A participable cross


In a previous post I claimed that ‘if you can’t join Christ on the Cross, you’ve got the wrong Cross.” It was a question I asked against the backdrop of readings of the Cross that construe it as a place of incommunicable suffering, a place where God suffers godforsakenness, where he pours out upon Jesus the wrath we deserve. There are good reasons for thinking this is not what is transpiring on the Cross, and one reason, I argued, was that if the Cross is where God abandons Christ to godforsakenness, if Jesus suffers a wrath we deserve “instead of us,” it becomes impossible to see the Cross as something Christians are to participate in and be united to.

Paul (Phil 3.8-11) wants to “participate in Christ’s suffering, becoming like him in his death,” even to “fill up in his flesh what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings” (Col 1.24), a desire particularly incomprehensible if Paul believes the Cross in substitutionary terms, as least as I’m familiar with those terms. The author of Hebrews (Heb 13.13) instructs us to “go to Christ outside the city, bearing the disgrace he bore…for I will never leave you nor forsake you.” The logic of dependent clause should shock us at least little: Go join Christ on the Cross “for God will never leave you nor forsake you.” For the same reason already noted this too becomes an impossible instruction to follow. If the Cross is where godforsakenness and estrangement are borne by God on our behalf, viz., so that we don’t have to bear these, then precisely what are we bearing or participating in when we join Christ on the Cross? More strangely, Hebrews instructs believers to join Christ on the Cross with a comforting assurance (“I will never leave or forsake you”) the denial of which substitutionary models of the Cross make by supposing Christ is in fact godforsaken and estranged.

Fleming’s book proceeds with a key question: What sort of predicament must you and I be in that we should require the crucifixion of God? She suggests that the severity of the Cross requires us to posit a human predicament equally severe. That’s certainly a necessary question. Another question of equal consequence would be this: What really transpires on the Cross if the gospel compels us to join Christ on it, if the final salvation it extends becomes ours through participating in its sufferings? I don’t see Rutledge, or Hart for that matter, exploring the biblical call to participate in Christ’s suffering as a key to understanding that suffering. Though Rutledge briefly discusses the Rom 6 passage I’ll refer to below, as well as Heb 13.13, she doesn’t ask the question.

If we are to join Christ in his death, participate in his sufferings, and bear the disgrace he bore, then it has to be the case that Christ’s sufferings are communicable, participable. But if Christ bears a divine judgment instead of us, if Christs suffers the dereliction of godforsakenness and estrangement as wrath – i.e., if he suffers the fate we are saved from – then there’s nothing to participate in. Of course, I may simply be way off in my thinking, but I suspect more work needs to be done to see if there’s a way sensibly to construe the Cross both as Christ substituted in our place (which presumably renders his sufferings exclusive and imparticipable) and as him suffering as our place.

That said, let me quote from Mark Heim again (Saved From Sacrifice, 229f) because he makes the same point from a passages that I previously overlooked: Rom 6.3-5.

Baptized into His DeathMichelangelo,_Crucifix
Paul says “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:3-5).

Baptism is the ritual entry into the Christian community. This initiation is an act of identification with Christ and his death as an unjust scapegoated victim. It was common for initiations in the ancient world to involve sacrifice and bloodshed. Baptism does not. Consistent with belief in the cross as a sacrifice to end sacrifice, and a death “once for all,” each baptized person enters into what is in effect a reversed sacrificed, looking not to share in the benefits of an offered victim but to walk in the newness of life of one who overcame scapegoating. The baptized are to be united with Christ in a resurrection like his, participating in that new creation. Peter preaches in Acts that when God raised up Jesus, he sent him “to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:26). This bears on our peculiar individual sins, but certainly it applies with special force to our shared, collective wicked ways.

We were not actually killed with Jesus, but we associate ourselves with that death through baptism, aligning ourselves with the victim, not the persecutors. In this act we step into the place of the sacrificed one, at the same time identifying with Christ and with every other member of this new community, who has likewise been “buried with Christ…”

If baptism is a dramatic identification with Jesus’ death, it throws us back to the tension we have repeatedly discussed. Is this an identification with the sacrificial intent of those who persecuted Jesus or with the parallel but opposite divine purpose to end sacrifice? The describe of the new life that is to follow on baptism clearly opts for the latter. Sacrificial language itself is redefined to this end.


Paul in Rom 6 makes essentially the same point he makes in Phil 3 and Col 1. The Cross names the mode of our participation in Christ. We participate in his suffering, become like him in his death, and now in the language of Rom 6 “are untied with him” in his death, “buried with him,” etc. So at the very least, if we define the Cross as a kind of suffering from which we are excluded because Christ suffers there a judgment we deserve but are freed from, have we not placed the Cross out of the reach of participation?

I don’t think Paul could be any more explicit: the Cross isn’t the Incarnate God dying instead of us (however legitimately talk of ‘substitution’ may expresses a perspective on an aspect of what’s happening — and I haven’t seen ‘substitution’ described in that sense anywhere), it is the God-Man dying ahead of us — showing us how to die, how life is found in a fallen world, and also how to suffer redemptively as a victim of the world’s violence for the sake of its salvation. So instead of being a place defined by godforsakenness and estrangement (except so far as the world considers the violence they do to us evidence of our godforsakenness), the Cross is where all estranging narratives, including narratives of the Cross as estrangement, are exposed as false precisely because they do not offer us a suffering we can participate in, a death to which we can conform.


