The Joy of Being Wrong

alison

Back in the late Spring I found myself reading James Alison, partly from having stumbled into references of him in other books and finally through a friend’s recommendation. I’ve post portions of him here and here. I’m presently reading through his The Joy of Being Wrong (his PhD dissertation), a work of theological anthropology appropriating Girard which “looks at original sin in the light of the Resurrection.” I’m gripped by it and quite moved, not half way through it. This evening I was especially moved by the following passage that zeros in on what ought to be the heart of how we understand the human predicament from which Christ rescues us. Enjoy!

…the sense of the self, the être [“other”]…is always received as a given, when when that preceding givenness, or the reception, is seriously marred by violence of circumstance, or paternal incompetence or ill will. The relationship between the être as received and as acquired by more or less violent appropriation is at the heart of the theology of original sin.

The description I have given leads to an understanding of the human self, the “me” of each of us, as being an unstable structure, one that is changeable, malleable, and other-dependent, whether it likes it or not. The other is always anterior to “me.” It also means…first, that it is desire which engenders the “me” and which brings it, by its movement, into existence; and, second, that desire is mimetic, that is, it moves in imitation of the desire of another.

Since the “me” of each one of us is founded by desire, we cannot say that desire is our own, as though it belongs to some preexistent “me.” It is the other way around. The “me” is radically dependent on the desires whose imitation formed it. This means that there is no “real me” at the bottom of it all, when I’ve scrapped away all the things I’ve learned, all the influences I’ve undergone. Psychology is what goes on between people, not, in the first place, in any particular individual. Having grasped this is what permits Girard…to talk of an interdividual psychology. In more accessible terminology this means that psychological facts have to do with relationships. Psychological problems have to do with broken or disturbed relationships, and psychological wholeness has to do with restoring and mending broken relationships.

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We have, then, in any given human being, a self formed by the desire of another. That desire is lived in rivalistic inflection, what I have called desire of grasping or appropriation. We also have the discovery that the possibility of the existence of any desire at all was an anterior desire that is in no sense rivalistic, which we call the creative love of God. The gratuity of God’s love works precisely and only as self-giving; working to produce in each human a capacity to accept—as purely gratuitous—the self-giving other. The permanent self-giving is more than an offer of self-giving, it is self-giving itself, but it can never be lived as self-giving by humans who grasp and appropriate the other. Grace can be lived only as something permanently gratuitously received. The great anthropological transformation, therefore, is of the way in which we move from being constituted by an anterior desire which moves us into deadlock, by grasping and appropriating our sense of being, to being constituted by a self-giving other than can be received only as constantly and perpetually self-giving, as gratuitous, and therefore never grasped, never appropriated, but only received and shared. If it is true to say that it is more blessed to given than to receive, this is because we are the sort of creatures who can only properly (gratuitously) give as part of an imitation of a gratuitous reception. Real giving and real receiving are a mutually structuring reality. We are talking of the person who is beginning to be empowered to move from feeling that society, the others, owe him something, toward being able to be toward other people—to act out for them—what they think is owed to them.

treegift

What this means is that the gratuitous self-giving of God is always present contiguous to, and subversive of, any given now, and it is the gratuitous presence which has made itself explicit in concrete human historical circumstances. It is not universal human self-transcendence which makes itself explicit in the events and narrations of salvation, but the universally present self-giving of God, enabling us to become receivers, rather than graspers, of the other which forms us, revealed as purely gratuitous. The problem between intrinsicist and extrinsicist accounts of grace is not a problem, in the first place, of the theology of grace, but one of the anthropology of reception. The dilemma between grace as somehow “owed” to a human and grace as somehow “already imbued in the human” shows that the discussion is taking place entirely within an anthropology of grasping and appropriating and is not focusing on the necessary gratuity of the transformation into gratuitous receivers of what remains lived in gratuity. One of the things revealed by the doctrine of original sin is that it is our capacity to receive gratuitously that was damaged in the fall; not our capacity to receive, because we have to receive in order to exist, but our capacity to receive gratuitously, which is the only way in which we can share in divine life, because that life can never be other than gratuitous. (Bold mine)

