Care for the Small Child

HolyFamilybyGutierrezIt is well-known that humans can be competitive, sometimes just for the sake of being competitive. Competition tends to draw rivals close together, even if, and perhaps especially if they really hate each other. People who are close to each other to start with are often competitive just because they are close to each other. Sibling rivalry is an old story as the story of Cain and Abel tells us. René Girard attributes this phenomenon to mimetic desire. The reason for the rivals’ competition is because they want the same thing. This does not happen by chance. The desire of one person inspires the desire of another. Often the mutual desire is instantaneous, or at least seems so. In any case, when two or more people fight over who is the greatest, each person thinks it is the others who are copying him or her and never the other way around. Girard further suggests that when this kind of rivalry spreads through society, it leads to a social meltdown that is usually resolved by the mimetic desire focusing on one person who is blamed for the crisis and who becomes a victim of collective violence. We see all these elements in a nutshell in today’s reading from Mark. Jesus tells his disciples that he will be betrayed “into human hands” and put to death. And then the disciples fight about who is the greatest, the very thing that has been happening on a broader scale in first century Palestine and so has made Jesus the designated victim of the social tensions around him.

All of this suggests that mimetic desire is a bad thing but that is not so. Mimetic desire is built into humanity by our Creator and therefore, in itself, it is good. It is good because it is the basis of deep connections between people. It is through mimetic desire that our parents and other caregivers initiate us into the world by sharing their desires for certain foods and learning to share desires for the well-being of other people. This is the significance of what Jesus does when confronted with the tense silence that greets his question: “What were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus places a child in their midst and tells them: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Jesus doesn’t reprimand his disciples as we think he should and as most of us would in his sandals. What Jesus does is very simple. Caring for a small child is the deepest manifestation of positive mimetic desire. Jesus subtly breaks up the closeness among the disciples that is brewing through their discord and instead unites them in their desire to care for the small child. This story puts before all of us the choice of how we will connect with the desires of other people: Will it be in rivalry or in nurturing others?

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Love as Ultimate Respect

???????????????????????????????????????????We saw that the substance of faith and hope consists of actions on the part of God. (See Faith as Faithfulness and Hope as Inheritance.) The substance of faith is the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ fidelity to the Heavenly Father and all humanity in dying on the cross and rising from the dead. The substance of hope moves further back in time, to the beginning of time, in that hope is grounded in God’s adopting all people as adopted sons and daughters to inherit the vineyard God laid out at the dawn of creation. Love goes further back past the beginning of time to Eternity. It is God’s love that was poured out at the Creation of the world. In God’s eyes, the “vast expanse of interstellar space,” as Eucharist Canon C in the Book of Common Prayer has it, is small in God’s eyes, “a little thing, the size of a hazel nut” as Julian of Norwich images it. But God loves that little thing and “in this way everything hath its being by the love of God.” Julian goes on to explain, based on her visions, that God loves “that little thing” so much that when that little thing in the form of a servant goes on a mission and falls into a ditch, God sends a second servant to get the fallen one back out of the ditch, an act that causes all of the dirt and grime of the pit to stain the clothes of the saving servant. So it is that Julian is convinced that it was love and pity that motivated the Father to send the servant to suffer for the fallen one and that there was no trace of wrath whatever in the process.

God’s love precedes and quickens God’s deeds. God’s love transcends time and will never end and will certainly never change, but the effects of God’s love in time can change. We see this with the actions of embracing the cross on Jesus’ part and in the process of inheritance. It is this abiding act of love that we are invited to participate in as the means of being clothed in God’s Desire.

Rebecca Adams, a feminist colleague of Girard, offers us a compelling articulation of what God’s love is all about. In an act of authorial generosity (more love in action) Vern Redekop created space in his fine book From Violence to Blessing for Adams to articulate her understanding of love at some length. It was Adams who, noting how Girard tends to stress the negative side of mimetic desire, prodded him in an interview to admit that there was such a thing as “positive mimesis” where mimetic desire works among humans for constructive and humane purposes.

