How Can We Come From Violent Origins if We're Made in the Image of the Nonviolent God?
Grace and peace, dear readers. My name is Lindsey Lopez, and I'd like to thank Dr. Anthony Bartlett of Theology and Peace for letting me guest post on this blog.
As a Christian pacifist, I find Rene Girard's anthropology to be a crucial key to my Biblical hermeneutic. Before encountering Girard, reconciling the violence of scripture with my conviction that God is Love was a difficult, painful task that shook my faith and left me feeling dishonest. Did I have a right to circumvent the nastier parts of Scripture in order to hang on to what was beautiful? Could I affirm some of it without affirming it all? Was I being a bad Christian to downplay the violence? But how could I be true to myself and my core convictions if I gave the violent passage of scripture equal value with the loving ones? Girard's anthropology, exposing the depths of human violence and identifying violence itself as the foundation of human civilization, and further showing how the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ exposes and breaks down these structures of violence, was a Godsend. It allowed me to better understand the violence of scripture when I realized that the original human understanding of the divine was born through violence. The violence of scripture reflects the early human understanding of God. While it shows the story of a people who put their faith in the violence of God toward others, the Bible also shows the slow weaning away from violence of this same people, first through the Hebrew Scriptures and ultimately through the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ. Girard provied with me to have a model for understanding the narrative of Scripture as a trajectory of human evolution from violent toward nonviolent as it grows in relationship with God. To be able to understand salvation not as a means of escape from God's wrath but as a means of transformation out of our violent selves into the peace and love of Christ has made me a more faithful and enthusiastic believer and disciple. And yet, as I bound my theology together with this anthropology, something still didn't fit.
Girardian anthropology posits that the definitive moment for human evolution, that marked the transition from the animal to human, was a murder, and hat from that murder and the refusal to see it for the violence that it was came human civilization. (For a succinct explanation of how the founding murder came about and how civilization and religion were based upon it, I recommend James G. Williams' intro to Girard's I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.) And as I said, this anthropology appeals to me because it explains how steeped we are in violence, while Girard's analysis of the passion and resurrection of Christ shows howhrist leads us out of this violence. But reconciling humanity's violent origins with the nonviolence of God led me to a paradox. I wondered, “If humans are made in the image of God, and God is absolutely nonviolent, what does it mean that the defining act of human consciousness was an act of violence?”
I think this concern came about subconsciously because I was trying too hard to reconcile evolution with Genesis. Even though I understand that humans evolved from other primates who evolved from more primitive life forms, part of me still pictures humanity beginning in a celestial garden as a single pair made in the perfect image of God.The language of the “fall” implies a state of perfection or innocence from which we descended, and that image jars with the picture of distinctively human consciousness evolving from a murder.
It finally struck me, as I was listening to the Beyond the Box podcast of Virtually Christian with Dr. Anthony Bartlett, that my thinking was entirely backwards! Being made in God's image need not mean being made perfect before falling and being redeemed. Virtually Christian, which explains how humanity is continuing to evolve in heart and mind from our violent natures into the peace of Christ, and also The Joy of Being Wrong by James Alison, which explains how we cannot understand original sin except retrospectively from the vantage point of seeing the mess we are coming out of in the light of Jesus, helped me reach this understanding. There was no pristine humanity before Jesus from which we “fell”; rather, we are created to “rise” to Jesus. We are created with the potential to form and understand meaning and to be transformed by the meaning of Jesus. In fact, if Girard says that human consciousness was formed by an act of violence, but the absolutely nonviolent Jesus is the truly human one, then we're not done evolving... we're not fully human yet... we're still in the process of becoming, being transformed. We're evolving because of Christ into his body. This is how God is forming us in God's own image, and God's not finished with us yet... In the light of Christ we look back at all the violence we were and are still involved in and see that we are sinners, but we can only see this because we're on the way out.
As I think about it, I realize that this perspective actually does help me reconcile scripture with evolution. There is so much in the creation story of Genesis that aligns with Girardian anthropology, if I don't get caught up with the little hiccup of the idea of Adam and Eve being formed with fully human bodies out of dust. It's a story of rivalristic desire suggested into the human consciousness by a third party. Eve is tempted by the serpent to try to become more “like God;” Adam then takes a cue from Eve, and this creates a foundation of distrust and acquisitive desire that seeps into Cain when he murders his brother in a jealous rage. In pre-scientific terms, Genesis illustrates the fundamental human condition of mimetic rivalry. Furthermore, scripture itself illuminates an evolution, not of the body but of the heart. We can trace the trajectory of our addiction to and entrapment within violence from Cain's murder of Abel to Lamach's 70-fold vengeance and beyond, but then we see God slowly reshaping the heart toward peace, through the sparing of Isaac to the prophets and finally to the passion of Christ and the nonviolent church that followed. Evidence of physical evolution can be upheld, rather than contradicted, by scripture if we see through the trajectory of the story that God molds not only bodies but also hearts and minds over an enormous period of time.