The Joy of Being Wrong Essays, Part 1E--"It is a Fearful Thing to Fall into the Hands of the Living God."

This last part of Father Alison's talk (the other four can be found here here here and here) is, in my view, the most thought-provoking and challenging.  In the last two posts, Alison touched on how individuals need to seek out and foster a kind of sacred space for people to come together and be wrong together.  That space, in principle, is the Church.  But, as seen in the first two parts, there are problems with the way the Church approaches that task, problems that stem in large part from the language with which it understands itself.  Bringing these two ideas together, Alison provides a sketch of how we should think about the Church and how the Church should talk about itself.

But, first, some starting principles.

If it is true that what Jesus did was to knock out the centrepiece of the mechanism by which humans make anything sacred, that is, by offering himself up to death in a typical sacralised lynching so as to show that the victim is innocent, and that what appeared to be sacred had nothing to do with God; if that is true, then it is not surprising that one of the consequences of the arrival of the Gospel in our midst is, as Jesus predicted, “wrath”. If you take away something sacred from people you are taking away part of the principle by which they have identity, togetherness, security, life. And one of the natural reactions of people who have lost, or are in the process of losing their identity, their security and their togetherness, is wrath, scrabbling about for a new victim to give them a new unity, identity and togetherness.

This is Girardian Christianity 101.  Human society is built upon the scapegoating mechanism, through which we work out our mimetic rivalries by picking an arbitrary victim to cast out or kill.  Through that process of casting out or killing the scapegoat, we achieve a cathartic release of the pressure of mimetic rivalry for a time, until the pressure builds up again and we need to go through the same process.  Society builds structures and institutions to camouflage this process, a camouflage that is necessary in order for the process to do its work.  God's action in the world, culminating in the death and resurrection of Jesus, is focused primarily on removing the camouflage and exposing to us what we are really doing.  Only once that exposure occurs can we begin to figure out how to address the underlying problem, as opposed to medicating the symptoms.

Presented in this basic way, God's work in the world comes across as an easy and painless process--"good, I don't have to scapegoat people anymore!"  Wrong, says Alison.  It is more like being a heroin addict who goes into detox--a heroin addiction which, to one degree or another, all of us have had from our first conscious moments.  "Undergoing God," as Alison calls it, is a painful, dislocating, wrenching process.  We are being progressively torn down to the foundations and rebuilt.  It is, as the letter to the Hebrews says, a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.

The byproduct of this process is wrath--our wrath, and the wrath of the others around us.  Wrath is a very dangerous business.  It is all too easy for us, caught up in the midst of this swirl of wrath, to "relapse" if you will--to find new scapegoats to deal with the rising tensions.  We don't need to look far into history to find periods where the breakdown of previously established social orders lead to terrible outbreaks of persecution against vulnerable minorities of various kinds--the Jews in Europe in the 30s, witch trials in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, the Spanish Inquisition after the defeat of Islamic Spain, etc.

We cannot go "cold turkey" on mimetic rivalry.  We need to be slowly, and in a controlled way, weaned off of it.

I take it that the reason behind giving us the Christian Church is to enable people to navigate the wrath that has been released by the gradual loss of belief in the violent sacred. If this is true, then one of the things we should expect at a time like this is an outburst of wrath. After all, another piece of how a violently sacred world was held together is being taken out of circulation – gay people are just becoming ordinary humans. And we are indeed getting the outburst of wrath. The wrath is nothing to do with God, and it is not desired by God. It is how the beast reacts to losing another bit of his prey, and we are all caught up in it to a greater or lesser extent.

Girard offers a testable hypothesis in support of his understanding of violence and religion.  If he is right: (1) in real terms, our world in the aggregate should be getting better over time; but (2) overt violence should be on the rise; or at least (3) our perception will be that overt violence is on the rise.  Number #1 is a product of 3,000 years of the Judeo-Christian message slowly wearing away at the brutal social structures that sanction and promote violence and injustice.  But this process is not an unalloyed good, because those social structures, as monstrous as they were, did their job of regulating and buffering our primordial violence.  It is precisely those buffers that the Gospel message (and the message of the Prophets before Jesus) undermine, leaving us to face directly our own violence and the violence of others.  Moreover, the Judeo-Christian message also allows us to see more clearly the violence that exists at the heart of society, and in our own heart.  In other words, while there is less total violence in the world, the violence that remains is in some respects worse, and we are also more aware of what is present, so violence appears to be more prominent and intractable.

I believe that this hypothesis fits with the facts we see around us.  But it leads to a sobering conclusion.  It is not simply that being cleansed of our remaining idols and scapegoats is painful; it is that each new idol and new scapegoat that is wrenched from our grasp is exponentially more painful than the one before.  You might call this view a "progressive pessimism"; things are getting harder, not easier (the "pessimist" part), even while they are at the same time getting better (the "progressive" part).

I rather think that part of the way that the mercy of the Gospel works is by making available a safe place, especially to those who feel most threatened by the shifting of order, togetherness, goodness, the loss of a world where the good is good and the bad is bad. This place, the Church, is where we can work through our wrath over time. It is for this reason that it would be terrible if the Church were not structured around something apparently and immovably part of the world of wrath. That is to say, if Church authority did not give comfort to those who are distressed by the loss of the sacred by apparently offering a bulwark to hold onto in the midst of their loss of identity, then it would make salvation possible only for those of strong conscience, which would be elitist and un-Catholic. It is not that Church authority is part of wrath. It is that it is a shock absorber for wrath. Part of what a rhetoric of immovability, of the impossibility of change, achieves is the creation of a safe space for the brethren of weak conscience.

This is a very provocative paragraph, so let's try to unpack it.

The claim Alison is making here, as I read it, is that one of the key jobs of the Church is to make it so that we don't have to go "cold turkey" as we try to detox.  Most people simply can't do it, and it would be dangerous for them to try.  The Church provides a space in which people can progressively step down their intake of mimetic rivalry over time and in a controlled manner, without spinning out of control.

The key problem that comes with detoxing on mimetic rivalry is the corresponding loss of identity and groundedness that comes with it.  People who grew up in the U.S. and are my age grew up during a period of time in which our identity as Americans was grounded in the notion that we were part of the greatest and most powerful country on the planet, a beacon for democracy and freedom, and that we were moving from strength to strength.  And, in the 80s and 90s, that more or less seemed to be true.  This sense of identity--what America was about, and by extension what we are about as Americans--located and grounded us in a very profound way.  But, since the beginning of this millennium, that sense of identity has been gradually eroded.  In many respects, that's a good thing, because it has exposed a number of problems and dysfunctional elements of our country.  But it is unquestionably a difficult thing, because it leaves people flailing around in search of new identities and new experiences of groundedness.

The Church, Alison argues, should provide some measure of identity and groundedness in the midst of dislocation and transformation.  If it simply stood there with its arms crossed and told people "well, everything you knew and believed before is an illusion; get over it," we would all be at sea.  We need some experience of the "Other Other," the one thing that is not part of the process of change and transformation.  The job of the Church, first and foremost, is to provide people a series of handholds to latch on to in the midst of the earthquake.

So, it is a good thing that the Church projects the notion that it is immobile and unchanging.  We need that.  The problem, which Alison identifies a little bit later, is that this claim is not really true, or at least it is not really true in the way that it is usually presented.  Formulations like "Roma locuta; causa finita est" ("Rome has spoken, the matter is settled"), the idea of "infallibility," etc., are usually presented in terms of the notion that the precise way that a particular issue is understood right now by the official Church (i.e. the Pope, the Vatican, the Catechism) is the way that it will always be understood in the same way in the future (and, by extension, has always been understood this way in the past).

This idea, to be blunt, is a noble fable.  It is designed to provide a certain kind of comfort that God is always present, even in the midst of change and confusion and chaos.  Nevertheless, it is an empirical fact that any one of a number of topics were understood by the Church in one very specific way in the past, and are now understood in a very different, if not opposite, way now.  I think the clearest example of this (one that I will say more about in a bit) is the Church's position with regard to Jews and Judaism.  The Vatican II document Nostra Aetate says "the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures;" St. Augustine said "the Church admits and avows the Jewish people to be cursed . . . for it is revealed in the New Testament." (Letter to Faustus the Manichean, paragraph 11).   Those two statements are diametrically opposed and cannot be reconciled.  According to modern Catholic theology, St. Augustine (and those that followed his lead, which was everyone from Augustine's day until the 20th Century) is wrong; according to pre-20th Century Catholic theology, this portion of Nostra Aetate is heretical.

How do we reconcile the need for the fable and the reality behind it?  The key, I think, is to go back to the dichotomy that the Church is both a divine project that God will bring to whatever ends God has set out for it, and a completely human project with every one of the limitations of any human project.  In his Jesus the Forgiving Victim series, Alison uses a half-way house as an analogy for the Church.  That's an interesting and creative analogy, but a limitation on the half-way house analogy is the fact that the Church is actually something of a bad half-way house.  Most notably, in a well-run half-way house, we presume the staff are people who are not actively going through detox while they are running the house.  That would be a foolish and dangerous presumption in the case of the Church; instead, we should presume the opposite, that the people running the house are very much engaged in the same detox process as the rest of us.

Because we are individually being stripped off our attachments to idols of violence, it follows that the collective "us," the Church, is being progressively stripped of those same idols.  If the Church was not changing, that would a sign that it's members were not being influenced and shaped by the action of God in the world--a clear sign that something was profoundly wrong.  There is no question that there is a fixed and stable reality "behind" the movement of the Church as a whole, guiding and shaping it in ways we cannot clearly perceive.  But that doesn't remove or reduce the transformation that is occurring within each of us and to us as a whole.

In this sense I would like to share with you my naval theory of the papacy. My view is that the Pope’s job is to be the figure of unity by being the last man off the sinking ship. It is only when everyone else has moved on, has accepted that change has happened irreversibly, and is happy with it, that the Pope can leave that old world behind, with no one left to scandalize by doing so (though more and more people will have been scandalised by his refusal to give it up, but they will be doing so from a position of strength, of growing confidence in the new world they inhabit). Then Peter can declare that episode over.

There is a clear, and fairly recent, example of this process playing out--the Catholic Church's breathtaking change in position with regard to the Jews and Judaism.  In April 1986, Pope John Paul II visited the Rome Synagogue and declared the terrible, unchristian discrimination of the Jewish people by the Catholic Church to be at an end:

"This gathering in a way brings to a close, after the Pontificate of John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, a long period which we must not tire of reflecting upon in order to draw from it the appropriate lessons. Certainly, we cannot and should not forget that the historical circumstances of the past were very different from those that have laboriously matured over the centuries. The general acceptance of a legitimate plurality on the social, civil and religious levels has been arrived at with great difficulty. Nevertheless, a consideration of centuries-long cultural conditioning could not prevent us from recognizing that the acts of discrimination, unjustified limitation of religious freedom, oppression also on the level of civil freedom in regard to the Jews were, from an objective point of view, gravely deplorable manifestations. Yes, once again, through myself, the Church, in the words of the well-known Declaration Nostra Aetate (No. 4), «deplores the hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and by anyone"; I repeat: 'by anyone».'"

In other words "things have changed and things are different now, but all of that stuff in the past was totally unacceptable and we cannot tolerate it anymore going forward."  When it happened, all but a very small minority of folks had the slightest problem with what the Pope was saying.  All but this tiny fringe had "accepted that change ha[d] happened irreversibly, and [was] happy with it."  Pope John Paul, speaking as Peter, had declared the matter at an end.  And it does seem to be at an end--Pope Francis's best friend is a Rabbi and no one cares except insofar as the media wants to pump the poor Rabbi for insight into Francis.

But because we collectively have accepted this change, there is a danger of losing sight of how radical a change this was, and how unthinkable it would have been 100 years earlier--an eyeblink in the history of Catholicism.  A hundred years before Pope John Paul entered the Rome Synagogue, the Catholic press in France was whipping up a popular frenzy against Alfred Dreyfus and the official Vatican newspaper L'Observatore Romano defended Dreyfus's conviction by arguing "[t]he Jewish race, the deicide people, wandering throughout the world, brings with it everywhere the pestiferous breath of treason."  And then the Holocaust happened, and the State of Israel happened, and Vatican II happened, and everyone realized that what was once believed to be right was now clearly deeply, unspeakably wrong.  And, when the time came, and everyone was ready to recognize this truth, Peter said so and declared that episode over.

