Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Traumatic Truth of Human History

Awhile back, I posted several times about Rene Girard's "anthropological" take on Christian faith, and wondered why we weren't talking about it in the Episcopal Church. It seems to be a really good way for the modern, skeptical mind to begin to catch hold of some of the central concepts of Christianity - and in fact, as one of those articles explains, thinking about it this way convinced Girard himself that Christianity was true.
Girard's genealogy casts an anthropological light on the Christian ethic and on the meaning of the Eucharist; but it is not just an anthropological theory. Girard himself treats it as a piece of theology. For him, it is a kind of proof of the Christian religion and of the divinity of Jesus. And in a striking article in the Stanford Italian Review (1986), he suggests that the path that has led him from the inner meaning of the Eucharist to the truth of Christianity was one followed by Wagner in Parsifal, and one along which even Nietzsche reluctantly strayed, under the influence of Wagner's masterpiece.

Well, apparently we are now beginning to talk about it; Episcopal Cafe has a new video up in which James Alison discusses the topic. It's just a short video, and a quick mention of Girard, but there it is. [EDIT TO ADD: Here's a full James Alison lecture at Trinity on video. It's an hour and 20 minutes - a big file - so it does take a bit of time to load. The theme is "Reconciliation."]

Speaking of: for many months I've been trying to find a particular quote related to this topic. I found it while searching for something else (naturally!), in Terry Eagleton's review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I added the bold below:
Jesus hung out with whores and social outcasts, was remarkably casual about sex, disapproved of the family (the suburban Dawkins is a trifle queasy about this), urged us to be laid-back about property and possessions, warned his followers that they too would die violently, and insisted that the truth kills and divides as well as liberates. He also cursed self-righteous prigs and deeply alarmed the ruling class.

The Christian faith holds that those who are able to look on the crucifixion and live, to accept that the traumatic truth of human history is a tortured body, might just have a chance of new life – but only by virtue of an unimaginable transformation in our currently dire condition. This is known as the resurrection. Those who don’t see this dreadful image of a mutilated innocent as the truth of history are likely to be devotees of that bright-eyed superstition known as infinite human progress, for which Dawkins is a full-blooded apologist. Or they might be well-intentioned reformers or social democrats, which from a Christian standpoint simply isn’t radical enough.

The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you. Here, then, is your pie in the sky and opium of the people. It was, of course, Marx who coined that last phrase; but Marx, who in the same passage describes religion as the ‘heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions’, was rather more judicious and dialectical in his judgment on it than the lunging, flailing, mispunching Dawkins.


Matt Gunter said...

I like Girard too, though I am not always sure I understand him and have read more of Allison than of Girard himself. I preached an Easter sermon a couple of years ago based on not offering up sacrifices to Death.

We are currently hosting a monthly seminar at St. Barnabas with another Girardian, Gil Baillie.

I like the bolded quote. It is one reason a real, physical resurrection matters. There just might be hope that the very real, physical torture and suffering of history (and the persons caught in it) does not get the last word and that Death and its servants do not win.

bls said...

I'm just beginning my reading of both Girard and James Alison; I find philosophy really difficult going most of the time. Probably because I have no real background in it.

I think I'll have an easier time reading "Parsifal," though! ;-)

Christopher said...


Thanks for your comments at Fr. Jakes. A priest in our diocese just returned from a trip in Uganda. To be out in Uganda is courageous and the possibilities horrifying, and more and more of the poor, young, gay are out because they have nothing to lose and are standing up:


This priest told of one young man, when discovered yby his village to be gay, was forced to sleep with the pigs, shot in the leg, disinherited, and finally fled to Kampala where he lived on the streets. In the meantime, the bishop of Dallas was meeting again with the Archbishop of Uganda--the conservatives have been building relationships while we talk. We're not putting our money into reaching these gay folks in this Church, so it really appears to be all about tea parties--all of this talk of staying together to advocate for gays halfway across the world. I want to send every one of our bishops to Uganda and Nigeria and have them face the realities of being gay there, including living on the streets a few days with the many who have become the most marginalized of the marginalized in an already poverty stricken situation. A bunch of cowards who cannot even condemn the Nigerian church's actions unlike the more pastoral and more assertive Canadian HOB. "Comfortable" and "institutional" perhaps describes our bishops best, and I'm disgusted by them. That I had to write letters like you to get them off their duff at all is a sad comment on their pastoral sensibilities at the least.

Christopher said...

And that doesn't even consider things closer to home. I'd like them to meet all of the homeless gay youth in the Tenderloin here in SF. The only church organization the reaches out to them is Temenos Catholic Worker:


Let's have our next convention in the middle of that!