The God of Life vs. Human Cultures of Death
I begin my reflections this week with a theme that I think a Girardian might develop from these lessons, the theme of God's absolute stance for life vs. the founding of human culture in death. James Alison develops this theme in all of his books as a real apostolic 'deduction' from the experience of the resurrection. It is something he traces back to Jesus through the apostolic witness, though the apostles themselves could not begin to comprehend it until they were confronted by their risen Lord. They then needed to reconstruct, in retrospect, what Jesus himself had stood for in his life, which they could only understand after the cross and resurrection experiences. I would like to highlight an excerpt from Raising Abel, in which Alison is commenting on the Holy Week dispute with the Sadducees (Mark 12:18-27 and par.):
We know, because we followed Jesus when he was explaining it to the Sadducees, that Jesus understood full well that for God death is not, so that God's loving and sustaining of a person is not something which is interrupted or diminished by death. This means that Jesus was able to conduct his life in a way that was not moved by death. And this not because he was fleeing from death, or running towards it in a self-destructive way, which tend to be our problems. It was because it was not a reality which marked his imagination, since his imagination was entirely fixed on the creative and living presence of God who knows not death. What can be perceived by someone who is not marked by death is the way in which the rest of us live, without being aware of it, in the shadow of death. A poor parallel might be the way in which someone arriving from an Islamic country, in which there is no alcohol to buy or to consume, is able to perceive something which we scarcely realize: the degree to which our whole society and its social life depend on the dangerous drug, alcohol. Only someone from outside can perceive that clearly. Only someone who has not received his identity from a culture that is bound in by death can see clearly the way in which the whole culture is wrapped around by death. It is in this sense that Jesus was able to understand with perfect clarity the way that human culture, including the culture in which he lived, is produced by, and runs towards, death. It also means that he was aware that such a culture reacts to someone who isn't part of it, is not complicitous with it, who doesn't participate in the rules of the game of a security which runs from and towards death. Human culture reacts as if faced by a threat, expelling, and preferably killing such a person.Alison's most poignant commentary on our human involvement in death comes in the title section of his book The Joy of Being Wrong. The Resurrection reveals to us our entrapment in the throes of death even as it reveals to us God's forgiveness and life. Just when we find out how wrong we are about death and life, we have the joy of discovering how right God is in giving us life. Link to an excerpt of this section "The Joy of Being Wrong," as well as the one that follows, "The Johannine Witness," a close look at John 9 as a story revealing our complicity in death since the birth of humanity, a complicity which also constitutes our chief blindness, one much more difficult to heal than the blindness of the man physically blind from birth. I would perhaps choose these two sections of a book to read as having the potential to remake one's entire way to experience death, life, and God. What we learn from the Resurrection, with Alison's expert tutelage, is "an anthropological discovery of unimaginable proportions."
So Jesus was able to see what was going to happen to him, not thanks to some prophetic gift in the sense of special secret inside information about what was going to happen at the next step, but in the much more radical sense of the prophetic gift of one who, possessed by the life and vivaciousness of God, was able to understand exactly the workings of a culture shot through with death. Because of this he was able to go to his death as if it were not. And not only to go towards it as if it were not, but to make of it a show, a sign so that others might live in the same way.
When we speak, then, of God as love, it is not as if he loved us by throwing Jesus to us as if we were a pack of hungry crocodiles. No, God's love for us is the love by which Jesus was empowered as a human being to create for us -- which means to understand and imagine and invent for us -- a way out of our violence and death. There is a certain piety which imagines Jesus on the Cross, with the Father observing from above. In some versions the Father is pleased, because he is being offered a sacrifice which will wipe out our sins; in another sort of piety the Father is horrified by the cruelty which we are showing towards his Son. Neither of these seems to me to be adequate. The Father was present at the Cross not as a spectator, but as the source of the loving self-giving which was bringing into existence the possibility that we humans might overcome death and its dominion in our lives: God was not attending our show, but was busy in making of a typical show of ours a revelation of Himself to us. (pp. 59-60)
Link to a sermon on these themes entitled "A Love That Breaks Our Romance with Death."
Reflections and Questions
1. "Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live." This passage is about listening to the God of Life, whose: "thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." This is because our thoughts and ways are shaped and molded by cultures of death. Another indication of the difference is the imagery involving a "free lunch." We don't believe in free lunches; God, in divine grace, apparently does.
