The Devil’s March—Part 2

skeleton-mirrorIn his opening to “The Devil’s March,” David Hart paints a grim picture of the world and our existence in it. “All the things about the world that enchant us,” he urges, “are at best tiny flickers of light amid a limitless darkness,” a darkness filled with the torments of disease, the blood of the innocent, war, conquests, enslavements – the list goes on. “Everything we love vanishes,” he laments, “and so do we.” If God does exist, and if we do owe him our gratitude for the gift of being, Hart cautions, “this is no obvious truth of reason, but a truth more mysterious than almost any other.” Our knowledge, left to its natural limitations, “instructs us principally that we owe God nothing at all, but that really we should probably regard him with feelings situated somewhere along the continuum between resigned resentment and vehement hatred.”

Surprisingly, the first words to follow are “And yet Christians must…believe in the goodness of all being.” But Hart is in no hurry to get there and neither should we be. We reduce faith to facile and glib sentimentality if we don’t truly experience the Void and allow it to deconstruct and dismember us, but few of us are that patient. One has to face the nothingness of existence in all its finitude, and the violence that Hart rehearses, before one can even hope to get around to discerning an essential goodness to the world, and whatever good we affirm, it cannot be achieved by cordoning off this or that particular good from the world’s pain so that the voice of suffering isn’t heard. After all, if we have to “shout down” evil, we affirm no essential good. The only good worth having is a good that is as immanent within the whole of a suffering world as it is transcendent of the world, and that means affirming the good in full view of the world’s evil. But most treatments of the problem of evil resolve themselves miles before they get to this place.

Here is that following portion of Hart’s piece that affirms the goodness of existence. I’ll meet you on the other side with a few reflections in fear and trembling.

And yet Christians must, of course, believe in the goodness of all being, with a certitude that even the most sanguine Platonist could not match, because they are committed to the doctrine that all things are created from nothingness by a God of infinite power, wisdom, and benevolence. And so certain affirmations—metaphysical, moral, and narrative—prove inevitable for any coherent Christian reflection on the problem of evil, not only to answer the question of evil’s origin, but also to defend the innocence of God against the evidences of finite experience. One of these affirmations is that evil possess no proper substance or nature of its own, that it exists only as a privation boni, that though it is real—exorbitantly and ubiquitously real—it is so only in the way that cancer is real: as a corruption and perversion of something that in its own proper nature is essentially good. Thus we may say that, in a purely metaphysical sense, God is implicated neither as substance nor as direct cause in the existence or effects of evil. Another equally indispensable claim is that evil possesses a history, one composed entirely of contingencies and compromising both a first and a last moment. Thus we may say that evil, in all its cosmic scope, is still only an episode, with no share in God’s eternity. Another is that the proximate cause of sin lies in the mysterious difference between rational creatures’ natural wills (which necessarily seek the one Good in which all things have their true beginning and end), and their deliberative wills (which, under the transcendental canopy of the Good, can nevertheless be diverted toward lesser goods and false ends). Thus we may say that evil is the creature of our choices, not of God’s creative will. Yet another is that the moral apostasy of rational beings from the proper love of God is somehow the reason for the reign of death and suffering in the cosmos, that human beings—constituting what Maximus the Confessor called the priestly “methorios” (the boundary or frontier) between the physical and the spiritual realms—severed the bond between God’s eternity and cosmic time when they fell. Thus we may say, as fantastic as it seems—as fantastic as it truly is when reduced to fundamentalist literalism regarding the myth of Eden—that all suffering, sadness, and death, however deeply woven into the fabric of earthly existence, is the consequence of the depravities of rational creatures, not God’s intentions. Not that we can locate the time, the place, or the conditions of that event. That ours is a fallen world is not a truth demonstrable to those who do not believe; Christians can see it only within the story of Christ, in the light cast back from his saving action in history upon the whole of time. The fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history; it comes from before and beyond both. We cannot search it out within the closed totality of the damaged world because it belongs to another frame of time, another kind of time, one more real than the time of death—perhaps the divine or angelic aeon beyond the corruptible sub-sidereal world of chronos, or perhaps the Dreamtime or the supercelestial realm of the pure forms or the Origenist heaven of the primordial intelligences, or what have you.

In any event, this (or something roughly like it) is the story that orthodox Christianity tells, and it can tell no other. From the outset, Christian doctrine denies that suffering, death, and evil in themselves, have any ultimate value or spiritual meaning at all. They are cosmic contingencies, ontological shadows, intrinsically devoid of substance or purpose, however much God may, under the conditions of a fallen order, make them the occasion for accomplishing his good ends. It may seem a fabulous claim that we exist in the long grim aftermath of a primaeval catastrophe—that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, and that the universe languishes in bondage to the “power” and “principalities” of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the kingdom of God—but it is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender.

voidI’m working through two issues/questions here. The first has to do with how we bring together the world’s beauties and its evils into the kind of broad assessment we make about the ultimate meaning of existence. The second has to do with the intrinsic evil of death and mortality.

