Audio and transcript of the session with Brian McLaren and James Alison recorded at the 2013 Colloquium on Violence and Religion held at the University of Northern Iowa.
If we wish, then, we can use the language of Jesus offering himself as a perfect sacrifice to the Father, just so long as we remember that this is a way of describing not some private sacrificial intention of Jesus towards a Father who needed satisfying, but the whole obedient acting out by which Jesus came to occupy an all-too-humanly constituted place of shame, violence and death, and not hold it against us. There is an angry deity in this equation, and it is us, in whose midst God, quite without violence, manifests the depth of his forgiving love by plumbing the depths of, and thus defanging our violence.
All of this has been to bring us to the place where I would like to highlight how Girard can help us. Let us take the phrase: “God is for us”. It seems to me that where traditionally the negative approach to God has hinted at a sense of God who is not in rivalry with anything that is, and thus saved us from the danger of worshiping a god within the order of things that are, it has done so by problematizing the word “is”. It doesn’t offer much help in problematizing either the “for” or the “us” – which are inseparably bound together. It seems to me that Girard’s insight into the mimetic nature of desire, which some people accuse of being far too negative, actually gives us a chance to problematize the “for” and the “us” in very helpful ways. Or to put it into nutshell: when we say that “God is not in rivalry with anything that is” the phrase “not in rivalry” might be a very useful starting place for working towards a sense of a “for” that is not part of our cultural framework, and yet which has a positive incidence in it. So I’d like here to set out some hints of what I might call the Girardian analogy – the via negative of rivalistic desire.
The dynamic of “Rise, take up your pallet and walk” is “be mobile – keep going”. The five books of Moses were not supposed to be five porticoes giving shelter to paralysis, when not actively promoting helplessness, leaving people stuck beside a still water waiting for some superstitious passing of an angel. Those books are supposed to be a dynamic path to be trodden by an Israel under orders from an active Lord who opens up a way in the sea, or at the very least commands people to cross a wadi. The pathos of the difference between the helplessness of the Israel that the Lord finds on his visitation of the pool and the power and strength of the Israel that the Lord intended to bring into being, and is witnessed to in Moses’ writings, this pathos provides the context for the sign which Jesus performs here.
It is one of the best known of René Girard’s principles for reading certain texts – those of myths, those of Scripture and some early modern texts – that he asks how the text in question relates to an incident of persecution. Girard posits a real incident of persecution, a murder, a lynching, a mass expulsion of some sort which has structured the context within which the texts have come to be written. He then asks what the relationship between the real incident and the text is.
And is the crucifixion, James, a religious overcoming of violence, or is it more of the same?
James Alison: It’s the subversion from within of the typical human sacrificial mechanism. If you like, it’s the undoing of religion from within. Now whether you call that religion or not is another matter, I mean the tendency of it is the possibility of the creation of what we would call a benign secular. I think that’s one of the key questions which we’re looking at now, in a world that seems suddenly to have got a lot more ‘religious’.
A series of coincidences in early 1985 led me to René Girard’s Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. As I staggered through its third part I found myself being read like an open book, feeling like the woman at the well of Samaria, as she returned to her compatriots to say: “Come and meet someone who has told me everything I ever did”. Eleven years on, I am still struggling to put into words the fecundity of what continues to be a completely unexpected and extraordinary access to Christ that is absolutely concentric with, and illuminating of, the central tenets of the Catholic faith.
Your first book was an examination of original sin — not, for most people, a topic connected with joy. But the title of the book is The Joy of Being Wrong. What joy is associated with original sin?
It’s the joy of not having to get things right. The doctrine means that we are all in a mess, no one more or less than anyone else, and we can trust the One who is getting us out of the mess, who starts from where we are. If it were not for the doctrine of original sin, which follows from the resurrection — just as a parting glance at who we used to be follows from seeing ourselves as we are coming to be — we would be left with a religion requiring us to “get it right,” and that is no joy at all.
Abstract – What does it mean to say that Jesus died to save us? The traditional account of atonement “in which Jesus becomes a substitutionary sacrifice for human sinfulness” is revealed as problematic as long as it is understood as a theory. In the experience of Israel, atonement was not a theory at all. It was a liturgy whose goal was not to placate some otherwise non-forgiving God (the Aztec or pagan imagination) but the more subversive action in which Godâ€™s creative, saving, redeeming activity is poured out to us despite our human sinfulness. Rather than invoke the idea of sacrifice as something God demands of us, by becoming the victim in our place Christ puts an end once and for all to the human insistence for sacrificial victims. This is what makes the Eucharist a liturgical event with such profound ethical implications.