May 30, 2007

The resurrection narratives display a dramatic change compared to the old cycles of victimage. There were two outcomes to the old patterns of victimage. In one outcome, the victim is voiceless. Thus, after the killing and violence the victim is forgotten, his/her particular story is lost to history. In the second outcome, the victim has a voice. That is, upon the death of the victim the family, friends, and/or followers of the victim rise up and demand vengeance. Thus, rounds of reciprocal, eye-for-eye violence emerges.

Both outcomes are evil. In the first outcome the voice of the scapegoat is silenced. In the second outcome violence escalates after the killing of the scapegoat. Is there a way to break these ancient patterns?

Yes. In the resurrection narrative the scapegoat returns bearing the scars of human violence. The scapegoat now has a voice. But that voice does not cry for revenge. No, the first word of the Living Lord is "Peace." This new pattern breaks the old cycles of victimage. Human violence has been absorbed by God, exposing its evil mechanisms, and God now replaces violence with peace.

The story of the early church continues to highlight the evils of scapegoating and how we are saved from its cycles of violence (i.e., by standing with the victim). In the sermon and stoning of Stephen and in the conversion stories of Paul we see violence still at work (in the stoning of Stephen and Saul's persecution of the church). But we also see the newly paved route to salvation: standing with God on the side of victims. Specifically, at his moment of death Stephen echos Jesus' cry from the cross: Father, forgive them! In Saul's conversion Jesus is identified three times in the book of Acts as "the one you are persecuting." That is, Jesus' identity is the identity of the victim. This identification saves Saul as it it saves us.

In our final reflections we turned to the book of Hebrews, the source of most of the sacrificial language in the New Testament. Two points of convergence between the substitutionary and non-sacrifical readings of Hebrews were noted. First, in Hebrews Jesus is identified as the "perfect" sacrifice due to his sinlessness. In the subsitutionary reading, Jesus' sinlessness makes him the ideal locus for God's violent wrath. In the non-sacrifical reading, Jesus is also read as a perfect sacrifice due to his sinlessness. That is, as noted in the last class, Jesus' innocence (sinlessness) is necessary to expose the wickedness of human actions. If Jesus were not sinless then humans might cite a reason or excuse for his killing. But if Jesus is sinless these excuses are exposed as lies.

The second convergence of the substitutionary and non-sacrifical readings of Hebrews is that both readings agree that the "perfection" of Jesus' sacrifice is manifested in the end of sacrifice. That is, both readings agree that the death of Jesus, a sacrifice in both readings, produces a faith that is extricated from bloodshed. After the cross, the Christian faith requires no more bloodshed. No more victims.

May 29, 2007

May 30
Last class for Saved from Sacrifice.

June 6-27
Study of Peter Rollins' How (Not) to Speak of God.

July 11 - August 15 (Guest teacher: Matt Richie)
Study of N.T. Wright's Paul: In Fresh Perspective.

August 22 - September TBA
Study of Marilyn McCord Adams' Christ and Horrors.

May 23, 2007

This week we finally reached the cross. We shared a handout illustrating the unmasking of scapegoating violence we see in the Passion narratives. Borrowing from Girard and Heim, we called this illustration the on-stage story and the back-stage story of the Passion. The Passion narrative show both stories juxtaposed.

In the on-stage story, we see the classic scapegoating dynamic. During a politically and religiously volatile Passover week in Jerusalem, the Romans and the Jews find a scapegoat--Jesus of Nazareth--that will bring communal peace. In this, they are successful. We see in Luke's narrative Herod and Pilate, former enemies, are reconciled (i.e., the death of the scapegoat brings an "atonement" between them). Also, we see the claim of the High Priest--kill one to save many--vindicated. The "peace" and power structures are preserved by killing Jesus. In sum, the death of Jesus brings atonement, peace, and salvation.

But there is a deep, dark irony here. This is an old and wicked salvation. It is the peace and salvation that comes from bloodshed.