Can we then talk of a universal desiderium natural, natural desire, for God? Well, once again, only as a result of the acceptance of the revelation that the real source of the anteriority which forms us is a purely nonrivalistic, self-giving desire (love). What we have without that faith is a construction of desire that never breaks out of circles of appropriation and exclusion. It would be wrong to call that desire a natural desire for God [Tom: In Alison’s terms perhaps not “natural,” but natural nonetheless in the sense that what Alison says is the “source” of that desire (divine desire/love) is not the past event of God’s having created the world, but the abiding, presence of that desire as God creatively present in sustaining us]. We might properly call it a natural desire for being, but an idolatrous desire being, since we are incapable of merely receiving being. So we go to idolatrous lengths to shore up our fragile sense of being, being prepared to sacrifice the other to save our “self.” What we can observe is that, in any given historical instance, our desire is for things which have become obstacles to God precisely because they are desire appropriatively, by grasping. It is in the transformation of our receptivity that our desire becomes a desire from and for God and is discovered to be such not as something plastered over our distorted desires, but as the real sense behind even those distorted desires, as something anterior to them. It is in this sense that we become sons and daughters of God as we discover that our belonging to, our being held in being by, the other is more secure and original a way of being in the world than our grasping and appropriating things. The tourist grasps and appropriates on his way through, because he knows that these things, these sights, will not be his tomorrow. The dweller in the land does not need to hold on to them, because she knows that they will be there tomorrow, and it is they that have formed her, not she who possesses them.

There are hints in this passage of a more extended treatment by Alison in this chapter that challenges any transcendental reading of desire, the sort of implicit, teleological orientation of desire toward God that one finds defended by David Bentley Hart for example. I’ll do a separate post of Alison’s position on this. It’s one aspect of his anthropology I would disagree with. But overall, Alison has recast the ‘original sin’ discussion for me in a powerful way.

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Texts in travail: reviewing Crucifixion of the Warrior God—Part 5

crossvisionSomeone recently shared with me a review of Greg’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God written by Emory U grad student Collin Cornell and published by the Christian Century. The sheer size of CWG (1,400 pages) places high demands upon any reviewer. Ted Grimsrud over at Peace Theology is 15 posts into his review and he’s just over half way through it. Cornell, however, reviews Cross Vision, a condensed version of CWG published a couple months ago. He comes at things from an interesting perspective that I haven’t run into in any of the reviews I’ve read thus far, and I thought I’d like to engage that perspective a bit. I’m not, however, taking this up to further review CWG.

Cornell expresses admiration for Greg’s vision and pastoral concern as well as his Chris-centered focus, and he does a good job of summarizing Greg’s main points, but it is his responses to Greg that interest me. As I read him, Cornell’s main points are these:

First, on the whole, Greg’s view doesn’t comport with Cornell’s experience of reading the OT. Greg often shares the story of a woman who found it impossible to love and worship the violent God depicted in the OT and whose faith was saved after learning from Greg of a way to avoid attributing such violence to God. Without wanting to ignore the problem passages, Cornell nevertheless feels that Greg represents a very one-sided vision of God as he’s depicted in the OT. Cornell explains:

To this charge of theological error on a nearly testamental scale, my first objections is simply this: I have found the God of the Old Testament stunning—beautiful and worthy of worshipand not just in the handful of passages that Boyd approves. I got into studying the Old Testament by reading a mentor’s paper on the golden calf story. In that debacle of human idolatry at the very moment of covenant making, in God’s rage and Moses’s intercession, in God’s final, precipitous new commitment to stay loyal to God’s people—I met a God I recognized: the one who absorbed the anguish of ultimate rejection and then, three days later, moved toward impossible new loyalty yet stronger than death. More than that, I felt I understood more deeply the tempestuous drama of divine long-suffering and human recidivism at the core of the Christian confession. The same held true for other texts of this older testament: far from being false and sub-Christian, I perceived in them a vast, continental theological consonance with the God made known in Jesus Christ.

