will all forsake me and leave me alone,” Jesus told his own disciples on the eve of his Crucifixion (Jn 16), “but I am not alone, for my Father is with me.”

Thankfulness in all things, at all times, is therefore forever possible because of the Cross, where one innocent victim, stripped by the world of the world he loved, died without ceasing to be thankful. The Cross is the ground of the possibility of undying thankfulness because (“for the joy set before him he endured”) it was where the worst that could happen to a human being happened and it didn’t involve God abandoning that person. Jesus made the Cross something that redeems rather than just a way to perpetuate our violence and despair.

…to think of what I can do to be a reason someone else realizes these things, that is to say, lastly, to be thankful is to embrace a vocation, the call to attend to the needs and possibilities of others as others have attended to mine. Because thankfulness begins with the awareness that I need God and others and that I’m connected to them, it ends with me wanting to be for others what they have been for me. I can’t be truly thankful and not open myself up to becoming a reason someone else may become thankful.

Enjoy Thanksgiving this week, connecting to the depth of your need, to the gracious givenness of life, to the inescapable presence of the Giver, and to the call to be for others a reason to be thankful.

Who, what and how are we?

man2I’ve encouraged friends to read James Alison’s wonderful book The Joy of Being Wrong. I’m not excited about it because I agree with every claim he makes, but because he articulates so well (in Girardian terms) what human (social) nature is, what salvation amounts to, and how this is all best read in light of the resurrection of Christ. Maybe it’s just because of where I am at the present moment, but I find Alison full of insight.

There will be plenty of opportunity to post passages I agree with. Let me start with an aspect of Alison’s work that I disagree with. In working out his anthropology (Ch 2), Alison rejects transcendental anthropology. A transcendental anthropology views human nature to be constituted as an implicit and irresistible orientation of desire for God. Not that God is always what we consciously or explicitly intend, but that desire is God-given and thus oriented Godward, that is to say, to find its fulfillment in God. This orientation of desire derives from the transcendent presence of God as the immediate ground and end of human being and all human desiring, as well as intrinsic teleology of created nature and the scope of every nature’s possibilities. Human rationality and desire are, you might say, hardwired for God. Think of desire as a kind of aesthetic gravity to consciousness, a ‘power of attraction’ that draws desire to its fulfillment. To say we transcendently desire God is not to say we never set our desires on things other than God; it is to say that in all our desiring, God remains the truest end and fulfillment of that desire and that all desire is truly fulfilled when we intentionally make God the end of all we do (Col 3.23-24).

That’s my understanding of transcendental anthropology at least. But Alison is suspicious of such talk. I’ll let him explain why (from various portions of his Ch 2) and then respond with a few reflections in an upcoming post. Alison writes:

This, of course, places us on a somewhat different course from any transcendental anthropology, which sees, as a matter of philosophical truth, the human being as imbued with a somehow experienced orientation toward grace and glory and therefore the concrete, contingent, historical acts of salvation (the prophets, the coming of Christ, the existence of the Church, the sacraments) as merely making explicit the universal availability of grace. In such a view, “the historical events, the human acts and images which can alone be the site of supernatural difference, are here reduced to mere signs of a perfect inward self-transcendence, always humanly available.

At this point it seems important to try to indicate why the transcendental element seems unnecessary in a fundamental anthropology…

I do not want to deny…that all Christian anthropology must posit that all humans are, just by the fact of being humans, called to participate in the divine life. However, it seems to me that this theological doctrine is an important human discovery made in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and is part of a discovery that we are, in fact, quite different from what we normally think we are. That is to say, the doctrine of the universal vocation to theiosis is itself part of the discovery of salvation as a difficult process worked out in hope, in which we hope to become something which we are not, or are scarcely, now.

If we detach the doctrine of the universal vocation to theiosis from the element of discovery in hope of something which contradicts our daily lived experience and turn it into a quasi-philosophical description of what we all are, inescapably, then we merely transform the doctrine of the security of salvation…into a universal philosophical principle. This means, in theological terms, that a subtle form of anonymous semi-Pelagianism, and thus shortcuts the way in which discovery of the universality of the call to theiosis is, for each of its participants, a radical conversion and part of the revelation of salvation.

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Let me therefore try to set out the way in which the anthropology I have been trying to set out differs from this (and the answer is, only very, very slightly). The human being is constituted by what is other than himself or herself, and is always utterly related to this other which is anterior to himself or herself. The other I’m talking about is, of course, the human, social, cultural, material, environmental other proper to our planet. It is this other than has forged language, memory, will, and the capacity to relate to the other. So much might reasonably be recognized by anyone, independent of religious conviction. However, that is not to say that the anthropology I have been setting out could have been set out except from a theological perspective. In fact, it was a very particular set of contingent historical actions, lives, and circumstances that made it possible to perceive the role of the victim as foundational to human being, contingent actions involving a reversal of perspective on the relation of any one of us to that victim. That is to say, it was a particular set of historical events which made it possible fully to recognize the other which forms us. And it made it possible to recognize this precisely in the simultaneous act of revealing that there was a different sort of other that could form us in a different sort of way: that is to say, there is a different perspective on the founding murder than that which is connatural to us.

In this way, we can say that every human being is, in fact, constituted by and with an in-built relationality to the other which formed him or her. This other constituted the very possibility of human desire. We can also say that owing to the way in which we are in fact constituted, that desire is rivalistic and builds identity, to a greater or lesser extent, by denial of the alterity, and the anteriority, of the other desire. That is to say, human desire, as we know it, works by grasping and appropriating being rather than receiving it. In this sense, we are all always already locked into the other which forms us in a relationship of acquisitive mimesis, that is, in a relationship of violence which springs from, and leads to, death.

It became possible to understand this (in fact) not from natural rational deduction (though there is nothing inherently incomprehensible about it), but precisely because of the irruption of a novum into the midst of the social other which forms us, a novum which is a revelation of a different sort of Other, and Other that is completely outside any form of rivalistic desire and that made itself historically present as a self-giving and forgiving victim. This self-given victim, from outside human mimetic rivalry, revealed precisely that the death-locked lie of mimetic rivalry flowing from culture’s hidden victims is not the original mode of desire, but a distortion of it. That which was chronologically original (and seemed to us to be simply natural) is discovered to be logically secondary to an anterior self-giving and creative desire.

…The transformation of our “self” via our constitutive alterity happens not through some universal transcendence, but exactly through the givenness of certain particular historical actions and signs, moving us to produce and reproduce just such historical acts and signs.

…Can we then talk of a universal desiderium naturale, natural desire, for God? Well, once again, only as a result of the acceptance of the revelation that the real source of the anteriority which forms us is a purely nonrivalistic, self-giving desire (love). What we have without that faith is a construction of desire that never breaks out of circles of appropriation and exclusion. It would be wrong to call that desire a natural desire for God. We might properly call it a natural desire for being, but an idolatrous desire being, since we are incapable of merely receiving being. So we go to idolatrous lengths to shore up our fragile sense of being, being prepared to sacrifice the other to save our “self.” What we can observe is that, in any given historical instance, our desire is for things which have become obstacles to God precisely because they are desire appropriatively, by grasping. It is in the transformation of our receptivity that our desire becomes a desire from and for God and is discovered to be such not as something plastered over our distorted desires, but as the real sense behind even those distorted desires, as something anterior to them. It is in this sense that we become sons and daughters of God as we discover that our belonging to, our being held in being by, the other is more secure and original a way of being in the world than our grasping and appropriating things. The tourist grasps and appropriates on his way through, because he knows that these things, these sights, will not be his tomorrow. The dweller in the land does not need to hold on to them, because she knows that they will be there tomorrow, and it is they that have formed her, not she who possesses them. The disiderium naturale is “there” as something that can be recovered.

