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.

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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….

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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.

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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.

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What Jesus suffered

11-The-Agony-in-the-GardenJesus cannot suffer, as we must, the pain of the death of the false self which is the despair of misrelating to the Void (the Void simply being our absolute contingency and finitude). As Hessert suggests, Christ has no false self, no way of being in the world that derives from the ‘power-driven’ and ‘wisdom-seeking’ agendas of culture (1Cor 2). His whole life was lived in light of the truth of his God-given identity as Son (“Abba, Father”), an identity he never abandoned to go off and construct another.

Our salvation requires not that Christ experience his own existence as meaningless, interpreting his own Cross as did they who pressed his suffering upon him as evidence of his meaninglessness and godforsakeness. That is, after all, what being crucified meant to them. And you can find Christians today who agree that if Christ does not experience himself as godforsaken and meaningless, he is not ‘fully human’.

But consider, false selves are a false humanity, not a truly full humanity, and to live in light of the culture’s ‘power’ and ‘wisdom’ is to live as ‘less’ than fully human. To be fully human in our fallen world – as Christ alone was – is to live and die in light of the God-given truth of who you are, something no cross can render meaningless.

The Void not suicide

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“Rebirth” by Delawer-Omar

I’ve been enjoying a Facebook conversation of Paul Hessert’s wonderful book Christ and the End of Meaning. I’ve quoted from Hessert’s book here before. It’s not an easy book to digest, but with the help of others each chapter’s review reveals bit more. Irish philosopher Peter Rollins also has an online discussion of the book, so naturally some of Rollins’ reading of Hessert is part of the conversation I’m in. If you haven’t encountered Rollins’ provocative and controversial ideas, check him out.

Rollins over-reaches, I think, in making his point against the “structure of meaning” we adopt from culture. I think he too indiscriminately dismisses the essential narrative/meaning-making structure of experience. It’s almost as if Rollins disposes of what we call the transcendentals (beauty, truth, goodness) or views them as impositions of fallen culture. I may be misunderstanding him, but I’m more confident Hessert isn’t doing this, and I want to focus on Hessert anyhow. But I fear that in trying to make my point (defending ‘meaning’ and ‘desire’), I might be understood as defending things I don’t believe in (i.e., false narratives and structures of meaning imposed on us by culture). In reading through Hessert (Ch. 2) again, I think I see his point more clearly, and I’d like to try to describe the common ground.

1) We are natural meaning-makers. On the one hand, we’re naturally driven to interpret our lives in meaningful ways – existentially, rationally, aesthetically, etc. We construct a ‘sense of self’ (an ‘identity’). This sense of self provides our answers to the questions, ‘Who am I really?’ and ‘What is my place in [the meaning of] the universe?’ question that get answered in terms of identity, relationships, belonging, significance, permanence, purpose, etc.). All textbook stuff.

2) Meaning-making as world-constructing. As finite, human beings, however, we don’t come into the world with pre-installed interpretations of life that give us the world as satisfying and meaningful. We’re born into the questions, not the answers. We have to ‘world-construct’ or compose our sense of self, and the materials out of which we build are the relationships and events of our lives, the very things whose meaning we’re seeking to establish. This search becomes a venture of despair for all of us. Why? Because nothing in or of the world (none of the ‘materials’ I use to world-construct) can tell me ‘who’ I am and what I mean. Why not? Because everything in the world is, like me, looking for its own meaning and purpose. Everything created is in that same fix, asking the same question. Indeed, to be created and finite just is to ask this question (a point on which Rollins and I may disagree if, as I suspect, he judges the question itself as misguided; that is, he sees the gospel as a way to free oneself from the questions since, in his view, there are no answers, only ways to live without them). Anyhow, we experience this failure immediately in life, but it typically takes a life-time to admit the failure of everything in the world to be a source of meaning and purpose. Hopefully our journey leads us to the Void, where only faith can lead us on.

3) Replacing ‘World’ with ‘God’. Now,  what is often said (which I’m guessing some read me as offering) is something like this: “Look, stop trying to derive meaning and satisfaction from anything in the world and just get it from God instead. God is not, like the world, caught up in some existential search. As benevolent creator, God can do for you what the world has failed to do for you – viz., give your life meaning and purpose.”