Fair enough. There are many religious believers whose view of God is not disturbed by the violence attributed to God in the OT. But in fairness to Greg, part of his vision in CWG is precisely to provoke or awaken a sense of disturbance about these passages. How successful Greg is at this depends in part upon how readers respond to God contemplate as doing and commanding such violence. If no discontinuity is generated on an affective level, then so be it. But for those who can’t integrate such violence with the truth of God revealed in Christ, the question of how God is present within Israel’s Scriptures is acute. Cornell continues:

This is not to shrug off the troubling theology or ethics of the Old Testament. But it is to contend that the Old Testament holds more (and much more) than just such troubles. This is more than Boyd seems to grant…he treats these books and the Old Testament at large as an almost unrelenting train of horrors….

I didn’t get the sense that Greg painted a picture of the OT as cancerous through and through with a merely violent view of God. Greg recognizes within the OT a portrait of God as good, merciful and loving, and he’s eager to grant that this comports entirely with the character of God revealed in Christ. But since Greg’s task is to awaken people to to the discontinuity between this portrait and violent portraits, it’s only natural that his emphasis falls on the latter and how such passages cannot, in any simple or straightforward way, be harmonized with the gracious portrait of God found in the OT. That’s part of Greg’s project, to establish the incompatibility between God’s being the kind of God revealed in Christ, on the one hand, and also the subject of the violence and genocide attributed to him by OT texts. So for Greg it’s not whether the OT contains both motifs or themes (it does); it’s whether being found in the text alone tells us that both types of passage reveal God in the same way.

Secondly, Greg’s view has unacceptable consequences for our understanding of Judaism. Cornell comments:

Besides the fact that this view of the Old Testament does not comport with my own reading experience—nor that of many Christians in many generations—it may also yield unsettling results for a Christian theology of Judaism. Boyd considers all of God’s instruction given to Israel on Sinai and gathered up in the Pentateuch as a sprawling instance of divine condescension: “the law-oriented portrait of God, which constitutes a foundational aspect of the OT, is a divine accommodation”—and so a product of human projection that God did not in fact do or reveal. Boyd radicalizes, as it were, Paul’s claim that the law was “ordained by angels” (Gal. 3:19) and ascribes it in effect to those “a little lower than angels.” So, too, does Boyd humanize “all depictions of Yahweh as uniquely belonging to Israel.” For him such depictions are theological falsities, which God with Christlike humility deigned to tolerate.

…Boyd is alert to the problem; the final appendix of his two-volume work defends his approach against the accusation of supersessionism. But Boyd seems to understand the term narrowly: he condemns the idea that Jews are under God’s wrath and he renounces replacement theology. What he does not comment on is the extent to which Judaism knows God—or does not. Could it be that in Boyd’s view, Judaism knows God only slightly, since it treasures a testament so saturated with theological untruth?

From my own reading and review, I didn’t sense that Greg denied OT believers truly knew God, or that God is not truly revealed in the OT. However, the extent to which – and, indeed, how – Israel’s Scriptures reveal God is something determined Christologically. In one sense, there really is an inherent incompleteness to the OT. The OT cannot stand alone. Christ is where Israel’s calling and history tend. The OT is meant for Christ, and until it is read in/through Christ, its meaning remains unfulfilled, uncovered. For Paul there is no usefulness to the OT texts outside of Christ (cf. 2Cor 3.7-18 where Paul contrasts the OT with Christ). This usefulness for teaching, rebuking and correcting is, thus, Christologically shaped. The OT can contributed to the formation of Christlike character and to empower the doing of good works when read Christologically. That’s its purpose. So in response to Cornell, yes, God is “slightly known” prior the advent of Christ and the bestowal of the Spirit in the sense that any anticipation fails to embody the fuller reality of what is to come.

