Sunday, December 23, 2012

The U.S. Crisis

I have never quite felt a sense in the U.S. like the one I experienced last week. The U.S. crisis is not fiscal, political, military, or even cultural in any usual sense. It's as profound and hard-to-name as it is evident; like some strange tropical illness with which a relative is suffering, and nobody can seem to stop it.

Founding a nation on "self-evident truths" must always be a risky business let alone when those truths claim the equality of all people. Generally speaking equality will be either a recipe for satisfaction or for constantly renewed conflict. Perhaps the real truth of the matter is that U.S. "equality" was always based, in uneasy parts, on a mutual measure of Christian individual salvation and a huge continent in which such saved individuals could lose (and find) themselves. The 2010 movie, True Grit, and the book it is based on, are convincing depictions of the cultural marriage of these two factors, with the gun as the great settler of scores against both backdrops. Now, for better or worse, both the ideology of Christian salvation and the open horizons of migration are eroded. We are left staring more and more fixedly at each other, yet more than ever armed.

The horror of Sandy Hook and the barely less horrific response of the NRA, made public a week after the shootings, brought day-to-day U.S. society almost to a spiritual halt; or at least to a kind of moment of clarity. As if the fever (our own fever) cleared just enough for a moment, for us to recognize the true character of the crisis.

A twenty-year-old man named Adam entered an elementary school and for every one of his own wretched, miscarried years he slaughtered a first-grade child with an automatic rifle, shooting each child between three and eleven times. Having previously killed his mother, he also killed six adults at the school, finally shooting himself. The cold mathematical fury of his actions combined with the extreme youth, vulnerability and innocence of his targets, plus his own rabbit-in-the-headlights-look in the photos available, managed to exceed by an order of magnitude the shock of all the previous mass shootings in the U.S.

The U.S. love-affair with guns slammed with the force literally of a bullet into its much greater love-affair with kids. There were calls at once for increased gun-controls, led by the President who declared "words need to lead to action" and directed the Vice-President to head an interagency effort, coming up with answers to the issue of mass shootings.

Such controls seem to be simple common sense--and do so to many NRA members--but the response by the NRA leadership demonstrates that there is something greater in play here than common sense. Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre called for armed guards in every U.S. school, fingered "mental health" as the culprit, and uttered the eternally classic line, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

This kind of vision implies a complete breakdown of the idea of civil society, in a dystopian one-for-one mirroring of the violence of the lone shooter which the supposed intent is to counter. Those who carried lethal weapons in ancient city states from Canaan to Greece to Verona and Venice always belonged to the warrior class, the aristoi (from which comes aristocrats), those who were "best" in a variety of fields, above all fighting. The ordinary populace, tradespeople, and peasantry in the fields, may have had weapons stashed away but they did not carry them. (Hence the biblical "meek of the earth," as in psalm 37:11 and Job 24:4.) That way, violence was reserved to a special class, those who were, you might say, professionals in the field, and then also the soldiery which developed around them. Modern police are largely in fact a product of the time when aristocrats gave up carrying weapons and keeping beside them groups of armed retainers. What LaPierre is, therefore, talking about is a level of near-universal (re)arming never seen before in human history: armed guards at every corner and concealed-carry on the part of numerous others, together with weapons whose lethality is unparalleled. The NRA is talking about a steady state of civil war where you're never sure who or what the enemy is or whether the next moment will be your last. A Christian mutuality of individuals has been sundered apart into an original violence, and equality in violence becomes the final measure of a man (or woman).

This is the crisis we're facing. You could call it a spiritual crisis, except "spiritual" seems normally to refer to a separate realm of spirit which only secondarily has concrete consequences. You should perhaps then call it anthropological, because that indicates how we concretely structure our humanity. Most of all you could call it "Christian" because the half-born message of the gospel in the West has brought us to this decayed and dangerous form of equality, a kind of zombie Christianity filled with violent atomization and atomizing violence. This form of equality has lost all sense of solidarity with the next man or woman, completely unwilling to trust them for ordinary business of life. It has been replaced instead with a war of all against all, a long slow bleeding war which has already been engaged in many minds.

As Girard says it, "(T)he Western world is in a perpetual state of crisis, and the crisis is always spreading." (Violence and the Sacred, 238)

In these circumstances the Christian message is called to take on a powerfully renewed self-understanding. Because it was a version of Christian belief that helped put the crisis in place it is only a re-imagined and re-vitalized Christianity can help resolve it. First, then, it is urgent that Christian ministers work to transform the basic sense of how Christians think of themselves as humans. Their dominant body/soul anthropology is critically outmoded and is deeply prejudicial against organic human solidarity. Next, violence itself must be taught, not seen on one occasion as a moral aberration, and on another as a magnificent heroism. Rather it is something essentially and horribly human, a kind of spirit or essence itself which has made humanity all that it has known for hundreds of thousands of years. But now this essence has reached an elemental inner crisis because of its exposure to the gospels...being brought literally to light. Because of that light human violence is sweating and blowing up in our faces like dynamite itself. Yet, just as Jesus predicted in the gospel, at the very same time as the human crisis evolves it's also the very time for the "sign of the Son of Man" to appear. That is, the sign of a nonviolent relational humanity, surrendering to each other in love.

This sign and its teaching will be a far surer way of protecting the children than a nine millimeter in every teacher's desk.

Tony Bartlet, Contributing Theologian

P.S. This blog is also published at Hope In Time, another blogspot I'm looking to develop.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Advent into Christmas

In my blog Imaginary Visions of True Peace I have added a second Advent meditation, a short story, and a Christmas meditation. The Need for New Hearts comments on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, the Sandy Hook shootings, one of my short stories and more. My story Parry the Penguin's Visit to New York is about, well, a visit to New York by a Penguin named Parry. The story is amusing but instructive. Any Girardian can guess what happens to a penguin who tries to check into a New York hotel. My Christmas meditation Celebrating the Prince of Peace brings in Sandy Hook again to look at what the Christ Child would teach us about what has happened.

Friday, December 14, 2012

New Church Architecture: Human Beings..

The role of the Christian minister is to transform the core information which constructs a human being, through Christ to bring about "the new human." This may appear either a fairly empty, or deeply relevant statement.

The Christian movement has always been a matter of information and the way it recreates, or reprograms, human existence. The gospels end with the command to "teach all nations" and their main data involve the immense claim of a crucified man risen from the dead. To believe this, to be informed by it, is to accept quite a bit of reprogramming.

Over the centuries the institutional, established character of the churches has to a degree disguised this fact, but at the same time the physical composition of churches always remained a matter of conscious information. Those buildings on every corner proclaim loudly they are programming systems, with their stain-glass windows, their bells, their steeples pointed at the sky, and all the dense array of signs and symbolism within.

But today they also look more and more outdated, because their information systems have been displaced, if not destroyed, by an unforeseeable, epochal shift.

That street-corner church with the dim lights glimmering within used to be the only game in town in terms of a free, universal and fascinating system of signs that could be and was downloaded in the lives of individuals. Now we have all of the same thing on our computers or smart phones ("It's free and always will be," as Facebook says it, with a billion profiles a couple of clicks away). This should not be taken as simply a provocative or opportunistic comparison. The advent of the World Wide Web, Social Media and The Cloud provides a simultaneous, universal, intimate and deeply layered communication, and it replicates a great deal of the anthropological function which used to be filled by the churches. I personally regard this as a major reason for the steep drop-off in church allegiance of the under-thirties. It's much easier, and surer, to connect with some form of human meaning online than in church.

What does this imply then for church ministers? For certain, some will claim the WWW cannot help you when it comes to sickness or death. But is that what the church wishes to be reduced to, a pallbearer at the end of a life? (OK, there's also birth and marriage as the other rites of passage, but internet celebrations of the pics of these events are progressively at least as important as any church service. And, yes, again, there's the role of churches in moral education and socializing of youth, but really, both quantitatively and qualitatively, how does that compare to the role of the media in doing exactly the same?)

