Monthly Archives: March 2014



The minute hand of my watch

Crossing the hour bows its head

In prayer, all the way to deep

Meditation at the meridian,

Headfirst into the abyss of six.

Almost without noticing

Its movement becomes

A rising up, to alleluia at eleven

And the full sundial glory of noon.

But the humble hour hand shadows

Everything, conserving every revolution

In its lower slower sweep, until

All time is gathered into love.

The second prays incessantly, up,

Down, it makes no difference,

The heart-attack tempo of our days

Ticking toward its truth

Nonviolent Bible Interpretation V : Science of Human Relationships

So far we have been trying to undo, or deconstruct, violent bible interpretation (eternal decrees, literalism, empire, commodified soul). Now we can turn to the constructive side: a positively nonviolent interpretation.

If we read Genesis holistically, rather than legally and piecemeal, we gain a completely different sense of the human condition. Rather than an isolated legal fault condemning all, there is a profound and extended description of anthropology. This is the biblical anthropology identified by Girard: a science of fundamental human relationships arising in the bible.

To take up Genesis this way is a radical hermeneutic, just as Luther’s “only faith and only scripture” was a radical hermeneutic for his time. But Luther depended on an embedded interpretation of Christ’s death, one that understood that death in legal terms of compensation. In this sense Luther did not challenge a violent hermeneutic; he may well have served to intensify it.

Luther derived his understanding of the “sin of Adam” from the powerful impact of Augustinian tradition. It is a “vice of origin” which brings eternal death. Augustine, in his argument with Pelagius, used a faulty Latin translation of Romans (Kirwan 131-32). At 5:12 he believed the text read “in him all have sinned” rather than “because all have sinned.” Although this has been corrected in later translations it served to cement in tradition the notion of direct sharing in Adam’s personal sin.

It has been well said that Romans 5 is about a “communion of sinners” (with Adam) just as there is a “communion of saints” (with Christ). This idea stands in contrast to the thought of one man’s individual sin transmitted to all. The concept of original sin set the whole of humanity (and Christianity) on the wrong end of a legal judgment by God: rather than seeing it as trapped within a structural condition of desire and violence which it is God’s salvific intention to treat and reverse.

If you look at the accounts of the Garden of Eden and Cain and Abel (Genesis 2-4) it is evident these stories are doublets or mirror images and cannot be interpreted separately. They have the following features in common: familiar conversation between God and humans, warning about a crime and its consequences, commission of crime and resulting curses, mitigation of punishment. Most of all they have instigation or provocation in common.

The presence of the serpent (snake) in the Garden is left unexplained. At the level of the story the snake is simply the most cunning of the creatures; there is no thought of a supernatural Satan. It is a story-telling device to introduce the language of rivalry to Eve. But from a mimetic perspective it is God who already established the relationship of rivalry by setting up the prohibition against eating of the fruit of the tree in the first place. (A “test” is always a “model-obstacle.”) This mimetic component is reinforced at the end of the story when God gives as reason for excluding the first parents from the garden, “Because the man has become like one of us…and…he might…take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever;” 3:22.)

The instigation is corroborated when we look at in the second story. God arbitrarily prefers Abel’s sacrifice to Cain’s, without having given any ordinance for animal husbandry or animal sacrifice. He explicitly made Adam a tiller of the ground, not a pastor of sheep. God’s preference in fact can be seen to up the sacrificial ante for Cain, provoking him to kill his brother not a sheep. After this Cain has God’s sevenfold protection! It is no accident that Cain goes on to be the founder of the first city (4:17).

An unprejudiced reader cannot help but sense these subtle implications in the text. In other words, the story works to introduce problem themes of rivalry, violence and sacrifice as part of the actual process of becoming human. The thought of “God” is deeply implicated in the process and must therefore be understood as being subjected to deep questioning by the author. What is called the “historical grammatical” method, favored by conservatives, must surely recognize these textual features. It is only a secondary, imposed level of “interpretation” that can bend the meaning back to a simple legal matter of “original sin followed by bad consequences, and needing the sacrifice of Christ to forgive.”

