Excerpt from James Alison's The Joy of Being Wrong, the first section of chapter 7, "The Trinity, Creation, and Original Sin," New York: Crossroads, pp. 186-197.

I suggested in chapter 3 that the Christian understanding of creation was able to come into being in the degree to which Christ's death and resurrection removed the last traces of divine involvement in the maintenance of the order of this world. (1) While the perception of God was to some extent marked by some notion of God's complicity in the mechanism by which humans maintain social order, then the notion of creation itself remains to some extent tied to a suppression of pre-existent chaos. The perception of God as the self-giving human victim in the midst of the violent human chaos permits both the demythologization of God, the separation from involvement in violence and the creative self-manifestation of God as original gratuity.

I also suggested that the Doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of Original Sin are mutually interrelated in exactly the same way. The New Testament bears witness to the way in which, as the understanding of God is separated from complicity in human violence, so it becomes possible to understand the divine paternity of self-giving revealed in the life, death and resurrection of the Son. Simultaneously there is understood the "other paternity" of those who do not know the Father because they are involved in casting out and killing. That is to say that there is an internal coherence of mutual implication in the coming into being of the two doctrines. The revealing of the Trinity is both the making clear who God really is, breaking through distorted notions of God, and the making clear what are the mechanisms which produce the distorted perception of God, thus making clear who humans are. It is the being locked in these latter mechanisms that is the content of original sin.

I would here like to suggest that the bringing into being of the ecclesial hypostasis, which we saw in the last section, the making manifest of the Father, and the discovery of the real sense of God as creator are essentially the same thing, and that the investigation of this essential identity will enable us to fill out the shape of what is meant by original sin by exploring the nature of the un-filial, and the a-creatural, dimensions of the an-ecclesial hypostasis.

A Johannine Witness (2)

The key passage here is Jesus' discourse in John's Gospel starting at chapter 14. I suggest here that in Jesus discourse we have both Jesus' own awareness of his filiation from the beginning, and his understanding that what he is about to do is to create the possibility of filiation for his disciples. The explanation of what Jesus is about in John 14 is not merely a revelation of eternal truths about the Father, it is Jesus' creative bringing into being of the possibility of the Paternity of the Father as something lived out by other humans than Jesus alone. So, the disciples are told not to be troubled by the thought of Jesus' impending betrayal and death. Belief in the God who is without death, and Jesus who is able to live towards death utterly unmoved by it should permit them to discover a new spaciousness in the Father. There is nothing in the Father that is determined by the monotony of necessity, the fruit of death, so there are many rooms in his house. John is letting us know that Jesus, before his death, was able to imagine creative diversity in God. That is, that God is not something simply beyond death, a monotonous concept which is simply the inverse of the concept that it overcomes. Rather Jesus is able creatively to imagine God as something which is in no way anything to do with death, and hence is quite removed from monotony, and univocity of concept.

Then we are told that Jesus goes to prepare a place for the disciples. A certain naïve reading sees this as Jesus going to open up heaven for the disciples after they die. However I would suggest that it is much more coherent to read this taking into account the special Johannine understanding of "I go," which is that Jesus' self-giving up to death is his going to the Father, and is simultaneously what "prepares a place" for the disciples. That is to say that Jesus understands his self-giving up to death as the creative opening up of the possibility of divine paternity for the disciples. Thus, when Jesus goes to create the possibility of divine paternity, he will come again (through the Holy Spirit) and "take you to myself, that where I am you may be also" (John 14:3). That is to say, his presence after his self-giving works as bringing about the creation of God's paternity in the disciples, which is the same as the bringing about their filiation: enabling the disciples to become children of God (see John 1:12).

To the question, then, of the way Jesus is going, he replies that he is the way, the truth, and the life, not in some abstract or mystical sense but in the sense that what he is bringing about (through the self-giving up to death which is about to take place) is the creative act of making possible the living out of God's paternity in the midst of human life: the way. Hence the reply to Philip's question "show us the Father." Jesus' reply that the Father is in him and he in the Father goes further than merely indicating that by watching him the disciples can see revealed, as by a reflection, who the Father is. It clearly does mean that, but that is to ignore the creative element which Jesus is bringing about. This is indicated by Jesus' insistence on the works of his Father.

