Alison on The Joy of Being Wrong

An Excerpt for James Alison’s The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (New York: Crossroad, 1998), pages 115-119.


The Joy of Being Wrong

In order to show what the doctrine of original sin might mean, it is necessary to return to first principles and examine the apostolic witness to try to identify the roots of what was later to develop into a formal doctrine. It goes without saying that the formal doctrine is not to be found explicitly set forth in the apostolic witness, any more than is the doctrine of the Trinity. Part of my contention indeed will be that the development of these two doctrines are not only legitimate as a proper working out of the shape of salvation produced by the death and resurrection of Jesus, but that they are, in some sense, parallel, and mutually dependent out-workings of the presence of that salvation in the midst of humanity.

I have argued above that the epistemological starting point for any understanding of Christianity is the presence to the disciples of the crucified-and-risen Lord. That is to say: the only reason there is any Christianity at all is because of the resurrection. Any doctrine that does not, therefore, ultimately flow from the resurrection, as a development of its content and consequences, must properly be questioned as to its starting point and as to its validity. If such a doctrine cannot be shown ultimately to flow from the resurrection, then, heeding Paul’s monition in Galatians 1:8, it should be discarded.

The New Testament is concerned in the first place with an announcement about God. This is made absolutely clear in 1 John 1:5:

This is the message we [i.e., “John” representing the apostolic witness] have heard from him [i.e., Jesus] and proclaim to you [i.e., the church, actual, or yet to be evangelized], that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.

The resurrection of Jesus was not a miraculous event within a pre-existing framework of understanding of God, but the event by which God recast the possibility of human understanding of God. For this to happen God simultaneously made use of, and blew apart, the understanding of God that had developed over the centuries among the Jewish people. God did this in the person of Jesus, through his life and teaching, leading up to and including his death.

There is a first step to this recasting of God through the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, and this is the demonstration that death itself is a matter of indifference to God. Jesus had already taught exactly this in his answer to the Sadducees in Mark 12:18-27, a teaching which must have seemed mysterious at the time because it showed that in Jesus’ perception of God, as opposed to that of his interlocutors, there was already, before Jesus’ death, a clear awareness that an understanding structured by death cannot begin to speak adequately about God. The content of the teaching was made available when Jesus himself was raised, and it became possible to see that God’s love for this man was such that that love was unaffected by death, and that for that love, death was no necessary separation, but love could carry on being reciprocal even through death. For God, death is as if it were not, which is why Abraham, Isaac and Jacob live in God.

This marks a decisive change in the understanding of God, and one which had been a long time in the making, since if God has nothing to do with death, if death is indifferent to God, then our representations of God, all of which are marked by a human culture in which death appears as, at the very least, inevitable, are wrong, as Jesus remarked to the Sadducees: “You are greatly mistaken.” The resurrection of Jesus, at the same time as it showed the unimagined strength of divine love for a particular human being, and therefore revealed the loving proximity of God, also marked a final and definitive sundering of God from any human representational capacity. Whereas before it could be understood that God did not die, nor change, nor have an end, this was always within a dialectical understanding of what does happen to humans. With the resurrection of Jesus from the dead there is suddenly no dialectical understanding of God available, because God has chosen his own terms on which to make himself known quite outside the possibility of human knowledge marked by death. The complete freedom and gratuity of God is learned only from the resurrection, not because it did not exist before, but because we could not know about or understand it while our understanding was shaped by the inevitability of death.

So, we have a first step in the recasting of God by the demonstration of the impossibility of perceiving God within the frame of reference structured by death. This, if you like, is a step made by the “fact” of the resurrection: that, in the midst of history, this man who was dead is now alive. The second step is made by the “content” of the resurrection: that this man who was dead is now alive. God loved this man, who was killed in such and such a way as a result of such and such human motivations, thus confirming his teaching, and revealing the iniquity of what put him to death.

Here we have an apparent paradox: it was the extraordinary proximity of God to the human story — such that he was actually involved in it as one of us — that permitted us the possibility of understanding for the first time the degree of the distance of God from any of our representational possibilities. In more traditional terms, it was only the complete immanence of God in our history as raising a concretely dead man from the dead that revealed the complete transcendence of God. What I would like to suggest is that it is exactly this paradox that is also present in the recasting of sin. The two steps by which the understanding of God was recast are also, simultaneously steps in the recasting of the understanding of sin. In the first step it is exactly in the degree to which the understanding of God is separated from death that the fulness of the human nature of death becomes apparent. This is so because there is no longer any divine necessity, or fatality about death: whatever death is, God has nothing to do with it. That is to say, it becomes apparent not only that death is simply present as something which just is, but, exactly because of the resurrection of Jesus, it becomes present as something which need not be.

