The Crucifixion—Part 2

rutledgeI’m not going to attempt a review of Fleming Rutledge’s book The Crucifixion. I’m not capable of that. It’s not that one can’t summarize the heart of her project in a few paragraphs or a single post, but that would be like naming the peaks of a mountain range without mapping its descents and paths upwards. Rutledge’s book is a mountain range, captivating and inspiring (and, at times, concerning), and as thick a text of 600 pages of sincere, thoughtful reflection on the Cross as you will find anywhere. Even though I will describe points of disagreement, my disagreements in no way mean I’m finished reading and pondering this text. It’s the sort of work you return to over and over.

I hesitated to post disagreements when I attended more closely to the endorsements her book enjoys. Hauerwas, Fr Barron, Marilyn Adams, David Hart, and Robert Jenson, to name of few, all praise and endorse her work. So criticizing it, I thought, only runs the risk of turning out to be an embarrassing display of stupidity on my part. But since I write this blog as much for myself as for anyone else, perhaps it will help me clarify the issues and hopefully learn something in the process.

The Crucifixion divides into two parts. Part 1 describes the Crucifixion – its place of primacy at the center of the Christian story, the special nature of its suffering in Christ’s case (shame, ridicule, rejection, but more importantly godforsakenness and spiritual dereliction), and how the magnitude of this suffering corresponds to the gravity of sin and the depth of humanity’s spiritual predicament which Christ heals and puts right. Indeed, it is one of the several significant achievements of this book that it will not permit you to let go the relationship between these two: the magnitude of the sacrifice (nothing less than God estranged from God) on the one hand, and the severity of the predicament this sacrifice sets right on the other. Thus the key question for Rutledge: What does the method by which Jesus suffered tell us about the nature of our predicament? If God must suffer to heal and free us, how grave must be our sickness and enslavement? This question motivates Rutledge’s reflections from start to finish.

If we reason in this direction, Rutledge explains, we will be better guided to conclusions about what is actually happening on the Cross, and why it must happen as it did. The recurring refrain throughout is that ‘something truly is wrong with the world which must be put right’ (or “rectified”). The solution has to come on the level of the problem, on the stage of concrete material human existence and relations, and must as well be equal to the problem in magnitude. Thus, the godforsaken innocent Jesus on behalf of godforsaken guilty humanity. In conversation with Anselm, Rutledge awakens the sense of divine justice at work in the blessed exchange that occurs in and through the Cross on our behalf and at Christ’s expense. She’s concerned that too many Christians (I’m not sure who these are, she never identifies their representative voices) have effectively reduced Christianity to “forgiveness” or “repentance.” There is no appreciation for the depth and gravity of sin and its effects and no recognition of the cost justice requires to put things right. Her chapter on “The Question of Justice” explores why such reductions to forgiveness are completely inadequate. They’re inadequate because something is objectively wrong. Acquittal won’t do, Rutledge argues. That which is objectively wrong with the world must be rectified or put right. This involves a “proportionate justice.” Something of sufficient value is required to address the magnitude of our offense so that “justice can be seen to be done.” For Rutledge, justice is seen to be done in the descent of the Son of God into the utter dereliction of godforsakenness (which is the ‘just’ wrath of God as the natural consequence of our sin).

Part 2 unpacks this basic understanding of the Cross through a discussion of eight biblical motifs or themes, each motif shedding light on an aspect of the Cross as God’s putting right what is wrong. They are: Passover & Exodus, blood sacrifice, ransom & redemption, the Great Assize [Trial], apocalyptic war (or Christus Victor), the descent into Hell, substitution, and recapitulation. Each motif could comprise a volume of its own, and you best put your exercise attitude on when you read Rutledge because each of these discussions is a serious work-out. What I appreciate about Rutledge is that she exercises not just the speculative, philosophical side of Christian thought (even if she often stops short of pursuing such questions), but also the practical, lived, socially dynamic dimensions of faith. She brings a preacher’s passion with her and there are gems throughout.

Rutledge has no intention of producing a defense of penal-substitution (at least not in any of its cruder, objectionable forms). When she discusses “substitution,” for example, it’s primarily to establish the presence of that motif in Scripture. The ‘idea’ is present, so there’s no dismissing it’s role in shaping our understanding. Something more than mere forgiveness is at work in securing our healing and freedom. But thought she doesn’t interpret substitution in terms of Jesus inserting himself between us and an angry God to save us from a cosmic tantrum, she does see Jesus (indeed, the Trinity) as inserting Jesus between a loving Father’s wrath and us who deserve that wrath. Be ready for a host of very fine distinctions, lots of appeals to mystery, and repeated dismissals of philosophical and metaphysical objections on the grounds that, as Rutledge reminds readers, she’s a preacher and pastor, not a metaphysician. Some of this is fair. Some of it you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Nor does Rutledge suppose the Cross changes God’s attitude toward us. God’s attitude is unchanging in its favor and love. She argues the nonviolent, loving, freely offered — and where you might be inclined to supply the word “forgiveness” next, Rutledge finishes it with rectifying what’s wrong. What talk of “wrath” is present is interpreted in terms of the just and natural consequences of our sin. The wrath we suffer is just our sin itself, its existential dimension as the anxiety and despair which guilt produces in us. She recalls Anselm’s definition of final wrath as “inconsolable need” (a definition I like very much), a state of spiritual dereliction or godforsakenness. This is the “curse” we are under. Christ redeems us by substituting himself on our behalf and in our place under this curse, experiencing the spiritual dereliction and godforsakenness we deserve. The problem here, as we’ll see, is that there is no natural means by which the innocent Jesus may be brought into an experience of wrath as such. So one ends up, despite assurances to the contrary, grounding Jesus godforsakenness and spiritual dereliction in a positive decree of the Father.

