Excerpt from James Alison's Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination, Crossroads, 1996, pp. 34-41.

Chapter 2

The Living God

In the first chapter we saw that the purpose of this book is to enable us to have some insight into what might be meant by fixing the mind on the things that are above. From there we moved on to look at the understanding of human relationships which its discoverer, René Girard, has called mimetic theory. This seeks to understand the imitative and triangular nature of desire, the mechanism of the randomly-chosen scapegoat, and the overcoming of this mechanism by God's self-revelation as a human victim. We ended with a look at the central factor which enables there to be a Christian story, and thus a Christian theology, at all: the presence to the apostolic group of Jesus, the crucified and risen victim.

Now we are going to try and examine the way in which the presence of the risen Jesus among the apostolic witnesses began to make possible a change in the human perception of God: what we might call an authentic human discovery about God. Consider the following example, concerning the Anglo-Indian writer Salman Rushdie. This author, who is technically a Muslim, because his father was one, was judged by some of the competent authorities to be blasphemous against Islamic belief on account of some remarks of his in a book entitled The Satanic Verses. The Ayatollah Khomeini, then, applied to him formally the death sentence which Islamic Law prescribes for the Muslim who blasphemes: any Muslim who comes across him has not only the right, but the duty, to kill him, and this in the name of Allah, the just, the merciful.

Behind the Fatwa, or decree, of the Ayatollah, which began with the invocation of Allah in the form I have just quoted, there is a certain understanding of God which is absolutely bound in with a mechanism of violence. That is to say: God keeps the group pure and clean by expelling from its midst any contaminating element. When the Ayatollah pronounced his sentence against Rushdie in the name of Allah, the just, the merciful, it was not, as we may be inclined to think, ever so slightly infected as we are by Christianity, something ironic. For the Ayatollah, Allah precisely shows his mercy and his justice to the group by expelling the evil one. His mercy is shown to the community of the faithful by cleansing it of whatsoever impurity. Lest some anti-Islamic comment be understood here, let it be said that this understanding of mercy is that of the majority of cultures, it is the understanding which is to be found in many of the psalms, and we received a good example of it recently at the hands of the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires. In August 1994 this prelate proposed the creation of special ghettos for the homosexual population of Argentina, so as, in words which would have sat well on the lips of the late Ayatollah, to "clean an ignoble stain from the face of society." If we find ourselves surprised by such positions, it is not because they are rare positions, but rather because Christian culture is itself, when we don't betray it, rather rare.

Well, here is the question which the example raises: is the god at the root of such examples the God of Jesus? Jesus himself assures us that this is not the case. The image of God which he proposes to us in the parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7) is exactly the inverse of the god we've seen. According to this parable the mercy of God is shown not to the group, but to the lost member, to the outsider. I ask you to consider quite how extraordinary this change of perception with respect to who God is turns out to be: mercy has been changed from something which covers up violence to something which unmasks it completely. For God there are no 'outsiders', which means to say that any mechanism for the creation of 'outsiders' is automatically and simply a mechanism of human violence, and that's that.

Jesus' Perception of God

By touching on this topic we have drawn close to the change of perception which the apostolic group underwent as a result of Jesus' resurrection. Let us begin to understand this by means of a passage which bears witness to the perception of God which Jesus himself had before his death, that shown in his debate with the Sadducees "who deny the resurrection" (Mark 12:18-27; Matt. 22:23-33; Luke 20:27-38). That this is one of the more important texts of the New Testament can be deduced from the way in which it is present in almost identical form in three of the Gospels in exactly the same place: just before the Passion. The reason that it is important is that it gives us direct information about how Jesus perceived God. This can be worked out in two ways: from what Jesus considered to be wrong, and from what he considered to be right. We will look first at what he considered to be wrong. Let us refresh our memories as to who the Sadducees were: they were 'establishment' figures, for whom the only Sacred Scripture was the Pentateuch. Their position was that, if there really were a resurrection, then God would have told Moses, his prophet and friend, about it, and Moses would have put it into the Pentateuch. But Moses didn't put it into the Pentateuch, so one can bet pretty safely that God told him nothing about this matter, and since he was God's friend, from whom something of such importance would not be hidden, this means that there is no resurrection.

