Possessed by God

treeBlossoming1The First Epistle of John overflows with declarations of God’s preemptive love: “not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn. 4: 10). This preemptive love of God is not just a vague benevolence but an action, and a sacrificial act at that. God did, and continues to act on our behalf. John goes on to describe God’s love as an abiding presence within us, what amounts to being possessed by God. Is this just an added treat in life? We can quickly see that being possessed by God is much more important than that. Many cases of possession of a different sort were recorded in the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus cast many demons out from people who were possessed by them. Without necessarily ruling out a supernatural provenance for some of these possessions, it is helpful to remember that René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire shows us how we can become possessed by other people, especially in rivalrous situations. (See Human See, Human Want.) We only need to reflect on how strongly another person we are at odds with has taken over us to realize how much another person can possess us. Crowds of people easily become possessed as the story of the Gerasene demoniac and the Passion narratives suggest. If we put John’s teaching of God’s indwelling love together with demonic possession, we are confronted with the conclusion that we are going to be possessed by somebody. It is not possible to remain aloof from the intentions and desires of other people. They will possess us whether we like it or not. The question is: By whom are we possessed? Jesus’ little parable about the evil spirit that was cast out but returned to the house “swept clean” with seven spirits “more evil than itself” (Mt. 12: 44-45) teaches us that casting out the spirit who has possessed someone is not enough. We must become possessed by the Spirit of one who is full of love, One who is not in rivalry with us or with anybody else.

Jesus’ image of the vine and the branches in John 15 gives us another take on the importance of being possessed by God’s love. Once again, we have the language of mutual abiding. The branches depend on the vine for both their lives and the vitality that gives them the power to act and bear fruit. This image reminds us of other vineyards in scripture. There is the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5 which the owner prepared to bear good fruit, only to have it bear wild grapes. Jesus is surely referring to Isaiah’s song in his parable of the vineyard. The evil workers who killed the messengers and servants and then the owner’s son show us what a crowd possessed by rivalry looks like. Jesus’ teaching about the vine and the branches takes us much more deeply into the heart of this parable. The “wild grapes” who killed the owner’s son are branches that broke away from the vine. Having no life in them, they can only offer death to others. But if we do not break away, we are pruned of our competitive spirit so that we can bear fruit. Unlike the parable of the vineyard, the owner does not stop with laying out the groundwork; the owner continues to care for the vineyard over time, just as God sustains us so that we abide in God’s love and God’s love abides in us. This possession protects us from the possession of the persecutory crowd and frees us to bear fruit by acting on God’s preemptive love. This freedom opens our hearts and minds to discern what we can do with what resources we have to help others in need. This freedom is dangerous. It could strengthen us enough to follow Jesus into the depths of the collective evil spirit that had possessed the evil workers in the vineyard where Jesus pulled off the greatest exorcism of all time on the cross.

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Longing for God’s Desire

treespath1In one way or another, human desire has always indicated that something is lacking. My stomach is empty so I desire to fill it with food. I don’t have as much money as I would like for the necessities and treats I want so I feel empty until I get enough money to get them. I lack the satisfaction of seeing my favorite baseball team win unless they win. If they do win, I am back to square one with the same emptiness and the same desire by the next day.

René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire pushes the lack that leads to desire a step further. We don’t just lack possessions or a girlfriend; we don’t know what food or what girl to desire until we see what food and what girl somebody else desires. As we learn from scientists’ study of our mirror neurons, we don’t necessarily desire what other people want because they want it or we think they want it. Rather our desires automatically resonate with the desires of others and we need to learn to navigate these resonances as part of human maturation. This prevents us from automatically copying every desire we see in others but the less conscious we are of the impact others’ desires have on us, the more likely we will be driven by others’ desires and the more empty we will be as a result.

Those desires of ours that are drawn from other people easily become conflictual. When that happens, the emptiness opened by mimetic desire deepens into an abyss. When we are wrapped up with a rival, it is never enough to have what the rival wants. As Girard points out, we need to become the other person. We believe (wrongly) that the other person has a certain fullness of being that we don’t have because they have—or seem to have—what we want but don’t have. So it is that we covet not just the ox or wife or car of another but the very being of another person. This is why we never have enough money or possessions or anything else as long as we are in rivalrous relationships. For Girard, this is not an ontological statement but an anthropological one. That is, it is about human relationships. The problem is that we can covet the being of another person until the end of the world and we’ll come up empty. Since the alleged fullness of being on the part of another is illusory, we are only “chasing after wind” (Eccl. 1:14).