In the first case, Hart argues that our experience of the world’s evil and suffering leads naturally to the existential void he describes in Part 1. Christians, however, believe the world to be good “because [we] are committed to the doctrine that all things are created from nothingness by a God of infinite power, wisdom, and benevolence.”

I may be over analyzing things or just missing the point altogether, but something seems off here. We know the world is evil based on our experience of the world, but we believe the world is essentially good because of our belief in a particular doctrine? Christians do share the doctrinal convictions Hart names, but it seems to me these convictions just are our belief in the goodness of creation, not why we believe in this goodness. I’d like to suggest that if we know the world to be evil because of our experience of it, we believe it is good also because of our experience of it.

Might we be falsely defaulting in our valuations of the world to a preference for evil? By this I mean the way we reason that since the world is a world in which innocent children are abused and trafficked as sexual slaves, the beauty and goodness of a child’s loving prayer, or some some very great shared beauty or good, or, to pick a couple of Hart’s favorites, Bach’s final fugue or Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, are all swept out to sea by the force of evil; the idea being that whatever beauties there are, they can’t abide the force of evil. I’m wondering why this is so, why we tend to reason that ‘this’ beauty is reduced to the meaninglessness of ‘that’ evil. But why must our aesthetic valuations run in that direction? In this instance, evil is so consuming that we (unintentionally) settle for the belief that evil is the substantial reality and love is the privation, as if by some default of logic evil becomes the gate-keeper and final arbiter in our evaluation of experience and history. Evil gets to say what beauty and goodness are, or whether they are. Hart doesn’t believe this of course, but it seemed to me that in his opening call to sobriety, goodness and love are relativized by evil in the world.

I don’t mean to sneak in a conviction of faith into the conversation as the basis for questioning the way love and goodness in the world are related to evil in our valuations. On the contrary, I mean simply to observe the nature of aesthetic experience per se. Why should the many obvious acts of loving kindness and creative beauties that litter the world not be the final arbiter of our overall response to its evils? I’m not sure exactly how to answer this question myself, except to say that the a priori transcendental shape to all our experience prevents the sort of rise to preference which evil seems to enjoy in treatments of the problem of evil. There is a problem of evil, yes. But there is also the problem of beauty and goodness; and the latter defines, even makes possible, the former. That we approach all our experience of the world within a prior transcendental framework of truth, beauty and goodness is what makes possible our viewing evil and suffering as something objectionable. Our affirmation of beauty, truth, and goodness – apart from any developed doctrines – forces itself upon us. I’m suggesting that its force is categorically greater than the world’s evils, for no objection to the evils Hart describes is even possible apart from the prior transcendental orientation of all experience as essentially good, true, and beautiful. These are the measure of evil; they say what evil is, or that it is, and they shape the conclusions we come to regarding the ultimate meaning of the world.

My point is that it is not experience of the world that tells us it is meaningless because of its evils and doctrines of faith that tell us the world is good. It is experience of the world that tells us its evils cannot arbitrate the final truth of things. Doctrines of faith make sense of those convictions and organize them into a faith. We don’t always navigate this split in the road rightly, but it’s a split in one and the same experience of the world. I apologize if I’m articulating this poorly.

Secondly, I struggle with the notion that mortality is an evil that has perverted the goodness of creation through a primeval catastrophe occurring outside the history of this world, in the unsearchable foundations of its coming to be. Let me suggest something less other worldly: humankind was created mortal by God – from the get-go. This world, its material becoming, and us in it, were created subject to the decay and entropy by which the earth absorbs the energy of the sun and seeds die to give us vegetation, etc. Mortality isn’t itself a privation.

Why do I suppose this? For the rather simple reason that there is (for us) no coming into the fullness of being which is not a coming into to the truth of being, and part of our truth is our absolute contingency, gratuity, and dependency upon God. This entails, of necessity, embracing the truth of the nothingness out of which God calls us into being. This is a truth we cannot comprehend apart from an experience of mortality. Mortality is the possibility of our relating the truth of our finitude to the immortal God, and this is the truth we must come to terms with en route to fully participating in the grace of eternal life. So to the extent it is true that we are nothing in ourselves – mortality is a grace, however temporary a mode of being it was meant to be. Mortality becomes death “the enemy,” when we choose to misrelate despairingly to our finitude and to respond to it by turning our attention and energies to securing a meaningful existence this side of the Void.


Salvation the formation of rivalry-free desire

positivemimesisI would say my interest in Rene Girard’s theories regarding mimetic desire and human culture (and how they intersect Christian theology) is approaching intoxication. I’ve been enjoying Creative Mimesis, a compilation of contributions whose authors reflect upon Girard’s thought in light of questions regarding the possibility of ‘positive mimesis’.

