Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Girard

On the false self and self-disclosure in the internet age

6988270931_5bf6a75fd7_oI first heard the name of Trappist monk Thomas Merton a few years ago in an article by the late Michael Spencer at The Internet Monk. Being at that point a stranger to the idea of contemplative spirituality, I registered mild interest and moved on. In recent years, thanks to the work of Richard Rohr and others, the idea of a quieter, more reflective form of spiritual practice has gradually endeared itself to me. (Though, lest anyone should think I’m now an accomplished contemplative, think again: I’m very much a novice at the beginning of the journey.) So it is that I’ve finally got around to reading some of Merton’s work – namely, his 1962 book New Seeds of Contemplation.

This book is so brimming with rich, thought-provoking insight that I stopped highlighting it after I realised that I was highlighting just about every paragraph.

One of the topics Merton often touched on in his writing was the distinction between what he called the false self and the true self. I’d like to share with you a short section from New Seeds on what he means by the false self, and then consider how this plays out in our lives and, in particular, in our engagement with social media:

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The judgement of the cross

INRI

“Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” (John 12:31)

Christians are generally accustomed to speaking of the cross as the place and time where God enacted judgement on the world. But what does this actually mean, and what are its implications?

Usually, the cross as the place of judgement is understood to mean the physical location where God poured out his wrath upon Jesus. Here, wrath is understood as the punishment for our sin which God, in his justice, is obliged to mete out: namely death. And Jesus, the sinless Lamb of God, gamely hangs on the cross in our place and bears the brunt of God’s implacable justice so that we, in spite of our sin, can escape punishment.

And the cross as the time of judgement is understood as the point in history when God sovereignly intervened in human affairs to solve humanity’s sin problem as described above.

So there we have it: time and place come together at the cross as Jesus bears God’s punishment for our sin. This, then, is the judgement of the cross: a resounding verdict of “Guilty!” pronounced upon the human race by God, accompanied by an unappealable death sentence. The twist is that Christ comes in as an innocent victim to serve the sentence in our place.

This is what I believed without a second thought for most of my Christian life. Until I began, through a process of reading and thinking, to see some gaping holes in it:

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Author interview: Anthony Bartlett, Pascale’s Wager

A few days ago, I published an interview with theologian and author Anthony Bartlett about his book Virtually ChristianIf you want to get an idea of where he’s coming from theologically, it would be best to go back and read that interview before you move onto the rest of today’s post. That will also save me repeating my mini-biography of the author. Go on, read it: I’ll wait for you.

Today’s post is a follow-up interview based on another book of Tony’s, titled Pascale’s Wager: Homelands of Heaven. This book is a very different animal from Virtually Christian, the most obvious difference being that it’s a novel. Perhaps the easiest way for me to give you an idea what to expect is to quote the synopsis found on the book’s back cover:

Cal and Poll belong to a world of brutal cold, relentless routine, and hi-tech religion. They live in the frozen Homeland, the artificially engineered last-stand of humanity on an earth wrecked by storm and flood. While cal tries to block out her world, Poll continually questions it. He is drawn instinctively to the remote young woman, believing she alone has the abilities to help him get answers. Very soon the two of them are pitted against the old order, demanding to know the truth even if it turns their whole existence upside down. Step by step their journey of discovery brings them to a dramatically different place, beyond anything they could have imagined…

Pascale’s Wager is a bold and unusual book, for at least a couple of reasons. First, while there is no shortage of post-apocalyptic fiction, this book is set in a future world that is both dystopian and utopian. Second, it’s written by a theologian, and so works on two levels: the narrative itself, which is quite self-contained, and the deeper meanings that are illustrated and explicated through that narrative. It is at this second, deeper level that Pascale’s Wager gives the reader much to ponder; I found it to be in some sense a social, theological, anthropological and spiritual commentary on the world and its future trajectory. If you like futuristic science fiction with a difference, I’d encourage you to give it a try.

Anyway, enough from me. Let’s get to the interview.

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PW coverRob G: Thanks for being willing to answer some more questions, this time about Pascale’s Wager. First, I’m interested in how you found the writing process. Having previously written theological non-fiction, what gave you the idea of writing a novel?

Anthony Bartlett: The thing about Pascale’s Wager is that it says more than I can think, or think logically, if you see what I mean. A story works on many levels, and some of them may not make complete sense in a standard sort of universe. But that’s okay because you go with them for the sake of the larger picture they make possible. As Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth”. It is this larger picture I was interested in (and still am), and at this level the picture exceeds what you can express in strict propositions. For me PW has the excitement and thrill of opening a space you hardly know exists and yet in some way you do know otherwise you would not write it. Writing in this way is completely different from writing formal theology. But, at the same time, it is deeply related to theology. Theology is about something you cannot see directly with your eyes, although you see evidence of it in many different ways. A story like PW can suggest to the mind’s eye a theological truth that reason and even rhetoric would struggle to present. So, having done some of that other kind of writing I decided to turn to fiction as a way of communicating. I thought, “If you let your imagination almost out of control, or just this side of the impossible, then something new can become visible”. At the same time the story has to stand up, it has to work. In fact it is only in writing a successful story, one that draws you in and fills your senses, that the opening up of a new space becomes possible.

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Author interview: Anthony Bartlett, Virtually Christian

VC BartlettI apologise for my long media silence. I was away on holiday (“vacation”, for you North American readers) for a week or two, after which it’s taken a while for my thoughts to return to anything so mundane as regular blogging.

Anyway… today I’d like to introduce you to an author who is probably new to most readers. However, rather than post a straightforward book review, I asked the author in question if he’d be prepared to answer some interview questions. He was happy to do so, and his answers will hopefully give you more insight into his work than I alone would be able to provide.

This is the first of two book reviews, so make sure you come back in a few days for the follow-up to this post.

Before we get into the interview proper, let me introduce our author. Tony Bartlett emigrated with his family from Britain to the US in 1994. He has a PhD from Syracuse University’s Department of Religion and has taught theology in seminaries and local church programmes. Born in 1946, he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in his mid-20s, resigning the clerical ministry in 1984. He currently resides in Syracuse, New York, and leads a small study and prayer fellowship with his wife. In addition to Virtually Christian, he has also written Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement and a futuristic novel, Pascale’s Wager: Homelands of Heaven.

So, onto today’s interview-cum-review. Virtually Christian was published in 2011, and claims on the back cover to sketch a picture of “a God deeply implicated in the human story and labouring with us for a transformed earth”. Having read it a few months ago, I can tell you that this book is a radical and searching re-examination of the meaning of the gospel and its significance and impact in the modern world.

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Rob G: If you had to write a two or three sentence summary of Virtually Christian, what would it be?

Anthony Bartlett: Like the tiny coral which over time produces a massive reef, the Christian Gospel has uniquely refashioned the human landscape. The nonviolence and forgiveness of the Crucified One has seeped into the deep structure of human affairs, throwing into relief the victims of human violence, and, at the same time, evoking life-giving responses of compassion, forgiveness and nonviolence. In this sense our world can rightly be called “virtually Christian.”

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Humanity at the crossroads (2)

Crossroad tracksIn the first post in this two-part series, I gave a brief overview of René Girard’s mimetic theory, focusing on the scapegoating mechanism and its central role in helping societies maintain a semblance of peace by transferring their aggression onto a chosen victim. I concluded by noting that Jesus, by dying as an indisputably innocent victim and returning from the grave announcing not vengeance but peace, exposed the scapegoating mechanism and thus irreparably jammed up its ability to create social cohesion by mythologising the violence that fuelled it.

If you haven’t yet read the first part, please do so before continuing: we have more ground to cover, and I simply don’t have the space to bring you up to speed first.

In short, the Gospel has been permeating societies for the past two centuries, undoing the power of sacred violence and the scapegoating mechanism by increasingly giving voice to victims at all levels. (For those who have ears to hear, the voice of the victim first made itself heard in the Hebrew scriptures that we now know as the Old Testament.)

Think about it: rare is the television or radio news bulletin that doesn’t include a story about victims seeking and/or being granted redress because of their suffering. The reason we find ourselves increasingly awash with abuse scandals that have lain dormant for decades is that what Girard calls “the modern concern for victims” [1] has, in fact, become the overriding concern by which social progress is measured. Girard’s contention is that, whether irreligious moderns are aware of it or not, this concern for victims has its roots in the Gospel revelation that originally exposed and undid the victimage mechanism.

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Humanity at the crossroads (1)

CrossroadsThis post is the first in a two-part series. A link to part two can be found at the bottom of the post.

For the past two days, the world has looked on in horror and alarm as French security forces have hunted down radical Islamist terrorists who had murdered twelve people at the offices of a satirical news magazine in Paris. As I write this post, there have been a number of further connected incidents, culminating in the “neutralisation” of the three men believed to be involved in the attack.

But my purpose is not to tell you the news.

Shortly after the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo took place, I shared the following thoughts on my Facebook timeline:

Anyone who thinks the threat of apocalyptic violence is not real need only watch today’s news.

Once again, we see violence used as a means to attempt to defeat an opposing ideology and generate support and solidarity among the community of the perpetrators. The ironic thing is that that last sentence could just as well have been applied to the West’s violent intervention in the Middle East as it can to today’s events in Paris.

I tend to eschew alarmist thinking. But it’s becoming clearer by the day that humanity is faced with an increasingly stark choice: either learn the way of forgiveness, reconciliation and tolerance, or risk self-destruction.

I must emphasise that as a rule, I am not someone who buys into alarmist thinking. The world can be an alarming enough place as it is without pouring oil on the fire. However, I really do feel that humanity is at a crossroads in history where the stakes are frighteningly high – and where most of the western world is happily sleepwalking towards its fate.

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