I need to offer a revision of something I wrote a few weeks back. In discussing the Fall, I argued that we have set ourselves up in mimetic rivalry with God. I should, more accurately, have stated that we have set our God concepts up as mimetic rivals. The idea that any actual God would model Hen’s desire on humans is ridiculous. What could we possibly have that a Being who can speak a cosmos into being would desire? I have no doubt that any genuine God would be above all of that. So to be clear, the problem we see in the Fall is not that we are in a mimetically rivalrous relationship with God; the problem is that we (unconsciously, of course) believe that we are. Perceptions shape reality, and the result is that – for all intents and purposes – we find ourselves worshipping God concepts whom we have constructed as an enemy. We do not know how to conceive of a God from whom we are not alienated.
And every conceptualisation we have of God is, to some degree, a projection of ourselves. God can only ever be know through revelation, but all revelation must pass through the filters of our senses, our education, our culture, our expectations, our fears, our prejudices, our desires, our hopes, our circumstances, our experiences…I could go on. By the time we see the revelation, we have already distorted it. We see God – inescapably – as we are, not as God is.
And since we are mimetic beings, and God is invisible, we can do no other than to construct our gods in our own image: our gods imitate our desires, as we imitate what we believe to be theirs. It is why the pantheons of gods from ancient cultures seem so determined to have sexual relations with humans (and why the virgin birth of Jesus, where Mary’s consent to carrying the child – asexually conceived – is both sought and given, is so radical). It is why so many cultures’ ideations of the afterlife involve unlimited access to the pleasures of this world. It is why we throw around labels like “just”, “holy”, “omnipotent”, “omniscient” – any of the dozens of adjectives we would use to give shape to our God concepts – to construct a god who is simply a bigger and badder version of our idealised selves. It is why we insist on making Jesus a king, even though he rejects that title time and again.
But the problem with conceiving of God in mimetic terms is that our mimetic models tend to become our rivals. And worse – the darker side of having a mimetic God is that God must resolve the resultant conflict in the same way we would: with bloody scapegoating sacrifice. We simply cannot conceive of a God who is not driven by our own desires. And the tragic outcome of that is that we cannot conceive of a God who is not also arbitrarily violent.
Of course this fits in with what we see in the natural world. The stark and terrifying truth is that earthquakes do not only destroy the homes of the wicked; tsunamis and cyclones bring devastation indiscriminately; disease does not check to see whether potential victims meet a certain moral standard before infecting them. And if we want a God who is omnipotent – in control of the universe – the randomness of evil poses a real puzzle to believers. I believe we are able to (unconsciously) allow for this conundrum in our theologies only because it would suggest a God our mimetic natures can connect to: a God capable of random violence against innocents, around whom we can construct sacred myths.
All natural theology – theology that infers the character of God from the Creation – must lead back to this point. We simply cannot reason our way up to God, whether from nature, from the Bible, or from our personal spiritual experiences. Not because these things are intrinsically problematic, necessarily, but because our mimetic nature distorts how we see. It is why I find Browning’s Caliban upon Setebos such an extraordinary poem for illuminating the ways in which natural theology compels us to construct a God who is nothing more than a cruel and capricious child. It is why we must find ourselves haunted by Blake’s challenge in the Tyger: “Did He who made the lamb make thee?”. I agree wholeheartedly with Karl Barth that we must reject natural theology as a path to revelation: when we seek God through the lens of nature or reason we will find only ourselves.
Not that I believe that natural theology is unhelpful. Natural theology has its place, I think, so long as we understand who it is that is revealed through the process (and it is not God). I said it in my last post: for me, the revelation in Genesis is far less about who God is than it is about who we are. It is an anthropological revelation in the first instance, not a theological one. When we make the Bible speak with the mouth of God, we turn God into a monstrous idol made in our own image. It is only when we let the Bible speak with human voices, and contrast those with the revelation of God in Jesus (even if that revelation is only visible through the testimonies of the gospel writers, which have their own limitations), that we can even hope to see the startling truth about God: that we were never in a mimetically rivalrous relationship to begin with.
