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.

He took it away, nailing it to the Cross


You’ve noticed by now that I’m passionate about our understanding of the Cross and how we integrate our understanding of what God does in Christ to address human fallenness with practical, transformational processes. I was going to apologize for pursuing this theme so unrelentingly, but then it dawned on me how strange it would be to apologize for such a thing. Jesus on the Cross for our salvation? Pressing in from every conceivable angle to better understand this event ought to remain the focus of theological interest and personal transformation. There is no Christianity without it.

I come back to Greg Boyd’s recent work in particular (chiefly because of my personal connections to him) as the context in which to contemplate the relevant texts, questions, and proposals, but it’s an ancient conversation. As for recent work, Greg’s hasn’t been the only (or even the most important) work discussed here. Girard by far has been the most influential on me. Heim, Alison, and Robinette (who all appropriate Girard to various degrees) have sat round this table as well.

Let me begin with a quote from Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. I’ll follow up with some reflections:

There exists in Paul a genuine doctrine of the victory represented by Jesus’ apparent failure—a victory that is absolute but remains concealed. This doctrine explains the efficacy of the Cross in terms that have nothing to do with sacrifice. However, with the passage of time this doctrine was completely smothered by the sacrificial reading; on the rare occasions the commentators take note of it, they are liable to suspect it of containing unpalatable magical elements that justify the disuse into which it has fallen.

Here we have yet another example of the remarkable paradoxes with which his analysis is strewn. In effect, Paul’s doctrine of the efficacy of the Cross is really quite…curical. We must perceive its pertinence in the context of our reading of the Cross as a means of revealing the founding mechanism. It is possible, I believe, to show that this doctrine is much more important than all the sacrificial reading. It is later on, with the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the other texts either inspired by it or deriving from a similar inspiration, that we see the triumph of the sacrificial interpretation, which Christian theology has not yet managed to throw off.

The text that tells us most is Colossians 2.13-15. Here Paul writes of Christ that he has made us

…alive together with him, having forgiven us all or trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.

The bond that stood against us with its demands is human culture, which is the terrifying reflection of our own violence. It bears against us a witness that we do not even notice. And the very ignorance in which we are plunged seats the principalities and powers upon their thrones. By dissipating all this ignorance, the Cross triumphs over the power, brings them into ridicule, and exposes the pitiful secret of the mechanism of sacralization The Cross derives its dissolving capacity from the fact that it makes plain the workings of what can now only be seen—after the Crucifixion—as evil. For Paul to be able to speak as he does, it is necessary for the power of this world to operate in the same way as the Crucifixion does. So it is indeed the Crucifixion that is inscribed in the gospel text and is demystified by Christ, stripped for evermore of its capacity to structure the work of the human mind.

Some Greek Fathers made a great deal of this Pauline theory of the Crucifixion. For Origen, as for Paul, before Christ mankind is subservient to the yoke of the powers of evil. The pagan gods and the quality of the sacred are both identified with the evil angels, who still rule over the nations. Christ appears in the world to do battle with these ‘powers’ and ‘principalities’…

Time and again Origen comes back to the ‘public example’ or ‘spectacle’ of the Epistle to the Colossians and to the work of the Cross which ‘leads captivity captive’ (Commentary on John VI, 56-57).

It is a sign of Dante’s insight into the text I have just read to you, as well as into other texts, that he was impelled, in his Divine Comedy, to show Satan nailed to the Cross—a picture that can only appear bizarre and out of place to those who maintain a conventional, sacrificial interpretation of the Crucifixion.

The prove that the Crucifixion is really about a hidden mechanism of masking that is conclusively demolished by the description of it in the Gospels, we have other passages from Paul that show how the wisdom of God ironically outplayed the calculations of the powers. ‘None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory’ (1 Corinthians 2.8).

By resorting to the founding mechanism once again against Jesus (who had revealed the secret of their power, the founding murder), the powers of this world thought to stifle the Word of Truth for ever. They thought to triumph yet again by the method that had always allowed them to triumph in the past. What they failed to appreciate was that, in spite of the temporary consensus in which even the most faithful of the disciples cooperated, nothing like the usual mythological falsehood would appear in the Gospels. They would show, not the lie common to the religions of the entire planet, but the structural matrix in itself. Under the influence of the spirit, the disciples perpetuated the memory of the event, not in the mythic that ought to have triumphed once again, but in a form that reveals the innocence of the just man who has suffered martyrdom. Thus they avoided sacralizing the victim as the guilty party and prevented him from being held responsible for the purely human disorders that his death was supposed to end.

…Divine punishment is demystified by the gospels; its only place nowadays is in the mythic imagination…


jesus-on-a-tree-crossThere’s a lot to engage here, e.g., Girard’s view that the letter to the Hebrews represents a return to a violent-sacrificial reading of Christ and so fails to carry forward the abandonment of that scapegoating view is an extremely interesting topic, but for another time. With Girard in mind though, I’d like to reflect on particular aspects of Greg’s overall view of the Cross in hopes of clarifying the conversation.

What is it that is objectionable about Greg’s view of the Cross? What makes his view ‘penal’ (if that’s even the best word to get at the problem) in spite of the fact that he so eloquently champions such unconditional ‘love’ as the motivation behind God’s suffering for us in Christ? That objectionable center, it seems to me, is the belief that what constitutes the saving efficacy of Christ’s suffering is what transpires in God, between Father and Son, in terms of the Son suffering the wrath of the Father’s withdrawal. For Greg, the drama of salvation is an inner-trinitarian event in which God becomes the object of his own judgment. Greg’s view is penal (if there’s a better word, help me find it), it seems to me, because it grounds the saving work of the Cross in God’s experience of that godforsakenness which is, on Greg’s account, God’s judgment (even though it obtains through “withdrawal”).

