God takes responsibility for sin – or not.

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

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

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

Or here:

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

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

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

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

  • The eruption of evil was inevitable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All that said, let me shift directions here —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The difference between “appearing to” and “being seen”


Alex Grey’s artwork can be unsettling. I keep coming back to it, however, not in a freak-show kind of way, but because his work silences me and makes me reflect in such positive ways (on the meaning of existence, the essential connectedness of all things, the transcendent presence of the One doing the seeing, etc.). Sometimes a work of art will inspire my thoughts. Other times I have thoughts that inspire the choice of a particular picture. With this post it’s the latter. I went looking for an image that would capture my thoughts and – no surprise in this case – Alex Grey came to mind.

There is a difference between “appearing to” and “being seen.” The latter is consistent with being a passive object of perception. I can be seen without permitting it, without even knowing it. God cannot be seen (objectified) in this passive sense.

The only way to see God is to see him seeing you

…to have him “appear to” you, to apprehend him through the experiencing of being apprehended by him. But radical, gracious givenness infinitely precedes every progress we make toward beatific vision, which is always a “being seen.” It’s meant to unsettle us. If it doesn’t, then you’re mistaking something created and finite for God, which is what we give the name idolatry to.

We are thought by him, not he by us. Our best ‘third-person’ reflections (what we call “God-talk”) are really only vestiges of a divine invitation preceding our first thought, crumbs left to guide the hospitable and seeking heart on a journey that ends with us in full view of him, not him in full view of us, where we discover that finding him is to find oneself apprehended by him.

The same is true with the resurrected appearances. Christ “appears to” but is not passively observed. Christ gives himself to be seen. He is, to borrow Robinette’s phrase, “tactile and transcendent.” Because the resurrected Christ is the end and fulfillment of Creation, because he is the Age to Come, because the resurrection does not return him to his former state of existence, the entirety of his embodied existence becomes the Eschaton. He cannot “be seen” passively by this present age, “uncovered” by us. The Eschaton cannot be spied upon. This reversal is a spiritual exercise – a learning how to “be approached” instead of “approaching.”

The loss of control is unsettling. Like a Grey painting, it overwhelms our horizons and perspectives. When you see that your seeing is a ‘being seen’ (graciously and benevolently), there remains no place or location in the painting that affords your perspective any measure of autonomous control. You are beheld, and in being beheld become beholden to the immeasurable love that sees you and all things.

This is what I take ‘apophaticism’ to be, without which being seeing gets reduced to our seeing, and that gets the creator-created order of grounding, nature and grace, creation’s freedom and final end, entirely (and despairingly) backwards.

The risen Christ a saturated phenomenon—Part 1


Adam Friedman

Robinette (Grammars of Resurrection) appropriates Marion’s work in understanding the resurrection of Christ. I’d like here to share Robinettes’ summary Marion’s notion of “saturated phenomena” and then follow up with a second post showing how Robinette understands the Resurrection to be a “saturated phenomenonpar excellence.

Always in the encounter with the risen Christ is he acknowledge in the midst of alterity, as a stranger, in the mode of transcendence, and thus in the mode of “absence.” But again, this “absence” is not a result of a weakness in the given. It is the result of an excess. In the same way unadjusted eyes see darkness when flooded with light, the perceptual absence in the resurrection narratives is the correlate to the eschatology surplus of Jesus’ risen presence, which cannot be objectified or reduced to a single horizon of perception. This paradoxical relationship is the ultimate key for understanding the resurrection narratives in their extant form… [Bold mine – love the analogy]

Here I enlist the work of Jean-Luc Marion whose study of givenness and sketches of saturated phenomena will prove helpful in exploring the eschatological signs of Jesus’ resurrection, i.e., how they are uniquely disclosive of a “presence” that, in its eschatological (excessive) givenness, remains “absent” from the witnesses whose capacity for representation remains saturated.

In setting up a strategy for sketching the characteristics of saturated phenomena, Marion adopts Kant’s categories of quantity, quality, relation, and modality to show how each becomes overexposed. A broader concern for Marion is to show how the a priori conditions for experience and thought in Kant’s philosophy (and by extension much modern thought) are too restrictive to account for phenomena that, rather than conforming to the subject’s power of knowing, greatly exceed it. Marion is troubled by how the “turn to the subject” so frequently valorizes the knowable over the un-known, the visible over the in-visible, the objectifiable over the non-objectifiable, the conditions of the possibility over the im-possible.