Mimesis refers to the intrinsically imitative nature of human desire. Because Girard brought the question of the mimetic nature of desire to bear upon the role of violence in the formation of human culture, some believe he held imitation as such to be violent. There is thus no intrinsically good (positive, creative) imitation because desire as such is conflictual and rivalrous. Contrary to to this view, the chapters of this volume explore the intrinsic goodness of mimetic desire. Some do so by extending Girard’s insights in new ways, others show that Girard himself did not in fact hold desire or mimesis to be intrinsically violent, and that taking mimesis to be essentially good makes better sense of his thought.

My interests are primarily theological, so Ch 4 peaked my interests. Robert Doran’s “Lonergan on Imitating the Divine Relations” and Petra Steinmair-Pösel’s “Original Sin, Grace, and Positive Mimesis” were wonderful contributions. Because Girard wasn’t a trained theologian and didn’t always connect the relevant dots, it’s helpful to see his insights unpacked theologically by those able to do so. The fit is there and it’s exposed nicely by Doran and Steinmair-Pösel. Thomas Reynolds’ “The Creative Desire for God: Mimesis Beyond Violence in Monotheistic Religions?” was also very good. In the section dealing with scientific issues, (fellow open theist) Robin Collins’ “Nature as a Source of Non-Conflictual Desire” was excellent. The question of the essential goodness of the created order poses a challenge for those (like me) who assume God created us mortal and the world subject to decay. But it was Steinmair-Pösel’s contribution that especially grabbed my interest. It got to thinking: What kind of desiring must God’s desiring be if God is to be a healing, non-conflictual, non-rivalrous object of desire?

Stanford-cover-rgbIf you aren’t familiar with Girard yet, David Cayley’s 5-Part Interview/Documentary is a wonderful way to get to know him. (Speaking of Girard, my pre-ordered Evolution of Desire: A Life of Rene Girard by Cynthia Haven is in the mail. Can’t wait!)

Back to Steinmair-Pösel. She studied philosophy and theology in Innsbruck and Dublin (Dr. theol., 2005) and is currently university assistant at the Institute for Social Ethics (Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Vienna). You can read and download a slightly edited version of her chapter here. She writes:

Grace and Positive Mimesis
Let us for the last time turn to the theological level. We have seen how the perverse imitation of God is closely connected to the violent history of antagonistic mimesis. But alongside this history and closely interwoven with it, there is another history: the history of grace, which time and again renders possible moments of positive and loving mimesis. This history also starts—like the history of negative mimesis and even before that history—at the very beginning of creation. The theological concept of creation has shown that the capacity of human beings for transcendence is already a bestowed gift—creational grace. And since every human being is an image of God—even if the likeness is distorted by sin—it is also true that the mutual imitation of human beings doesn’t necessarily lead to perdition. In this context, the relevance of law, especially the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, also has to be taken into account: The Old Testament Law provides a framework within which positive mimesis can be realized. Moreover, there have always been people who have represented this image and likeness of God in an especially lucid way: Such figures included the prophets of the Old Testament and particularly the Servant of the Lord. In its purest and most unaltered way (at least for Christians), this image and likeness of God appears in Jesus Christ. He is—as the Second Vatican Council professes—the homo perfectus, the perfect man, who is at the same time the undisguised image of God.

Like Adam in the garden story, Jesus is also led into temptation; the Tempter also wants him to adopt a counterfeit image of God. But Jesus “does not in any way let himself be drawn into the deceptive world of the enemy.” His significance can—as Nikolaus Wandinger shows—be found in breaking through the vicious circle of counterfeit imitation and the distorted image of God. This breaking through happens on several levels and affects the distorted image of God as well as the quality of imitation. On the level of his preaching, Jesus communicates the undisguised image of God: God is the loving and merciful Father, whose unconditional forgiveness is offered to everybody and who wants to give us everything—even Godself—as a present. However, the drama of Jesus’s life and death reveals that under the precondition of original sin, under the precondition of the ensnarement of humanity in antagonistic mimesis, the mere message of the merciful Father is not enough to correct the distorted image of God. Rather, people drag Jesus into their own, perverted notions of God; they consequently accuse him of blasphemy and finally kill him. In this situation of intensifying conflict, a correction of the image of God is only made possible by Jesus’s own way of acting. Confronted with human violence, Jesus renounces counterviolence and finally even gives his own life for his opponents. After all of this, the risen Christ returns to guilty humankind with words of peace and forgiveness. Thus he allows for a new experience of God: an experience of a God who reacts to human failure and sin not with revenge but with loving forgiveness.

How can Jesus act like that? Is it mere ascetic self-decoration? Jesus says about himself that he imitates his heavenly Father. Yet he doesn’t imitate him in a rivalrous way, but in a positive, nonviolent way. How is such a positive mimesis possible?

