The Long View: Lathspell

This is an appropriate story for Holy Week. Rene Girard is popular in Catholic circles, but I have never really seen his appeal myself. There is a kind of poetic simplicity in the idea of the universal scapegoat, but like many such theories, they pall when you look into the details.

This story also is an early example of John's notion that human and homo sapiens are not quite the same thing, although they are related. Other people at the intersection of philosophy and science have similar ideas 



by John J. Reilly

Sometimes I write horror stories. Once I started to write a story of a familiar sort, about how an archeological discovery threatens civilization. The basic notion was that, just prior to the familiar early civilizations of the Near East, there had been a brief flowering of a quite different sort of urban society. It not just been organized differently from the civilizations of known history. The very psychologies of the people who composed it were so different from those of all other cultures that these people could not really be considered human, though they were biologically members of the species homo sapiens. Further, I imagined that modern minds could be involuntarily reconfigured into this alternative form by the study of the texts and way of life of this forgotten society. Extrapolating a story from this premise would not have been difficult, but I abandoned the effort because I was not satisfied with my attempts to describe a mentality that was not inhuman, but unhuman.

My problem has been solved, since I have found such a mentality both described and advocated in the work of a contemporary theologian. James Alison’s “Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination” (1996, A Crossroad Herder Book) purports to be a reinterpretation of New Testament apocalyptic with an eye to restating how Jesus envisioned the Kingdom of God. It’s more than that. The book sets out a theory of history, a model of the dynamics of human personality and a new account of the nature of God. The result is so utterly alien to conventional concepts of good and evil as to constitute a conceptual universe that would have served my hypothetical civilization well.

It is Alison’s contention that this model was the gospel, the “good news,” that Jesus came to reveal, and that in fact has always been implicit in the teaching of the Church. The reality is that we are dealing here with a true “lathspell,” bad news or an anti-gospel. (I am indebted to Tolkien for the Old English coinage.) At the very least, it has the capacity to corrupt the pastoral understanding of the New Testament. Put into practice as a social ethic, it would result in a world out of nightmare. These are far-reaching implications, but perhaps no less should be expected of a book that purports to “recover the eschatological imagination.”

Alison’s ideas are based on the “mimetic” theory of society and personality developed by the philosopher Rene Girard. As the term suggests, Girard holds that the human personality is based on imitation of other people, whom we “mime.” Most important, our desires are not original with us, but are acquired. We see the world through the eyes of others. The individual, however, is defined by not being one of these “others.” We do not acknowledge that our being is borrowed from other people, and so we enter into relationships of envy and greed to secure what we imagine to be our own desires. This causes conflict and violence whose true origin is invisible. The emotions involved are projected onto other people and attributed to their bad behavior. Social cohesion is achieved by picking a victim at random, blaming him for all our troubles and lynching him. All societies, according to Girard, are founded on a lynching, on the creation and the expulsion of an “other.” The lie behind these murders, told from the point of view of the murderers, becomes a society’s founding myth. What we call the sacred is in fact the ritual memory of a murder.

At the risk of sounding provincial, I think that this system could be most economically accounted for by the regrettable rarity among the French of the healthy impulse to shoot mimes on sight. Certainly on the face of it one has difficulty seeing what Girard is talking about. The question of the origin of personality is a dark matter that need not detain us, beyond noting that behaviorism of any sort, “mimetic” or otherwise, has never served psychology well. If by “sacred ritual murder” Girard is talking about the myths of dying-and-rising vegetation gods, his account is contrary to what anthropology I know. The stories are not told from the point of view of the murderers, but of the victim. “John Barley Corn” is a lament. Listeners are supposed to identify with the suffering god, who like us must undergo death. However, I gather that the point of the system is not anthropology, but modern politics. For “founding murder,” read the execution of Louis XVI, or Nicholas II. For the enemy “other,” read the Jews and the kulaks.

Frankly, I don’t think that Girard’s ideas hold much water at that level, either. Even for the Nazis, not being a Jew was not the definition of being a German. Parliamentary coalitions sometimes define themselves in terms of pure opposition, though often not to much purpose. It is simply not true that nations, religions and political parties define themselves by what they are not. Societies are formed by attractive common features, such as a common language. Such things are necessarily limited resources, and so also are the societies that constitute themselves in their name. Still, Girard’s ideas do at least rise to the level of empirically refutable error. “Raising Abel,” as we shall see, is a completely self-contained system, a sort of ideological black hole, which is beyond either refutation or escape.

