Cleaning Up Our Unclean Acts

eucharist1Peter was surprised when he had a vision of a sheet carrying all the animals listed in the Law as unclean accompanied by a voice telling him that God had made them clean. Peter was even more surprised when he was told to go to the house of an unclean Gentile named Cornelius and preach the Gospel to him. That is, God had made all humans clean.

We all have a hard time living without the comfort of knowing that some people, some things, are unclean. This fear that sustains us is the fear of what is Other. All we have to do is get to know “unclean” strangers and we will be happy and no longer afraid.

René Girard, however, would give us pause. Girard is often invoked when there is need to scold people for creating “out” groups to make them feel good about their “in” groups. Actually, Girard alerts us to our problems within our “in” groups. Prior to our fear of the Other is our fear of what is the same. Rivalry and the violence rivalry lead to does not originate in battles with strangers but with those closest to us. In Genesis, almost all of the strife is between brothers.

Girard suggests that this fratricidal strife tends either to the death of a brother or a reconciliation through killing somebody else. At the dawn of humanity, a tribe first struggled with rivalry within its own ranks and either imploded through its violence or came together through killing one of its members, who then was designated at Other, the monster who caused the commotion. Then the tribe held itself together on an ongoing basis by warring on other tribes who were designated as Other. In this regard we are not one wit wiser than the most “primitive” of people. A fundamental practice of statecraft today is to deal with rivalry and tensions within a nation by designating an enemy that the whole nation must fight.

Anthropologists such as Mary Douglas have demonstrated the human tendency to divide foods between those deemed clean and those considered unclean. Eating is the central activity of a community. We eat with those who are closest to us. However, as noted above, we also fight most with these same people who are closest to us. By dividing the food we eat between clean and unclean, we create a barrier between us and other people, between us as the “in” group and those in the “out” group. That is, we relieve our communal tensions by banding against those who eat “unclean” foods.

Here we come to the importance of Jesus’ admonition to his disciples, while at table, that they (we) love one another. Some scripture scholars have poured cold water on idealistic readers by saying that John was concerned only with love within the community. But Jesus’ saying that others will know we are Jesus’ disciples by our love makes it clear that this loves does extend beyond the immediate community. These reflections on “clean” and “unclean” further suggest that fostering non-rivalrous love within the community allows the community to reach out to others. This love will make everything and everybody clean and bring us all to one great table in the Heavenly Banquet.

Knowing the Wild Things Between Us

buddingTree1Just about all of us talk about the subconscious as if it were familiar territory. By definition, the subconscious, assuming there really is such a thing, is precisely what we are not familiar with, what we don’t know about ourselves.

Pop psychologists, and real psychologists for that matter, along with those of us committed to the spiritual journey, think that it is better to know more about ourselves rather than less. Exploring the unknown may be an exciting challenge at times but it is also threatening. Much talk about the subconscious that has floated around since Freud took up his pen gives the impression that the subconscious is full of horrible monsters and some of them are us. In the simple story Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak shows us what great friends the inner monsters can be if we get to know them.

René Girard has given us a whole new dimension to explore in the subconscious by suggesting that it is primarily mimetic desire that we find there. (See Human See, Human Want) Mimetic desire, the desire of others that has infiltrated us since birth, gets under our skin and deep into our hearts. Hence the importance of the desires we surround small children with to absorb. What keeps mimetic desire in our subconscious is our defiant pig-headed conviction that our desires belong to each of us alone and to nobody else. The stronger this sort of conviction, the more likely the desire is entangled in serious rivalry with somebody else; maybe a lot of somebodies. Somehow, we feel threatened at the idea that our desires are intertwined with the desires of everybody else and we push them away, only to have them manipulate us at very deep levels.

The “wild things” within may not be so much are own personal monsters but the monsters that grow out of the mimetic desires between us. The monster isn’t me, it’s us. These wild things can also be the source of great opportunities for personal and spiritual growth if we get to know them. The web of mimetic desire is not, in the hands of God, elaborate chains to imprison us but links to connect us. That is, mimetic desire is the gravitational field among persons pulls us into relationship with each other. The more we are aware of this field, the more freedom we have to live in it with friendship and sharing instead of hate and rivalry.

Self-examination is a time-honored practice for spiritual growth in all religious traditions. Unfortunately, when this practice is centered on the self, it inevitably creates some distortion because it keeps mimetic desire in the subconscious. It isn’t so much our selves that need examination as it is our relationships. The individual self can look just fine right when relationships are destroying the web of our interrelated desires.

Girard tends to examine mimetic desire in the present tense, and there is always much going on with our interrelated desires in every moment. However, as Per Grande pointed out in his fine book Mimesis and Desire, we go through life interacting with the desires of others in our past just as much, if not more, than those in the present. So it is that we have to increase our conscious awareness of our past as well as the present.