Jesus’s imitation of the Father doesn’t end in the blind alley of rivalry, because—as Girard says—it is not based on a greedy and egoistic form of desire. Rather, Jesus’s way of imitation is in itself an unmerited gift. Christian theology locates the fundamental reason for this fact in Trinitarian theology, in the passionate relations of the divine Persons with each other. In Extra Media Nulla Salus? Attempt at a Theological Synthesis, Jozef Niewiadomski pointed out that Jesus “became independent of mimetic projections” because his “relation to his God had become the innermost core of his own self-experience and of his own person.” The concrete man Jesus of Nazareth is stamped by his passion for the communicating God, a passion that arises from participation. Thus Jesus’s image of the Father is not that of a rivalrous God who wants to withhold something from God’s creatures, but that of a loving Father who wants to give Godself as a present. Moreover, Jesus is not an autonomous subject imitating the Father by virtue of his own efforts; he is imitating the Father by virtue of the Holy Spirit that has been given to him. According to the New Testament, the Holy Spirit descends upon him in baptism. Thereby Jesus is designated as the beloved son of God and the bearer of the divine Spirit. This experience in baptism might play an essential role in making positive mimesis become possible. By virtue of the Spirit bestowed on him by the Father, Jesus imitates the Father in a consummate way. Thus, Schwager argues that during his life and death, Jesus perfectly represents his heavenly Father.

By means of his life and death and the sending of the divine Spirit after his ascension, Jesus, the homo perfectus, the undistorted image of God, makes possible a new, undisguised experience of God and consequently also new interhuman relationships, relationships that don’t follow the structure of antagonistic mimesis. This new form of relationship—I want to call it positive mimesis—becomes possible because of the new image or rather the new experience of God, which Jesus communicates by means of his own life and behavior.

God isn’t the rival of humanity; God respects human freedom and wants salvation for all human beings. On the other side, there is also the need for a new quality of imitation, a quality that does not lead into mimetic conflicts, because it arises not from an attitude of scarcity but from the experience of gratuitous forgiveness and from newly bestowed possibilities for life. This form of positive mimesis, given by this new experience of God and the new quality of imitation, doesn’t aim at taking the place of the model and finally of God. Positive mimesis doesn’t aim at replacement but at gratuitous participation—ultimately participation in the divine life.

The experience of having gratuitously received something forms the foundation of positive mimesis. It is cultivated wherever human beings experience themselves as having received a gratuitous gift and consequently are willing to pass on what they have received, freely and without calculation.



I don’t know if anyone has yet connected Girard’s insights regarding mimetic desire to the belief in divine apatheia. It would make a great dissertation topic. Divine apatheia, as we promote it here at least, is the notion not that God is apathetic, not the subject of something like an emotional life, but rather that God is the infinite plenitude of desire and its fulfillment (viz., unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction). As such he does not compete with us and is not a source of rivalry. The possibilities of expounding human participation in this in Girardian terms as the heart of salvation would make a wonderful book.

What must God be if he is the healing source of desire who fulfills all desire without generating rivalry and conflict between those who share God as the object of desire? It seems to me that that it must be the case at least that the drama of human desire does not falsify the plenitude of divine desire, that God not be thought of as entering into or affected by the conflict and rivalries to which our desires and imitating are enslaved. This doesn’t mean that in Christ God is not truly incarnate in our world; it only means God never surrenders himself to the fragmented, egoistic forms of mimesis and human desiring which are the condition he heals us from.

Hence, what heals warring desire is peaceful desire, what heals conflictual desiring is pacific, rivalry-free desiring. Christians don’t usually speak of salvation in terms the healing of human desire, much less in terms of experiencing divine desire, but it is precisely participation in God’s desire that heals us. How would one articulate that? This is where passibilist vs impassibilist understandings of God’s desiring become relevant.

How does one participate (by which I mean the integration of some reality into every dimension of one’s life) in the desires of another? First of all, I suggest, by experiencing oneself as the object of divine desire, a desire that is not competitive or conflictual but free and fulfilled, unconditioned by all other forms of desire familiar to us, and which is also a desire that is the very creative force that gives us our existence. Here we experience ourselves most fundamentally as a “being desired by” One whose existence and desires, unlike ours, never enter into the competitive rise and fall of frustrated and unfulfilled desire. We thus have a non-violent way to self-relate outside the drama of negative mimesis that defines human culture. As we are loved by undiminished (divine) desire, the truest thing about us is that which is not of this world’s making or wanting. Thus our being given existence and our being loved are an indivisible act not of this world. There is no greater healing force.

pmfrhs12girardp1couvIn a wonderfully lengthy essay on Girard, Thomas Bertonneau writes:

Girard writes how the modern consciousness “renounces the divine mediator only to fall back on the human mediator.” In another formula, Girard asserts that, “Denial of God does not eliminate transcendency but diverts it from the au-delà to the en-deçà.” Christianity cannot exclude mimesis, but it can channel mimesis by directing the subject to imitate the maximally distant model, the Second Person of the Trinity, who in turn desires only to imitate the First Person of the Trinity. To direct one’s attention to God through the Son opens the way to the liberation of the soul from its enslavement to men. The modern consciousness, which has been in rivalry with God since the time of Friedrich Nietzsche at least, exalts the divinity of its own ego, and then wonders why, despite the rhetorical glamour of its syllogisms, it nevertheless fails actually to feel as its own the Being of God. A whole degraded politics of endless complaint has grown out of this failure, attributing what is often called privilege to its targeted malefactors. The subject cannot maintain the illusion of having acquired Being from its dispossessed monopolist and invariably collapses into panic.

