Last revised: March 10, 2020
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SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT — YEAR A
RCL: Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
RoCa: Gen. 12:1-4; 2 Tim. 1:8-10; Matt. 17:1-9 (Transfiguration)
Opening Comments on Non-Dualistic Thinking and “Judgment”
I find myself relating to Nicodemus. Jesus might ask of me, “Are you a teacher of the church, and yet you do not understand these things?” I am coming late to the work of Richard Rohr, who follows Girard’s work closely, and combines Mimetic Theory with insight from the tradition of contemplative thinking, a process of non-dual thinking. The dualism at the heart of violence is “us and them.” God called Abraham and Sarah away from their “us” to wander as a perpetual “them.” And the promise that calls them out is for the purpose of being a blessing to all the families of the earth — which constitutes a big “us” and no “them.” The covenant God commits to a long journey toward a day when there will no longer be us and them, only us.
Mimetic Theory explains the birth of dual thinking. The scapegoating mechanism generates the false differences of good and bad, sacred and profane, us and them, and many more. A key insight into the Genesis 3 story of sin is to see that gaining the knowledge of Good and Evil from the tree in the middle of the Garden is itself crucial to the fall into sin. It is the fall into the primary dualistic thinking of good and bad, us and them. Anthony Bartlett‘s book Virtually Christian is brilliant in sketching the evolutionary picture. It is worthwhile to quote several lengthy paragraphs:
We are arriving at a sketch of evolutionary movement which offers, I think, profound theological possibility. To appreciate it we have to underline and draw out the pivotal development presented in the Girardian hypothesis in the second chapter. The total experience of the surrogate victim is both remembered and misrecognized in a mythological frame. As the guilty source of all evil and then the benign origin of all good the surrogate victim appears as a god. And truly s/he is divine, for in her “switch” from evil to good she makes available an on / off switch with astonishing world-creating and world-ordering power. First the on / off switch produces a rule-bound universe: there is an area of behavior which must at all costs be avoided if similar crises in the future are to be averted and peace maintained: therefore don’t do that / do this! The world of prohibitions grows naturally from the terror of the primary event producing a protocultural line in the sand, a “no” on one side and a “yes” on the other. Take, for example, the universal prohibition on incest. Imagine the situation before the prohibition was in place in a particular group, the rivalry and violence that were provoked on one catastrophic occasion and the significance that the surrogate victim would then have attained (perhaps the unfortunate sister disputed by two brothers, or one of the brothers himself). S/he would have spoken deafeningly of the “evil” of such relations and automatically generated attention to the outward boundary where — and only there — sexual relations were permitted. But simultaneously this cultural development could not have emerged without the language to say it. There had to be two primary words, a primitive set of vocalization, which came with the event and which created the signals both for the crisis, with the meaning of “bad,” and for its resolution, with the meaning “good.” These signals should not be conceived in any ideal way but simply the sounds wrung from the group by the exhaled trauma of the two primary moments. But that was enough. The event necessarily contains, therefore, the generative binary of differentiation: bad and good, and then by an essential multiplication, “no and yes,” “that and this,” “there and here,” and so on, infinitely, into the universe of language. Girard has taught both these results — rules and language — but to my knowledge he has not noted how critical the on / off is, the essential role of the binary switch contained in the primary scene. I am now seeking to draw attention to this implication and its remarkable consequences. In both cases — rules and language — the switch of yes / no overcomes “undifferentiation,” the loss of difference between individuals because of imitation and the dissolution of a world constructed only by instinct. Now rules and language provide an essential structure and a world of difference.
Setting the evolutionary scene in this way we are in a position to offer a theological pathway of great simplicity and at the same time enormous vitality. One of the criticisms of de Chardin and other thinkers who emphasize movement is that they underestimate the power of sin and hence the need for redemption: you would not think that anything could seriously go wrong on the grand evolutionary journey to the Omega point. By inserting Girard here, and by means of the “hard” biological science of mirror neurons, we open the evolutionary picture fully and formidably to sin. The world comes about through murder and the lie that covers it up. This in itself is entirely consistent with the account in Genesis.
Unlike the dominant theological tradition which has given exclusive weight to the “sin of the first parents” and so relegated the other stories in Genesis 1-11 to a sideshow, contemporary biblical scholarship is able to see these stories as so many parallel accounts of a single human condition of alienation from God and from each other. They should be read as so many facets of a single prism. The Eden story can claim to come first ontologically, in terms of our ultimate condition of separation from God, but not chronologically as “the very first historical event.” A much more plausible candidate for that — for the emergence of actual history — is in fact the story that comes next. In this light the story of Cain and Abel can be seen as a “real-time” doublet of the more mystical Garden of Eden story containing its inner meaning. Their strictly complementary nature is evident in the structure of the stories. They both involve familiar connection and conversation of God, and then the determinative role of desire and rivalry. In both instances God is responsible for the object of desire: the fruit in the first and his favor in the second. The role of the serpent suggesting rivalry with God in the first story is matched in the second story by the rivalry which God himself inexplicably sets up by preferring the animal sacrifice to vegetable offerings. (The attempt to argue that animal sacrifice shows more devotion on the part of Abel can only be an after-the-fact justification: nowhere in the text is this value suggested.) Following the crime there is a trial, then punishment, with a description of alienation. The stories are thus in fact saying the same thing from two sides, but always with the same basic drama and outcome — rivalry produces violence and death. The fact that God’s warning that eating the fruit would result in death is only in fact fulfilled by the death of Abel shows clearly there is a single drama at work. However, the murder of Abel by Cain is followed by the paradoxical protection and flourishing of Cain as founder of the first city (and then of his successor, Lamech, and of his children as founders of culture). So it is easy also to see an intentional evolutionary account of the emergence of human order and culture: something that is apparently successful but based originally in murder and alienation. Reading it this way we can see the scriptural support for an anthropological account of violent origins. What contemporary science gives us is simply the material and structural basis of how the anthropoid arrived at this point and how the drama unfolds in primary groups of “brothers” rather than between just two children of the same parents.
