Alison on Ephesians – “Redeeming the Time”

James Alison on the Letter to the Ephesians, excerpted from The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes,
pages 229-232. New York: Crossroad, 1998.

v. Redeeming the time.

The letter to the Ephesians follows the same understanding of the eschatological imagination which I have been setting out in the light of mimetic theory. In the first place, the point of Christ’s coming, and of our redemption was the bringing into being of a new fulness, a uniting of heaven and earth, a fulness in which we should be sons in the Son (Eph. 1:1-12). The revelation of this mystery includes the guarantee of an inheritance of which we shall take possession (Eph. 1:13-14). The author is particularly keen that his hearers have their understanding of revelation widened: “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Eph. 1:18). That is to say, they are encouraged to center their imaginations on what is coming to them. They are also encouraged to know “what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might” (Eph. 1:19). These two are not separable realities (they are the same sentence in Greek): the centering of the imagination on the inheritance is what permits the working of the great power in those who believe. The same idea is worked through again when the author tells his hearers that they were once dead through sins (full participants in the world of death- oriented desire), but have been made alive (participants in the beneficent mimesis of life), and raised up to the heavenly places, as awaiting the immeasurable riches of God’s grace. It is because they are being given something through the opening up of their mind to the deathless creative generosity of God that they are saved, not because of any moral struggle of their own. (1)

There then follows an excursus about the overcoming of the separation between Jew and Gentile, and an apologia for Paul in his sufferings (2:11-3:21). The particular emphasis on the rôle of the apostle seems to be as one whose job it is to proclaim the hugeness of the mystery of God’s generosity, so that people’s minds may be broadened to be able to perceive and thus share in that generosity. With so much emphasis on God’s glory, and the ‘breadth and length and height and depth’ (3:18) of it all, one would have thought that there would be no incentive at all for taking ordinary human history seriously. Yet that is not the direction that the author follows.

First we have Christ ascending to heaven, with his captives, and simultaneously pouring gifts to men (4:8). The gifts are specifically ecclesial, so as to make it possible for the children, who are still thoroughly prone to the winds and lies of this world, to grow into manhood, thus reproducing as a body the humanity of Christ as a reality in the midst of this world (4:15). This is enormously significant: it means that the first fruits of the heavenly gifts for which we are to hope are already given us in the form of an ecclesial life that is a way of living and growing into the new age already. (2) It is not that we must hold on until we can escape ‘up’ into the new, but the new is coming ‘down’ to form us even now. Given that that is what the Church is for, the author then draws very interesting conclusions about “the gentiles.”

The gentiles, exactly in line with what we might expect, have futile minds and darkened understanding “alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them” (Eph 4:18). Because of this it is not surprising that they are entirely run by the desires of the world and its old nature (4:19-22). However, those who have learnt the things of Christ should be first “renewed in the spirit of your minds” and thus able to “put on the new man, the one created according to [after the likeness of] God in the righteousness and holiness of truth” (Eph. 4:23-42). (3)

The author then goes on to show what this putting on of a new man might mean, and there is nothing escapist about it: the putting on of a new nature is exactly described as the redirection of the mimetically formed old nature. So, instead of speaking falsehood to our neighbor (old man), or indeed not speaking to them at all — an escapism not even contemplated in the text — we must speak the truth to them, for we are members one of another: interdividuality is still the norm in the new nature as in the old. The thief must put the same desire that ran him in appropriation to its inverse, fecund effect: doing honest work with his hands that he may be able to give to those in need. Talk must be for edifying, rather than destroying people, and all the anger and clamor and slander must be turned to forgiveness: a real mode of human presence introducing a different quality of interdividuality. The conclusion to this passage is almost embarrassingly apropos of the analysis that I have been trying to set out: “Therefore be imitators [mimétai] of God as beloved children, and walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2).

It is in the light of this that the following instructions about avoiding particular aspects of the world of desire proper to un-reformed selves are to be read. These desires militate against the walking in love in such a way that one can offer oneself up as a sacrifice to God. By walking in the light however, we are not expected simply to shun the darkness, but actively to show it up for what it is: “Take no part in the works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph. 5:11). There is no escapism here, but an awareness that by living the life of Christ we will show up the works of darkness. It was that living of the light, of course, which was what caused Christ to be turned into a sacrifice in the first place. The author draws from this the observation not that we should flee to some heavenly place, but rather that we should learn to walk carefully. In the light of the foregoing, this can only mean that learning how to live the eschatological imagination and the consequent reformation of the self is a difficult process requiring wisdom, as we come to see by which desires we are being drawn in any given situation: the heavenly mimesis or the worldly. As we learn to walk carefully in this way, so we will be redeeming the time, for the days are evil (Eph. 5:16).

We have then, already within the apostolic witness a clear understanding that Jesus opened up an eschatological imagination, making available a very strong hope, to be received in a childlike manner, and which, rather than encouraging a dissociation from history, encourages rather the construction of a new way of living in time. The centrepiece of this vision is the self-giving victim who himself makes possible the living out of this new quality of history on earth. This new quality of history involves an active construction of light in the midst of the darkness of the lies of this world. That is to say, it is the bringing into being of a counter-history, which, unlike the history of this world, is centered already on its continuation and fulfilment in the heavenly places.


1. Ephesians 2:8-9. This passage, so controversial at the time of the Reformation, sits perfectly within the mimetic understanding.

2. This seems to correspond exactly with the way in which Jesus’ words about putting a faithful and wise servant over his household are to be found in the apocalyptic discourse in Matthew (24:45-51). Ecclesial ministry is specifically to be understood as forming people in watchfulness and hope for the Son of Man: ecclesial ministry is completely invalidated where it is not conducted within this eschatological perspective (‘But if that servant says to himself “My Master is delayed…”‘).

3. I have altered the RSV translation, making it more literal.

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