Jesus as the Way

WilliamGuestsChurch1Jesus’ famous words in John: “I am the way and the truth and the life” (Jn. 14: 6) have inspired many Christians, including me, but they tend to cause some consternation in an age where many seek to be inclusive and affirming of diversity. Now that René Girard has greatly increased our awareness of mimetic rivalry, the worry grows that we might understand a verse such as this as meaning “my god is better than your god.” Such a reading projects our own rivalry onto Jesus so as to make Jesus a rival against other “gods.” Which is to turn Jesus into an idol of our own making.

In mimetic rivalry, as Girard articulates it, two rivals become mirror images of one another as they become so entangled in their struggle that the original bone of contention disappears. The two rivals are no longer fighting over a car or a dating companion but are directly tearing each other down and apart. Even ( perhaps especially) with people not so caught up in fighting for material possessions, rivalry over seemingly threatened beliefs can be extraordinarily fierce as we often stake our very being on our beliefs—whatever they are. If we engage in rivalry with people who hold beliefs other than our own, or with people with different understandings of Jesus, we lose sight of Jesus in the very act of defending Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus rebuked his disciples when they fought over who was the greatest. Surely Jesus himself was not fighting with anybody over who was the greatest and he doesn’t want us to do that on his behalf.

I think we start to get a better understanding of this verse when we note that it leads up to Jesus’ proclamation: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (Jn. 14: 9) This verse tells us that there is not the faintest trace of mimetic rivalry between Jesus and the Father. That is why Jesus is so transparent that we can see the Father through his actions and words. Later in this chapter, past what was read for today’s Gospel, Jesus promises to send “another advocate” to guide them into the truth. (Jn. 14: 16) This fills out the Trinitarian dimensions of divine transparency that attests even further to the lack of mimetic rivalry in God. Since Jesus says that he is sending “another advocate,” the implication is that he also is an advocate for us and his advocacy images the Father’s advocacy as well. This means we have three advocates who are advocates for everybody, including any person we might be in rivalry with. Not only is there no mimetic rivalry within the Trinity, there is no mimetic rivalry on the Trinity’s part with us. Any mimetic rivalry we experience comes from our human relationships.

To follow Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life is to renounce all mimetic rivalry. This is a huge challenge because we feed on our rivalries so constantly that we often can’t imagine life without them. Much is said by theologians about how mysterious and incomprehensible God is. Often this mystery is couched in terms of God’s infinity and our finite minds. That is true, but for practical purposes, the divide between our mimetic rivalry and God’s total lack of it is the source of our incomprehension of God in our daily lives. This is why we are so prone to pitting God as a rival with others with whom we just happen to be in rivalry with. Renouncing rivalry is one of the ways we die to sin so as to rise to new life. Insofar as we manage to renounce our rivalries so as to follow Jesus as the Way that leads to life, we ourselves become life-givers who show the way and the life and truth that we receive from the Persons of the Trinity.

For an introduction to René Girard, see my essay Violence and the Kingdom of God.

The Breath of the Trinity

Piero,_battesimo_di_cristo_04There is much theology that treats the Trinity as a mathematical game, trying to work out how three can be one and one can be three. But math, important as it is for many things, is not the way of salvation.

The Church, of course, didn’t preach the Trinity just to solve a mathematical puzzle; the Church preached the Trinity because that seemed to be the best, maybe the only way, to preach salvation. Jesus, a human being, was so god-like that his followers concluded that he wasn’t just like God but was God when, among other things, Jesus exerted divine power to walk on water and still the waves of the Sea of Galilee. Then Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to do the godlike things he had done. So it was that the disciples experienced three Persons acting like God in a way that only God could act. That’s why theologians have been trying to do the math ever since. We shall reflect on one of the most important of the godlike acts of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Jesus got in trouble with the religious authorities for many things, but probably the most serious of them was claiming the power to forgive sins. He did this when the paralytic was brought down through the roof by his friends so that he might be healed, (Mk. 2:5) and he did it again when the Sinful Woman poured perfume over his feet at the house of Simon. (Lk. 7: 47) The Pharisees were incensed because Jesus, a human being, was doing what only God could do. The Gospel writers agreed that only God could forgive sins and Jesus had, in fact, done what only God could do.  Before he died, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to be an Advocate who would lead them further into the truth of who Jesus was. When the risen Jesus breathed on the disciples in the upper room, he passed on to them and, through them to us, the ministry of forgiveness of sins. (Jn. 20: 22–23) Fifty days later, Peter exercised this power to forgive sins when his listeners asked him what they needed to do to be saved. (Acts 2: 38)

The Trinity, then, is not a mathematical puzzle but a story of sin and forgiveness. In spite of some outbursts of anger, Yahweh claimed to be a God who was chesed, a Hebrew word meaning full of loving kindness and mercy. The attitude of the Pharisees towards the paralytic and the Sinful Woman suggests that they thought forgiveness should stay up in the heavens where it belonged and not get mixed up with humans on the earth. In our angrier moments we tend to feel the same way. But Yahweh’s hesed did get mixed up with humanity: first in the person of Jesus and then in the disciples through the Gift of the Holy Spirit. So it is that we humans are given the Gift, not only of having our sins forgiven, but we have the Gift of forgiving the sins of other people. Note that it isn’t we who forgive, but it is God who forgives through us. That is, the divine act of forgiveness that came the earth in the person of Jesus has, like the Holy Spirit, spread throughout the whole world.