The Crucifixion—Part 1

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddI found myself reading through portions of Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion this week after reading it (or did it read me?) last year. It’s a dense and beautiful work that left me feeling the whole work would be diminished if a single phrase were omitted. It reveals a lifetime of intense reflection and pastoral sensibility and will I hope occupy my for as long.

That said, there are a few unpleasant surprises. There is some straw at the heart of her objection to a so-called “forgiveness is enough” reading of the Cross. I don’t anyone is ever guilty of actually believing that forgiveness, and forgiveness alone, is enough and that this explains the Cross. Her dismissal of Girard is also odd. She admits to having never read him and to relying on the criticism of others. That would be understandable if it were somebody like me she was disagreeing with. But it cannot succeed in the case of Girard. She also claims that both Girard and his interpreter James Alison too narrowly interpret the Cross as delivering victims while failing to recognize that victimizers are also in need of deliverance. This is a surprising misunderstanding of both Girard and Alison, since both (Alison at some length) explicitly address how the Cross embraces victimizers as well. I hope to get around to these points, and to other wonderful aspects of her book, in a later post.

What I’d like to do here is share a portion of David Hart’s reflections on Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (“A Gift Exceeding Every Debt,” Pro Ecclesia 7.3). I share it here because Rutledge appeals to Hart’s appreciation for Anselm. I suppose I’ve done to Anselm what I just complained Rutledge does to Girard – dismiss him based on what others say. But I want to thank both Hart and Rutledge for encouraging me to rethink Anselm. Hart writes:

Nor indeed is there any suggestion made in the Cur Deus Homo that God is appeased by the “penal” death of Christ (Harnack is quite right about this, though disturbingly wrong about its implications). Anselm certainly depicts Christ’s sacrifice as an offering that, in the end, “secures” forgiveness by satisfying the demands of divine righteousness, on our behalf; but, then, how far does his version of the story of salvation actually differ on this matter from its more remote precursors? When Lossky uses Athanasius to call attention to the divergence of Anselm’s model from its patristic predecessors, even though he knows that many of the themes of the Cur Deus Homo are already to be found in De Incarnatione, there is some slight irony, it must be said. At one juncture in De Incarnatione, Athanasius, lamenting the loss of humanity’s original beauty in the fall, argues that redemption was necessitated by God’s agathotes (consistency, righteousness, honor, glory), which requires the maintenance and execution of his twin decrees that, on the one hand, humanity will share in the divine life and that, on the other, death must fall upon the transgressors of holy law; to prevent the second decree from defeating the first, guilt must be removed from humanity through the exhaustion of the power of death in Christ’s sacrifice. The hold death had upon us was just, says Athanasius, and it would be monstrous were God’s decree that sin shall merit death to prove false; but it would be unworthy of God’s goodness were he to let his handiwork come to nothing. Nor could God simply accept our repentance as just recompense for our offense, as repentance would neither suffice to guard God’s integrity nor serve to restore our wounded nature. In his body, then, Christ exhausts the wrath of the law, and offers satisfaction for our debt. Already present in Athanasius’s account is the very story whose inner shape Anselm will, in a moment of intense critical reflection, attempt to grasp as necessity. Already, in Athanasius’s theology, one finds the language of punishment used, but subordinate to the narrative of complete and unmerited forgiveness, and the language of law employed to describe the depths of an infinite mercy. As it is with Athanasius, so it is with Anselm. Far from an arbitrary arrangement of jurisprudential transactions calculated to effect a forensic reconciliation between humanity and God, the atonement as Cur Deus Homo depicts it is an assumption of solidarity with us by an infinitely merciful God in order to fulfill in us that beatitude intended in our creation, by accomplishing on our behalf what, in our impotence to do good and in his unwillingness to employ unjust means, could never otherwise have been brought to pass.