All the margins of my copy are marked up with a range of responses, from “Amen!” “Yes!” and “Preach it!” (chiefly at those places she disavows aspects of the penal-substitutionary understanding of Christ’s suffering) to “I don’t think so” and “This doesn’t work” (beside passages that portray salvation in terms that reduce the Cross, to my mind, to essentially the same sacrificial economy behind the cruder, more objectionable models of the penal-substitutionary positions she rejects). She offers an essentially penal, substitutionary view of the work of Christ without the especially unsavory claims that the Cross effects a change in God’s attitude toward us, makes it possible for God to forgive us, or that Christ satisfies an angry God bent on extracting his pound of flesh.


What I’d like to do here is describe a few of Rutledge’s positions which I struggle with and why I believe they undermine her claim to have secured a truly nonviolent view of the Cross.

First—the hermeneutical primacy of the Cross
This comes first in the book so I’ll begin here. At the end of Ch 1 (“The Primacy of the Cross”), Rutledge summarizes:

“…the crucifixion is the touchstone of Christian authenticity, the unique feature by which everything else, including the resurrection, is given its true significance.”

This seems obviously mistaken. We have no access to the Cross apart from the resurrection, no pre-resurrection accounts of the Cross that establish its meaning and significance (apart from Jesus’ own statements about his cross, and they incline against Rutledge’s view, as we’ll see below). The gospels themselves are written after the fact and reflect a post-resurrection perspective on the significance of the Cross. There is simply no way conceptually to set the resurrection aside while one construes the meaning and significance of the Cross on other grounds which then become the basis for giving the resurrection its true significance. All the descriptions and motifs employed to proclaim the Cross are by definition already shaped by the resurrection. In the end, only the resurrected Jesus can tell us what his cross means.

I do not mean to suggest that the Resurrection ‘makes it all better’, or wipes away the gravity of the violence, or lessens the pain endured, or reduces the Cross effectively to the status of an existential speed-bump Christ cruises over happily on the way to resurrection. After all, there is also no resurrection without crucifixion. The resurrected one is the crucified Christ. (Thank you James Alison.) There’s no celebrating the life of the Risen One without entering into his suffering. However, the whole attempt to establish the primacy of the Cross by determining its meaning and then establishing the significance of other events, like the resurrection, relative to this meaning is a failed project from the start. Allow me to recall something from a previous post:

Am I suggesting that we replace the Cross with something else, the Resurrection perhaps, as “the” hermeneutical center? No. I’m suggesting 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 and one.

vanghohWhat 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 times, 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…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 independent of all other contributions…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. 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 the lens of the resurrection. 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.

Second—the Cry of Dereliction
The next few points of this post describe perhaps the most fundamental disagreement I have with Rutledge’s book, assuming I’m understanding her understanding of what actually constitutes Christ’s suffering. Rutledge’s understanding of the Cry is part and parcel of her understanding of 2Cor 5.21 (God make the innocent Jesus “to become sin”) and Gal. 3.13 (Jesus “became a curse”). Her view appears to be that Christ must suffer, not just “as a consequence of” our sin, but actually suffer “the consequence of” our sin, and this consequence is the wrath of God (understood as inconsolable need, viz., the anxiety and existential despair of estrangement from God). She has profound things to say about the deconstructing, dehumanizing design of Roman crucifixion and about the abiding gracious and loving disposition God always has for us. But, she notes (“Rejection and Dereliction”), the Cry demonstrates “the complete identification of Jesus with our compromised, indeed absurd, human condition,” that Jesus “embodies in his own tormented struggle all the fruitlessness of human attempts to befriend the indifferent mocking silence of space.” Christ “is suffering the curse and the defilement that would have fallen upon them—that is, upon us.” “God was separated from God—while still remaining God.” Jesus was “utterly cut off from his powers, from his Father, from any hope of redemption or victory” and therefore “suffered what the book of Revelation calls the ‘second death’…as our substitute.” This is an “interposition of the Son between human beings as the curse of God upon sin” where Jesus “exchanged God for Godlessness” and was made to be sin. “Does this mean that Jesus became his own Enemy?,” she asks “It would seem so.” Jesus entered into our condition as having no hope and without God in the world (Eph 2).

I should add that Rutledge does say that “for Paul, it is not God, but the curse of the law that condemned Jesus.” But I’m unable to do the math. Exactly how does “the Law” bring Jesus into an experience of spiritual dereliction and estrangement from God? But that the Law and “not God” condemns may be irrelevant. Rutledge adds:

There is considerable disagreement among theologians as to whether God actually forsook Jesus or not. Moltmann says yes, God forsook God – though he goes to great lengths to avoid splitting the Trinity or implying that God denies his own nature.