2. Isaiah 55:1-5 is also assigned on Proper 13A, paired with the Feeding of the Five Thousand story in Matthew. Here's a bit of what I say at Proper 13A:
"Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?" Wow! This seems to me to be the question for our time. When we try to talk about things like "Affluenza" (link to PBS website on "Affluenza"), this is the number one question. We are caught up in mimetic entanglements that cause us to spend our labor and money on things that are mostly about those rivalries in which we are entangled. Far from satisfying, those rivalries lead to conflict and ultimately to death, not life. Listen, says Yahweh, I can truly satisfy your desire. What is it that can truly satisfy? Listening to Yahweh is a good start! This whole thing got out of whack when the first Adam and Eve listened to the other creatures rather than to their creator. It is the loving desire of the Creator which can get us our of those mimetic entanglements. And it all starts by listening first to God, by choosing God as our model for desiring, instead of choosing each other. We might honestly ask ourselves: Who is it we spend our time listening to? How often do we listen to God in prayer as opposed to the time listening to advertisers, for example?There is a sermon weaving together several of these themes entitled "The Miracle of Changing Hearts Fearing Scarcity into Hearts Belieiving in Eternal Life."
3. John Sumwalt, in his weekly "StoryShare" offering (by subscription through CSS Publishing), quotes this parody of Psalm 23:
My appetite is my shepherd, I always want. It maketh me to sit down and stuff myself. It leadeth me to my refrigerator repeatedly. Sometimes during the night, it leadeth me in the path of Burger King for a Whopper. It destroyeth my shape. Yea, though I knoweth I gaineth, I will not stop eating. For the food tasteth so good. The ice cream and the cookies they comfort me.This sort of talk always brings up for me, too, the title "Famished Craving," a title Gil Bailie used for a series of lectures on fame, which he borrowed from a line in T.S. Eliot's "Gerontion" (about half-way through, "That the giving famishes the craving").
4. Another time that these themes are dealt with are the weeks with John 6 in Year B, his extended version of the feeding miracle and Jesus as the Bread of Life, beginning at Proper 12B. The second week into John 6 I preached a sermon that could very well be preached on these verses of Isaiah 55, "Bread that Satisfies."
5. All-in-all, the theme of famished craving and Affluenza is related to the overarching theme I've raised relating to our human experience of death. Our anxiety over scarcity is linked to our fear of death, that we will have died without having enough -- ultimately, not enough Being, though all our other cravings stand in that breach. It is only in Jesus Christ that we learn of a heavenly Father who truly and graciously gives us enough. It is when that love sparks real faith in God's abundance that we can truly begin to live.
1 Cor 10:1-13
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, unpacks 1 Cor 10 in a section entitled "The Pauline ecclesial hypostasis":
In the first place, Paul understands the Corinthians as "koinonoi" -- those who have been called into the fellowship of the sacrificial meal, the "koinonia" of Christ. This is clearly a subversive understanding of the notion of sacrifice since it is compared to those who partake in Israel's sacrificial meal and opposed to those who take part in idolatrous sacrificial meals, or treat the Eucharist as if it were one such, by cursing Jesus (1 Cor 10:18-21; 12:3). The participation that is proper to Christians is that of those who have become participants in his victimary body. That it is "Christ crucified for you" who is the foundation of their new being is made clear by the ironic question in 1 Cor 1:13 "Was Paul Crucified for you?", linked to Paul's clear understanding that there is only one foundation, Christ Jesus (1 Cor 3:11). It is this that is foundational of the community, and the way into participation in it is by imitation of the self-giving that lead to Jesus' being crucified. Hence the centrality to Paul's discussion of the eucharist: it is the self-giving of the victimary body which is what enables the Corinthians to become one body in Christ. Hence also the necessity, for proper participation in the eucharist, of a life that is an imitation of the self-giving of the victim.2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, p. 180. 1 Cor 10:12: "So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall." Hamerton-Kelly, p. 181: "To insist on the absolute freedom of conscience without concern for fellow members of the church is to practice the mimesis of sacred violence that is idolatrous." Link to an excerpt of the wider context, pp. 174-182, a section entitled "The Church as a Structure of Agape Based on the Imitation of Christ Crucified."
