Getting to the Hart of St. John of the Cross

giphy

This is becoming one of my favorite Hart pieces. Inasmuch as it deals with the processes and strategies of the soul’s transformation it’s one of the most, or (if we take him at his word that there is “not a pastoral bone in my body”) perhaps the only, pastoral of his essays. Either way, it’s a wonderful reflection upon St. John’s theology of human transformation, especially the dark nights (plural!) of the soul. Here’s a portion:

The mystical quest after God must begin with the active and arduous labors of ascetic mediation, but must culminate in the passive purification of the soul by grace. According to John, the soul goes on its way to God in darkness for three reasons: firstly, purgation is darkness because it denudes the soul of all its appetites for worldly things; secondly—and most importantly at this point—the way of illumination is a road of faith, not of the intellect, and the frail light of one’s wits cannot guide one through it; and, lastly, God is night to humankind in this world: even in union with the soul, his presence is inscrutable and his being incomprehensible (a sentiment expressed, if anything, even more strongly by Palamas, and by the entire Eastern tradition before him). To become passive before and in attendance upon the power of God is to experience how far the light of God’s wisdom exceeds human knowing; one cannot but be blinded by it; one’s first exposure to it is of necessity an affliction to all the soul’s faculties. And it is a night dark with pain, at times with torment, because in the first encounter with divine grace, with the fire of God’s love, the soul’s last impurities—the last residue of self-absorption—are burned away. The initial experience of God’s presence is shattering, seeming to destroy rather than heal the soul, to portend ultimate annihilation rather than salvation, because it obliterates the last vestiges of one’s dearly cherished illusion that one gives oneself unity, that one is sufficient for oneself, that one has any wholeness, freedom, or reality apart from God…

This is the awful extreme of self-knowledge, given to one only in a consuming intimacy with the divine: so frail, finite, and sinful is the soul that union with the divine must at first seem a condition of utter dereliction, of Godforsakeness; God’s love cannot be distinguished from his wrath. But the bitterness of this night is necessary if illusion and false comfort—even religious comfort—are to be put away, so that the life of the spirit may be reduced to one act of faith and longing. It is the night of surrender, wherein one must allow everything to be accomplished by God…

…God’s action in refining the soul is not a means by which he obtains satisfaction for sins, but is rather the necessary means by which the lover of God is made equal to the object of his love….

Bright Morning of the Soul

Opera of the phantom

Tehom-570x505The pages of my copy of Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite are like the layers of a Monet landscape, comments on top of comments scribbled in various mediums (pink and yellow highlighter, pencil, black ink, blue ink – whatever was nearby) from multiple visits made to re-read its wonderful reflections. Just today I happened upon this particular sobriety (BOI, p. 399-400; the brackets are mine, just to help):

Hell is with us at all times, a phantom kingdom perpetuating itself in the wastes of sinful hearts, but only becomes visible to us as hell because he true kingdom has shed its light upon history. In theological tradition, most particularly in the East, there is that school of thought that wisely makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God’s glory, and that interprets damnation as the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before divine love, which causes divine love to seem an exterior chastisement. Hell is the experience (a possibility in each moment) of divine glory not as beauty, but as a formless sublimity; it is the rejection of all analogical vulnerability, the sealing off of the “self” (or the cosmos) in univocal singularity, the “misreading” of creation as an aboriginal violence. The “fire” of hell is that same infinite display of semeia [signs] by which God is always declaring his love, misconstrued (though rejection) as the chaotic sublime rather than the beautiful, not susceptible of analogical appropriation, of charity; it is the soul’s refusal to become (as Gregory says) the expanding vessel into which the beauty of God endlessly flows. For exile is possible within the beauty of the infinite only by way of an exilic interiority, a fictive inwardness, where the creature can grasp itself as an isolated essence. Hell is, one might almost say, a perfectly “Kantian” place, where the twin sublimities of the star-strewn firmament above and the lofty moral “law’ within remain separated by the thin tissue of subjective moral autonomy: where this tissue has become impervious to glory, the analogy of the heavens is not the transforming voice of God but only a mute simile, an inassimilable exteriority, and so a torment. Hell is the perfect concretization of ethical freedom, perfect justice without delight, the soul’s work of legislation for itself, where ethics has achieved its final independence from aesthetics. Absolute subjective liberty is known only in hell, where the fire of divine beauty is held at by, where the divine apeiron [limitlessness] miraculously divests itself at the peras [boundary, end, extremity] that, in Christ it has already transgressed and broken open, and humbly permits the self to “create” itself. True, though hell is the purest interiority, it is also by contagion a shared interiority, a palpable fiction and common space superimposed upon creation, with a history of its own; but still, it is a turning in, a fabrication of an inward depth, a shadow, a privation, a loss of the whole outer world, a refusal of the surface. For Eastern Christian thought, in particular, it makes no difference here whether one speaks of death, sin, or hell: in each case on speaks of the same privation, the same estranging history, the same limit shattered by Easter; and hence there can be no aesthetic explanation of hell (something that few of the Fathers occasionally foolishly attempted) that would make of it a positive moment in the exposition of divine beauty, a part of the universe’s harmonious ordering of light and darkness. Hell cannot serve as an objective elements of the beautiful—as source of delight—because it is an absolute privation of form and quantity; it has no surface, nor even a shadow’s substance; its aesthetic “place” is the sealed outside of an inside.