God’s order is preserved through his own assumption of the conditions of estrangement; his mercy is imparted in the acceptance of Christ’s voluntary death; the highest law of God’s inviolable justice is boundless mercy; God’s sovereignty necessitates his condescension; the goodness that condemns the sinner requires that sin be forgiven. This is not because Anselm sees God as divided against himself: rather, he has come to see that Christ’s sacrifice is ultimately not an economic gesture (meant to insure the stability of a universe founded upon unyielding laws of equity and retribution), but belongs instead to the infinite motion of God’s love, in which justice and mercy are one and can never be divided one from the other; he has recognized Christ’s act as an infinite motion towards the Father, belonging to the mystery of the Trinity, simply surpassing all the arrangements of debt and violence by which a sinful humanity seeks to calculate its “justice.” Consequently, the only “necessity” Anselm demonstrates in the drama of salvation is an inward intelligibility to the mind grasped by faith. And indeed, in the end, Anselm merely restates the oldest patristic model of atonement of all: that of recapitulation. Granted, he rejects simple typological or aesthetic recapitulation, the correspondence of motifs shared between the narratives of the first and last Adam, but he is still concerned with recapitulation in essentially the same sense as is Irenaeus: Christ takes up the human story and tells it correctly, by giving the correct answer to God’s summons; in his life and death he renarrates humanity according to its true pattern of loving obedience, humility, and charity, thus showing all human stories of righteousness, honor, and justice to be tales of violence, falsehood, and death; and in allowing all of humanity to be resituated through his death within the retelling of their story, Christ restores them to communion with the God of infinite love who created them for his pleasure. And when Christ recapitulates humanity, he shows the gravity and terror inherent in posing his form over against the violence of the world of sin; he “satisfies” all the requirements of that form by living out his obedience to the Father under the conditions imposed by a sinful order of power, which conditions bring about his death. It must not be overlooked that for Anselm it is not Christ’s suffering as such that is redemptive (the suffering merely repeats sin’s endlessly repeated and essential gesture), but rather his innocence; he recapitulates humanity by passing through all the violences of sin and death, rendering to God the obedience that is his due, and so transforms the event of his death into an occasion of infinite blessings for those to whom death is condign. Christ’s death does not even effect a change in God’s attitude towards humanity; God’s attitude never alters: he desires the salvation of his creatures, and will not abandon them even to their own cruelties.

Even here, then, in the text that most notoriously expounds a penal logic of atonement, the idea of sacrificial penance is subverted from within: as Christ’s sacrifice belongs not to an economy of credit and exchange, but to the trinitarian motion of love, it is given entirely as gift, and must be seen as such: a gift given when it should not have needed to be given again, by God, and at a price that we, in our sin, imposed upon him. As an entirely divine action, Christ’s sacrifice merely draws creation back into the eternal motion of divine love for which it was fashioned. The violence that befalls Christ belongs to our order of justice, an order overcome by his sacrifice, which is one of peace. And simply by continuing to be the God he is, and through the sheer “redundancy” of the good that flows from the infinite gesture of his love — which is a generosity in excess of all calculable economy — God undoes the sacrificial logic of our bondage; his gift remains a gift to the end, despite all our efforts to convert it into debt. This is the unanticipated grace of Easter. Whether one chooses, of course, to follow Nietzsche in the Genealogy of Morals and see the redundancy of Christ’s merit, inasmuch as it avails for salvation, as an infinite multiplication of debt depends upon one’s prejudices. As for Anselm, though, the primordiality of the gift is the truth of Christ’s paschal donation: the gift God gives in creation continues to be given again, ever more fully, in defiance of all rejection, disobedience, injustice, violence, and indifference; there is no division between justice and mercy in God, on Anselm’s account, because both belong already to the giving of this gift:

The mercy of God, which seemed to you to be lost when we were considering God’s justice and humanity’s sin, we find now to be so great and so in accord with justice, that neither a greater nor a more just can be thought. For what possibly could be understood to be more merciful than that God the Father should say to the sinner — damned to eternal torment and having no means whereby to redeem himself — “Take my Only-begotten and offer him for yourself”; and that the Son himself should say, “Take me and redeem yourself”? For thus they speak, when they call us and lead us to Christian faith. What indeed were more just, than that he — to whom is given a price exceeding every debt, if only given with the love which he is truly owed — should put aside every debt?


Now, for a somewhat contrary take on Anselm, see Mark Heim’s thoughts here. Heim largely agrees with these positive features of Anselm’s work. But, if you’ll check out this link to Heim, you’ll see where he thinks Anselm makes an important mistake.

It’s so interesting to stand between Heim and Hart on Cur Deus Homo because when you take Anselm out of equation altogether and simply compare the statements each makes about what is transpiring on the Cross (the absence of any violence in God, the falsehood of the notion that Christ’s suffering exhausts some infinite balance of suffering that we deserve, the unchanging nature of God’s forgiving attitude, the justice and goodness of love’s submitting to what our notion of justice does to Jesus), they’re in agreement.

I particularly like the ‘narrative’ shape of Hart’s explanation. Christ takes up “the human story and tells it correctly.” He “renarrates humanity” according to its true pattern. The Cross is what we do to this story. But Christ “resituates” all humanity “within the retelling of their story.” The deliverance wrought by Christ on our behalf is the revealing of humanity’s true story within the false narratives that enslave us. Yes, that true story has to be told in terms of the entirety of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, but the death must be such that it delivers the new and true story within the very text of our false narratives. Christ’s own capacities for meaning-making have to embrace the depths of the human predicament. I have Marilyn McCord Adams (Christ & Horrors) in mind here; she writes, “By catching up our horror-participation into a relationship that is incommensurately good for us, Divine participation in horrors defeats their prima facie life-ruining powers.”

I’ll have to return to this in a second post. I’ll just say here that what is objectionable (not that Rutledge believes this – but neither did Girard and neither does Alison, hence her curious disagreement with them) is the notion, which can be heard in pulpits every on Sundays, that someone has to die for God to forgive us. This is a mistake, and more egregious, I should think, than any claim that Christianity is reducible to forgiveness (which I don’t believe anyone believes) because plenty of Christians actually do believe the Cross makes it possible for God to forgive us. On the contrary, however, it is because God forgives us and wishes us to know and live in the truth of this that there even is a Cross. The Cross condemns all crosses, for all God gives (love, acceptance, forgiveness) is ours antecedent to the Cross. The Cross, then, is not the price God requires to extend these to us, it is the price we require to believe they are freely given.