Alison’s book elaborates on Girard’s attempt to distinguish the story of Jesus from that of the vegetation gods. The tendency in modern apologetics has been to embrace the parallels between the Gospel story and that of the “pagan Christs.” Whatever you may think of the idea of mythical archetypes, it is in fact a very old argument to say that these stories prefigured the reality of the Incarnation. They show that the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus are always and everywhere present in the world and in the human mind, and were not just a historical accidents. Girard taught otherwise, claiming that Jesus, as the victim who came back proclaiming his innocence, exposed the murderous lie on which human society is based. Thus, he did not embody the archetype of the vegetation god, but dispelled it.

Alison takes this notion as far as it can go, indeed rather farther. The fact that Jesus was innocent and ought not to have been executed tells us that God the Father did not require the sacrifice of the Cross, or any sacrifice. The sacrificing of scapegoats is a human invention that serves to maintain social cohesion, thereby poisoning the societies founded on these murders. God does not punish. He is wholly without violence or darkness of any kind. His sort of life is only analogical to ours, since God’s life does not imply death, which therefore has no existence for Him. He has no interest at all in systems of morality, of good people versus bad people, of those meriting inclusion and those meriting exclusion. Again, these are human social inventions. He is not interested in the maintenance of society or of any human institution, even the family, since all are based to one degree or another on the murderous lie.

Jesus therefore was not born to be crucified. Quite the opposite. He was born to live as if death did not exist, knowing that such a person would surely be singled out to be a scapegoat. Because his imagination was wholly fixed on “the things that are above,” on His essentially deathless Father, death did not exist for Jesus, either. His mission on Earth was to show his disciples how to speak and act without reference to death, which meant without reference to the structures of this world.

God creates something from nothing, but is not implicated in the order of a world based on the original sin of mimetic envy. To say that Jesus is the Son of God and the Second Person of the Trinity means that through him the work of creation is accomplished. On a historical level, the Lamb That Was Slain is the reference point for all of time. The “mime” that Jesus performed is constitutive of what really happens in all times and places, even though the people who live in those times and places think that quite other stories explain what is going on. Thus, Jesus creates the world in which God is interested. This world is called the Kingdom of God. Just as human history was founded on the original murder of Abel by his brother Cain, so Jesus ended it by restoring the time of Abel.

Jesus opened Heaven forever and brought it down to Earth. Those who perform Jesus’s mine are its citizens. This opening of Heaven is the true end of history, an event without reference to any clock.

If you take the words of the New Testament as data, this system is surrealistically counterfactual. The terror of God and the ferocity of his justice, are of course, most insistently apparent precisely in the eschatological texts. Jesus speaks of the Son of Man separating the sheep from the goats, he tells parables of wicked tenants slain by their injured landlord, and of an ill-prepared guest evicted from the eschatological banquet to the outer darkness. There was that incident with the whip and the money changers. There is the Book of Revelation. Obviously, something is going on here other than an explication of the text.

Reading “Raising Abel,” my first thought was that maybe Alison had just been a little blinded by the splendor of his exegesis. Quoting John 11:50, in which Caiphas says “ is expedient for us that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation not perish,” Alison comments, “The murderous lie is exposed in its entirety.” Alison does not mention that the following verse says, “This, however, he said not of himself; but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was to die for the nation; and not only for the nation, but that he might gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” Well, let him who has never quoted out of context cast the first stone, but Alison’s treatment of the text in this way is relentless.

The distortion is not a product of sloppiness, but of theory. Alison’s theory excludes the possibility of substitutionary atonement, that one might save another by dying for him. In John 15: 12, Jesus says, “This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: that he should give his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Whatever else one may think about Jesus, one should at least draw from this passage that he was a prosaically brave man who was willing to die so that his friends would not have to. Alison disagrees. He provides a long paraphrase of what Jesus really meant: “I am going to my death to make possible for you a model of creative practice which is not governed by death. From now on this is the only commandment which counts: that you should live your life as a creative overcoming of death, showing that you are prepared to die because you are not moved by death.....”

Jesus himself, of course, was moved by death. He sweat blood.