There is now a huge acceleration of the ecclesial consequences of our contemporary digital situation: most of all we are brought to understand with dramatic new clarity that the church is about how we are informed by Christ and how we inform each other in Christ.

Here is a parable. Just as church architects and masons figured out how to make the clustered columns and capitals for Gothic cathedrals, the joints for the vaulted roofs, and the filigree stonework for rose windows, so the contemporary pastor, teacher, priest, leader, must figure out how to build with and through believers a more and more radically human church, how in fact to make a new human architecture.

This may sound vague or metaphorical. But a recent and growing trend in theological reflection has begun to include the findings of neuroscience. See, for example, "Neuroscience and The Mind of Christ" where the author, Derek Flood, argues for a concrete neurological sense in which the mind of the Christ becomes in fact "the brain of the Christian."

This can be understood also from a Girardian perspective. If violence first generates our human world, including its possibility of language and, therefore, necessarily the structural development of our brains, then the new human "generation" brought by Christ must at some physical level act to re-structure the same brains. It also makes perfect sense that just as some of the discoveries of neuro-science have validated Girard's basic insights, the new nonviolent humanity of Christ would play out at the neurological level.

In which case the obvious way forward is not to try and tempt people back in the temples, what might be called "Big Box" Christianity, but adapt to the new transforming reality of an information world, by getting to the micro or neural level where its truly exciting meaning lies. Without a doubt people need large places to gather in, but much more urgent is to understand the radical meaning of gospel information within the human self. Christianity has always been about good news but so often it has gone the big-box way because, well, the architecture of stone is so much more impressive!

In fact the real job of the "minister" (she who serves) is to build together with a specific group or groups the mutual brain architecture of new humanity. To put up those neural pillars that can withstand the mechanical forces of a violent world, to construct the inner windows permanently shaped to plunge into the endless peace and forgiveness of Christ, to joint the roof beams of the beloved community that recognizes itself on sight! Everything in these situations has to be face-to-face, not the bland single face of the priest, or the hyper face of the evangelist, because only in that direct download situation is real human change possible.

Quite some time ago I took a trip to South America. On some nameless Brazilian river lost in the gallery forest we rounded a bend and encountered a "town," four rows of cane and thatch houses in lines receding from the river. My priest guide told me that the parish priest held a meeting in each of the rows during the weekdays to read and reflect on the following Sunday's scripture. Then on the Sabbath they all came together in one of the houses to share the fruit of their smaller gatherings. The image of those low roofs and their nightly meetings has remained with me. It has the horizontal, human look of a contemporary cathedral.

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

P.S. I am glad to welcome to this blog Andrew Marr OSB, someone whose whole life is based on the new architecture of the human. The post below is his introduction and contains links to his many wonderful writings and reflections.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

An Imaginary Garden of Real Peace

Tony Bartlett has generously invited me to post on this blog from time to time. As some of you know, I have my own blog called "An Imaginary Garden of Real Peace: the Stories and Teachings of a Benedictine Monk." I have been writing this blog for a bit over two months now and have accumulated several posts. Although the blog does publicize and promote my books, I am using it to develop Girard's mimetic theory in dialogue with Benedictine monastic spirituality. My most recent post is A Leaky Basket: Judging Judgmentalism which tells a couple of my favorite stories about the desert monastics of the fourth and fifth centuries that deal with the peril of judgmental attitudes. The post before that is an Advent meditation called Prepare a Way for the Lord. Going further back, there is much more in the way of glimpses of issues in mimetic desire. I have also posted sample chapters from my book "Tools for Peace" that introduce mimetic theory and Benedictine spirituality. I have also posted a sample story from each of the collections I have published. It is my intention to post an update report on my blog roughly every two weeks with links to the newest blog posts and articles and stories. I am posting to my blog at least once a week, sometimes more. If you want to be current with my blog, you can follow on Facebook or Twitter. I will appreciate any help any of you can give for spreading the word of the blog to anyone you know who is interested in mimetic theory or might become interested if given a chance to read about it, as well as to anyone who might be interested in fantasy stories aimed at young readers as well as older ones. With Christmas coming, ask yourself if anyone you know (maybe yourself included) would like "Tools for Peace" as a Christmas present or one or more of the fantasy story collections: Born in the Darkest Time of Year: Stories for the Season of the Christ Child, Creatures We Dream of Knowing, or From Beyond to Here. I hope readers will find these stories enjoyable as well as another helpful exploration into mimetic desire and its social ramifications.

Monday, December 3, 2012

From Darwin To Daniel

What follows is not a blog; they are the notes from a recent bible study. Interest in the subject and the contemporary need to "take back" Daniel from violent hermeneutics suggested they be posted here.

                                                            x       x

Daniel is one of the last books of the Hebrew bible. Parts of it were written only 160 years before Jesus' birth. It could be compared with Darwin's Origin of Species, a book written in the recent past (middle of 19th century) which significantly affects present perspective. The worldview of fervent Jews living in the time of Jesus was as profoundly shaped by Daniel as many people are today by the writings of Darwin. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain fragments of eight manuscripts of Daniel, making it second only to Isaiah with twenty one copies. The Pharisees' belief in resurrection depends crucially on the book of Daniel. And, of course, the gospels are deeply informed by Daniel.

The comparison of Darwin and Daniel is not relevant just in terms of timescale: it works in terms of how people are shaped in respect of violence, something acutely pressing both at the time of Jesus and today. Is violence something inscribed in the nature of existence? Or is it something the biblical God is working to overcome? Daniel suggests the latter.

Christians today are called to acquaint themselves with Daniel's dramatic compositional process, in order to gain an accurate sense of what is at stake in the book, and in the gospels which frequently depend on this work.

The make-up of the book explains some of its nature. It consists first of a series of five accounts known as "court stories," telling of the Jewish youth, Daniel, in exile in Babylon. From chapter seven onward there follows a series of four visions experienced by Daniel and centering on the devastating circumstances of the attack by a Syro-Greek king, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, on Jerusalem.

The two sections are bound together by the figure of Daniel and a common thread or theme of successive violent kingdoms, ruling the world yet always under the imminent judgment of a God of justice and right.

The court stories circulated in the post-exilic period as a response to the dominant Babylonian, Medean, Persian and Greek cultures. These were military powers experienced at first hand by the exiles, which held total military control over the territory of Judea and Jerusalem.

In the context of national and cultural defeat the stories show the true superiority of the wisdom that comes from the God of Israel. God's Wisdom completely transcended that of the pagan court figures who claimed mantic insight (the dominant mysterious knowledge of those cultures). The God of Israel reveals to Daniel dreams and signs experienced by the kings and, within those dreams, the real truth is opened up. The truth is that these proud kings and kingdoms are destined to be overthrown and replaced by another kingdom, one established by God. (See especially chapters 2 and 4; note 2:31-45, the four kingdom sequence, which is then overwhelmed by a stone "not cut by hands." The stone becomes "a kingdom that shall never be destroyed.")

Stepping back, it is impossible to overstate the traumatic effect of the 6th century exile on devout Jews who survived it. If Exodus produced the national consciousness of Israel, with king, prophets and temple, Exile produced the Jews, a people conscious of the near-intolerable drama of being chosen by a God of justice. All through the post-exilic period their existence was balanced between the twin realities of abandonment by God and God's enduring commitment.

The Daniel court stories demonstrate the latter and they do so with a growing consciousness that the character of God is qualitatively different from that of the kingdoms of pride and violence that rule the earth. This is a critical step, distinguishing God's power from that of the violent empires. A key comparison to make is with the book of Ezekiel which fully identifies God's action with the atrocious violence of Babylon (see especially chapter 9). In Daniel God never threatens to use the violence of the kingdoms, let alone identifies with it. He rules the earth by sovereign divine power in which there is hardly any imagined or figured violence. The symbolism of the single stone invisibly cut out and striking the feet of the statue (2: 34) is both passive and as ascetic in terms of violence as it can get, and yet still be effective. This breakthrough constitutes the core revelation or "apokalypsis" of the book of Daniel, and powerfully underpins the vision section that follows.