Lachish-battering

Thirdly, Greg’s view undermines our ability to trust God’s promises. Cornell expresses a further concern:

Boyd means for his book to cleanse the theologically polluted imagination of Christian readers and to catalyze a breakthrough of trust in God. But trusting in God means trusting in God’s faithfulness to abide by God’s promises. And Boyd has placed a large question mark—if not a strikethrough—over God’s promises to Israel. Boyd’s regimen of Sachkritik systematically doubts the veracity of the Old Testament vis-à-vis the character of God. This makes it nearly impossible to utter an “Amen” to all God’s past promises that are “Yes” in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). For Boyd, Christ does not so much fulfill God’s promises and match God’s character, known already from Israel’s scriptures, as reveal a previously unknown (or half-unknown) God.

Boyd’s proposal also casts a shadow over God’s faithfulness to New Testament promises. The fires of theological criticism, once kindled, will hardly stay contained to one testament. Boyd realizes this. He writes: “Since we are dependent on the NT for our knowledge of God’s definitive revelation in the crucified Christ . . . one [might] question how we can be assured that God did not have to accommodate aspects of the NT authors’ fallen and culturally conditioned worldview.” In fact Boyd admits in principle that God could have made such accommodations: perhaps the New Testament, too, falls into theological error, which God endures with Christlike silence. But Boyd does not in actuality think that this occurred, and he apologizes vigorously for New Testament texts that appear to promote chauvinism or violence.

I wonder if Greg does think this has happened in the NT. Would his reading of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) and the blinding of Elymas (Acts 13) count as an example? Cornell continues:

I say, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander: theological criticism cannot be set loose on one testament and muzzled for the other. Rather we must acknowledge that in whatever ways the Old Testament is caught up in human fallenness and cultural specificity, the New Testament is also.

Cornell is quite right. The NT authors are just as fallible and culture-bound as the OT writers, and so are not exempt from the limitations and constrains of a ‘dialectical inspiration’. And though I don’t pretend to speak for Greg, I think Greg would agree. So Greg will have to explain how he integrates that fallibility into his view of NT texts. For myself, I’d suggest that where the OT witnesses to divine acts of deliverance and judgment, the NT witnesses to a fundamentally different kind of divine act (Incarnation). Christ is God-incarnate, personally present. Nothing roughly parallel to this is being testified to by any OT text. The revealing act in the NT, then, is not a text per se, but the personal presence of God as Christ. This in turn shapes something of the ‘dialectic’ at work in NT vs OT texts (see my Inspiration the presence of final causality). As Heb 1.1 suggests, God spoke in many different ways in the past, but now he has spoken [finally, definitively] to us in his Son. While NT authors remain fallible and not exempt from individual errors, the apostolic deposit reflects an entirely different sort of relationship between those who testify, on the one hand, and the divine act being witnessed to, on the other. God incarnated, in part, because the divine voice in the OT was dependent upon human fallibilities in a way not so dependent in Christ. In Christ, God ‘speaks for himself’, we might say, and that closes the interpretive gap at play in the ‘dialectic’ that defines divine inspiration.

Moreover, I don’t think Greg is guilty, as Cornell suggests, of “placing a question mark over God’s promises to Israel.” What I read Greg as saying is that Christ defines what God’s genuine promises in the OT even are. Christology redefines the question. No longer do we simply ask ‘What the the OT text explicitly promise?’ Rather, on what basis do we determine the nature and scope of God’s promises in the OT texts? Greg is arguing that Christ is how we define Israel’s traditions as divine promise. Christ reveals how well the OT approximates that promise and where it gets that promise right. Cornell and Greg may just disagree on this, but I’m not sure it means Greg doesn’t think we can trust God’s promises. It just means Greg limits God’s promises to Christ. “Christ is the end/telos of the law for all who believe” (Rm 10.4), and “no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘yes’ in Christ.” (2Cor 1.20) That said, even those OT texts that ‘get God wrong’ function as promisory notes that anticipate a revelation of God (Incarnate) who ‘gets God right’.

