I was recently introduced to James Alison, Catholic theologian and author, well-known for his interpretation of Rene Girard’s thought. To get acquainted with him I picked up his first book, Knowing Jesus (1994), which addresses the question of what it means to know Christ. We’re associate knowing Christ with talk of a ‘personal relationship’ with God or with agreeing to fundamental beliefs about who Jesus was. Alison pushes through and beyond these to expose what he feels knowledge of Christ involves.
The book is full of profound insights. I do not intend to review them all, but I’d like to explore a portion of his first chapter in which he discusses the relationship between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection and how these remain united in the transformative knowing of Christ.
As I picked up this book, I had in mind 2Cor 2.2 where Paul tells the Corinthians that when he first came to Corinth he “resolved to know nothing but Christ, and him crucified.” I’ve been pondering this statement of Paul’s coming out of having reviewed Boyd’s CWG in which Boyd refers to this statement as evidence of a particular cruciformity, but having discovered important weaknesses in Boyd’s work didn’t mean Paul’s statement didn’t continue to occupy my thoughts and challenge me. So I was happy to find Alison’s first chapter at least in part concerned with how Christ-crucified figured into knowing Christ. I’m not sure I understand Alison’s insight, but I hope thinking out loud on it here will bring some clarity. Feel free to offer your comments:
Now what that means is that the risen Lord is simultaneously the dead-and-risen Lord. Jesus as he appeared to the disciples was not, as it were, the champion who has showered down after the match; he appeared on a completely different level. If there’s any phrase that comes near expressing this, it is ‘the living dead’. Not, obviously, in the Hollywood sense of someone caught in a time warp between being dead and going to an eternal rest, whether up or down, but in the sense that the resurrection life was the giving back of the whole human life, leading up to and including that death has been conquered, that the resurrection life isn’t on the same level as death, just cancelling it out, as it were. The resurrection life includes the human death of Jesus. He is always present after the resurrection simultaneously as crucified and as risen Lord.
Just in case you think I’m making this up, may I refer you to the Easter Preface number III in the Roman Missal. There we are told that Jesus is ‘still our priest, our advocate who always pleads our cause. Christ is the victim who dies no more, the Lamb once slain who lives forever’. What the Latin of the Preface is fact says is, ‘agnus qui vivit semper occisus’, which literally means ‘who lives forever slain’ – closer to the idea of the living dead than the English translation. The same idea comes up in all those hymns in the book of Revelation, where the seer sees Jesus as ‘a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered’ (Rev. 5.6). This is well captured in certain medieval pictures, such as Van Eyck’s ‘Adoration of the Lamb’ [opening picture of this blog post], or Grunwald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (second picture of this blog post). The artists represent the living Lamb, standing with a banner, or an empty cross, to symbolize the resurrection. Out of the Lamb’s slaughtered neck blood flows into a chalice. That is about as good an image of the simultaneously crucified and risen Lord as we can manage. It is the slaughtered one who is made alive, given back in the resurrection. It is not as though the resurrection cured him of being slaughtered – (he was in a bad way but God bandaged him up) – the gratuity of the resurrection is what gives him back as the slaughtered one. It is here that the devotion to Christ crucified has its place in the lives of some of the saints. It is here that stigmatists like St. Francis or Padre Pio bear witness to the life of the risen Lord. The mistake is when people oppose the crucified Lord to the risen Lord, imagining perhaps that ‘a true spiritual life requires a balance between these two’. There is no opposition, for the presence of the crucified Lord is within the presence of the risen Lord It is as crucified Lord that Jesus is risen. As we will see, the presence of Jesus as [the] risen-slaughtered one is key to the sense in which the resurrection is the presence of forgiveness, is the forgiveness of sins.
The last of the resurrection appearances to a person, making of that person an apostle, an authentic witness to the resurrection, was the rather strange, sui generis, appearance to Paul. Strange and sui generis because Paul had had, as far as we know, no contact with Jesus of Nazareth before his death. That is, he had no personal historical recollection of the life of Jesus, or his teaching, to be deepened, transformed and authenticated by the appearance of the risen Lord. Paul’s relationship to Jesus was simply that of trying to wipe out, out of zeal for the Lord of hosts, the false ‘Way’ that was spreading in the wake of Jesus’ death. Saul, as he then was, would have been convinced that when it came to persecuting, it mattered entirely whose side you were on. It would be, for instance, wicked to be part of a foreign persecution of, say, the Maccabees, because that was to persecute God’s own faithful ones. On the other hand, it was certainly right to persecute, in the name of the Lord, those who were undermining the true faith in the God of Moses.
Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus as the persecuted one. ‘Who are you, Lord?’ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’ (Acts 9.5). That was the impact of the risen Lord on Paul – not the triumphant one, the victorious one, but the persecuted one. The dynamic is the same as I have been describing with relations to the appearances to the disciples in John and Luke. The risen Lord is the persecuted-and-risen Lord. Or rather, the impact made on Paul is that when he perceives that it is God whom he has been persecuting, in the name of God, it is the presence of God as persecuted that is, to him, forgiveness; that is to him the possibility of an entirely new life, a radical reordering of everything he had believed. The gratuitous presence was that of the crucified one. Not as accusation, but as forgiveness. Because of the persecution in which he was involved, Paul was able to perceived his involvement in the persecution of God, and was thus able to receive a huge change of life, a change by which he came to worship God as victim: to preach Christ crucified, and to know only Christ, and him crucified. Again, the risen Lord has risen as the crucified one.
Now that, the simultaneous presence of the risen life in the crucified one, is what is called a mystery. Please notice that a ‘mystery’ is not here something obscurantist, or intellectually dubious, as when someone runs out of logical things to say, and retreats into talking piffle as a cover-up I think I’m saying something that is making reasonable use of categories we possess, but to indicate something of a density that is not part of our normal experience. I’m saying that the risen Jesus is risen simultaneously crucified to death, and living, both of which are categories we can understand separately, but which it would never normally occur to us to imagine together. It is not merely a question of simultaneity, as if I were claiming that two mutually exclusive states were simultaneously present – some sort of paradox, like a room which is simultaneously noisy and silent. I am saying that the resurrection was the giving back of the life and the death at the same time. If you like, the resurrection life is not on the same level as ordinary life, which is annihilated at death, rather it is able to include both the life and the death which concludes it, precisely because it is the free giving and giving back of both. Once again, it is the element of pure gratuity in the giving and giving back which is what is not on the same level as life or death, and is thus able to make both present simultaneously.
I ask your patience if this appears to be bizarre. It is, I would suggest, the experience that is at the center of the Christian faith, from which starting point the other pivotal doctrines – of the Incarnation and the Trinity – were discovered. (Bold emphasis mine)
As I said, coming out of having reviewed Boyd’s CWG, I had been thinking on 2Cor 2.2 (“resolved only to know Christ and him crucified”) as a proposed cruciform center to reading the Bible (per CWG). I described in that review why I think the Cross cannot comprise any sort of center (at least not in the terms proposed by Boyd). A wider, more inclusive center comprising the entirety of the incarnate career seemed to me to be more in line with the NT’s apostolic train of thought. In light of that, I take Alison’s insights to suggest that when Paul says he resolved to know nothing but Christ and him crucified, defining a hermeneutical center to reading the Scriptures was the last thing on his mind. If we read Paul in light of other similar statements he makes (Phil 3.10), and in light of his issues with the Corinthian believers, it becomes increasingly clear that his resolve ‘to know nothing but Christ crucified’ describes the transformational experience of NT faith/gospel (as we receive it from apostolic witness) and not a conviction about how to read the Bible.
If we must speak of a hermeneutical center, perhaps we should say that ‘transformational experience’ (of the risen-slaughtered one) just 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, a ‘reactor’, or (thank you James Loder) an asymmetrical relational unity in which the God who doesn’t need us (i.e., who creates freely, ex nihilo) refuses to be without us:
Needing nothing, you create me.
Wanting nothing, you desire me.
Full beyond measure, you pursue me.
Absolute, you invite me in.
As I read Alison, I began to wonder what it would even mean for a Christian believer to know and relate to Christ – a living person – solely (or primarily, or centrally) within the event of his death. One can’t “know” a dead person. One only “knows” the living – as living. So we only ‘know’ Christ crucified by knowing the risen Jesus. This is not merely to say that we only know what his death means as we contemplate it from his resurrection, though that is true. It also means it is only in experiencing him as risen and living that we experience the virtuous reality of his death.
I’m not sure how to unpack this for any so-called cruciform hermeneutic, but it seems to me that “knowing Christ and him crucified” doesn’t at all amount to making a particular understanding of the Cross the center around which one reads the Scriptures. Perhaps I’m missing the point because I’m more teleological-minded and more concerned with the concrete (existential) nature of transformation. When I read 2Cor 2.2 I see Paul resolving upon a kind of experience in light of alternatives being pursued by some Corinthians (some gnostic-leaning, some with an over-realized eschatology, some believing they had already realized an angelic-resurrected form of existence). It doesn’t seem to me that he is here thinking of a way to interpret the Old Testament as much as he is simply identifying the Jesus of his experience to be the real, historical Jesus. The Corinthian gnostic might claim, “I know Christ who ____” and fill in the blank with an attempt to define who Jesus is and what his life means apart from the event of his death. To this Paul resolves (2Cor 2.2) upon identifying the real, historical, embodied, Jesus as the living Jesus he worships and knows. He’s not advancing a hermeneutic per se. He’s advancing the identity of the risen Jesus of the Church’s faith with the historical, crucified Jesus. It is the Church’s experience and worship of the risen-slaughtered One which forms the center of how we read the Bible.
While I think Alison’s points address my concern regarding 2Cor 2.2, I think he says far more which I hope to reflect upon in due course.