The Tree of Salvation

YggdrasilRonald Murphy’s fine book Tree of salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North provides some intriguing insights into the relationship between mythology and Christianity. As the title implies, the main focus is on the Germanic cosmic tree Yggdrasil. Indeed, this Tree was converted to the Tree of life from Eden and the tree on which Christ was hung when the Norse cultures were converted to Christianity. Moreover, these people were told to abandon Odin and the other deities but were allowed to keep Yggdrasil, which became the structural principal of the stave churches and the round churches as Murphy demonstrates at length.

Although a Christian could hardly worship Odin, there are some interesting elements in his myth of interest to a Christian who uses Girard’s critique of myth. Odin had one eye, having sacrificed it for wisdom. Although the victims of primordial collective violence are arbitrary, anything, such as a physical blemish, that makes a person stand out makes that person a likely target. More interesting yet, Odin hung on the tree Yggdrasil to gain more wisdom. It is the Girardian thinker James Alison who coined the phrase “the intelligence of the victim” to indicate that the victim understands what the persecutor do not. As a likely target for violence because of his deformity, he would already have understood the sacrificial dynamics of society more than other people. The early medieval Germanic poem The Heliand and the old English Dream of the Rood both write of the cross as the cosmic tree, namely Yggdrasil. Murphy analyzes these poems well for their rich theological vision where redemption is glorious with no punitive aspects to it. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God.

Of greatest interest is the role of Yggdrasil in the Ragnarök myth. The Ragnarök myth is unique in world mythology as far as I can tell because of its future orientation. Normally the chaos  precedes civilization and culture emerges out of it. According to Girard this emergence is possible because of the collective violence that puts a tourniquet on the chaos. With the Norse, the chaotic violence concludes civilizatoin. All social order breaks down and Yddgrasil, always subject to attack by the serpent that eats at its roots, is subject to more intense attack. As humanity unravels and reaches the brink of destruction, Yggdrasil saves the couple Lief and Lifthrasir by sheltering them unto the danger is past so that they can start humanity anew.

When Murphy describes the Yggdrasil symbolism in the stave and round churches in Scandinavia with all the carved and painted leaves and the enormous central pillars in the round churches, he suggests that the church has become Yggdrasil that offers shelter from the culture of violence. Only, rather than sheltering only one couple, it shelters everybody who comes into it, making the church a symbol of what it ought to be in human culture.

The Viking culture is notorious to this day for its wanton violence and cruelty, especially for people like me who are descended from inhabitants of the British Isles. Horrible as their violence was, maybe it was that very violence that helped them understand the Gospel in new ways that we could profit from today. Their dread of eschatological violence is quite a contrast to the fascinated desire for the same in American culture today. Perhaps they had some instinct for knowing that chaotic violence would be the result of their sacrificial way of life if they were not turned around. With this emphasis on deliverance from violence, there is little or no room for a penal notion of Christ’s Atonement. Murphy’s book is a great place to start to learn about the Norse contribution to Christianity.

American war Sacrifice

crossRedVeil1The escalation of militarized violence has reached bewildering levels in the USA. Kelly Denton-Borhaug gives us an important theological response centered on the theme of sacrifice.

First, Denton-Borhaug surveys the militarization of our society which will be an uncomfortable eye-opener for most of us. Recruitment is taking place in our public schools and has infiltrated our computer games which are being more and more designed to train us for real war that is no game—or shouldn’t be.

One of the most disconcerting elements of our society’s militarization is the large number of Christians who are avidly supporting our wars. Denton-Borhaug zeroes in on the rhetoric of sacrifice which she suggests is the keystone of the presidential speeches since 9/11. The sacrifice being made on our behalf by those serving in the military is noble, sanctified. How dare we oppose those who make these great sacrifices? Well, there is the matter of the countless people “over there” who are being sacrificed without having enlisted with the US military for the job. These deaths are countless because the US military does everything it can to prevent counting their deaths.

