Monday, April 7, 2014

Learning to Read, Learning to See, Learning to Bless

Here is an update of posts on my blog Imaginary Visions of True Peace:

Human Weakness the Cornerstone reflects on our attitudes towards the handicapped in light of mimetic theory.

The Servant of the Servants of God is my sermon for St. Gregory's day this year. It notes the fighting among the disciples.

There follows two posts on how not to read and how to read based on what we learn from René Girard and St. Ignatius: Quixotic Reading and Reading Ignatiusly. (Pardon my clumsy neologism)

Seeing with More than the Eyes is my sermon for Lent IV about the man born blind.

Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice has been on my mind lately and as I began to see it as a pretty complete illustration of Girard's thesis, I shared my thoughts in Proving Shylock Right---or Wrong.

Finally (for now) I have published two posts called "Mimetic Blessing through Abraham:" 1) Cain and Abel and 2) Abraham's Offspring.

Now for Passiontide and Easter!

Friday, April 4, 2014

From Noah to Easter

The following is a column I wrote for our Parish newsletter in April 2014:
...and the earth was filled with violence. -- Genesis 6:11
"I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." -- Genesis 9:11
Jesus said [on Easter Evening], "Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. -- Luke 24:26-27
I'd like to connect the dots on these Bible passages, drawing a line from the story of Noah and the Flood to our Holy Week journey this month. (We will read the Flood story during our Easter Vigil worship April 19.) The Bible's Flood story (Genesis 6-9) is getting significant exposure in our culture right now because of the Hollywood version in the movie Noah, starring Russell Crowe. This exposure is an opportunity for today's outspoken atheists to make their claim that humanity no longer needs gods who perform genocides that include drowning babies.

Have you ever tried responding to such challenges among your friends, or family? Perhaps you've struggled with such questions yourself. How is it that the loving God we meet in Jesus Christ drowns basically everyone in trying to solve the problem of violence?

Let me be blunt: if we don't let Jesus himself teach us to read the Scriptures according to himself, then our Christian faith will be lost. The story of the Flood is a prime example. Christ came to show us who God truly is. So we should be able to understand that gods who command genocidal floods are the gods of old -- the gods who in every culture command a good and sacred violence to stop the flood of human violence. The God who places a rainbow covenant in the sky -- precisely as a promise to never try to solve the problem of violence by inflicting more violence -- is the God we meet in Christ. God on the cross suffers our violence.

So what do we say about all the parts of the Bible where "God" kills or commands killing? This, to me, is the most important question to get right in learning to read Scriptures according to Christ. During the Easter season, we will also read heavily from the Book of Acts, where the first half features five sermons from the Apostle Peter. Despite the varying situations and overall messages of these five sermons, each one of them contains the central point we need to see in undergoing the story of Christ's death and resurrection. In all five, Peter says, 'we kill, God raises.' It's human beings who have the problem with violence, not God.

And a huge part of our problem is that the only way we human beings have ever been able to fully trust in solving our problem with violence is to use a counter-violence -- just like God supposedly did with the Flood. What I'm saying, then, is this: if we don't learn to see the God who slaughters everyone in the Flood as the false gods of human cultures, then we are losing the revelation of God in Christ -- the God who is revealed in the rainbow promise at the end of the Flood story.

Which brings us again to the essential importance of anthropology to our faith. We must understand what the Bible, coming to fulfillment in Christ, is trying to show us about ourselves. The Flood story is an ideal example, because similar flood stories are present across the globe. It gives us the opportunity to see how the Bible's Flood story is different. The Bible's story is the same in seeing a god who uses violence to try to stop violence. But it's different in showing us a God who promises never to do this. God on the cross in Jesus teaches us how to understand this difference.

And it's growing more urgent that we do so, because we now possess the technology to destroy ourselves with our own violence. Actually, that's precisely why flood stories are so universal in human culture. Since our beginnings as a species, we've feared wiping ourselves out through our own contagious violence. A common image for this fear has been an all-engulfing flood. The Genesis story names this flat-out: "The earth was filled with violence." Just like the flood by which God supposedly uses in trying to stop it! But god using a flood belies that age-old human answer of trying to stop violence with violence.