The saturated phenomenon, according to Marion, refers to “the impossibility of attaining knowledge of an object, comprehension in the strict sense,” not “from a deficiency in the giving intuition, but from its surplus, which neither concept, signification, nor intention can foresee, organize, or contain.” [“In the Name: How to Avoid Speaking of ‘Negative Theology’” in God, the Gift, and Postmodernism (1999).] As a result of its excessive givenness to perception and intuition, the saturated phenomenon makes definitive and stable conceptualization impossible. It is always “more than,” disclosive of a depth dimension or in-visibility that cannot be fully grasped by the subject’s objectifying intentionality. Such phenomena would require rethinking the “subject” as our primary starting point—particularly its pretension to self-constitution and conceptual mastery—and to begin instead with the givenness of phenomena as they given themselves to intuition.


But what phenomena might we imagine as saturating the subject in this way? Kant himself provides an initial clue with the experience of the beautiful. Whereas Kant typically regards intuition the weaker in arriving at conceptual knowledge, aesthetic experience is said to engulf the power of thought so that the “representation of the imagination furnishes much to think, but to which no determinate thought, or concept, can be adequate.” Marion comments: “The impossibility of the concept arranging this disposition comes from the fact that the intuitive overabundance no longer succeeds in exposing itself in a priori rules, whatever they might be, but rather submerges them. Intuition is no longer exposed in the concept; it saturates it and renders it overexposed—invisible, unreadable, not by lack, but indeed by an excess of light.” [Marion, Being Given]

Take the example of listening to music. In the opening moments of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, even though the listener has settled in to enjoy the musical performance, and while the listener may already be quite familiar with the piece, the first reception of its givenness to the senses is truly magical. A sudden upsurge of intuition floods comprehension and leaves the listener without the ability to fully comprehend, though the effect is delight. The “sonorous mass…comes upon me and submerges me,” leaving me “belated” to the “deployment of this becoming.” [Being Given] The actual event of music is always surprising, something I cannot fully anticipate. It is something to which I respond and follow. “I” am not coincident with the piece as listener but a witness to its givenness. To be sure, I discern patterns and intelligence. I follow the musical story it tells through tonal and temporal tensions and resolutions. Without being able to describe it in the least, the piece of music may be remarkably satisfying in its supreme musical sense. It is not unintelligible but inexhaustibly intelligible. It generates much greater intuition than I can possible objectify through concepts and words. Herein lays the delight of its astonishing, beautiful unfolding. I am “caught up” in the piece, “outside” of my self in ek-stasis. What is occurring is an event in which I am transported. In the “play” of music I am moved to a kind of “self-forgetfulness,” with self-forgetfulness being the “positive possibility of being wholly with something else.”

Or consider the event of beholding the beautiful form presented in painting. Although it may be possible to consider a painting as a “thing,” made up of elements like wood, gold leafing, canvas, paint, and so forth, it is not primarily the painting’s thingness in which the beauty consists. The beautiful form does not present itself as merely something ready-to-hand, an object for instrumental use, but gives itself as an appearing of unsuspected depth Beauty discloses itself in the visible but never as strictly visible or completely objectifiable. It remains in-visible in its “crossing of the visible”:

060502-01015075[T]o see it as a painting, in its own phenomenality of the beautiful, I must of course apprehend it as a thing (subsisting, ready-to-hand), but it is precisely not this that opens it to me as beautiful; it is that I “live” its meaning, namely its beautiful appearing, which has nothing like to it, since it cannot be described as the property of a thing, demonstrated by reasons, or hardly even be said. What is essential—the beautiful appearing—remains unreal, an “I know not what,” that I must seek, await, touch, but which is not comprehensible. [Being Given]