Secondly, participating in God’s desires would involve construing our existence – on the whole and in all its particular acts – as a response to the divine desire that creates us. How is this done? St. Paul captures it in several passages. Rom 8.15 comes to mind: “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship, and by him we cry, ‘Abba’, Father.” Even my desiring God is a participating in the Son’s response to the Father, “Abba, Father.” Consider the logic of Paul’s “I, not I, but Christ” in Gal 2:20. This “I, not I, but Christ” constitutes a single substantive, so close is his act of self-perception with the reality of Christ’s presence. They comprise a single world – the giver and the gift. This brings human response (and human desiring), even in its free determination, full circle, from realizing ourselves as both gift and object of desire to realizing the nature of our response as equally that of a gift.

What is made of all this if salvation is understood in terms of divine passibilism, viz., in terms of the rise and fall of divine desire? If the fulfillment of God’s own desires (even God’s desire for himself, as is seen in passibilist construals of the Cross) is diminished or improved upon by the world, does this not reduce the divine desire that heals all human desiring to the drama of conflictual desire? It is difficult to relate to God in ways that heal negative mimesis if God’s own desires are believed to compete with our desires as a rival within all all-embracing conflict.

Lastly, I suggest that salvation – as our participating in God’s own desires – means never having to turn from desiring God to desiring anything else we desire, where we can (as Paul describes in Col 3.23) intend every act, however mundane or menial, “as to/for the Lord rather than men.” Not only is the act of self-perception described in Gal 2.20 (“I, not I, but Christ”) made radically one with Christ, so also is my perception of every other person transformed into a perception of Christ. Our desires, and with them ourselves – experienced at the most intimate level of self-reflection as well as in every perception of the world outside ourselves – are truly and finally saved when God is seen and desired in all our seeing and desiring. Perceptive readers will notice the connection between what I’m saying here and my 5-part response to Roberto Sirvent’s Embracing Vulnerability Human and Divine. Sivent argues that imitating God entails passibilism. I argue that the imitation of God entails impassibilism. The same point encouraged this insight as well:

And yet, for our desires to possess God as end without possibility of rivalry, not only must God be infinite, he must also be rivalry-free. To say this brings us round to the question of the antecedent fullness of God’s own desires and to the crucial difference between our desiring God and God’s desiring us, a distinction that is at the heart of our articulation of divine apatheia. Only an infinitely fulfilled desire can be a rivalry-free source and object of desire. Though our desiring finite ends spawns rivalry in us, God’s desire for us finite creatures is not a finite desire, because — here’s the controversial part my passibilist friends will balk at — in desiring us, God is not desiring some finite end, but himself in us. We simply cannot be the end of God’s desiring us in the same way God is the end of our desiring him. Said more provocatively — not only is God’s desire for us ultimately an expression of God’s desire for Godself, but so also is our desire for God an expression of God’s desire for Godself, for from him, and through him, and to/for him are all things.

In these ways I think Girard’s own insights about human desire assume something very like divine apatheia, that is, a plenitude of desire undiminished and unimproved by the world and unrelentless in its desire for the world.

Being where things are going

grayNot sure how to express this.

I sat quietly for a couple hours yesterday afternoon. I had an episode of Black Mirror (a sort of modern remake of The Twilight Zone) on. The episode got me into a kind of suspended frame of mind – a bit disconnected from the world but for that reason more connected to things that I usually am. Anita asked if I wanted to go on a walk. So we took a good 30 minute walk in a nearby park we often enjoy. It was a beautiful day here in CA, about 5 PM, sun was out but beginning to set, low 60’s, beautiful trees, lawn, flowers.

I saw everything clearly – blades of grass, hummingbirds nearby, dogs barking, children playing, Anita and I chatting. It was all equally present to me without any part of it competing for my attention. Everything (even my own body) manifested both an essential beauty and a complaining tragedy that recognized–beautiful for obvious reasons, but also tragic because temporary, passing, fading, on the edge of ceasing to be. But I didn’t feel any sense of regret or sorrow at seeing the ephemeral, fading being of all things. Though they were fading, their beauty wasn’t threatened.