This has been a controversial claim to make about Greg’s work, but I’m not the only one making it – though I am the slowest and dumbest – which is why I’m still working through all this. But Greg has sent mixed messages as well. We could easily produce clear examples of Greg’s explicitly dismissing the ‘penal-substitutionary’ view the Cross. Perhaps the clearest example would be Greg’s comments here. You’ll notice that many of the objections I have to Greg’s view of the Cross are objections he has to a penal-substitutionary view of the Cross as well. So what gives?

What gives is that while decrying the penal view that “God kills Jesus” and that Jesus “satisfies God’s wrath,” or that Jesus “saves us from God,” Greg nevertheless makes the claim that what in fact saves us is the Father’s abandonment of the Son on the Cross, that this abandonment is divine “withdrawal” that constitutes the “godforsakenness” Greg equates with God’s judgment of sin. Long story short – Jesus suffers the divine wrath we deserve. True, God freely forgives, and this forgiveness is antecedent to, and the motivation for, the Cross (which your standard penal-substitutionary theorists won’t concede). But the narrative doesn’t end there. As Greg explains here (from minute 3:40 on), God must ‘become his antithesis’ (“becoming sin” and “cursed” by God) and suffer his own godforsakeness to redeem us. Derek Flood notes the punitive connections as well:

The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal is grounded in an understanding of the cross where “the Son bore the judgment of the sin we deserved” (768). This reflects a penal substitutionary understanding of the cross, the key term here being “penal,” meaning punishment. I should note that Greg does not like the term penal substitution, and does make a point of stating that he rejects the popular form of this doctrine where “the Father had to vent his wrath against sin in order to embrace sinners” (796), arguing instead that “God’s punishments are always redemptive in intent” (785). In other words, he still holds to an understanding of the atonement rooted in punitive justice (the idea that things are made right through violent punishment), but sees the intent of the violence as restorative (or as Greg calls it, “redemptive”), rather than as retributive.

Greg maintains that viewing the Cross in terms of “punishment” and “wrath” doesn’t constitute a penal or punitive view of the Cross because it is undertaken by Father, Son and Spirit out of love and in order to redeem us. It’s redemptive, not punitive. There is no emotional angst which God vents upon Jesus. But I suggest that regardless of God’s benevolent and redemptive intentions, punitive connotations creep back into this view at precisely the point Greg is asked to explain what it is about God that constitutes the necessity of his suffering the judgment of godforsakenness which our sins deserve (especially since this suffering has nothing to do with making possible God’s freely forgiving us). The answer can’t also be love, for it is entirely possible to conceive of reconciling broken relationships without requiring anyone to “suffer the consequences” of the offense. That is, the human experiences from which we derive analogies that form the basis of attempts to articulate a non-violent view of the atonement do not themselves entail a universal or even common intuition that an offense requires that the full consequences of the offending party’s behavior be experienced. But this intuition seems to be behind the view that God must “become his antithesis,” be “cursed,” and suffer his own godforsakenness to secure our reconciliation.

Consider this as well. If God’s loving intentions for those for whom he experiences the consequences of their sinful choices preclude all punitive connections simply because God loves those for whom he suffer godforsakenness, then not even the most egregiously crude penal-substitutionary theory can be said to affirm a punitive theory of the atonement, for such theorists all affirm that God suffers the wrath we deserve out of love and with the intention to redeem, just like Greg maintains. In other words, for all Piper’s or R. C. Sproul’s differences with Greg, Sproul and Piper affirm that Jesus suffers God’s wrath, experiencing the consequences of our sinful choices, and that God does this out of love in order to redeem, just like Greg says. But not even Greg takes this as evidence that their view is anything but punitive. Why not? Why does God’s wrath as godforsakenness experienced by Christ out of love for a few unconditionally predetermined elect constitute a punitive theory of the Cross, but Greg’s view that Jesus experiences divine wrath as godforsakenness out of love for all who are invited freely to accept Christ doesn’t count as punitive? If Greg holds that God’s loving and redemptive intention absolves Greg’s theory of the Cross from penal associations, on what grounds does he object to any view of the atonement being penal? They all hold that God suffers the consequences of our sin out of love in order to redeem.

I think that what both the worst of penal views and Greg’s view of the Cross have in common, what makes them equally objectionable, is the understanding that the Cross’s power to save is derived from what transpires in God (between Father and Son) in terms of God’s withdrawing from God (Father from Son) in judgment on sin. That one adds to this a ‘benevolent intention to redeem’ or that ‘wrath proceeds via the Father’s passive withdrawal’ (Greg) as opposed to the Father actively “doing something to” Christ (cruder penal versions) seems entirely beside the point. The relevant contagion is present regardless of the finer distinctions. It is present in the notion that the “death consequences” of our choices must play out in God, between Father and Son, in order to secure the good God intends. That this constitutes a mythological contagion is, I take it, one of Girard’s fundamental insights.

One last thought. Girard mentions Col. 2.13-15:

…having forgiven us all or trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.

Contemplate your way through the key verbs of the passage: “canceling the charge,” “taking it away” (or “erasing” it), and “disarming” (or “spoiling”) the powers and authorities are not the sort of things one says if the point is to say that the just consequences of sin are indeed meted out and experienced. Greg makes use of this passages as well. It’s a classic Christus Victor passage. But it’s precisely this passage that makes Greg’s additional proposal that salvation is grounded in what transpires between Father and Son (in terms of Gods experiencing ‘divine withdrawal as wrath’) and not between God and ‘the powers’ that condemn, which exposes the punitive underside of Greg’s view of the Cross. The verbs (“cancel,” “erase,” “disarm”) and the scope of their effective work (‘God’ vis-à-vis ‘the Powers’ as opposed to the ‘Father’ vis-à-vis the ‘Son’) locate the saving event of the Cross in God’s enduring the full brunt of humanity’s scapegoating violence, not in God’s enduring God’s abandonment of God.

