Hope as Inheritance

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyThe faithfulness of Jesus opened up a new way of living, a way hitherto inconceivable. In this way, Jesus is a pioneer of faith, as the author of Hebrews tells us. (See Faith as Faithfulness) A pioneer blazes a trail that others can follow which otherwise would be either very difficult or downright impossible. In some ways, Abraham had a harder time blazing the trail in that he didn’t even have Jesus to follow, but as Jesus says in John, Abraham followed Jesus’ trail retroactively by seeing Jesus and rejoicing. Abraham rejoiced in Jesus when he saw the ram caught in a thicket by its horns and understood what that meant. As Kierkegaard argued, it was not the willingness to give up Isaac that constituted faith but his belief in the promise made to him that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the particles of dust on the earth.

Abraham’s faith was grounded in hope, but it was not hope in the subjective sense in which we hope things will turn out okay. That is the hope we have when we read a story, say a story about a boy or young man who is about to be sacrificed, and we hope the boy somehow escapes that fate. Likewise, we might read the Gospels hoping that the hero escapes the cross, but he doesn’t and our hope is dashed. But hope is not dashed at all.

In a provocative paper, James Alison helps us redefine hope. By that I mean Alison helps us see how Jesus has redefined hope. To begin with, redefined hope is grounded in the death of Jesus that seemed to blot out all hope. Jesus’ being raised from the dead might be enough to revive hope in the subjective, “hopeful” sense but that did not redefine hope. What does redefine hope is that the risen Jesus adopted all of us as brothers and sisters so as to make all of us adopted daughters and sons of Jesus’ Father. Alison picks up on the dynamics of inheritance and runs with it. When his mother died, the family inheritance entered the process of coming to him and his two siblings, same as it does when we inherit from our parents. Alison and his brother and sister had not actually inherited the estate right away, but they already were placed in new status because the transition of transferring the estate was in process and one day it would be completed, which it was one fine day. They weren’t “hoping” they would get the estate; the estate was already theirs.

If we return to Abraham and Sarah, we see that their faith became strengthened by hope when they understood that the promise of heirs meant that they had already been made the progenitors of countless descendants even before the first descendent was born. It was because of his prearranged status as a forebear that Abraham could see the ram for what it was, at which point he also understood what the culture he was being led to was all about: that it was about sparing the sacrificial victim. Even when it looked like he would have no heirs after all, Abraham acted like the progenitor God has already made him to be and so he spared Isaac.

With us, the pre-established status is the opposite. We are not progenitors but heirs. This is why faith is the substance of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen. (Heb. 11:1) The substance is the testament of our inheritance. Alison says this substance is a demonstration of what is not seen. The change of status as an heir has already changed us: “At the testator’s death, the promised inheritance is substantially mine even when it is not yet in my possession, and because of that, I already now find myself starting to become a publicly visible demonstration, a reliable sign of what is on its way. Who I am is objectively being altered as someone else’s promise, their desire, moves towards its fulfilment in my reception of it.”
Let us follow this anthology further. Imagine a ten-year-old son of the owner of a vast estate who is the heir of that estate. Because of this status, although he is not yet the owner of the estate, his father takes him around to begin teaching him how to run the estate: how to handle the workers, make sure the foremen order supplies at the right time, etc. This boy spends time learning these things because he is the heir.

Now let us change the story the way God changed it. Imagine being one of the workers in the vineyard of this vast estate who is sweating profusely while the well-dressed boy coolly walks by with his father on his tour of the place. Imagine further being caught up in the rebellious fervor that spreads among the workers so that you go on strike and allow the grapes to grow wild. When the son, grown into a young man, comes to collect the produce, you join in the attack and kill the heir. Then comes the reckoning. You and your fellow workers are brought to the magistrates and you expect to suffer a grim fate for what you have done. To your shock, the son you had killed shows up at the court, very much alive, although the wounds inflicted on him are still there. This really has you shaking in your boots. But to your further shock, the father gets out his will and announces that the vineyard was bequeathed not only to the son but to all of the workers. More shocking still, the father and his son assure welcome all of you back to work in the vineyard as joint owners. As fellow heirs, you are ready to act like an heir who will work to keep the grapes from growing wild so as to produce so much wine for the wedding feast that they will never run out. So it is that hope, far from wishing for a happy ending to the story of the workers in the vineyard, is, in Alison’s words, “ a realignment of our whole way of being towards what really is, as what really is begins to manifest itself in us.”

