Last revised: May 24, 2014
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SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER — YEAR A
RCL: Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
RoCa: Acts 8:5-8, 14-17; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21
1. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled; ch. 13, “Where Are the Philosophers Now?” might be good background reading for this passage on Paul talking to the philosophers.
2. The best Girardian book to date that seeks to speak to modern day philosophers is Andrew McKenna‘s Violence and Difference: Girard, Derrida, and Deconstruction.
3. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of Luke” audio lecture series, tape #9, one of my favorite illustrations, a New York Times article on the discovery that the Parthenon frieze depicts child sacrifice. Link to my notes/transcription. These lectures are also available online in clips; this portion covered by “The Poetry of Truth,” Part 123, Part 124, Part 125, Part 126.
Paul is said to be at the Areopagus, in the midst of Greek mythology and religion. Here is a bible dictionary description.
(Mars’ Hill). A rocky eminence in Athens, separated from the W. of the Acropolis by a raised valley, above which it rises sixty feet. Mythology made it the scene of the god Mars’ trim before the gods, at Poseidon’s accusation, for murdering the son of the latter, Halirrhotius. The most venerable of all the Athenian courts, consisting of all exarchons of blameless life. It was the Upper Council, to distinguish it from the five hundred, who met in the valley below. It met on the S.E. top of the rock. …recorded in Acts 17. Paul’s intense earnestness strikingly contrasts with their frivolous dilettantism. With the temple of Mars near, the Parthenon of Minerva facing him, and the sanctuary of the Eumenides just below him, the beautiful temple of Theseus, the national hero (still remaining) in view, what divine power he needed to nerve him to declare, “God that made the world … dwelleth not in temples made with hands”….
Check out Bailie’s use of this article on the Parthenon frieze. It is amazing! Do we have the faintest notion of the darkness that lies behind Greek mythology and religion? Do we have an appreciation for the amazing journey of God’s people away from such idolatry and sacred violence?
Reflections and Questions
1. Occasionally, I get frustrated that the Girardian insights have not yet been fully translated into everyday language and thought categories. But, then, I remember that that’s the ongoing task for people like me to do in the parish. There is also a definite role for those who can speak to the philosophers and scientists, those well-educated in the post-modern mindset.
I recall the reaction to Girard’s work, in February of ’97, that I was privileged to witness at a “Dulles Colloquium” (named for Avery Dulles who helps to host the semi-annual event with Richard Neuhaus’ Religion and Public Life Institute). Girard was invited to dialogue for about eight hours with a number of theologians and thinkers who are regulars to the Colloquium. The thing that seemed to most impress them was the fact that Girard, despite a genuine and deep conversion experience (in 1959), had refrained for his first couple books in naming his Christian faith. He had been able to frame his arguments in the language and categories of the academy. They seemed to view this as a very important step in eventually being able to make in-roads into the modern worldview.
It reminds me of this passage from Acts 17 about Paul’s presentation to the philosophers and thinkers of Athens. Paul never even mentions the name Jesus; he simply refers to “a man” whom the true God has raised from the dead. The results are perhaps meager in comparison to other sermons of Acts. There doesn’t seem to be an enthusiastic response. But at least a few are intrigued enough to follow Paul and become disciples.
How important is it to make headway into the official think-tanks of a culture? My moments of frustration come from my sense, I think, that Girard’s work will find more enthusiastic response among the average person, especially the average Christian, than it thus far has in the academy. And we first have to make a translation into the everyday language. The overall picture in Acts is that the Christian message won more immediate converts among the common people across the Mediterranean than in the academy of Athens. But how important was it that Paul made the attempt to reach out to the latter and at least won a few converts? I think it was very important, especially when one considers that several centuries later, Christian theology was more fully translated into the categories of the philosophical worldview of antiquity (for better and for worse).
