Alison on Elijah

Excerpt from James Alison’s “Theology amidst the stones and dust,” chapter 2 of Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay, New York: Crossroads, 2001, pages 27-30.

For surely your servants take delight in its stones, and are moved to pity by its dust. (Psalm 102:14)

a heart-close-to-cracking

I would like to create with you something like a space in which a heart might find permission to come close to cracking. It is a space which I am discovering to be necessary for participation in theological discourse. This close-to-cracking comes upon us at a moment when we do not know how to speak well, when we find ourselves threatened by confusion. It is where two principal temptations are either to bluster our way out of the moment, by speaking with too much security and arrogance so as to give the impression that the confusion is not mine, but belongs somewhere else. Or on the other hand to plunge into the shamed silence of one who knows himself uncovered, and for that reason, deprived of legitimate speech. This space of the heart-close-to-cracking, poorly as it seems to promise, and difficult though it be to remain in it once it is found and occupied, seems to me the most appropriate space from which to begin a sketch of ways forward towards the stutter of a theology for the third millennium.

I would like to take three biblical moments to help us in the creation of this space, three examples which point in the same direction. The first moment is in the text, and the other two are, rather, moments from which texts have been forged. Let us look closely, first of all, at the prophet Elijah. The altars of Yahweh are in ruins, Ahab’s regime favours the followers of Baal. Elijah, the champion of Yahwism, undertakes to wage a valiant war against the prophets of Baal, organizing a competition to see which god can burn a sacrificed bull with fire from heaven. As the prayers and litanies of the prophets of Baal pile up, Elijah mocks them, suggesting, among other things, that perhaps Baal can’t put in an appearance owing to being busy with a bowel movement. When it is Elijah’s turn to offer his sacrifice, first he rebuilds the altar of Yahweh, then soaks his bull completely, and boom!, the lightening strikes. All present fall to the ground, crying: “The Lord is the true God.” Elijah immediately takes advantage of this unanimity to point his finger at the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, ordering that they be seized and killed. His order is at once obeyed.

After this triumph, feeling somewhat depressed, Elijah goes off to the desert, where he desires death. God gives him food necessary for survival, but not even that pleases him much, and an angel has to tell him to eat up, and then to go for a forty day and forty night hike to Mount Horeb, like Moses to whom God had spoken at the same place. Once there Elijah hides in a cave, where God has to come and find the disillusioned prophet. God asks him what he’s doing there, and he replies:

I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. (1 Kings 19:10)

God orders him to come out of the cave and to stand before the Lord, who announces that he is going to pass by. Well, you know the story: first comes a mighty wind which rends the mountains and breaks the rocks in pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind. Then comes an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, and then comes a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there comes a still small voice. At this Elijah goes and stands at the entrance to the cave, and God speaks to him, asking what he’s doing there, and once again, Elijah repeats:

I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. (1 Kings 19:14)

Then, in an extraordinary anticlimax, God tells him to go to Damascus to anoint Jehu king, and to pick Elisha as his successor, adding that God will reserve for himself seven thousand men who haven’t bent the knee before Baal. Elijah goes off and obeys. From then on his interventions are few until he’s whisked off to heaven and Elisha’s ministry begins.

What I’d like to point out about this story is this: what seems to be a story of the triumph of Yahwism is in fact presented as the story of the un-deceiving of Elijah. Elijah before his un-deceiving was a champion fighter without problems of self-esteem or self-confidence. God was a god like Baal, but bigger and tougher, and Elijah was his spokesman, the one who pointed out his victims. The contest of Mount Carmel was a splendid battle between rival shamans or witch-doctors. After the bloody interlude, which he had won, Elijah sinks into a depression, and doubts the value of all that:

Enough, O Lord, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers. (1 Kings 19:4)

The sacred author presents us with something rather remarkable: not a series of praises for the Yahwist champion, but rather the story of how Elijah learnt not to identify God with all those special effects which he had known how to manipulate to such violent effect. All the commotion around Mount Horeb is presented as something rather like a de-construction of the sacred scenario associated with Moses, for the Lord was present in the still small voice, rather than in something of more imposing majesty. Furthermore, rather than taking advantage of the zeal which Elijah bleats on about, Yahweh gives the prophet some rather modest tasks — instructions for passing on command to others. Where Elijah, thinking himself something of a heroic martyr, tells God that he’s the only one who has remained loyal, Yahweh tells him that he has seven thousand men up his sleeve who haven’t bent the knee before Baal. One can understand what might be meant by zeal exercised on behalf of a god who appears with hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires. But what on earth might it mean to be zealous in the service of a still, small voice? It is a somewhat humbled Elijah who sets off to carry out his appointed tasks.

Well, I’d like to suggest that this scene offers us a valuable witness to the theological process which is at work in the development of the Hebrew scriptures: the theological power of the crisis of confidence which goes along with the collapse of the sacred. At the beginning we have a sacred Yahwism, which can shine alongside another sacred religion, but whose sacrifices are more efficacious, whose God is more powerful, and whose capacity to unite people for a sacred war is greater. Then we have all that undone. The still small voice says much more than it seems to: it says that God is not a rival to Baal, that God is not to be found in the appearances of sacred violence. Elijah, when he entered into rivalry with the prophets of Baal became one of them, because God is not to be found in such circuses, nor in the murders which go along with them. At the end of his un-deceiving, Elijah is more Yahwist, more atheist, less of a shaman, less of a sacrificer, because God is not like the gods, not even so as to show himself superior to them. The cave of Horeb was, for Elijah, the theological space for a blush.

Here we are face to face with the collapse of the sacred, a real demolition of personal structures and ways of speaking about God. This collapse is the crucible in which theological development is wrought….

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