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 that will, I hope, occupy me 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?

29rutledge3_540

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 ever Sunday, that someone has to die for God to forgive us. This is a mistake, and more egregious, I should think, than all the attempts to reduce Christianity to forgiveness (which I don’t think anyone actually 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 (something I don’t sense Rutledge would agree to).

The Devil’s March—Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hart of Rene Girard—Part 2

DBH

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 such) 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, too over-invested in negative assessments, too eager to find fault but not to map out what a redeemed human culture 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 that 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 and Girard both see 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 (later in his life)! 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.” crosss“The crucifixion,” Hart describes, “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 Hart’s 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? Hart seems to agree with Girard that there is none. So are the prophets who rebuke Israel merely objecting to an improper heart attitude that spoiled blood sacrifices God was otherwise looking forward to enjoying? Or is the final truth that Christ reveals anticipated more by the occasional but unmistakably radical sentiment of Ps 51.17: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings”? The writer doesn’t appear to believe that sacrifice is the proper response even of a transformed heart. On the contrary, once the heart becomes the explicit scene of grace’s transformation, there’s no need for sacrifice. As he says, “…else I would bring it.” Hosea 6.6 as well: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” But one might ask why not both mercy and sacrifice if all that’s wrong with blood sacrifice is the absence of a merciful disposition in the worshiper? Or 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,” and so forth.

I liken Israel’s entire sacrificial cult as similar 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 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 instructions on how to manage the monarchy within the framework of Israel’s covenant. Eventually Israel’s hopes for salvation become inseparable from the language of monarchy and later Christian thought and worship come 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 brings 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 which 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

399px-Greek_ikon.12_cent.

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. Hart writes:

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 thought 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.

 

A beating Hart

the bodyI’m working my way through David Hart’s essays, more slowly than I’d like. But I happened upon his piece “The anti-Theology of the Body” (in The New Atlantis, Summer of 2005). It is a reflection, based upon a collection of John Paul’s sermons, referred to collectively as his Theology of the Body. Both Hart and Jenson were asked to reflect upon the implications that John Paul’s work might have for questions raised by the field of bioethics. Hart’s reflections can be found here, and Jenson’s here. I’m including a portion from the opening thoughts from each. I hope you’re challenged and stimulated.