Juxtaposed to this "on-stage" story is the back-stage story, were we get to see the self-interested plotting and power grabs. Jesus isn't scapegoated because he's guilty of sedition and blasphemy (the two great sins across all ages). Those are the on-stage reasons, the publicly stated reasons. The real reason Jesus is scapegoated is human sin. Our lust for power and status drives us to bloodshed. These motives are exposed in the passion narratives by the declaration at each stage of the process that Jesus is innocent. This back-stage story--where we see the powers structures killing an innocent person for their own ends--is told alongside the on-stage story to expose the scapegoating machinery with its lies and obfuscations. This exposure leads to the Grand Indictment of Human Violence. And, in the face of this indictment, scapegoating violence must cease. This peace--the cessation of violence--is the true peace Jesus brings. It is a non-violent salvation. A salvation purchased with the blood of Jesus so that no more blood would be shed.

Here are the two sides of the handout illustrating the Girardian reading:

May 16, 2007

Before we can get to the cross we have to back up and confront the violence in the Old Testament. We are scandalized by the violence in the Old Testament, but we also see in the Old Testament a growing ambivalence toward sacrifice. This ambivalence is associated with the growing predominance of the voice of the scapegoat. Before the Old Testament victims had no voice. And they were categorically considered to be guilty and afflicted by the gods. Thus, sacrificing scapegoats (via religious ritual, mob violence, or war) was religiously justified. But as the Old Testament progresses, particularly in the book of Job, we find the scapegoat taking center stage. The scapegoat is now allowed to speak, both to God and against his/her accusers. And what that scapegoat clearly says is this: I am innocent.

This cry of the scapegoat—“I am innocent”—throws a moral wrench into the religious justification for firing up the machinery of violence. For violence against innocent ones is morally exposed for what it is: Self-interested and self-serving.

Thus, by the end of the Old Testament we see God explicitly rejecting the religious sacrifice of Israel and asking for “true religion”: Solidarity with the weak and marginalized. In this we see the dynamic illustrated in Class 2: In standing with the victim we are saved from the tides of human violence.

May 9, 2007

The work of Rene Girard was reviewed. The basics of Girard’s theory are as follows. Humans are susceptible to violence and that violence threatens to fracture society. Ancient civilizations solved this problem by focusing their fears and violent tendencies upon marginalized, powerless, and voiceless groups: Scapegoats. Even today social groups still maintain cohesiveness by targeting weaker persons for abuse, stigma, or violence. A simple example is how cliques of schoolchildren pick on the “weird” kid at school. A more serious example is the Nazi Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide. Scapegoating violence is at the core of the human condition. It is something that we need to be saved from.

How are we to be saved from the violence? Answer: By exposing the violence as violence. The reason this is so hard to do is that God is routinely co-opted and used as religious justification for the violence. In this formulation God stands with the Crowd against the Scapegoat.

But in the Old and New Testaments this old formulation is unmasked. Violence is exposed as violence when God stands in solidarity with the victim/scapegoat. Thus, our violence stops when we, like Paul, stand with Jesus (“the one we are persecuting”). We are saved from violence when we realize that we are not justified to “throw the first stone.”

May 2, 2007

Many Christians are struggling with the model of penal substiutionary atonement (PSA), the dominant and almost exclusive interpretation of the cross in evangelical churches. The biggest problem with PSA is that it seems to situate violence in the very nature of God. Yet, the bible does view the cross as a “sacrifice” that “saves” us. Thus, is there a reading of Scripture that reads the cross as a sacrifice but that does not implicate God in bloody violence? This series (based on S. Mark Heim’s book Saved from Sacrifice) will seek to find such a reading.
When you attend the class we want you to know the kind of place we are trying to create. What follows are some descriptions of our class culture.