Rutledge appears to agree, “Moltmann’s argument is subtle and seeks to avoid the obvious pitfalls.” The point, she adds, is that “in the Godforsakeness of Jesus, God was involved.”

Readers here may have grown tired of my preoccupation with the Cry of Dereliction, but it really does get at the heart of what for many of us separates violent from nonviolent understandings of the Cross. I’ve argued at some length elsewhere that this narrative of godforsakenness is in fact part of the mythology of sacred violence God redeems us from.


It is of more than academic interest whether or not creation is “set right” by God surrendering the innocent Jesus to a state of spiritual dereliction and absurdity or by God’s allowing us, in the absurdity of our spiritual dereliction, to exhaust every resource of religious violence against Jesus.

Recall Jesus’ instructions the night before he died. He knows he will be abandoned and forsaken by others, even his disciples. He does not believe, however, that his Father will leave him alone – on any level. Jn 16.31-33 is explicit:

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.

Besides declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus intends his disciples to understand from his suffering that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground their own peace in their own upcoming afflictions. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how God will be with them in their suffering – precisely the opposite point which interpreters make who view the Cry as expressing Jesus’ utter spiritual dereliction and godforsakenness.

If one wonders where the violence is in the claim that Jesus “dies the second death” and suffers the despair of godforsakenness, one can approach an answer by asking how an absolutely innocent person can be brought into such an experience. More specifically, by what means is the innocent Jesus brought into an experience of the spiritual dereliction of being estranged from God? Who brings him into this experience? It can’t be any human being. Rutledge suggests that it is simply the Law, not God, that condemns. But how is ‘the Law’ to accomplish the sentence? It should be clear that only God can accomplish such a thing, perhaps by “giving Jesus over” to dereliction, or perhaps the Father “withdraws” himself from Jesus, removing from him that filial affection and affirmation of the Spirit that grounded Jesus very identity. But by whatever means, we’re describing a state of dereliction that only God can effectively accomplish. Jesus cannot bring it upon himself as each of does by sinful misrelation. It is only by an act of violence that an absolutely innocent man can be brought by God into the experience of godforsakenness which is God’s wrath.

Does it help to say that Father, Son and Spirit are in agreement that Jesus should suffer this particular form of abandonment? Does this suffice to establish the nonviolence of such a view? I don’t see how. What would a trinitarian agreement to plunge Jesus into into true spiritual dereliction even look like, and would it be sufficient at this point to appeal to mystery? Perhaps one only means that Father and Spirit relate to Jesus as if he was guilty while knowing his innocence. But that would reduce the very means by which we are saved to God’s relating to Jesus outside the truth of his innocence. We’d be saved by a kind of falsehood, and surely it is the truth (and God’s relating to Jesus within the truth of his innocence) that saves us.

We want instead to say (as Rutledge herself occasionally says) God stands on the side of the victim. We already noted Jesus’ belief that though all would leave and forsaken him, his Father would be with him. Consider also Jesus’ explicit denial (Jn 14.28-31, esp. 30b-31) that the prince of this world had any hold over him. “He comes,” Jesus assured his disciples, “so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me.” Are we disagreeing with Jesus over the question of whether he suffered estrangement and godforsakenness? Jesus assures us no such thing would occur and in fact offers what and how he suffers as a model of hope and confident for his disciples to participate in. To the extent we describe Christ’s sufferings as imparticipable by us, we make the Cross of Christ to be something it’s not.

What of 2Cor 5.21 and Gal 3.13? Must these not be read as describing just such a state of accursed godforsakenness? As we said earlier:

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

Regarding 2Cor 5.21, note the entire passage. If Christ suffers the godforsakenness we deserve as the consequence of our sin, then God was in Christ counting men’s sins against them, which is just the opposite of what Paul says takes place. And notice too that it is God (not the Law) who “makes Jesus to become sin.” This can only refer to God’s turning Jesus over to the violent, scapegoating mechanisms by which we (not God) identify the innocent victim with our sin and its consequences.

Part 3 to come, hopefully.


Jesus’ creative imagination

icon3I’m so thankful I’ve come into James Alison’s work, and especially to encounter in The Joy of Being Wrong his fullest articulation of the gospel in light of Girard’s insights. Besides the insights themselves, Alison articulates things simply and artfully, without undo complication or repetition. And apart from his slightly misinformed prejudice toward ‘transcendental’ thinking (which despite his objections cannot help but pop up here and there), he better describes what I’ve been aiming at for some time. Here’s a wonderful passage from Ch 9 (“The Trinity, Creation, and Original Sin”) that expresses well the trinitarian logic behind what had to be “inaugurated” by the Son – concretely, historically, paradigmatically – but brought to universal participatory reality by the Spirit. (Note: By “ecclesial hypostasis” Alison means the realization of the Son’s ‘personal’ identity in the Church.)

…By making of his going to his victimary death a creative and deliberate act Jesus is bringing into being a certain visible and contingent practice which is a creation in the obvious human sense of a work of art, something never before imagined or brought into being by any human interpretative and imaginative conception. The creative fulfillment of the Father’s creation is not the sudden bringing into being of some abstract and general universal which annuls the contingent telling of the human story. It is a creative bring into being of a particular and contingent practice which is itself to be the constant possibility of the untelling of the human story and the making of the human story bear the weight of creatively reflective the Father’s creation.