However, they had better evidence still. There was a law in Deuteronomy which set out that, if a married man died without children, then it fell to his brother to take that man's widow as his wife so as to beget a child for his late brother, and thus assure him posterity. At first sight this seems to be a piece of matrimonial law, however the Sadducees understood their own Scriptures rather better than that: this law existed exactly because the only way of bluffing past the universal reign of death was by having children. The best existence which there might be after death would be that of the shades in Sheol, which wasn't worth having. The only way to have a blessing in the land of the living was by having children, descendants. It was because of this that the man who died without children needed his brother to get for him the share in posterity that he couldn't get for himself. The Sadducees were right, in a certain sense: the existence of the Levirate law is good evidence that nobody at the time it was written imagined the existence of the resurrection, since, if they had, the Levirate law would have been otiose. If it was not considered otiose it was because there was no such resurrection. It's not a bad argument. Furthermore, they added an ingenious little touch to it, by producing the spectacle of seven brothers who died before having children, passing the wife on like a used car. Jewish listeners at the time would probably have thought immediately of the seven Maccabee boys who had been executed for their refusal to abandon the Law, and who were considered immortal. In fact the passage from the book of Maccabees which describes their death is one of the earliest passages in Scripture to attest to the existence of the resurrection of the dead, precisely as a prize for God's martyrs. So it's as if the Sadducees were saying: "The Levirate law undercuts all arguments for the resurrection of the dead, even if you use as an example the Maccabee boys," who were a favorite example for the partisans of the popular Jewish belief in the resurrection.

Jesus is not impressed by this really rather splendid rabbinical argument. It is worth noticing what he does not do. He does not answer them accepting their insinuation about the Maccabees; he doesn't even suggest to them that their clinging to "Soli Pentateuchi" -- "by the Pentateuch alone" -- is a little narrow, and that perhaps they might do well to take into account other, more promising, texts. Instead his reply is both direct and discourteous. They are wrong because they know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. Those who rise from the dead do not get married because they are like angels. Luke's version fills us in on this argument:

The children of this world marry, and are given in marriage: but they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage: neither can they die any more for they are equal unto the angels and are the children of God being the children of the resurrection. (Luke 20:34-6)
This means that marrying and giving in marriage are realities proper to a world of death. For those for whom death is not a reality, marriage has no reason why. The impetus for procreation is the overcoming of death, and those who have nothing to do with death have no special motive for having children. God can create more beings in the same way as he creates angels: without any need for human reproduction.

This is Jesus' reply to the Sadducees' conundrum: having children is a necessity only for those who are dominated by death. For those who are not, it couldn't be less important. But his major premise is still to come. When he told the Sadducees that they understood neither the Scriptures nor the power of God, he dealt first with the Scriptures, by taking away their use of the example of the levirate law as valid evidence. But his major premise, which shows what he really thinks, is still to come: it is that of the power of God.

He doesn't run away from the Sadducee's premise -- that God is only really understood from the Pentateuch -- but answers with a quotation from the book of Exodus, itself in the Pentateuch. His quotation really doesn't seem to be an adequate reply, since it has nothing to do with the resurrection of the dead:

I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. (Luke 20:37 quoting Exodus 3:6, 15, 16)
The reply has no apparent bearing on the resurrection of the dead, but rather is about who God is. God has nothing to do with death nor with the dead, but instead declares to Moses that he is the God of three people who were apparently dead at the time.

So when, earlier, Jesus had said to the Sadducees that they didn't understand the power of God (Tén dynamin tou theou), now we begin to understand what this power might consist in. Jesus isn't talking about some special power to do something miraculous, like raising someone from the dead. Rather he's giving an indication of the sort of power which characterizes God, something of the quality of who God is. This "power," this quality which God always is, is that of being completely and entirely alive, living without any reference to death. There is no death in God. God has nothing to do with death, and for that reason facts which are obvious to us, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob having been long dead at the time of Moses, simply do not exist for God. Let's put this another way: for us "being alive" means "not being dead"; it's a reality which is circumscribed by its opposite. For God this is simply not the case. For God being alive has nothing to do with death, and cannot even be contrasted with death.

Well then, I suggest that we have here something of great importance. Jesus was able to imagine God, to perceive God, in such a way that his whole vision was colored by God as radically alive, as a-mortal, as in no way shaded by death. Those who started the dispute with him were not able to perceive God in this way, and their theological arguments were, according to Jesus, vitiated from their roots. When Jesus tells the Sadducees that they are greatly mistaken ("poly planasthe"), he is not telling them that they have made a mistake, for example, with respect to some detail, but that their whole perception is radically wrong, distorted, and it is so because it is stuck in a vision which flows from death to death, a vision which has not acceded to God, the entirely death-less.

