Kierkegaard, despite many claims to the contrary, was not an irrationalist. He did not think that one can believe whatever one wants to believe, and his famous claim that ‘subjectivity is truth’ was never meant to convey that truth is simply relative. In fact, Kierkegaard clearly indicates in both Philosophical Crumbs and Concluding Unscientific Postscript that objective knowledge (in certain areas) is entirely attainable. In particular, he references the spheres of mathematics and logic, where absolute (ideal) knowledge can be attained. He also affirms at least approximate knowledge in the case of empirical observation and, to some extent, historical knowledge where evidence is available.
When Kierkegaard claims that subjectivity is truth, his main goal seems to be to claim that objective knowledge in the ethico-religious sphere is impossible. But this is not necessarily because ethical or religious truths are not objectively (in themselves, without reference to anything else) true. Rather, those kinds of truth can only be known subjectively. Human beings cannot know those truths objectively because knowing those truths objectively requires a disengaged, abstracted stance. The problem with that stance is that it is impossible for humans to hold such a stance while also living in the truth of the ethico-religious claim. Let’s take an example from SK (through his pseudonym Johannes Climacus) directly:
If one who lives in the midst of Christendom goes up to the house of God, the house of the true God, with the true conception of God in his knowledge and prays, but prays in a false spirit; and one who lives in an idolatrous community prays with the entire passion of the infinite, although his eyes rest on the image of an idol; where is there most truth? The one prays in truth to God, though he worships an idol; the other prays falsely to the true God, and hence worships in fact an idol. (Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 179-180)
This understandably makes contemporary Christians squeamish, because most of us have been taught that our faith is built around having a right, true, objective conception of God. We must objectively know that the God we worship is the true God, otherwise our worship is meaningless. This stance fundamentally misses at least a few points. First, can our conception of God ever be accurate? We may find some way of approximating something about God, but in the long history of human attempts at understanding God, the best we can come up with is that God is infinite (a relatively meaningless concept in everyday life), God is love, etc. If we were required to objectively know the God we are attempting to worship for our worship to be valid, wouldn’t all of our worship necessarily be invalid?
Second, Kierkegaard is not denying the objective existence of God (or anything else for that matter). He specifically mentions in the passage above that the one living in Christendom has a “true conception of God.” His project, at least through the Climacus writings, were an attempt at making hard distinctions within the spheres of human knowledge. There are things that are knowable by humans objectively, but there is also a hard limit on what can be knowable that way. When we attempt to know ethical or religious truth objectively (i.e., cross the knowledge boundary), we make a category error. Further, humans do not have the ability of holding on to knowledge objectively without being dispassionate and disengaged, and this is exactly the wrong stance within ethical and religious truth. Therefore, Kierkegaard doesn’t deny objective truth directly, but the function of holding on to knowledge objectively. Function and existential application were his primary concern.
The dream of convenience is premised on the nightmare of physical work. But is physical work always a nightmare? Do we really want to be emancipated from all of it? Perhaps our humanity is sometimes expressed in inconvenient actions and time-consuming pursuits.
I find it interesting that so much thinking today (especially the thinking and writing the revolves around the modern condition and our relationship with technology) is concerned with what it means to be human. We are all asking ourselves what true humanity consists of, and whether the infinitely speedy progress of the technological and informational revolutions are conducive to us realizing our potential as human beings.
So alluring is this vision that it has come to dominate our existence. Most of the powerful and important technologies created over the past few decades deliver convenience in the service of personalization and individuality. Think of the VCR, the playlist, the Facebook page, the Instagram account. This kind of convenience is no longer about saving physical labor — many of us don’t do much of that anyway. It is about minimizing the mental resources, the mental exertion, required to choose among the options that express ourselves. Convenience is one-click, one-stop shopping, the seamless experience of “plug and play.” The ideal is personal preference with no effort…
As task after task becomes easier, the growing expectation of convenience exerts a pressure on everything else to be easy or get left behind. We are spoiled by immediacy and become annoyed by tasks that remain at the old level of effort and time.
I also wonder at the ramifications of the capitalistic, technological system that undergirds Western society on expressions of Christian faith (both communal and individual). The race for convenience that lies at the heart of modern notions of “progress” also affects how we view what life ought to be like, and that includes not only what we place our faith in but how we expressthat faith. Why go to a church that demands something from me — my time, my energy, my resources — not to mention is a severe inconvenience on my day-to-day life, when the other church down the street conveniently doesn’t require that? Why buy into a version of the Christian faith that demands that I lose myself, die to myself, give up my desires for the sake of the good of my neighbor when there are plenty of other versions of Christianity that build up my self-esteem and tell me God wants what’s best for me (and what’s best for me is obviously money and privilege and satisfaction!)?