The Hart of Rene Girard—Part 2


In his critique of Rene Girard (see Part 1), David Bentley Hart argues that Girard draws too absolute a distinction between the sacrificial violence of scapegoating and the non-violent forms of sacrifice present within Israel’s faith and history. For Girard, Hart points out, to speak of Christ’s death “as a sacrifice” legitimizes sacred violence. One can see this in Girard’s reading of the book of Hebrews as a violent, and so false, reading of the gospel whose sacrificial motifs implicate God in the persecution of the victim. Hart argues that Girard fails to appreciate how foundational the language of “sacrifice” is to God’s covenant with Israel (a covenant which Christ fulfills), and that Christianity’s soteriological vision is too bound up with sacrificial themes and motifs to dismiss such language. Not all talk of sacrifice describes an economy of exchange and propitiation that Girard rightly seeks to expose as violent.

Though Girard doesn’t intend as much, still in the end, Hart contends, one is left with a savior who is more gnostic than the Jew who fulfills and mediates Israel’s covenants in history, a savior who establishes not a way of being in the world but a path of escape from it, and so a savior who gives victims “no story to tell” within history. Though Hart agrees with Girard’s overall intent to establish a truly benevolent, non-violent view of God and God’s redemptive presence in the world, he feels Girard’s methodology is too negatively shaped by the force of prophetic fervor. Hart goes on to offer, beautifully as always, a non-violent reading of the Cross as sacrifice.

I’d like to respond a bit to Hart’s criticisms of Girard, because while some of his criticisms could describe the early Girard (given the texts Hart depends on), they are not true of the late Girard, as I’ll show. At the time Hart assessed Girard, Girard would have agreed with Hart’s non-violent account of Christ’s death, even as sacrifice, as being consistent with his overall theories on mimetic desire and sacred violence.

In an interview with Rebecca Adams (“Violence, Difference, Sacrifice: A Conversation with Rene Girard,” Religion & Literature [Vol. 25, No. 2] Summer, 1993), subsequent to the works of Girard that Hart basis his critique upon but prior to the publication of Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite (BOI|2003), Girard addresses the core of Hart’s concerns. The interview is quite revealing.

Take for example Hart’s mention of Girard’s dismissal of the book of Hebrews (and ‘sacrificial’ language) as a violent reading of the Cross implicating God in persecuting the victim. There’s no doubt this is Girard’s view in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978 in French, 1987 in English). In that book (228) Girard writes:

According to this Epistle, there is certainly a difference between Christ’s Passion and the sacrifices that have gone before. But this difference is still defined within the context of the sacrificial, and consequently the real essence of the sacrificial is never examined. Like all the variants that are to follow, this first attempt at a sacrificial theology is based on analogies between the form of the Passion and the form of all other sacrifices, but it allows the essential feature to escape.

Certainly the believer rightly sees an enormous difference between Christianity and the sacrifices of the Old Testament. But he can give no justification for this difference as long as he continues to define everything in sacrificial terms…As long as the Christian difference is defined in sacrificial terms, as all former differences among religions have been defined, it will eventually be effaced.

To sum up: the Epistle to the Hebrews re-enacts what is re-enacted in all earlier formulations of sacrifice. It discharges human violence, but to a lesser degree. It restates God’s responsibility for the death of the victim….

But when asked about this by Adams in 1993, Girard repents of “having scapegoated Hebrews” and all talk of “sacrifice.” Here’s a portion of the conversation:

Girard: I agree entirely with you that there are problems with my treatment of Hebrews. It’s a problem of language: the language of the “last sacrifice,” even though in Things Hidden I say, ultimately, that the word “sacrifice” doesn’t matter that much. But I say it too briefly. And I give too much importance to that word. That’s one of the reasons for my misinterpreting Hebrews. I was aware of these great things in it, especially in the quotation of the Psalms.

Adams: You’re saying that you dismissed Hebrews too quickly?

Girard: Yes, sure. I was completely wrong. And I don’t know what happened to me, really, because I was pretty careful not to do that, generally.

Adams: Hebrews is one of the main sources, of course, for sacrificial theology. And so it deserves careful treatment.

Girard: Yes, it deserves careful treatment. And its concept of the “last sacrifice” can be very easily interpreted, made to fit, the view I propose. There is no serious problem. But in Things Hidden I ask Hebrews to use the same vocabulary I do, which is just plain ridiculous.

Adams: We’ll look for further work on Hebrews, then?

Girard: That’s true. That’s one part of Things Hidden that I would like to change.

Adams: Let’s continue then with the question of “sacrifice” as a developing and fluid concept.

Girard: I say at the end of Things Hidden – and I think this is the right attitude to develop – that the changes in the meaning of the word “sacrifice” contain a whole history, religious history, of mankind. So when we say “sacrifice” today inside a church or religious context, we mean something which has nothing to do with primitive religion. Of course I was full of primitive religion at the time of the writing of the book, and my main theme was the difference between primitive religion and Christianity, so I reserved the word “sacrifice” completely for the primitive.