Forgiveness is the air we breathe. Unfortunately, just as we can pollute the air, we can pollute the breath of the Holy Spirit through our own wrath. But fortunately, there is no getting rid of God’s hesed. It is all around us and we can breathe it any time we wish. And when we wish it and breathe in the Spirt, we share the life of the Holy Trinity with other people and so help them share the same forgiving life.

Trinity as Story and Song

eucharist1When we talk about the Trinity as a doctrine consisting of three Persons in one Deity, we tend to feel that we have grasped it to some degree. That is the way it is with concepts and doctrines. But the Trinity is a story much more than it is a doctrine. (See The Infinite round Dance.) As a story, the Trinity is no more graspable than the wind as Nicodemus found out. That is the nature of stories: to be ungraspable. Try to grasp anything in a story and you lose everything but the fragment you grasp. Might as well grasp at a note or two of a song and try to get a hold of the song. The story of the Trinity is the story of the Paschal Mystery, told succinctly in the famous verse, Jn :17, that God sent God’s only Son out of love for the world so that the world would not be judged but saved. In the sending, the Spirit acted out the bond of love between the Father and the Son. The Trinity also enters into the stories of each and every one of us as, through the Spirit, we cry “Abba! Father!” So it is that the Spirit makes us joint heirs with Christ. Paul tells us that as the Spirit enters our stories, we participate in Christ’s suffering and glory so that our own sufferings are shared by Christ and Christ’s glory becomes ours. After the threefold cry of “Holy!” in the temple, the Spirit sends the prophet Isaiah as the Father sends the Son and the Holy Spirit. Like Isaiah, we are sent by the Son and the Spirit to each other.

The Trinity as story shows us that a person is not a rugged individualist but is, in its very essence, a person is relationship. No relationship, no person. Our analogies with stories and music help us again here. The words of a story or a poem have very limited meaning individually but they take on much meaning in relationship to one another. The same is true with individual notes becoming a song when joined one to another. A triad is made up of three notes but it is one chord. The Persons of the Trinity hold nothing back from one another and ideally neither should we with one another. Trying to grasp our non-existent individuality is like trying to grasp a story or a song or the wind. If we are to be ourselves, we must let go as the Persons of the Trinity are always letting go so that we always go where we are sent whether it is halfway around the world or—as is most often the case—to the person next to us.

The Infinite Round Dance

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Imagine an endless round dance of three persons dancing in and out of each other, dancing with a Desire they share infinitely with each other with such intense love that the three dancers are one, yet so strong is their love for each other that they desire that there also be three. The persons are not personas, as in fake faces of actors or hypocrites, neither are they rugged individualists believing in every person for oneself. These persons are pure relationship through their shared Desire of love.

This round dance could have gone on forever with nobody the wiser except for one amazing thing: the love of these three persons was so ecstatic, so explosive, that it overflowed into a world of galaxies and stars and planets and flowers and giraffes and humans with teeming brains filled with desire, all with the intent of making countless beings much the wiser for the infinite round dance.

The overflowing love of the infinite round dance required that all desires to dance be free so that humans could look at a tree and desire that tree’s fruit before receiving the fruit as a gift from the infinite dancers. When the desire flowing through humans turned into rivalry with the infinite dancers and with each other, suddenly countless trees disappeared in the conflagration, leaving only centered the few trees that drew the humans ‘desires.

As humans fought over their crossed desires and gathered only to share a desire to kill or expel a victim blamed for the violence overcoming them, the infinite dancers continued to dance through the human desires, inspiring desires to share the trees and fruits and poems and songs in tune with the Desire of the infinite dancers.  The infinite dancers poured their Desire into humans who proclaimed the Desire to others, even when they were stoned or ridiculed or cut off from the land of the living.

So strong was the Desire of the infinite dancers that with the fire and love of the other two persons, one person entered into humanity and became vulnerable to all the shared rivalrous desires that spread like a plague among humans. The Son, conceived in a human womb by the Holy Spirit, gave up his spirit when the humans he came to save chose to kill him. The Son received the spirit back as he was raised from the dead, and then forever after sends that spirit into the desires of all humans.

And so the endless round dance continues with the overflowing love of dancers’ shared Desire that all humans be ecstatically the wiser for the dance.