It seems then difficult to overstate the significance of this violent birth of human order and meaning. Few people would have trouble recognizing the way society operates on the sanction of violence, and so it should not be hard accepting very probably it depends on original violence. Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s movie, 2001, illustrates this with panache. The primitive hominid group is visited by an extraterrestrial Monolith. The first thing that happens after this catalytic visit is for the group’s leader to use an ox bone as a weapon, violently subduing a rival. He then tosses the bone in the air where it morphs gracefully into a stupendous space-station to the accompaniment of the Blue Danube. This does not seem problematic; it is even poetic. The first thing that intelligence does is kill. But if we go deeper into the Girardian hypothesis we see that the origin of intelligible meaning itself is from violence. (pp. 105-108)
It is much easier to see why dualistic thinking is so entrenched within the broader anthropological ‘history.’ One would think that the core insight of monotheism would be that humanity is one because God is one. But our anthropology works against it. Instead, proclaiming the oneness of God becomes a seemingly divine reason for another basis of us and them — those who believe in One God and those who don’t.
Jesus is trying to teach Nicodemus non-dual thinking of the Spirit. When we are born from above, we are born to the perspective of the oneness of God and humanity. If God is our heavenly parent, then all people are brothers and sisters. God loves the world so that he sent the Son to begin the undoing of us-and-them. Much of the time we prefer to live in that darkness.
The way out is facilitated by the spirituality of contemplative thinking — being able to suspend judgment of differences like us and them and live in the oneness of God’s creation. It is a spirituality unleashed as the Spirit sent through Jesus’ death and resurrection. In John’s Gospel much of the language sounds dualistic, but I think it uses that language paradoxically to transcend it. Jesus leads the way beyond into the light of God’s oneness, but we so often prefer to live in the darkness of good and bad. We can glimpse the paradox especially through the way in which John uses the language of “judge” / “judgment” (krinō/krisis); link to a word study on judgment in John.
In John 3:17, we might think it’s a big deal that God does not “condemn” (NRSV) in Jesus Christ — and it is. But “condemn” actually translates krino with negative connotations that “judge” does not have. One can judge positively, too. So what happens if we translate krino as “judge” in John 3:17? God sends Jesus not just to not condemn but to not judge altogether — at least not as a judge trapped in our dualistic thinking of good/bad, us/them. Jesus comes in God’s Spirit of oneness and love in order for us to begin transcending our dualistic judging that is at the core of our sacred violence.
Bottom line: Jesus came to unleash a movement of God’s Holy Spirit that is in the process of redeeming our evolution. Here is the follow-up to the Tony Bartlett quote above (get and read this book!):
If meaning is rooted in the murder of the victim and our language cannot help but be complicit in that murder, then Christ, the one who entered willingly and forgivingly into the root structure of our human universe, is engaged in overturning the order of meaning itself. When John’s gospel says “In the beginning was the word / logos,” and the word / logos came into the world “yet the world did not know him” (John 1:1, 10), it is telling us that the divine principle of meaning arises in the midst of history and yet is not recognized. But then later in the same gospel we are told that when this principle is “lifted up” (12:33), i.e. as the Crucified, he will in fact draw all humanity to himself. In other words, the Crucified is the effective radical subversion of historical human meaning. The word / logos which has its beginning both in the gospel and “in the beginning” with God can and will become the word / logos for human history.
But in what sense, compared to the original violence of the binary system? How can the Crucified change the root character of language? Paul gives us a hint when he says, “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you . . . was not ‘Yes and No’; but in him it is always ‘Yes.’ For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’” (2 Cor. 1:20). Paul’s words can suggest a massive creational affirmation present in Christ, and the consequences for the world would be a resounding “Yes!” in answer to its deepest life questions. It is extremely difficult to imagine such a thing, to conceive of a situation where all the practical, moral and technical questions controlled by yes / no are swept up into a single “Yes!” What would happen to nuclear fission, to computers, to genetic engineering, to law and prisons, to wealth and banks and politics and wars? The best paradigm, always, is falling into and making love, where everything in a person cries out to and for the beloved, without any sense of negation, only of fulfillment. But how is the whole world to become anything resembling one single great act of falling in love? And for ever and always?
Fortunately it is not my task to lay out any kind of analytic blueprint for this dream: first, because from the whole model of movement I have been pursuing this can only happen on an evolutionary pathway stretching into the future, something that can hardly be known in advance; second, and conclusively, because the nature of this evolution is always a willing embrace of the pathway by individuals and groups, and by its very nature this embrace is a leap into the void in the same manner as Christ’s. To discover the gift of the Spirit and to bring about a world-in-love both require a mysterious surrender which cannot grasp in advance the things they seek. To try to do so undoes the absolute “falling” which love requires. Indeed, reflectively, the overcoming of negation implies a leap which cannot be previewed: the moment the outcome is conceived in advance it becomes a kind of negation of the present order, and so back within the present order! The actual practice of a world-in-love has to be surrender through love and trust which indeed forfeits knowledge. I am thinking here of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Mother Teresa who give themselves for a world of love without any guarantee of ultimate success. But paradoxically it is only by their not-knowing the outcome that an absolute act and affirmation of love is possible. (Virtually Christian, pp. 110-11)
We are born again when we enter into covenants of unconditional love — marriage, having children, life-long friendships — and baptism, following the Crucified Messiah into the oneness of God’s love. The primary cultivation of that relationship with God, in addition to living in covenant with others, comes through the many ancient practices of contemplative spirituality, which gradually undo the dualistic thinking of our birth into human culture.