This seems to me to be the real challenge for us now: what account can we have for how we have been wrong, and are still wrong now, and are yet being saved infallibly by One who loves us and is much more merciful than we?

How can we learn to talk about the discovery of things which show quite clearly that strictures which we once regarded as sacred are not so, but which respects the fact that in just the same way as we must be reconciled with our brothers and sisters now with whom we disagree, so we can show no superiority to our brothers and sisters of past generations who we regard as having got something wrong, because we hope that others yet to come will extend the same bridge of merciful discourse to us? The rhetoric of immutability has its place, but is obviously not a true description. The notion of development of doctrine is a nice try, but cannot cope with the fact that the Church has held diametrically and exactly opposed teachings at different times. 

One of the traps that Catholicism has gotten into, and it has been in this trap since at least the Protestant Reformation, is trying to justify the past using the standards of the present.  The Protestant Reformers made the claim that various late medieval Catholic practices were "newly invented" (sometimes true and sometimes untrue) and "not in the Bible" (mostly true, but usually irrelevant).  The Catholic response was to emphasize that there is a continuity of church teaching from the days of the Apostles to the (at the time) present, and they were completely correct to do so.  But then the Counter-Reformation tried to, as lawyers say, "prove too much."  Rather than simply claiming continuity, it claimed uniformity--everything we are doing now is exactly what we have been doing in the past.  To make that work, the Catholic Church had to be seen as a static entity, setting up the Church for a headlong collision with its own history.  The story of the last 500 years, and in particular the last 150 years, has been the story of the Church tying itself in increasingly convoluted knots justifying the contradictions of its own history.

Like Alison, I don't have a fully formed solution to this problem.  But I would suggest starting with Elizabeth Bruenig's insight that the past is always an abstraction, something that we will never be able to fully grasp.  There is a veil between us and them, such that we can never simply port stuff from the past directly into the present.  This is useful, I think, because it means that the basic Counter-Reformation project--to justify what we are doing now by "proving" that it was the same as what we were doing before--is impossible.  We just can't access the past in a direct enough manner to "prove" or "disprove" anything about what we are doing today, and so we should stop trying.

This, I think, might be a way for the Catholic Church to shed its "scandalous" relationship with its own past.  By "scandalous," I mean in the New Testament (and Girardian) sense--the "stumbling block" that trips us up and locks us into unhealthy and unproductive patterns of behavior.  The scandal of history causes the Catholic Church to construct these incredibly convoluted justifications for why nothing has actually changed (despite all evidence to the contrary), and then use the need to protect the Jenga tower we have built as a reason to close our eyes to what new thing God might be doing in our time.  Or, alternatively, this scandal causes us to go into rivalry with history itself--"I can't participate in a religious community in Columbus, Ohio in 2015 because a thousand years ago the Crusaders killed the citizens of Jerusalem when they conquered the city"--which is ludicrous and self-defeating.  

Freed of our scandal, we might then be able to say something like this:

"In past days, God was a constant presence in the lives of believers in and through God's Church.  The presence was working (if slowly and with much resistance) to free both individuals and the Church as a collective from the addiction to rivalrous violence and scapegoating.  That process occurred in the midst of the concrete social environment of the people of that time and place.  With the advantage of a critical distance, we can see the ways that this process was enfolding, as well as the places were the resistance to this enfolding was the greatest--critical distance that no one enmeshed in that social environment possessed.  Oh, and everything we say about the 'past days' is equally true of our own time as well."

I wonder whether “navigating wrath” doesn’t offer us a better chance of creating the Catholicity of being saved together across time, which is what our host is trying to give us.

The true power of Alison's ideas, especially The Joy of Being Wrong, I think, is the degree to which it insists on constantly leveling the playing field.  All of us, and all of those who came before us, and all those who will come after us, are always in the same boat.  All of us are "navigating wrath," both our own and that of others.  All of us need help in this process.  All of us have areas in which we are succeeding, and areas in which we are still in the jaws of the beast of mimetic rivalry.  And all of us are in the hands of God, which is both a fearful and a wonderful thing.


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