If God forgives us without abandoning himself (which Greg holds to be true), and if the gospel presentations of the Cross unanimously reveal Christ’s innocence (which unmask the myth), then there can be no doubt that God considers Christ to be innocent, relates to Christ throughout his suffering as innocent, treats Christ throughout as innocent, loves him as innocent, sustains him as innocent, and finally vindicates his innocence through resurrection. If we grant this much, there remains no need for a further exchange within God wherein God pretends anything else is the case, where the death consequences of our sin are experienced by God by means of the Father’s withdrawing from the Son. Don’t misunderstand me – I do not say God needn’t suffer to save us. He must suffer, but only because we require it, and even then God suffers our rejection of him, not the consequences which are God’s judgment of our rejecting him.

Taking it out on wrath

Godface2I’ve been enjoying a conversation with an old friend about sacred violence and the Cross and thought I’d post a portion of it here. In response to my suggestion that the Cross is not Jesus suffering the “punishment” of divine “wrath,” my friend declared, “I don’t comprehend how one can overlook so many scriptures that plainly speak of God’s anger and wrath.” Below is part of my response. I be interested in any thoughts.

What often happens is that Christians assume “Christ” and “Bible” together comprise a single, composite center from which we move outwards toward the world – interpreting and evaluating as we go. What I’m suggesting is that this is a mistake. The hermeneutical center from which we move out to assess and interpret as we go is Christ, and the Scriptures themselves are among the things that get judged and adjudicated along with all else in light of Christ. This doesn’t mean that Christians are to understand the Scriptures as just another religious text, but it does mean that the Bible does not (because it cannot) embody the character and intentions of God as does Christ. “Christ” and “Bible” are not convertible.

What difference does this make? Just this – the words the OT uses (wrath, judgment, forgive, etc.) all undergo re-evaluation in their biblical contexts in light of the event of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The dead-and-risen Christ becomes a kind of “reset” button by which we rethink Israel’s history and theological vocabularies. Seen in light of Christ, the OT only approximates the truth that gets revealed finally in Christ. Some of the OT portrayals of God may in fact get God wrong in some respects, respects we could only possibly be in a position to understand because we now read in light of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Yes, there are many passages that describe God as “burning with rage to consume the wicked” whom “his soul hates,” God as pleased with the “sweet smelling aroma of burnt offerings” and as forgiving conditionally, God as celebrating the “dashing of babies against the rocks,” as “laughing at the wicked,” and as “feeling indignation every day, ” and God as “no longer loving” a generation of Israelites because of their sin. There is no calculus that converts these into gospel truth or even anticipations of the gospel.

There are amazing exceptions to this picture as well. God is also portrayed as caring for Ninevites (even their cattle!) in spite of Israel’s racist disregard for them, loving and forgiving unconditionally, and as being disgusted by blood sacrifice. Rgarding that the generation of Israelites described by Hoseas (9:15) as “no longer loved by God,” Lamentations (3:31) assures us that “no one is cast off by the Lord forever.” We are also told in no uncertain terms that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice.” This latter insight cannot mean God desires sacrifice but only when it’s conditioned by mercy. The point (which we only finally understand in the light of Christ’s death and resurrection) is that sacrifice adds nothing relevant to what God desires which isn’t already present in a merciful, humble, and contrite heart.

So the OT is a mixed bag. It doesn’t offer a single, unified theology on many of these fundamental questions. It too is among the things that get judged and revealed in the light of the Cross and resurrection. That means terms like “wrath,” “judgment,” and even “forgiveness” which are variously used in the OT and which we inherit from that OT worldview, have to undergo a purging, a cleansing. In the light of Christ – the quintessential revelation of the character and intentions of God – we may have to find better words or redeploy the same words with radically new meanings.

My essential point is that there is no way to draw a straight line from the OT use of the word “wrath” (as that concept was employed in the OT by Israel) to concluding what the Cross must mean in light of that term’s OT usage. This gets the interpretive order precisely backwards. It is in light of the Cross that we are compelled to assess Israel’s theological vocabularies. That such critical re-evaluation of the Bible’s own pronouncements is thinkable is not a foreign thought we have to bring in from somewhere else. This kind of re-evaluation of the Bible happens within the Bible itself (within the OT and between OT and NT).

Pieces of the penal puzzle

sacrificed-animal-clipart-7Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) is a popular understanding of how it is that Jesus’ death saves us. It views Jesus as suffering ‘instead of us’ (thus ‘substitutionary’) the just ‘punishment’ (thus ‘penal’) we deserve. That punishment is the consequences of our sins (death as well as the despair of estrangement from God).

I ran across a post of Scot McKnight’s. In it he argues that PSA is unavoidable. He offers the following five fundamental propositions as making PSA inescapable:

1. Humans sin.
2. Sin has serious, ultimate consequences before God.
3. The consequence of sin, its punishment, is death.
4. Jesus died to bear (and bear away) the consequences of sin (and sin).
5. Christians proclaim the forgiveness of sins through the death of Jesus.

The only way to avoid PSA, McKnight suggests, is to through one of the following ways:

1. Believe that sin has no final consequences.
2. Eliminate the sin-bearing intentions/consequences of Jesus’ death.
3. Claim that Jesus’ death did not deal with the consequences/punishment of sin.

He concludes:

If one believes Jesus’ death forgives sin, one must explain why he had to die to forgive sins. One must see in death the consequence/punishment of sin. That is, Why did Jesus have to die to forgive sins? Hence, to claim he forgives sin by death means he has taken our place in his death and in that death absorbed the consequences/punishment of sin.

That is called penal substitution.

Several things can be said in response, the first of which might be that some items McKnight mentions require important clarification. What’s meant by “ultimate”? What’s meant by “death”? Is mortality a punishment for sin? Does ‘death’ also mean spiritual death? What’s the relationship between the Cross and God’s forgiving us? And most importantly, what determines the “penal” nature of the “consequences” we suffer due to our sin? There’s a lot in these five propositions that begs further questions.

