We should really forget the popular distinction of spirituality and religion, it is anthropology which is making the difference. What does that mean?
It means that the basic way humans relate to their world shapes their core understanding of God. But the God of the Hebrew and Christian bible is remaking the human way of relating at a critical level. The redesign of humanity is happening because of the biblical disclosure of the victim spreading irresistibly through root and branch of human culture. Because Jesus was put to death in innocence and raised up in nonviolence it is more and more impossible not to see that the “deserving” targets of human violence are always victims: they are surrogates and displacements for the age-old relational violence of collective, moblike humanity. Even more than this, at the same moment the God of the bible is seen to take the side and part of the victim this wonderful Abba reveals a fathomless transforming love. Jesus’ death and resurrection open a revolutionary sign of forgiveness, nonviolence and new humanity in the world.
Here in a nutshell is the colossal conceptual framework born out of the biblical anthropology of Rene’ Girard, something which is dramatically shifting the landscape of scriptural and theological understanding. If you’ve not encountered Girard before more elements of the gist of his work will appear as we go on, but, in any case, if–as likely–you have mouthed a mental “wow” in response to the previous paragraph you have already gotten some inkling of how big the Girardian shift is. Right off the bat his discoveries pose an urgent question for actual Christianity, and that is what I want to focus on up front.
What God is revealing in our time places an entirely new emphasis and complexion on the practice of forgiveness and nonretaliation: not just “virtues” or secondary spiritual fruits, but essential ingredients to a new mode of being human, and thus to human survival. If this is so, what does it imply for what we call “church.” I want to give a snapshot answer to the question, and the best place to begin is with the question of “authority.”
If we look back in history we see ancient religion did not need a source of authority. Religion was simply what our tribe or city’s ancestors did, and we went on doing it if we wanted to be counted acceptable human beings. We went to the sacrifices, we had images of the gods, we avoided forbidden foods etc. If in addition there was a city law, we obeyed it only so long as the king had power to enforce it, and forgot it if he didn’t.
Judaism was different. Very different. In the most astonishing way it did three unique things. 1. It created a tradition of “law” which held together through successive generations without a king to enforce it (for the most part it conflicted with the policy and practice of kings). 2. The tradition demanded an exacting standard of interpersonal behavior, with unyielding concern for the poor and powerless. Here was a key element in the special character of the law. 3. Finally it claimed that a single divine agent was the author of this tradition and, ultimately, this figure was grasped as the sole, all-powerful God of the universe.
Clearly the big source of authority here is God, but God’s voice and character have also to be known in a tangible practical way. You can’t make this enormous intervention in human life without something concrete to signify, articulate and hold it in mind. There results then a written realization or text of the law which becomes perhaps the best-known product of the tradition. We are talking about a book, the Torah–a set of scrolls–which contains the dramatic story of how the law came about, what is required by it, and what will be its consequences. To Torah are rapidly attached other writings telling the subsequent history of this law–or rather the failure of the people to keep it (Judges, Samuel and Kings). Further, there are striking voices of exceptional individuals recalling the people again and again to the law’s practice, while suggesting dramatic new visions of how that practice might finally become possible (the prophets). The whole thing is a most remarkable record of passionate religious relationship, one that stands up as a vibrant source of authority in its own right.
But have you noticed anything about this? Is there something here that virtually screams for our attention, although we are pretty good at not seeing it? Perhaps many people will say, “Oh, yes, this is the Bible, the Holy Scripture, of course. We know about that, the inerrant, inspired word of God!” But, no, it’s not that! The real phenomenon is the necessary human story which is both contained in and contains these writings! The life of this story extends beyond the scripture and gives rise to it, even as the scripture continues itself to preserve it and, by this inner power, provoke further chapters of the experience. To not see this–the electricity of life both outside and inside the scripture–is to see a kind of zombie, something with a dead corporeal life, the ability to move and act but without relationship to a living environment. It is to miss the nerve tissue that runs through the bible and continues to interact with its physical historical context. The true authority here is not the letter on the page, but the amazing life process which gave us the Bible and continues to inspire human growth today.