In the end, though, I’m unsure what Cornell does with the violence attributed to God in the OT. He explains:

“I can’t love the God who ever demanded massacre,” the woman in Boyd’s story said. But if God’s faithfulness authorizes the treatment of these other, particular texts as promissory, then the same may hold for violent passages; even texts about divine aggression could then signify something enduringly true about God and life before God. Such an approach would not bypass the difficult plain sense, but would look expectantly through it and beyond it.

I’m not sure what it means to say “God’s faithfulness authorizes the treatment of these [violent] texts as promissory.” How would Cornell retrieve that “something enduringly true about God and life” without appeal to Christ? How would the final truth “not bypass the difficult plain sense” when that plain sense is a divine command to commit genocide? How does one “look through and beyond” God’s actually commanding genocide? Cornell suggests, I take it, that the answer lies in spiritualizing the violent texts and reading them as a motivation to spiritual warfare:

Here, too, the history of interpretation furnishes precedents. As the Israelites traveled out of Egypt and toward Canaan, the Amalekites accosted them, and YHWH swore to make war against Amalek forever (Exod. 17). Jewish tradition saw in this seemingly very local occurrence the outline of a far larger and more persistent conflict. Amalek became an archetype for evil, such that the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, could advise, “We must wipe Amalek out of our hearts whenever he attacks.” And when I myself pray the psalm that asks God to “strike my enemies on the jaw” (Ps. 3:7), I do not think of concrete individuals—but of “our ancient foe, who seeks to work us woe” (as Luther’s hymn puts it).

But this leaves the problem unaddressed. The problem, as I understand Greg, is not how we can take God’s having actually done and commanded gross violence to be an “archetype” for the believer’s non-violent struggle against evil. The problem is God’s having actually done and commanded such violence. Does Cornell think God actually commanded Israel to commit genocide? I’m not sure. If yes, then spiritualizing the texts after the fact doesn’t address the fundamental problem Greg is concerned to awaken folks to.

Rivalry-free desire for God

GoodThief

I leave you with one last passage from Brian Robinette’s Grammars of Resurrection.

And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. (Acts 3:17-21)

This passage begins by insisting on our ignorance. The nature of this ignorance is vitally important to understand, for it is the same ignorance that underlies the doubt and misunderstanding among the disciples throughout the gospels, both before and initially after Jesus’ recognition. It is the ignorance described in John that kept the world from “seeing” the Logos made flesh. It is the ignorance Jesus names in his prayer to the Father from the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). We must understand that such ignorance is not a matter of insufficient information. It is not as though another piece of data would have helped to avert the crisis. When Jesus prays to the Father for his persecutors’ forgiveness, he is naming the impregnable deception buried in our hearts that distorts our field of perception so that we cannot see the truth when it appears to us. The obscurity of Jesus’ teaching and actions was not due to this attempt to communicate esoteric knowledge. His parables, aphorisms, apocalyptic utterances, and prophetic enactments were not attempts to impart secret gnosis. They were acts to jolt us out of the way we ordinarily perceive reality. They only appear oblique within our present horizons of intelligibility because our desires are disordered. “The disciples’ understanding was (and ours is) formed by what Jesus was trying to change: that is, the constitution of our consciousness in rivalry and the techniques of survival by exclusion of the other. Jesus’ ministry is explicitly intent upon reversing these techniques, of extracting people from building identities over against the Other, e.g., the sinner, the unclean, the maimed, the leper, the prostitute, the tax collector, the enemy, the prisoner, the victim, “these little ones.” Jesus’ “intelligence of the victim” is one that relentlessly takes the perspective of the Other – my potential victim – as the only truly human way to be a person. This is possible for Jesus because, above all, he follows the will of the divine Other.