There was movement, obviously. We were walking, talking. Time didn’t literally stop, but it was a kind of timeless moment, like the whole walk we took, including the words we spoke and the thoughts I had, all comprised a single unbroken present moment that didn’t suffer from coming to be or passing way, a fuller moment in which the individual parts of our walk (the steps we took, the words we spoke, etc.) all occurred, a fuller moment that was already there waiting for things to occur within it. It contained those moments but wasn’t comprised of them. Where my consciousness is typically locked into one particular location or event feeling its way through the passage of time from one event to the next, feeling some of the tragic loss of time’s passage, today I felt like my consciousness was one with a location, a perspective, that wasn’t my own (even though obviously I was experiencing it), a perspective that wasn’t coming to be and passing away, but instead it was a perspective from within the truth of all things – a truth all things reflect and toward which they tend. It’s like I was already where things were going.

A peculiar thought came to me. I thought that ‘time’ isn’t the front and center issue/problem that we often make it out to be. What mattered was simply how we situated ourselves within this all-embracing perspective that made room for things, welcomed them and gave them their beauty. I thought also that instead of giving ‘time’ the priority of place in how things are viewed and experienced, the ‘narrative’ of their being was more important. Our lives have meaning (or not) as ‘narrative’, where and how they belong in the connectedness of things. I felt as though my own personal conscious perspective was completely connected, or identified, with a perspective that already knew the story – where things came from, where they were, and where they were going, a perspective (a fuller story) that wasn’t waiting for things to happen to figure out what the story would be, but rather a perspective that integrated and gave meaning to what was happening because it was where things were going. But this sense of the present in which I was totally at rest wasn’t itself also “on its way” to becoming something else. It wasn’t just another moment like the moments it was making room for. From this fuller place from which I was apparently taking things in (which seemed to me to contain every disconnected story – good or bad – as well as the happy resolution of every story and its integration into a single, all-embracing story which story was where I felt I was at the time) I thought to myself, “All stories get redeemed. No tragic remainders to be irredeemably lost, because everything happens within this.”

Probably losing my mind.

Giving thanks this Thanksgiving


“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.

My peace I give you, as I hang here

crucifixionIconGeorgia12thCenturyJohn’s Gospel has been a wonderful resource of insight into Jesus’ perspective on his own Cross. I’ve commented on John 16.31-33:

A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

And on John 14.30-31 as well:

The Prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on/in me, but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me.

From these we gain an invaluable insight into the one person’s perspective on the Cross that many writing on the subject today tend to ignore, that of Jesus, and into the transforming assurance that how God is with him in his suffering is how God will be with us in ours.

There’s no getting around the presence of mind and sense of purpose that Jesus possesses on the eve of his crucifixion. Some argue that Jesus comes to despair of these same truths when he encounters what he did not expect, namely, the reality of godforsakenness, that moment on the Cross when Jesus realized the Cross was something he did not plan for, that the Father he trusted would be “with him” in fact abandoned him and that he was wrong to have thought the Prince of this world “had no hold on/in [him].”

I want here briefly to introduce two further statements Jesus makes in Jn 14 which I previously failed to engage. First, in Jn 14.29 Jesus expressly mentions the fact that he has decided to give his disciples such assurance “before it happens” (i.e., before he was to be crucified) so that when it happens they “might have faith.” Every evidence of God’s faithfulness was to disappear from the horizon – society, country, covenant community, family, followers, life itself. Nothing within the created order would remain as a resource for Jesus to know that “peace” which he was promising others when they hung on their crosses.

That’s what the Cross does – for Jesus and for all of us – it takes ‘what is created’ to the absolute end of its resources where the Void of our created nothingness cannot be escaped. It cannot be a-voided. Only an uncreated source, an uncreated voice from beyond the horizon of finite nature can assure the human heart that it is loved, that it is not alone, and that it is secure.

Jesus knows exactly what conclusion the Cross will press upon his disciples (and which many theologians today conclude), and so he mentions “before it happens.” Mentions what? He mentions what will soon seem unbelievable to imagine. And what is that? Only this – that contrary to every evidence of Jesus’ godforsakenness, “I am” is with him, the Father has not abandoned him. He says it now “so that” when he suffers, we will have faith.

Jesus makes a second astonishing claim just a moment earlier, in v. 27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” When is this true? Where is it true? It’s true tonight, but will it be true tomorrow when Jesus is hanging on the Cross? Here’s the point I think we race by in these assurances Jesus leaves with his disciples on the eve of his lynching. We don’t connect these sayings to the event of the Cross. If we do, it’s only because we think the Cross is the one place where these assurances fail to define for Jesus the truth of his existence, perhaps because we think their failing to be true for him then and there is the cost God must pay so that they can be true for us here and now. I can’t imagine a more despairing account of the Cross.

Let me suggest that what Jesus promises on the eve of his crucifixion his Cross actually demonstrates, that the peace Jesus leaves his disciples prior to being crucified he actually possesses and embodies as he is crucified. “My peace I leave you” essentially means “I’m going to show you how to have the peace that only God can give when the world takes everything else from you.” What Jesus promises his disciples the night before he dies he gives as he’s being murdered – but only faith will see it that way because, as Jesus said, it is “not as the world gives.” It is only found through participating in Christ’s sufferings, traveling with him to the brink of the Void and learning there from him how to hear the assurances of an uncreated source, how to live ex nihilo (out of nothing).