Christian thinkers have consistently averred that we are instilled with a longing for God as a gift from God and that this longing means that we cannot be totally satisfied with anything else, no matter how wonderful. As the Psalmist says: our souls “thirst for the living God” (Psa. 42: 2).If we see mimetic desire as fundamental to humanity, it follows that this trait is willed by God and used by God in a fundamental way for our salvation. The certain lack of being caused by mimetic desire gives us an ongoing openness to God, an opening for God to enter into us and dwell within us as Jesus promised us in John’s Gospel. We are created to resonate with the desires of others so that we can resonate with the Desire of the other Other. The phrase “cdeep calls from deep: (Psa. 42: 7) has often been interpreted as the depths of our humanity crying out to the depths of God. This depth is our desire resonating mimetically with God’s Desire. While it is an illusion to think that a human rival has a plenitude of being, God really does have such plenitude. Moreover, God is infinitely generous with God’s plenitude of being. If we open ourselves to God’s Desire, we participate in that Desire is such a way that we can be equally generous with others.

Running Away from the Resurrected Life

yellowTulips1The ending of Mark’s Gospel is abrupt and enigmatic. So much so that the early Christian community added a “completion” that doesn’t connect well with what Mark wrote. There has also been speculation that the ending broke off from the manuscript or that Mark was nabbed by the Romans and thrown to the lions just before he could quite finish it.

The conclusion where the women run away because they are afraid is so strong that it is enough to make us forget that it is preceded by a ringing proclamation that Jesus has been raised and has already arrived in Galilee where he is waiting for them and the disciples. When we remember this proclamation and let it sink in, we realize that this enigmatic ending is not pessimistic or skeptical about the risen life about Jesus, but perhaps it is pessimistic, maybe even skeptical, about the ability of human beings to come to grips with the risen life of Jesus. After all, Mark’s Gospel was pessimistic about the ability of anybody to understand Jesus throughout, not least the closest disciples who made an especially poor showing of themselves with their obtuseness and in-fighting.

Mark is not unique in saying that the women at the tomb were afraid when they found the tomb empty. All of the Gospel accounts say as much. Moreover, whenever the risen Jesus appears to someone, he has to tell them not to be afraid once they recognize him (which they usually don’t at first.) What is unique to Mark is that he only says that the women were afraid as they ran off while Matthew says that the women left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy” (Mat. 28: 8). Moreover, in Matthew they did tell the disciples. What were they afraid of? What are we afraid of? Usually fear is our response to a threat. If I think a big dog might bite me, I am afraid of it. If someone drops some bombs over my house, I am afraid of being blown up. But what about Jesus who never bit anybody or blew anybody up? Well, we can be afraid of having our understanding of the world turned upside down and that is precisely what the Resurrection does. With Easter well-integrated into our yearly cycle of Christian worship, it can seem to be business as usual, but that is an illusion. The great value of Mark’s blunt proclamation followed by women the running off in fear like Goldilocks in triplicate is that it reminds us that the Resurrection is not business as usual; it is the bankruptcy of everything we thought kept us in the business of life.

But the Resurrection is a good thing, isn’t it? What is there to be afraid of? If the Resurrection is just a happy ending to a story we celebrate and then move on to the business of living, then the Resurrection isn’t much to worry about. But then it isn’t much to celebrate, either. There are other excuses for having a party. The women ran away from the tomb, not to have a party, but to get away from what had just broken apart their worldviews. And ours. So what worldview might we run away from? There is over two thousand years’ worth of theology to draw on to answer that question but the women at the tomb didn’t sit down and do a seminar on worldviews. They ran. What was so frightening was that they simply didn’t know what this new meant to them except that all bets were off. Remember, in Mark’s Gospel, nobody understood Jesus and the misunderstandings of him only got worse as the Gospel got on until the story ended with Jesus hanging on a cross. So, how could the women or the disciples understand what was happening to them? Maybe the disciples, maybe even the women who remained faithful to the end in tending to Jesus’ body, were relieved that the man they did not understand was gone. At least they could understand grief and resentment over what had happened. But Jesus wasn’t gone. They were going to have to go back to Galilee where the whole story started and try again.

Being sent back to the beginning suggests that God was giving them, and us, a second chance. They and we have the advantage of knowing the end of the story and we can use that as a key to what led up to it. We learn that the world was broken apart by a God who would choose to die on a cross rather than start a violent revolution but who remains alive in the face of such an appalling event and thus is a God who remains alive in the appalling events we face today. Worse than that, Jesus has broken the cycle of resentment and rage that, though painful, was tight and cozy and predictable. This means we havae to redefine the ways we relate to one another. Worse yet, we are threatened with the challenge of life that just isn’t going to let up now that death is broken apart. This Eastertide, let us go back to Galilee and see what else we can find.