Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Teaching Our Children to Sin

Reading. Or at least I was. Maybe it's adult ADHD or maybe, since embarking on what has now become a nearly ten year journey of discovery, the reading across disciplines of theology, history, anthropology, and others I find that interconnected tones lead off into reflection.

Still reading "The Age of Reform 1250-1550" and Ozment is now looking at the life and work of Martin Luther. The consensus of the scholarship seems to show that Luther's earlier religious life before and after monastic life were marked by anxiety and neurosis. Of course in the middle ages the religious method of clergy (which was thrust in lesser measure to the laity) was marked by a deeply penitential structure; i.e. "paying your way" toward salvation through structured forms of self-loathing and penitential, ascetic practices.

From where does this derive? It isn't Ozment's purpose to answer that question, and it's probably there in the writing if I'd read with an eye to find it. But it isn't a leap to take this all the way back to the myth of a garden called Eden.

James Alison writes[1]: "One of the first fruits of the fall was the knowledge of good and evil, does it not suggest that that knowledge, at least in its current form, is inappropriate to us?"

Reflection on this can reveal much about not only Luther's life and times but our own. There is so much anxiety and neuroses in our culture and this anxiety seems to be behind much of the hatred and vilification of "the other". So just how deep do these roots go?

It would be foolish to argue that there is no difference between good and evil, there is. But it seems we are not supposed to know that there is! This is surely a complex arrangement. But in the story when it connects the knowledge of these two states to death is where a larger panorama opens up. The fact that we know the difference leads to death. Death has two players, one is the dead, the other is the killer. When we teach others the difference between good and evil are we in fact instructing them in a methodology of how they may die or, even more disconcertingly, to kill and be justified in doing so?

This obviously creates a huge problem. There is also, biblically, this other connection made throughout. "Sin" = death. So then we have this: knowledge of good and evil = death; sin = death; knowledge of good and evil = sin. This is no mere syllogism.

So then in this way "sin" (whatever it is) is not connected with "evil" in a strict sense but with knowing the difference between it and "good" and that this leads us, or others, to death. We, as a species, use this knowledge as a method of justification for just about every type of evil one could imagine.

Alison continues[2]: "Any accusatory knowledge of sin has a particular propensity to blindness about complicity and that only forgiveness enables us to see."


In light of this what should we teach others? What should we relate to our children, our neighbors, our friends, or maybe more importantly, our enemies if not some sense of moral certitude if our moral certitude is a part of this pattern of sin and death as told us by the Christian scriptures?

I am assured that Jesus gave plenty of clues for those who have ears, and eyes to at least begin working this out.



[1] Alison: "The Joy of Being Wrong, Original Sin through Easter Eyes" pp 263, Crossroad Publishing Co. New York.
[2] Ibid. pp 265

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Desire of Nature and The Nature of Desire


I woke up a few days ago with the following axiom on my mind: 
"It is our preconceptions that give us the insight that we have into something but paradoxically they are also the source of our blindness for what is right in front of us." 

One example of this is contained in my exposition of 1Kings. Language that is taken uncritically hides the patterns of preconceived notions of meaning. It's not just the words in one's bucket but it is also the size and shape and color of the bucket that counts too. Similar to a wineskin as I've written about here.

A phrase such as "old nature" is already layered with centuries of meaning provided by a particular notion of that nature being something distinct to individuals. What if it can be shown to be of a completely other thing? One that can only be properly understood in a cultural or sociological way related to origins. It would seem that Jesus' counter-revolution is structured not around individuals but around community and this sense of community is to contain a very distinct counter-culture and type of sociology.

Are our natures bounded and shaped by a world which we have shaped in a way that serves our nature? Kosmos, which is translated world, means an "orderly arrangement" and can refer to a completely naturalistic structure, a hypostasis, of purely human origin. I propose it is this orderly arrangement that is the container for and shape in which any sense of "old nature" is derived. It sets the very boundaries of what we can know about this kosmos at all! It is the very human way that societies are ordered around creating and maintaining "peace" by giving and receiving death in the making of enemy others and by sacrificing those others summum bonum.