Three truths that define Jesus view of his Cross before he died:

“I am not alone, my Father is with me.”
“The Prince of the world has no hold on/in me.”
“My peace I leave you, not as the world is capable of giving. Don’t be afraid.”

If they’re not true of him as he hangs on the Cross, they’re not true the night before, but if they do define his deepest sense of identity as he suffers, then they can come to define ours as well.

Rivalry-free desire for God


I leave you with one last passage from Brian Robinette’s Grammars of Resurrection.

And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. (Acts 3:17-21)

This passage begins by insisting on our ignorance. The nature of this ignorance is vitally important to understand, for it is the same ignorance that underlies the doubt and misunderstanding among the disciples throughout the gospels, both before and initially after Jesus’ recognition. It is the ignorance described in John that kept the world from “seeing” the Logos made flesh. It is the ignorance Jesus names in his prayer to the Father from the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). We must understand that such ignorance is not a matter of insufficient information. It is not as though another piece of data would have helped to avert the crisis. When Jesus prays to the Father for his persecutors’ forgiveness, he is naming the impregnable deception buried in our hearts that distorts our field of perception so that we cannot see the truth when it appears to us. The obscurity of Jesus’ teaching and actions was not due to this attempt to communicate esoteric knowledge. His parables, aphorisms, apocalyptic utterances, and prophetic enactments were not attempts to impart secret gnosis. They were acts to jolt us out of the way we ordinarily perceive reality. They only appear oblique within our present horizons of intelligibility because our desires are disordered. “The disciples’ understanding was (and ours is) formed by what Jesus was trying to change: that is, the constitution of our consciousness in rivalry and the techniques of survival by exclusion of the other. Jesus’ ministry is explicitly intent upon reversing these techniques, of extracting people from building identities over against the Other, e.g., the sinner, the unclean, the maimed, the leper, the prostitute, the tax collector, the enemy, the prisoner, the victim, “these little ones.” Jesus’ “intelligence of the victim” is one that relentlessly takes the perspective of the Other – my potential victim – as the only truly human way to be a person. This is possible for Jesus because, above all, he follows the will of the divine Other.

Here is the primordial root of Jesus’ “consciousness,” should be wish to use this term: the will of the Father. Because Jesus lives in total transparence to God the Father, Jesus is the one who lives utterly free from rivalry with the human Other. Since Jesus is the one who lives utterly free from rivalry with the human Other. Since Jesus imitates God the Father, whose reality is utterly gratuitous, free from all rivalry as agapic Love – “unmoved” by mimetic rivalry, which is the true significance of God’s “impassibility” – Jesus is able to live among his sisters and brothers with utter freedom for them, without concern for his own identity. Jesus’ identity is not built upon contrasting relations with the Other, but in utter self-emptying (kenosis) for the Other. When Paul speaks of having “the mind of Christ” he is speaking of just this intelligence: “Let the same mind be in your that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8). The “mind of Christ” is one freed from rivalry with God, translucent to the divine Other, whose Otherness is received as total Gift rather than an obstacle to the project of becoming a self. Such loving kenosis resulted in Jesus’ death, not because death was positively willed by God as having value in itself, but because such unrestrained freedom is a world where rivalry and exclusion are rife is threatening and attracts resistance. The ignorance that led to the violent rejection of Jesus’ Kingdom of God ministry was at root a nexus of desires that, so far from desiring to live wholly for and from the divine Other as the possibility for living for and from the human Other, was configured to assert identity over against the Other Because Jesus set out to unmask and transform the underlying dynamics of human relations premised upon power and exclusions, drawing them out into the light through his saying and deeds of hospitality and judgment, he himself became a victim. But the faithfulness of the Father would have the last word. It is the world of resurrection: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (vv. 9-11).

This is the transvaluation of “values” at its most extreme. The “victim” is “Lord.” “This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone’” (Acts 4;11; Ps. 118:22). Jesus’ total fidelity to the Father results in a loving sacrifice to end all sacrifice. By raising him from the dead, God subverts the sacrificial process from within. This is the im-possible Gift: forgiveness from our victim, who is our “Lord.” “Christ shed his own blood to end that way of trying to mend our divisions,” writes Heim. “Jesus death isn’t necessary because God has to have innocent blood to solve the guilt equation. Redemptive violence is our equation. Jesus didn’t volunteer to get into God’s justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours.


webkeyI love the construal of apatheia here. What is it about God that renders our desiring him free of all possible rivalry?