In bringing into being, then, this contingent practice, Jesus was literally creating the possible historical terms of reference by which the Holy Spirit could become a historical reality, and it is thus he who sends the Holy Spirit from the Father. In his going to the Father he has brought about the historical possibility in contingent, linguistic, practical, institutional terms which make it possible for the Father to send the Holy Spirit. The ecclesial hypostasis is the creative living out of the historical practice inaugurated by Jesus’ going to the Father: that is, the ecclesial hypostasis is the visibility of the Son’s sending of the Holy Spirit. This the Holy Spirit is the constant keeping alive of the practice inaugurated by the Son. The Spirit is the Spirit of Truth bringing into being, original creation, whose presence in this world takes the form of an advocate uncovering the lies of the world and defending the children of God who are being brought into being from the persecution of the Accuser, the liar from the beginning. So the Spirit keeps alive the historical practice inaugurated by the Son, turning that practice into the paradigm by which sin, righteousness, and judgment are to be understood. Sin is being locked into aversion to the possibility of the belief which Jesus is bringing into being: aversion to being drawn into a self-giving living out of desire made possible by Jesus’ having creatively forged a human living, unaffected by death. Righteousness is the love which brings into being by creative self-giving up to death because it is not moved by death. Judgment is the way in which this self-giving death reveals and thus brings to an end the lie of the necessity of victimary death which is the governing principle of this world.

pente1The Spirit, then, will make it possible for this paradigm to become creative truth. It makes constantly visible and keeps in practice creative possibilities inaugurated by the Son’s self-giving to death. It does this in such a way that we are always able to find our way forward from being children of the homicidal lie to being children of the Father. It is important that this being guided into truth be understood not to be an essentially negative thing, as though what is daring and creative is our involvement in the world and what the Holy Spirit has come to do is guide us back to our real origins and so permit us to be what we really are—the model of the return to the womb. The understanding at work here is exactly the reverse: our being guided into truth is our being opened into creative imitative use of the paradigm brought into being by the Son: it is truth that is daring dynamic reflection of God that is being brought into being. Compared to this, all the apparent creative darings of the world are so many stillbirths.

This, I suggest, is what enables us to understand something of the image of the woman in travail which we find in John 16:20-24. Jesus’ going to his death of course produces sorrow for the disciples and joy for the world. However, what Jesus is bringing about in his going to his death is like a woman in travail. In fact his going to his death is the constitutive labor pain by which creation is able to bring forth the children of God which had not been able to come to light while creation was under the order of “this world.” Jesus, the Son, is the human being who has always been coming into being, and now he really will come into being, through this labor pains, in the creative lives of the disciples who will manifest him. This is why they will ask nothing of him in that day, but will ask the Father in his name, because in that day they will be the son, the person of the son will have been brought to birth in them, and thus they can and will ask the Father directly. The joy which has been Jesus’ from the beginning will be theirs, because it is the joy of being the son, and is an unalienable part of the sonship which has been brought to creative fruition in them.

Later in this same chapter Alison further discusses the structure of Jesus’ creative imagination as the context and means by which Jesus transforms his victimization into the demythologizing of religious violence and sacrifice. By “creative imagination” Alison is not talking about the science of ‘right brain’ vs ‘left brain’ or the prophetic imagination so important to Israel’s religious experience and tradition, but the transforming presence in us of the historical truth of Christ’s way of life made accessible to us through his death/resurrection. Alison:

At this stage of our analysis there seems no way of getting around a particular feature of the Johannine witness. This is John’s sense of marvel at the extraordinary nature of Jesus’ creative imagination. It is not merely that John puts into Jesus’ mouth certain utterances of extraordinary boldness concerning his preexistence and so forth. What is more remarkable is that John depicts the structure of God’s creative process as the human creative imagination of Jesus…the creative content of an imagination that is in no way touched by death, how it is possible for a human imagination that is in no way marked by death to bring into being what amounts to the most prodigious human invention ever, the human structure by which what had appeared to be human nature is revealed, changed, and empowered to become something different.

Those who protest at the Johannine divine utterances concerning preexistence and unicity with the Father do not protest enough. Such phrases in themselves are positively innocuous compared to the grandeur of John’s comprehensive lying in behind them. Those who protest are perhaps locked unwittingly into the sort of Docetism or Monophysitism which they seek to denounce in these phrases, because they do not perceive that the real boldness of John’s conception is that all this divinity was made present as a human creative imagination…

The original man, then, with creative imagination intact because in no way shaded into futility by any sort of involvement with death, came among us and imagined into being the unleashing of the extraordinary possibility of our being allowed actively to share in that creative imagination and practice, bringing about our free creative movement into what we were originally to be.

Who, what and how are we?

man2I’ve encouraged friends to read James Alison’s wonderful book The Joy of Being Wrong. I’m not excited about it because I agree with every claim he makes, but because he articulates so well (in Girardian terms) what human (social) nature is, what salvation amounts to, and how this is all best read in light of the resurrection of Christ. Maybe it’s just because of where I am at the present moment, but I find Alison full of insight.