David Bentley Hart
To ask what the legacy of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body might be for future debates in bioethics is implicitly to ask what relevance it has for current debates in bioethics. And this creates something of a problem, because there is a real sense in which it has none at all — at least, if by “relevance” one means discrete logical propositions or policy recommendations that might be extracted from the larger context of John Paul’s teachings so as to “advance the conversation” or “suggest a middle course” or “clarify ethical ambiguities.” Simply said, the book does not offer arguments, or propositions, or (thank God) “suggestions.” Rather, it enunciates with extraordinary fullness a complete vision of the spiritual and corporeal life of the human being; that vision is a self-sufficient totality, which one is free to embrace or reject as a whole. To one who holds to John Paul’s Christian understanding of the body, and so believes that each human being, from the very first moment of existence, emerges from and is called towards eternity, there are no negotiable or even very perplexing issues regarding our moral obligations before the mystery of life. Not only is every abortion performed an act of murder, but so is the destruction of every “superfluous” embryo created in fertility clinics or every embryo produced for the purposes of embryonic stem cell research. The fabrication of clones, the invention of “chimeras” through the miscegenation of human and animal DNA, and of course the termination of supernumerary, dispensable, or defective specimens that such experimentation inevitably entails are in every case irredeemably evil. Even if, say, research on embryonic stem cells could produce therapies that would heal the lame, or reverse senility, or repair a damaged brain, or prolong life, this would in no measure alter the moral calculus of the situation: human life is an infinite good, never an instrumental resource; human life is possessed of an absolute sanctity, and no benefit (real or supposed) can justify its destruction.

In a wider sense, though, I would want to argue that it is precisely this “irrelevance” that makes John Paul’s theology truly relevant (in another sense) to contemporary bioethics. I must say that what I, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, find most exhilarating about the Theology of the Body is not simply that it is perfectly consonant with the Orthodox understanding of the origins and ends of human nature (as indeed it is), but that from beginning to end it is a text awash in the clear bright light of uncompromising conviction. There is about it something of that sublime indifference to the banal pieties and prejudices of modernity that characterizes Eastern Orthodoxy at its best. It simply restates the ancient Christian understanding of man, albeit in the somewhat phenomenological idiom for which John Paul had so marked a penchant, and invites the reader to enter into the world it describes. And at the heart of its anthropology is a complete rejection — or, one might almost say, ignorance — of any dualism between flesh and spirit.

It is something of a modern habit of thought (strange to say) to conceive of the soul — whether we believe in the soul or not — as a kind of magical essence or ethereal intelligence indwelling a body like a ghost in a machine. That is to say, we tend to imagine the relation between the soul and the body as an utter discontinuity somehow subsumed within a miraculous unity: a view capable of yielding such absurdities as the Cartesian postulate that the soul resides in the pituitary gland or the utterly superstitious speculation advanced by some religious ethicists that the soul may “enter” the fetus some time in the second trimester. But the “living soul” of whom scripture speaks, as John Paul makes clear in his treatment of the creation account in Genesis, is a single corporeal and spiritual whole, a person whom the breath of God has awakened from nothingness. The soul is life itself, of the flesh and of the mind; it is what Thomas Aquinas called the “form of the body”: a vital power that animates, pervades, and shapes each of us from the moment of conception, holding all our native energies in a living unity, gathering all the multiplicity of our experience into a single, continuous, developing identity. It encompasses every dimension of human existence, from animal instinct to abstract reason: sensation and intellect, passion and reflection, imagination and curiosity, sorrow and delight, natural aptitude and supernatural longing, flesh and spirit. John Paul is quite insistent that the body must be regarded not as the vessel or vehicle of the soul, but simply as its material manifestation, expression, and occasion. This means that even if one should trace the life of the body back to its most primordial principles, one would still never arrive at that point where the properly human vanishes and leaves a “mere” physical organism or aggregation of inchoate tissues or ferment of spontaneous chemical reactions behind. All of man’s bodily life is also the life of the soul, possessed of a supernatural dignity and a vocation to union with God.

Robert Jenson
I begin with four preliminary observations. First, the boundary between “bioethics” and “medical ethics” wavers in both public and more scholarly discussion. Thus research employing embryonic stem cells is regularly defended, like many other problematic biotechnical projects, by appealing to the possible medical benefits. And some allegedly medical interventions produce severe “bioethical” problems: in vitro fertilization, performed by doctors for infertile persons, has created a Pandora’s Box of bioethical quandaries — and indeed this technical means of lifting the burden of infertility is not really medical treatment of the patients at all. In the following, I will therefore push the boundary of what is usually called bioethics some distance into the conventional territory of medical ethics, since much of these catecheses’ impact is at the overlap between them.