So much attention has been paid to monstrous wild things in the human subconscious that we don’t realize that deeper in the subconscious that any wild desires flaring up between us and other people both in rivalry and ecstatic love and friendship is God’s desire. No matter how entangled our mimetic desires with other people, God holds all of the links in unconditional love, all the while calling each of us to open our outer and inner eyes to see how wild divine love is.

How Are We Saved?

yellowTulips1The New Testament and two thousand years of Christian preaching has consistently proclaimed that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has opened the way of salvation for all humanity. Precisely how this mysterious, earthshaking event has done that   has raised more questions than answers. It is understandable that the focus would tend to be on the death of Jesus since the event is so dramatic and creates intense emotional effects in Jesus’ followers. However, understandings of the atonement of Jesus through this route have raised long-standing problems that cry out for a fresh approach. The growing realization that the killing of Jesus was just plain wrong on the part of many Christians, and not just those influenced by the thought of René Girard,  opens a way for a re-thinking of atonement theology that can support a deep spirituality grounded in God’s unconditional love for all people. As article I wrote for the Abbey Letter Saved By the Life of Jesus contributes to this re-thinking that actually reclaims the Gospel for us. It is included in the collection of articles in Come Let Us Adore. You can read it here.

Abraham out on Highway 61

sideAltarsIcons1The near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, the Father of Faith, is the most troubling of stories. It should be. Chaim Potok’s young protagonist Asher Lev remembers the shiver he felt when he first heard the story. What is most troubling is the suspicion that Abraham was right to be willing to sacrifice his son. But was he? Jeremiah says Yahweh denounced the sacrifice of children, saying “that such a thing had never entered my mind.” (Jer. 19:5) Perhaps we are right to be troubled by any notion that Abraham was right to even let the idea enter his mind and even more troubled by any thought it ever entered into God’s mind.

Bob Dylan makes a bitter burlesque of the story in his song “Highway 61 Revisited.” The “god” who requires the sacrifice is a bully, warning Abraham that if he doesn’t comply: “Next time you see me, you’d better run.” To the question: “Where do you want to see this killing done? God said out on Highway 61”, the place for “a thousand telephones that don’t ring” and where to “put some bleachers out in the sun” to stage the start of the next world war. As with so many Dylan songs, the imagery reveals a society filled with mimetic rivalry and victimization where sacrifice and war become a spectator sport.

Soren Kierkegaard’s searing Fear and Trembling is at least as troubling as the biblical story. SK’s category of the “teleological suspension of the ethical” raises fears that the author celebrates Abraham’s willingness to do the deed. (What the fancy phrase means is: anything at all God says to do is right—end of story.) However, this troublesome category is coupled with what SK called “infinite resignation.” This is what Abraham had when he was willing to kill his son by God’s command. However, infinite resignation falls far short of faith and faith is what the biblical story and SK’s book is all about. Faith is receiving back what is given with infinite resignation “by virtue of the absurd.” Still troubled?

The most clear and piercing critique of this “infinite resignation” I know of comes in the powerful poem retelling this story by the World War I poet Wilfred Owen. Abraham builds parapets and trenches around the wood, suggesting the sacrifice of sons sent off to the war. But when the angel of the Lord admonishes Abraham to “slay the ram of pride instead of him . . . the old man would not so, but slew his son,/ and half the seed of Europe one by one.” This poet, one of many young victims of the war, and the creator of the bitter irony that poets like Bob Dylan use so well, has revealed once and for all the sacrificial horror of “infinite resignation.” That is, anyone infinitely resigned to sacrifice oneself without faith and will also sacrifice others, especially one’s own children, also without faith.

The typological interpretation of the story where it stands for God the Father’s being willing to sacrifice His only begotten son is also troubling. But Jesus did not go to the cross with infinite resignation. Rather, by “virtue of the absurd,” he believed that God, being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was God, not of the dead, but of the living.” (Mt. 22:32) St. Paul says we are saved by the faith of Christ, the faith that, on the cross, embraced not death, but the life of his heavenly father. The virtuous absurd, then, is the ecstatic embrace of God’s love so filled with life that there is no room for death for anybody.