The Seed Growing
We have to think of a generative pathway, like the growth of a plant from a seed planted in the earth, which little by little creates an astonishing springtime. Except here, the seed is not a biological formula which produces its results. It is a distinctly human process with twists and turns, set-backs and surges forward, experiences and written meanings which imagine and re-imagine God’s purpose, but which by a deep consistency and faithfulness brings about God’s intended purpose. It is an amazing, millennium-long drama of anthropology, a matter of human discovery and change shaped by the God of creation.
It is so striking and telling how much Jesus loved and repeatedly used just this image–the seed growing from the ground, in the end producing its stunning, wonderful result!
And, so, what about Jesus? We know for Christians he represents the terminal point of the process. He is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), a young man who grew both in stature and wisdom. From several places in the gospel story it is evident that Jesus learned from his experience and environment, both natural and cultural. But there also comes a point where he claims a definitive knowledge. At one place he implies the experience of revelation in time: “All things have been revealed to me by the Father.” But directly he adds, “No one knows the Father except the Son…,” which then suggests something exceptional and definitive. The seed has produced its fruit, the tree has reached its max, the nervous system has attained a perfect relationship with its total living environment.
For this reason in Ephesians, for example, it says that it was the will of God “to recapitulate all things in him,” i.e. to make Jesus the final model and template for the entire cosmos. What else is this but the grand term of a vast process of transformation?
But what happens then to authority? Of course all power and authority is summed up in this one single person. That in turn creates an enormous dilemma. For the Jewish people it was ultimately the Rabbis who inherited the authority of the tradition–they are the ones who interpret the story and its life. But how do you express the authority of a single individual, the Christ, who already sums it all up? Does this not create in turn a huge symbol of authority itself and whoever wields it is going to have really awesome power? Over the centuries that is exactly what happened; the bishops were seen as successors of the apostles, empowered with the same authority of Jesus. In the Middle Ages this led to a terribly corrupt power system which in due course catalyzed the Reformation.
Which in turn produced yet another shift in authority.
As everyone knows it was vested in Scripture: sola scriptura! All the enormous power and status of the Medieval Church was transferred to the text of the Bible and to those interpretations which read it correctly. And in that “correctly” there also lies a tale. The new authoritative reading needed other prior course corrections. It would take us on a route march through Greek, Roman and feudal thinking to show these in detail, but if one single thing surely stands out it is how the great labor of human transformation is transferred over church centuries into the single, other-worldly goal of post-mortem immaterial salvation (or its hellish opposite). All the human drama and disclosure of Jesus’ death and resurrection become a one-way ticket to heaven in outer space. A final step then makes the bible into the walking-dead document which guarantees that fateful flight. It becomes the legal contract to assure the elect they will be on the last plane out of Dodge. Here is the endgame of a centuries-long history which pared the earth-changing gospel away until it became the earth-abandoning message of so many churches.
However, if we dial the bible back to anthropology everything becomes instantly more credible and beautiful. If we recognize God’s plan to change the root character of human relationship suddenly everything fits in the single great biblical and gospel theme of life. Authority becomes vested in a vibrant life process, in a pathway which leaves crucial signs of itself to be understood and appropriated. These signs validate the anthropological understanding and we can read them both in biblical and contemporary terms. In very brief format we can say that the great vital arc of the biblical story runs through three crucial high points: God’s choice of a dispossessed people (Exodus), a renewed experience of dispossession in Exile (giving the textual cluster of Jeremiah, 2nd Isaiah, Ezekiel, and, retrospectively, Daniel), and finally the figure of Jesus who deliberately embraces dispossession in order to complete God’s revelation of nonviolence. As regards contemporary signs we have already seen that the victims of human violence stand forth with continually greater urgency and insistence due to the nonviolent death and resurrection of Jesus. It would also be possible to add here very many evidences from popular culture, including movies, songs and online material, to show how the nonviolence of Jesus is permeating human sensibility.