The second step shows that death is not merely something which has nothing to do with God, and which need not be, but that as a human reality, it is opposed to God. It is not only that our representation of God is inaccurate, needing refocusing, but our representation of God is actively contrary to the understanding of God which he wishes to make known. That is to say that the death of this man Jesus showed that death is not merely a biological reality, but is also a sinful reality. To put it in another way: it is not just that death is a human reality and not a divine one, but as a human reality it is a sinful reality. God, in raising Jesus was not merely showing that death has no power over him, but also revealing that the putting to death of Jesus showed humans as actively involved in death. In human reality, death and sin are intertwined: the necessity of human death is itself a necessity born of sin. In us, death is not merely a passive reality, but an active one; not something we merely receive, but one we deal out.

However, God did not raise Jesus from the dead merely to demonstrate his own deathless-ness, or to rescue Jesus from the middle of the human reality of death as a bodyguard may rescue a beleaguered pop star from the midst of a pressing crowd of fans, to get her away from it all as quickly as possible. The third step in the recasting of God and the recasting of sin is that God raised up this man who had been killed in this way for us. The victim of human iniquity was raised up as forgiveness; in fact the resurrection was the raising up of the victim as forgiveness. This it was which permitted the recasting of God as love. It was not just that God loved his son and so raised him up, but that the giving of the son and his raising up revealed God as love for us. It is to exactly this that bear witness the remarkably similar passages found in John 3:16-17 and Rom. 3:21-26, as well as of course 1 John 4:9-10. If the third step reveals God as forgiving us (and the presence of the crucified-and-risen victim was exactly this revelation), then it also simultaneously reveals that death is not only a human reality, and one inflected by sin, but that the human reality of death itself is capable of being forgiven.

Furthermore, as it became clear that the whole purpose of raising Jesus from the dead was to make forgiveness possible (i.e., none of this happened for the benefit of God, and all of it for the benefit of humanity), so it becomes clear that that forgiveness stretches into our human death. Which is to say, the forgiveness which flows from the resurrection affects not only such acts as we may have carried out, but, much more importantly, what we had hitherto imagined to be our very natures. If death is something that can be forgiven us, we were not only wrong about God, but we were fundamentally wrong about ourselves.

Let me try and unpack this difficult notion a little. If God can raise someone from the dead in the middle of human history, the very fact reveals that death, which up till this point had marked human history as simply something inevitable, part of what it is to be a human being, is not inevitable. That is, that death is itself not a simply biological reality, but a human cultural reality marking all perception, and a human cultural reality that is capable of being altered. This it seems to me is the decisive point at which any pre-Christian notion of sin and the Christian understanding must differ. The drastic nature of sin is revealed as something which has so inflected human culture that death is a human, and not simply a biological reality, one which decisively marks all human culture. This nature of sin as related to death is simultaneously revealed as something which need not be. It is not that God can, of course, forgive all our sins, but then there is also death which is just there. It becomes clear that God is not only capable of forgiving us for such things as we might have done, but the shape of his forgiveness stretches further than that, into what we are: we are humans tied into the human reality of death. We need no longer be.

This it seems to me is an anthropological discovery of unimaginable proportions. At exactly the same moment as God is revealed as quite beyond any human understanding marked by death, entirely gratuitous love, so also it is revealed that the human understanding marked by death is something accidental to being human, not something essential. Here we have the lynchpin of any understanding of original sin: that what we are as beings-toward-death is itself something capable of forgiveness. Furthermore we can see that the only way we are able to appreciate our true condition as humans-marked-by-death is precisely as it is revealed to us that that condition is unnecessary. It is in this way that the doctrine of original sin is the culmination of the revealed understanding of being human: the shape of divine forgiveness revealed in the resurrection of Jesus shows itself to stretch into our congenital involvement with death. The doctrine of original sin is the doctrine of the un-necessity of death. Its epistemological possibility is the discovery that the forgiveness of sins reaches further than the forgiveness of actions or intentions: it reaches into who we are as constituted in and by death. What is particularly vital is that if there had been no resurrection-as-forgiveness, there could have been no understanding of death itself as a reality of sin, and therefore no anthropological discovery of the non-necessity of death.

We might put this more simply by saying that the presence of the crucified and risen Lord to the disciples revealed that humans are wrong about God and about humanity. Not simply wrong as mistaken, but wrong as actively involved in death. And that this being wrong does not matter any longer, because we can now receive the truth, and thus life, from the forgiving victim. This then might be said to be a first approximation to original sin: that the doctrine of original sin is the doctrine according to which divine forgiveness makes known the accidental nature of human mortality, thus permitting an entirely new anthropological understanding.

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