Beyond Oblivion

crucifix1Anthony Horowitz’s five volume series called variously The Power of Five or The Gatekeepers is a far deeper and interesting read than his many volumes about a teen spy doing impossible stunts without benefit of superpowers. The cosmology is roughly is one where there is apparently no religious reality, such as a creator and/or redeemer god, but there are powerful beings who wish only to destroy and they wish to destroy our world. They are, however, dependent on humans evil enough to help them, such as members of a witch’s coven, embittered apostate monks, and rapacious financial magnates. Meanwhile, in a vaguely defined transcendent “dream” world there are beings or some beneficent force that sends five young saviors to our planet and works out a plan for defeating the “old ones” definitively.  It turns out that these five teens have counterparts (alternate selves?) who lived ten thousand years earlier and each is interchangeable with his or her counterpart in the event of the death of one of them. Such a substitution allowed for a victory in the past. I am going to focus on the ending of the series in the final book Oblivion which is a powerful read, even as it raises some serious questions.  I hereby issue a SPOILER ALERT for those who prefer to read the book before reading my comments. By the beginning of the last book, the “old ones” have broken through and destroyed the world. The five teens have to stop and reverse the destruction. At the end, Matt Freeman, the leader of the group, reads his life story in a library in the dream world which tells him the plan, horrifying as it is. What it boils down to is putting himself into the hands of the enemies in their fortress in Antarctica so they can exact their revenge on him by torturing him for several millennia, all the while depending on a journalist who has befriended him from the beginning to sneak him and kill him swiftly. Matt’s death brings in Matt’s counterpart while another boy, who had betrayed the cause, gives his life to open a time warp to bring the group together to defeat the “old ones” for good. Although Christianity is not shown to have any reality in the series, a Christian can certainly see a Christ-like act of renunciation in the self-sacrificing death of Matt and for the betrayer as well. There is a sense of providence, if not divine, in the plan. By hindsight, it is the only plan that could have worked. The “old ones” were so blinded by a lust for revenge that they left themselves open to being defeated by teens with dedication they can never understand. It is a powerful illustration of how love, not power, is the only way to defeat such evil. The ending is disturbing in that the surviving teens celebrate and return to the dream world while the ones who made sacrifices are just plain gone, unless the dead boys live in their counterparts in some way. Of course, if the world really is a world where such acts of renunciation give only the satisfaction of making this act of sacrifice, than that is the best one can do. Emmanuel Kant based his ethics on this level of disinterestedness where one sought no reward for doing the right thing. There is something noble about this, but if the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the loving God embodied by Jesus, than there is a far greater good and glory that sustains such a disinterested sacrifice.

Rising to the Life of Christ

crosswButterfliesWhen St. Paul says in Romans that we are baptized into Jesus’ death, what kind of death are we baptized into? An aged person drifting off while asleep? A ritual death with no consequences? No, we are baptized into the death of Jesus. This particular death, the one we are baptized into, is a judicial death resulting from collective violence. This is the shameful death of an alleged insurrectionist at the hands of an Empire. This death was caused by the meltdown of rivalry in the society of first century Jerusalem, exacerbated by the betrayal and cowardice of Jesus’ closest followers.

Once we know what death we are baptized into, we know what life we are raised to. In his risen life, Jesus showed no resentment or vengeance to those who had gathered to put him to death or had dispersed out of cowardice.  Moreover, Jesus was not entangled in any of the rivalrous feuds that are a way of life for most humans. Imagine living without all the entanglements and resentments swirling around and inside of us. Hard to do, isn’t it? That is how radically different the risen life is from the life we live now.

If our “old self” is crucified with Jesus, then we have, like Jesus, died in the place of the victim. That means we have died to our tendency to fuel resentments and resolve these resentments through gathering against the victim, as Paul himself repented of having held the clothes of the men who stoned Stephen and openly approving of what they did.

None of this means that repenting of personal sins and faults doesn’t matter and that becoming free of them is part of the resurrected life. However, Christian teaching has a strong tendency to stress personal renewal to such an extent that horrifyingly sick participation in collective persecution goes unnoticed. That hundreds of thousands of Christians could lynch thousands of black people shows us now, now that the lynching era is over, how easily this sort of group contagion can take over in what is often called an “enlightened” and “civilized” era.

Rather than congratulating ourselves on giving up lynching after roughly a hundred years of the sport, I suggest we take careful note of the growing polarization in our country over social and religious issues. Honest disagreement is not a problem; it’s a good thing, something that keeps us honest. But polarization tends to be conflict for the sake of conflict so that conflict feeds itself and it feeds each one of us. Never mind that polarized conflict is as nourishing to humans as sawdust and glue. What is really dangerous about this polarization is that it easily collapses into collective violence as a way of resolving the tensions.

If we wish to be serious about living the risen life with Christ, we must be baptized by the love and forgiveness of the risen Christ and allow him to gently but firmly remove all the resentments we feed on so as to feed on body and blood of the Lamb of God who reaches out to everybody with vulnerable love.

Can you imagine such a thing? Can you be overwhelmed by such a thing in baptism?