Paul illustrates this by himself being an example of something despised, an offscouring, with victimary signs, even calling himself a scapegoat (1 Cor 4:13), urging the Corinthians to become imitators of him (1 Cor 4:16) even as he is of Christ (11:1). It is his free self-giving, and willingness to subject himself to the condition of others, for their own sakes that make Paul an imitator of Christ (1Cor 9:19-23). That is to say that there is a particular antidote to the world of rivalistic desires and factiousness which is destroying the community: the learning of a new sort of desire which is not in rivalry with any desire at all, because it is the pacific imitation of the one who is on his way into expulsion. Paul gives specific content to the notion of 'flesh' here, out of which he urges his correspondents to grow. The flesh is precisely the world of rivalistic desire leading to futile foundationalism (1 Cor 3:1-4). Paul could not, in fact make it clearer than he does that the foundation that is Christ can only be lived from within a change of desires. He refers to the rock which followed Israel in the desert (1 Cor 10:4) and claims that this rock was Christ. The problem with the people of Israel was that they desired evil, and this is an example so that we should not desire likewise (1 Cor 10:6).
Not only is the undistortion of desire the key way into insertion into the one foundation, the rock, that is Christ, but this immediately means that the person who is so inserted has no need to justify himself over against anybody at all. Those who live in the spirit, like Paul himself, do not derive their identity in any way at all from what others think, whether they praise or condemn, because the identity is purely given by the Lord (1 Cor 4:1-7). Therefore there is no boasting, except in the Lord. (pp. 176-177)
1. Gil Bailie, "The Gospel of Luke" tape lecture series, tape #8. Here are my notes on these verses:
It is very difficult for us to imagine the huge change of perception underway here, but it could be described as the change from a perception of a god in which the deity has a double face, saying "yes, but..." or "yes, and no", or "yes, if...", to the perception according to which God only and unconditionally says "yes". Another way of putting it is as a change from a god who is both good and bad, who loves and who punishes, to a perception of God who is only love, in whom there is no darkness at all. Jesus had begun to teach this to his disciples, but it had been incomprehensible to them until after the resurrection. Consider Jesus' teaching that God makes the sun to shine on good and bad alike, and causes the rain to fall on both the just and the unjust. This has the effect of removing God completely from the sphere of reference of our human morality, excluding him from any participation in judging and condemning humans. The same thing happens in the parables: we are not to separate the wheat from the tares (Mt 13:24-30) in this life, because we cannot judge adequately, and God's judgement has nothing to do with our own. The same with the parable of the fish caught in the net (Mt 13:47-50). Exactly the same point occurs in Luke 13:1-5: there is no link between any type of physical happening, or accidental death, and God's action, but those who think that there is are trapped in an understanding of God which is meshed in by death, and they had better repent or they too will perish.3. James Alison, On Being Liked, pp. 8-9. In a talk given about six weeks after the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, entitled "Contemplation in a world of violence," this is still one of the best pieces I've seen in response to that tragedy. Here is a paragraph relating specifically to Luke 13:1-5:
There is something apparently callous about this. We react to bad news as to a form of emotional blackmail, obliging us to “feel” for the victims, and be outraged by someone who doesn’t appear to feel. But not Jesus. His attention is entirely concentrated on his interlocutors. It is not the events themselves which concern him, but their reaction to the events, and what that reaction says about whose power they are in. We can imagine the excitement of those telling him, wanting a pronouncement of appropriately apocalyptic tenor: the Galileans were not sacrificing at Jerusalem, probably at Gerizim. Maybe this was their punishment from God. But they are disappointed. Jesus completely de-sacralizes the event, removing any link between God and what has happened. Any link between morality and what has happened. If we are caught up in thinking like that, then we too are likely to act in ways moved by the apocalyptic other, the god of blood and sacrifice and murder, of morality linked to worldly outcome, and we will perish like them. To ram home his point, he chooses an example where there was no obvious moral agency, no wicked Pilate, no sacrifices of dubious validity: the collapse of a tower -- maybe an architectural flaw, maybe a small earth tremor, the shifting of an underground stream, who knows. Once again, Jesus completely de-sacralizes the incident. It has nothing to do with God. But if we are caught up in the world of giving sacred meanings, then we will be caught up in the world of reciprocal violence, of good and bad measured over against other people, and we will likewise perish. Once again I stress: Jesus will not be drawn into adding to meaning. He merely asks those who come to him themselves to move out of the world of sacred-seeming meaning. What does it mean for us to learn to look at the world through those eyes? (pp. 8-9)4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from March 18, 2001 (Woodside Village Church), and sermon from March 14, 2004 (Woodside Village Church), and sermon from March 7, 2010 (Society of St. John at St. Mark's Chapel, Palo Alto).