Here is the primordial root of Jesus’ “consciousness,” should be wish to use this term: the will of the Father. Because Jesus lives in total transparence to God the Father, Jesus is the one who lives utterly free from rivalry with the human Other. Since Jesus is the one who lives utterly free from rivalry with the human Other. Since Jesus imitates God the Father, whose reality is utterly gratuitous, free from all rivalry as agapic Love – “unmoved” by mimetic rivalry, which is the true significance of God’s “impassibility” – Jesus is able to live among his sisters and brothers with utter freedom for them, without concern for his own identity. Jesus’ identity is not built upon contrasting relations with the Other, but in utter self-emptying (kenosis) for the Other. When Paul speaks of having “the mind of Christ” he is speaking of just this intelligence: “Let the same mind be in your that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8). The “mind of Christ” is one freed from rivalry with God, translucent to the divine Other, whose Otherness is received as total Gift rather than an obstacle to the project of becoming a self. Such loving kenosis resulted in Jesus’ death, not because death was positively willed by God as having value in itself, but because such unrestrained freedom is a world where rivalry and exclusion are rife is threatening and attracts resistance. The ignorance that led to the violent rejection of Jesus’ Kingdom of God ministry was at root a nexus of desires that, so far from desiring to live wholly for and from the divine Other as the possibility for living for and from the human Other, was configured to assert identity over against the Other Because Jesus set out to unmask and transform the underlying dynamics of human relations premised upon power and exclusions, drawing them out into the light through his saying and deeds of hospitality and judgment, he himself became a victim. But the faithfulness of the Father would have the last word. It is the world of resurrection: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (vv. 9-11).

This is the transvaluation of “values” at its most extreme. The “victim” is “Lord.” “This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone’” (Acts 4;11; Ps. 118:22). Jesus’ total fidelity to the Father results in a loving sacrifice to end all sacrifice. By raising him from the dead, God subverts the sacrificial process from within. This is the im-possible Gift: forgiveness from our victim, who is our “Lord.” “Christ shed his own blood to end that way of trying to mend our divisions,” writes Heim. “Jesus death isn’t necessary because God has to have innocent blood to solve the guilt equation. Redemptive violence is our equation. Jesus didn’t volunteer to get into God’s justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours.

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webkeyI love the construal of apatheia here. What is it about God that renders our desiring him free of all possible rivalry?

We can desire a food source, a spot of land, a human relationship, or any other finite commodity, resource, or provision and these all become occasions of rivalry, competition, and violence. But where we desire God completely and utterly, no rivalry emerges. Why? Not simply because the thing we desire in this case (God) is perfectly good, loving, and holy so that desiring him obligates us to conform to that standard. That sort of moralizing misses the point. Those who desire God are free from rivalry because there is no scarcity of the object desired. When we direct our desires to God, we possess (or are possessed by) what can be enjoyed by all equally without threat of loss. Rivalry becomes impossible because the end desired, being infinite, unceasingly satisfies. It infinitely exceeds our dispositions, and so God becomes “all in all” without percentage or division of distribution. Kierkegaard comes to mind: “Purity of heart is to will [desire] one thing.” St. Paul as well: “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” It is the content who are wealthy.

And yet, for our desires to possess God as end without possibility of rivalry, not only must God be infinite, he must also be rivalry-free. To say this brings us round to the question of the antecedent fullness of God’s own desires and to the crucial difference between our desiring God and God’s desiring us, a distinction that is at the heart of our articulation of divine apatheia. Only an infinitely fulfilled desire can be a rivalry-free source and object of desire. Though our desiring finite ends spawns rivalry in us, God’s desire for us finite creatures is not a finite desire, because — here’s the controversial part my passibilist friends will balk at — in desiring us, God is not desiring some finite end, but himself in us. We simply cannot be the end of God’s desiring us in the same way God is the end of our desiring him. Said more provocatively — not only is God’s desire for us ultimately an expression of God’s desire for Godself, but so also is our desire for God an expression of God’s desire for Godself, for from him, and through him, and to/for him are all things.