Adams: So you scapegoated Hebrews within the canon of Scripture.

Girard: So I scapegoated Hebrews and I scapegoated the word “sacrifice.” I assumed it should have some kind of constant meaning, which is contrary to the mainstream of my own thinking…

girardWith respect to the notion that mimetic desire is inherently acquisitive and violent, Girard makes it clear that he always believed mimetic desire to be capable of peaceful and non-violent fulfillment. He in fact agreed that mimetic desire is that which opens us up (positively) to God and others.

Adams: But again, that’s the idea of renunciation of the will, isn’t it?

Girard: The idea of renunciation has, no doubt, been overdone by the Puritans and the Jansenists, but the blanket hostility that now prevails against it is even worse. The idea that renunciation in all its forms should be renounced once and for all may well be the most flagrant nonsense any human culture has ever devised. But as to whether I am advocating “renunciation” of mimetic desire, yes and no. Not the renunciation of mimetic desire itself, because what Jesus advocates is mimetic desire. Imitate me, and imitate the father through me, he says, so it’s twice mimetic. Jesus seems to say that the only way to avoid violence is to imitate me, and imitate the Father. So the idea that mimetic desire itself is bad makes no sense. It is true, however, that occasionally I say “mimetic desire’ when I really mean only the type of mimetic desire that generates mimetic rivalry and, in turn, is generated by it.

Adams: This is an important clarification. It seems that it wouldn’t make sense, in light of your theory itself, to say mimetic desire should be renounced…

Girard: A simple renunciation of desire I don’t think is Christian. It’s more Buddhist. Undoubtedly there are similarities between what I am saying and Buddhism. If you read the descriptions of Buddhism, they are very profound; they are very aware of mimetic desire, and of contagion, and of all the things that matter in human relations. Like all great religious writing. The thing that is unique about Christianity is that it wants to go back to the origin, to the sacrificial origin, and uncover it. Buddhism is not interested in doing this at all. And Buddhism advocates getting out of the world altogether. Christianity never does that. Christianity says, the cross will be there for you, inevitably. But that kind of renunciation is very different.

…I would say that mimetic desire, even when bad, is intrinsically good, in the sense that far from being merely imitative in a small sense, it’s the opening out of oneself.

Note, finally, in Girard’s objections to Buddhism an answer to those who see in Girard a gnostic tendency to see salvation as an escape from the world and time. “Buddhism advocates getting out of the world altogether,” Girard insists, “Christianity never does that.” Adams brings up the charge of Gnosticism:

Adams: I’d like to ask now about your understanding of history, and how you interpret both sacrifice itself and Christianity within the movement of history. It seems as if your thought tends toward Gnosticism, in the sense that it is knowledge which eventually saves us, history is a process of coming to greater and greater knowledge of the victimage mechanism, and there is some point toward which we are progressing, at which we will be enlightened in a definitive sense.

Girard: Yes, but don’t forget that I say that this knowledge is very ambivalent in the way it works with people, that there are always perversions of this knowledge.

Adams: So history is not a straight line, a humanistic progress toward an end goal, or something like that.

Girard: No, no.

Adams: And yet you do seem to have a sense of progression.

Girard: I do. The nineteenth century had too much of this sense; our age has too little of it. We are a big reaction against the nineteenth century, and in many ways that’s very positive. But in some ways it’s excessive: all the pessimism against our own religion, against our own culture, against everything which is ours. So I think that’s a problem as well.

Adams: You are referring to multiculturalism, at least in some of the extreme separatist or punitive forms it takes?

Girard: Yes, and that sort of thing.

Adams: Because we’re reacting against our own ethnocentrism, and that’s a healthy impulse, but what we are doing essentially is scapegoating our own culture in the process, and that’s problematic.

Girard: It is the little compensation we can give to the people who have been historically scapegoated. But we are then turning around and scapegoating our own tradition. Scapegoating and betraying our own tradition has become an absolute duty, especially when it is done in the name of Christian charity, of course.

Girard - Things Hidden__________________________

It may be that Girard is driven by a certain prophetic fervor to expose the violence that has crept into so much of Christian thought and self-understanding. But this is, after all, the prophetic calling. One could similarly accuse Israel’s prophets of being too one-sided, over-invested in negative assessments, eager to find fault but not to map out what redeemed human solidarity looks like, etc. Girard did not map out an ecclesiology of how the Church embodies within the world all the cultural forms of human solidarity that God realizes in and through it. This is an incompleteness to be sure, but to suspect him of latent gnostic tendencies seems a bit much, to say nothing of the fact that Girard directly addressed the question.

It’s one thing to admit non-violent senses of sacrificial language in the ways Hart describes – as expressive of the loving self-surrender and reception that defines Father, Son and Spirit as the God who is love. But does this tell us how to distinguish those “currents of stress” within Israel’s faith and history which Hart as well as Girard sees in Israel’s texts?