2. These days, in fact, it is popular among theologians to criticize the theological tradition for having sold out too much to the ancient philosophical worldview. Doctrines like the Trinity are even downplayed or jettisoned as having been too much a product of Greek philosophy. But how much of that sort of criticism has come about precisely because our own modern worldview has changed dramatically under the influence of science and technology? If that’s the case, then many modern theologians end up throwing off traditional doctrines unwittingly because they have sold out to the popularized versions of the modern scientific worldview that discounts the old philosophical approach. They fail to appreciate the ways in which their predecessors were being faithful to the biblical faith while trying to make the translation into the thought categories of their Greek culture. Some modern theologies, then, end up sacrificing basic Christian categories like the Trinity because they have ironically gotten too caught up in the popularized worldview of our time which, in turn, is often caught up in new versions of the ancient pagan nature religions.
So, yes, I think it is vital that Girard has made and continues to make a supreme effort at putting the Christian faith into the newer scientific categories of the modern worldview. He has made an incredible pitch to the Athens of our day. It may have meager results at first … even be laughed at and scoffed at by many. But as his translation into the modern worldview also makes its further translation into the everyday categories of the person on the street, I pray that the eventual results, perhaps many years down the road, will be a cultural worldview that has been even more shaped by the Gospel.
The prayer is that all of this is ultimately under the power of the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, as it continues to work, mostly in hidden ways, throughout History. This actually looks ahead to the gospel lesson for this week, so I’ll finish this train of thought there.
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 250-251, cites vv. 20-21 as a “Christological re-reading” of the Noah story. In this portion of his climaxing argument, Alison is showing how the NT continues and completes the demythologizing work of the Genesis myths. With Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, Noah, and Babel, he shows how these OT texts begin the demythologizing process and how NT treatments of these stories complete it. Here, for example, is what he says about the Noah story in light of 1 Peter 3:20-21:
The story of Noah is less obviously a story of origins than either that of Adam and Eve or Cain and Abel, yet since it, too, is subjected to a christological re-reading in the apostolic witness, I beg indulgence for a quick glimpse at this story, too (see also Girard, Things Hidden, p 143, for a slightly different, but entirely compatible, vision of the Noah story). In the first letter of Peter it is pointed out that in the days of Noah “a few, that is eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you…” (1 Pet. 3:20-21). That is to say, the water of Baptism corresponds to the water of the flood. Yet Baptism, we know from Paul, is being immersed in the death of Christ, so as to be able to share in his resurrection, and that it is he, and after him, the Church, which the Ark prefigured. This implies a rather particular christological re-reading of the Noah story: the implication is that the Ark actually went under the flood rather than escaping it miraculously! In this re-reading, we would have all the violence abounding on the face of the earth, and, at a time of particular mimetic crisis of indifferentiation, symbolized by the Flood, the collective putting to death of someone (Noah) or a group (Noah and his family). It was this putting to death which brought about peace, permitting the re-establishment of order, the categorization of animals, and the setting up of a new, peaceful tribal system. There are of course many myths of this sort whereby a more or less hidden collective expulsion or murder is seen as producing a new social order, where fruit, or animals, or foodstuffs, start to abound as the result of a mysterious visitation in which it can either be the collectivity which perishes at the hand of a god, or a god which perishes at the hand of a collectivity, and as a prize, leaves behind the basis for the new culture. The Noah story as we have it could very well be a Jewish demythologization of just such a story in the light of their experience of salvation from out of Egypt leading to the setting up of the Covenant. Here, Noah is saved from out of the flood, and God makes a covenant with him never more to destroy all flesh.The Jewish re-reading already shows the Jewish tendency to tell the story from the point of view of the victim, the tendency which we have already seen with relation to their flight from Egypt. The partial de-mythologization has God rescue Noah and his family from out of the hands of violent men, so as to establish a new peaceful sociality. The Christological re-reading merely takes this tendency one vital step further back, by revealing the founding murder, and indicating that those who are prepared to share in the self-giving towards the founding death are those who will be brought to everlasting life. The new sociality is made possible because of the self-giving up to death, not a sociality derived from self-deceit following a collective murder, as in the myth behind the Noah story. Once again, the christological re-reading, already implicit in the use of the Noah story in 1 Peter, points to an originating murder at the base of human sociality.