The infinite demand of Christianity is inconvenient, and I’m not sure we’re ready to admit that. I know I prefer to watch Netflix every evening, go to church on the Sundays when it works better for my schedule, and to have every spare minute outside of work to myself. I know it’s highly Kierkegaardian of me, but if you ask me what I want right now, I’d say, “Quite simply, I want honesty.” Honesty that, in the modern world, we (especially Christians!) are more interested in comfort and convenience, and not really all that interested in taking up the task of actually becoming Christians.
As far as I can remember, I’ve never done research for a project, only to be surprised at the position I came to hold and defend. That seems to be happening with my thesis. I’ve always been a fan of Kierkegaard, but I am finally getting the chance to dive into some of his work through my research. The more I read his work and the scholarly work addressing Søren Kierkegaard, the more I find that my position on the tension between faith and knowledge, between religious belief and rationality, are very similar to (what we think are) his. The problem is, his view is essentially a version of fideism.
Fideism, as such, is not necessarily a problem. The real problem is the term’s use as a pejorative over the last century and a half or so. It’s often hurled as an epithet towards people who unthinkingly or irrationally accept religious faith despite — or sometimes even because of! — the apparent absurdity of the belief itself.
Kierkegaard, however, in his earlier philosophical work address some of the issues inherent in human conceptions of “knowing” and the different ways in which humans can “know” anything at all. For him, absolute knowledge of something can only happen in the abstract realms of mathematics and logic — e.g., the law of non-contradiction, or mathematical tautologies. Otherwise (especially in the realm of ‘objective’ knowledge about the world), knowledge is always an approximation to reality. We know that sense experience is flawed can often give us contradictory information about how reality “really is”; therefore, we know that we can never hold pure, certain knowledge about reality (or actuality) as it really is. And here, we’re only talking about the phenomenal (natural) realm.
The category of objective knowledge, for Kierkegaard, necessarily excludes the noumenal realm — the sphere of life that includes religious belief, ethics, etc. The limits of our rationality not only includes doubt about how certain we can be about knowledge of the natural world, but it can’t even touch this other realm. Kierkegaard therefore posits that we have a different kind of knowledge about this realm, and it is the inner realm of subjectivity. Further, due to the nature of the realms we’re discussing (religious belief and ethics as primary examples), subjective knowledge, by nature, cannot only include cognitive awareness or affirmation of such norms. True ethical/religious, subjective knowledge requires a confluence of action along with cognitive affirmation.
Basically, for religious “knowledge” to be “true,” you are required to change your actual life accordingly. Actions must line up with beliefs.
The problem here is that many people treat ethical/religious knowledge as if it is essentially the same as the kind of knowledge we can obtain about the natural world. They might function similarly (we gain “approximate” knowledge about the world and call it knowledge, though we may not be purely certain about that knowledge; we also “approximate” ourselves toward ethical/religious truths), but objectivity requires us, in some sense, to abstract ourselves away from the object which we are attempting to “know” about. Subjectivity, on the other hand, by its very nature, does not allow us to abstract ourselves away from the object we are attempting to know. Subjective knowledge means, on some level, a sense of an immediate relation to the object in question. This further means that we have no way of rationally objectifying religious beliefs to determine their objective truth. Ergo, objective knowledge of religious beliefs is impossible. Further, this requires us to take a “leap of faith” regarding our religious beliefs. Human rationality (especially objectivity) only takes us so far, and the jump to subjective knowledge means that any such move is outside of the realm of rational inquiry or investigation.
Ergo: I’m defending fideism. Rational fideism, but fideism nonetheless.
This post is the final post in a review series for S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. To start at the beginning, click here.
I have greatly enjoyed reviewing S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. The book’s thesis has honestly been paradigm-shifting for me, particularly in my view of God, orthodox Christianity, and my understanding of the atonement. Since finishing it, I have come to read Scripture in a completely different light, and a lot of things that didn’t make sense before I read the book began to click for me afterwards.
In the final two chapters in the book Heim focuses on Revelation/apocalypse and its relation to the Last Scapegoat theory of the atonement, and then sums up the premise in a final chapter.
Heim opens up the chapter on Revelation with a verse from Hebrews: “For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Heb. 10:26-27).
This particular quote reveals Heim’s understanding of Revelation and apocalypse in the Christian tradition in relation to scapegoating sacrifice.
The beauty of this scapegoating theory – that sacrifice is unhinged by the Crucifixion and Resurrection – is also a curse. While sacrifice is an evil that should be abolished, the problem lies in the fact that sacrifice works. I.e., our societies are able to function because sacrificial scapegoating serves as a solution to conflict in the community. But what happens when the sacrificial system is dismantled by Jesus’ sacrifice, yet the society does not create a new path of reconciliation? Heim says, “Our societies can hardly live without the old myths of sacrifice and their updated versions, yet our awareness of their victimization of the innocent drains their capacity to reestablish peace among us” (263).
It is this dissonance (humans attempt to use scapegoating, despite the knowledge of its inherent evil) that helps bring about apocalypse because the previous ‘release valve’ becomes increasingly ineffective. In other words, conflict continues to build within a community without the possibility of true reconciliation in some way. “The social world implodes of its own weight” (264). With this misunderstanding of Jesus’ sacrifice, the world falls apart in a similar manner to the type of apocalypse we see in the Gospels.
Another way apocalypse occurs is via a second misunderstanding of the abolishing of scapegoating violence. Instead of simply recognizing the evils of scapegoating but offering no solution, victimization is recognized, but the injustice done to scapegoats “becomes a charter for an unrestrained tide of righteous wrath against their oppressors” (ibid.). Much like some of the extreme liberation theologies of the twentieth century or the kind of Marxism or communism that wages war on behalf of the victimized class, this misunderstanding leads to the kind of apocalypse we see in the final battles of Revelation.
Heim warns us here that, while the unveiling of the myth of ‘good’ sacrifice can be a good thing, it can also bring humanity to an even more violent place. Heim (and Christ!) implores us to take a hard look at how we respond to the Christ Event and live in response to it:
Where is the legacy of the cross in all this? In an empirical sense it is both a wrench in the works of sacrifice and a spotlight on the practice of scapegoating. This can have negative effects, making sacrifice more bloody when we persist in it, or turning our awareness of victims into an absolute conflict with those we identify as their persecutors. But the most basic saving social effect of the cross is to disrupt all our unanimities, sacrificial or apocalyptic (290).
Heim’s closing chapter is virtually a summary of everything discussed before, so I won’t go into too much detail here.
The point of his writing seems to hinge on two major issues. First, based on what Rene Girard has to say about culture, myth, and sacrifice, it is imperative that we attempt to understand the function of sacrifice in our societies and how this relates to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. If we misunderstand sacrifice (e.g., that perhaps it is ‘good’ or God-ordained), then we miss the point of the cross, which is to break the system of sacrifice by revealing Christ as a victim. Second, and related to the first point, when we misunderstand sacrifice and what Jesus’ death and physical resurrection mean, our atonement theologies can all-too-quickly serve as a foundation for violence and scapegoating by other means or as a way of passively accepting meaningless suffering.
Instead, we need to understand the following:
We are not reconciled with God and each other by a sacrifice of innocent suffering offered to God. We are reconciled with God because God at the cost of suffering rescued us from bondage to a practice of violent sacrifice that otherwise would keep us estranged, making us enemies of the God who stands with our victims. We are reconciled with each other because, at the cost of suffering, God offered us an alternative to our ancient machinery of unity. So long as our peace depends on scapegoats, we are never truly reconciled with each other. We only appear to be one community until the next crisis, at which point the short straw of exclusion will be drawn by some one or more of us (320).
We are all in a state of becoming. All changing, all growing, all dying, all decaying. Bending, breaking, repairing, rotting.
There is no other reality but change. Stagnation, though perhaps perceived, does not exist.
Over the last couple of years, my faith has been in various states of crisis. It started with something small (namely, reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins). Up to that point, I had done very little questioning of my understanding of Christianity. I believed Jesus was the only way to heaven, hell was eternal conscious torment, and the Bible was inerrant (among other things).
Rob Bell, however, changed many of my assumptions. Poor exegesis of some biblical passages aside, I began to think, to question, to doubt.
What if hell isn’t real? What if I’ve misunderstood all along? What if God isn’t who I think God is? Have I simply accepted the story I’ve been given without hesitation?
Love Wins was the gentle push I needed to look over the edge of the cliff of my own certainty, my own satisfaction that my story was the ‘right’ one, that I had the answers. (Let me just say, I recognize my story is hardly novel. This type of encounter seems to be a common occurrence among young conservative evangelicals right now.)
It was sometime after this point that I encountered the philosopher/theologian Peter Rollins. If Rob Bell forced me to look over the edge of the cliff, Peter Rollins pushed me off. In fact, Peter Rollins’s theology – up through Insurrection – was the focus of my senior thesis. I spent hours and hours of my life consumed by his work. His first book, How (not) to Speak of God, helped move me past simply questioning some ‘secondary’ doctrines (at this point in my journey, I could still consider myself an evangelical) towards questioning my acceptance of orthodox Christianity completely. I became (in Rollins’s terms) an a/theist. In other words, the binary between atheism and theism broke for me. I gained a desire to lose any conception of ‘God’ which, according to Pete, functions as an idol – for ‘God’ is unable to be contained within any conception or idea (including that of the biblical writers).
The Fidelity of Betrayal and Insurrection were the next two books that deeply impacted my faith and understanding of ‘God.’ Fidelity helped me view the Word not as contained within the biblical text, but as an Event that the Bible (among other things) pointed to. While the text itself was cracked, its broken nature does not make it incapable of conveying the divine Word. This is not the only thing Fidelity speaks to, but was the theme that most affected me.
Finally, Insurrection helped me walk through utter darkness. By using the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus as models for our own lives. Following Jesus’ cry – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – I underwent the experience of God-forsakenness. This kind of atheism (not an intellectual one, per se, but certainly one felt at the core of one’s being) was, and will always be an integral part of my faith journey. The way of the cross, in my own life, involved the loss of religious foundation. Just as Jesus loses all identity on the cross (e.g., social, economic, political, religious), so I gave up all of my assurance in ‘God’ and Christianity. ‘God’ was no longer the deus ex machina, the object that exists to make sense of the things that don’t. Though I don’t feel as though I’m in that place anymore, I agree with Pete that this is a fundamental part of the Christian experience. Resurrection then became for me a method of living post-Crucifixion. It was an acceptance of the inherent meaninglessness found in the Crucifixion. This Resurrection-life is not a rejection of the meaninglessness found in the Crucifixion experience, but its purpose is to allow humans to love in the midst of non-meaning.
What was I to do after this? After having existential crisis after existential crisis, I felt lost in a sea of non-meaning. Though Rollins’s call to create meaning via love in the midst of the utterly mundane is meant to help rob those things of their sting, something still felt missing. I tore down every bit of belief that I had – up to, and including, the belief in ‘God.’ Some days I felt like I could maybe affirm ‘God’s’ existence (What kind of existence, I wasn’t sure. Is God a person? An actual object? Love itself?), but other days, the notion of ‘God’ was ludicrous – like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.
The problem, for me, was that this wasn’t enough. Not that love itself wasn’t enough, but that there was more. Something deep, something divine, that is a part of the very fabric of reality itself. No matter how hard I tried, I could never really shake the feeling, deep within me, that there is something beyond the physical. My doubts about their existence haven’t gone away (and probably won’t). But the fact is I cannot deny that ‘hum’ I feel deep within the core of my very existence. That feeling was not that everything is meaningless but that everything was full of meaning, and not simply because it has some kind of ‘personal meaning’ to me.
This is also not to mention that I don’t have any real desire to leave Christianity. In it, I find beauty, life, love, hope, justice, and mercy. And there seem to be deep truths within Christianity that resonate with my experience of Reality.
So, this is where I start. I have torn everything down. It is now time to rebuild. My desire is to rebuild a sustainable, hopeful, honest, broken, loving faith. One that is not based on guilt; one that is not simply a false creation-of-meaning in the midst of anti-supernaturalism. There is something to be said for the loss of the divine (Jesus did it!). But there is also something to be said for the existence of sacredness, the source of life as divine. In light of this, here are the five things that I affirm, on faith, about Christianity:
The Crucifixion and the physical Resurrection of Jesus
The Incarnation – that Jesus was and is the peasant-God
The Trinity – that God exists as three separate, yet united, entities
The Inspiration (but not inerrancy!) of Scripture
The Atonement of humanity, by God, is at least our salvation from what would otherwise be a destructive system of violent sacrificial scapegoating
As far as the rest is concerned, I’m wide open or skeptical (or both). Some days, I will be plagued by doubt. Other days, I will be confident in the things I believe. In spite of this ebb and flow of doubt and ‘belief,’ my desire is to remain faithful to the teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ.
This post is part of a review series for S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. To start at the beginning, click here.
We will be skipping over chapters 6 & 7 in Heim’s book. While I found those chapters informative, I did not think they served to move the arguments around the main thrust of the book forward. (Chapter 6 discussed some of the post-apostolic period of the early Christian church and its relation to sacrifice; chapter 7 was basically a summary chapter and also discussed two mistakes commonly made regarding discussions about the cross within Christianity: namely, Christian Gnosticism and anti-Semitism.)
Chapter 8 is the first chapter in the third and final section of the book, which is entitled “In Remembrance of Me: The Cross that Keeps Faith Empty.” This entire section focuses on the aftermath of how the Church is meant to respond to this theology of the cross within its communal setting. Also, the next post in the series will be the final one, as we will combine chapters 9 & 10.
Heim suggests that when we view the cross in this new way that is being discussed, three sides of the cross present themselves (the first two were presented in earlier chapters): 1) “We see first the hidden, mythic practice of scapegoating that it reveals” (244). While the practice of sacrificial scapegoating began to be revealed in the Hebrew scriptures, the practice wasn’t fully revealed (according to Heim) until the Passion narratives. 2) “Second… we see that God opposes scapegoating sacrifice and has acted to vindicate the scapegoat” (ibid.). Normally, when scapegoating occurs, the deity of the tribe is found to be against the victim – the Gospels flip this system on its head. In showing the system for what it is, Jesus is the victim and is vindicated in full view. 3) “Third, we see the cross and resurrection as a charter for a new way of life” (ibid.). This final part is what we will review and discuss today.
The New Community
According to Heim, it is a good thing that sacrificial scapegoating is completely revealed as unjust in the Gospels. Unfortunately, it is not good enough. The truth of the matter is, scapegoating (despite its inherent evil) actually does solve a community’s problems. Regardless of its injustice, the victimization and sacrifice of an individual or a minority serves to stave off conflict within communities.
So, what happens when a community is forced to rid itself of the most effective way of removing conflict from its midst? Surely we are all aware that we are still broken people – our faith does not simply cause us to lose our differences of opinion. We require a new way of dispelling conflict without victimization (which we so easily fall into).
Heim gives three distinct ways in which the new community, in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, is able to dispel conflict. The first is the sending of the Holy Spirit. For the author, the Holy Spirit plays (at least) a dual role in the world. First, the Spirit is the paraclete (or advocate) for scapegoats and victims. This was a part of an earlier chapter that we did not discuss.
The second – and, I believe, more important – role is “the inspiration and nurture of a new kind of community” (227). Take Acts 4:27-33 for example. The beginning of the passage talks about the collective violence used against Christ, but moves on to discuss the Holy Spirit in the role of the community:
When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness. Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common… and great grace was upon them all.
It is in the context of the falling of the Holy Spirit that the believers are able to do things like hold their possessions in common and live in grace – ways of life which would easily dispel conflict. Heim says “The notable work of the Holy Spirit… is to bring unity across difference and division” (228), in much the same way Paul says there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. The normal socio-economic barriers of the day, though the labels remain, are broken through in light of the end of scapegoating.
Along with the work of the Holy Spirit, the two major practices of the early Church – baptism and communion – were meant to be unifying for the community and a way to replace sacrificial scapegoating.
While baptism existed before Jesus’ ministry (e.g., John the Baptist), baptism is one of the defining features of the early Christian community through the present day. This act is symbolic in several ways. In relation to scapegoating and baptism, Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3, 4).
In baptism, we are able to participate in Christ’s sacrifice in a non-sacrificial way. Baptism helps to replace scapegoating via identification with Jesus’ death as a scapegoat. God’s intent is to establish reconciliation in a way that entirely avoids scapegoating to mitigate conflict. To this, Heim writes, “We were not actually killed with Jesus, but we associate ourselves with that death through baptism, aligning ourselves with the victim, not the persecutors” (229).
Along with baptism, communion serves as the other method of dispelling conflict without sacrifice in the life of the Christian community. Heim states:
God exalts and vindicates the crucified one. But God does not do so through retribution and violence. Instead a new community forms, built around the memory of a justified sacrifice. They gather for their central act not to ritually perform another sacrifice but rather through the simplest of meals to recall the one whose death is to be final, to deliver us from further violence (231).
The purpose of communion, related to scapegoating, is twofold. First, it serves as an explicit reminder of the sacrifice made by Jesus. Just as the Passion narratives reveal the sacrificial system for what it is, so the elements in communion serve to remind the community that victims (and the Victim) are real, made of flesh and blood.
Second, and equally important, is the simple reality of sharing the table with the entire community in light of Christ’s antisacrificial death. “Just as bread and wine replace victims, so does this act become the unifying bond among the members, instead of a shared participation in killing… The crowd does not gather around a body; it gathers to become Christ’s body in the world, animated by the Holy Spirit of peace” (233).
Mimesis and Peace
Earlier in the book, Heim discusses the human tendency towards imitation (or mimesis). While it is quite common for our imitation of others to lead to rivalry, envy, and violence, it is also possible for mimesis to work in the opposite direction. In other words, we can either imitate the violence we see in others or we can imitate a model of peace for and in the community.
If one of Jesus’ primary missions was to help save us from redemptive violence (something that works, but shouldn’t happen), then Jesus must become our model for desire. Typically, our mimesis is directed towards the desires of an ‘other.’ This boils over into conflict and rivalry as we desire the object or person or profession (etc.) that we perceive our ‘model’ possesses or desires.
However, when Jesus becomes the model for the community, our mimetic desire is redeemed, because “what [Jesus] has designated as desirable is precisely nonrivalry itself. If people will contest with each other for this goal, they can attain it only be ceasing to contest with each other” (241).
This is the beauty of the new community, founded on an Event that in itself is against redemptive violence and sacrificial scapegoating. While these particular acts are generally a foundation for the structure of a community or society to survive amidst conflict, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection serve to reveal these founding acts as evil. Post-resurrection, the model of the Christ is used as a foundation of a new community that operates in direct contrast to the corrupt system of sacrificial scapegoating.
This post is part of a review series for S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. To start at the beginning, click here.
While Chapter 4 dealt with the passion narratives in light of Girard’s scapegoating theory, chapter 5 (“Sacrifice to End Sacrifice”) moves on to discuss how the early Christians understood Jesus’ death and the sacrificial system post-Resurrection.
Let’s jump right in, shall we?
One of the major portions from Acts that Heim deals with is Stephen’s sermon in front of the mob that is about to stone him (Acts 7:1-53). Interestingly, though we typically view Stephen’s sermon as a ‘salvation’ message before his death, Jesus is only mentioned once, and just barely. His sermon is split into four sections:
First he speaks about Abraham, which seems like it would be a common starting place for any Jew giving something like a sermon. He talks about Abraham’s faith and willingness to leave his home for a place God would show him
Next, Stephen talks about Joseph, whose brothers gang up on him and, as a result, he ends up in Egypt, helps stop a famine, and shows mercy to his brothers.
The third section of Stephen’s sermon centers on Moses and is the longest portion. While the Mt. Sinai episode receives little attention, a large part of the Moses section focuses on the account of Moses’ murder of an Egyptian to protect his fellow Israelites. Unfortunately, he is even further ostracized from his community rather than drawn near to them. Heim says, “One way ending conflict has been tried and found wanting” (136). Following this, Stephen talks about how God required no sacrifice while the Israelites were in the wilderness, and Stephen uses some of the words of Amos to bolster his claim:”I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them… But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (5:21-24).
Following his quoting from Amos, Stephen talks about the tabernacle as God’s dwelling place in the wilderness and then Solomon’s temple. But then he turns this around and states, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands,” and proceeds to rebuke his hearers, saying they oppose the Holy Spirit by persecuting the ones who foretold the “Righteous One” and then Jesus himself.
Interestingly, as I stated above, Stephen says little about Jesus, but draws a (slightly irregular) line between the figures in his story and Jesus. Further, the line Stephen draws from Abraham, Joseph, and Moses to Christ is one of the sacrificial victim. Israel itself has been enslaved and oppressed, as Abraham (as a “resident alien”) and Joseph (as one sold into slavery). Then Moses’ story speaks to this theme even further, first by him unsuccessfully using violence to help reconcile a situation, and then by himself being pushed aside by the Israelite community in favor of using a sacrificial victim (via the temple). Finally, these previous violent acts have been continued in the killing of the “Righteous One.”
Stephen’s story in Acts segues into Saul/Paul’s conversion story, which also contains some of the elements of scapegoating. Prior to conversion, Saul’s primary focus is persecuting and killing the Jewish Christian communities that are cropping up after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Heim explains,
“Christians represent a threat of dissolution in the community, a crisis, and Paul’s reaction is to isolate and destroy them in order to purify the people and to maintain unity. Once he becomes a Christian, Paul’s hallmark project is to build a community with non-Jews, across all the differing practices that the same Paul would have regarded before as impurities that destroy unity and identity” (140).
Both this encounter with Christ and Paul’s tenacity in the inclusion of the Gentiles greatly affect his later writings that are included in the NT. One of the major passages often used in reference to discuss Christ’s atoning death is Romans 3:10-26 (before you go on, I suggest reading it). In the first half of this section, Paul lays down the claim that all people, both Jewish and Gentile are under the power of sin. In doing so, he uses several quotations from Psalms and Isaiah. Three of the Psalms are particularly scapegoating Psalms, as we discussed here, three of them discuss universal sin in general, and the Isaiah passage quoted references the very nature of the universal perversity in mankind. While Paul addresses the general, universal sin that is part of humanity (i.e., everyone has done something ‘wrong’), he also specifically references a particular sin that everyone has committed – namely, scapegoating persecution.
Continuing in this line of thought, Heim addresses the Law in Paul’s writings. For Heim, through the lens of sacrificial violence, the Law is not the problem, but the way it is used to affirm victimization is. While the Law may have originally been meant to help the community avoid violence (e.g., do not steal, do not commit murder, do not covet, etc.), the Law can be, and was, used improperly; that is, it was wrongly used to justify the murder of innocent victims in order to maintain the community’s peace. Heim also notes: “The fact that the law appealed to in the process is an authentic divine commandment does not mean that the process [i.e., victimization/scapegoating] itself is valid” (143).
That God enters into the human sacrificial sphere does not mean that God endorses or approves of this particular method. Rather, he enters into the system because this is precisely where humanity’s sin universally manifests itself. Heim points out that even the text says as much, as “the effectiveness of the act lies not in the blood or the violence; it relates to faith” (ibid.). In other words, it is not the blood itself that saves us from God’s wrath, but our faith that God has entered into our brokenness in order to repair it.
The Resurrection of Jesus is the final act of redemption in God’s saving work. For by Resurrection, Jesus is not only acquitted and proved not guilty of the charges against him – those who carried out the violence against him are made innocent as well. Heim says, “They can be declared not guilty of Jesus’ death by the fact that Jesus is not dead. The prosecution cannot proceed in this capital case without a dead body, and the tomb is empty” (144). The catch, however, is that those accused (e.g., all of us) must affirm the resurrection, which also means affirming our guilt. We must affirm that our sin killed him before we can also affirm that he rose from the dead. Our denial that Christ rose from the dead is akin to refusing to have a witness testify in our favor (which is why Paul says Jesus was “handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” [Rom. 4:25]).
Finally, Heim addresses the book of Hebrews, which, to most of us, looks to be the most affirming text regarding penal substitution. Just take a look at Hebrews 9:11-14, for example. Killing animals seems to be pretty beneficial, but Christ’s death is infinitely more beneficial. A closer look, however, shows that the writer of Hebrews is not necessarily affirming the system of sacrifice so much as turning it on its head.
Later in chapter 9 of Hebrews, the author indicates that Christ’s sacrifice is not the same as the kind of sacrifice done before. If it were, then Christ would have had to suffer “again and again since the foundation of the world” (Heb. 9:26). Instead, Christ’s sacrifice was meant to stop the cycle of sacrifice. No longer do sacrifices offer peace to a community, and Hebrews makes this clear. In a similar vein, in chapter 12, the writer says, “[Jesus’] sprinkled blood… speaks a better blood than the blood of Abel.” To which Heim says, “Abel’s blood called for vengeance, and sparked the cycles of retaliation that we have contained only with more blood, the blood of sacrifice” (159).
Christ’s sacrifice was not meant to be an affirmation of sacrificial practice, but the sacrifice to end sacrifice.
This post is part of a series on Evolution, Original Sin, and the Atonement. To start at the beginning, click here.
Moving along regarding Original Sin!
Last time, we talked about the individual nature of Original Sin as the feeling of meaninglessness and loss of the (non-)thing that makes us whole and complete. Even further, this feeling of meaninglessness – if we don’t deal with it directly – drives us to pursue things that will fill the hole we feel. We are driven to pursue anything that will make us feel satisfied, like we have the answer. This includes ‘God’ – particularly the God-product so many churches sell.
This individual notion of sin manifests itself in a communal way.
Often, when we feel the sense of lack that I have described, we project unwarranted value onto an object that another person already has. In other words, we covet what the ‘other’ has because we believe the lie that the object they possess actually brings about real satisfaction in their lives (and will do the same in ours). René Girard calls this kind of desire ‘mimetic.’ Mimetic desire is inherently dangerous because, over and over again, it leads to rivalry and violence.
The problem, however, is that violence doesn’t just end with the individuals who are at conflict with each other. The violence that occurs from individual covetousness always leads to increasing levels of (often vengeful) violence. It doesn’t simply stop tit-for-tat (or “eye for an eye,” if you will). Let’s look at a common example (taken from Brian McDonald at Touchstone Magazine):
Picture two young children playing happily on their porch, a pile of toys beside them. The older child pulls a G.I. Joe from the pile and immediately, his younger brother cries out, “No, my toy!”, pushes him out of the way, and grabs it. The older child, who was not very interested in the toy when he picked it up, now conceives a passionate need for it and attempts to wrest it back. Soon a full fight ensues, with the toy forgotten and the two boys busy pummeling each other.
The story above is familiar to us because it is natural to us. It is something we all do or have done. As we can see in the notion of individualistic sin, the desired object isn’t important. That object has no special power, no intrinsic worth. It is only our mimetic desire that causes us to want the object.
Further, as vengeful violence builds due to our desire for completeness and satisfaction, that violence does not stop with the individuals. Those individuals are part of families, tribes, and communities. Let’s say I try to take the object of desire that you possess, and you harm me physically for my actions. I’m not going to try and simply hurt you as badly as you hurt me – I’m going to try and hurt you more.Then, you not only want to cause damage to me, but to my family as well.My family, in turn, desires to inflict damage on the larger community your family might be a part of. This isn’t rocket science. This is something we understand because it is inherent to our veryhumanity.
So our very existence is bound to the feeling of lack, of meaningless, incompleteness, a sense that we are missing the thing that gives us satisfaction. To compensate for this, we project value onto objects we believe will make us whole, not lacking anything. When that object is possessed by someone else (and it always is), our desire becomes violent. We do whatever we need to do to obtain the object of desire. This violence never stops by itself. Violence always breeds more violence, until the communities in which we are part of destroy themselves from the inside, from the infectious disease we all carry.
However, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we see a move away from vengeance and violence and destructive desire. This is where our need for atonement comes from, and where we will turn next.
This post is part of a review series for S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. To start at the beginning, click here.
Chapter four is the first chapter in part II of the book. Part II focuses specifically on Jesus, his death, and how the Gospels not only continue in the trajectory of the Old Testament regarding sacrifice, but how they end up being the ultimate critique of the system. Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection can be seen as the climax in the story about sacrifice and God’s willingness to enter into our (violent) system in order to save us from it.
In chapter four, Heim specifically targets the passion narratives, which include the events leading up to Jesus’ death and the crucifixion itself. Jesus’ death and the way it is particularly unique because the Gospels seem to contradict themselves in the treatment of the whole affair. Heim says, “Jesus’ death saves the world, and it ought not happen… it is a good bad thing” (108).
The Gospels are actually pretty clear about this, and anyone who has read them can attest to this fact. For example, Jesus says, The Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21). How can Jesus rebuke the chain of events leading up to his death if he is completely aware that it is something that must be done “according to the will of God”? Heim contends that this contradiction found in the Gospels doesn’t make sense in the penal substitutionary understanding of atonement. However, it does make sense in light of Girard’s scapegoating theory of sacrifice. If scapegoating is an evil that still brings about reconciliation in the community, it is quite plausible for God to enter into this system, both using it and revealing it for what it really is – thus turning the system on its head.
From Old to New
As Heim moves from the Old Testament to the New, he shows how the Old Testament was simply the first step in revealing the victimization found in scapegoating and its inability to ultimately reconcile a community – even if it may do so for a period of time. The passion narratives in the Gospels, however, take on scapegoating in full force. While other ancient ways of scapegoating utilized myth in order to shield its participants from the violent nature of their actions (e.g., glossing over super-violent elements, making the victim a divine being, using intense euphemism, etc.) the Gospels are notably anti-myth. That is, they display all of the common characteristics found within scapegoating rituals, but do so from the victim’s perspective, so that sacrifice of an innocent victim is shown as truly evil. In this long quote, Heim explains:
[Girard] found [in the Gospels] all the classic elements that characterize sacrificial myths: the crowd coalescing against an individual, the charges of the greatest crimes and impurities, the scapegoating violence, the desire for social peace. But he was startled to recognize that the reality of what was happening was fully explicit, not hidden… This time it was told from the point of view of the victim, who was unmistakably visible as unjustly accused and wrongly killed (110-111, emphasis mine).
This is the point, the climax to the story of scapegoating. It is the ultimate revelation, the splitting of the veil, the light piercing the darkness.
Some of the critics of the Gospels and the Christian faith will focus on the particular brutality of the Gospels and the death of Jesus, noting how violent they are – particularly because the most violent part of the story is the central focal point for many of those in the Christian faith. It seems as if Christians venerate a particularly brutal, tribal, violent God. The fact is, however, if it didn’t show its violence outright, it would do no more than the other myths did for scapegoating. The Gospels, in their unwavering gaze upon the violence done to the God-man, do what none of the other myths could have done. They are the ultimate deconstruction of the violent systems that we uphold.
Furthermore, Heim argues that the fact that our culture can look at the Gospels and point out the violence within is actually a testament to their effectiveness! Our culture, our world, has been forever changed by the demythologization of scapegoating found in the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. “We would not accuse the Gospels of victimization if we had not already been converted by them… We would not look for scapegoated victims in every corner if the magnifying glass of the cross had not become second nature for us” (113).
Coincidentally, Jesus’ resurrection, in Heim’s view is basically the final nail in the coffin of scapegoating sacrifice. In the mythological accounts of sacrifice, the victim is intentionally silenced, made invisible, and fades into oblivion for the sake of the community’s reconciliation. The resurrection of Jesus does not allow this to happen. Heim states:
As the story of the crucifixion maintains clarity about the forces that lead to Jesus’ death, so the resurrection of Jesus decisively explodes an possibility of mythologizing it. This victim does not stay sacrificed. The story of his death will not be given over to mythical memory, for the persecuted one will return to give his own witness (127).
The end of Mark’s Gospel is telling in this regard. After the three women find that the tomb is empty, Mark 16:8 says, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Why the fear? Why wouldn’t they be elated that their teacher was no longer dead, but alive? Their terror at the thought of Jesus’ coming back only makes sense if we understand sacrifice in the way it actually works.
Jesus’ death was meant to bring about reconciliation for a community under pressure and conflict, a community looking for an innocent scapegoat. Jesus should have been (and was!) that victim. His return, however, presents a monumental problem. The peace that the community hoped to achieve by Jesus’ death could not hold if the victim returned. “If Jesus really was coming back, with divine support, no one could comfortably look forward to that meeting, knowing what their own roles had been in relation to the crucifixion” (ibid.).
In fact, Jesus’ resurrection brings about the opposite of what his death was intended to do. Instead of the unity normally created by the community’s sacrifice, the resurrection of the Christ brings about division. This is not a vengeful kind of division, as if the those close to the victim seek retribution; instead, the new kind of community created is one that “rejects both the sacrificial violence that killed Christ and the contagion of revenge that the sacrificial system existed to contain” (128).
Christ’s death and resurrection, in this view, are notmeant to be taken as an affirmation of the system of sacrifice, as if all of the sacrifice before was just in place until God came along and gave the right kind of blood once and for all. Instead, Christ’s death and resurrection are the ultimate critiques of a failed system. Christ, the God-man, is revealed as the ultimate victim; he enters into the system – not to affirm it, but to destroy it.