Near the end of discussing Girard, Hart notes that we should not speak of the Cross “as a sacrifice” but as “the convergence of two radically opposed orders of sacrifice.” That sounds perfectly Girardian. And the convergence cannot be allowed to blend together to become a third thing. The “radical opposition” has to remain clear and definable throughout or no truly non-violent account of the gospel is possible – and Hart wants that as much as Girard.

So what are the two opposing orders? One is Israel’s entire sacrificial economy with every requirement of blood sacrifice. The other is the peaceful surrendering of Christ’s life to God – a life we can describe as a ‘sacrifice’ in the positive, peaceful sense Hart champions (and which we now know Girard himself celebrated). But as Hart agrees, Christ does not require the Cross to constitute the event of his life as gift surrendered/sacrificed to God, however completely his life of surrender is revealed in the demands which being crucified make of him. Thus, the sacrifice which Christ makes and the sacrifice which they who crucify him make are the “two radically opposed orders of sacrifice” Hart describes. crosss“The crucifixion,” Hart descrbies, “is what happens to this sacrifice [viz., the sacrifice that is Christ’s peaceful and loving life lived in surrender to God], even as its seal and perfect accomplishment, but not as such its event” (emphasis mine). Thanks to Rebecca Adams, we know that there’s nothing here the late Girard would have disagreed with, so I take Hart’s criticisms of Girard in BOI to be answered. Had Hart engaged Girard’s later reflections published by Adams, I’m guessing his assessment of Girard would have been different.

What Hart doesn’t address in his critique of Girard’s thoughts on Israel’s sacrificial cult is whether or not he (Hart) thinks God really directed Israel’s development of sacrificial rituals. It’s a fair question. Does God’s being non-violent extend to the treatment of animals used in sacrifice to God or to the arguably inevitable corruption of faith and thought that so bloody an approach would precipitate? It would arguably be impossible to secure a non-violent reading of the gospel if one believes God ordained and directed the slaughter of vast numbers of animals. If the “event” of God’s triune fullness is an infinitely accomplished peace which Christ’s life reveals, whence the divine requirement for blood? On this point Girard was clear. The prophets who rebuked Israel were not merely objecting to an improper heart attitude that spoiled blood sacrifices God was otherwise looking forward to enjoying. The prophets were making, it seems to me, a distinction more in line with Girard: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings” (Psalm 51:17). But now that the worshiper’s heart is right, why not go ahead and sacrifice? “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). Why not both mercy and sacrifice if all that’s wrong with blood sacrifice is the absence of a merciful disposition in the worshiper? “‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’, though they were offered in accordance with the law,” and so forth.

I liken Israel’s entire sacrificial cult (as missing the point) to Israel’s monarchy (see Israel’s request for a king in 1Sam 8), or for that matter to God’s permitting divorce (Mt 19:8) – as something God never wanted, something which was essentially a misrelation to God’s intentions and desires, a violation of an economy of peace God sought to establish, but something which God permitted due to the hardened, socialized heart of Israel, God’s covenant partner. Consider how this plays out with Israel’s insistence upon having a king. God never wanted Israel to have a king, and the very request, Samuel warns, amounted to a rejection of God by Israel. And yet God gave them what they wanted, complete with an instruction manual on how to manage the monarchy within the framework of Israel’s covenant. Moreover, eventually Israel’s hopes for salvation became inseparable from the language of monarchy and later Christian thought and worship came to express themselves in the same terms. But the “radical opposition” never gets resolved into a peaceful economy. However natural it feels to celebrate later achievements wrought by grace through such accommodations (whether blood sacrifice or monarchy or what have you), the accommodations remain obstacles that are overcome, contingencies in spite of which God wrought his salvation.

For the present it is the Church’s calling to realize, via the Spirit, what God intends human solidarity to look like, all the while maintaining the “radically opposed orders” of sacrifice. There’s no way to read straight off Israel’s history the one story God is writing, however tied to Israel’s history we must be. Does God’s good story include divorce since God permitted divorce? Hardly. Does it include monarchy since God tolerated that? Not in light of Israel’s reassessment of her own history. Does it include animal sacrifice since God accommodated blood sacrifice? Does it include the Cross since God submitted to it? Here, with Girard, I have to follow the logic of peaceful love. The story we tell, the story victims tell, is the story of our shared participation in the “event” (Hart’s word) of God’s peaceful, self-surrender. The revelation of this event always occurs in a violent, less than ideal world, a world which is both the means of revelation and the object revelation addresses and seeks to transform. That may not be an easy history to parse, but (the late) Girard manages it as well as any, better than most.

The Hart of Rene Girard—Part 1


There’s a Youtube interview (never mind the link) with David Bentley Hart in which Hart discusses Rene Girard’s work. Unfortunately the audio recording makes understanding Hart impossible.

I’ve kept an open ear online for announcements of an interview or essay in which Hart describes his appreciation for and criticisms of Girard, but nothing forthcoming. I did, however, manage to find enough of Hart’s thoughts on Girard in Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite (BOI, 347-353), relevant portions of which I’ve reproduced below. I’ll leave this Part 1 to Hart and return with a Part 2 to reflect upon his assessment. If you have BOI and are a fan of Girard as I am, take advantage of the whole passage.