Interestingly, Adams gained her inspiration from a Star Trek episode where the pivotal character is a metamorph from another planet. A metamorph is all mimetic desire to the extent that such a person is incapable of any subjectivity so as to be nothing but a perfect mirror of the other’s desires. Such a culture is mimetic desire gone mad. We can see that however mimetic desire works, it is not intended by God to be the destruction of the core of another’s personhood. This metamorph, a woman, is a pawn in an interplanetary marriage arrangement where she will be married to a callous corrupt official. Captain Picard of the Star Trek crew wants to save her from this fate but she can’t even imagine wanting any other alternative, let alone fight for it. Picard solves the problem by desiring that the metamorph have a subjectivity of her own. Because of her susceptibility, she is so engulfed in Picard’s desire that she does begin to desire a subjectivity for herself and thus achieves the beginning of independence. This is sort of like being the “tiny little thing” becoming a hazel nut with the potential to grow into something large (like the mustard seed becoming a large tree). Picard proves to be a fine model of willing the subjectivity of another person, something he must have been doing habitually with the people in his life all along.

Adams sees this Star Trek episode as providing a third alternative to attempting to be autonomous or having a subjectivity completely derived from another. This relational willing of the subjectivity between persons gives each “the capacity to participate fully in a loving dynamic of giving and receiving in relation to others.” This willing of the subjectivity of another is something that will spread so that if two people “start desiring not only their own and each other’s subjectivity,” they will also “desire the subjectivity of others as well.” p. 267) As opposed to the closed system of mimetic rivalry, we have an “open system of intersubjectivity with its own creative, generative dynamic which potentially could expand to include everyone and everything.” God, of course, already and always wills the subjectivity of all. This helps to explain why I insist that respect is the essential prerequisite to love. (See Respect.) Adams’ vision is a model of love is ultimate respect for the other, a respect that gives the other a self as a gift as we all receive a self from God as gift. When respect reaches this level, we can say that it has become love grounded in God’s Desire. It is also what Paul admonishes us to in Romans 12: 12: “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”

There is one thought that gives me pause. What if the subjectivity of another person is evil. Adams can’t possibly mean to embrace such an evil subjectivity. For one thing, the mutuality is lost because an abuser tries to destroy the subjectivity of another rather than will it to flourish. Besides, Adams says that she has suffered such abuse so clearly she does not affirm this kind of subjectivity. On the contrary, this experience has taught her the importance of respecting the other’s subjectivity as a mutual process. However, the question that poses itself is: does an abusive person have a subjectivity, or much of one? If all of us can truly be a self when that self is received as gift, then anyone who tries to take away the self of another inevitably takes away one’s own self at the same time. This mutual losing of selves is what happens in the dissolution of advanced mimetic rivalry.

The great author of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien can help us here. In The Lord of the Rings he powerfully portrays the emptiness of evil in the ringwraiths and Sauron whom they serve. The ringwraiths have enough substance to be covered with black cloaks, ride black horses, and try to seek out the ring bearer who happens to be the hobbit Frodo. But there is otherwise no substance to the ringwraiths just as there is no substance to Sauron who wishes to repossess the ring of ultimate power and bind everyone and everything to his own empty desire. We see the same destruction of hobbithood in Gollum who is just as consumed with desire for the ring as Sauron.

Can one possibly will the subjectivity of a ringwraith or Sauron or Gollum? Frodo does respect the subjectivity of Gollum to the extent that he feels enough pity that he will not kill the creature no matter how painful Gollum’s constant nagging presence is. It is this pity and not Frodo’s strength to destroy the ring, which in the end he does not have, that saves the day, for it is when Gollum grabs the ring from Frodo and falls into the volcano that the ring is destroyed. Gollum is pitiable, but can we try to will subjectivity for Sauron? I would answer “yes” with much trepidation for I can hardly imagine going up to a ringwraith to offer him a dose of subjectivity let alone Sauron. Even Captain Picard would be challenged to be this brave. But God does will that a person empty of a self receive a self as a gift so as to be a self. When God so offer the likes of Sauron a self, we can tiptoe into God’s offer to share in it in our own small ways. At this point, love as ultimate respect is forgiveness, another gift of God grounded in God’s love. Let us not speculate on whether or not Sauron ever consents to receive a self from God. Let us ask ourselves if we are willing to receive this ultimate respect ourselves from God and offer it to others.