In this sense I am completely in agreement with J. L. Segundo when he insists that it is quite wrong to see any human construction of values as implicitly pointing toward God simply because they are a human construction of values. Human desire is a good thing because it can in principle be drawn into the desire of God, precisely as human desire, and indeed we know from faith that it was for this that it was created. That does not stop the very condition of possibility of our desire of God (the human structure of desire) being lived without even an implicit reference to the pacific gratuitous other which can transform us into receivers of our being. It is possible for human desire to be lived as idolatry, as complete missing of the point (a “falling short of the glory of God”), an exacerbated desire for metaphysical autonomy, and thus a seeking to appropriate (rather than receive) life for the self, a living from death to death – running from our own death and causing that of others. In this way I hope it is possible to see that the theological anthropology which I have been setting out is in fact well suited to the basic insight of the liberation theologians that the choices is not between theism and atheism, but between the true God (the God of life) and idolatry. This is rather better suited, I would suggest, than a transcendental anthropology, which effectively pre-pardons idolatry without transforming the idolater, without giving him or her the chance of a real restructuring of heart.

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One can see Alison’s main concerns:

  • First, a transcendental anthropology reduces the historical events of salvation history to “mere signs of a perfect inward self-transcendence” which are “always humanly available.”
  • Second, if grace is constitutive of created nature (defining its end and delimiting the scope of its possibilities), then theosis fails to be “the discovery of salvation as a difficult process worked out in hope” in which we “become something we are not.” That is, Alison believes transcendental anthropologies reduce the gospel to a “quasi-philosophical description of what we all [already] are” which he takes to be Pelagian. What we are meant to become, Alison maintains, requires events (Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection) that intrude within the natural order. They are not truths derived philosophically from what can be rationally deduced from contemplating nature, an “unaided outworking of a human dynamic,” for “nothing human could have revealed the constitution of the human consciousness in human victimization.” A radical novum is needed, a divine act which constitutes salvation as a gracious intrusion from outside the scope or reach of human rationality, as opposed to the natural unfolding of dispositions already present in us.
  • Third, it is obviously the case that we do in fact exhaust our desires idolatrously upon false ends “without even an implicit reference to the pacific gratuitous other which can transform us.”
  • Lastly, Alison suggests that a transcendental grace constitutive of nature would “pre-pardon idolatry” and leave us “without…the chance of a real restructuring of the heart.”

I’d love to hear what folks have to say about Alison’s objections to transcendental anthropology. I think he fundamentally misunderstands what is meant by those who see nature sacramentally as shot through with grace from beginning to end, but I’ll try to explore that in an upcoming post.

The Joy of Being Wrong

alison

Back in the late Spring I found myself reading James Alison, partly from having stumbled into references of him in other books and finally through a friend’s recommendation. I’ve post portions of him here and here. I’m presently reading through his The Joy of Being Wrong (his PhD dissertation), a work of theological anthropology appropriating Girard which “looks at original sin in the light of the Resurrection.” I’m gripped by it and quite moved, not half way through it. This evening I was especially moved by the following passage that zeros in on what ought to be the heart of how we understand the human predicament from which Christ rescues us. Enjoy!

…the sense of the self, the être [“other”]…is always received as a given, when when that preceding givenness, or the reception, is seriously marred by violence of circumstance, or paternal incompetence or ill will. The relationship between the être as received and as acquired by more or less violent appropriation is at the heart of the theology of original sin.

The description I have given leads to an understanding of the human self, the “me” of each of us, as being an unstable structure, one that is changeable, malleable, and other-dependent, whether it likes it or not. The other is always anterior to “me.” It also means…first, that it is desire which engenders the “me” and which brings it, by its movement, into existence; and, second, that desire is mimetic, that is, it moves in imitation of the desire of another.

Since the “me” of each one of us is founded by desire, we cannot say that desire is our own, as though it belongs to some preexistent “me.” It is the other way around. The “me” is radically dependent on the desires whose imitation formed it. This means that there is no “real me” at the bottom of it all, when I’ve scrapped away all the things I’ve learned, all the influences I’ve undergone. Psychology is what goes on between people, not, in the first place, in any particular individual. Having grasped this is what permits Girard…to talk of an interdividual psychology. In more accessible terminology this means that psychological facts have to do with relationships. Psychological problems have to do with broken or disturbed relationships, and psychological wholeness has to do with restoring and mending broken relationships.