The myth of the cosmos as a precarious equilibrium of countervailing forces, an island of order amidst and infinite ocean of violent energy – which is also the myth of the polis or the empire – belongs principally to a sacral order that seeks to contain nature’s violence within the stabilizing forms of a more orderly kind of violence: the sheer waste and destructiveness of the cosmos must be held at bay and controlled, by a motion at once apotropaic – repelling chaos by appeasing its chthonian [pronounced /Kthounian/ or /Thounian/, meaning “pertaining to the underworld”] energies and rationalizing them in structures of Apollonian order – and economic – recuperating what is lost or sacrificed in the form of a transcendent credit, a numinous power reinforcing the regime that sacrifice serves…This is the sacrificial logic that theology is called upon to reject: the commerce of the totality, which is overcome by the infinite gesture of Christ’s sacrifice.

Can, though, sacrifice defeat sacrifice? Is not the cross of Christ another myth of peace won through violence, of chaos and death subdued by a propitiatory offering, and of, indeed (as Nietzsche said), the infinite multiplication of debt rather than its discharge? One would obviously wish to say not, but one must also have a care that, in making one’s argument, one does not fail to account for the element of oblation in the story of salvation. A salutary example, both for good and ill, of how delicate a matter it is to argue against the idea of the cross as divine violence is Rene Girard; no one else has made so great an issue of the difference between the death of Christ and the death of the “sacrificial” victim. Girard’s most extensive treatment of propitiatory exclusion is found in The Scapegoat, where he draws an absolute distinction between the mythology that dictates that religions make room, on ritual occasions, for disorder in subordination to order and those biblical narratives that tell their story from the perspective of the victim of both that disorder and that order. Mythologies, according to Girard, generally reflect the thinking of the class of persecutors; and “[s]trong in their righteousness, and convinced that their victim is truly guilty, persecutors have no reason to be troubled” (104). Not that persecutors are always creatures of malice more often than not they are guardians of the public weal, whose prudence prevents violence from erupting into riot, warfare, or internecine strife. Their sacrificial economics is simply the art of responsible politics. Of Caiaphas’s remark that it is better that one die than that the nation perish, for instance, Girard writes: “Caiaphas is stating the…political reason…for the scapegoat: to limit violence as much as possible bot to turn to it, if necessary, as a last resort to avoid an even greater violence. Caiaphas is the incarnation of politics at its best, not its worst. No one has ever been a better politician (113). And so, “Caiaphas is the perfect sacrificer who puts victims to death to save those who live. By reminding us of this John emphasizes that every real cultural decision has a sacrificial character (decider, remember, is to cut the victim’s throat) that refers back to an unrevealed effect of the scapegoat, the sacred type of representation of persecution” (114). For Girard this means that theologians who speak of Christ’s death (at least in its salvific function) as a sacrifice “once more make sacred the violence that has been divested of its sacred character by the Gospel text (126); and in so doing they lose sight of the evangel that truly sets free: “The good news is that scapegoats can no longer save men, the persecutors’ accounts of their persecutions are no longer valid, and truth shines into dark places. God is not violent, the true God has nothing to do with violence, and he speaks to us not through distant intermediaries but directly. The Son he sends us is one with him. The Kingdom of God is at hand” (189). In Things Hidden Since the Foundations of the World Girard goes so far as to advocate a “non-sacrificial reading of the gospel text”: the Bible from the beginning seeks to unwind the narrative of sacrifice, he says, taking the side of Abel against Cain, whose violence is indeed the founding of cities; the crucifixion is, thus, in no sense a sacrifice (180); for the notion of divine violence is no part of the Gospel story (189). Girard sees the profound logic of Scripture, as a whole, as lying in its constant movement away from the mythology of sacrifice (205-6), even as the presence of sacrificial and exclusionary themes causes currents of contradiction to run through its texts: he contrasts (to the former’s discredit) the stories of humanity’s expulsion from Eden and that of Johns prologue, which speaks of God’s exclusion by a violent world (247-76); and he does not hesitate to take the book of Hebrews to task for trafficking in sacrificial motifs and for, in consequence, implicating God in the persecution of the victim (227-31).