***** End of Alison Excerpt *****
2. James Alison, Raising Abel, in the opening pages of the book (p. 16), makes reference to 1 Pet. 3:22 to illustrate the importance of the image of sitting at the right hand of God in the Ascension.
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from May 5, 2002 (Woodside Village Church).
Reflections and Questions
1. Is there a good argument for “universal salvation” here? It seems to imply that those imprisoned by their disobedience and lost at the time of Noah now have a chance through the cleansing waters of baptism to be saved through water instead of lost in its deluge. Is this what we are proclaiming when we say in the creed that Christ “descended into hell”? Jesus descended into the prison of hell to redeem even those who previously were lost?
I find this to be a natural extension of the gospel, especially in light of a Girardian reading. Alison emphasizes the depth of original sin which comes to light at our Lord’s resurrection. There is a sense in which we all have already been lost. Jesus came back to a small band of disciples who had been lost. And his coming back to them was more than just a setting them on the right track again. In Luke 15, the stakes increase in the three parables from simply lost and found to dead and alive again. Paul raises the stakes of baptism from not just dirty and made clean but also from dead in Christ to raised with him. If this is true of us who still walk this earth, then why not for those imprisoned in hell?
I think this also goes along with Alison’s notion of further demythologizing the mythological view of a wrathful God who punishes. The notion of God’s wrath is gradually transformed into the view of God suffering the consequences of allowing us to suffer the consequences of our own rivalry and violence. But the God of love and life also continues to offer us the power of new life.
2. I wonder if another passage that demythologizes the Noah story is that of Matt. 24:37-41, where Jesus talks about some being taken and some left behind as in the days of Noah. I worked on a demythologizing reading of this passage Advent 1A 2001, especially with the sermon, “Left Behind: Surviving the Floods of Violence,” which also address the popular series of novels, Left Behind.
1. The Johannine Farewell Discourse is a favorite in Girardian literature. The following is a list (not exhaustive) of places where the Discourse is featured: René Girard, The Scapegoat, ch. 15, “History and the Paraclete”; James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, ch. 7.D., “The Gospel of John” (p. 204-210); Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” audio series, tape #10 (link to my notes / transcription); James Alison, Raising Abel, ch. 3, “The Discovery of Jesus’ Imagination”; and The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 187-197.
2. An example from James Alison‘s treatment of this passage:
This brings out the sense in which the ‘Parakletos’ who will come will be sent in Jesus’ name (John 14:7). That is, he will bring into creative presence the person of Jesus through the loving imitation of his disciples. It is not that the Holy Spirit is simply a substitute presence, acting instead of Jesus, but rather it is by Jesus going to his death (and, by giving up his Spirit bringing to completion his creative work: ‘tetelestai,’ “it is accomplished,” 19:30) that all Jesus’ creative activity will be made alive in the creative activity of his disciples. The memory of Jesus here (‘he will bring to your remembrance’) is thus not in the first place the cure for the absence of the teacher, but the bringing to mind, and thus to the possibility of creative practice, in dependence on Jesus, of Jesus’ creative activity. This is the sense of the peace which Jesus leaves with his disciples: not the peace which is the result of the suppression of conflict, or the resolution of conflict, such as is practiced by the mechanism of expulsion of the world, but the creative peace that brings into being: the primordial peace of the Creator from the beginning.” (The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 190)
3. The Girardian reading of John’s Paraclete is among the helpful insights his anthropology can bring to the task of biblical interpretation. He first explicates his readin of Paraclete in the above named chapter, René Girard, “History and the Paraclete,” chapter 15 from The Scapegoat. On p. 207, he says,
Parakleitos, in Greek, is the exact equivalent of advocate or the Latin advocatus. The Paraclete is called on behalf of the prisoner, the victim, to speak in his place and in his name, to act in his defense. The Paraclete is the universal advocate, the chief defender of all innocent victims, the destroyer of every representation of persecution. He is truly the spirit of truth that dissipates the fog of mythology.