Second, to display the significance of John Paul’s thought in this area without endless circumlocution, I propose that most questions conventionally bundled together as “bioethical,” together with some medical-ethical questions at the boundary, can be cast in the form: Should/may we do (x) with/to bodies that are human? Interpreting bioethical problems as problems about bodies, so as to bring them clearly within the field of the present texts, does assume that some entities — such as embryos or even cells — may be regarded as bodies that are human without necessarily insisting that they have the status of human persons. If this is allowed, John Paul’s catecheses indeed suggest general maxims that can be powerful warrants in bioethical deliberations.

The place of general maxims in moral deliberation is surely disputed, including in contemporary Catholic moral theology. For my third preliminary consideration, I must refer outside the book immediately before us. The late pope was clearly on one side of an inner-Catholic argument as an opponent of “proportionalism”: human acts, he believed, can be called good, bad, or indifferent according to their kinds, and those kinds can be sorted out by rational processes in which principles are invoked.

In any case, these catecheses themselves are not exercises in casuistry, but are rather specifically theological and indeed pastoral. They trace the “revelation” of the body, from discovery by “the man” of his own body, in the beginning, through the perverted but still wonderful experience of “historical man” with his body, to the body’s final glorification in God. And always they circle around Jesus’ saying and texts from the first chapters of Genesis.

Finally and fourth, in this collection the pope does not insistently query the sense of “body” itself, when used in reference to humans. Most of us assume without much analysis that my “body” is that organism I see when I look down, and that I feed and otherwise do or do not care for. John Paul seems to assume the same, and offers only one modifying consideration: I see my body as mine just when an other sees it so. That John Paul does not in these meditations further analyze the notion of “body” itself is in my judgment their one real shortcoming. The opportunity was there in a set of passages where he reflects on the role of the body in the resurrected life, in the course of which he makes much use of I Corinthians 15:35-50. But he does not ask: What is common to the “organic body” as which I die and the “spiritual body” as which I am raised and glorified? That is, he does not ask: What, in Paul’s thinking at this conceptually difficult and spiritually crucial juncture, makes a body a body? It seems that for Paul my body need not always be of the organic sort I now see when I look at myself, that a “spiritual” resurrection-body which is precisely not an organic body can nevertheless be my body, and indeed somehow the same body as the organic body that died. The profoundly evocative rhetoric with which John Paul wields “body” throughout his reflections on resurrection and eternal life would, I think, have contributed more to his general position had it been assisted by some more pedestrian analysis of the language.

I turn now to the more directly bioethical significance of John Paul’s meditations. Within these homilies, the turn to ethics is most clearly — if somewhat belatedly — marked by the notion of “reading the body in truth,” which means both “reading the body in the light of the Truth which is Christ” and “reading the body truly.” Only as we know what the body truly is, that is, when we read the meaning the triune Creator inscribes in it, can we know how to behave with it.

This of course supposes that the body can be read, that it has a truth inscribed in its being and that this inscription can be made known to us. Here we already come to a parting of the ways. Most recent “ethicists” presuppose no such thing about human bodies, or indeed about any entity which might in some way be called a body — the cosmos, an amoeba, a rock, or whatever. To be sure, human beings have mostly conducted their lives on the subliminal supposition that the various kinds of things we find about ourselves somehow have corresponding inherent significances for moral action. But the race of experts is now for the most part — at least overtly — of a different persuasion; and those labeled bioethicists usually line up with their fellow experts. Whatever the particular theory of moral judgment, it will be supposed that bodies are morally significant only if they fall within the field of some individual or corporate subject’s antecedent rights or interests or aspirations, and that their value is given them by those who “have” or claim title to them, or by the society or legislatures or courts that grant such titles.

Does a blastula have anything to tell us? That is its message and not that of a doctor or mother or father? Does even a despairing person’s body have its own claim on that person, which neither law nor society can authorize him or her to deny? Would a clone have the same moral significance as its original? Is the destruction of an embryo to “harvest” its cells or genes a killing? What is going on when a human cell divides on and on, not into a person but as a cell line? Are some of us right in feeling queasy? In academic society, such questions will be received with embarrassed silence — if not denounced as exhalations from the “religious right.” Just so, if John Paul’s method is right, our present academic society — including many official bioethicists — must from the start be simply incapable of deliberating the rights and wrongs of the body.