That Girard’s arguments suffer from an occasional want of subtlety scarcely needs be said; in particular, his failure adequately to distinguish different senses of sacrifice from one another leads him all too often to treat the history of Israel’s faith as a stark opposition between a sacrificial cult and a prophetic tradition that has rejected sacrifice, causing him in consequence to overlook the manifold meanings inherent in Israel’s many sacrificial practices, the dependency of the prophetic tradition upon the language of sacrifice, and the ways in which the life and death of Christ are received in Christian thought as perfecting God’s covenant with Israel – even insofar as that covenant involves sacrifices. If Christ’s death overcomes a certain sacrificial order, it also fulfills one. Still, Girard’s observations must not be casually dismissed: it would obviously be repellent, for instance, for a Christian theologian to make of the crucifixion a kind of justification for capital punishment; but within a certain understanding of sacrifice, the immolation of the hostia and the execution of the criminal belong to the same motion of exclusion, the same inhibition of chaos, the same economic gesture; and this is a distinction that cannot be ignored. If the language of sacrifice in Christian though did properly refer to an economy of exchange, such that God were appeased in the slaughter of a victim and his wrath were simply averted by way of a prudential violence of which he approved (and Flagellation of Christ, ca. 1900.who can deny that many Christians have imagined their faith in just these terms?), then indeed the Christian God would be a God of violence, and the Christian evangel of peace would simply dissemble another economy of violence and debt – one that, in fact (Nietzsche winning the field), has been monstrously magnified. Here, as nowhere else, this book’s initial question proves most perilous to ask: Does the language of sacrifice within Christian thought, inextirpable from Scripture, make of the gospel a tale that defeats itself in the telling, the beauty of whose rhetoric proves in the end to be another – and particularly meretricious – variant of the glamor of violence? And this is by no means an easy question to answer: contrary to Girard’s contention, the presence of sacrificial language in the New Testament is so deeply constitutive of Christian soteriology (even in its overcoming of sacrificial models of cosmic order) that it cannot simply be dispelled by drawing a firm demarcation between the site of the persecutor and the site of the victim, between the place of eminence and the place of abjection. Girard is right to make this distinction, of course, and even right to do so with a degree of prophetic fervor; but the dangers of his method are many: he risks leaving Israel behind and so, in consequence, the world.

The Christian story of salvation concerns not the descent of some gnostic savior bearing tidings of an alien God, but the covenant that God makes with Israel and the covenant he makes, consequently, with all flesh; it is in the history of the world he elects; it is in his people, the Jews, that God instates an order of infinite giving that responds to the infinity of his gift in creating, and that stands apart from the hierarchies of worldly power. It is only in fulfilling – indeed, in being the substance of – this covenant that Christ makes the story that God tells concerning creation triumph over the false and violent stories that sinful humanity tells of the world. Girard’s treatment of the matter, however, in its most extreme moments, makes out the salvific motion of Christ’s life to be almost purely negative, a motion of alienation, running dialectically against history. Not that this is Girard’s intention: he intends that the story of the victim be recognized as a true story and one that must be liberated from the narratives of the persecutor; but the effect of his account of salvation is that Christ comes to look almost like a Marcionite savior, who does not so much inaugurate the liberating history of God with us as describe a path of flight from time. Rather than the form that stands in the midst of creation to declare the true shape of creation, Christ looks suspiciously like a figure who saves simply by pointing beyond every economy – and every world but society is exchange, giving and taking, even in some sense sacrificing one thing for another, offering one thing up for another. Does Christ then offer a new order of exchange and sacrifice, or is he simply the abnegation of human solidarity, a revolutionary outcry that forever interrupts the story of the world but tells no story of its own? Is salvation merely the liberation of souls from the bondage of the world? Again, Girard intends to say no such thing; but where, in the world, does the victim have a story of his own?…

There are many sacrificial moments in Israel’s response to God, of course, and so Israel’s cultic practices cannot be reduced to one essential thing univocally termed “sacrifice.” There are indeed practices of violence and exclusion, but also practices of sanctification and reconciliation, thanksgiving and adoration. Before all else, though, sacrifice is a qurban, a drawing nigh, an approach to God who graciously approaches his people in love. If there are currents of stress in the history of Israel’s cult, they do not run between the idea of sacrifice as such and a prophetic rejection of sacrifice, but between different ways of understanding the motion of sacrifice that Israel is, the gift it makes of itself – of its body – to the God who gives it its being and its name…

…For Christian thought the true order of sacrifice is that which corresponds to the motion of the divine perichoresis, the Father’s giving of the Son, the Son’s execution of all the Father is and wills, the Spirit’s eternal offering back up of the gift in endless variety, each person receiving from and giving to each other in infinite love. The pagan or secular sacrificial regime obeys the logic of the boundary, the “justice” of demarcations, the blow with which Romulus slays Renus; the sacrifice that Christ is obeys the life of the God who is apeiron, aperilepton, boundless, impossible to “leap over,” but crossing every boundary in absolute freedom to declare his love…

This is why the cross of Christ should be seen not simply as a sacrifice, but as the convergence of two radically opposed orders of sacrifice. It is pure crisis, a confrontation between worlds, the raising up of one out of the grip of the other. Within Israel’s history the most important practice of sacrifice is ultimately confined to the temple in Jerusalem alone, and this is entirely appropriate. Israel’s offering does not express a sacrificial logic simply inherent in being, practicable in any setting, for purposes of auspication or haruspication or private benefit, but is the single action of God’s people, the extraordinary motion of Israel’s ceaseless exodus toward God, to whom all being belongs, peacefully, and who therefore has no need for it to be portioned to him in an economy of violence. It is this same motion toward God that is made perfect in the life of Christ, in the gift he makes of himself to the Father by the entirety of who he is. The crucifixion is what happens to this sacrifice, even as its seal and perfect accomplishment, but not as such its event; the cross is the response of political power to Christ’s self-oblation, which is the entire kenotic and faithful unfolding of his mission. There is a double motion in the crucifixion, of gift and immolation: Christ giving himself to God in the entirety of his life lived toward the Father, unto death, and the violence of worldly power folding back upon this motion in an attempt to contain it.


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.

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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.