Tuesday, February 17, 2009

KNOWING JESUS (James Alison)

Knowing Jesus (James Alison) S P C K 1998

What does it mean to 'know Jesus'? Conservative Christians answer with a formula - 'receiving Jesus as your personal Saviour, and witnessing for him in the world', or a dogma (Jesus is God) and/or as an experiential relationship (Alison calls this the 'intimist' approach, from the Spanish 'intimista' - a 'way of being spiritual to do with personal feelings'). Liberal Christians, says Rowan Williams in the forward, 'will dismiss all this as inappropriate, since our relation to Jesus is a pervasive (but rather elusive) one of being... enabled by his memory'.

James Alison urges us rather to view Jesus as the 'resurrected victim'. The world is essentially a mosaic of interlocking systems of oppression and 'victimage', reparation and/or settling scores. In contrast, the resurrection of Jesus frees us to engage in a lifestyle of forgiveness, equality and care for others - especially the oppressed.

This book is a brilliant application of the French critic and anthropologist Rene Girard's views (expounded especially in his 1972 'Violence and the Sacred' followed by 'Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World' 1978). Briefly: all archaic religions involve sacrifices of the innocent: from scapegoats to 'victim-gods'. Such sacrifices restore 'order' or 'peace'. Human society/culture continues at the expense of 'victims': whether victimized by humans or by the gods. We may not now offer bulls or lambs as sacrifices, and moderns have a sophisticated understanding of the 'victimage' of the oppressed, but wars are getting more ugly, more violent, and more widespread. Why is that?

James Alison's response is that we're all in great danger of 'missing the point'. Christianity (='knowing Jesus') is not essentially about dogmas (winning doctrinal battles) or mystical experiences (retreating to an inner peaceful world), but about imitating 'the self-giving victim'... 'drawn on by the intelligence of the victim which both sets us free to act gratuitously, reveals to us our and other people's outcasts... and empowers us to works of service, of solidarity with them...' Thus our whole person becomes formed by 'new desires' which is the only effective way to relate to a violent world with its 'rivalistic desires'.

'We become possessed by the crucified and risen one, by a slow process of entrancement... which has to pass through concrete acts of freedom and service' (p. 101).

This new 'understanding' begins with the resurrection of Jesus: it's only when disciples encounter the risen Jesus that they work backwards past the cross into his life and teaching that they finally 'get it'.

There's nothing here about the Jesus Seminar and other critical modern biblical scholarship. The inference from this, it seems to me, is that those people are also asking the wrong questions (like 'who actually said what to whom and when, for what purpose?'). The disciples did not invent a new 'theological schema' after they encountered the risen Jesus: rather they began to understand more clearly what Jesus 'was on about' from the very beginning of his public ministry.

James Alison has a unique adjective for Jesus - the 'intelligent' victim. This little descriptor is to be found on just about every page of this little (114-page) book. The idea here is that Jesus has a new perspective when he refutes the ways humans relate to one another (especially in destructive hierarchies) or solve problems (victimizing others so that their opposition to our schemes is supposedly neutralized).

James Alison is (was? - there is no clue here) a Dominican theologian and has lived and worked in Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile and the United States. He currently lives in his home-country England.

I can't wait to read his book about Original Sin - 'The Joy of Being Wrong'.

Rowland Croucher

February 2009.

SMore articles like this here.