The beautiful, writes David Bentley Hart, is objective, not in the sense that it concerns “things,” but in its precedence to the response it evokes. “There is an overwhelming givenness in the beautiful, and it is discovered in astonishment, in an awareness of something fortuitous, adventitious, essentially indescribable; it is known only in the moment of response, from the position of one already addressed and able now only to reply.” [Hart, Beauty of the Infinite] Beauty appears in “distance,” or better, it gives distance. What is beautiful opens up a space for its inexhaustible beholding, an infinity of perspectives. “And because the surplus of ‘meaning’ in the beautiful consists in and urges attention toward this infinite content of distance, it allows for ceaseless supplementation: it is always unmoored, capable of disrupting stable hierarchies of interpretation, of inspiring endless departures and returns, and of calling for repetition and variation; it releases a continual distribution of meaning across the distance.” [Beauty of the Infinite]…

There are many other examples of saturated phenomena Marion examines in his works, including memory, birth, death, the experience of one’s own body, erotic love, and the interpretation of a text. But we should briefly consider one more, since it strikes important ethical keys.

Drawing upon the work of Emmanuel Levinas, Marion shows how the encounter with another person, “the face’ of the Other, is saturated in its givenness. Visible yet inexhaustible in its irreducible depth, the face of the Other (his or her alterity) breaks in upon my egoic self-sameness (ipseity) and calls me to hospitality and responsibility. The Other is no objectifiable thing, something to be comprehended within a conceptual category such as humanity, society, ethnicity, gender, or nationality. To reduce the Other to strict visibility or comprehension in this way constitutes an act of violence. Persons are not “things, “commodities,” or “parts” within a broader totality. The Other is an unsubstitutable revelation, illimitable and irrepressible in his or her self-gift. The Other reverses my gaze in a “counter-experience.” In beholding the Other, I see one who sees me, as thus one who returns my gaze through different eyes. Here I am not a self-constituting “subject” regarding some “object,” but a “witness” to an Other who calls me into an ethical relationship. “For as face, he faces me, imposes on me to face up to him as he for whom I must respond…. I have received (and suffered) a call [un appel]. The face makes an appeal [un appel]; it therefore calls me forth as gifted. My very sense of self is in fact given to me by the Other. My “being” is a “being given.” The pretension to immediate self-presence is an illusion. I encounter myself only in mediation, in a multitude of face-to-face relations with Others who call me from the confines of egoic existence. Despite our persistent efforts to think of ourselves in terms of a transcendental ego gazing upon the world from a position of nowhere, the order of manifestation which phenomenological research unveils shows again and again that alterity precedes and radically conditions every sense of “mineness.”

(To be continued)

Nous Christou

imageThe Spirit so radically expands the horizons of awareness, of space and time, of life and death…that such reductionistic notions become almost trivial. Thus it should be stressed that the main thrust of 1 Cor. 2 is not negative but overwhelmingly affirmative. It is not to denigrate nous or mind but to proclaim what is in the nous Christou [the mind of Christ]. It is here that one sees and participates in “what eye has not seen and ear has not heard.” What has not entered into the human mind, God has prepared for those who love him. This is open to those whose spirits, in agreement with the Holy Spirit, search out the deep things of creation and of God, and whose relationship to God preserves the vital relationality that marks them as bearers of the image of God. To be endowed by the Holy Spirit with the nous Christou is not other-worldly, but it is instead to perceive and to behold this world as if for the first time because it is knowing the world through the Logos, the One through whom all things have been made. The natural order then becomes, remarkably, the creation of God in which every moment is sustained by God’s grace alone.

James Loder, The Knight’s Move

The coincidence of loving and being loved

unity-rhiannon-marhiFellow Californian Rhiannon Marhi combines captivating colors and themes that settle the heart down and help it find its center where all is gift – where one experiences oneself most fundamentally as graciously gifted. It’s popular (and correct, I think) to argue that beauty describes a more fundamental, more primal mode of knowing than language. That’s why ‘ineffable’ doesn’t imply ‘irrational’ or ‘meaningless’. When I find a great quote, I think of what it would look like if it were painted. Nicholas of Cusa’s quote here speaks of self-knowledge as coincident with knowledge of being loved by God. I thought that quote sounds like Marhi’s painting appears.

“The likeness which seems to be created by me is the Truth which creates me, so that in this way, at least, I apprehend how closely I ought to be bound to You, since, in You, being loved coincides with loving. For if in You who are my likeness I ought to love myself, then I am exceedingly bound to do so when I see that You love me as Your creature and image.” (Nicholas of Cusa, 1401-1464 CE)

The risen-slaughtered one

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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.

lamgods_gent modifiedNow 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.