That said, I’d like to offer some reasons for thinking that PSA can be “altogether avoided” without essentially denying that our sin has consequences which Jesus saves us from. That is, PSA can be false and it be true (1) that sin has consequences, (2) that Jesus’ death makes clear God’s intention to bear these consequences, and (3) that God in Christ does bear these consequences (albeit not as punishment). Note that McKnight defines his conclusion into the premises (the third prop in each set).


The first and perhaps most significant thing to question, indeed, the point at which PSA began to unravel for me, is the relationship between the Cross and God’s forgiveness. McKnight feels Jesus had to die to make it possible for God to forgive. I’ve pursued the question elsewhere, but I’ll just say here that we have good reasons for rejecting this belief and for concluding instead that forgiveness precedes the Cross as its motivation.

God incarnates and suffers for us because God forgives us, not so that he can forgive. Stated similarly, the Cross doesn’t make it possible for God to forgive us. Instead, God’s forgiveness of us makes the Cross possible. This opens us up to understanding the Cross in altogether non-penal terms without dismissing the despair and estrangement from God which are intrinsic consequences of sin that Jesus deals with.

A second change in perspective would be to approach the consequences of our evil by understanding these consequences in non-penal terms. That’s certainly possible. We are punished by our sins, someone said, rather than for our sins. This does amount to rejecting McKnight’s (3), but that’s to be expected since he defines “consequences” as “punishment.” That, however, is the point being contested. True – if we want to avoid penal associations altogether, we have to deny that Jesus’ death addresses the penal consequences of our sin. But that’s not to say he doesn’t address the consequences of our sin.

There certainly are intrinsic consequences to our evil, and Christ saves us from these consequences, but we needn’t understand the consequences in punitive-penal terms. If the consequences of our evil choices are intrinsic to the choosing, they’re intrinsic to the chooser and by definition aren’t the kind of things that can be borne by another. We should recognize that we already suffer the intrinsic consequences of our choices. We all live the despair of not enjoying the knowledge of forgiveness and intimacy with God. Jesus doesn’t suffer these “instead of” us. He saves us from them not by experiencing them as such (i.e., not by being forsaken or cursed by God), but by making possible a relationship to God whose consequence is life and joy. The way to be saved from despair and estrangement from God is to make choices who consequences are other than despair and estrangement. So while it is true that Jesus suffers “as a consequence of” our sin, i.e., he comes to us and as a consequence of our evil and we murder him in consequence of his coming, but this is not to say he suffers “the consequence of” our sin.

Thirdly, an important biblical theme to contemplate in this regard is the repeated emphasis in the Psalms and Prophets that reminds us that what grounds the experience of forgiveness is the simplicity of a humble and repentant heart. Blood sacrifice is simply not required by God. Humility and repentance are all he cares about. Several passages point out that God isn’t interested in blood sacrifice:

Ps 51.17, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.”

Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Heb 10.8, “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.

The list could go on.

My own sense is that God had to work with blood sacrifice because that’s where Israel was, not because spiritual realities on God’s side of the equation require it. Consider Israel’s (evil) demand for a king. God went with it, even incorporated the monarchy into Israel’s prophetic imagination foreshadowing the Kingdom and Christ as Messiah. But it was never introduced by God into Israel’s religious traditions as an embodiment of abiding spiritual truths. Similarly, Moses permitted Jews to divorce through writing a letter of divorce. But Jesus made it clear that God never waned or endorsed it. It wasn’t his idea. He only tolerated it because of Israel’s hardheartedness. Point is, we mustn’t mistake the best use God makes of our falsehoods and misunderstandings as suggesting divine endorsement of those positions.

lambI suggest we view blood sacrifice in its entirety the same way – something Israel insisted upon as a way to relate to God which God managed through the law for the best but which has absolutely nothing to do with satisfying divine requirements for forgiveness or for making sure “somebody suffers the punishment” God requires. In the end – nobody “pays.” That’s the good news.

One could attempt to find a penal connection between Christ and the sacrificial system in places like Hebrews 10.5-7: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, my God’.”

Does the author mean God isn’t pleased with the blood of bulls and goats but he is pleased with the blood of an innocent human being? Does Jesus end all blood sacrifice by being the biggest most satisfying blood sacrifice of them all? Or does Jesus end all blood sacrifice by letting the sacrificial system exhaust itself upon himself in order to expose that system as failed and bankrupt? In the first sense, Jesus saves us “because” of the inherent efficacy of sacrifice; God just needed to find the right sacrifice. In the latter sense, Jesus saves us “in spite of” sacrifice. There’s saving efficacy in the Cross, yes, but only in the sense that God endures the full force of the sacrificial system – not because he requires it.

Take Gal 3.13 for example. We have every reason to believe God did not in fact curse Jesus, nor is God of the opinion that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by him. That is Israel’s false belief, but God gives himself to it (allowing it to exhaust its resources on him). But assuming it is not true that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by God, how can God demonstrate this to be a false belief? How can God demonstrate that he doesn’t need or require blood sacrifice in the slightest? He demonstrates this by hanging on a tree without being cursed. So Christ “becomes a curse” for us in the sense that he is treated by us in all the ways we identify with being cursed by God, not because we’re right in believing God to curse the innocent victims we hang on trees, but precisely because we’re wrong, and so that we can be proved wrong, to have ever thought so.

So Heb 10.5-7’s “sacrifice and offering you did not desire” is true. Fine. But where then does “so a body you have prepared for me” come in? Not to introduce a source of blood that God is interested in. On the contrary. It is to demonstrate the lengths to which God will go to demonstrate how antithetical blood sacrifice is to God. How can God get it across to Israel that he’s not interested in blood sacrifice whatsoever? The answer is: by submitting himself (“a body you have prepared for me”) to our sacrificial machinery – antithetical to him in every way – and then rising from the dead to expose once and for all its failure and impotency.