Jesus is found everywhere juxtaposing the kingdom of God/heaven against the kings/kingdoms, i.e. principalities/powers of this world; the "orderly arrangement" of human being. God's orderly arrangement falls along certain ethical-though not only ethical-lines and the content of Jesus' teachings seem to flow from this understanding as they appear as subversive and anti-normal from a human perspective. It goes against our "natures" to even imagine ordering a society around a notion of enemy love and forgiveness or justice as mercy. But is this not exactly what the community project that began from his work is called to be and do in stark contrast to the principalities/powers and kings/kingdoms of earth as a sign to the world, a lamp on a stand, a message of hope in the midst of despair?

"What if I told you that the Matrix is the world that is pulled over our eyes to blind us to the truth?" 

What if there was no such thing as an "individual"? That the idea of autonomous being is merely a romantic illusion? This would constitute a change in perspective that changes everything else. This can precisely be a way that we are "joined" with the Adamic narrative in scripture. Not by some sense of individual genetic progeny, nor in some mysterious metaphysical attribution of sin, but by means of a certain form of sociality and culturalization, something structuring and functional, and none could even see it much less escape it, because from the moment we're born we enter into this human predicament. This is a part of Alison's[1] thesis as he has built upon the insight of the interdividual psychology of Rene' Girard. I am continually being formed by my imitation of the desires of another, I exist only in my relationship with others.

This is what Girard has so keenly observed and systematized over a lifetime of study and it has very deep explanatory power by which to see the world and ourselves.  View the Asch experiment on YouTube to see how early researchers in the 50's had already had a basic view into this without fully recognizing it's significance or the scope of its influence. Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian, in "Moral Man, Immoral Society" dances all around this in 1932 but was never able to grasp the insight into it that Girard later did.

The biblical "creation" narrative of Adam and Eve's temptation is not toward disobedience but toward desire-I am aware that Paul uses this story in a different way but, on a close reading, to make a similar point-though this is not just about desire per se but about how it is acquired. It appears from the story that desire to be like God (whatever that means) was original and good. God is portrayed as a completely gratuitous giver, man the grateful receiver, every desire always gratuitously fulfilled and therefore seeking and desiring for nothing

The break that occurs is when the serpent "tempted" or caused Eve to desire, but not just to desire but TAKE for herself what had been previously gratuitously given; likeness to God. Were they not, after all, created in his image and therefore already "like" him? This doesn't just represent a single action but presents itself as a model of being malformed by acquisitive desire. She "received" ,or took as in "taking a cue from", her desire from the serpent, likewise Adam "received" his desire from Eve. 

What happens next is an amazing reversal. In the tale Adam and Eve both hide from God; who has no nefarious intention. When confronted over this peculiar behavior Adam blames, is willing to sacrifice, i.e. scapegoats, Eve for his desire. Eve likewise deflects blame, is willing to sacrifice the serpent who is the final scapegoat in this story, one through whom Adam and Eve can regain unity. What we have is a rupture within the structure of human relationship where it now requires an enemy other to be sustained! In much later writings this "serpent" becomes referred to by the moniker "accuser", that is to say the principle of accusation, and it functions precisely as a force though which we can identify scapegoats in order to create social order.

Of necessary importance to this mechanism's functioning is our blindness to it. Jesus gives us some insight into this unconsciousness from the cross when he prays: "forgive them Father for they do not know what they are doing."  Quoting Girard[2]: "To have a scapegoat is precisely to not know that you have one, you think that you have a culprit." He would say in an interview [paraphrased]: "In the 17th century nobody would have made the claim to be a witch. We have that now but not then. In the seventeenth century the term witch was merely an accusation". As such it served to ameliorate social crisis at that time by the expulsion and murder of others accused as being responsible for the crisis.

So within the Adamic narrative it is only after eviction from the garden, essentially being "given over to their own desires"[3], do we see any working of death (of which God has nothing to do with) in the story of the murder of Abel. This being given over to our own desires is something that requires a much deeper discussion of its own on the nature and shape of judgment or punishment.