A fundamentalist interpretation is itself an anthropology, since it depends on the law of mimetic exchange and displacement on the victim, implicit in substitutionary atonement. In other words it already makes God subject to a deeply human (anthropological) mechanism. God can’t just forgive: he has to provide a victim, for himself! As one member said, to forgive on condition of compensation (in particular the horribly violent death of a son) is not to forgive. The difference in the nonviolent hermeneutic is that it sees God subverting the mechanism itself, in order to transform actual humanity. Which then seems the more likely?

Another core aspect of Genesis 2-4 is its account of desire. The woman observing the fruit of the tree was awakened to desire on three levels: it was good to eat, good to look at, desirable for gaining wisdom. In a highly concise story this is a significant amount of text, developing a theme. It shows the author is fully alive to the issue of desire undergirding the whole drama. This is greatly reinforced in the Cain story where desire is described as so powerful that it has assumed a displaced, externalized role (4:7) : it is now itself the subject, desiring the figure of Cain who has abandoned his self to desire! As AA says, the disease of alcoholism is a subject in its own right, “cunning, baffling and powerful.” The intense commentary on human desire already evident in Genesis has, again, been passed over in favor of a purely legal interpretation.

Toward the end of our study someone made the telling point that the beginning of the human world for Jesus did not occur with Adam but with Abel (Lk. 11: 50-51). In other words for Jesus the story of Cain was the hermeneutic key for our human condition, not the story before it. But presumably he also read them together.


Nonviolent Bible Interpretation IV: Soul

Last time we looked at how a structure of military power (empire) was able to recruit Christian meaning (the cross) to its side. This time we looked at the way Christianity adopted a shaping concept from its surrounding milieu, one which quickly became the object of desire in a mimetic Christian worldview.

The Hebrew concept of soul (nephesh) is not defined in the bible but is presented in a variety of existential meanings. (Bullinger’s Critical Lexicon says nephesh is translated 44 different ways in LXX, grouped under four main headings, of “creature,” “person,” “life,” “desire.” ) In contrast the Greek concept of the soul is clearly defined, chiefly by binary opposition, by what it is not: i.e. immortal (not dying), immaterial (not matter), simple (without parts). This is an effect of mimetic construction, holding something back through desire, from forces which threaten it (death, decay, multiplicity). Add in intellect, and shazam, you have the immortal soul!

As someone in the group said this Greek way of thinking was “black and white,” while the Hebrews thought in fuzzy edges. The metaphysical or essential clarity of the concept helped in establishing it as supreme object at stake in a dispute between heaven and hell. Its core value as an individual thing or commodity helped turn Christian salvation into a salvationist business with rival companies offering competing deals.

Today neural science and Mimetic Anthropology show us that the human soul cannot be separated from the material relationships whereby the body identifies spontaneously and holistically with the other. The soul is whole-self human communication.

At Matthew 22:37 we see  clearly that Jesus is not thinking in Greek dualist terms, he talks of a tripartite humanity (heart, soul, mind). He uses these terms as aspects of the human self, but they are not fixed essences, neither are they exclusive. At Matt. 10:28 we hear “both soul and body” can be destroyed in Gehenna, i.e. death can be the outcome for personal human life (the soul) along with the flesh. Gehenna is an apocalyptic image, a place of fire, of endless violence, and must be understood in contrast to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom of life. Jesus’ words suggest the intense pain of the self when the God of life is refused in favor of endless generative violence. His image must also be understood from the present perspective of the apocalyptic moment and its clarity of choice now: the outcome of loss is “to be feared.” It is a precipice we stand upon, not the architecture of the precipice itself as became fixed in the imagination of the Middle Ages.

Paul makes no significant use of the concept “soul.”