A certain traditional exegesis of these works sees them as the miracles or signs which Jesus produced validating his claims: these would be witnesses to his claim in a more or less straightforward apologetic sense. It would be more profitable, however, to interpret these within the context which John himself gives. This can be seen from Jesus' reply to those who objected to his working on the Sabbath in John 5:17: "But Jesus answered them, 'My Father is working still, and I am working.'" That is to say, that the Father, in Jesus, is bringing about the continuation and fulfilment of creation itself. The sabbath for John is the symbol of interrupted creation which locks its observers in an inability to participate further in the works of the Father. Jesus' response to Philip at 14:9-11 then indicates that in him the Father is continuing and bringing about the definitive work of creation. Those who cannot believe Jesus about the complete mutual involvement of himself and the Father should look to see what sort of thing he is bringing about: only the Father could conceivably be at work in Jesus' opening up the possibility for creation to continue where it had been snarled up.

However, and this is the important element: it is not Jesus and the Father all by themselves who are bringing about the possibility of the fruition of creation, as it were by some sort of extrinsic divine fiat. What Jesus is creatively bringing into being is the human possibility of humans themselves becoming sharers in the bringing to fruition of creation. Thus, when Jesus says: "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father" (John 14:12), he is indicating that his going to the Father (i.e., his self-giving up to death) is creative of the possibility of those believing in him (and thus believing through him in the non-definitive nature of death, and in the deathless nature of God) themselves becoming creative participants in creation. They will bring to fruition creation just as Jesus himself does, and they will be able to be more creative than he. The phrase "because I go to the Father" need not be interpreted in the negative sense of "because I will not be here myself to do greater works," a sense which is put into doubt by Jesus' claim that he will come back anyhow, taking the disciples to himself. Rather it must be interpreted in the sense "thanks to the fact of my self-giving up to death you will be able to enter in ways as yet unheard of into the death-less creation which I and my Father are bringing about."

Jesus then indicates that when the disciples ask for something in his name, he will do it so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. That is to say, the disciples, as they come to dwell in the person of the Son will be able actively to participate in the bringing into being in the world of the paternity of the Father. Jesus then goes on to explain how they are to come to dwell in his person and bring about the paternity of God in the world: by the loving obedience of his commandments. These commandments are shortly to be demonstrated as being brought together in one simple commandment: the imitation of Jesus' self-giving love (John 15:12). By the Father sending the Holy Spirit, Jesus himself will come to the disciples, and they will see him. The world will not see him. From the world's point of view, his going to the Father is simply his death, and thus disappearance. The disciples will see him not owing to some ghostly, external appearances to them, but much more richly: because he lives, they will live also. That is to say, his life will be seen in their capacity to live beyond (rather than live towards, i.e., moved by) death. It is by their coming to live beyond death (which is the same as their learning to live lives of self-giving towards, but unmoved by, death) that they will know the complete mutual implication of the Son and the Father, because they will themselves be caught up in the making real and visible of that mutual implication.

This is the sense then in which Jesus will manifest himself to his disciples (John 14:21-22). It is important that emphanizô here is not "reveal," in the sense of draw open a veil on a previously hidden reality, but manifest in the sense of a creative making present. By the disciples' loving imitation of Jesus' self-giving, they will creatively make present Jesus' sonship, and thus the divine paternity, in the world which does not know it. Here John engages in an extraordinary repetition of the word moné, dwelling, which had appeared before in verse 2, in a way which is completely in line with the "de-celestialization" of this passage, and its interpretation as opening up human creation of filiation, and thus of paternity, in the world. Where in 14:2 Jesus had announced that in his Father's house there are many monai, mansions, here we are told that it is by a person's loving imitation of Jesus' self-giving that the Father will turn this person into a moné, where it is the Father and Jesus who dwell in the person who is creating divine paternity and filiation, and not alone the man who moves to a divine dwelling. So, the Father's house now appears clearly to consist in the creation of many dwellings among human beings.