So how does John Paul himself read the body? We will take up his readings in the order in which the catecheses present them…

The Devil’s March—Part 1

famineThe opening paragraph of David Bentley Hart’s contribution (“The Devil’s March: Creatio ex nihilo, the Problem of Evil, and a few Dostoyevskian Meditations”) to Creation ex nihilo: Origins, Developments, Contemporary Challenges (eds. Gary A. Anderson and Markus Bockmuehl). I’m committed to slowly reading through everything this man writes.

Beginning and End
Within the bounds of our normal human experience of nature and history, no claim seems more evidently absurd than that creation is—in any but the most qualified, conditional, local, and inconstant sense—something good; and no piety seems more emptily saccharine than the one that exhorts us to regard our own existence as a blessing, or as a grace, or as anything more than a sheer brute event (and a preponderantly rather horrid one at that). Yes, lilacs are lovely, puppies delightful, sexual intercourse (ideally) ecstatic, and every pleasure of the flesh and mind an invitation to delirious dance of life. But all the things about the world that enchant us, viewed in proper proportion to the whole, are at best tiny flickers of light amid a limitless darkness. The calculus of our existence is quite pitilessly exact in the end. Children die of monstrous diseases, in torment; nature is steeped in the blood of the weak, but then also of the strong; the logic of history is a gay romp through an endless abattoir, a succession of meaningless epochs delineated only by wars, conquests, enslavements, spoliations, mass murders, and all the empires of the merciless. The few happy savages among us whose lives pass in an unbroken flow of idyllic contentment and end in a final peaceful sleep are so rare that their good fortune, posed against the majestic immensity of the rest of humanity’s misery, looks like little more than one of fate’s more morbid jests. Everything we love vanishes, and so do we; every attachment is merely the transient prelude to an enduring bereavement; every accidental happiness terminates in an essential sorrow. And, if the teachings of most religions are correct, even death offers most of us no respite from our misery, but only new dimensions and amplitudes and ages of suffering—ceaseless karmic cycles of transmigration, interminable torments in hell, and so on. The conatus essendi [‘struggle of living’ or ‘struggle for life’] or tanha or whatever else it is that binds us to this world has plenty to feed upon, of course, as many good things are contained within the compass of the whole; but certainly the whole is nothing good. If, as Thomas [Aquinas] and countless others say, nature instructs us that we owe God our utmost gratitude for the gift of being, then this is no obvious truth of reason, but a truth more mysterious than almost any other—rather on the order of learning that one is one’s own father or that the essence of love is a certain shade of blue. Purely natural knowledge instructs us principally not only that we owe God nothing at all, but that really we should probably regard him with feelings situated somewhere along the continuum between resigned resentment and vehement hatred.

(“Famine” by Bernice Davies).