The Theologia Class Culture

The Egalitarianism of Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy
The two pillars of Christianity are notions of orthodoxy (“right belief”) and orthopraxy (“right practice”). Generally, orthodoxy has tended to trump orthopraxy. That is, being Christian has been largely defined by what you believed rather than how you behaved. But, interestingly, Jesus tended to see orthopraxy as the test of orthodoxy, and of faith generally (“By their fruits you shall know them,” “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven but he who does the will of my Father.”) In this class, we will place orthodoxy and orthopraxy on equal footing. Class agreement will be based on practicing the Way of Jesus and less concerned with conceptual unanimity and intellectual agreement. Simply stated, we might not always agree but we are committed to being good people, conforming to the Imago Christi ("the image of Christ"). And that commitment unites us in Christ.

A High View of Doubt
There are more lament songs than praise songs in the book of Psalms. Thus, we are committed to allowing lament, complaint, and doubt to be legitimate ways with God. Walter Brueggemann may have said it best: “It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented…It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life…Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate Bible users, given the larger number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest, and complaint about an incoherence that is experienced in the world…I believe that serious religious use of the lament psalms has been minimal because we have believed that faith does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity” (The Message of the Psalms, 1984, pp. 51-52).

God as an essentially contested concept
An essentially contested concept, first described by philosopher W.B. Gallie, is a concept/notion that all parties accept but where there is endless disagreement, argument, and conversation as to the proper understanding, realization, or application of the concept/notion. In this class, God will be our essentially contested concept. We start the conversation with the notion of God, but what do we mean exactly? Who is God? What is God doing?

But some people are frustrated by theological debate and conversation. It can seem pointless and is often frustrating. But we must argue about God because if the conversation about God is ever allowed to end we would have created an idol (a human product—linguistic in this case—meant to represent God). Only endless conversation about God protects us from idolatry and gives the prophets among us—those experts at idol smashing—the room to operate.

Xenia is the Greek word for hospitality and love of strangers. We want Theologia to be a friendly and hospitable place, both interpersonally and intellectually. More specifically, we want to be hospitable to people who believe things that are different from us. In addition, the conversations in Theologia will get pretty “deep” and jargon will be deployed joyously. But jargon can be inhospitable, marking “insiders” and “outsiders.” Thus, to commit to xenia, all our class members will work hard to translate and communicate so that everyone can get “inside” the conversation and vigorously participate.

Epistemic Virtue
Epistemic means “pertaining to knowing.” Thus, epistemic virtues are the good mental habits of the very best learners and conversation partners. Epistemic virtues are the mental attributes that create a great atmosphere for learning and thinking. Obviously, being a mean-spirited, close-minded, know-it-all are symptoms of epistemic vice (i.e., you really shouldn’t be this way and you might want to find another class). But being a warm-hearted, open-minded, curious person marks you as epistemically virtuous! Epistemic virtue is a requirement for the class. And, we should add, for all good conversation.

Costly Fideism
Fideism is the notion that human reason is dumbfounded by the transcendence of God. This makes some of us fall silent, but others of us grow chatty. In Theologia, we’ll be chatty.

This does not mean we deny the mystery of God. All of us know that human reason will, at some point along the faith journey, fail us. The final step, whenever that comes, will be taken with “fear and trembling.” But too often people deploy the word “mystery” as a way of shutting down the conversation. This often happens just when the conversation gets difficult or is making demands of us. “Mystery” in these cases is simply an excuse to stop talking or to avoid agreeing with someone (which is not epistemically virtuous). We’ll call this cheap fideism, or perhaps fearful fideism is a better term.

In Theologia, because we have a high view of doubt, we do recognize the limits of reason and we do believe in mystery. But we believe that mystery is not an intellectual escape hatch or a way to avoid the difficult question. Mystery must be costly, and the product of theological fatigue. Mystery is what you say when you are very tired, when you have pushed reason courageously to its very limit. We are fideists, but we are costly fideists. Mystery comes with an intellectual and spiritual pricetag.

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