In the 2nd century BC a new crisis erupted in Judea. The last remaining area of Israel had existed as an anonymous colony of the Persians, and then of the splintered kingdoms arising from Alexander the Greek's conquest of the world. Judea first came under the Egyptian line known as Ptolemies and then, at the beginning of the second century, it was taken over by a Syrian dynasty known as Seleucids. The Syrian regime proved itself more offensive and violent, both militarily and culturally, reaching a peak offense in the figure of Antiochus Epiphanes IV. (1 Maccabees 1, for account of Antiochus' actions.)

The book of Daniel shows Antiochus as perhaps one of the first truly "secular" rulers of history. It describes him as exalting himself above any god and honoring only "the god of fortresses," i.e. the god of state power (11: 36-38). Through a combination of Jewish assimilationists in Jerusalem (cf. 2 Maccabees 4: 7-20) and Antiochus' own eager arrogance he set out on an anti-Torah kulturkampf, trying to suppress the practice of Jewish religion and institute the worship of Zeus in the temple. This occurred between the years of 168 and 164 and it became the greatest crisis that Judaism had to confront since the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the exile itself in the 6th century.

The experience of the crisis was so fierce that it provoked in members of the Daniel group (i.e. those who had maintained the traditions about the mystery-revealing Daniel) an upsurge of dreams and visions which disclosed the secret of what was really going on, always in the key of the court stories. The visions were attributed to Daniel himself, setting them in the period of the exile, the archetypal time of trauma. Added to the court stories they created what we now know as the book of Daniel. Understood in this way the book of Daniel becomes a startling reading of intolerable present violence from the sense of a God as "other than violence" who was revealed in exile among the nations. It also witnesses to a group of pious Jews who practiced a de facto and even spiritually valued nonviolence. (For a fascinating parallel account of a group of Jews responding nonviolently out of piety see 1 Macc. 2: 29--38. This group and the Daniel group cannot be far apart, and may even be the same. Cf. Daniel 11:33--35.)

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The literalist reading which takes everything as indeed foretold in the 6th century must be rejected, on these grounds.

1. It ignores the placing of the book of Daniel in the Hebrew bible. It is found in the Writings (ketuvim), the last section of the bible, not in the grouping of the Prophets (nebiim). In other words the physical composition of the Hebrew bible implies that Daniel comes chronologically at least after Malachi, the last of the prophets in the 5th century. In fact the early second century Wisdom book, Sirach, knows and mentions the other three "major prophets," Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, but it knows nothing of Daniel

2. The literalist view does not recognize that the supposed 6th century foretelling gets the critical circumstances of Antiochus' death wrong (Daniel 11:45; Antiochus died in Persia, not Palestine). It is this error which enables us to conclude that the text was written during the events of the persecution but before the actual date of death in 164.

3. The literalist view glosses over the actual creative device of a blow- by-blow account (especially chapter 11) of the violent history of the 3rd and 2nd centuries: vague enough not to be exactly a report, but far too detailed and precise compared to any previous biblical prophecy.

4. In view of all the above the literalist reading neglects the creative process of imagination and composition, and therefore the full "grammatical" meaning of the text which must involve what the author and text intend to convey and the means chosen to convey it. The compositional device of dealing with 2nd century events by speaking of them back in the 6th century exile witnesses the dramatic need to underline the structural revelation of violence: something which it had taken four centuries of powerlessness to assimilate and understand.

5. The literalist reading thereby passes over the actual human experience of trauma and violence, remaking everything as "supernatural" and "foretold," actually trivializing revelation and downplaying any new awareness or understanding of human violence given by inner understanding. It thus in fact short-circuits biblical revelation and reinstalls the old order, reinventing a god of violence; while the book of Daniel represents a hugely significant shift away from such a god, a shift which reaches its fulfillment in Jesus.

6. The literalist reading reduces revelation to information, rather than seeing it as transformation, and neglects the preparation of the heart needed for interior insight.

                                                             x       x

The visions presented by the book of Daniel begin with the most famous one, in chapter seven, that of the four military kingdoms represented as beasts from the abyss and the heavenly court session involving "one like a son of man." The discussion is always focused on this figure: an angel, the people of God, a single human individual? These alternatives imply the underlying question of whether the figure can in any way warrant the New Testament ascription of "the Son of Man" title to Jesus. What is so often missed is the stark contrast between this "human being" and the beasts. There is actually no violence on the part of God. The destruction of the beast takes place in a passive form without emotional violent signals. Authority is given to the human figure simply as a fact and without any kind of battle. In other words God is installing a kingdom of humanity, without military violence. The nonviolence and nonretaliation of God's people is also clearly signaled at 7: 25. Whoever or whatever the "one like a son of man" is the figure's core identity is nonviolence.

Chapters ten to eleven introduce a closely related figure of "one in human form," and also the angel Michael (10:20--21).. These two figures now contend at a cosmic level with "the prince of Persia" and "the prince of Greece." Once more there is a displacement of violent engagement. There are no violent emotional signals, only the sense of a struggle at another, more significant level. Typically the cosmic conflict was simply added to the human one (in the Qumran writings and in the "Left Behind" books). But it should much rather be read as taking the conflict out of human hands. If once again we read the text as a new sensitivity which sees God acting at least without human violence, and on an unknown transcendent level, we are both faithful to the insight of the Daniel group and much better placed to see how the book may have informed the decisions and actions of Jesus.

Finally, the doctrine of the resurrection comes at the beginning of chapter twelve (1--3), on the crest of a wave and as a sudden blinding flash. But it makes total sense. Resurrection belongs to biblical nonviolence and biblical nonviolence to resurrection. Because there is another, transformed order of life, rather than violent retaliation, it is possible to turn the other cheek. And because a group has been prepared to turn the other cheek they have achieved insight into the radical truth of resurrection. Jesus was the first completely to entrust himself to this insight of the book of Daniel, to put it to proof and turn it into gospel.

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Importance Of Not Being Scandalized

In my years BG (Before Girard) I understood scandal in a strictly moral way, i.e.a destruction of the spiritual good through public sin. Rene' Girard showed just how impoverished this idea is. The evolutionary anthropologist unpacked scandal not as a badge of shame, or just a paparazzi source of titillation. Rather it is a powerful structural relationship: a mutuality poisoned by violence. Most astonishing, Girard traces the structural concept to Jesus, who was the first clearly to articulate it.

Girard explains how Jesus conceived scandal as the "model-obstacle," a situation where someone shows another what to desire by means of a violent opposition. The case of Peter is the classic instance. He tries to stop Jesus going to Jerusalem to suffer and die: Jesus calls him a "skandalon," because Peter is trying to infect him with his violent desire in relation to Jerusalem and doing so through his own urgent opposition to Jesus' plan. Jesus says this is a temptation from Satan which can trip him (Jesus) up, for it seeks to turn his way of nonviolence back to the traditional anthropology of violence.

Jesus' ministry represented a concrete historical movement and so it was too easy for people around him, like Peter, to take it up with the standard anthropology of power and violence (see e.g. Mk. 10:37). Jesus had to insist again and again on the profoundly new structure of humanity that went with his breakthrough. He preached against the character of scandal itself, a relationship which insinuates violence into the heart of "little ones" causing them to stumble back into the violent world order. "Woe to the world because of scandals. For it is necessary that scandals come: but woe to that man by whom the scandal comes." (Matthew 18:6-7). This teaching is extraordinarily relevant to Christians in North America in these first decades of the 21st century.

We are scandalized by everything and everyone: Tea Partyers by Government, Liberals by Tea Partyers, Gays by Homophobes, Homophobes by Gays, Christians by Christians, Non-Christians by Christians, Spirituals by Religious, Religious by Spirituals, Secessionists by Obama, Progressives by Bush. The whole recent election was an exercise in acute scandal provoked by one side on the other, together with the constant zombie-like attempt to infuse everyone with the same outrage. Romney's 47% became a mantra of offense, and Obama was, of course, a closet Muslim Socialist. I recently came on a post-election political commentary imagining at length what it would be like if Romney had in fact won: almost as if were impossible to leave behind that endless satisfaction of scandal.