Denton-Borhaug analyzes the Christian theologies of sacrifice, especially substitutionary atonement, that makes Jesus’ death a sacrifice required by the Father, or at least the cosmos. What has been happening is that political rhetoric is syphoning off the Christian resonances of sacrifice, corralling the sacrifices required of war as if the god of war were the God of Christ. Much of this works on subliminal levels.

Those of us working with the thought of René Girard and his colleagues see ourselves in a different place regarding sacrifice, but Denton-Borhaug has problems here as well. Girard himself she mentions almost in passing, only to suggest that Girard sees it as human nature to be violent so not much can be done with it. Mark Heim’s fine book Saved from Sacrifice is examined in some depth. Although Denton-Borhaug respects Heim’s attempt to get away from a theology of sacrifice, she thinks he fails. The failure hinges on Heim’s (and Girard’s) notion that only through his sacrificial death could Jesus reveal the truth of sacred violence.

I think Heim and Girard are right about this but Denton-Borhaug has pointed to an important point. If Jesus’ death is considered “necessary” in any way whatever, then it is vulnerable to the military rhetoric that proclaims the sacrifices of war as “necessary.” Girard avoids philosophical and theological terminology and so does not consider the category of contingency. This is where theological analysis is necessary for Girard’s anthropological insights. Granted, the power of mimetic desire analyzed by Girard was highly likely to lead to the violent outcomes of collective violence leading to sacrificial rites. But to retain any sound doctrine of Original Sin, we must insist that this violent outcome at the dawn of humanity was contingent. The same applies to Heim’s analysis of the Atonement. Heim is as clear as it can be that Jesus’ death was not necessary as far as God was concerned. If it was “necessary,” it was “necessary” for humans. Given the weight of history and the situation in Judaea at the time Jesus lived, it seems highly unlikely any other outcome was possible for Jesus’ earthly ministry but we have to insist that the death of Jesus was contingent. That is, the truth of sacred violence could have been (and actually was) revealed through Jesus’ teaching. It was not “necessary” for Jesus to be killed to reveal this truth, but that is what happened. Knowing Mark Heim as I do, I am almost certain this is his position. I have taken the time to go over this section of the book in more detail to show how the challenge from Denton-Borhaug can help those of us who use Girard’s thought to sharpen our thinking in this area.

In a broader sense, Denton-Borhaug has trouble with sacrifice and for good reason, since the militarized rhetoric is such a powerful form of emotional and spiritual blackmail that really has ruined many of the brightest and best of our younger generation. One need only note the traumatized lives, high rate of homelessness and suicides of our veterans to see how thoroughly they have been made sacrificial victims. Denton-Borhaug has trouble understanding the nobility of Christian martyrdom in the early centuries, not realizing the degree to which it was nonviolent resistance to the Empire. In fact, her practical suggestions are along the lines of actively making peace, a “theology of work” she calls it which amount to much sacrifice as well as resistance to violent political structures.

A thought-provoking and important book that helps us grapple with a major ongoing crisis in our time.

For an introduction to René Girard’s thought see Violence and the Kingdom of God

How Are We Saved?

yellowTulips1The New Testament and two thousand years of Christian preaching has consistently proclaimed that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has opened the way of salvation for all humanity. Precisely how this mysterious, earthshaking event has done that   has raised more questions than answers. It is understandable that the focus would tend to be on the death of Jesus since the event is so dramatic and creates intense emotional effects in Jesus’ followers. However, understandings of the atonement of Jesus through this route have raised long-standing problems that cry out for a fresh approach. The growing realization that the killing of Jesus was just plain wrong on the part of many Christians, and not just those influenced by the thought of René Girard,  opens a way for a re-thinking of atonement theology that can support a deep spirituality grounded in God’s unconditional love for all people. As article I wrote for the Abbey Letter Saved By the Life of Jesus contributes to this re-thinking that actually reclaims the Gospel for us. It is included in the collection of articles in Come Let Us Adore. You can read it here.