Contra McKnight, we can affirm with full seriousness the consequences of sin, the divine intention to deal with them, and that Christ finally deals with them without understanding salvation in penal terms at all.

God takes responsibility for sin – or not.

spider2 - CopyBack in late spring/early summer of this year reviews of Boyd’s CWG began to surface and online discussion of the book took off. Of the reviews that were published online at the time, I don’t recall any that gave CWG all-around thumbs up. Some who passionately defend a non-violent view of the atonement nevertheless had serious concerns about core arguments and implications of Greg’s project. I suspect that has changed some, I don’t know. I’m not following the reviews at this point. I posted my own support for points I thought Greg made well alongside criticisms of weakness.

However, Greg is a friend whose ideas – even those I disagree with – I don’t mind returning to on occasion, if only because the concerns that motivate them and the passion that propels them are inspiring. Here I’d like to reflect a bit upon a particular phrase Greg uses to describe the Cross as God’s “taking responsibility for the world’s evil.” For example:

[T]he fact that the Son took responsibility for all the evil that he as Creator allowed to come to pass in his creation entails that the Father and Spirit, in their own unique ways, also took responsibility for all this evil, though they are no more morally culpable for any of it than is the Son.

Or here:

God assumed responsibility for all that he allowed to take place in his creation.

The idea derives ultimately from Greg’s belief that God creates freely, unnecessarily. That’s important, because the question of why God would take responsibility for a necessary God-world relationship (as proposed by standard Process metaphysics) never really arises. But for someone like Greg who espouses the (quite orthodox belief in the) utter gratuity of God’s choice to create, the question of God’s “taking responsibility” for the absolute mess the world introduces a challenge. Consider:

  • God creates freely and unnecessarily.
  • Creation freely corrupts itself and becomes overwhelmed by violence and suffering.

The freedom involved in the latter would be explanation enough for some, maybe most. But Greg believes that though we are endowed with the freedom to self-determine (which makes us and not God morally culpable for our individual choices), there remains an additional factor that we need to account for:

  • The eruption of evil was inevitable.

Over top all of humanity’s particular free choices stands the all-embracing statistical inevitability of sin and violence. Given the precarious condition of our origins (human weakness, finitude, ignorance, basic appetites and drives, the influence of socialization, the Satanic corruption of matter, and more), sooner or later creation would go off the rails. Greg may be an open theist who holds the future to be (partly) open, but he maintains the causal closure of the world’s descent into evil given these factors. God knows human sin and vice will inevitably erupt, and it is this inevitability that God freely creates and (I will suggest regarding his view) what God takes responsibility for.

van-gogh-pietaIt’s true of course, in an almost trivial sense, that God takes responsibility for what God does if by that we mean to say that God’s actions are fully informed, fully intended, fully acknowledged, fully his own, utterly embraced – entailments and all. But this is not news. The staunchest classical theist would affirm it.

But this is not what Greg means by saying God “takes responsibility for evil.” What Greg means, I gather, is that God assumes something approaching a moral responsibility for the world’s evil and suffering. In suffering the despair of godforsakeness, God suffers his own free choice to create, and this responsibility has a definite moral shape to it. God didn’t have to create but he did so knowing things would go desperately wrong. Thus (and this “thus” reveals the logic of God’s “responsibility” in Greg’s view) God suffers for us by suffering for having freely created us. That is at least part of the logic at work. Greg explains further:

[O]nly by affirming the authenticity of Jesus’ God-forsakenness can we affirm that God has fully entered into, fully experienced, fully embraced and fully redeemed the God-forsakenness of the world. Because the Son experienced the horror of God-forsakenness, and because the Father experienced the horror of forsaking his Son, we can affirm that “even Auschwitz is taken up into the grief of the Father, the surrender of the Son and the power of the Spirit.” [cf. Moltmann] In the nightmarish separation of the Father and Son, he writes, we can see that “the whole uproar of history,” with all of its unthinkable atrocities, is embraced “within God.” [cf. Moltmann] In other words, the authenticity of the Jesus’ abandonment on the cross means that God is a God who is entering into and embracing our hell. And its only because of this that we can be confident that God has poured himself out completely in working to redeem us from our hell.

A few thoughts in response. First, it’s important to note that such claims as Greg makes in this last quote are nowhere found in the New Testament. Are they legitimate inferences drawn from biblical passages? Examining this question would take me outside the narrow interest of this post, and I’ve already reviewed CWG elsewhere and responded to key biblical passages (2Cor 5.21’s “God made Jesus to become sin”; Gal 3.13’s “Christ’s became a curse”; the Cry of Dereliction in Mk 15.34|Mt 27.46). Such passages needn’t imply that the Triune relations suffer the curse of godforsakeness which is the intrinsic consequence of our sin.

I am, secondly, more interested in exploring the nature of this suffering as a “taking of responsibility for evil” and the assumptions behind viewing it in such terms. True, Greg notes that God cannot be morally culpable for any of the particular evils of free agents. However, over top our particularity is the inevitability of sin and evil as such. Though God may not be responsible for the former, he is for the latter, and this gives every appearance of being moral in nature. Consider the gravity of the consequences God suffers and why. What constitutes this gravity in Greg’s project? What reality makes God’s suffering godforsakeness a “responsibility”? It would seem that since the inevitability of the depths of evil and suffering derives from God’s free choice to create, God owes it to the world (morally, not logically – given the gratuity of God’s choice to create and the wretched mess we made of ourselves) to suffer the godforsakeness we suffer.