The gospel continues to lay bare the violence of culture. Because of it we are just like Peter. We are keen to take up the causes of Jesus but with the old anthropological structure intact inside us, and perhaps more virulent than ever. Because there has been a disclosure of violence but not a deep conversion to Jesus' new humanity of forgiveness and love we are susceptible to a tsunami of mediated hostility. And we shouldn't feel condemned in admitting this. The New Tesatament is keen to underline that the "greatest" figures are affected. John the Baptist is someone else who risked seeing Jesus in terms of violent opposition (probably because Jesus was not following through in the expected path of revolution, and was felt as opposing John's deeply religious desire). Jesus commented that John would be "blessed" if he could come to the point of not being "scandalized."

Scandal is now a normal structure of consciousness in the West, a seesawing back and forth of violent desire. Worse, it has become the self-justifying mind-set of those who take certain Christian values seriously, but do not go the whole yard in the new nonviolent humanity of Christ. In which case the Christian religion is caught as a self-tightening noose. It is falling tighter and tighter into a trap of its own making and which Jesus warned about a long time ago.

Jesus of course wasn't afraid to speak in opposition to the groups and institutions around him. But his opposition was not violent. He spoke from within a radical human newness, one that did not dwell in the dark caves of resentment and envy. He was prepared to give himself completely for the sake of forgiveness and love, and because he did he released this quality of relationship into the world for his followers.

The Holy Spirit is the peace he gives, "not as the world gives,'" but it is very much in the world, something that changes everything. Without a living sense of this new world we will only recycle the structures of violence when we speak.

The vital thing is to discover this space of the Spirit rising up in the world and its history, as an act of grace hand in hand with the increase of scandal. Eventually it must outstrip scandal. It has to be this way. because, paradoxically, it is the peace of Christ which helps provoke the scandal (as it did with John the Baptist), and every time there is an upsurge of scandal there is, deep in its undertow, the peace of a new creation. Our work is every time to find that true space behind the scandal.

For if a new humanity cannot be discovered existentially in the here, it would seem existentially impossible to find it in the hereafter.

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Was the U.S. Election Legitimate?

The 2012 U.S. presidential election was the most expensive ever, coming in at over a billion dollars for Obama and Romney each. The cost for the whole election, including seats in the Senate and Congress, was six billion. Much of this money was spent on T.V. ads (a full million of them), blitzing Americans with a daily dose of manufactured opinion from both sides, most of it finger-pointing and destructive.

It was also by far the longest election, fought right from the get-go--the moment of Obama's 2009 inauguration--when Rush Limbaugh said he wanted the president to fail. From that point it was the declared purpose of the political right to de-elect Obama, and reciprocally by his supporters to forestall that outcome. The claim of the "Birthers" that Obama was not born in the U.S., and had not provided a valid birth certificate, further intensified the sense of an ever-open election season.

The endless election was indeed a denial of legitimacy for Obama, and the last four years have opened up the question of legitimacy in a general way. What in fact makes for a legitimate president? The notorious "Citizens United" decision by the Supreme Court, allowing "dark money" to pour into the election campaigns, has undermined the traditional piety of "government by the people for the people." Individuals or corporations are allowed to throw unlimited cash into the candidate's war chests and often without duty to disclose who they are. Such unaccountable money cannot possibly be democratic. Hundreds of millions of dollars are not spent to facilitate free exercise of judgment on the part of each citizen. They are intended to influence and buy the crowd.

An excoriating piece by Chris Hedges, the S&M Election, denounced the presidential election as an exercise in cruelty, abuse and violence. Hedges quotes Gustave Le Bon, writing on the phenomenon of the crowd: “Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.”

The sociologist Le Bon is recognized to be a forerunner of Rene' Girard. According to Girard's thought crowds can never have legitimacy, because they mobilize as crowd against the single victim, blaming that figure for their own mimetic violence which they then unleash. The mob that turned against Jesus is the textbook example. Thus when a politician mobilizes the violence of the crowd against an individual or group, by a biblical definition he loses legitimacy.

The amazing thing is that the huge glut of private money funneled into the election did not seem entirely to work. Americans, to some degree, seem to have made their decisions despite, not because of the adverts. The biggest single donor in history, the casino billionaire, Sheldon Adelson, plunked down millions of dollars supporting eight candidates in Tuesday's election: none were victorious.

Which suggests there might be another source to democracy apart from the dynamics of the crowd, and there might also, therefore, be another, genuine source of legitimacy. Might it be possible there was actually a sense of common interest and even the common good which helped mobilize the electorate last Tuesday?

Before we get carried away, we must also remember that it was one of the constant boasts of the Obama side that he killed Osama Bin Laden. A couple of days before the election the organization "Obama For America" sent me an email listing the top twenty five reasons to re-elect their man. Number Four was: "Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive." As Adam Ericksen so well points out Obama has "fostered a culture of violence," continually using drones in Pakistan, terrorizing a whole population and the generation of its children. There is inescapably violence at the source of the favor in which the crowd holds him.

In this respect the Christian finds all presidential legitimacy a very ambiguous thing indeed. It was something foreseen by Augustine of Hippo. In The City of God Augustine describes how the Christian people are invested in the peace of the human community, including its political realization, sharing that goal with the political state. But Christians are not invested in the means by which the state achieves its ends. Augustine describes nations as consumed by "libido dominandi," a violent lust for power. In contrast the Christian community seeks to promote the political ends of peace by its own proper means, which are the non-violent means of Christ, the love of God and neighbor.

So what does this election teach us? Once again the surprise is really that so much of the negative mobilization against Obama did not work. So, despite the fact that Obama himself engages in the standard mobilization of the crowd against the enemy, is it also possible that the long soaking of West in the gospel of Jesus has resulted, at least to some degree, in another kind of legitimacy, one that comes from Christ. The willingness to care for each other, via some form of universal Health Care, the acceptance of difference, including in sexual orientation, as the necessary path to love, the rejection of money as the sole standard of human meaning, via progressive taxation, all this can justly claim to be an effect of the gospel. (And, yes, I know I have not mentioned abortion, the anti-Obama rallying cry of the Catholic bishops, but as Nicolas Cafardi argued Obama was more pro-life than Romney. The Affordable Health Care act will provide economic support to vulnerable pregnant women and so make abortion less likely.)

In sum this Christ-inspired legitimacy does not belong to Obama, or to any one party. Its fault lines go across the parties, right through communities, and down the middle of U.S, self-consciousness itself. It does not in fact identify itself with any one party or candidate. Its existence is a question much more of the Christian movement continuing to provide a new basis of legitimacy, within a secular world increasingly nervous of the dystopian power of violence. Its function is to be salt to the earth, telling the story over and over again, insisting in season and out on the apocalyptic (i.e. humanity transforming) principles of contemporary Christianity. It seeks to arrive at the point where Obama and presidents after him will regard killing people not as a claim of legitimacy but, according to the revelation of the Christian Messiah, a source of de-legitimation.

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Halloween Atonement Test

Marshall St., every Friday afternoon, in the Syracuse University student quarter, there's a man parading dressed in scripture-quote billboards and threatening hell to all those who don't take Jesus as their savior. His booming voice bounces off bar fronts and food joints, declaring doom to come. Everyone blocks him out, but that doesn't bother him. It simply confirms the structure of his universe. Each time his voice is ignored the ground opens up in front of the person who ignored him.

Hearing this man it's easy to feel the hard edge of violence in the inherited Christian message. It's something difficult to square with a Teacher who began his teaching with "Blessed are the peacemakers..." but quite easy to believe once you understand the story that has gone on between. The Teacher died a violent death, as part of his mission, and what simpler way to understand a violent episode than via the accepted mechanics of violence?