There will be plenty of opportunity to post passages I agree with. Let me start with an aspect of Alison’s work that I disagree with. In working out his anthropology (Ch 2), Alison rejects transcendental anthropology. A transcendental anthropology views human nature to be constituted as an implicit and irresistible orientation of desire for God. Not that God is always what we consciously or explicitly intend, but that desire is God-given and thus oriented Godward, that is to say, to find its fulfillment in God. This orientation of desire derives from the transcendent presence of God as the immediate ground and end of human being and all human desiring, as well as intrinsic teleology of created nature and the scope of every nature’s possibilities. Human rationality and desire are, you might say, hardwired for God. Think of desire as a kind of aesthetic gravity to consciousness, a ‘power of attraction’ that draws desire to its fulfillment. To say we transcendently desire God is not to say we never set our desires on things other than God; it is to say that in all our desiring, God remains the truest end and fulfillment of that desire and that all desire is truly fulfilled when we intentionally make God the end of all we do (Col 3.23-24).

That’s my understanding of transcendental anthropology at least. But Alison is suspicious of such talk. I’ll let him explain why (from various portions of his Ch 2) and then respond with a few reflections in an upcoming post. Alison writes:

This, of course, places us on a somewhat different course from any transcendental anthropology, which sees, as a matter of philosophical truth, the human being as imbued with a somehow experienced orientation toward grace and glory and therefore the concrete, contingent, historical acts of salvation (the prophets, the coming of Christ, the existence of the Church, the sacraments) as merely making explicit the universal availability of grace. In such a view, “the historical events, the human acts and images which can alone be the site of supernatural difference, are here reduced to mere signs of a perfect inward self-transcendence, always humanly available.

At this point it seems important to try to indicate why the transcendental element seems unnecessary in a fundamental anthropology…

I do not want to deny…that all Christian anthropology must posit that all humans are, just by the fact of being humans, called to participate in the divine life. However, it seems to me that this theological doctrine is an important human discovery made in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and is part of a discovery that we are, in fact, quite different from what we normally think we are. That is to say, the doctrine of the universal vocation to theiosis is itself part of the discovery of salvation as a difficult process worked out in hope, in which we hope to become something which we are not, or are scarcely, now.

If we detach the doctrine of the universal vocation to theiosis from the element of discovery in hope of something which contradicts our daily lived experience and turn it into a quasi-philosophical description of what we all are, inescapably, then we merely transform the doctrine of the security of salvation…into a universal philosophical principle. This means, in theological terms, that a subtle form of anonymous semi-Pelagianism, and thus shortcuts the way in which discovery of the universality of the call to theiosis is, for each of its participants, a radical conversion and part of the revelation of salvation.


Let me therefore try to set out the way in which the anthropology I have been trying to set out differs from this (and the answer is, only very, very slightly). The human being is constituted by what is other than himself or herself, and is always utterly related to this other which is anterior to himself or herself. The other I’m talking about is, of course, the human, social, cultural, material, environmental other proper to our planet. It is this other than has forged language, memory, will, and the capacity to relate to the other. So much might reasonably be recognized by anyone, independent of religious conviction. However, that is not to say that the anthropology I have been setting out could have been set out except from a theological perspective. In fact, it was a very particular set of contingent historical actions, lives, and circumstances that made it possible to perceive the role of the victim as foundational to human being, contingent actions involving a reversal of perspective on the relation of any one of us to that victim. That is to say, it was a particular set of historical events which made it possible fully to recognize the other which forms us. And it made it possible to recognize this precisely in the simultaneous act of revealing that there was a different sort of other that could form us in a different sort of way: that is to say, there is a different perspective on the founding murder than that which is connatural to us.

In this way, we can say that every human being is, in fact, constituted by and with an in-built relationality to the other which formed him or her. This other constituted the very possibility of human desire. We can also say that owing to the way in which we are in fact constituted, that desire is rivalistic and builds identity, to a greater or lesser extent, by denial of the alterity, and the anteriority, of the other desire. That is to say, human desire, as we know it, works by grasping and appropriating being rather than receiving it. In this sense, we are all always already locked into the other which forms us in a relationship of acquisitive mimesis, that is, in a relationship of violence which springs from, and leads to, death.

It became possible to understand this (in fact) not from natural rational deduction (though there is nothing inherently incomprehensible about it), but precisely because of the irruption of a novum into the midst of the social other which forms us, a novum which is a revelation of a different sort of Other, and Other that is completely outside any form of rivalistic desire and that made itself historically present as a self-giving and forgiving victim. This self-given victim, from outside human mimetic rivalry, revealed precisely that the death-locked lie of mimetic rivalry flowing from culture’s hidden victims is not the original mode of desire, but a distortion of it. That which was chronologically original (and seemed to us to be simply natural) is discovered to be logically secondary to an anterior self-giving and creative desire.

…The transformation of our “self” via our constitutive alterity happens not through some universal transcendence, but exactly through the givenness of certain particular historical actions and signs, moving us to produce and reproduce just such historical acts and signs.