Proceed to Love as Ultimate Respect

Faith as Faithfulness

altarDistance1Faith is often presented as conformity to a set of doctrines like those laid out in the Nicene Creed. I believe in what the Nicene Creed says but believing it isn’t faith. If we turn to St. Paul we find something different. It is often believed that Paul says throughout his epistles that we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, suggesting that if we believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead, we will be saved. That is, we substitute a more primitive Creed for the Nicene. But this is not what Paul said. In his exhaustive and exhausting book The Deliverance of God: an Apocalyptic Reading of Justification in Paul, Douglas Campbell argues that Paul’s phrase should not be translated faith in Christ, but the faith of Christ. This doesn’t seem to make much sense because Jesus couldn’t have believed in any kind of doctrine. Paul must be talking about faith in some other sense. That is what Campbell thinks when he suggests that a better translation of the word Greek word pistis would be “faithfulness.” That is, Jesus’ faithfulness to his heavenly Father by enduring the mockery of humans and the cross and then being raised from the dead saves us. That is, the faithful acts of Christ save us. We are not saved by our faith; we are saved by Jesus’ faithfulness. This also fits the understanding of “faith” in the Hebrew prophets. When Habakkuk said that “the righteous live by their faith,” (Hab. 2: 4) he was saying that the righteousness live by acting in faithfulness to Yahweh. When James said that faith without works is dead, he was really saying that if there are no works there is no faith because works, the acts of faithfulness, is an integral part of faith.

We can see this point more clearly when we reflect that for Paul Abraham is the father of faith because of what he did when God called him by name. Abraham was told to leave the only life he had known and move to a land God would show him. This is precisely what we are called to do in baptism. We are to leave the life we have known, the life that has formed us and clothed us in what Paul calls “the old person” and move to a life we have never known, a life that will form us and clothe us in “the new person.” This may seem laughable to those of us who were baptized as infants but the baptismal vows of renouncing the world, the flesh and the devil, even if made on our behalf, are still our responsibility as we come of age. We find ourselves formed by the social matrix around us which René Girard argues is run primarily by mimetic rivalry and sacrificial mechanisms and we are called out of these social matrixes into a way of life grounded in the Forgiving Victim.

What makes Abraham’s journey so remarkable is that he was travelling into uncharted territory. He moved out of a culture based on sacrificial violence without a New Testament in his hip pocket to tell him what kind of story he was entering. In this way he was a pioneer of faith about as much as Jesus. Both put their lives on the line, though in different ways. Abraham only had a promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, although he had born no children up to that time. Jesus hoped to receive from his heavenly Fathers descendants just as numerous (Jn. 17: 10) although it looked hopeless when even his disciples deserted him at the end. Abraham’s wife Sarai went with Abraham on this journey, making her also a great pioneer of faith. I doubt that either of them could have done it alone. It is because this pioneering move is so fundamental to Abraham’s faithfulness that Paul denies that being circumcised constitutes the faith that was reasoned as righteousness. (Rom. 4: 9-12) That is, Abraham was circumcised after he had set out for a new land.

Abraham’s geographical move was not enough, of course. Indeed, if faith has to do with migrating from a sacrificial culture, it is the spiritual geography that matters. After all, Canaan was as in the thrall of sacrificial culture as Ur of the Chaldeans. The real act of faithfulness was bringing Isaac back from Moriah. In a culture that demanded sacrifice so powerfully that even Abraham thought he had to participate in it, he listened to the voice from outside the system that told him not to lay a hand on the lad. On his way to Calvary, Jesus as a pioneer of faith (Heb. 12:2) had to believe that he had been sent from outside the sacrificial system and would return to a place outside that system after having cracked the structure for all time.

[For more on the near-sacrifice of Isaac, see Abraham out on Highway 61]

Proceed to Hope as Inheritance

The Earthquake that Saves

abyssIn Matthew’s Gospel, the Resurrection of Jesus causes an earthquake. Just as an earthquake shakes up the earth, the Resurrection shakes us up, fatally undermines the way we have lived our lives, and gives us a radical reorientation. But did the Resurrection have to be an earthquake? Could it possibly have been a smooth transition from a good quality of life to a better one?

According to seismology, an earthquake is caused by one or more faults under the surface of the earth. A fault can hold its position for some time but it is inherently unstable and it will slide sometime or other and cause the earth to shake. The Resurrection could not help but cause an earthquake because there were faults in human culture just waiting to shift when the event occurred. A look at the Old Testament readings we read during the Vigil can point out where the faults were and still are.