Once Christian thinkers looked around for ways to explain Jesus' death to the masses, they swiftly hit on notions of payment and punishment. You offend me, I'll take a chunk of you! Simple as that. All that was required was to put Jesus in the place of the rest of us who should be paying, and bingo, what have you got? You have the displaced payment of dues to a most unforgiving, grim and terrible god, by a passive, submissive victim who happens to be his son. This is the classic Christian doctrine of atonement.

Not hard then to imagine the second-order consequence of refusing to accept the ferocious pay-off made available through Jesus! Hell, yes!

My friend on Marshall St. is a typical child of two millennia of Christian misconstruction of Jesus' death.

The violence in his voice and soul was put there by Christian history. How much more difficult and challenging it would have been--given intellectual and institutional frameworks-- for Christian thinkers to explain Jesus' death as overcoming the mechanics of violence itself? If Jesus did pay anything it was of such an extravagant, limitless kind that it blew up the system of payment. It was as if he kept printing dollars on the cross, and no one could stop him, so all the dollars became completely worthless, and the only economy left was the one he had modeled, one of limitless giving.

As for violence, it is always itself a system of payment ("I'll get you back!") and Jesus of course exploded that too. By the excess of giving on the cross he shed light on our ancient structure of violent human reciprocity, one that works itself out in our bones and minds in an instant, before we even realize it, and in a flash there is blood on the ground. This revelation by the cross has become articulated in contemporary thought in the notions of "mimetic desire," "mirror neurons" and "the surrogate victim" powerfully laid out in the work of Rene Girard.

Institutional Christianity seems more or less stuck with the default meaning of Christ's death inherited from the centuries. Certainly there are numerous theologians and teachers working in this new direction, but the comfort of violence as a generative principle and its hold on human logic are so great that it adds up to an enormous ideological and religious obstacle. The man on Marshall St. is perhaps an extreme example, but his condition to one degree or another is endemic in all of Christianity.

However, that is not the whole story, by any means. The gospel revelation of violence is not in fact happening essentially in the churches, but broadly in culture, and that is Girard's amazing insight. He found the evidence first in novels and plays, and to some degree in philosophy, and in my own work I have shown it in evidence in movies (and again in philosophy). What this means is that the crucial shift in Christianity is being prompted largely from outside its institutional forms. It's almost as if the Crucified struggles on his own with violence, bringing it to the surface, exposing it and slowly making possible the alternative. This leads me directly to Halloween and what I'd like to propose as the "Halloween Atonement Test." If popular culture can pass the Halloween Test it means that, one way or other, the mechanism and message of Christianity have been changed radically, from one of violence to one of peace and nonviolence.  

The ghosts, zombies, skeletons, witches, hanged men, chopped up limbs, crumbling graveyards, rats, bats, scorpions, spiders, cobwebs, and oh yes the pumpkins, those gaudy gourds with a color and shape uncannily reminiscent of a severed human head, what is all this, if not a revelation of generative violence? It is taking place chaotically and ambiguously but without a doubt it shows an enormous consciousness of violence. Why not then include a large crucifix in the front yard alongside the skulls and hanged men? Would it not perfectly belong there? 

The reaction at once is "No, this would be a kind of blasphemy! The cross is a sacred form of violence, all that other stuff is regular profane violence." But, really, the point of the cross is exactly that: it is regular human violence, to which Jesus replied with transcendent forgiveness and peace. Putting it among the ghouls and the gore would declare this definitively as its role. It would show a true recognition of the death of Jesus as a laying bare of generative violence, and with that the communication of generative peace.

The prehistory of Halloween is pretty clearly a pre-Christian cyclical feast, the Celtic Samhain (pronounced sawin) celebrated Oct. 31st/Nov. 1st. It was especially concerned with the dead and enemies lurking among them (very possibly the victims of murder). The victim gets his day in the sun so to speak and then is stuffed back in the ground. The church's attempt in the 9th century to upstage the "summer's end" ritual by placing a Feast of All Saints on November 1st (and All Souls the day after) proved unable to suppress it. Perhaps because "saints" go to some heavenly otherworld and leave this one still roiled in violence. Perhaps because the fact of the victim was already dimly sensed, despite the pagan trappings, as a Christian truth. But the North American Halloween, and its growing popularity throughout the world, are something else again. It is an intense semiotic display which looks and feels more and more like visual and dramatic "disclosure" of violence. It seems as if deep down the broad cultural effect of the Crucified has been added to the ancient ritualized event pushing all this cruelty into the open, implicitly asking us, begging us, to let go of it.

So why not then place a crucifix in the front yard, next to the skeletons and hanged men? Would that not state unarguably that the cross is an event of human violence, and at the same time and for that reason, communicate a transforming peace to the human scene?

If I ever get to see something like that I'll know Christianity has finally passed its Halloween Atonement Test!

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

Friday, October 12, 2012

Satanic Verses

Back in 1988, in London's East End, you couldn't get a copy of Salman Rushdie's book, The Satanic Verses. Rushdie had produced a fictional narrative of an early Islamic story telling of three verses removed from the Qu'ran after the Prophet saw them as a satanic temptation. A fatwa was issued against Rushdie's all-too-human retelling, making it an undesirable item to be held in our high-street book store. The satanic verses had become doubly satanic: first in their traditional sense; second as a modern deconstructive novel which appeared to challenge the purity of Islamic revelation.

My experience of the revised Roman Catholic mass (during a recent retreat weekend) suggested to me a reflective thought of "satanic verses," and in both senses. Here was a liturgical and theological reform responding to a previous form of words now rejected as deviant and deconstructive. Let me develop that thought.

The language of the mass changed initially, after many hundreds of years, as a result of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). It went from Latin to English, and from formal to conversational. This 20th-century-style speech is the only language of the mass any Catholic under forty has known. The recent revised version is an English translation of a third edition of the Latin Roman Missal published in 2002. In other words, the new English translation is of a brushed-up Latin edition of the mass. 

Language, as we all know, is the world. Language is pictures, stories, ideas, all strung together and held in front of us by the amazing phenomenon of words. The history of the original satanic verses is disputed, lost in the mists of traditions about the Prophet. In contrast, the past forty years of language of the mass is vivid living memory, and for it to be revised in this way amounts to a deliberate exercise in rewriting religious experience.

Arguments in favor of the new ritual claim it is richer, less chatty, more mysterious and spiritual. Attending the new mass for the first time I had a somewhat different reaction. Everything I heard was an uncanny repetition of verbal and mental themes I had last experienced as a boy, and they came across loud and clear: as hierarchical, scholastic, metaphysical and dualist.

These three examples stuck in my head. First, the famous "And with your spirit" is repeated in various places. It is an evident translation of Et cum spiritu tuo, the words I used to parrot as an altar boy when the priest spun around from mysteriously facing the altar and let out a doctrinally dense, hierarchically awesome Dominus vobiscum, "The Lord be with you." The new English is plainly a reversal to the traditional Latin and carries with it all the old privileging of a separate "spiritual" part within us destined for an immaterial heaven.

The introduction to the Lord's prayer was this: "At the Savior's command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say," followed by the beginning words "Our Father.." Again this awoke from dim caves of memory the ghost of forgotten words, in this case Audemus dicere, "we dare to say." It is the Latin I used to hear a half century ago, and which even then filled me with a feeling of the remoteness and dangerous character of a God who otherwise--in the narrow ritual space of the church's mediation--could be considered the Abba/Daddy taught by Jesus. The reversion to this very Latin Roman formula--from the previous much simpler "Let us pray in the words Christ taught us"--had the clang of iron about it, the cruel reconstruction of an old imperial heaven.

And then there was the one that caught me fully in the throat. It was in the words of institution, "Take this...and drink from it...the blood of the new and eternal covenant...," replacing "new and everlasting covenant." The priest who was celebrating, himself stumbled on the word "eternal," his brain clearly wanting to say "everlasting." As Freud said, a slip of the tongue will often be the sign of something repressed trying to come to the surface. In this case it was the time-filled sense of "everlasting," the meaning of a history-produced and history-producing relationship with God, rather than the other-worldly, metaphysical, Platonic "eternal." With this one word the revisionists played the minds and souls of Catholic Christians back into a two-tier, power-brokered universe, with the amazing human intervention of the cross carried off to a motionless, dead beyond. The game was essentially up (pun intended).