It is important to say that this responsibility is beyond the fact that our salvation requires a demonstration of love sufficient to address our addiction and bondage to sin and violence. Here things get interesting inside Greg’s view. Certainly our created and fallen state presents natural conditions God must accommodate to rescue us from that state, (God’s redemptive manifestation to us must be embodied, human, finite – as opposed to be incarnate as a cow or a porpoise). Greg recognizes these. However, these include the particular extent and nature of God’s suffering (the reducing of God’s ad intra triune experience to the fragmentation and despair of godforsakeness). That God suffer so is entirely dictated by our condition.

But this leaves the “taking responsibility for sin” ungrounded. There’s no truth of human fallenness that makes it obvious that our rescue requires that God suffer the particular godforsakeness and despair which are the consequences for us of our evil. It appears that what ultimately grounds the necessity that God suffer in this particular godforsaken sense is the gratuity of creating a world bound inevitably to do great violence and suffer immeasurable evil. Because God is not culpable for particular human evils but must suffer infinitely to assume all human (and animal) suffering and godforsakeness, the responsibility God assumes in suffering so would be grounded antecedently in the very inevitability that supervenes upon the entire “the whole uproar of history.” This, not anything human beings require per se, appears to define why God must suffer so.

For Greg everything rides on it being the case that on the Cross God assumes this responsibility through suffering the despair of godforsakeness intrinsic to our sinful choices. The very “authenticity” of Jesus’ suffering as a redemptive act, its very ‘saving efficacy’, requires that God experience the combined sum of the world’s godforsakenness. We get a clue toward the end of the previous quote from Greg into what constitutes the link between God’s godforsakeness and our godforsakeness in terms of “responsibility.” God’s suffering must be “authentic” relative to our need. And it is only authentic if it is equivalent (same despair, same godforsakeness, same crisis of identity, same loss of hope, same pain), but infinitely so for God of course because he has the entirety of human and animal suffering to assume). Only if we perceive the Cross as being this may we have “confiden[ce] that God has poured himself out completely in working to redeem us from our hell.” This “confidence,” for Greg, is how faith appropriates the healing, reconciling work of the Cross.

But why suppose any of this? It’s not an explicit claim of any NT writer. And it isn’t obvious that our being reconciled to God or healed from our own godforsakeness requires that God be equally as godforsaken as us. Why must our healing from godforsakeness require the multiplication of godforsakeness in God? We don’t universally assume that acts of saving or healing of an inter-personal, loving nature are only authentically transforming and redeeming if the gracious saving party shares every consequence intrinsic to the offending party’s choices.

We do agree, with Greg, that it is not anything human beings do to Jesus that saves us, rather it is what the Father is doing “behind the scenes.” But where Greg sees the Father abandoning Jesus behind the scene of the the human abandonment of Jesus, we see the Father doing something else, namely, not abandoning Jesus but empowering him to endure human rejection “for the joy set before him,” to forgive those lynching him, to offer paradise to those who entreat him. On the Cross, Jesus still “does what he sees the Father doing.” But on Greg’s view, as I understand it, Jesus sees the Father abandoning him but does something else, namely, not abandon others but forgive and offer paradise instead.

The more I’ve pondered these differences with Greg, the more I come to recognize the more fundamental difference from which our other disagreements derive. Surprisingly, it is not that Greg is a Kenoticist and we are not, nor is it that we believe in God’s undiminished triune delight and Greg does not. It is, I believe, our very different views of the human predicament. Just what is the “fallen human condition” the rescue from which we give the name “salvation” to? And how does Jesus’ dying and rising together heal that condition? For us, the notion of godforsakeness (viz., that God must, objectively speaking, become “cursed” [Gal 3.13] by experiencing the despair of ‘forsaking’ and ‘being forsaken by’ God) that informs Greg’s whole project, is the very myth we need saving from. Where, for Greg, God’s own godforsakeness constitutes our salvation, for us godforsakeness is what Jesus’ death and resurrection expose to be the myth that enslaves us – and one doesn’t expose myths by believing them.

All that said, let me shift directions here —

Part of Greg’s project involves a hermeneutical re-centering, a cruciform hermeneutic. The cruciform hermeneutic makes what happens on the Cross the hermeneutical center (or “lens”) through which everything else in the Bible is read. I’ve already reviewed why I think this is impossible, but I though I might find it helpful to turn this entire dilemma of Greg’s on its head. Instead of God taking responsibility for creating, what would happen if we view God as taking responsibility for being created? That is, in Christ, God the human being fulfills humanity’s responsibility before God to present itself humbly, obedient and trusting in the face of all the vicissitudes inherent in that nature, and fulfills human nature’s calling and purpose. In this case Jesus’ death fulfills created nature, loving and trusting God within the constraints of created finitude. Christ, the God-Man, represents creation to God, takes responsibility for being creatED (not for creatING), unites creation to God, and in so doing reconciles the world to God, not God to the world.

Am I suggesting that we replace the Cross with something else, the Resurrection perhaps, as “the” hermeneutical center? No. I’m suggesting (following James Alison) that we define the center phenomenologically as the act of faith integrating incarnation, passion, resurrection through knowledge of the One Christ – the “risen-crucified” One. These events (atonement, ministry, passion, resurrection, ascension) are all temporally distinct but aesthetically one.

vgflowersWhat do I mean by temporally distinct but aesthetically one? Take the transforming effects of beauty encountered in, say, Van Gogh’s “Vase with Cornflower and Poppies” (1887). I’ve stood before this painting many time, completely lost in the moment. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is.

Consider – the hermeneutical center of its beauty is not divisible into any of the temporally distinct steps it took to produce it. Its beauty – which is what we relate to, what we believe in, that which saves us – is indivisibly one. We could (and we do) separate the painting into its contributing events (gathering and grinding the raw materials to make the colors, mixing the colors on the palette, composing the under layers, sketching the outline, the particular brush techniques used, filling in the main features, adding the final touches, and so forth). But to do this – and this is the point – is to step away from the immediate experience of its beauty.