1. Brian McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In, chs. 12-13. The 2nd in the “A New Kind of Christian” trilogy, this gem of a book has Neo telling the biblical story to Kerry, a postmodern scientist battling cancer, in seven movements: Creation, Crisis, Calling, Conflict/Conversation, Christ, Church, and Consummation. The third movement, Calling, is covered in chs. 12-13 and centered on Genesis 12:1-4. At this point in the story, Neo is working on a touring boat in the Galapagos Islands, where Kerry is studying giant turtles. In his Sunday evening worship for tourists, he comments on Genesis 12 phrase by phrase.
Then Neo launched into a long discussion about the word “election.” Kerry was confused by this, thinking he was talking about politics, and then realized that election must have been a technical term of some controversy in theology that neither she nor anyone else in the service seemed to understand (or care much about). Eventually, she guessed that by election, Neo simply meant being chosen to be blessed in this way. He said that one of the greatest heresies (another word that she wished he had found a synonym for) for both the Jewish people and Christians (and maybe Muslims too, she wondered) is a failure to take seriously these important lines of poetry. When religions assume that their adherents are chosen only to be blessed and forget that they are blessed to be a blessing, they distort their identity and they drift from God’s calling for them. When they assume that they are blessed exclusively rather than instrumentally, when they see themselves as blessed to the exclusion of others rather than for the benefit of others, they become part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
Then Neo became very personal. He told the group of people crowded into the cabin of La Aventura — Ecuadorians and Americans, Christians and Jews, believers and agnostics, and some atheists too — his own story, how he had once been a pastor, feeling himself called in a special way, like Abraham, to bless others. But he discovered that “being a blessing” was harder than he anticipated, and he had become very discouraged and disillusioned, and eventually left church work. He went back to college for advanced studies in science, and eventually became a teacher, a high school science teacher. But even in that role, he said, he realized that he was no less possessed by this identity, someone whom God had blessed so that he could be a blessing to others.
He told them about the death of his father, and his decision to leave teaching to care for his mother, who was very ill. “It was all the same,” he said. “Different jobs, different titles, different cities, but the same calling: to enjoy God’s blessing so that I could be a blessing to others, whether to a church, to a classroom, or to my mother. Or to be here on La Aventura with all of you tonight.” [pp. 91-92]
2. Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, ch. 4 and pp. 74-75. Chapter 4 begins with a condensed version of the first four movements from The Story We Find Ourselves In, with one paragraph on Calling:
How does God respond to the crisis precipitated by Adam and Eve? Abandon humanity and leave us in the mess we made? Destroy the earth and start all over again? Abrogate our freedom and force us to behave? None of the above. God constitutes a “crisis response team” in the form of a family — a lineage of people who will, through the generations, remember their Creator and their original purpose and who will seek to bring truth, blessing, wisdom, and healing to all people so that God’s creation can be rescued from human evil. God begins with an elderly couple, Abraham and Sarah (about 2000 BC), who miraculously conceive in their old age and give birth to the people who will be known as the Jews, people with a special vocation or calling to know God and make God known, to be enlightened and blessed by God, and to enlighten and bless everyone else. (We could call this third episode Calling.) [pp. 27-28]
The four movement capsule of the Hebrew Scriptures sets up placing Jesus’ mission in context, with Jesus generating a renewed version of each movement. Of Calling, McLaren writes:
In calling people to faith, in choosing twelve disciples, in challenging them to be the light of the world, in sending out his disciples to multiply new disciples of “all nations” (Matthew 28:19), in constantly affirming the need to believe the humanly impossible is possible with God, Jesus returns back further still to Abraham, the man of faith, the origin of the twelve tribes of Israel, the original recipient of the call to be blessed in order to bless “all nations” (Genesis 26:4). [p. 30]
And Jesus’ brand of Calling is expanded on in Chapter 9, “You Can’t Keep a Secret”:
Yet this idea of global mission was in another sense not unprecedented. As we mentioned in chapter 4, the primal calling of the primal Jew, Abraham, had implicit global dimensions: “I will bless you and make you a great nation, and all nations of the world will be blessed through you” (see Genesis 12:2-3). The resonance between those words and Jesus’ commission to “make disciples of all nations” is unmistakable. But the ancient Jews, like their more recent monotheistic colleagues, often devolved into being preoccupied with being blessed themselves, forgetting or suppressing their calling to be a blessing to others. They, too, often saw their calling as exclusive (“We are blessed to the exclusion of all other nations”) rather than instrumental (“We are blessed for the benefit of all other nations”).