Further examples of willful distortion could be multiplied, but such an exercise would miss the point. As Alison himself tells us, he believes that reality is a linguistic construct. The stories you tell about the world make it what it is. That is why the mime of the Lamb That Was Slain creates the world. On a more discrete level, what you call a thing makes it what it is. This applies not just to texts, but to people. Alison has a most alarming theory of personality which holds that you can create a whole new person by suggestion. He says that this is exactly what hypnotists do when they create ephemeral multiple personalities, some of these personalities perhaps unaware of the existence of the others. Indeed, he says that Jesus deliberately chose his disciples at random, from unpromising material. Partly this was because to have chosen people who were brave or smart or handsome would have been to buy into the categories of the world’s system of death. Mostly, though, Jesus acted without deliberation because the disciples were in reality created by his calling them. Jesus did not just find Simon and call him Peter. He found Simon, a creature of the world of death, and made Peter out of him. In the light of that example, a little creative textual analysis is no great feat.

Of course, Alison does not pretend that the New Testament is not full of violent imagery from the long apocalyptic tradition of Judaism, or that Jesus did not use this imagery himself. What Jesus did, according to Alison, was to use it in order to subvert it. Thus, the familiar parable in which the Kingdom of God is compared to wheat and tares, the good and the evil, growing up together through history to be harvested at the end of the world, is not really about the end of the world. Neither is it about good and evil, categories in which Alison would have us believe Jesus took no interest but which he used simply as conventions. Rather, the parable is about pushing the Last Judgment, as it had been traditionally understood, off into the indefinite future, while cautioning his listeners not to try to uproot any “evil” people they might know themselves.

Now, this parable obviously suggests a delay before the end of the age. It may even be that Jesus himself used it, and it was not supplied by a later evangelist seeking to explain the delay before the Second Coming. However, after this delay, the weeds are to be carried off by the angels to be burned; a quite traditional image of the Last Judgment. Why the creation of a “habitable” Kingdom of God should subvert the traditional apocalyptic element is unclear. Certainly it has not had that effect historically. On the contrary, it has tended to preserve apocalyptic by making its application always possible. Thus we see that the function of “subversion” in Alison’s analysis is simply to make texts mean the opposite of what they say.

Alison uses a similar approach in treating the manifestly apocalyptic discourses of Jesus on the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the world. We are told, predictably, that these are not really about the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the world. To some extent, Jesus was cautioning his listeners that they would live in troubled times, since he would refuse to play the part of the silent victim whose murder brings social peace. What he was mostly saying, however, was that they should not attribute any theological significance to the “wars and rumors of wars” that would abound after his death. History was unreal, founded on the murderous lie, and so his followers were not to attribute any theological significance to historical events. It was because his generation saw the lie revealed that they were living at the end of the ages.

Now, all three synoptic gospels have extended apocalyptic discourses just before the beginning of the Passion narrative. All contain verses parallel to Matthew 24:34, which runs, “Amen I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have been accomplished.” This has been called, understandably, “the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.” It is, of course, possible to say that Jesus simply got it wrong but that his disciples kept repeating this assertion for 20, 40 or 60 years, until it finally became incorporated into one Gospel or another. The traditional hypothesis, on the other hand, is that even his immediate circle understood that in some sense they had seen “all these things accomplished,” but that they continued to look for their accomplishment in a more cosmic form in the future. “Already and not yet” is one way of putting it.

Under either interpretation, the eschatological parables contained in these texts (such as the parable of the virgins in the bridal party, the foolish among whom fail to bring enough oil for a long vigil) are clearly aimed at advising listeners to act as if Judgment Day were imminent. “Clean Up Thine Act,” as a popular bumper sticker has it. It is possible to take this advice even if you don’t expect Judgment Day to ever arrive, and many respectable theologians have taught just that. However, even in this lukewarm interpretation, the judgment of a just God continues to exist as a metaphor. It retains the moral force of literature. Again, the “watchfulness” that Jesus counsels is generated by the idea of judgment. If ever “watchfulness” subverted judgment as a concept, then watchfulness itself would disappear.

Alison thinks otherwise. The goal of Jesus’s subversion, according to him, was to turn apocalyptic into eschatology. By this Alison means the mime of the Lamb That Was Slain, which is to live as if there were no death, to hope in the Alien God who promises no help. Alison is aware of how cold, how strange this theology is. He speaks more than once of the “weirdness” of the Kingdom of God. Indeed he says, “...there is nothing pretty about Christian hope. Whatever Christian hope is, it begins in terror and utter disorientation in the face of the collapse of all that is familiar and well known.” If Alison is right, it begins there, and gets worse.