The thing about being free to see the Genesis account of the Fall as myth is that it allows us to see the truth that the narrative contains, a truth to which we are blinded if we insist on seeing Adam and Eve as real historical figures. You see, myth is designed in such a way that it presents truth through powerful symbols and stories that connect to human understanding and feeling in ways that cold facts never can. Myth is not devoid of truth, it simply packages truth differently, so that people can connect more deeply to it. I understood more about hope and courage in the face of despair from Eowyn (possibly my favourite literary character) in The Lord of the Rings than I ever could have from a dozen papers by prominent psychologists. Myth speaks truth in very potent ways. So I am not denigrating Genesis in the slightest when I label it as myth. Because it is only in recognising it as myth that I can see that, to quote Brad Jersak, I am Adam. I am Eve. The Fall is not something that happened a long time ago and which placed a curse on me all of these millennia later. It is the story of my daily struggle with sin.
Every day I eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, which lets me play God, providing me with the means to determine who is righteous and who is not, who is worthy of my admiration and who I should condemn. Every day I find somebody to blame for the brokenness I feel, for the trouble in my Eden. Every day I attempt to hide from God the parts of myself that leave me feeling ashamed and naked and vulnerable. Every day I find an excuse to remain blind to my complicity in the broken relationships of which I am a part. I am Adam. I am Eve.
We need a revelation about ourselves, and about how we construct our God concepts, before we can even begin to engage with any genuine revelation of God. If we do not first see ourselves, and the problematic nature of how we construct our worlds, we will be doomed to interpret revelation in sacrificial terms. Indeed, that is precisely what the modern church has done with Jesus. We have ignored his teachings on enemy-love, his peaceful ethic, everything about Jesus that is not in keeping with our comfortable and familiar ways of understanding God as retributive, transactional, like us. We have imposed meanings onto his life and death that allow us to keep our violent God, and our religious mechanisms protect us from seeing the problematic nature of these constructions by doing what religion does best: compelling us to equate our faithfulness with our willingness to accept the myth that we have, as a society, woven together.
But the cross changes all of that. It is the most powerful revelation of God we have, and why, I think, the gospel writers devote so much of their narratives to the Passion. At the cross, God deconstructs our myths by participating in them. Michael Hardin often makes the comment that part of the revelation of Calvary is that at the cross all of our god-concepts die. Where is God at Calvary? Very simple. Dead. Our mythologies of who God is just cannot handle that.
In the New Testament, the cross is called a skandalon – a stumbling block, an impediment, a scandal. And it is. If some part of us does not see it as nonsensical or offensive, we have not yet begun to understand it. In Philippians 2, Paul quotes from an early Christian hymn about Jesus that expresses it beautifully:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
At the cross our God-lies are exposed: we see very clearly what God is not. God is not to be feared: God lets us murder Hen. God is not competing with us to see who the holiest being in the universe is: Jesus ‘makes himself nothing’ and serves. God is not, never was, nor ever will be the kind of God who asserts power by force: not only does Jesus makes this clear in his discussion with Pilate at the trial, but it becomes painfully and awkwardly apparent when Jesus is allowed to be tortured, humiliated and killed, and God does nothing. God will not blaze out of the sky on a fiery steed to bless the chosen few and vanquish the evil masses – there is no fire and brimstone, no glorious triumph with a host of angels heralding God’s coming. There is no vindication of the righteous through the blood of the wicked. The cross does not allow us to make God complicit in this frenzied mimetic rivalry around whose beliefs and practices will win Hen’s favour. And we are never going to scapegoat our way into reconciliation with God. It didn’t work in Eden and it doesn’t work at the cross (Jesus makes it clear that nobody takes his life but that he gives it up of his own accord). The cross exposes our God concepts for the lies and delusions they are.
What kind of God not only dies, but lets mere mortals murder Hen? What kind of God not only allows this, but actively forgives those who commit the bloody act? What kind of a God refuses to be a king? What kind of God blesses the righteous and the unrighteous alike? One who is very definitely not made in our image. And there-in lies our hope.