But how is it that we can now so confidently assert these things at the big picture level, at what is called the “meta-level”?
Rene’ Girard is the Albert Einstein of biblical interpretation, giving us the concepts of generative anthropology and the role of the Hebrew and Christian bible in disclosing it. Where before we had the Newtonian physics of textual and historical criticism–none of which raised an eyebrow at the continual violence of the story–today we are able to see how violence of human history is relativized and undone by the single mathematical constant of God’s nonviolence. Girard’s research exposed the very specific roots of human violence in what he calls “mimesis”–our hyper-developed ability to imitate others leading to rivalry and violence. This ability would have doomed us as a species to self-annihilation except for the “solution” of scapegoating, the unconscious capacity to choose a single target for our violence and discharge it all on that individual or group. Finally, Girard demonstrated how the bible is progressively exposing these human tendencies, above all in the mob-inflicted death of Jesus of Nazareth. Yet simultaneously Jesus forgives and forgoes retaliation, opening to humanity the door of a radically different way of being human on earth–and of understanding who God is. So, simultaneously, you have a profoundly and perfectly achieved human Jesus, and one who fully reveals the absolute love of the Father.
Here is the latter-day breakthrough in interpretation which gives us a revolutionary grasp of scriptural meaning, and one which Girard has always argued has been the work of the bible itself. It is the principle of scriptura per scripturam interpretanda: the scripture interprets scripture. The generative pathway of the bible has slowly made itself plain, and against the grain of violent humanity which has for so long found ways of holding at bay this revelation. Therefore, as regards authority what we are looking at today is not a church institution, or the zombification of a written text, but the spring of life running through and beyond that text, authenticating itself by its huge consistency and transformative power.
Jesus did not say “You will know them if they are successors of the apostles,” or “if they are bible-believing Christians.” He said “By their fruits you will know them.” The authority of the Christ lies with and in communities which struggle to show the transformation of the Christ. For some this may suggest elitism, a kind of pacifist holier-than-thou. But this is to think in terms of the past and to ignore the signs of our times. I believe the multiple pressures of our current history are pushing all of us in this direction, of their own momentum. More and more the issue of violence rises to the surface as the central crisis of human existence. According to Girard it is the destabilizing pressure of the gospel revelation of the victim which has detonated this crisis. Even on its own this would suggest a heightened sense of responsibility and urgent moral need for forgiveness, healing and peace. However, I have continued to make the argument that there is much more to it than that.
The gospel never comes simply as a negative revelation of the victim or a moral program of nonviolence. It is good news, a mighty river of compassion and nonviolent life. The more the crisis builds the more this transforming current comes to the surface for its own sake. Jesus stands forth as the Human One in whom there is fullness of life and peace. He stands forth in his own right, continually side-stepped and disregarded, but again and again re-emerging as the critical point of reference for human meaning. Jesus’ forgiveness as victim is not a legal remedy, dispensed by priest or book, let alone just a sentimental personal moment. It is a constitutive human possibility, given by God, which can and will allow the earth to live. Jesus therefore returns in and as his own authority, just as the end of Matthew’s gospel suggests. Faithfulness to this return or emergence (whichever term you like best!) is more than enough authority for any Christian group or church. Reading the signs of the times and continually practicing a lifestyle of peace, forgiving of wrongs, love and nonviolent truth, this is the authority for a contemporary church. The meaning of Jesus is more and more written in the dust of the earth for those willing to read it, rather than the clouds of heaven for those who would offer to transport us there. It is nothing less than an anthropological revolution.
Anthony Bartlett is the author of Virtually Christian: How Christ Changes Human Meaning and Makes Creation New, and of Pascale’s Wager: Homelands of Heaven.