Now addressing the continuity and discontinuity of  "natures" old and new. The writings of James Alison, N. T. Wright, and others show that there is a certain continuity between the here and hereafter; what we are and what we are to become. Would that we desire to be the kind of people who would "be at home" within a world, a Kingdom, such as Jesus describes, this continuity already would exist and might allow one to make a more-or-less seamless transition while for others "it would be like going through fire"[4]. Now as to the manner in which we are constituted as human beings. If we are constituted as being formed by desiring of the desire of another then this continuity can remain. Only the manner in which desire is appropriated need be transformed. Psalm 37:4 should probably be taken quite literally on this point:
  Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. This giving of desires is frequently misunderstood in a self-appropriative manner i.e. If I delight; Lord gives me things I desire. This might instead be understood as desires will be established within one in a non-appropriative way.  This correction of origination of desire could happen in an apokalypic-as unveiling- way to us within mind and spirit simultaneous and inseparable. This would represent a type of undoing the effect of the original distortion of desire; original sin if you can accept it.

In the Revelation of John we have an image of the way this apocalypsis might appear: 
Rev 1:7  Look! He is coming in the clouds. Every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of him. This rich symbolism seems to represent a mass 'repentance' or a simultaneous re-ordering in which 'all the tribes of the earth' have a fundamental cognitive shift. This mourning or grieving, not in fear of some retributive act, but because of the sudden recognition in which all creation at once and finally sees its complicity in a culture of death and death dealing, victim making, and violence. It includes the tacit recognition of  not knowing what we were doing that is now being revealed not only in what we have done but also how we have reconstituted ourselves from the beginning. So who is this group of "those who pierced him" except all humanity? Matthew[5] records this fact yet the one who is pierced still calls us friends.[6] But thankfully all who mourn will be comforted.

I close with the following citation which refers back to my original observation on preconceptions: 
Paul Ricoeur: The Intersection Between Solitude and Connection by Kathleen O'Dwyer

Freud, Marx and Nietzsche… All three recognized that meaning, far from being transparent to itself, is an enigmatic process which conceals at the same time as it reveals. Kearney, in his introduction to Ricoeur's short thesis, "On Translation", explains that for Ricoeur, translation "indicates the everyday act of speaking as a way not only of translating oneself to another…but also and more explicitly of translating oneself to oneself". (Kearney, 2004: 7, 8).





[1]James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong. Original Sin through Easter Eyes.
[2] Rene Girard from an interview here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g8Y8dVVV4To
[3] See also Romans 1;24  for an instance of judgment shaped as a "giving over" to our desires.
[4] 1Co 3:15  If his work is burned up, he will suffer loss. However, he himself will be saved, but it will be like going through fire.
[5] Matt 26:31 Then Jesus told them, "All of you will turn against me this very night, because it is written, "I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered." (quoting Zech 13:7)
[6] Zech 13:6 "Someone will say to him, "What are these injuries to your hands?" He will reply, "They're what I received at my friend's house."

Monday, January 25, 2016

Reimagining Sacrifice


An exposition of 1 Kings 3:2-28

How do we understand sacrifice? 

As Rene´ Girard was developing mimetic theory he was confronted with the challenge from his critics over the use of the word "sacrifice". He understood the scriptures throughout to reveal an anti-sacrificial message but he was still hemmed in by having to use the word "sacrifice". He stated that he believed "the answer to everything" was somehow within the story of Solomon's Judgment and he carried that story in his mind continually.

Therefore the primary insight here I have borrowed from Girard but in pursuing a better understanding of this I observed other meaningful interpretive elements in the texts cited above. Here is the first scene as I examine some of these elements.

After two introductory verses we come to verse 3:
Solomon loved the LORD, and lived according to the statutes that his father David obeyed, except that he sacrificed and burned offerings at the high places.

It seems clear from this text that this sacrificing by Solomon was regarded as a negative attribute in his appraisal as king. The word rendered sacrifice could as well be translated "slaughtered" as every meaning of the word zaw-bakh includes slaughter; brutal or violent killing. Further it is to be noted that this "slaughtering" is not connected by the writer with any form of idolatry. Too much should not be made of the allusion to high places as it previously states in verse two that sacrifice was occurring throughout the land at "high places" simply because there was, as of yet, no temple.

Verse 4 cites one such location, in Gibeon, where Solomon sacrificed 1,000 burnt offerings. So we have here birthed a nascent awareness that there is something amiss with this sacrificial behavior and or orientation.

Verses 5 through 8 recount the dream that Solomon has where God makes an offer for Solomon to "ask for whatever you want" and this results in Solomon wisely asking for the following in verse 9a:

"So give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, so I can discern between good and evil..."