On the other hand:
Satan only reigns by virtue of the representations of persecution that held sway prior to the Gospels. Satan therefore is essentially the accuser, the one who deceives men by making them believe that innocent victims are guilty.
And this: “the Spirit is necessary in history to work to disintegrate the world and gradually discredit all the gods of violence.” Link to a webpage on “The Anthropology of René Girard and the Paraclete of St. John.”
4. My 2014 sermon builds on last week’s Gospel reflections and sermon “The Newly Prepared Abiding Places Are … Us.” The text of this sermon, “Living by Love in a Reward-Punishment World,” is incomplete, having extemporized the ending.
Reflections and Questions
1. To continue the thoughts began above, there is an improvement, I think, of a worldview dominated by modern science than the ancient one which was dominated by Greek philosophy. The Greek philosophical worldview began in a world which had not yet had the Gospel break into it through the Christ event. It was a reaction to the sacrificial religion which nevertheless fell into its own form of sacrificial violence. Derrida’s current deconstruction of philosophy, revealing the violence underneath, is basically correct on this score. So when the Christian faith made inroads into the cultural categories of its time it had a formidable task of transforming these pagan categories from within, with understandably mixed results. I’m sure that the modern theologians who criticize those efforts have some basis for criticism (though I would still maintain that they often end up “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”).
The difference with the modern person’s popularized scientific worldview, as opposed to the ancient popularized philosophical worldview, is that the scientific tradition of today came into history long after the Christ event. Further, Girard might argue that modern science even came into being under the pressure of the hidden influence and work of the Paraclete. Chapter 15 of The Scapegoat cited above, “History and the Paraclete,” contains this famous Girardian remark about science:
The invention of science is not the reason that there are no longer witch-hunts, but the fact that there are no longer witch-hunts is the reason that science has been invented. The scientific spirit, like the spirit of enterprise in an economy, is a by-product of the profound action of the Gospel text. The modern Western world has forgotten the revelation in favor of its by-products, making them weapons and instruments of power; and now the process has turned against it. Believing itself a liberator, it discovers its role as persecutor. (pp. 205-206)
How is science a by-product of the work of the Paraclete? The Defender of the Accused seeks to uncover what really happened, the innocence of the accused. This pressing for the truth works culturally to unveil magical/spiritualist explanations used to scapegoat people. Former cultures used to scapegoat people for taking ill; they explained illness with demons, punishment from the gods for sin, etc. Modern medicine, with the spirit of the Paraclete behind it, says, No, what really happens is related to germs, genetics, poor diet, etc. Science undoes the scapegoating explanations that relied on magic and primitive polytheisms.
Yes, our modern scientific worldview has backslid into its own forms of mythology (e.g., Freud’s Oedipus Complex), but the importance of Girard’s work is that he has given us the Christian revelation in the language of science, which itself was originally a work of the Spirit. Girard continues the important work of speaking to “Athens.” Many others of us, with different gifts, can continue the translation of bringing these insights to the average person whose worldview has now been shaped by hundreds of years of popularized versions of the scientific worldview.
2. In 2011 this passage was perfect for my developing faith life in contemplative spirituality. And one of my guides in this venture has been John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Year A — ‘On Earth As It Is In Heaven.’ The resulting sermon, an important one for me personally, is titled “Better than Heaven: Lives Transformed in the Spirit.”
3. A prominent thread that runs through Girard’s writings, beginning with chapter 15 in The Scapegoat, is the idea that the Paraclete has been working throughout history, even when we can’t see it. This is true primarily in the cultures in which the Gospel has been in closest proximity for the longest time — in other words, primarily in Western culture. This is not a claim for Western superiority. Rather, it is a faith claim about the importance of the Paraclete. The fact that it has made the most inroads into Western culture is a matter of almost historical accident, not some innate superiority in the West.
And what do we see in the last several centuries of Western culture? Something historically unprecedented: a growing awareness of the innocence of victims of institutional oppression. Only in the West have we developed such a keen awareness of racism and sexism and oppression of differently abled persons, to name but a few. We are currently struggling with hetero-sexism. This, according to Girard, has been the work of the Paraclete, working through the Gospel in our midst, even when we are not aware of it.