We can desire a food source, a spot of land, a human relationship, or any other finite commodity, resource, or provision and these all become occasions of rivalry, competition, and violence. But where we desire God completely and utterly, no rivalry emerges. Why? Not simply because the thing we desire in this case (God) is perfectly good, loving, and holy so that desiring him obligates us to conform to that standard. That sort of moralizing misses the point. Those who desire God are free from rivalry because there is no scarcity of the object desired. When we direct our desires to God, we possess (or are possessed by) what can be enjoyed by all equally without threat of loss. Rivalry becomes impossible because the end desired, being infinite, unceasingly satisfies. It infinitely exceeds our dispositions, and so God becomes “all in all” without percentage or division of distribution. Kierkegaard comes to mind: “Purity of heart is to will [desire] one thing.” St. Paul as well: “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” It is the content who are wealthy.

And yet, for our desires to possess God as end without possibility of rivalry, not only must God be infinite, he must also be rivalry-free. To say this brings us round to the question of the antecedent fullness of God’s own desires and to the crucial difference between our desiring God and God’s desiring us, a distinction that is at the heart of our articulation of divine apatheia. Only an infinitely fulfilled desire can be a rivalry-free source and object of desire. Though our desiring finite ends spawns rivalry in us, God’s desire for us finite creatures is not a finite desire, because — here’s the controversial part my passibilist friends will balk at — in desiring us, God is not desiring some finite end, but himself in us. We simply cannot be the end of God’s desiring us in the same way God is the end of our desiring him. Said more provocatively — not only is God’s desire for us ultimately an expression of God’s desire for Godself, but so also is our desire for God an expression of God’s desire for Godself, for from him, and through him, and to/for him are all things.

He has no power over me


In my post “How Jesus viewed his Cross,” I explored statements Jesus made about his own suffering, statements which make it impossible to consider Jesus ‘godforsaken’ (“cursed” by God, per one reading of Gal 3.13, and “made sin by God,” per 2Cor 5.21). One stunning statement Jesus made on the eve of his lynching which makes this abandonment reading particularly suspect is relayed by John in 16.31-33:

“Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (emphasis mine)

Translate “leave me alone” for what it is: “abandon” or “forsake.” The passage is perfectly clear:

“You will all abandon me. Yet I am not godforsaken, for my Father is with me.”

This makes available for our transformation the saving truth that how God was with Jesus in his suffering is how God is with us in ours.

This week I ran across an equally stunning statement by Jesus, a statement I had earlier missed, in Jn 14.28-31 (esp. v. 30b-31),

You heard me say I am going away and I am coming back to you. If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe. 30 I will not say much more to you, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me, 31 but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me. (emphasis mine)

Jesus’ perspective is mind blowing. Consider three things:

First, Jesus takes the time to place his disciples’ despair and worries into proper perspective: “If you love me, you’d be glad that I’m going to the Father.” That they are overwhelmed with concern for their future reflects a certain failure of love. It is stunning to imagine that on the eve of his murder, Jesus expects his disciples to have a perspective on his departure that inspires joy; but only a love for Christ that is deeper than the world itself could see it this way. In any event, this is not a text you’re likely to hear preached on Good Friday, though Jesus preached it on Good Friday.

Secondly, the more instructive statement comes in v. 31b: “The prince of this world is coming, and he has no power over me.” He has no power over you? Really? He is getting you crucified, he will insert himself into the very essence of God and separate Son from Father, and will blow the divine mind by submerging it beneath the sum total of all the despair and godforsakenness creation has ever known. Sounds like “power over you” to a lot of folks. One interested in Jesus’ own perspective on his suffering, then, should take time to contemplate this passage (along with Jn 16.31-33). As horrific as Jesus’ suffering is, we misunderstand it completely when we construe it in terms of Satan’s enjoying any ‘hold’ or ‘power’ over Jesus, and yet a good deal of passibilist reflection upon the Cross, it seems to me, proceeds in precisely such terms.

Lastly, why does the prince of this world close in? Why does Satan descend with all he has upon this moment? I’m sure he has his own reasons. But from Jesus’ perspective, Satan comes – don’t miss it – “so that the world may recognize that I love the Father and do what he commands.”

I don’t know what to say. This has to be one of the strangest things you’re likely to hear in response to the question, “So, why did Satan close in on Jesus?” Had Jesus not made it explicit, I can’t imagine any theologian arriving at the conclusion that Satan’s role in silencing Jesus would be seen by Jesus simply as an opportunity for God to demonstrate through his life and death, within and in spite of the world’s fallenness, that God both knows and loves, and can be known and loved, unconditionally as Father in the worst imaginable places. Again – how God was with Jesus in his suffering is how God will be with us in ours.

Imagine – it if you dare (some don’t dare) – that on the eve of his lynching when Jesus contemplates the ordeal to come, he is first of all “glad” (certainly as “glad” as he expected his disciples to be) to be returning created being (via his own humanity) to its home in God, and secondly, he sees the ordeal to come as the quintessential opportunity for him not to be deconstructed by godforsakenness, but to deconstruct godforsakenness and free us from the power of every narrative of abandonment.