Reading Tertullian’s De Anima (On The Soul) we saw how the distinctive Christian concept emerged. Tertullian describes the origin of the soul as separate but simultaneous with the origin of the body: a living immortal soul, passed down from Adam, arrives at the moment of sexual discharge at the same instant as the body is conceived. The body comes in the fluid, the soul in the warmth. “I cannot help asking, whether we do not, in that very heat of extreme gratification when the generative fluid is ejected, feel that somewhat of our soul has gone from us? And do we not experience a faintness and prostration along with a dimness of sight? This must be the soul-producing seed…” (Chapter 27)

Tertullian (160–225CE) was strongly influenced by the materialist/spiritual “fire” of Stoicism. Augustine (354–430) was much more inclined to the other-worldly philosophy of Plato (specifically Neoplatoism) where the soul arrived individually from heaven. At the same time Tertullian’s “traducianism” (the soul passed down from Adam) had the huge advantage of explaining original sin. Throughout his life Augustine hesitated between versions of the-soul-from-heaven (pre-existent souls or souls specifically created by God for each act of conception) and traducianism. He never came down finally on one side or the other, and there has to be a reason. I believe he instinctively favored the heavenly soul, conforming to the Neoplatonic vision of the Confessions, and yet he adopted Tertullian’s theory of sexual generation to provide the scenario wherein original sin is transmitted. It was precisely the involuntary desire-led character of sexual arousal which signaled the fall of Adam and the communication of original sin. “(C)arnal concupiscence (libido), which, while it is no longer accounted sin in the regenerate, yet in no case happens to nature except from sin. It is the daughter of sin, as it were; and whenever it yields assent to the commission of shameful deeds, it becomes also the mother of many sins. Now from this concupiscence whatever comes into being by natural birth is bound by original sin…” (On Marriage and Concupiscence, Bk. 1, see chapters 7 & 27.)

From Augustine onward the die was cast: the combination of a soul created directly in heaven and original sin generatively transmitted in sex became fixed teaching in Aquinas and was quietly assumed and carried over by Luther in his account of justification. The soul thus became the fearful battleground of church powers and crisis-ridden human conscience seeking salvation.

But today the soul is more and more inseparable from the body, a complex made up of billions of cells, individual propagating units, all in communication with one another via electrical and chemical signals. The meaning, function and purpose of this complex can be understood simply as communication, i.e. the soul. Jesus is a revolutionized human body whose communication (soul) is peace. As the Risen Christ he offers this new meaning to all bodies. As Risen his communication is also beyond death. We do not know how it works but we believe that at the point of death any human soul can reach out in communication with Christ and so find life. “My desire is to depart and to be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23).


Beloved Lies and Lepidoptera

butterflies[1]Nature has provided for butterflies a bush of special delight. It is called Buddleia and in high summer it can be found crowded with the showy-winged insects all attracted by its sweet yet faintly rank scent. When numbers of them start feeding it’s a riot, as if they can’t get enough of the stuff. In my yard in England we had a bush, while two yards down there was another one. When mine was crowded the other one was too.

When there’s the threat of war, when the world begins to sweat the scent of violence, the news media flock like common butterflies to their backyard bush loaded with all that deadly nectar. They tell their breathless stories, fluttering their bright wings, highlighting all the violence as if it was naturally and singly on tap in their bush and their version is the only possible one. They do not see, don’t want to see, that just a couple of yards down there’s another bush with another riot of butterflies telling the same story of violence but from a completely different perspective.

Even worse–and this is where simple Mother Nature can no longer guarantee the metaphor and we have to allow in a specifically human element–one set of butterflies is secretly sipping from the very same poison nectar as the other. The more one riot of fluttering wings tells the story from their point of view the more the other riot of wings, two yards down, drinks excitedly from the purest well of the same violence! The more the story is told from one point of view, the more its content is imitated, but precisely from the other point of view!

Western news media depict Russia as aggressors in the Ukraine just as surely as Russian news media depict the West in the same way. And the more one side flutters feverishly the more the other, glancing covertly behind them, does the same. Even as you read this I am sure the thought is suggested, well, really aren’t the Russians aggressors? But that is simply our in-built response to the whole systemic rivalry between “Russia” and “the West” outside of which the massive interests of cultural institutional violence will not allow us to think.

Thanks be to God through Christ we can become free of this thinking! One day the earth will wake up to the horrible untruth of systemic rivalry, be it between individuals or political powers. Systemic rivalry is the original sin of our human condition and people feel it gives special meaning to existence. But it is more and more implausible the more it pushes us toward disaster. One day we will wake up to the possibility of peace as the meaning of existence, and toss our beloved lies into the dustbin of history!