Conversion and Imagination

Reading Fr. Richard Rohr’s 1996 book titled Jesus’s Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount. In the first chapter, he gives credit to Rene Girard and Gil Bailie for their work, which has obviously influenced him.

Rohr speaks of the ‘True Sacred’ — what’s of God — and the ‘false sacred,’ which destroys others and creates victims in the name of God. I find it as misleading to make this demarcation between two kinds of ‘sacreds’ as to label some things sacred and some profane.  In practice, whether naming something as sacred and something as profane, or as truly sacred and falsely sacred, either way permits and justifies a sanctioned violence in order to thwart what’s seen as false, profane, a threat to what’s ‘true.’ Either way, the language tries to hide the violence.

Similarly, Rohr says in the first chapter:  “The ‘evil’ one [the non-sacred] must always be killed so that ‘I’ can be worthy, loved and moral. Another group, nationality, class or religion has to be named wrong so that ‘I’ can feel right. … The insecure and false self seems to need an enemy to scapegoat so that it can feel superior and saved.”

As long as morality (sacred and profane, good and bad) is the yardstick — even among people who don’t practice any religion — I think we will always seek, often subtly, to justify ourselves and our group by means of an appeal to the sacredness, goodness, rightness of ourselves and our groups.

Some more excerpts from the book that seem to come through a Girardian lens:

Rohr speaks on the first page of how all types of culture are “based on some form of violence.” Then he says:  “Jesus announced, lived and inaugurated for  history a new social order …. It was … the reason he was killed: ‘It is better for one man to die for the people’ (John 18:14) than to question our bottom line that is holding the whole system together. ”

Caiaphas’s statement that it was expedient for Jesus to die for all is a central bit of textual evidence for Girardians: It’s the classic statement of justification by scapegoaters: “Unless we kill this one, the whole community will be overcome by conflict and violence. This one is threatening the good of the group. This one has brought shame,  has brought impurity, has in some way been immoral and/or has angered God, and in doing so has harmed the group and so must be put away, so that the community can survive and prosper.”

Scapegoating brings the community its temporary peace by unifying everyone against the one who can be cast as the evil-doer, the taint, the underlying problem with the community. In the process of expelling the problem, the community comes together in an accusative gesture to fix blame on the scapegoat and to justify his expelling; the unity they feel — the solidness of their rightness, of their identity as people with a righteous cause  — lasts for a while, and it can feel like peace. Everyone can agree how great things are now that the problem is solved, the irritant gone. Then another conflict arises.

Later, Rohr comes back to this point, noting that it was Jesus’s religious culture that got him killed. The bottom line in a religious culture is “God-talk that legitimizes an in-group and increasingly marginalizes more and more unacceptable people.” Jesus, for instance, joins John the Baptist for baptism at a location outside of town (not in the sanctified Temple), a critique of the legitimate religious system. “For a religion that had clear controls on how sin could be forgiven, we have John pouring it out like free river water. … The monopoly on God was being ignored by an announcement of living and ever-available water,” and Jesus was participating.

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Rohr says: “Only an entrance in the Great Compassion frees us from the need to divide our reality into the good guys and the bad guys.  … Without a Forgiveness great enough to embrace even the dark side of things, we are burdened … with our own need to explain and to judge everything.”

This reminds me of James Alison’s comments about the centrality of a life of faith having nothing to do with morals but rather with “receiving something. It’s someone having done something for us.”

Alison says that in our culture, “we’re supposed to know” that Jesus died to save us from our sins, and because of this we’re supposed to behave in a certain way, when really, it’s the other way round: we at some point become aware of the murdered, forgiving victim coming back to us, forgiving us, liking us — and because of this act of compassion, this act of life-without-death, we find ourselves behaving differently.  As Alison says, “being able to sit — relax, if you like — in the regard of someone who is coming towards us , is a very different thing from knowing something as a theory and saying ‘Since he has done that, therefore I must do that.’”

And that in turn seems to relate to Rohr’s focus on conversion. What Alison is talking about is conversion, too, a transformation that comes from the imagination; a re-imagining that changes us.  Rohr says that conversion requires unlearning, as any Girardian would agree (we are all so thoroughly imitative of and rivalrous with each other, and our system is based in denial of our violence), and later, in chapter two, he reminds us that, as Jung observed,  transformation doesn’t come about through concepts but through images: “Until we reimagine our God, ourselves, our world, nothing ever happens.”

Rohr speaks, like Alison, of experiencing the presence of Jesus, and in that moment, recognising that the old world is disappearing. Since the inbreaking into history of Jesus’s life and death, “the end is happening all the time, and it never stops.”

I take this to mean that eternal life is available in each moment, and that it doesn’t require that we achieve it or merit it or repay it. Living eternally is like looking up and seeing a friend, someone you betrayed terribly and cruelly, with unspeakable and irreparable consequences for your friend, now coming towards you, arms open, as happy to see you as if there had never been any betrayal. Someone who is not forgiving you in the way we often do, as a way of appearing to take the moral high road,  of being sanctimonious, of saying “I’m not like you; I’m better” or  “You may be bad but I’m good enough to overlook it.”  Someone who is not ‘forgiving’ you just to keep further conflict at bay. Not that kind of forgiveness at all. Imagine something else, forgiveness unhooked from power and separation, forgiveness that isn’t afraid to lose anything because it knows that death has no power, forgiveness that’s fully aware of the dangers of living in this old rivalrous system and that nevertheless gladly engages, again and again, with us … Liking us — not sentimentally, not dutifully, but with the full force of abundant, joyful, playful, creative life.

I think Rohr is getting at something like  this in chapter two when he says:

“The word for living that way, living in the in-between times, is faith. Get rid of every thought you’ve ever had about faith, if that’s possible. … [Jesus is] talking about the grace and freedom to live God’s dream for the world now — while not rejecting the world as it is. That’s a mighty tension that is not easily resolved.”  Rohr speaks of the world as it is, built on “power, ego and success;” and of the eternal world of love.  Love engages with power while loving the powerful.

In this way, love is not about being good. It’s about being alive, converted from the world of death to the world of life by the experience of God and the creative action of imagination.

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