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We have, then, in any given human being, a self formed by the desire of another. That desire is lived in rivalistic inflection, what I have called desire of grasping or appropriation. We also have the discovery that the possibility of the existence of any desire at all was an anterior desire that is in no sense rivalistic, which we call the creative love of God. The gratuity of God’s love works precisely and only as self-giving; working to produce in each human a capacity to accept—as purely gratuitous—the self-giving other. The permanent self-giving is more than an offer of self-giving, it is self-giving itself, but it can never be lived as self-giving by humans who grasp and appropriate the other. Grace can be lived only as something permanently gratuitously received. The great anthropological transformation, therefore, is of the way in which we move from being constituted by an anterior desire which moves us into deadlock, by grasping and appropriating our sense of being, to being constituted by a self-giving other than can be received only as constantly and perpetually self-giving, as gratuitous, and therefore never grasped, never appropriated, but only received and shared. If it is true to say that it is more blessed to given than to receive, this is because we are the sort of creatures who can only properly (gratuitously) give as part of an imitation of a gratuitous reception. Real giving and real receiving are a mutually structuring reality. We are talking of the person who is beginning to be empowered to move from feeling that society, the others, owe him something, toward being able to be toward other people—to act out for them—what they think is owed to them.

treegift

What this means is that the gratuitous self-giving of God is always present contiguous to, and subversive of, any given now, and it is the gratuitous presence which has made itself explicit in concrete human historical circumstances. It is not universal human self-transcendence which makes itself explicit in the events and narrations of salvation, but the universally present self-giving of God, enabling us to become receivers, rather than graspers, of the other which forms us, revealed as purely gratuitous. The problem between intrinsicist and extrinsicist accounts of grace is not a problem, in the first place, of the theology of grace, but one of the anthropology of reception. The dilemma between grace as somehow “owed” to a human and grace as somehow “already imbued in the human” shows that the discussion is taking place entirely within an anthropology of grasping and appropriating and is not focusing on the necessary gratuity of the transformation into gratuitous receivers of what remains lived in gratuity. One of the things revealed by the doctrine of original sin is that it is our capacity to receive gratuitously that was damaged in the fall; not our capacity to receive, because we have to receive in order to exist, but our capacity to receive gratuitously, which is the only way in which we can share in divine life, because that life can never be other than gratuitous. (Bold mine)

Can we then talk of a universal desiderium natural, natural desire, for God? Well, once again, only as a result of the acceptance of the revelation that the real source of the anteriority which forms us is a purely nonrivalistic, self-giving desire (love). What we have without that faith is a construction of desire that never breaks out of circles of appropriation and exclusion. It would be wrong to call that desire a natural desire for God [Tom: In Alison’s terms perhaps not “natural,” but natural nonetheless in the sense that what Alison says is the “source” of that desire (divine desire/love) is not the past event of God’s having created the world, but the abiding, presence of that desire as God creatively present in sustaining us]. We might properly call it a natural desire for being, but an idolatrous desire being, since we are incapable of merely receiving being. So we go to idolatrous lengths to shore up our fragile sense of being, being prepared to sacrifice the other to save our “self.” What we can observe is that, in any given historical instance, our desire is for things which have become obstacles to God precisely because they are desire appropriatively, by grasping. It is in the transformation of our receptivity that our desire becomes a desire from and for God and is discovered to be such not as something plastered over our distorted desires, but as the real sense behind even those distorted desires, as something anterior to them. It is in this sense that we become sons and daughters of God as we discover that our belonging to, our being held in being by, the other is more secure and original a way of being in the world than our grasping and appropriating things. The tourist grasps and appropriates on his way through, because he knows that these things, these sights, will not be his tomorrow. The dweller in the land does not need to hold on to them, because she knows that they will be there tomorrow, and it is they that have formed her, not she who possesses them.

There are hints in this passage of a more extended treatment by Alison in this chapter that challenges any transcendental reading of desire, the sort of implicit, teleological orientation of desire toward God that one finds defended by David Bentley Hart for example. I’ll do a separate post of Alison’s position on this. It’s one aspect of his anthropology I would disagree with. But overall, Alison has recast the ‘original sin’ discussion for me in a powerful way.