This brings out the sense in which the Paraklétos 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 sense then in which the disciples, if they loved Jesus should rejoice that he goes to the Father, because the Father is greater than he, is not that if one loves someone one should be happy for them if they are going to something far bigger and better. Rather the sense is derived from 14:12, and the way in which because Jesus goes to the Father the disciples will be able to do greater works than he. Jesus' going to the Father (his creative self-giving, "foundational" of a new humanity), is a creative act of aggrandizement of the Father, conducted without any rivalry, and permitting the disciples themselves to become involved in just such creative aggrandizement. The synoptic hallowing of the Father's name, or the Johannine glorification of the Father in the Son, is precisely the non-rivalistic creation of humans making present God's paternity ever more widely. The phrase "for the Father is greater than I" (John 14:28), which was to give so much trouble in the subordinationist controversies, (3) is much better understood as indicative of how undistorted mimetic desire both permits the uniqueness of Jesus' Sonship, and at the same time ensures that that uniqueness is not exclusive, but constantly and creatively brings about an ever wider process of creative filiation.

Jesus concludes by explaining to his disciples that he has told them all about the real sense of his going to the Father before it happens so that when it does take place, they may believe (John 14:29). At one level this can be read as merely saying: "I've told you this, so that when my prophecy is fulfilled, you won't be caught by surprise, but will believe that what I was saying was true all along." However that is seriously to underestimate the force of the words. For the purpose of the going to the Father (the self-giving "foundational" act) is precisely to create belief.

For John, Jesus' creative self-giving and bringing into being the ecclesial hypostasis is a making possible the manifestation of who the Father really is, and the Son as the "foundational" possibility of participating in the death-less life of both of them. That is to say, belief is a gnoseological discovery which is simultaneously a participation in life. It is not such as a simple acquisition of truths, but as an expanding possession of the believer by the Father and the Son creating eternal life in the midst of this world through the creation of an imitative adhesion by the believer to the word and self-giving of Jesus. This can be seen from the importance John attributes to belief in other contexts. In John 6:40 and 47 Jesus solemnly assures those to whom he is talking that it is the will of the Father that "every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life"and that "he who believes has eternal life." In 11:25-26 he assures Martha that "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die." That this is absolutely central to John's whole understanding is restated when, in what exegetes take to be the last verse of the original Gospel (20:31), he explains that the reason for writing is "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name."

In this we can see that belief plays a rôle for John that is ultimately identical with that of justifying faith in Paul. It is the access to the truth of God-beyond-death made manifest in the self-giving of Jesus, and this access it is which permits the re-ordering of the whole of a person's life such that it is no longer bound in by the parameters of death. So, when Jesus says "now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place, you may believe" (John 14:29), he is explaining the whole purpose of his discourse: he has been outlining to his disciples the creative sense which he is giving to his forthcoming death. The creative sense is that he is bringing into being the possibility of a belief. This belief is in itself a creative, expansive thing, since, as the disciples believe and are thus enabled to live without reference to death, by engaging in a creative imitation of Jesus self-giving, so the Father and the Son dwell in them, turning them into manifestations of themselves (and their death-less nature) which are in turn (by the creative witness or marturia of the disciples) further creative bringings into being of belief. This is the profound sense in which Jesus' going to the Father, his bringing into being the ecclesial hypostasis, is exactly the bringing into being of a belief. The ecclesial hypostasis is what belief looks like as lived out in creative imitation of Jesus' self-giving.

When Jesus then says that the ruler of the world is coming, but has no power over him, this is to repeat what we now know: that Jesus has nothing to do with death. He goes through it so that the world may know that there is a love which structures life, and which is in no way bound by, or related to, death. That is, once again, he goes so as to create belief. It is a poor image (what image is not poor under these circumstances), but when a motor-cycle instructor takes his bike and jumps through a hoop of flame suspended high between two ramps in the presence of his novice bikers, what he is doing is creating belief. The nature of belief can be seen when his novice bikers who previously thought the feat impossible, do the same. Their understanding had been inscribed within a certain understanding of the force of gravity and the danger of flame, now they believe that gravity can be overcome, and flame need not be dangerous: belief is the hypnotic draw into the security of imitation. All images limp: there is little creative about imitating a motor-bike instructor's leap through flames!

In John 15 and 16 we have the same reality explained further. I indicated in chapter 6 the way in which the passage about the true vine is the explanation of the bringing into being of the ecclesial hypostasis. Jesus is going to his death, which is to bring into being an ecclesial hypostasis where alone growth is possible, and always in dependence on the initial self-giving of the victim. There is in fact nothing static about the image, for what it is designed to produce is exactly creative imitation in the disciples, which is what obedience to the command to love one another consists in. Having explained the creative bringing into being of the ecclesial hypostasis as something which is to be continued, Jesus then indicates (15:18-27) the sort of resistence that the world will oppose to the ecclesial hypostasis which is coming into being. The problem with the world is that it does not know the Father: that is to say, it is still stuck within the parameters of a life which runs from death to death. Those who are involved in the creation of and persecution of human victims are, by that very fact ignorant of the Father, knowing whom removes the necessity of any involvement in being moved by and producing death.