Furthermore, no one’s experience of the beauty of this painting is reducible to a hermeneutic that views one of these steps as the primary “lens” through which the others are defined or their beauty understood. Yet this, it seems to me, is precisely what Greg attempts theologically, and it is aesthetically violent. There is no possible way for faith to apprehend Christ in only one of any of the contributing events of his existence as a human being (incarnation, ministry, passion, resurrection). To try to elevate one hermeneutically is to do violence to them all.

In the end, then, there is no cruciform hermeneutic, that is, no hermeneutic of transforming faith that derives from the Cross alone. There is “a” hermeneutic – a way to read/interpret life – which one can derive merely from the Cross, yes. We see it in the two on the road to Emmaus before they recognize the risen Christ, and we note it in the disciples crouched in fear and uncertainty before the risen Christ arrives to say “Peace.” But a cruciform hermeneutic that takes the Cross as a saving act of love through which lens all else is to be interpreted? Quite impossible. It’s impossible because to read the Cross as a “saving event” is already to read it through another lens, a resurrection hermeneutic. There’s no getting around it. The Cross only becomes (viz., is revealed to be) a saving act when faith interprets the Cross in light of the resurrection. We wouldn’t possibly know God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself apart from the interpretive light of the risen Jesus. So all of Greg’s descriptions of the Cross as God’s love stooping to accommodate us in our weakness, etc., – all true – are by definition post-resurrection readings of the Cross.

So, the hermeneutical center cannot be a single proposition or event, but rather must be faith perceiving itself as apprehended by the risen-slaughtered One, and so not taking responsibility for having created if that means God must become cursed and share in the despair of godforsakenness. There is only need for that (and arguably not even then) if one insists on a reason to believe, or for the meaning for faith, or for redemption, that derives solely from the Cross (i.e., the Cross interpreted linearly with its doors closed to the resurrection). But that would be like looking to the weight required to press organic raw materials until they yield their beautiful reds, yellows, and blues as “the” explanation for everything else that goes into a Van Gogh painting, including why it’s beautiful.

The road to Emmaus — and to better theological grammar

grammarsI’m enjoying Brian Robinette’s Grammars of Resurrection (2009). It’s confirming suspicions I’ve had about recent works on the Cross (its meaning, theological centrality, hermeneutical dominance, etc.). The Cross is most certainly a “saving event.” But I continue to reflect on the attempt to make the Cross “the” theological-hermeneutical center in light of which other events are to be understood. I’ve felt this move to be a mistake since reviewing Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God, but it was James Alison’s Knowing Jesus that gave expression to what I was feeling. The center – to the extent there is one – is Christ as ‘the risen-slaughtered one’. Crucifixion and resurrection constitute together a single perception of faith which opens up to us the whole range of Christian belief and transformative practice. Alison first expressed this insight for me, and now Brian Robinette expands the insight into a more substantial set of convictions.

Robinette writes:

In soteriological matters, the only reason why Jesus’ death could be thought of as in any way salvific, rather than the colossal failure of a world-be messiah, was the radically new perceptual field  imparted to his earliest followers by the Easter event…

Now, as is evident in the history of Western Christian theology especially, the cross, rather than the resurrection, would eventually come to dominate how Christians thematized salvation. This did not occur all at once, or with such comprehensiveness that the resurrection was wholly abandoned as a source for soteriological reflection. And yet, it is abundantly clear that especially since Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century, who emphasized the juridical themes of the Latin patristic tradition…and reinterpreted them in the context of his own feudal culture, Western theology became dominated by a sacrificial atonement theory centered on the cross…The consequence here is that whereas the resurrection was front and center in the soteriologies of the first, second, and third centuries, it eventually receded into the background to other foci. Although the resurrection is what gives  Jesus’ death its meaning…it would eventually become subordinate to sacrificial atonement theories that essentially isolate the cross as the precision instrument through which God offers us reconciliation. A broad survey of the atonement in Scholastic, Reformed, and post-Tridentine theology makes it difficult to determine how the resurrection is materially involved in God’s offer of salvation. Once redemption is secured by an act of reparation through the cross, Easter is made to seem a kind of aftereffect, significant primarily in terms of the private destiny of Jesus, or, as Karl Rahner puts it, “honored at best as a confirmation of the fact that our interpretation of Good Friday is correct.”

zheny_mironosicy_u_groba_gospodnjaChristologically speaking, a similar process occurs as the resurrection takes an increasingly diminished role relative to the incarnation for articulating Jesus’ identity. As will be explained more thoroughly later, the experience of the risen Christ in the paschal community is both historically and logically prior to the development of incarnational theology. In tracing the historical course of the christological process, we discover a shift of emphasis from resurrection to incarnation to express the identity and full ontological reality of his man from Nazareth. Whereas first generation christology (pre-50 C.E.) highlighted Jesus’ resurrection as the moment of his investment of lordship over creation — the climactic point at which he “becomes” or is appointed “Son of God” — subsequent generations of christology reveal a backward projection of this Son of God language. Although we should avoid thinking of this too simplistically, generally speaking, the ongoing reflection on the nature of Jesus results in a retroactive movement of resurrection theology so that his identity as Son of God, first fully manifested in his post-mortem appearances to the disciples, is associated with decisive moments further and further back in his life-story — his death, his transfiguration, his baptism, his conception, and finally, as we find most explicitly in the Logos poem of John, to a timeless origin antecedent to creation itself. This process is entirely logical When properly thought through, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead demands that we reflect upon the relationship between Jesus’ function and person. As we do, we will find that God’s work of salvation is intimately connected with Jesus’ very “being.” By raising him from the dead for the definitive salvation of humanity, the Proclaimer (Jesus) and Proclaimed (the Kingdom of God) become so conjoined that Christians cannot adequately articulate the meaning of one without the other…