What I hear Hessert saying to this is: This isn’t enough. It’s not enough simply to replace ‘World’ with ‘God’ as the source from which we derive our meaning and satisfaction and leave everything else the same. There’s something else we’ve gotten badly wrong in confusing faith with the belief that if we just put ‘God’ in the place of ‘World’ then life will become satisfying and meaningful. There’s something structurally wrong here.

What’s structurally wrong is that this mere replacement leaves in place a fundamental failure to relate to God in terms of creaturely nothingness. It leaves unaddressed the mistaken priorities in how we self-relate (and world-relate and God-relate). Amazingly, it’s possible to replace the ‘World’ as our source for happiness with ‘God’ and still be unspeakably miserable. How so? Because the Self (the “I”) is still at the center, in charge of the meaning-making with both ‘God’ and ‘World’ as options on a meaning-making menu from which the Self chooses (from some imaginary location outside the two). What’s overlooked is the fact that the Self is constitutive of the ‘World’ that needs to be displaced. Too often today, even if ‘God’ replaces ‘World’ within a person’s explicit beliefs, the structure that supports and defends the Self is still in place.

4) Idol swapping. Leaving this structure in place leaves us with a Christianity that amounts essentially just swapping out idols – ‘God’ instead of ‘this’ or ‘that’ (wherein God is another this or that, if you follow me). This leaves intact the structures of existential despair. Even as Creator, Sustainer, and Savior, if God remains that which revolves around the Self, if this structure is in place, we’re still idolaters. If this is what Hessert is getting at (and I think it is), then (a) count me in, although (b) Rollins, I think, is saying something different (and more objectionable), but that’s another discussion.

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Dylan Guest sculpture

5) Restructuring and relinquishment. The fundamental restructuring (not mere replacing) that heals and redeems spells the death of the Self in all its false forms. It is an exchange that is both death and life: death of the autonomous Self, made relative to God as the Absolute in light of the Self’s nothingness. When our capacity for self-reflection (which cannot itself be an evil), for choice (which choices we cannot but make), and for meaning-making (the capacity for which cannot itself be evil and which defines choice inherently) is relinquished in the recognition of our nothingness, then structurally things are radically different. Now our meaning is “given” to us (not autonomously constructed “by us”) and relinquishment becomes possession, but a ‘possessing’ which is ‘being possessed’, a ‘desiring’ which is fulfilled in ‘being desired by’ God. In this sense we abandon our structure of meaning, but we are not unstructured or without meaning.

6) Transcendental structure. There are at least two different “structures” in Hessert’s discussion. Though he only discusses one, he hints at the other. One structure is the Self as centered and autonomous (whether bowing to an idol or to God) with God revolving around the Self in an economy of supply and demand that the Self orders and manages in terms of ‘power’ and ‘wisdom’ (1Cor 2) legitimized by culture. This structure has to be done away with. But what cannot be done away with is the transcendental structure of the human spirit – those God-given capacities (for thought, choice, self-relationality, self-transcendence, aesthetic perception and valuation).

The false self misappropriates these capacities in a despairing venture for meaning and certainty in ways culture permits, but functionally speaking these capacities remain intact for us even after our subjective powers of perception and agency become relativized by Christ. It is “I, not I, but Christ who lives in me” and not simply “I no longer live; Christ lives instead.” To judge these capacities as essentially mistaken or as an imposition of culture is to judge as mistaken the very God-given structure which makes possible “hearing” the preaching of Christ crucified and “faithing” (Hessert’s terms for “active, living, faith” that refuses cultural impositions of power and wisdom) in response. And that kind of dismissal, I suggest, is just the autonomous Self donning yet another disguise – this time the refusal to desire at all, the refusal to make-meaning at all, the refusal to feel or make aesthetic valuations at all, a kind of refusal to ‘be’ – all of which are impossible refusals to carry out. One sees how corrupt the autonomous Self is and so chooses to starve it into non-existence by denying all desire and meaning. But this leaves the Self in place just as securely as the culturally imposed structures leave it in place, because to deny desire and meaning is not to affirm the truth of one’s nothingness. That’s just a kind of suicide, and embracing the Void is not suicide.