He has no power over me

Upper-Room

In my post “How Jesus viewed his Cross,” I explored statements Jesus made about his own suffering, statements which make it impossible to consider Jesus ‘godforsaken’ (“cursed” by God, per one reading of Gal 3.13, and “made sin by God,” per 2Cor 5.21). One stunning statement Jesus made on the eve of his lynching which makes this abandonment reading particularly suspect is relayed by John in 16.31-33:

“Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (emphasis mine)

Translate “leave me alone” for what it is: “abandon” or “forsake.” The passage is perfectly clear:

“You will all abandon me. Yet I am not godforsaken, for my Father is with me.”

This makes available for our transformation the saving truth that how God was with Jesus in his suffering is how God is with us in ours.

This week I ran across an equally stunning statement by Jesus, a statement I had earlier missed, in Jn 14.28-31 (esp. v. 30b-31),

You heard me say I am going away and I am coming back to you. If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe. 30 I will not say much more to you, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me, 31 but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me. (emphasis mine)

Jesus’ perspective is mind blowing. Consider three things:

First, Jesus takes the time to place his disciples’ despair and worries into proper perspective: “If you love me, you’d be glad that I’m going to the Father.” That they are overwhelmed with concern for their future reflects a certain failure of love. It is stunning to imagine that on the eve of his murder, Jesus expects his disciples to have a perspective on his departure that inspires joy; but only a love for Christ that is deeper than the world itself could see it this way. In any event, this is not a text you’re likely to hear preached on Good Friday, though Jesus preached it on Good Friday.

Secondly, the more instructive statement comes in v. 31b: “The prince of this world is coming, and he has no power over me.” He has no power over you? Really? He is getting you crucified, he will insert himself into the very essence of God and separate Son from Father, and will blow the divine mind by submerging it beneath the sum total of all the despair and godforsakenness creation has ever known. Sounds like “power over you” to a lot of folks. One interested in Jesus’ own perspective on his suffering, then, should take time to contemplate this passage (along with Jn 16.31-33). As horrific as Jesus’ suffering is, we misunderstand it completely when we construe it in terms of Satan’s enjoying any ‘hold’ or ‘power’ over Jesus, and yet a good deal of passibilist reflection upon the Cross, it seems to me, proceeds in precisely such terms.

Lastly, why does the prince of this world close in? Why does Satan descend with all he has upon this moment? I’m sure he has his own reasons. But from Jesus’ perspective, Satan comes – don’t miss it – “so that the world may recognize that I love the Father and do what he commands.”

I don’t know what to say. This has to be one of the strangest things you’re likely to hear in response to the question, “So, why did Satan close in on Jesus?” Had Jesus not made it explicit, I can’t imagine any theologian arriving at the conclusion that Satan’s role in silencing Jesus would be seen by Jesus simply as an opportunity for God to demonstrate through his life and death, within and in spite of the world’s fallenness, that God both knows and loves, and can be known and loved, unconditionally as Father in the worst imaginable places. Again – how God was with Jesus in his suffering is how God will be with us in ours.

Imagine – it if you dare (some don’t dare) – that on the eve of his lynching when Jesus contemplates the ordeal to come, he is first of all “glad” (certainly as “glad” as he expected his disciples to be) to be returning created being (via his own humanity) to its home in God, and secondly, he sees the ordeal to come as the quintessential opportunity for him not to be deconstructed by godforsakenness, but to deconstruct godforsakenness and free us from the power of every narrative of abandonment.

The risen Christ a saturated phenomenon—Part 1

Adamfriedman

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.

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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)

Then the ‘I’ receives itself

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“When around one everything has become silent, solemn as a clear, starlit night, when the soul comes to be alone in the whole world, then before one there appears, not an extraordinary human being, but the eternal power itself, then the heavens open, and the ‘I’ chooses itself or, more correctly, receives itself. Then the personality receives the accolade of knighthood that ennobles it for an eternity.”

– Soren Kierkegaard