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

In this sense I am completely in agreement with J. L. Segundo when he insists that it is quite wrong to see any human construction of values as implicitly pointing toward God simply because they are a human construction of values. Human desire is a good thing because it can in principle be drawn into the desire of God, precisely as human desire, and indeed we know from faith that it was for this that it was created. That does not stop the very condition of possibility of our desire of God (the human structure of desire) being lived without even an implicit reference to the pacific gratuitous other which can transform us into receivers of our being. It is possible for human desire to be lived as idolatry, as complete missing of the point (a “falling short of the glory of God”), an exacerbated desire for metaphysical autonomy, and thus a seeking to appropriate (rather than receive) life for the self, a living from death to death – running from our own death and causing that of others. In this way I hope it is possible to see that the theological anthropology which I have been setting out is in fact well suited to the basic insight of the liberation theologians that the choices is not between theism and atheism, but between the true God (the God of life) and idolatry. This is rather better suited, I would suggest, than a transcendental anthropology, which effectively pre-pardons idolatry without transforming the idolater, without giving him or her the chance of a real restructuring of heart.


One can see Alison’s main concerns:

  • First, a transcendental anthropology reduces the historical events of salvation history to “mere signs of a perfect inward self-transcendence” which are “always humanly available.”
  • Second, if grace is constitutive of created nature (defining its end and delimiting the scope of its possibilities), then theosis fails to be “the discovery of salvation as a difficult process worked out in hope” in which we “become something we are not.” That is, Alison believes transcendental anthropologies reduce the gospel to a “quasi-philosophical description of what we all [already] are” which he takes to be Pelagian. What we are meant to become, Alison maintains, requires events (Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection) that intrude within the natural order. They are not truths derived philosophically from what can be rationally deduced from contemplating nature, an “unaided outworking of a human dynamic,” for “nothing human could have revealed the constitution of the human consciousness in human victimization.” A radical novum is needed, a divine act which constitutes salvation as a gracious intrusion from outside the scope or reach of human rationality, as opposed to the natural unfolding of dispositions already present in us.
  • Third, it is obviously the case that we do in fact exhaust our desires idolatrously upon false ends “without even an implicit reference to the pacific gratuitous other which can transform us.”
  • Lastly, Alison suggests that a transcendental grace constitutive of nature would “pre-pardon idolatry” and leave us “without…the chance of a real restructuring of the heart.”

I’d love to hear what folks have to say about Alison’s objections to transcendental anthropology. I think he fundamentally misunderstands what is meant by those who see nature sacramentally as shot through with grace from beginning to end, but I’ll try to explore that in an upcoming post.

The Joy of Being Wrong


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

The road to Emmaus — and to better theological grammar

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

Robinette writes:

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Intelligence of the victim

Emmaus1I’ve mentioned James Alison (British Catholic theologian) before. I like the (Girardian) way he thinks, and he has a wonderful ability to discuss complex matters in a simple and enlightening way. I’ve also mentioned a few times being involved in a group discussion on Paul Hessert’s deeply challenging Christ and the End of Meaning. In this post the two come together. There’s an interesting comment Peter Rollins makes in this Youtube discussion of Hessert’s book in response to comments about Jesus predicting his upcoming death and resurrection. I’ve been giving his comments some thought.

Rollins is uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus faces death confident of the outcome, his resurrection. Rollins wants the most radical deconstruction possible of Jesus’ experience of himself and his world. The question comes at minute 15:20 in the Youtube above. The first guy who responds to the question (at 16:00) suggests he has “critical-historical” reasons for thinking Jesus couldn’t have predicted his own resurrection. Rollins follows that up (17:09 to 18:16) with a similar response, essentially saying that the gospel records of Jesus predicting his resurrection are attempts to find his death “meaningful,” hence the attempt to mitigate the scandal of the Cross begins in the NT itself. It seems that Rollins thinks the gospel accounts of Jesus predicting his resurrection are fabricated attempts by the early church to construe the Cross as meaningful, as part of a divine answer to human brokenness, and Christ’s death as something other than the absolute deconstruction of his identity, purpose, and hope. In Rollins’ view the message of the Cross was perverted rather immediately by the gospel writers themselves. What the Cross represents, Rollins appears to maintain, is something most Christians fail to admit, namely, an end to meaning, certainty, hope, identity, and purpose.

I’m still wading through Hessert’s book, and I’m unsure of whether his point is the same as Rollins’. But either way, this is an impossible – and unnecessary – sell: the gospel writers fundamentally misread the crucifixion along the lines of the Greek search for “wisdom” (knowledge) and the Jewish demand for “signs” (power), condemned by St. Paul, in a despairing attempt make sense of the world and address the deepest human desire for meaning and fulfillment. Jesus cannot have anticipated his own resurrection because that would mean his having endured the Cross within a framework of meaning not reducible to the despair, hopelessness, and meaninglessness that life inevitably confronts us with.

Enter James Alison. I was re-reading through his Knowing Jesus (1994). Much of his Ch. 2 relates to questions regarding the gospel accounts of Jesus’ predictions of his cross and resurrection. So I’m connecting Alison to Hessert. I earlier agreed that Alison strikes gold in arguing that any attempt to make a reading of the crucifixion “the” established center in light of which other events (Incarnation and the Resurrection for example) are only then to be interpreted is problematic, that crucifixion and resurrection are a single center – a single reality which is the center: Christ the risen-slaughtered one. On the one hand, only the resurrected Jesus can tell us what his death means. On the other hand, it is only as crucified that the living Jesus tells us anything.