The prophets and poets who arose unpredictably through Jewish history frequently reminded the people of their global calling and rebuked them for their parochial exclusivism. Even with the words of the prophets in their national consciousness, though, the people may well have thought, Perhaps we will be a blessing to other nations someday — but that won’t happen until we are free from foreign occupiers. Jesus seems to say, “The kingdom of God doesn’t need to wait until something else happens. No, it is available and among you now. So start spreading the blessing spoken of by Abraham now. Invite people of all nations, races, classes, and religions to participate in this network of dynamic, interactive relationships with God and all God’s creation! I’ve taught you how to live in the kingdom way; now it’s time for you to teach others. Go on! Get going now!” [pp. 74-75]
3. Gil Bailie, has several places with good insights on Abraham: “Creation, Fall & Sacrifice” audio tape series, tape #2; Violence Unveiled, pp.140-143; “At Cross Purposes” audio tape series, tape #1. A summary of his view on Abraham and Sarah is that they begin the mission of being Church, to be called out (ekklesia) of conventional human culture, based on making and expelling victims, to the life of being the expelled one as the basis for God’s culture. Abraham’s first baby step away from the human culture of his day was to move decisively away from human sacrifice when he hears the voice of God offering him a ram.
Reflections and Questions
1. These verses have become among the most important to me in all of Scripture. As I seek to live my faith from day-to-day, there is no more simple theme than “blessed to be a blessing.” The promise of blessing to Abraham and Sarah is not just for their sakes but that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
2. From the perspective of mimetic theory, it is the difference between catching God’s desire and catching each other’s. In the flesh, to use St. Paul’s terminology, our desires are for limited objects and lead to rivalry. In the Spirit, God’s loving desire for the whole world begins to become our desire. In making a covenant with Abraham and Sarah, God initiates a long process of salvation that promises to bring us into line with God’s desire, with a goal no less than the blessing of being chosen in order to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. A sense of chosenness for its own sake is a failed sense of calling. Chosenness must always be for the sake of being a blessing to all the families of the earth.
3. On Romans 4 immediately below, the idea of history is raised in connection with the doctrine of election. Again from the perspective of mimetic theory, history begins with a calling out of conventional human culture — mired as it is in the “eternal return” (Nietzsche), the cyclical nature of sacrificial crises and their sacrificial resolutions — into covenant with the Creator of the whole earth. This will always mean a call away from sacrifice because the latter always must have a logic of being over against someone or something. The Creator of the whole world is never against anything she has made, so being chosen by the Creator God means a responsibility to the whole world, to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. But humanity is so mired in sacrifice that we could never be wholly called away from conventional culture until we clearly see God’s having absolutely nothing to do with sacrifice, so much so that it took God’s Son becoming a willing self-sacrifice to our sacrifice to reveal it and forgive it, turning it into the possibility of true repentance, a true coming into God’s Culture of Life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
1. Gil Bailie, “The Letter to the Romans” audio tape series, tape #3. One of the insights most helpful to me is his Girardian take on Paul’s difference between flesh and Spirit.
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence. Abraham’s call brings up the doctrine of election, which is primarily dealt with on pages 129-139, on Romans 9-11.
3. The journal Dialog, Vol. 32, Fall 1993, is entitled “Paul and Luther: A Debate over Sacred Violence,” with Hamerton-Kelly’s book as the central item for debate. One of the key items of debate ends up being what Hamerton-Kelly says about the doctrine of election. René Girard (“A Girardian Review of Hamerton-Kelly on Paul,” Dialog 32:4 [Fall 1993], pp. 269-274) has a review, as well, and one of the only places where he disagrees a bit with Hamerton-Kelly is on the notion of election (see p. 273). For more on this discussion between Hamerton-Kelly and Girard, see the resources for Romans 9 in the page for Proper 13A.
Girard talks about election in terms of “maximum responsibility.” To me, this makes perfect sense in light of the Gen. 12:1-3: the goal is nothing less than to be a blessing for all the families of the earth. It can be no other way if, in covenant love with God, we love the whole world. The flip side of this positive calling, then, is also “colossal failure,” so that “the doctrine of the election is revealed as a call to repentance, an intensified awareness of our guilt, not a narcissistic contemplation of some imaginary superiority.” And this sense of guilt is only productive when met with the sense of hope that also comes with being called. Girard writes:
The total Paulinian idea [of election] must be retained, I feel, in order to balance the sense of guilt with a sense of hope. The continuation of hope is the same thing as a belief in the significance of history. If we do away with hope, we run the risk of turning the sense of guilt into the destructive despair that is a negation of history.
4. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, on “The Pauline Witness” to original sin, particularly in Romans 1-8, pp. 125-130.
5. Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (see my review on the Amazon.com page). This is now the definitive book that must be contended with regarding any crucial interpretations of Romans. Chapter 18 is on Romans 3:27-4:25. Chapter 17, “The Deliverance of God, and Its Rhetorical Implications,” argues that dikaiosyne in Paul means liberation, deliverance, rather than a forensic imputation of rightness or justification. Paul’s Gospel is about creation being delivered from the powers of sin and death, through an unconditionally gracious rescue operation by God’s faithful Messiah — instead of an imputation of “justified” graciously stamped on a “totally depraved” humanity. The latter Justification theology either devolves into a conditional grace based on the faith of the believer, instead of being based on the fidelity of the Messiah to his rescue mission, or it ends up wandering down the Calvinist path of double predestination, conditioned on God’s election of some but not others. (Luther seemingly chose the path of mysticism, refusing to go down the path of double predestination due to the mystery of God’s grace. Campbell instead chooses the Luther who centers his theology on a God who delivers the ungodly [Rom 4:5; 5:6] — in other words, all of humanity — as the Luther of unconditional grace. The other Luther reads Romans 1-4 in a flawed way that wanders down the path of conditional grace — short of double predestination.) Either way, the primary interpretations of Justification theology mean a conditional grace instead of the unconditional grace that the Reformation thought it stood for.