So here we find set out with very great clarity the countersign to the ecclesial hypostasis which Jesus is bringing into being: the involvement in persecution and victimization by which the world maintains its order is the same as not knowing the Father. That is, it is the inverse of the bringing about of divine paternity in the world. The link between this passage and John 8:39-47 is clear: what is being described is the nature of those who are sons of the Father of lies who was a murderer from the beginning. Jesus is also clear that his bringing into being the ecclesial hypostasis, and therefore the fulfilment of creation, is not merely something which happens in the midst of neutrality. The bringing into being of the ecclesial hypostasis by Jesus is exactly what identifies sin as sin, and identifying it, provokes resistence and hatred. There are only two possible modes of desire in John: hatred and love. Love, as we have seen, is the pacific imitative self-giving towards death which is creative of life. Hatred is the rivalistic distorted desire which ties a person ever more furiously into persecution, death and murder "without cause." The one is the mode of desire proper to the Father, the other is the mode of desire proper to the world.

In John 15:24 Jesus says: "If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father." That is to say, Jesus has, by his works, unblocked the way in which creation was locked into being unfinished. It is the bringing into being of the ecclesial hypostasis as the fulfilment of creation which enables it to be possible to talk about sin. As the ecclesial hypostasis is brought into being, so sin is perceived in the aversion to the ecclesial hypostasis which is constitutive of the an-ecclesial hypostasis. Here we have a complicating factor in our understanding of Original Sin: ignorance of the Father is not merely overcome by correct information. The ignorance of the Father is inseparable from an aversion to the Father whose content is that the bringing into being of the ecclesial hypostasis is an intolerable threat to the petty security held locked in place by death. (4) It is to this element of aversion that Jesus refers when he warns his disciples of the circumstances within which it will befall them to bring into being the ecclesial hypostasis (John 16:1-4).

It now becomes possible to look at the way Jesus talks of the Holy Spirit in a somewhat richer light. Jesus' going to the Father is what enables him to send the Spirit from the Father. Here, somewhat against the apologetic bad conscience fashionable among Catholic writers with relation to the Orthodox, it must be insisted that Jesus is actively engaged in the bringing about of the reality of the Spirit in the midst of humankind. Just as his going to the Father involves the huge creative imagination of the possibility of bringing about a new mode of humanity which is the bringing into being of the fulfilment of creation, so it is in doing this that he brings into being from the Father the possibility of human practice being possessed by the Holy Spirit. Since this sounds like a bizarre heresy, I had better explain more fully. Jesus by making of his going to his victimary death a creative and deliberate act is bringing into being a certain visible and contingent practice which is a creation in the obvious human sense of a work of art, something never before imagined or brought into being by any human interpretative and imaginative conception. The creative fulfilment of the Father's creation is not the sudden bringing into being of some abstract and general universal which annuls the contingent telling of the human story. It is a creative bringing into being of a particular and contingent practice which is itself to be the constant possibility of the untelling of the human story, and the making of the human story bear the weight of creatively reflecting the Father's creation.

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

The Spirit, then, will make it possible for this paradigm to become creative of truth. It makes constantly visible and keeps in practice the creative possibilities inaugurated by the Son's self-giving to death. It does this in such a way that we are always able to find our way forward from being children of the homicidal lie to being children of the Father. It is important that this being guided into truth be understood not to be an essentially negative thing, as though what is daring and creative is our involvement in the world, and what the Holy Spirit has come to do is guide us back to our real origins and so permit us to be what we really are -- the model of the return to the womb. (5) The understanding at work here is exactly the reverse: our being guided into truth is our being opened into creative imitative use of the paradigm brought into being by the Son: it is truth that is a daring dynamic reflection of God that is being brought into being. Compared to this, all the apparent creative darings of the world are so many still births.