Hope as Inheritance

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyThe faithfulness of Jesus opened up a new way of living, a way hitherto inconceivable. In this way, Jesus is a pioneer of faith, as the author of Hebrews tells us. (See Faith as Faithfulness) A pioneer blazes a trail that others can follow which otherwise would be either very difficult or downright impossible. In some ways, Abraham had a harder time blazing the trail in that he didn’t even have Jesus to follow, but as Jesus says in John, Abraham followed Jesus’ trail retroactively by seeing Jesus and rejoicing. Abraham rejoiced in Jesus when he saw the ram caught in a thicket by its horns and understood what that meant. As Kierkegaard argued, it was not the willingness to give up Isaac that constituted faith but his belief in the promise made to him that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the particles of dust on the earth.

Abraham’s faith was grounded in hope, but it was not hope in the subjective sense in which we hope things will turn out okay. That is the hope we have when we read a story, say a story about a boy or young man who is about to be sacrificed, and we hope the boy somehow escapes that fate. Likewise, we might read the Gospels hoping that the hero escapes the cross, but he doesn’t and our hope is dashed. But hope is not dashed at all.

In a provocative paper, James Alison helps us redefine hope. By that I mean Alison helps us see how Jesus has redefined hope. To begin with, redefined hope is grounded in the death of Jesus that seemed to blot out all hope. Jesus’ being raised from the dead might be enough to revive hope in the subjective, “hopeful” sense but that did not redefine hope. What does redefine hope is that the risen Jesus adopted all of us as brothers and sisters so as to make all of us adopted daughters and sons of Jesus’ Father. Alison picks up on the dynamics of inheritance and runs with it. When his mother died, the family inheritance entered the process of coming to him and his two siblings, same as it does when we inherit from our parents. Alison and his brother and sister had not actually inherited the estate right away, but they already were placed in new status because the transition of transferring the estate was in process and one day it would be completed, which it was one fine day. They weren’t “hoping” they would get the estate; the estate was already theirs.

If we return to Abraham and Sarah, we see that their faith became strengthened by hope when they understood that the promise of heirs meant that they had already been made the progenitors of countless descendants even before the first descendent was born. It was because of his prearranged status as a forebear that Abraham could see the ram for what it was, at which point he also understood what the culture he was being led to was all about: that it was about sparing the sacrificial victim. Even when it looked like he would have no heirs after all, Abraham acted like the progenitor God has already made him to be and so he spared Isaac.

With us, the pre-established status is the opposite. We are not progenitors but heirs. This is why faith is the substance of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen. (Heb. 11:1) The substance is the testament of our inheritance. Alison says this substance is a demonstration of what is not seen. The change of status as an heir has already changed us: “At the testator’s death, the promised inheritance is substantially mine even when it is not yet in my possession, and because of that, I already now find myself starting to become a publicly visible demonstration, a reliable sign of what is on its way. Who I am is objectively being altered as someone else’s promise, their desire, moves towards its fulfilment in my reception of it.”
Let us follow this anthology further. Imagine a ten-year-old son of the owner of a vast estate who is the heir of that estate. Because of this status, although he is not yet the owner of the estate, his father takes him around to begin teaching him how to run the estate: how to handle the workers, make sure the foremen order supplies at the right time, etc. This boy spends time learning these things because he is the heir.

Now let us change the story the way God changed it. Imagine being one of the workers in the vineyard of this vast estate who is sweating profusely while the well-dressed boy coolly walks by with his father on his tour of the place. Imagine further being caught up in the rebellious fervor that spreads among the workers so that you go on strike and allow the grapes to grow wild. When the son, grown into a young man, comes to collect the produce, you join in the attack and kill the heir. Then comes the reckoning. You and your fellow workers are brought to the magistrates and you expect to suffer a grim fate for what you have done. To your shock, the son you had killed shows up at the court, very much alive, although the wounds inflicted on him are still there. This really has you shaking in your boots. But to your further shock, the father gets out his will and announces that the vineyard was bequeathed not only to the son but to all of the workers. More shocking still, the father and his son assure welcome all of you back to work in the vineyard as joint owners. As fellow heirs, you are ready to act like an heir who will work to keep the grapes from growing wild so as to produce so much wine for the wedding feast that they will never run out. So it is that hope, far from wishing for a happy ending to the story of the workers in the vineyard, is, in Alison’s words, “ a realignment of our whole way of being towards what really is, as what really is begins to manifest itself in us.”