By the “intelligence of [Christ] the victim,” Alison means a perspective, or framework of meaning and identity, outside of which Jesus never related to himself, to God or to the world. It is the ‘who’ that defined Jesus’ ‘why’ which the Cross could neither deconstruct nor negate. Indeed, it is “the joy set before him for which he endured the Cross” (Heb 2.14). This (cf. also Jn 16.31-33) just is the gospel’s assurance that how God was with Christ in his suffering is how God will be with us in ours. But for others this very assurance is just a religious version of the same failing narrative imposed upon us by a culture.

I’ll end there and leave you with portions of Alison’s Ch. 2:

One of the things that happened as a result of the resurrection was a shift in the possibility of human knowledge. That is to say, before the resurrection of our Lord, there was an area of human life that was radically unknown, maybe even unknowable. And this area of human unknowing was laid bare, opened up, by the resurrection…

What [the resurrection] did was to recast the existing belief in the resurrection in the person of Jesus, so that from now on the resurrection was understood to be not simply something that happens next, after death, but something that happens owing to a relationship with the resurrection of Jesus…

I take it for granted that Jesus’ resurrection focalized an understanding of the afterlife – but that is not what I’m interested in pointing out here. I would like to refer to what I mean when I say that something radically new became known by using the phrase, ‘the intelligence of the victim’. As a result of the resurrection of Jesus the disciples underwent a profound shift in their understanding, such that they were able to understand something about human life and relationships that had never really been understood before. That something was, to put it simply, the relationship between God and victims.

The gospels are all quite clear on this. Until the resurrection, the disciples did not understand what was going on with Jesus. From the resurrection onwards, they were suddenly able to understand something quite new about Jesus, and about God, and about human beings. The principal evidence for this is that the gospels show simultaneously the non-understanding of the disciples, sometimes the misunderstanding, and at the same time, they show a profound understanding by Jesus of exactly what was going on, where he was going, what was going to happen to him and why.

Now, these two understandings, present in the same texts, are not there because the disciples didn’t understand, but preserved Jesus’ words, so that any future generation might be able to understand what was going on. No, the two understandings are there because, after the resurrection, the disciples were able to understand, and could remember the gap between their understanding then, and their understanding now. They were able to tell the story in a new unified way, from the point of view of the risen victim.

watanabeBiblical scholars seem to agree that the oldest parts of the gospels are the passion narratives, probably the Marcan passion narrative. Which one came first doesn’t matter from the present point of view. What is important is that the disciples started being able to tell the story of Jesus’ execution not from the point of view of the muddled, frightened, half-hearted semi-traitors that they all were, but from the point of view of the victim. They could suddenly see that it all made sense. Not ‘suddenly’ in the sense of in a flash, but rather in the sense of starting from a fixed point in time – the resurrection…

It was this that enabled them to go back in their memories and tell the story of Jesus as that of the self-giving, and self-revealing victim, who alone knew what was really going on. First of all they were able to tell the story of his passion in this way. The evidence for this is in the early preaching of Peter in Acts. Peter’s first speeches are full of Old Testament references showing an understanding of the crucifixion as the rejection by Israel of God’s Holy One, done in ignorance; the resurrection offers Israel an opportunity to be forgiven, and to be brought out of ignorance concerning God and sin. Time and again in the New Testament we come across the phrase ‘The stone rejected by the builders has become the head of the corner.’ The quotation is from Psalm 118, and would have been known to all those involved. Its meaning has suddenly come alive, as it is seen to reveal how the whole edifice of the understanding of Israel as God’s chosen people is recast, starting from the expelled victim.

So, the making of this man a victim, apparently in ignorance, and done to please God (Jesus had been judged a blasphemer) was in fact the condition which made it possible for God to be revealed for what he really is: the forgiving victim. This is the great irony present in all the gospels, and particularly in Luke and Acts: that by killing the Messiah, Israel was, without being aware of it, offering up the sacrifice of all sacrifices to God, the sacrifice that could become the basis for their salvation.

It is interesting to see how this understanding, the perception, or what I have called the intelligence of the victim, the victim’s own understanding, is slowly read back into the living memory of those who had been with Jesus, and who had preserved his sayings, whether by memory, or by writing them down. For all the gospels show the life of Jesus leading up to the passion. It is not as though he lived his life, and then by mistake got involved in an imbroglio in Jerusalem and so got killed. From the vantage point of the resurrection, the presence of the forgiving victim, the disciples could see that the whole drift of Jesus’ life had been towards the passion.

Now please note what I am not saying here. I am not saying that as a result of the resurrection, the disciples invented a whole set of stories about Jesus as their way of explaining the resurrection. The texts manifestly are not about the disciples’ new self-understanding, even though they do reveal that the disciples did now understand things anew. The gospels all bear witness to Jesus himself having understood all this from the beginning. That is precisely what the disciples did not understand before Jesus’ death, and did understand after his resurrection. They all bear witness to the fact that, unlike themselves, Jesus had what I have called ‘the intelligence of the victim’ from the beginning.

christ-is-risen-jesus-christThere are certain obvious pieces of evidence for this, such as the way in which Jesus prophesies his own forthcoming death to the disciples – passages like this from Mark 9.31-2: ‘For he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of man will be delivered into the hand of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to ask him’. These make explicit that Jesus knew where he was going, and what was to happen. They bear witness to the fact that the intelligence of the victim was not simply a post-resurrection understanding, but one which Jesus had all along. Jesus’ understanding had probably been nourished by the texts of the Old Testament as well…

This is terribly important, since it means that what I have called the ‘intelligence of the victim’ is not only a post-resurrection intelligence. It was a pre-resurrection intelligence in Jesus alone, not understood at all by his disciples….