The story of the Flood shows us what Cain’s murder of Abel led to: a society overwhelmed with violence. They did not need God to create a flood to carry them away; their own violence had overwhelmed them like a flood. The near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham refers to the institutionalization of sacrifice to stave off the meltdown of the Flood. The people were convinced that somebody must die in order that the people might be saved. That is what Caiaphas said to justify the execution of Jesus. Abraham thought somebody must die until an angel (messenger) of God told him otherwise. In Jesus Risen in our Midst Sandra Schneiders points out that God wanted neither Isaac nor Jesus to die, but while Abraham obeyed God, Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate decided otherwise. Pharaoh’s Egypt was a society held together through institutionalized sacrifice: the enslavement of the Hebrews. When plagues struck, Pharaoh blamed the Hebrews and drove them out. God transformed the event into a deliverance from slavery. Like the people in Noah’s time, the Egyptians were overwhelmed by their own violence. (When Jesus welcomed the children that his disciples tried to keep away, he showed for all time that God is not a child killer.) These are the fault lines that could only slip and shake the earth when the angel of the Lord “descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.” The guards, representatives of the sacrificial culture, became “like dead men.” Death is what sacrificial cultures lead to.

The angel’s words “Do not be afraid” are at least as earthshaking as the earthquake. These words of peace turn us upside down and around in circles. What is the man we killed to stabilize society going to do to us now that he is out and about again? Why would he tell us not to be afraid? What is this world coming to? Two women both named Mary who live on the margin of the society of their time, a society that would not let them testify in court as witnesses, are asked to be witnesses to this momentous news, to the momentous presence of life. They run off with “fear and great joy.” Mary and Mary don’t get far before they meet up with Jesus who greets them and repeats the angel’s words: “Do not be afraid.” Jesus de-centers us once again by taking us from the center of religious and political power to that backwater Galilee where he will start a new life for us. St. Paul says of the Hebrews who were delivered from Egypt that we all “passed through the sea and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea.” (1 Cor. 10:2) When we renew our baptismal vows, we renewed our commitment to being overwhelmed by God’s deliverance from a sacrificial culture that creates fault lines to a new culture based on the forgiving victim. These words are spoken not just to the two women but to the two guards and to each one of us. Sandra Schneiders says: “In the Resurrection God gave back to us the Gift we had rejected. Can we accept the gift of peace this time around? Can we spread the news to others and, most important, to ourselves that we have been delivered from the flood waters of our violence to a new land, a new way of living where we do not need to be afraid?

Abraham out on Highway 61

sideAltarsIcons1The near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, the Father of Faith, is the most troubling of stories. It should be. Chaim Potok’s young protagonist Asher Lev remembers the shiver he felt when he first heard the story. What is most troubling is the suspicion that Abraham was right to be willing to sacrifice his son. But was he? Jeremiah says Yahweh denounced the sacrifice of children, saying “that such a thing had never entered my mind.” (Jer. 19:5) Perhaps we are right to be troubled by any notion that Abraham was right to even let the idea enter his mind and even more troubled by any thought it ever entered into God’s mind.

Bob Dylan makes a bitter burlesque of the story in his song “Highway 61 Revisited.” The “god” who requires the sacrifice is a bully, warning Abraham that if he doesn’t comply: “Next time you see me, you’d better run.” To the question: “Where do you want to see this killing done? God said out on Highway 61”, the place for “a thousand telephones that don’t ring” and where to “put some bleachers out in the sun” to stage the start of the next world war. As with so many Dylan songs, the imagery reveals a society filled with mimetic rivalry and victimization where sacrifice and war become a spectator sport.

Soren Kierkegaard’s searing Fear and Trembling is at least as troubling as the biblical story. SK’s category of the “teleological suspension of the ethical” raises fears that the author celebrates Abraham’s willingness to do the deed. (What the fancy phrase means is: anything at all God says to do is right—end of story.) However, this troublesome category is coupled with what SK called “infinite resignation.” This is what Abraham had when he was willing to kill his son by God’s command. However, infinite resignation falls far short of faith and faith is what the biblical story and SK’s book is all about. Faith is receiving back what is given with infinite resignation “by virtue of the absurd.” Still troubled?

The most clear and piercing critique of this “infinite resignation” I know of comes in the powerful poem retelling this story by the World War I poet Wilfred Owen. Abraham builds parapets and trenches around the wood, suggesting the sacrifice of sons sent off to the war. But when the angel of the Lord admonishes Abraham to “slay the ram of pride instead of him . . . the old man would not so, but slew his son,/ and half the seed of Europe one by one.” This poet, one of many young victims of the war, and the creator of the bitter irony that poets like Bob Dylan use so well, has revealed once and for all the sacrificial horror of “infinite resignation.” That is, anyone infinitely resigned to sacrifice oneself without faith and will also sacrifice others, especially one’s own children, also without faith.

The typological interpretation of the story where it stands for God the Father’s being willing to sacrifice His only begotten son is also troubling. But Jesus did not go to the cross with infinite resignation. Rather, by “virtue of the absurd,” he believed that God, being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was God, not of the dead, but of the living.” (Mt. 22:32) St. Paul says we are saved by the faith of Christ, the faith that, on the cross, embraced not death, but the life of his heavenly father. The virtuous absurd, then, is the ecstatic embrace of God’s love so filled with life that there is no room for death for anybody.