We, of course, have certain advantages in comparison with Jesus' first disciples when it comes to thinking about this. If you can imagine them present at the joust with the Sadducees you will place them, of course, on Jesus' side. They would have rejoiced in his victory over the Sadducees, congratulating themselves that their Master was right, and the Sadducees wrong. Of course, if you're on the winning side, naturally you absorb some of the glory of the master's triumph against his adversaries. It is, then, much more difficult to understand that, in the light of Jesus' understanding it was not only the Sadducees who were mistaken about the point under discussion -- the resurrection -- but that in fact being greatly mistaken in our whole perception of this world, including the things of God, is part of the human condition. Our advantage over the disciples is that it is, perhaps, a little easier for us to understand that the same criticism meted out to the Sadducees applies to us.

It was really St Paul who underlined this with all his strength. Unlike the disciples he was not under the impression that he was on Jesus' side in any argument. He well knew himself to have been on the other side: to have been involved in the persecution of Jesus and his way. He therefore knew very well that "you are greatly mistaken" is not just something which some people are, some of the time, but something we all are, all of the time, and that the fatal secret at the heart of this our being in error is our need to kill, to persecute, to purify and cleanse so as to maintain security and order. So he writes in the first chapter of his epistle to the Romans, in what is one of the most powerful critiques of who we humans are to be found in literature, that we have all become futile (emataiothésan) in our thought, that our senseless hearts (asunetos kardía) have darkened. Furthermore, since we will not recognize God, God has handed us over to a reprobate mind (adokimon noun) and an improper conduct. It is not just some people who are like this (and the use of this passage to fire off at some people rather than others is surely one of the great ironies of Christian history), but all of us. As Paul affirms at the beginning of what we know (but he didn't) as Chapter 2, whomsoever dares to judge another judges him or herself, since she or he does exactly the same. That is to say: the act of condemning someone else is absolutely part of the futile mind and the senseless heart.

According to Paul we are all challenged by the phrase which Jesus spoke to the Sadducees. It is spoken to all, since we are all in error with relation to God, with relation to the living power, the strength, vitality and splendor of God. In fact, and here is a substantial point, the nucleus of the Gospel is no more than this: the announcement of the good news concerning God. What Jesus came to tell us, and to make possible for us to believe, was that God is entirely different from what we imagine. If by chance you should think I'm making this up, it is the view of a witness to the tradition as ancient as Saint Ireneus, (1) so not such a strange thing to say as it sounds. What does it mean? It means that the Good News is not, in the first place, the Good News about Jesus, nor even about the Resurrection, and certainly not primarily some sort of announcement about how we should behave ourselves. It is a novelty about God: who God is, how God is. Its starting point is that we are, all, in practice, incapable of perceiving how God is, not because we're stupid, but because our minds and imaginations are all darkened, senseless and futile. Furthermore, it is in the degree to which we come to perceive how God really is, and to offer him service, that we will be able to alter our behavior to something more appropriate. Notice the order here: it is not that if we behave ourselves well, then we will be able to see God with clarity, but exactly the other way round. In as far as we begin to have our minds changed by the good news about who God is, to that degree will we be able to behave ourselves in a human way. This distinction will become important for us in the chapters which follow.

Now, please notice something rather special here, and I emphasize this because for much contemporary theology and exegesis what I'm going to say might seem inconceivable. Jesus was able to answer the Sadducees in the way he did because his imagination and heart were not darkened, senseless, futile. That is to say, he did not share the condition of the human heart in which, according to St Paul, we all share. This was not because he was not human, nor because he was God instead of being human, but because his fully human imagination was capable of being fixed on the ineffable effervescence and vivacity, power and deathlessness of God in a way which seems almost unimaginable to us.

Here we are talking about something worthy of note: that Jesus had this extraordinary imagination before his passion and death; it was in fact this that was at work during his teaching about God. Of course the disciples couldn't understand fully what empowered Jesus to teach in this way, much less the signs which he worked, until after his resurrection from the dead. But when Jesus had risen they could begin to understand "the mind that was in Christ" (cf. 1 Cor. 2:16), his imaginative perception of God entirely without any of the sort of shading off into futility that death produces in us.

Now it is my claim that what we have in the New Testament, which is the apostolic witness put into writing, is the evidence of the change in imagination which was produced in the disciples as they began to leave behind the "futile mind" and "senseless heart" proper to those whose vision is bound about by death, and as they began to be possessed by the same imaginative perception of the deathlessness of God that had been at work in Jesus. This is, in fact, a huge change, which occurred in their case, as it may in ours, very slowly, since it is the whole of human cultural perception which is being altered. So we are going to examine quite closely some of the changes of vision which come about in the degree to which it becomes clear that God is entirely without any relation to death: that death is for God something that is not.

Notes

1. J. Ratzinger, Teoría de los principios teológicos (Barcelona: Herder, 1985), 19-20.