The beatitude of sacrifice

Th5179290237_63633e1bd7_bis, then, is the sacrifice of Christ – this is its infinite extravagance and its essential peace. The saving exchange that occurs for us in the incarnate Word is perfectly expressed for Cyril in John 20:17, when the risen Christ says, “I am going to my Father and your Father; to my God and your God”: for here we see how the Son’s Father by nature has become our Father by grace, precisely because our God by nature has become his God through condescension. Indeed, for Cyril, whenever Christ calls upon his Father as “my God,” He does so on our behalf and in our place: especially in the cry of dereliction from the cross. And this is our salvation: for when the infinite outpouring of the Father in the Son, in the joy of the Spirit, enters our reality, the apatheia of God’s eternal dynamic and replete life of love consumes every pathos in its ardor; even the ultimate extreme of the kenosis of the Son in time – crucifixion – is embraced within and overcome by the everlasting kenosis of the divine life.  Because divine apatheia is the infinite interval of the going forth of the Son from the Father in the light of the Spirit, every interval of estrangement we fabricate between ourselves and God – sin, ignorance, death itself – is always already exceeded in him: God has always one infinite further in his own being as the God of self-outpouring charity than we can venture in our attempts to escape him, and our most abysmal sin is as nothing to the abyss of divine love. And as the Word possesses this trinitarian impassibility in his eternal nature, and so as God cannot change or suffer, as a man he can suffer all things, bear any wound – indeed, bear it more fully than any other could, in absolute depth – not as wrath or defeat but as an act of saving love: as Easter. And while God’s everlasting outpouring, which is for him a life of infinite joy, in assuming the intervals of our estrangement from God, appears for us now under the form of tragic pain and loss, the joy is the original and ultimate truth of who he is, is boundless, and cannot be interrupted – and so conquers all our sorrow; he is already higher than the vaulted heavens of the gods and lower than the most abysmal depths of hell – as bliss, as love; our abandonment of God, and the abandonment of the Son and of every soul in death, is always already surpassed by the sheer abandon which the Father begets the and breathes forth his being. And the terrible distance of Christ’s cry of human dereliction, despair, and utter godforsakenness – “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” – is enfolded within and overcome by the ever greater distance and always indissoluble unity of God’s triune love: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

– David Bentley Hart (The Beauty of the Infinite)

As I thought about this passage, about the way God’s trinitarian beatitude cannot be divided or estranged from itself in the triune act of God’s self-knowing and love, I thought of fractals – the whole in every part – every part the whole. It’s impossible to fragment a fractal, to disrupt its infinitude. If you break off a piece, the whole is present in it. Even if the contentment of the divine identity is subjected to the horrors of human crucifixion, even in this apparently fragmented moment, the whole truth, beauty and goodness of God are fully present.

Falling into consciousness

maxresdefaultI’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to each of the presenters at David Bentley Hart’s NDIAS Colloquium “Mind, Soul, World: Consciousness in Nature.” All excellent presentations – and there’s the added benefit in most cases of having the Q&A follow the presentations. Most are on Youtube. One enjoyably provocative presentation was that of Duke’s Warren Professor of Catholic Thought, Paul Griffiths.

Hearing of Paul Griffiths’ view of consciousness being a result or an artifact of the Fall, I wasn’t inclined to find much in his presentation to agree with. But hearing him describe his point of view, I appreciated it a lot. I’m still reflecting on it, but I will say this much – those aspects of consciousness that Griffiths suspects are fallen because they reflect deliberative acts that occur at a distance from an immediately of knowing and which objectify the being of the world over and against the being of the self, needn’t be viewed as artifacts of a fall into consciousness even though such deliberation is something less than ideal.

Consciousness as a deliberative enterprise aimed at constructing an understanding of the self is, it seems to me, God-given in the sense of being the necessary beginning context in which are moved to final rest in God. But it is fall or failure to be finite in this sense. Maximus got it right – we could not be created already in possession of the beatific vision. That vision and the rest it gives are a creative achievement of divine and human cooperation, the end of a certain kind of conscious movement that will surely end when it rests fully in a vision of itself as indwelt in, by and as Christ. What will a consciousness at rest look like? Imagine being conscious of yourself and the world without your identity ever being at stake, without needing to invest a single thought in establishing who you are or having to negotiate your identity in terms of any doubts whatsoever, or in light of survival needs or anxieties about relationships, of motivated by even the possibility of threats or fears of loss, or struggling against the slightest impediment to you fullest, imaginable existence – yourself, whole, at rest, and one with God and all things (as the Christian vision has it). None of the energies of consciousness nor the cognitive powers of perception or imagination will be spent deliberating any of these preoccupations that now consume 99.99% of our attention.

The problems and impediments Griffith points out are themselves best thought of as the structure that makes gnomic (deliberative) willing possible, and that kind of deliberative movement is itself a necessary aspect of a good but finite creation that must “move” (in the Maximian sense) toward deification and final rest. But it’s not an evil or privation of its being to do so, though it is the possibility of evil. So while the aspects Griffiths complains about are not our end as such, they are our God-given beginning and so needn’t be viewed as a primeval fall into consciousness.