Proceed to Love as Ultimate Respect

Faith as Faithfulness

altarDistance1Faith is often presented as conformity to a set of doctrines like those laid out in the Nicene Creed. I believe in what the Nicene Creed says but believing it isn’t faith. If we turn to St. Paul we find something different. It is often believed that Paul says throughout his epistles that we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, suggesting that if we believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead, we will be saved. That is, we substitute a more primitive Creed for the Nicene. But this is not what Paul said. In his exhaustive and exhausting book The Deliverance of God: an Apocalyptic Reading of Justification in Paul, Douglas Campbell argues that Paul’s phrase should not be translated faith in Christ, but the faith of Christ. This doesn’t seem to make much sense because Jesus couldn’t have believed in any kind of doctrine. Paul must be talking about faith in some other sense. That is what Campbell thinks when he suggests that a better translation of the word Greek word pistis would be “faithfulness.” That is, Jesus’ faithfulness to his heavenly Father by enduring the mockery of humans and the cross and then being raised from the dead saves us. That is, the faithful acts of Christ save us. We are not saved by our faith; we are saved by Jesus’ faithfulness. This also fits the understanding of “faith” in the Hebrew prophets. When Habakkuk said that “the righteous live by their faith,” (Hab. 2: 4) he was saying that the righteousness live by acting in faithfulness to Yahweh. When James said that faith without works is dead, he was really saying that if there are no works there is no faith because works, the acts of faithfulness, is an integral part of faith.

We can see this point more clearly when we reflect that for Paul Abraham is the father of faith because of what he did when God called him by name. Abraham was told to leave the only life he had known and move to a land God would show him. This is precisely what we are called to do in baptism. We are to leave the life we have known, the life that has formed us and clothed us in what Paul calls “the old person” and move to a life we have never known, a life that will form us and clothe us in “the new person.” This may seem laughable to those of us who were baptized as infants but the baptismal vows of renouncing the world, the flesh and the devil, even if made on our behalf, are still our responsibility as we come of age. We find ourselves formed by the social matrix around us which René Girard argues is run primarily by mimetic rivalry and sacrificial mechanisms and we are called out of these social matrixes into a way of life grounded in the Forgiving Victim.

What makes Abraham’s journey so remarkable is that he was travelling into uncharted territory. He moved out of a culture based on sacrificial violence without a New Testament in his hip pocket to tell him what kind of story he was entering. In this way he was a pioneer of faith about as much as Jesus. Both put their lives on the line, though in different ways. Abraham only had a promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, although he had born no children up to that time. Jesus hoped to receive from his heavenly Fathers descendants just as numerous (Jn. 17: 10) although it looked hopeless when even his disciples deserted him at the end. Abraham’s wife Sarai went with Abraham on this journey, making her also a great pioneer of faith. I doubt that either of them could have done it alone. It is because this pioneering move is so fundamental to Abraham’s faithfulness that Paul denies that being circumcised constitutes the faith that was reasoned as righteousness. (Rom. 4: 9-12) That is, Abraham was circumcised after he had set out for a new land.

Abraham’s geographical move was not enough, of course. Indeed, if faith has to do with migrating from a sacrificial culture, it is the spiritual geography that matters. After all, Canaan was as in the thrall of sacrificial culture as Ur of the Chaldeans. The real act of faithfulness was bringing Isaac back from Moriah. In a culture that demanded sacrifice so powerfully that even Abraham thought he had to participate in it, he listened to the voice from outside the system that told him not to lay a hand on the lad. On his way to Calvary, Jesus as a pioneer of faith (Heb. 12:2) had to believe that he had been sent from outside the sacrificial system and would return to a place outside that system after having cracked the structure for all time.

[For more on the near-sacrifice of Isaac, see Abraham out on Highway 61]

Proceed to Hope as Inheritance