Without going into all the details of the anthropology here, let's at least name God's startling alternative to our human answer of stopping violence by inflicting a counter-violence. God suffers our violence on the cross, shows it to be impotent compared to God's life-giving power of love on Easter, and enacts the healing power of forgiveness in the giving of the Spirit. The cross and resurrection is God saving us from the flood of our human violence that threatens to destroy us.

Where is that salvation? Why is the world still so filled with violence? Remember, God's way is not to use counter-force, so the transformation will not happen with the speed or methods we typically choose. It might look more like the movement Gandhi began in having faith in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. That's why we emphasize faith in God's way, trying to understand the ways in which it's different from our ways.

Let me finish, then, by suggesting that the cross and resurrection can turn the Flood story into a different sort of parable. Learning to interpret the Scriptures according to Jesus might suggest the following kind of twist that Jewish philosopher Günther Anders offered under the shadow of nuclear proliferation. He pictures Noah as prophetically making a public show of mourning in advance of the Flood, and writes,
Soon a small crowd of curious people had gathered around him. They asked him questions. They asked if someone had died, and who the dead person was. Noah replied to them that many had died, and then, to the great amusement of his listeners, said that they themselves were the dead of whom he spoke. When he was asked when this catastrophe had taken place, he replied to them: "Tomorrow." Profiting from their attention and confusion, Noah drew himself up to his full height and said these words: "The day after tomorrow, the flood will be something that will have been. And when the flood will have been, everything that is will never have existed. When the flood will have carried off everything that is, everything that will have been, it will be too late to remember, for there will no longer be anyone alive. And so there will no longer be any difference between the dead and those who mourn them. If I have come before you, it is in order to reverse time, to mourn tomorrow's dead today. The day after tomorrow it will be too late." With this he went back whence he had come, took off the sackcloth [that he wore], cleaned his face of the ashes that covered it, and went to his workshop. That evening a carpenter knocked on his door and said to him: "Let me help you build the ark, so that it may become false." Later a roofer joined them, saying: "It is raining over the mountains, let me help you, so that it may become false." (1)
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, may our journey through the grief of Good Friday and the promise of Easter call us to work on the ark of God's salvation in Christ, the work of love and forgiveness, so that our way of violence may become false.

Paul Nuechterlein

1. This version of Anders' parable is from Jean-Pierre Dupuy's The Mark of the Sacred (Stanford, 2013), p. 203, who makes the following citation (footnote 14): Quoted in Thierry Simonelli, Günther Anders: De la désuétude de l'homme (Paris: Editions du Jasmin, 2004), 84-85. The emphasis is mine. Simonelli very closely follows Anders's German text, found in the first chapter of Endzeit and Zeitenende (Munich: Beck, 1972), a work that has not yet been translated into either French or English. Anders told the story of the flood elsewhere and in other forms, particularly in Hiroshima ist überall (Munich: Beck, 1982).

Thursday, March 6, 2014

From Epiphany to Ash Wednesday

This is quite a journey of blog posts since I last summarized what I had published on Imaginary Visions of True Peace. I didn't realize it had been that long!

As week after Christmas, I posted some reflections for the Feast of the Holy Name (formerly the Circumcision of Jesus) The Name of Names.

The Class Comedian is a Girardian reflection of a bit of my childhood; an example of mimetic processes at a young age.

The phrase "Myth Become Fact" has stuck with me ever since I first read it in the writings of C.S. Lewis. The post of that title compares the insight of Lewis and the kindred insight of JRR Tolkien with René Girard's take on mythology.

Principalities and Powers is a brief look at the social matrix fueled by mimetic desire.

The Cross as a Crisis of Faith reflects on the faith journey of Rachel Held Evans narrated in her book Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl who Knew all the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions. On telling incident is the focus of this post.

Twin Killings is a brief look at the tendency of many early cultures to kill one or both twins, seeing in them images of mimetic doubles, something Girard has commented on.

Sacrificing the Aztecs is a brief examination of the Aztecs' sacrificial practice, noting their humanity and how it was caught in their system.

The Transfiguration comes up twice a year, and the last Sunday of Epiphany is one of them. The Transfigured Glory of God's Children comments on what kind of "glory" is being offered.