The other form of words, now abandoned, is relegated to the status of satanic verses. The 2nd Vatican Council which inspired these words and the theological energy which produced them are now frequently called an aberration, a mistake. All the so-called leveling out, the loss of majesty and awe, the engagement with history and social activism, all this is a massive humanizing temptation to be cast in the dustbin of bad verses, along with the actual council of bishops which instigated it. An emerging sense of a Jesus Messiah who fills his disciples, and the world, with a transforming meaning both of God and humanity, this is in there too.

But history does not disappear that easily. The repressed returns. True satanic verses are those which accuse the human, which put humanity under judgment of violence. Meanwhile what is accused may well remain the source of life and hope.

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Islam or Christianity? Wrong Question?

The firestorm of protest which swept the world in response to the pathetic yet gross-insult movie, The Innocence of Muslims, opened afresh a dramatic fault-line between Western and Islamic cultures. The violent reaction included the killing of the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, along with three other embassy staff. Continuing unrest has claimed the lives of more than fifty people in Muslim nations across the world.

In these fraught circumstances it is very easy for Westerners in general, and those citing a Girardian analysis in particular, to feel a distinct superiority to Muslim criteria of judgment and response.

Meanwhile, the mood on the streets of Peshawar, Kano, Benghazi and Cairo sees the arrogant West giving itself permission to disregard the religious sensitivities of Islamic peoples, failing to accord them the right to pursue their faith undisturbed. Alongside, of course, there is the continually roiled resentment at the "long war" directed at Muslim countries, and the feeling of double standards applied to their countries and Israel in regard to human rights

In respect of Rene Girard, he has commented that the Koran "has no real awareness of collective murder" (Battling To The End, p.216). In other words it lacks the revelation of the scapegoat, manifestly present in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Because of this Islam represents a return to archaic religion. From an anthropological point of view these are incredibly potent charges.

They mean, among other things, there is no built-in room for laxity or tolerance in Islam. Religion consists in an untouchable, razor-sharp purity. There is nothing messy, human or bloody on its surface or at its core, only the unqualified, pristine divine.

The gospel is entirely the inverse. The bloodied corpse of Jesus hangs at the center of its consciousness. There is no insult that can ever do more to disgrace Christ than has already been perpetrated and accepted. Which is entirely the point. By raising up the Crucified, so that Jesus' nonretaliation becomes a boundless historical truth, all insults and violations are forgiven, if only the perpetrator can accept this amazing grace.

I once taught a religion course in which I used the notorious example of the "Piss-Christ" as evidence of the cultural phenomenon of Christ as nonretaliating, forgiving victim.There was a young Muslim woman in my class: while the Christian students hardly batted an eyelid (at the most a quick "eeww!") she was completely disgusted and angry. She took the artifact as clear evidence of Christianity's weakness and failure.

However, from a Girard perspective it would be precisely the gospel revelation of the victim-- demonstrated provocatively in this piece of pop art--which constitutes the gospel's immense historical vigor. It is this demonstration which has turned the world upside down, slowly liberating the cultures under its influence from sacred order, undermining rigid hierarchy and validating the victim, so she becomes the most compelling cultural principle of all time.

But is there room here for Christian smugness? Absolutely not. The theological consciousness of Christ as revelation of the victim can hardly be said to be Christian S.O.P, let alone that it grabs public attention in the vicious culture wars fought around Christian morality. Again and again Girardian commentators are forced to reflect that the revelation of the victim takes place first in a broad secular framework, rather than in the church. Girard's own first discoveries on the trail of mimetic theory came from reading the secular works of novelists, not theology.

In truth, this revelation of deep Christianity remains by and large hidden to the official West. Girard sees the West as continuing blindly on a course of confrontation with Islam, marching in a mirror opposition, so that it too reverts to an archaic religiosity, tinged with superficial rationalism: "two forms of fundamentalism," as he has called it (ibid. 211).

All of which suggests to me that the West is just as much challenged by the revelatory crudeness of the cross as is Islam. The whole history of institutional Christianity, from Augustine through to the Protestant Reformation, has been a way of integrating this deconstructive core back into traditional violent transcendence.

Which suggests in turn there are more and more only two religions on offer in the world. The religion which drives ferociously toward a new sacrificial order, indifferent to whatever "side" ends up winning; and the one which responds from its soul to the deconstructive power of the cross in the world. This second religion runs across all borders and boundaries. It has no dividing line so it can be recognized as "us" against "them," although I am sure you can know it when you see it. It is just as likely to be expressed by Muslim scholars (as in the "Common Word" written in response to Pope Benedicts's Regensberg address, and eliciting from him the conciliatory gesture of visiting a mosque in Jordan), or indeed anybody, as it is by Christians.

It does not belong institutionally to Christianity. In fact it does not even belong to religion. It is the messianic principle of the cross let loose in the world and carrying the hearts of humanity forward on its irresistible wave of transformation.

So what is the response of the Christian who embraces this in her heart and finds herself in the world of mirror fundamentalisms? No different from that of early Christianity, uninvested in the fight between the Caesars. That's the point, to call attention to the massive crisis, but in the meantime live the new way of life which is the true way out.

Tony Bartlett, T&P Contributing Theologian

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Man Bits & Lady Parts. Or, The Nones Have It.

The BBC webpage--which acts as my default news service, perhaps because it shows a quaint old-world desire for objectivity--recently published two articles back-to-back which put US churches in a no-win (Why is faith falling in the US?). The first, from a conservative voice, argues that erasure of boundaries and an accompanying loss of vigorous language make everything so mushy that, in the end, why should anyone bother? The second gives the inverse: the broad evangelical church condemnation of homosexuality has had, and continues to have, a disproportionate alienating effect on young people.

On the one hand members of a church like the Episcopalians, in their efforts to welcome the LGBT community, come consciously to celebrate an indeterminate language which leaves neutral observers feeling they just drank dishwater. On the other, exclusion of homosexuals, at whatever level, has produced a geometrical growth in the "Nones," those who refuse all religious affiliation. Among young adults aged eighteen to twenty-nine, thirty per cent are Nones, and their numbers continue to rise.

All this fuss and confusion over man bits and lady parts, and how they are employed! Of course, we all recognize how much passion and desire swirl around these bits and parts. But according to Rene' Girard there is really nothing intrinsic about why we desire them: after the simple sex instinct is granted it is because everyone else desires them that they really becomes desirable. The fact that people talk about them all the time and that they are used continually in advertizing to sell billions of dollars of merchandise are ample confirmation of this constant modeling. More to the point, in Things Hidden Girard argues that heterosexual desire always has something homoerotic in it, because the same-sex rival for the love of the romantic other-sex beloved is him/herself secretly desired! Otherwise s/he would not be a rival. (Yes, a little mind-twisting, but think about it.)

In which case romantic love is in pretty tricky waters from the get-go.

But what happens when the churches confronted by a gathering confusion of difference between the sexes begin to feel the pressure? Certainly they can opt for the evident gospel example of Jesus ignoring the legal boundaries, and turn to celebrate the loss of difference. Thus the first article reports on the decision at the recent General Convention of the Episcopal church voting to approve transgendered clergy and a liturgy for same-sex marriage. At a special communion service after the votes a bishop made an offering prayer thanking the non-gender-specific "Spirit of Life" for "disordering our boundaries."

But, then, what happens to the beautifully insistent, resonant language used by that great subverter of all boundaries in whose name all this is done? What happens to the cultural coding that makes everyone sit up and know immediately that something real is going down? What happens to "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand"? Or to "Call no one on earth your father, you have but one Father in heaven"?