The present work represents an effort to retrieve the resurrection of Jesus as a central site for thinking theologically. I have already spoken of soteriological and christological matters. Regarding for former, we will examine the drama and dynamics of human salvation under three related aspects that together flow from the Easter event: justice, forgiveness, and divinization. This is the primary objective of Part Two. It is my contention that the eventual marginalization of the resurrection from soteriological reflection, especially in the Latin West, where sacrificial atonement theories have long dominated, has led to truncated, and in certain important respects distorted, views of salvation. Among the most problematic distortion is the implication of God in the violence that led to Jesus’ death. When the cross is isolated from the broader narrative sweep of the Christ event, there is frequently a failure to understand the resurrection as anything more than a kind of ratification or postlude, when in fact it is God’s dramatic in-breaking into and unmasking of the cyclical violence that led to Jesus’ lynching. Indeed, often enough sacrificial atonement theories imply or explicitly affirm God’s complicity in the violence so graphically displayed on the cross, quite as though God were underwriting the very human disease that the gospels in fact would name, demystify, and abolish – the production of victims. Only if we see the meaning of the cross in light of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, which is nothing if not the vindication of a victim from unjust death, will we grasp that God is a God of victims; that, in point of fact, God has become our victim in order to liberate us from producing and becoming victims (justice), to offer us pardon for our continued and frequently unconscious production of victims (forgiveness), and the draw us into active participation in the inner life of God through the imitation of the crucified and risen victim, who is the image of the invisible God (divinization).

It should be observed here that the retrieval of the resurrection deepens our understanding of the cross while also drawing us into further reflection upon Jesus’ life-ministry. The resurrection is precisely an act of memoria, God’s transformative memory. Resurrection purifies and redeems memory. As with the story of the travelers to Emmaus, the presence of the risen stranger facilitates an act of recollection in which the disciples are capable of remembering Jesus’ life from a fundamentally new perspective. They remember what he said and what he did, but they now do so in light of a transformative experience, brought to consciousness in the breaking of bread, that purges and deepens memory.



The picture to the left is slightly cheesy. I apologize. I’ll get to that in a sec. The reference by Robinette to the two on the road to Emmaus caught my attention. I typically speed through this story as just another story demonstrating Jesus was raised. Simple. But Robinette’s point struck me. Here we have an event that demonstrates the point of Robinette’s book – the central place the resurrection occupies (even if we don’t recognize it) in every genuinely Christian experience and which it must again occupy (intentionally) in theological reflection. You can see the transformation take place in the two disciples. The Cross has no saving effect – is nothing but a disgrace and failure (for Christ and his followers), and a perpetuation of the rivalry that produces victims (for the culture that lynched him) – until one perceives it within the presence of the risen Jesus. Only the risen Jesus can tell you what the Cross means, and that is why the Cross cannot occupy or define the theological or hermeneutical “center” of the Christian faith in light of which other events (incarnation, resurrection, etc.) are interpreted. Previously:

If we must speak of a hermeneutical center, perhaps we should say that ‘transformational experience’ (of the risen-slaughtered one) is the hermeneutical center Boyd is looking for – i.e., the hermeneutical center isn’t a set of propositions as such but a confluence of the truth-making realities that inform human transformation – the whole life and death of Jesus as they are mediated to us by the risen, living Jesus. When the death and resurrection become a single experienced personal reality – the ‘risen-slaughtered’ one (Phil 3.10f), the center becomes a living dynamic…

Speaking of “truth-making reality that inform human transformation,” let me say why I chose this strange picture of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. The two are blackened out. Only Christ is fully present, fully alive, not fragmented, not partial. But it is Christ who has been crucified. The two disciples are quite alive. One would expect, then, that Christ should be blackened out it is him they do not perceive. What gives? The story reveals their transformation, not Christ’s, and therein we see the point. The two are the ones who come alive, who wake up, who see what is truly there but which they had not perceived. They do the ‘appearing’, not Jesus. As such, they are what the Cross makes of us until we view the Cross with and within the risen Jesus.

Recall, Paul makes it clear (1Cor 15) that “if Christ is not raised…we are still in our sins.” So the resurrection is a “saving event.” But how, if the Cross took care of all that? Doesn’t Christ disarm the spiritual rulers and authorities by shaming them publicly “by his victory over them on the cross” (Col 2.14f)? Yes and no. Ask yourself how the cross becomes a victory. When does it become this victory? Where does the Cross “disarm” the powers?

Only in rising does Jesus’ dying become any of this. Heb 2.14f states as much: “He too shared in [our] humanity, so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death, that is, the devil, and free [us] who all [our] lives were held in slavery by [our] fear of death.” Interesting. One could reply here that there is no mention of resurrection in the Hebrews passage which states explicitly that it is “by his death” that Jesus “destroys the devil.” There you have it – the unique centrality of the Cross. But think it through. Our being “freed from slavery to fear of death” is also explicitly linked to his death with no mention of the resurrection. And yet it’s obvious that there is no freedom from the fear of death found in another person’s dying. We see such death all the time. That’s what constitutes our fear. But there is complete freedom from such fear found in a person’s rising from the dead. It is the resurrection, then, that “destroys the devil,” “disarms the powers,” and “frees us from our fear of death.” Taken together (thank you James Alison!) as “the risen-slaughtered one,” cross and resurrection constitute a single living presence (not a proposition) that accomplishes all that gets variously attributed (propositionally) to one or the other. But both are always present.

One final thought on the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. I do not mean this disparagingly at all, but these two can be analogously compared to certain passibilists eager to reduce God to the pain and tragedy of the Cross and to see (as Rahner lamented) in the resurrection only a vindication of their view of the Cross (composed entirely before the sun rises on Easter Sunday) rather than the meaning of the Cross.

I feel as if my own journey the past 10 years has been taken along the Emmaus road, slowly waking up to a resurrected view of things.