Ash Wednesday was only yesterday and my reflections focus on the collect for the day from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer: Respecting all Things God Has Made.

I wish you all a blessed Lent that brings you closer to God.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Interim Contributing Theologian

I am Paul Nuechterlein, a parish pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Portage, MI (Kalamazoo). For those who don't know me, I've been active with the larger Girardian community -- the Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R) -- for more than 20 years, and with Theology & Peace since the beginning. In the late 90's I began developing lectionary pages around Girard's anthropology, which in 2001 became the website "Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary."

I was elected to the Theology & Peace Board in 2012, and last Fall was appointed by the Board to serve as Interim Contributing Theologian (succeeding Tony Bartlett until the Board finds a permanent replacement). One of my duties is to make regular contributions to this blog. Tony graced us with wonderful essays. I'm going to approach it a bit differently. Since I already write on a regular basis for my website, I will occasionally share brief portions from my website along with a link to the longer reflections.

It is an honor to serve you as Contributing Theologian. Grace and peace to all as we begin 2014!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Breaking Bread with the Christ Child

Since Christmas is so close, I will start with noting my most recent blog post Unwrapping the Future which is about the challenge Christmas poses for us. I don't mean to spoil Christmas but to deepen its meaning to strengthen us in a world growing darker and colder.

To take a step back, there is an Advent meditation called Whose Axe, Whose Winnowing Forks? This draws the contrast between John the Baptist along with the prophetic tradition of Israel and Jesus.

I also posted an article I wrote for the Abbey Letter which deals with Mary, a suitable subject for Advent and Christmas called Mary in the Place of Shame and Glory.

I complemented by mini-series on Baptism with a three-part mini-series on the Eucharist which has overlapping themes with the former. The first post is Eucharist: Christ our Passover. You can follow the links in the posts to get to the second and third parts.

Questions of the human self in light of mimetic theory and the Gospel have been a growing preoccupation with me. I have begun exploring this in my post I Me Me Mine which brings in George Harrison, Thomas Merton and others.

I have also compiled a page that lists blog posts by the seasons of the year as an aid for those who wish to look them up in that way.

If you prefer, you can go straight to the main page of my blog Imaginary Visions of True Peace.

A blessed Christmas Tide to all.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Baptism and Resurrected Life

Since my last post on this blog, I have added several more items to my blog. Since resentment is a big problem for all of us, I have posted two articles on the subject: Resentment: the Glue that Keeps us Stuck Together  and Renouncing Resentment.

On a more positive note is Mimetic Laughter which looks at an aspect of positive mimesis which is often overlooked.

Caring for the Dead has some thoughts for All Souls day and how we can continue to relate to the departed in positive and healthful ways. Related to this is Jesus Explodes with Life: His Reply to the Sadducees which opens us up to the explosion of the resurrected life.

The Secret Zoo is a charming but also spiritually challenging set of five novels for young readers as well as older ones that I comment on briefly in Uncovering the Secrets of the Secret Zoo Anyone with children in their lives who might like to read about children riding a polar bear and a rhinoceros should get these books.

I have just completed a series on Baptism: Overwhelmed by Christ's Love This link takes you to the first article. You can navigate to the next two from that.

Or, you can go to the main page of the blog & read down.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Mimetic desire and truth

Truth and mendacity are two important concerns in Girard's mimetic theory, particularly when it comes to the sacrificial mechanism that in ancient times only worked when the truth of the victim was not known. I have completed a five-part series called "Mimetic Desire and Truth" that explores some of the basic ways that mimetic desire can be constructive and help us discern the truth, not as individuals but as a society but also ways that rivalrous desire obscures the truth. You can get a page with links to each post on the above link or you can go to the first post and continue on from there.

Among other posts is a look at the Salem Witch Trials, a Girardian scenario if there ever was one, through the point of view of a judge who repented of his judgments in Bewitched, Bothered, and Repentant.

The Communal Good Shepherd looks at the Parable of the Good Shepherd and the Lost Sheep. The Good Shepherd in the Desert looks back to the desert journey of the Israelites with the help of a Christological take.

Cast out by the Outcasts looks at the dynamics of the Ten Lepers who were healed by Jesus and what helps and what hinders gratitude.