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

It is not fanciful to suggest that here the Johannine understanding of the nature of the hypostasis brought into being by Jesus, and the Pauline understanding evidenced in Romans 8:18-30 are identical. There too we have creation subjected to futility (v. 20). Paul understands it to have been bound to decay (that is, to death) by God (a reference to God's decree in Genesis that Adam and Eve having done what they have done, they must not be allowed to eat of the tree of life and so perpetuate their life in "fallen" mode for ever). (6) However, this was done by God so that he could bring about, in time, a process by which the original promise of life could be brought about after all (v. 21). The sufferings of this present time (the persecutions and rejections to which Paul's audience is liable) are the groanings in travail of creation (v. 22) that, through them, will bring into being the authentic sons of creation: "the glorious liberty of the children of God." The first fruits of the Spirit lead us precisely into the active (and painful) living out of Jesus' self-giving practice (v. 23), by which practice "we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies." Paul then goes on to indicate more fully the rôle of the Spirit which is the power at work in the bringing to light the sons who are the culmination of creation. The Spirit's rôle as intercessor (v. 26) is exactly the same as John's understanding of it as defense counsel, or pleader for the defense, and the living out it makes possible is also the bringing into being of the many brethren of the first born Son (v. 29). The whole process is part of the original calling into being of sons predestined with and in the Son, and the whole process is indefectible (v. 30).

We have then two powerful sections of the apostolic witness to indicate the nature of the ecclesial hypostasis which is being brought into being. Both show that the bringing into being the ecclesial hypostasis is identical with the bringing to fulfilment of creation: that is that the ecclesial hypostasis is the real sense of creation, which was ordered towards it. Both show that this process is trinitarian: the Father brings into being the life of sons through the Son by the spirit of the Son being made an active visible living out in the midst of the world.


1. I would like to express my debt to J. Milbank's article "The Second Difference: For a Trinitarianism without Reserve," Modern Theology 2, no. 3 (1986): 213-34.

2. I suggest the reader read these pages with John 14-16 at hand. See also chap. 3 of my Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination (New York: Crossroad, 1996).

3. In the fourth century the Church was wracked by a series of controversies, which have become linked with the Alexandrian priest Arius, surrounding the relation between the Father and the Son. The so-called subordinationist position is one which is unable to accept the divine equality (consubstantiality) of the Father and the Son, seeking to maintain a monotheism unnuanced by a divine christology. To counter this the Councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) forged the classic expressions of the Christian faith in trinitarian monotheism, which is to be found in the Creeds they published.

4. The Johannine duality of desire perfectly corresponds with the mimetic theory of desire put forward by Girard: for it is the revelation of the truth about desire that is the ultimate skandalon to desire itself. There is nothing "natural" in the movement from rivalistic desire to non-rivalistic desire, as though they were two comparatively equal possibilities. The nature of rivalistic desire is that it is constantly self-exacerbating towards death. The mere demonstration of another possibility of desire is taken not as a gratuitous offer to be different, but as a further obstacle to desire on the same level as itself. Thus it must be hated and expelled and hated and expelled even more than other obstacles, because of all obstacles this one reveals that its truth is death, and that all its fury and exacerbation in trying to found and bring about identity are futility. This element of aversion as part of original sin is an unalienable part of the Church's teaching. For anyone who understands that there is no natural ability to pass from rivalistic to non-rivalistic desire because of the way rivalistic desire automatically locks itself into itself and interprets all alterity within terms of itself, there will never be the slightest danger of Pelagianism. It is all too clear that only a gratuitous irruption of something quite outside the world of desires formed in rivalistic mimesis can begin to produce the change: the movement from rivalistic to pacific mimesis is miraculous in the strict sense. This is not to make of the incommensurability of the two modes of desire an insuperable dialectical opposition. From rivalistic mimetic desire there is no natural move to pacific mimetic desire: in this sense Nygren is right to show an absolute rupture between Eros and Agapé. However, where the dialectic imagination is wrong is in the inability to imagine that the gratuity of the gratuitous irruption is such that it unlocks rivalistic desire from within, turning it into the pacific desire that it could never be of itself: grace perfecting nature.

5. See Nicodemus' misunderstanding of being born anôthen and Jesus' correction, "opening out" the understanding of the way the Spirit brings to birth (John 3:3-8).

6. The Catholic Doctors differ as to whether the one who subjected creation was God or Adam. In the light of my previous remarks on Pauline anthropology it would not seem to matter (and the ambiguity may well be deliberate). What does matter is the recognition of the temporary frustration of creation.