1. The key pun in this passage (see, for example, Raymond Brown‘s Anchor Bible commentary, vol. 1, pp. 130ff.) is the Greek word anothen, which can be translated as either “again” or “from above” — hence, Nicodemus’ misunderstanding. He is thinking in terms of being born again, and Jesus is trying to get him thinking in terms of being born from above — or both, being born again from above. The key, it seems to me, is that the source of rebirth comes from outside this world. Things of this world are flesh; the source of true life and power comes from above by the Spirit.
2. Krino, vs. 17-19, “judge,” “condemn.” The broadest meaning of krino is “judge,” which can turn out negatively or positively — condemnation or acquittal. Acquittal is still a judgment. To praise someone for their goodness is still a judgment. So then why is krino so often translated with the negative option here, “condemn”? See the opening comments above for more, and link to a word study on judgment in John.
3. zoe aionios, vs. 15-16, “eternal life.” Crucial to changing interpretations of New Testament theology is get a more accurate translation of zoe aionios. Here, for example, is an insightful commentary by Brian McLaren, in The Secret Message of Jesus:
Interestingly, John almost never uses the term “kingdom of God” (which is at the heart of Jesus’ message for Matthew, Mark, and Luke). There are two exceptions, both of which occur in this unique conversation [with Nicodemus in John 3]. Instead, John normally translates “kingdom of God” into another phrase that is notoriously hard to render in English. Most commonly, John’s translation of Jesus’ original phrase is rendered “eternal life” in English. Unfortunately, the phrase eternal life is often misinterpreted to mean “life in heaven after you die” — as are kingdom of God and its synonym, kingdom of heaven — so I think we need to find a better rendering.
If “eternal life” doesn’t mean “life after death,” what does it mean? Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus reduces the phrase simply to “life,” or “life to the full.” Near the end of John’s account, Jesus makes a particularly fascinating statement in a prayer, and it is as close as we get to a definition: “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom [God has] sent” (John 17:3). So here, “eternal life” means knowing, and knowing means an interactive relationship. In other words, “This is eternal life, to have an interactive relationship with the only true God and with Jesus Christ, his messenger.” Interestingly, that’s what a kingdom is too: an interactive relationship one has with a king, the king’s other subjects, and so on.
The Greek phrase John uses for “eternal life” literally means “life of the ages,” as opposed, I think we could say, to “life as people are living it these days.” So John’s related phrases — eternal life, life to the full, and simply life — give us a unique angle on what Jesus meant by “kingdom of God”: a life that is radically different from the way people are living these days, a life that is full and overflowing, a higher life that is centered in an interactive relationship with God and with Jesus. Let’s render it simply “an extraordinary life to the full centered in a relationship with God.” (pp. 36-37)
McLaren is following recent New Testament scholarship on this rendering — preeminently N.T. Wright, especially in his books The Resurrection of the Son of God and Surprised by Hope. He offers the translation of “eternal life” in his The Kingdom New Testament, as “the life of the coming age,” or “life in God’s new age.” His best explanation of translating the Greek phrase zoe aionias is in How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels:
“God so loved the world,” reads the famous text in the King James Version of John 3:16, “that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” There we are, think average Christian readers. This is the biblical promise of a timeless heavenly bliss.
But it isn’t. In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios appears in the gospels, and in Paul’s letters for that matter, it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two “aions” (we sometimes use the word “eon” in that sense): the “Present age,” ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the “age to come,” ha-olam ha-ba. The “age to come,” many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the “present age.” You can see Paul, for instance, referring to this idea in Galatians 1:4, where he speaks of Jesus giving himself for our sins “to rescue us from the present evil age.” In other words, Jesus has inaugurated, ushered in, the “age to come.” But there is no sense that this “age to come” is “eternal” in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay. (pp. 44-45)
4. houtōs, “so,” in vs. 16. The English word placement makes “so” sound like an intensifier for “loved.” But the meaning of this word in Greek is more often along the lines of “so” in the sense of “in this way.” James Alison comments:
This translation treats the word not as a way of making the love intense, but of demonstrating what it looks like: “For it was in this way, you see, that God loved the world: that he gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.” (Broken Hearts and News Creations, p. 125; see more below)
1. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” audio tape series, tape #4. Bailie reads John 3 and 4 together. He gives a very helpful contrast: (1) Nicodemus: upright leader of the Jews, strict, orthodox Pharisee, a moral paragon, a man; (2) The Samaritan woman: a heretic by Jewish standards, a loose woman of moral disrepute, a woman. Also, the setting: at midnight vs. noon; and the theme: birth vs. marriage. These are two contrasting stories of encounters with Jesus, with the second one very definitely yielding faith. (The first outcome is left hanging; we don’t immediately find out Nicodemus’ ultimate response.) Link to my notes / transcription of Bailie’s lecture on John 3-4.