The great line about ‘scandal’, which has become well known, comes in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. There he says, ‘but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block (Greek: skandalon) to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles (1 Cor. 1.23). Now this means that one of the effects of the resurrection on the disciples was that it removed the skandalon, without taking it away, which is another way of saying what I have tried to say earlier, that Jesus was present as crucified Lord who was risen. The stumbling block was how to follow someone who had died. How to follow someone who had ended in failure. This takes us back to the disciples on Easter Sunday. They were scandalized, stymied. They had believed in, and followed this man, had allowed his teaching to permeate every area of their lives, and they had trusted in his ability to produce a powerful victory over his enemies, and establish the kingdom of God in Israel. They had been scandalized by his failure to do this.

The resurrection made present the crucified Lord, the failed one, as living. That is, it removed the scandal, without taking away his death. In fact, it made the dead alive as a sign that there was no scandal. It took away the last stumbling block to following Jesus, or any man, that is, the separation brought about by that man’s death…

What he gave his disciples on his resurrection, therefore, was the ability to follow him without death being a stumbling block. There was nothing left that might cause his disciples to stumble – death was swallowed up in victory. Now, see what this led them to understand: it led them to understand that all stumbling blocks – all relations where people are locked in with each other as stumbling blocks, where imitation and learning are distorted by rivalry – are related to death. The presence to them of the crucified and risen Lord was what enabled them to learn to imitate pacifically, having the deepest bonds of their relationships which were cast in modes of stumbling, loosed, so that they might no longer live towards death, but instead live with death as an incidental side issue.

Again, it is the intelligence of the victim given after the resurrection that enables them to see the whole of this healing process of discipleship in its light. It is this which enables them to see the point of the very mysterious utterance in John’s gospel: ‘It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away the Counsellor will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you’. The suggestion here is that Jesus could, as a human being present with the disciples, tech them only so much…it could only go so far. There were two things militating against the imitation being complete, the possession being full. The first was that Jesus was a human being like his disciples, and therefore was other to them as any human being is to another – and thus not able to move them completely as his Father was…Jesus, because he was a human being, could not, at least until he was killed, completely possess his disciples.

The second reason that the disciples’ imitation of Jesus could not be complete while he was alive was that in any human relation, the knowledge that death will supervene, will separate, is an ultimate factor, one that cannot be bypassed. There is always, in any human relationship of dedication, an element of the provisional because of the certainty of death…So, there is a certain stumbling block to a perfect imitation posed by the simple fact of being a human this side of death. This was removed by the resurrection. The presence of the crucified and risen Lord made available the possibility of a perfect human imitation of Jesus, because it made available an imitation without the stumbling block of death, and with the possibility of the possession of the disciple by Jesus at the level of freedom. That is to say, after the period of Jesus’ physical appearances, he was no longer ‘other’ to the disciples as we are to each other, but was ‘other’ only in the way that God is, beyond the possibility of rivalry, who moves us from within, to will and to work. For the first time a human imitation became possible that need have no element of rivalry.

doubtingthomasIn the light of this, it is possible to see how the disciples came to understand the relationship between the stumbling block of Jesus’ death, which had been a stumbling block for them until it was overcome by the resurrection, and all the stumbling blocks which men and women put in each other’s way. Precisely because we desire to be, to live, we cannot imitate each other pacifically, and thus learn from each other, but always have to get ahead so as to avoid death. So, we cannot be gratuitous with each other, but always have to insist on rights, on everyone getting what they deserve, on not doing more than we have to. Our imitation, which is the only way as humans we learn, from our tenderest infancy upwards, is always provisional, because we are only doing it for our advantage, which we would quickly use against our teacher if the need arose, and so we guarantee our sense of being by an imitation turned rivalistic, which locks us into all sorts of conflicts. At the bottom of this spiral is death…

Learning to follow Jesus is learning how to receive the gift of life, of being, which we inescapably desire, as something given, something which can only be received by a non-rivalistic, pacific imitation of someone who makes this imitation possible by being beyond death.


What links the Father and Jesus, therefore, is the intelligence of the victim. It is in the light of the intelligence of the victim that we can begin to understand the relationship between the two — the love for us that involved sending Jesus, the love for Jesus that involved sending, and raising him up, the love which Jesus had for his Father which involved giving himself for us knowingly to victimization. It is this knowledge of the intelligence of the victim which sets us free: the truth which sets us free is the truth of the victim. The Counselor, the Spirit of truth, who is the advocate for the defense against the lynching of the world, this is the intelligence of the victim, bearing witness to the truth which flows from the victim. It is for this reason that Jesus told his disciples in Luke 12:11, ‘And when they bring you before the authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to answer, or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say’. And no wonder that the Holy Spirit will do just that; it will not be a sort of additional function of the Holy Spirit to do that as well as all sorts of other things. As I hope has become clear by now, the Holy Spirit is the intelligence of the victim.

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.