5. René Girard, Job: The Victim of His People, p. 155.
6. N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 183, 253, 331, 334, 344, 641 (also in Twelve Months of Sundays - Year C, pp. 44-45, and Luke for Everyone, pp. 161-164; new additions in 2007). Alison above says, "To ram home his point, he chooses an example where there was no obvious moral agency, no wicked Pilate, no sacrifices of dubious validity: the collapse of a tower -- maybe an architectural flaw, maybe a small earth tremor, the shifting of an underground stream, who knows." Wright does conjecture a moral agency in connection to the tower: that it collapsed in the Roman squashing of a rebellion, too. (In Luke for Everyone, Wright takes the slightly different line that, even if v. 4 refers to a "building accident," a siege by the Romans in response to armed rebellion will bring down buildings so that people will die from collapsed buildings just like with the accident.) In that case, this entire passage is about Jesus warning them of what will happen if full-scale armed rebellion is their answer to Roman occupation. They will die amidst collapsing buildings in the sacking of Jerusalem. This squares with Wright's major theme about the Historical Jesus, that he came to give his people, and us, another way to be free from oppression instead of armed resistance. This also squares with the ending of Luke 13, last Sunday's Gospel, in which Jesus laments the fate of Jerusalem because they will not listen to him.
I find myself agreeing with Wright here, that Jesus' response is basically the one he gives in the Garden of Gethsemane to armed resistance, "No more of this!" (Luke 22:51), or Matthew's version, "All who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matt. 26:52). Isn't Jesus response in Luke 13:3, 5 saying exactly this, that all those who take up the sword "will die as they did"?
Other important points from Luke for Everyone:
7. Tom Truby, a member of Theology & Peace, used Girardian insights to offer a sermon in 2013, titled "The Gardener's Gentleness."
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2013 we were studying Good
Goats: Healing Our Image of God, by Dennis,
Sheila, & Matthew Linn. When Christians want to hang
on to a God who sends people to eternal punishment in hell, one
possible argument against that comes from the recent phenomena
of near-death experiences, which the Linn's make on pages 63-66
of their book. The challenge raised by near-death experiences
comes from the fact that a widely diverse population of folks
have had such similarly positive experiences of a merciful God.
I read Luke 13:1-9 in light of this insight from near-death
experiences in my 2013 sermon "Bearing Fruit -- By Threat or By
2. In 2004 this Sunday followed only three after 3-11, the terrorist bombings of commuter trains in Madrid, Spain. Is this a similar tragedy as the one Jesus is being questioned about? And could we bring up the terrible falling of a tower, two, in fact, like Jesus did? But what do make, then, of Jesus' response? If we take N. T. Wright's view of this passage, then Jesus is warning against armed resistance as a way to peace. We can add Luke 19:41-44 as another instance of Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem for their failing to accept his way to peace. Jesus is saying that if we don't repent of our violent means to peace, then we will all die as all others who have taken up that way to peace.
3. And the parable at the end brings Good News: Jesus is the Gardener who not only wins more time for us but who, within a year's time of having spoken this parable, literally hung on the tree himself and bore the fruit of God's way of peace. Today, he still acts as the Gardener -- seemingly making true Peter's observation in 2 Peter 3:8: "that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day." One year has become two thousand, and our Lord comes to us in the Sacraments to dig around us and spread the manure. He feeds and waters us with faith in us, that because he was able to live God's way of peace we can, too. Link to the 2004 sermon "Jesus the Gardener Bears Fruit on the Tree of Life."
4. James Alison, in the Raising Abel passage above, says we are: "trapped in an understanding of God which is meshed in by death." In 1998, combined with some of the reflections below, this phrase was the basis for the sermon "A Love that Breaks Our Romance with Death."
5. Gil Bailie talks about our modern nihilism in the context of the process of secularization. The latter removes all religious mystery from reflection on our human experience, such that the only left, which resists the removal of mystery, is death. So we are fascinated by it and become 'religious' about it. Death even takes on a romantic, positive air in some circles.
6. Is the blockbuster movie "Titanic" (a record 11 academy awards and the top income producer) a strange, romanticizing of death? Everyone comes away with these good feelings about the love story, but is that an example of our romancing death? To repeatedly see a movie where everyone knows going into it that the ending is a tragic death, does this betray our modern fascination with death?
I confess that I am really nervous about preaching on the theme of death vs. life. I find it to be the epitome of Isaiah's words about God's ways and thoughts being so different from our ways and thoughts. So different that we are likely to find it offensive.
My "Titanic" musings might be offensive to many. But I by no means want to pick on this movie as the sole exemplar of our culture being fascinated with death. There are more obvious choices like some of the hardcore rock music that wallows in it. But there is also the 'higher brow' versions of it. I went to our local symphony concert last week (in 1998), where they performed two pieces. The first was Benjamin Britten's "Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings," a piece that strings together a number of 'love' poems from a wide-range of Western literature (Keats, Blake, et al.), mostly focusing on death. The second was Mozart's Mass, which the maestro introduced, if I may paraphrase: 'Mozart wasn't a religious person and wrote this mass as a favor to his father-in-law for finally blessing their marriage. The work he was really religious about was his Requiem, written upon the death of his father.' Mozart was more religious about death than he was about Christian worship.
But the scariest thing for me is that I've even grown uncomfortable with the piety that's summarized as simply "Jesus died for me," a great Lenten refrain. What usually goes along with this is an oohing and ahing about how much Jesus loved me to do this. But sometimes I wonder if that is the same kind of romanticized love attached to a movie like "The Titanic."
I'm certainly not against love! But how different is God's agape love shown in the cross from our romanticized versions of love? And is the difference between our cultures of death and God's absolute orientation to life the key to the difference between those kinds of love?
In 2004 we are in the midst of another movie phenomenon, Mel Gibson's extremely violent rendition of "The Passion of the Christ." One of the most common positive responses to the abundance of violence in this version is something like, 'It shows how much God loved me to die such a violent death for me.' Yes, but we need to be careful about how we think of that love. I find myself wanting to elaborate on the old formula "Jesus died for me." Perhaps at least something like, "Jesus died to destroy death ... for me." Or, "Jesus died and was raised from the dead to show the meaninglessness and emptiness of death ... for me." "Jesus died and was raised so that I might no longer be afraid of death, be obsessed with death, but that I might instead truly live for life."
How different are God's thoughts and ways from ours when it comes to death and life? I'm afraid to ask this out-loud today because I might not like the answer. I am confronted by St. Paul's refrain in 1 Cor 10: "So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall." I will fall, but in Christ Jesus I fall into the arms of a grace that intends to give me life beyond my imagining, a life that begins again with forgiveness.
7. One more attempt/angle at what, for me, is still the most difficult thing to get into my experience. I think that the Girardian anthropology invites us to see that perhaps the most difficult thing for us to see is how our entire culture -- and thus also how we are shaped as individuals, since we are thoroughly shaped by culture -- is founded in our fascination for death.
In The Joy of Being Wrong, James Alison states it in this way: "It is of course the moment that death ceases to become something simply biological, and starts to become an object of fascination that life too becomes something that is in itself fascinating, beyond the instinct for survival." (p. 34)
The fascination with death is generative because culture begins around the corpse of the victim. What I take Alison to be saying is that even our experiences of life, as grandiose as they may sometimes be, are generated out of our experience of death. Didn't Heidegger conclude that we are essentially a "Being-toward-death"? And Ernst Becker that our whole lives are lived in "The Denial of Death"?
Where Alison goes beyond Heidegger and Becker is to say that that "Being-toward-death," or that "Denial of Death," is part of our fallenness into sin and is thus not a necessary aspect of our essence. The Resurrection of Christ makes possible a "Being-toward-life."
What does this mean in terms of everyday experience? I'm not sure I can say. As I began by saying, I think that this particular form of blindness -- i.e., thinking we are oriented toward life when that orientation has actually been generated by, and remains dependent on, death -- is the most persistent form of blindness. It is the way in which God's ways are most different from our ways. It is the way in which Alison's brilliant work most challenges me to open myself fully to the Good News in Jesus Christ.
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