In fact, much of the history of Christendom has been a betrayal of the work of the Gospel in its midst, such that the Christian faith has, in many places, become the latest victim of scapegoating. Christians have betrayed the work of the Gospel by continuing to make their own victims with versions of righteous justification from twisted, sacrificial versions of the Gospel. Increasingly in recent years, Enlightenment secularists have taken over the work of advocating for victims, while also making it clear that those who call themselves Christian have been among the worst of the persecutors. In short, much of Enlightenment humanism has taken over the work of the Paraclete while being blind to its source. They throw the baby out with the bathwater. They jettison the message of the Cross and Resurrection in favor of their own enlightened perspectives. They even accuse the Gospel writers themselves of anti-Semitism, because Christians through the ages have used these stories to justify killing Jews.
But it is dangerous to take credit for the work of the Paraclete, of advocating for victims, while remaining blind to its source in the power of the Gospel. The most common outcome is to turn the tables and make victims out of the persecutors. The Cross and Resurrection of Christ do not do this. The Gospel, the Paraclete, does not seek to destroy the persecutors. It seeks to forgive them, and to invite them into the way of peace, the way of advocating for victims, not making new ones. Towards the end of I See Satan Fall Like Lightning Girard even warns about such projects using the language of the Antichrist:
In the symbolic language of the New Testament, we would say that in our world Satan, trying to make a new start and gain new triumphs, borrows the language of victims. Satan imitates Christ better and better and pretends to surpass him. This imitation by the usurper has long been present in the Christianized world, but it has increased enormously in our time. The New Testament evokes this process in the language of the Antichrist. To understand this title, we should de-dramatize it, for it expresses something banal and prosaic.The Antichrist boasts of bringing to human beings the peace and tolerance that Christianity promised but has failed to deliver. Actually, what the radicalization of contemporary victimology produces is a return to all sorts of pagan practices: abortion, euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games galore but without real victims, etc.
Neo-paganism would like to turn the Ten Commandments and all of Judeo-Christian morality into some alleged intolerable violence, and indeed its primary objective is their complete abolition. Faithful observance of the moral law is perceived as complicity with the forces of persecution that are essentially religious. Since the Christian denominations have become only tardily aware of their failings in charity, their connivance with established political orders in the past and present world that are always sacrificial, they are particularly vulnerable to the ongoing blackmail of contemporary neo-paganism.
Neo-paganism locates happiness in the unlimited satisfaction of desires, which means the suppression of all prohibitions. This idea acquires a semblance of credibility in the limited domain of consumer goods, whose prodigious multiplication, thanks to technological progress, weakens certain mimetic rivalries. The weakening of mimetic rivalries confers an appearance of plausibility, but only that, on the stance that turns the moral law into an instrument of repression and persecution. (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, p. 181)
4. The Newsweek issue in the aftermath of the Littleton tragedy carried a sub-title on its cover of “The Science of Teen Violence.” Doesn’t this title already betray a scapegoating approach which puts the onus on teens? Where do teens learn violence?
It was too frustrating for me to read much of the commentary inside, given the fact that I believe Girard has given us a vastly superior science of human (and not just teen) violence — superior not only in that it gives us science at the deeper level of generative anthropology but also that it is founded in the revelation of Christ from the one true God, whose unconditional forgiveness of our violence is the only thing that would ever allow us to be able to look squarely into such darkness.
5. Link to a sermon weaving thoughts about speaking to the modern scientific worldview in the aftermath of the Columbine High School tragedy, entitled “The True Light Is Here! — Do You See It?”
6. Link to a sermon that plays with the Girardian insight into the Paraclete as the “Counsel for the Defense.” One idea is that the Paraclete can also help arrest our lives of self-justification, helping us to live lives of grace. When we have a personal defender, we don’t have to live lives of always trying to defend ourselves. We can avoid being scandalized so easily.