The specificity of Solomon's request should not be overlooked: "so I can discern between good and evil."  This point and the discussion of sacrifice above taken together provide the interpretive key that unlocks the fuller meaning of what follows in the text.

This scene in the narrative closes with God being pleased by such a request and the granting of riches, etc., in consideration for such a humble request. Now we move on to scene two.


Scene one closes with Solomon waking up and realizing he's "dreamed a dream" and sacrifices and throws a party for all his servants.  Scene two begins with this: "Right about then". It almost seems as if the writer doesn't want you to forget the previous keys before you get to the door that needs unlocking. I reproduce the text of the second scene here for reference:

1Ki 3:16  Right about then, two prostitutes approached the king and requested an audience with him. 17 One woman said, "Your majesty, this woman and I live in the same house. I gave birth to a child while she was in the house. 18Three days later, this woman also gave birth. We lived alone there. There was nobody else with us in the house. It was just the two of us. 

19This woman's son died overnight because she laid on top of him. 20She got up in the middle of the night, took my son from me while your servant was asleep, and laid him to her breast after laying her dead son next to me. 21The next morning, I got up to nurse my son, and he was dead. But when I examined him carefully in the light of day, he turned out not to be my son whom I had borne!" 22"Not so," claimed the other woman. "The living child is my son, and the dead one is yours." But the first woman said, "Not so! The dead child is your son and the living one is my son." This is what they testified before the king. 

23The king said, "One of them claims, 'This living son is mine, and your son is the dead one' and the other claims 'No. Your son is the dead one and my son is the living one.' 24"Somebody get me a sword." So they brought a sword to the king. 25"Divide the living child in two!" he ordered. "Give half to the one and half to the other."

From verse 23 it is clear that Solomon cannot make a just determination from this as he recognizes their competing claims and the impossibility of being able to discern the truth of the matter between them. As brilliant as the tact he applies is to this situation in verse 24-25 this really only leads us to the true revelatory structure of the text itself, leveraging the prior interpretive keys a) the explicit leaning against the idea of sacrificial slaughter and b) the longing for discernment between good and evil.

Now we come to the point in the story where is the revealing of a distinction in our language of "sacrifice".

1Ki 3:26  The woman whose child was still alive cried out to the king, because her heart yearned for her son. "Oh no, your majesty!" she said. "Give her the living child. Please don't kill him." But the other woman said, "Cut him in half! That way, he'll belong to neither one of us." 

What we should be led to here is the fact that both women were willing to "sacrifice" the child. But the nature and understanding of that sacrifice is completely subverted away from slaughter and toward a form that is a redemptive self-giving, non-retributive, and non-violent. It is in fact an anti-sacrificial sacrifice. So then if we are to consider that Solomon received the ability to "discern good from evil" then we should ourselves make a distinction here. But exactly where or how should we do this? 

Referencing the interpretive keys above and one other detail from verse 16 we should be able to rightly divide this text. Verse 16 tells us that these two women are prostitutes. It seems significant that the writer includes this detail. At minimum their moral status as prostitutes has no bearing on a judgment here regarding the issue of good or evil. That one of the women, in her obviously grief stricken state would have no regard for a child that is not hers and would see it killed rather than suffer a second loss of a child doesn't seem to quite fit either. There is no corresponding good with which to juxtapose this understanding.

Therefore I propose, and think this is supported by the textual arrangement here, that what is really being judged by Solomon is, in fact, sacrifice. One is a "good" or "acceptable" sacrifice, and the other an "evil" or "unacceptable" sacrifice. 

There is here in both instances the same object of sacrifice, the child, yet the manner and at least as importantly is that the motivation for sacrifice is completely different. The woman who would see the child slaughtered was moved by grief and brokenness; unable to escape from the pain and fear that dominates her moment. Wanting that some other would "know" her suffering. The true mother of the child is willing to surrender all claims to the child, giving it over completely to the other so that the child could live.

It is in this second woman, a prostitute no less, that we find, in a christological reading of the text, the image of God and the only acceptable sacrifice that is a self-giving one following Christ's self-giving to us to become our victim and open our eyes to the fact the we are all, at the end of this story, portrayed as the one who says: "cut him in half" or more contemporarily: Crucify him! There is here a clue to the secret of living out a life that begins to mimic God and it is revealed in the prostitute/mother who would abandon all claims so that another-or others-might live.