Theologically informed readers will, of course, be aware that what Alison has constructed here is a garden variety form of gnosticism. The world he presents is wholly the product of violence and delusion. God is did not create it and takes no blame for its failings or responsibility for its future. Our only hope is a new understanding of the depravity of the world, made possible by turning our imaginations to the God who is wholly other than we. Alison acknowledges that this is a somewhat rarefied intellectual exercise, but notes that Jesus himself taught an elite among his own disciples in secret. By this new understanding, this gnosis, we can free ourselves from traditional moral systems, which are only extrapolations of the murderous lie on which the world is based, and call nothing either good or evil. The new understanding permits us to abandon our personalities that were formed in the world of death and so are obsessed with death and dying. Miming the alien God, we will become new creatures, and death will not exist for us.

Now, there were in fact people who thought things like this in the first and second centuries AD. However, Alison is wrong to attribute these ideas to the primitive apostolic witness. We know this, because the Gnostic sects that believed the things that Alison teaches rejected the scriptures derived from that witness. They rejected the scriptures whole hog, quite without subversion, irony and postmodern hermeneutics. Unlike the adherents of orthodox Christianity, they did not do the works of charity and justice which Alison praises. We cannot tell that they did any works at all. They were, however, known to party a lot.

One of the disquieting things about “Raising Abel” is that it seems to follow the strategy of the Jesus it describes and to “subvert” orthodox theology for ulterior motives. Alison is an Oxford-educated theologian, formerly professor of dogmatic theology at the Catholic University of Bolivia. (“Raising Abel” is derived from a course he taught in Chile.) He seems to have taken a lesson from the discipline imposed by the Vatican on the more obstreperous Latin American proponents of liberation theology. He therefore performs a good “mime” himself of touching all the correct conservative bases. He is effusive in his praise of Cardinal Ratzinger, who played so large a part in putting the liberation theologians in their place. He accepts the Council of Trent’s account of the apostolic succession. He rejects the notion that the Church is something other than what Jesus would have wanted. He even makes an argument for reemphasizing the transcendent element in liturgy, the direct praise of God, rather than the fashionable “horizontal” emphasis on fellowship among the congregation. For that matter, he never questions the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus, though that seems to be the end of his interest in the supernatural. The only problem with these tokens of orthodoxy is that they are decorations for a system of thought that has dehumanizing implications.

Imagine a creature that “lived as if death were not.” It would not care about its own life. Logically, it would not care about those of its fellows, either. It could not bear a grudge, because it would have no ego to defend. Neither would it be capable of forgiveness. Social insects live like this, perhaps. They can do so because they are for the most part sterile entities, with no drive to protect an individual genetic heritage. Therefore their own deaths does not interest them. A human being with a psychology structured like this would not see a world of “I and the Other.” What use would the “I” be to a creature unconcerned with death, except perhaps as a question of economics? The conceptual universe of such a creature would be so impersonal that it would not even include itself.

A society of such beings could not have a god. Who would there be to worship him? What such a culture could have would be a role model, something that showed its citizens how to act. The categories of behavior would not be good and evil, but “thus and not otherwise.” The drill, of course, could be extremely flexible. Adding complication to complication, it could create a great diversity of social forms from a few basic instructions, like the “stained glass” patterns generated by simple computer programs. In such a society there would be neither strife nor envy, nor history. No new age would ever dawn, since all would be perfected in its essence on the first day.

Perhaps, in some terrible alternative world, this is what Jesus came to teach. Embodiment of an unhuman god, he trained a few followers in the drill of a-mortality. Though himself destroyed, nevertheless his example proved an unstoppable contagion. Slowly at first, it spread from the inland sea like a sheet of thickening ice. His followers learned and aped the cultures of society after society, subverting in each the ancient mechanisms of love and hate, of life and death. There would be centuries of resistance, of terrible persecution and wars of self-preservation fought by a dwindling humanity. Do what they would, the dominion of life and death would disperse like a mist in the light of the Great Mime. In the last, unending day, the whole world would move as the Lamb That Was Slain had moved, and the frozen surface of the Earth reflect flawlessly the inhuman glory of the alien Heaven.

As I remarked, sometimes I write horror stories. Maybe I should turn to theology instead.


Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site