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

Titanic_NationalGeographic_131212_DL

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.