Jesus' open table fellowship in which he broke the boundaries between pure and impure is connected by a main artery to the cross. By a leap of divine imagination Jesus was able to see how the temple in Jerusalem was the engine for all divisions and he would eventually have to go there to confront it. The temple did not simply represent the ritual holiness of priests and their offerings. Its zealous commitment to the Davidic lineage and its military Messiah was pitched in immediate and direct rivalry with the Roman citadel built right above it. Here was the violent heart of human culture in Judea and all the cultic and national dividers expanded in a shock wave from its sacred center. When Jesus sat down with the publicans and prostitutes, the lepers and Samaritans, his itinerary to Jerusalem and his date with the explosive temple-praetorium axis were already decided. That's why he had the freedom to throw a party for all these outcasts.

In light of this any melting down and disordering of language that does not pursue its argument to the abolition of our contemporary temple, the military-industrial-media complex, is little more than one more instance of joy-riding the gospel. The bits and parts that we should be concerned with are the weapons of war that male and female, and every shade either side and in between, all equally carry. (And these include the weapons on the streets of Chicago, New York, Aurora, Milwuakee...). Here is a language that can be clear and arresting for humanity of the 21st century. Let's hope that the worthy subverters of difference carry their program all the way to the violent heart of the problem.

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Note to Paul Ryan

The recent addition of Paul Ryan to the Romney Presidential ticket focuses attention on philosophical principles at stake in U.S. politics. The Roman Catholic Ryan has more than once credited Ayn Rand as a key inspiration for his life and thought. But lately he also tried to distance himself a little from the high priestess of individualism, saying when it came to "epistemology....give me Thomas Aquinas. Don't give me Ayn Rand." 

Apart from the hoary old trick of citing Aquinas to burnish orthodox credentials one wonders if Ryan has actually read the Angelic Doctor's political thought. But just before we get to that, here's a little historical memory.

In England back in the Middle Ages there used to be common land, an area of agricultural fields set aside for the villagers on which they could grow crops. Part of the massive social engineering that took place at the beginning of the 19th century were the "enclosures" of the common food-producing space. A local lord or landowner took the land into private control and this was one of the major factors forcing a migration to the new industrial cities and creating the English working class.

Aquinas in all likelihood would have been horrified. His famous definition of the ends of human existence is "to live in community and know God." He also said: "Laws are said to be just from their end, when they are ordered to the common good; and from their author, when a law does not exceed the power of the one who declared it; and from their form, when they impose burdens upon their subjects in order to the common good according to an equality of proportion. Since one man is a part of the many, each man, what he is and what he has, belongs to the many, just as any part being what it is belongs to the whole (Summa Theologica II-II, q. 25, 6 ad 2).

But, really, it is just as useless for me to quote Aquinas as it is for Ryan to cite him. Part of the point of the 19th century history is to show that a whole lot of things have changed since the high Middle Ages. Our concrete conditions are unrecognizably different, and the thought world in which we exist has also been shifted irreversibly, by people like Descartes, Hume, Kant, Freud, Nietzsche...

The idea of a common world still has direct appeal, of course, but it has to start somewhere else than Aquinas' Aristotelian-categories-plus-scripture framework. Aquinas also spoke from a deep human sense of solidarity based in standard sacrificial practice, as well as the simple need to hang together to survive the multiple threats of the environment. The huge changes in our material and intellectual circumstances which gathered pace in the 19th century, involve enormous imbalances between classes of people and regions of the world. But they have conclusively changed the global cultural perspective in which we understand ourselves. Everyone is a little individualist and capitalist now, even if only in their heads. And that's why Rand remains Ryan's essential political inspiration.

At the same time, however, at a deeper level, it is also possible to understand Rand's thought very easily as a reaction to the ever increasing mimetism of human history. To see it this way changes the thing dramatically.

What happens when the work of the gospel strips away the solidarity of an intact sacrificial system ("I am a member of the in-group and have no other way of thinking and want no other.")? In these circumstances it is no longer possible to look at the world and not see victims, and, in the absence of a genuine conversion to love and compassion, that must produce an ever-increasing resentment and rivalry. In these conditions "the other" becomes an intolerable threat. What better way, then, of dealing with the crisis than inventing a literary-romantic mythology of the nonrelational individual? This is just what Rand did, depending on Nietzsche before her, who did somewhat the same thing, but with infinitely more finesse. Like Nietzsche she also understood that Christianity was the real problem. She called it "the best kindergarten for communism possible."

But just because you invent a romance of the godlike individual does not mean mimesis goes away. It's still there, and more than ever, precisely as the individual pitted against the crowd. And this in fact is the ideology of Paul Ryan and the forces he represents, relentlessly mimicking the very thing they hate, in all its power and danger. In fact, very quickly they gather a crowd to combat the crowd, each element imagining in its mind that it is acting the sovereign part of the individual. Moreover, they intend to become the only crowd, single and united, overturning in an orgy of self-contradiction, the myth of the individual from which they started.

The discovery of both mimesis and compassion as neurally based human responses is the obvious thinking path out of the crisis. We are wired into each other whether we like it or not. This wiring is no longer connected to the public grid of sacrifice and as such can very quickly fuse into a violent melt-down of catastrophic proportions. But not if we consciously and deliberately--as relational beings--opt for a connection to the other that is nonviolent and giving. The metaphysics of an Aquinas really make no sense in a Randian world (note to Paul Ryan!), but a post-individualist anthropology of compassion does. Oh, for the politician with the clarity and courage to preach it!

Tony Bartlett, T&P Contributing Theologian

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Earthly Compassion is the New Immortality

If mimesis changes the conversation, compassion is the elephant in the room. It's been there all the time and we've hardly talked about it; or even known how to talk about it.

Compassion is a taken-for-granted neural ability placing us in unity with our world, especially with feeling creatures like ourselves if they are young, vulnerable or suffering. It is especially lively among children, and in mothers.

In its widest, fullest sense compassion is the nil state of hostility to our surroundings. In a "state of compassion" we wonder why we could have nourished any animosity or resentment to particular individuals, or why we should desire that particular object or person, rather than being at peace with them. There is a physical warmth and vitality to it, the feeling of a deeply shared life.

Yet in terms of Christian preaching or teaching compassion is a poor relation. It doesn't have the theological centrality of "love." It is usually mentioned vaguely and in passing as a human emotion, losing out to moralizing "good works;" or , in comparison to faith, is more or less ignored.

But, now, with the entry of mimesis into our language and thoughtworld the relevance and importance of compassion has increased hugely. If the thought of mimesis is so big--for our constitution as humans, and as part of scriptural revelation--then the status of its neural twin must grow correspondingly.

For compassion can be seen as exactly the same preconscious imitative state (as mimesis), but without the competition. It is essentially the same mirroring, but without the imitation of grasping that sets off rivalry. It allows us be in exactly the same feeling space as the other but without the conflict of desire. In positive terms, compassion is a humility and nonviolence toward the other that allows us to be for them and with them in the exact human event where they are.

As such it emerges as an absolutely critical anthropology.

New Testament love is of course something decisively new in the world, brought to us by the Crucified. Because Christ was abused and did not abuse in return, and forgave his tormentors, even to the point of death, there is a standard of self-giving erupting into history that exceeds anything known of compassion. Love is higher and stronger than compassion. It is the Holy Spirit. But love understood without compassion becomes dogmatic, false spiritual and priggish. Compassion is what gives love its work and its world, and because of love Christian compassion becomes radical, even to showing solidarity with our enemy.

Love puts its roots down in compassion, into the hundred-thousand-year-old sentient world of shared humanity, and little by little draws it up into all the cultural situations of anger, hostility, and violence. In this way it creates forgiveness and peace in real organic political terms, making a tree of life for all.

The gospels show this radical meaning of compassion is already the meaning of God. The word "compassion" is only used of Jesus or in parables where divine forgiveness is shown, including the most powerful, the Prodigal Son or Two Brothers. By some marvelous identity of frequency God resonates most truly with human beings at the level of nonviolent, forgiving mimesis, i.e. compassion.

As Christianity grows to understand all this then compassion will become progressively pivotal to its meaning and program. Radical compassion will become the framework of discourse and understanding of 21st century Christianity, its evangelizing lifeworld, just as much as death, the soul and heaven were to the first centuries; or guilt, death and hell were to the Middle Ages.