3. James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment, chap. 10, “Nicodemus and the Boys in the Square,” pp. 209-235. This imaginative essay begins with a description of a carnival scene that came to him in a dream, where “the Duchess,” a closeted and cautious Roman Catholic priest is hauled before a playful gay inquisition and interrogated by a theologically astute drag queen. Observing the trial is Nicodemus, who has stepped into Alison’s parable out of the Gospel of John. He is both attracted to and puzzled by Jesus, whom his colleagues have condemned as a blasphemer. He neither wants to betray his tradition nor miss out on the possibility that God is up to something in the ministry of this scandalous, compelling rabbi from Nazareth. Nicodemus’ fascination is an illustration for the Spirit’s continued renewal of movement toward the truth:
I’m not sure what form the Christian discussion about matters gay will take in the future. I’m confident that the dynamic which has been at work since Pentecost will continue. This is the dynamic by which we discover the truth about what is in the degree to which we learn to step aside from our involvement in lynching. In the degree to which discussions about being gay take place outside the shadow of the bonfire, in that degree will we discover what it is all about, and learn to behave accordingly. Understanding starts to flourish where people refuse to put torches to pyres. If anything is meant by the phrase “Natural Law” it is this: that what is gradually becomes available to our understanding as what God has always lovingly intended for us, in the degree to which we step out of the darkness of our own moralistic solutions to what we do not understand. Moralistic solutions create and shore up false understanding by victimage, and are the strict reverse of the journey towards truth proposed by the Paraclete, the attorney for the defense.
4. James Alison, Broken Hearts and News Creations, pp. 125ff. Exegetical note #4 (above) is the launching point for Alison’s essay (Ch. 8), “Strong Protagonism and Weak Presence: The Changes in Tone of the Voice of God.” Alison writes:
My motive for beginning with a grammatical niggle is that it points towards something more properly theological. If we start with “For God so loved,” then all our concentration and effort goes into imagining the emotional intensity which lies behind the manifest activity. What is really interesting is not so much what happened, about which we can satisfy ourselves with the briefest of enquiries, describing it in very spare terms. What would really be interesting is the degree in which the act was intended, the push behind it, the emotional force with which the principal agent of this activity carried it out.
If, on the other hand, we begin with “It was in this way that God loved,” then we have no prior access to some supposed interior life of God, modelled on our own. Instead it is that which is visible, that which is manifest in the activity itself, which becomes the lure for our fascination. And it is only in the degree in which we allow ourselves to be pulled inside that activity, and what we can discover starting from it, that we begin to get some notion of God’s love.
To my way of thinking, this second reading is preferable. And I have two motives for thinking like this. The first is having begun to notice the tendency in John’s text for things to be said with such blinding simplicity and obviousness that they pass us by completely, while we look for a more complicated meaning. In John, time and time again, I have the strange sensation that the very simplicity of what he sets out so clearly and straightforwardly overwhelms us because we are convinced that we are dealing with something mysterious. Returning to the simplicity of what is actually said is a work of years.
My second motive is more properly theological. In the first reading we don’t actually learn much about God, other than that God has emotions like ours; and that an example, perhaps an especially outstanding example, of God’s emotive quality would be this act of love. In the second reading, our whole understanding of God, which we have to prune of all our projections concerning God’s emotions or subjectivity, gets to be reconfigured starting only from what God has done. That is to say, it is what has been done which comes to be the criterion for who God is, causing us, bit by bit, completely to revise any other perception we might have of God. It is not a presupposition about God which gets to dictate how we are to understand what has happened. (pp. 126-27)
5. Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, ch. 5; the Nicodemus story is a key story in elaborating the idea of “The Hidden Message of Jesus”: “Nicodemus has only been with Jesus for a matter of seconds, and already he’s confused. Why isn’t Jesus making his message clear? Why is his message so hidden — in metaphors, in strange and convoluted language?” (p. 38)
6. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 40, “The Spirit Is Moving! (Pentecost Sunday),” uses this passage as a background text to his main Pentecost message:
Following Jesus today has much in common with the original disciples’ experience. We are welcomed as disciples by God’s grace, not by earning or status. We learn and practice Christ’s teaching in the company of fellow learners. We seek to understand and imitate his example, and we commune with him around a table. But there is an obvious and major difference between our experience and theirs: they could see Jesus and we can’t. Surprisingly, according to John’s gospel, that gives us an advantage. “It’s better that I go away so the Spirit can come,” he said. If he were physically present and visible, our focus would be on Christ over there, right there, out there . . . but because of his absence, we discover the Spirit of Christ right here, in here, within.
Jesus describes the Spirit as another comforter, another teacher, another guide — just like him, but available to everyone, everywhere, always. The same Spirit that had descended like a dove upon him will descend upon us, he promises. The same Spirit that filled him will fill all who open their hearts.
7. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from February 24, 2002 (Woodside Village Church), and sermon from February 17, 2008 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
8. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2011, titled “Being Born From Above,” and an updated version in 2014, “Born From Above“; a sermon in 2017, “The Grace of Letting Go and Starting Over.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2014, our parish turned the five Sundays in Lent into dramatic monologues; three lay leaders took the texts for the odd numbered Sundays; I took the even. So for this 2nd Sunday in Lent I spoke in the voice of Nicodemus to tell my story of conversion, how in encountering Jesus I was brought into God’s story of “The Healing Oneness of Love.”
In 2011, the theme for Lent involved highlighting core values for the congregation that we had been working on. The sermon sought to emphasize a call to antiracism, “Born from Above into God’s Family.”
2. “Eternal Life.” It seems to me that what is at issue here in these texts, the bottom line, is what constitutes real life, “eternal life.” How does one achieve it? Or perhaps the word “achieve” belies the problem. We don’t achieve real life, we receive it as a gift through faith. It’s all our grasping after life, thinking we achieve it, that leads to death. (And how much does it help to translate it as “life in God’s new age”? Doesn’t the latter make it more clear that its God’s work in this world that counts? See the exegetical notes above.)
It’s amazing how we can so easily turn a gift into an achievement. Being familiar with the story of Abraham and Sarah, for example, we might be tempted to think of their faith as an achievement. We notice how willing they were to move away from family and friends in order to receive the promise of descendants that will make a great nation. Faith, according to our achievement oriented way of approaching things (“flesh”?), is being able to give up everything in order to receive something else. But that giving up everything is still an achievement.
St. Paul, in his interpretation of the story of Abraham and Sarah in Romans 4, goes to great pains to make sure that we understand that the life-giving promise which Abraham received was not something he earned but was reckoned to him as a free gift through faith. But, until one gets to Romans 8, I think that St. Paul does not as clearly put this in the cosmic context as does our Gospel text from John. When I read much of Romans, I think it is still too easy to keep things on the level of personal or individual justification through faith. Only in the few verses in the middle of chapter 8 does one more clearly get the cosmic context.
John’s Gospel more helpfully, I think, presents this matter of faith as a matter of true life, “eternal life.” Jesus tells Nicodemus that we must virtually be born again, from above, of the Spirit this time. And the key is once again faith in Christ, “believing in him.” But the divine righteousness, the divine plan, is more readily perceived because John presents these matters of faith as a matter of real life, “eternal life.” And the wider context of real life is not just my life, either now or in “the hereafter,” but the cosmic context of God in the process of saving the world. “God so loved the world….” God sent the Son into the world to save the world. Not just to save you or me, but the world.
Then, what’s the point of personal faith? Why is that so important? Faith, belief, engages us in that work of saving the world right now. We become part of what God is doing to rebirth the world into real life right now.
The very heart of James Alison‘s Girardian reading of the Gospel also revolves around this issue of death vs. true life. The pivotal chapter in his The Joy of Being Wrong is the fourth chapter, “The Resurrection and Original Sin,” in which he unpacks the doctrine of original sin as centering on the issue of death vs. life. We are beings whose lives have come to revolve around death, and God in Jesus Christ came to offer us true life, “eternal life,” for all those who believe in him.
At the heart of this pivotal chapter is this key paragraph, at the heart of which is a reference both to John 3:16-17 and Paul’s key argument in Romans:
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. This is the witness of the remarkably similar passages found in John 3:16-17 and Romans 3:21-26, as well of course as 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.” (The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 117-118)
The basic outline of chapter four is: first a brilliant statement of Alison’s central theme in a section bearing the title of the book, “The Joy of Being Wrong” (pp. 115-119); a fleshing out of this thesis through the primary movements of Scripture, beginning with “The Johannine Witness” (pp. 119-125), using John 9 as its centerpiece; continuing with “The Pauline Witness” (pp. 125-130), using Romans 1-8 as its centerpiece; and concluding with a retrospective look at the Old Testament and its movement toward the Christian revelation, “The Culmination of the Discovery of Sin” (pp. 130-138). I gave you portions of section 4 a few weeks ago (Epiphany 3A) with the recommendation of reading at least this one chapter of Alison’s book. I re-double my recommendation this week, as its themes shed great light, I think, on the readings for the next several weeks. I give the first and third portions of the chapter this week in order to help unpack the John 3 and Romans 4 passages, respectively. I’ll give the second portion of the chapter in two weeks when John 9 is the gospel text.
But the other aspect of Alison’s work that is compelling to me, in light of what we have talked about here, is the way in which he always immediately brings in creation when we begin to experience the full impact of the Resurrection’s saving power. To experience the power of the Resurrection is to begin to really experience God’s saving power of life for the whole world. That’s the import of such an early theological leap in the life of the church to a Cosmic Christ who shared in God’s work of creation since the beginning of time. The example of Alison’s work that I have made readily available on this site is the last part of chapter 2 in Raising Abel, a portion entitled (excerpt) “The Third Step: Creation in Christ.” He makes a similar move in chapter 3 of The Joy of Being Wrong (pp. 94-102).
Finally, in his writings on John 9 (The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 119-125; Contagion 1997, pp. 26-46; Faith Beyond Resentment, chapter 1), Alison points to how Jesus’ act of healing the man born blind echoes the creation story: Jesus takes the soil of the ground mixed with his own spit to continue his Father’s work. And ‘doing his Father’s work’ is the same response Jesus had used to challenges of healing on the sabbath in John 5. What is God’s work? Creating. Jesus reveals the power of eternal life by continuing to do God’s work of creation. Healing is the work of on-going creation. When the Resurrection brings God’s work of forgiveness in such a decisive manner, the work of renewing creation begins in earnest, and, through faith (where the Spirit blows), we are able to join in that work of life, too.
But that’s not all. The evangelist John emphasizes that “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind” (John 9:32). Alison suggests that this points to the wider anthropological context of humanity’s being blind since the beginning of our worlds — blind to the foundation of human culture in collective violence. And the lifting up on the cross, with just such an act of collective violence against the Lamb of God, will finally reveal the truth of those foundations, making it possible to heal the blindness humanity has suffered since our birth. The revelation of such violent foundations, paired with the forgiveness of the Risen Christ, brings the possibility of rebirth for humanity into a new culture, eschatologically anticipated through life in the church. Humanity’s complicitness with the forces of death can be forgiven, and we can in faith begin to live anew — to have “eternal life.”
3. “Born from above.” John 3 further presents us with the image of being born from above. In 2005 I began the Lenten season by preaching the story of Genesis 3 around the insight of mimetic theory into persons as being constituted through the eyes of others. “Self-consciousness,” often tied with the maturation process of ‘losing the innocence’ of childhood, is, according to mimetic theory, more accurately an “other-consciousness.” We become increasingly aware of how others see us, and so we increasingly see ourselves through the eyes of others. My reflections for Lent 1 bring out the role of eyes in the Genesis 3 story; and I suggest a good February story, the movie Groundhog Day, as an illustration of seeing ourselves and the world through the eyes of others. I also suggest an ideal Girardian resource for understanding this theme, namely, Chapter 9 of James Alison‘s On Being Liked.
John 3 presents the opportunity to extend this theme over several weeks — the theme of persons constituted through the eyes of others — through its language of being born from above. We are reborn from above as we find ourselves being known through God’s loving eyes in Jesus Christ. Nicodemus is still perhaps too closed off to this possibility. He even comes under the cover of darkness, signaling his not wanting to be seen. But the Samaritan woman at the well in next week’s John 4 text provides a good example. She encounters Jesus in the bright light of high noon, and through the eyes of Jesus she is able to see herself in a new light. And Lent 4A brings a climax of these themes, perhaps, with the John 9 text about rebirthing humanity and healing our blindness by seeing ourselves through the forgiving eyes of Jesus. Will there be an extension of these themes for the John 11 text of Lent 5A? In 2005 I’m in a team ministry and don’t preach every week; but perhaps 2008 will provide the opportunity for five weeks under the theme: “Reborn from above to eternal life through God’s loving eyes in Jesus Christ.”
4. I’ve thought about getting into character as Nicodemus and writing a monologue from his perspective, the sort of approach I take to a sermon every now and then (and did so in the following weeks of Lent A). But in 1999 I ended up making it one of those rare weeks that I explicitly share the Girardian thesis with the congregation. To do so, I still get into character but this time myself, sharing with them from the heart what the Girardian insight has meant to me in recent years for my encounters with Christ, in a sermon entitled “Dying for True Life.”
5. In 1999, COV&R member Diana Culbertson responded to these texts with the following observations about Nicodemus:
…we do know how Nicodemus responded — eventually. He shows up at the beginning, the middle, and the end. Chapter 7 is one of the most interesting chapters in the Gospel. The reader is caught between conflicting voices. All the theories about the identity of Jesus are proposed. It is Nicodemus who urges us “to give him a hearing.” His enemies (check the Greek) argue: “The prophet from Galilee will not arise” — which I believe is a legitimate translation of the text always given to us as something like “Prophets do not come from Galilee.” At the death of Jesus we see him again, one of the last to touch the body of the Lord (19:39). I love to watch the gradual conversion of the scholar who arrives a little too late, who broods perhaps a little too long, but whose work of mercy is the sign of his ultimate and total conversion.
6. It seems to me that another important theme in these lessons is that the power to save us comes from outside the world as an act of grace. It is not something we can achieve with resources from inside of ourselves or from fleshly resources of this world. It takes the Spirit’s entry into this world “from above” to initiate the work of God’s salvation, a work of new creation, a work of “eternal life.” “Flesh” is “of the world,” and “Spirit” is not of this world but comes into this world “from above” to rebirth it.
7. Do we need to talk about the difference between re-incarnation and resurrection? Nicodemus is thinking in terms of being born again, which is still trapped in the fleshly existence of this world that needs saving. This world needs to be reborn from above, from a source of life that is outside of it. Is Nicodemus’ brand of thinking that of re-incarnation? Resurrection, on the other hand, is the first fruits of something much bigger, the rebirth of the whole world. And we begin to experience that true power of life as we live in the faith of the resurrection.
Such talk wouldn’t necessarily need to be “inter-faith.” How has the Christian faith lapsed back into one that is more in terms of “re-incarnation” — except we jettison the re-incarnation part to talk about going directly into Nirvana by accumulating the good karma of believing in Jesus. Isn’t the popularized version of heaven more like that? And so it isn’t too surprising, is it?, that some contemporary Christians have begun to blend belief in re-incarnation with their view of heaven: This worldly existence is an endless hell unless we accumulate the good karma of believing in Jesus and being his disciple.
Mustn’t a resurrection faith include the cosmic dimension of the whole world being reborn, saved? Resurrection is the first fruits of a new heaven and a new earth. It is God’s power of life through Jesus, bringing forgiveness into this world that it might be based on grace instead of debt. Faith in Jesus Christ means being grafted to the vine of this new life come into the world, not some ticket to an other-worldly existence.
In mentioning Nirvana, I may inadvertently have been dismissive of Buddhism and Hinduism. There are ‘popularized’ versions of those faith traditions, too, which get caught up in the pull of our human beginnings in religion of sacred violence. A reader of this page recommended an article on Buddhism that resonates well with Mimetic Theory: “Toward the other: Christianity and Buddhism on desire,” by Thomas E. Reynolds. Also worth exploring on this interfaith front is the recent book by Mark Heim (who has written other books from the perspective of Mimetic Theory): Crucified Wisdom: Theological Reflection on Christ and the Bodhisattva.
8. Rebirth of the world is akin to what John narrates of the man born blind in John 9. His healing, something which the man himself observes that “never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind” (John 9:32), signals the possibility of healing the world’s blindness since the beginning — in the terms of John 3, a rebirth from above by the Spirit. See the relevant resources from James Alison in Lent 4A and/or the comment there specifically linking John 9 to John 3.