Earthly compassion is the new "immortality," the core salvific which contemporary Christianity moves to speak, convert and operate.

As it does so it will inevitably teach a better way than morally indifferent capitalism as the necessary model of human business. Maggie Thatcher famously argued the Good Samaritan could not have helped the victim on the wayside unless he had industriously made his pile of cash first. Whatever the value of her historical-critical reading, her remark showed how in her classic Protestant worldview there was a hierarchy of two orders: first business, then compassion. We all know the disastrous results produced by that grim hierarchy. What would the world be like if Christianity could teach, all over again, that compassion in and throughout all human affairs is the core and complete meaning of God in Christ?

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Mimesis Changes the Conversation


How do you even say the word? First syllable with the vowel sound as in "miss," second as in "say," or first as in "mice," second as in "cheese?" And where does the accent go? Small wonder when you introduce it people look like you've started speaking Greek, which in fact you have.

It has a long history all the way from Plato and Aristotle. But Rene Girard reintroduced it in a dramatic new sense, to indicate an absolutely primary human function. More primary than sex or even, in some cases, than fear.

"Mimesis" refers to our ability to imitate at a level much more basic than external mimicry or learning. It means preconscious imitation of someone else's desire. Cognitive science has confirmed this. There is an immediate repetition within myself of another's goal-directed gesture. Neural pathways in my brain and body which are activated in my own goal-directed movements are also activated simply by watching others perform the selfsame actions. They are called "mirror neurons."

We are cross-wired to each other. By seeing someone else want something, we want it ourselves, in exactly the same emotional, neural, virtual space.

This helplessly shared space of human desire obviously gives birth at lightning speed to competition, rivalry and violence, and again all of the process is preconscious. When we desire and when we fight, we don't realize we're really imitating the rival "other," intimately, immediately, profoundly

We are not just walking mirrors of each other. We are the same emotional happening. The same spiritual space and event.

And that's not the half of it.

Girard demonstrated that the ability to see all this clearly came in fact from the bible. As he has said, this is "a science arising in and from the bible." Girard gave birth to his systematic understanding of mimetic desire more than twenty years before the laboratory evidence of mirror neurons. He did it following a trail of stories in literature and the bible. In the works of literature where mimetic desire was displayed he argued the writer had invariably undergone a form of personal conversion. In his reading of the text of holy scripture he demonstrated a pathway of consistent and penetrating analysis of human mimesis, from Cain and Abel through to the teaching and story of Jesus.

In other words there is a decisive dimension of scriptural revelation to this. The bible has become the vehicle of a scientific understanding of humanity. Christian Revelation is now as much anthropology as it is theology.

The consequences for theology are nothing short of earth-shattering.

Here are a few of them. I give them only in a list, without development, because that's the point. We are only at the beginning of grasping and unpacking these consequences.

1. Mimesis challenges and displaces the traditional concept of an isolate and ethereal soul. 

2. It changes the concept of sin from private transgression to a mutual condition of rivalry and violence. 

3. It makes love understandable as a transformation of desire through the modeling of Christ and the Christ-loved community. 

4. It changes soteriology ("salvation") and eschatology (the "Second Coming" and "heaven") from legal and other-worldly goals to a radical change in human self-concept and behavior through the divine humanity of Christ. 

5. It explains the incarnation as a"one nerve cell at a time" shift in human possibility in a thousand year cultural process, until a single human related fully and truly without rivalry or violence to the core human concept of God. In and through Jesus the realization of God becomes the Father who is entirely without violence.

My personal impression is that these changes are so dramatic for our traditional Christian worldview many people, including theologians and pastors, prefer to leave them unexplored. But the moment the concept of mimesis is introduced the conversation changes one way or the other, anyway.

The thought of mimesis is like looking through a biblical microscope expecting to find spirits and ghosts and glimpses of heaven, and finding instead a complex human organization that is both deadly, and yet open to an absolute historical transformation.

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

Monday, July 2, 2012

Hope, That Thing From God

I'm sometimes accused, in one forum or another, of naive optimism.

How can I hold out the prospect of a world guided radically by the compassion of Jesus, and of an earth and time to come filled with peace and forgiveness? The overwhelming evidence is to the contrary.

Especially as a Girardian, surely I should accept the final word is "Battling To The End," not the end of battling.

Allow me, therefore, to bring a word in defense of my Pollyannaish viewpoint. The recent Theology and Peace conference underlined the need. You can't continue to do public theology without hope at its core. If we continue to expand the T&P community, reaching out to new constituencies and demographics, the more it will be the message of hope that keeps people coming back.

Apart from René Girard there has been one other major living influence in my life. It was Carlo Carretto of the Little Brothers of the Gospel, with whom I spent a deeply formative year in community. He used to say, with his usual passionate panache, "Optimism is not the same as hope. The former is a human condition of mind, the other is a gift from God."

Emily Dickinson famously said "Hope is the thing with feathers." I am tempted to think she got the word "thing" from the version of Corinthians: "Three things remain, faith, hope and love..."

In Hebrews faith is described as the underlying reality or substance of things hoped for (11:1).

In other words faith reaches out in relationship to something real that is absent to sight, while hope acts on that reality in the present, effectively bringing it into the present.

Hope is a relationship to the unseen in the here and now. Traditionally it is called a virtue, which means something like a personal strength. Certainly it gives strength, but it is much more a relationship. Even less is it an intellectual vision, something seen by the mind. Our standard Christian epistemologies (rooted in the individual, intellectual soul) have skewed the sense of a living relationship experienced in the body.

Hope is feminine whole-body relationship, a being in-touch with the future thing of Christ. That is why it was women who first "got" the resurrection, and they did so by touching the Risen One.

A hope-filled person changes the world constructed around her because she feels and knows it as already changed.

The cosmos is changed because of the resurrection. Perhaps the standard pop male version of resurrection relationship is science fiction. Science fiction channels the resurrection but at the same time gives lots of toys for the boys. Essentially sci-fi is brought to birth by the story of resurrection, given its plotline to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations. Perhaps one reason why resurrection hope is displaced in sci-fi is that the church has been so bad at proclaiming the concrete reality of resurrection.

The resurrection is a concrete reality discovered not by a spacecraft, but by a whole-body relationship with the Risen One. It is cosmic metamorphosis right in our backyard, right in our kitchen, because the New Testament narrative makes it clear that the conditions of physical life have not been abolished but transformed in Christ. 

So here then is the thing (really). Because of this astonishing cosmological shift the actual conditions of the world are already changed into peace and forgiveness. Hope is the link to this change and it is experienced as a "thing," as real and substantive, because that is the way we experience our bodily reality. It is not a ghostly world or intellectual idea because these are constructs and displacements made out of death and rejection of the body, while hope is an actual thing that remains.

Which means that no matter how hard the violence of the world presses, no matter how the armies and weapons accumulate, no matter how our system of crisis doubles down on itself, and even if the very bombs themselves are dropped, the concrete physical reality of the Risen One remains. In him the new earth already exists. In him, as he said, paradise is today.

But if we also add in the underlying leavening effect of the gospel in the contemporary world--which I have constantly argued, in Virtually Christian and elsewhere--it means the rest of the world is also picking up this concrete hope. Despite the world, against the grain, in a masked and often contorted form, all the same, this hope is showing itself in the concrete, practical affairs of humanity, in the political, the social, the legal, the medical, and the media. And of course in popular entertainment and culture.

So none of us should be scared off by the threat of doom. Or, place our faith in some beam-me-up-Jesus of a "spiritual" other world, or indeed in a me-alone-with-my-loved-ones brute survival possibility. The victory is already won in the here and now, in all its immense and mysterious human complexity.

We do not know of course how exactly it will work out, and against what catastrophes and reversals it still has to contend. But the feathered thing from God says it will work out. "Do not fear, I have overcome the world."

The Christian call then is to affirm this concrete hope in all things, not mimetically to doubt it. The so-called "realists" really are not real enough.

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian