Nova’s Ordo: Fourth Sunday of Lent

Jesus said to Nicodemus:
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.
Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned,
because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
And this is the verdict,
that the light came into the world,
but people preferred darkness to light,
because their works were evil.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come toward the light,
so that his works might not be exposed.
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.

John 3:14-21

In honor of Brett’s recent interview with James Alison, one of Rene Girard’s most important interpreters, my reflection will draw on Girard’s rich insights into human psychology, anthropology and the biblical tradition. First, a brief and over-simplified primer:

According to Girard, human desire is mimetic. We “catch” or borrow our desires from other people. Desire is also triangular, because it involves not just the formal object of desire – a new car, a job, prestige – but the person who models the desire for us. Within this triangular relationship, the object is merely an instrument that mediates our true desire. And what is that true desire? Girard says that all desire is a desire to be. We don’t really desire to have something, but to be someone, and that someone is the model, the one who has shown us what to desire.

As this mimetic relationship between subject and model is reciprocated, replicated, and intensified, it degenerates into a miasma of rivalry and destructive forms of idolatry. According to Girard, this psychological dynamic is at the heart of all human violence, and the sinful human solution to this drama, the generative mimetic scapegoating mechanism, is at the heart of all archaic religion and culture. It is generative because it creates renewed social solidarity and a sense of personal and collective righteousness. It is scapegoating because its random and structurally innocent victims become the repositories of the community’s sinful rivalries and violence. 

The scapegoating mechanism is the “sin of the world,” according to Girard, and it is best summed up by the high priest Caiaphas: “It is better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.” Caiaphas intended for the cross of Christ to be just another in a long line of victim-events, a sop for the maddening crowd. But the divine mission of Jesus is to break the power and efficacy of the scapegoating mechanism, to take away the sin of the world. He accomplishes this by his teaching, his demonstration of divine power, his utterly compelling personality, and his obvious and absolute innocence on the cross. So convincing are all of these that even the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross is heard to exclaim, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

Okay, on to today’s Gospel. Anyone who watches American sports is familiar with those ubiquitous, home-made signs that read “JOHN 3:16.” The idea is that this verse is a kind of capsule depiction of salvation history. That view is especially popular among Evangelicals, who often combine John 3:16 with John 3:7 (“You must be born again”) into a little formulaic bundle, a sort of Gospel in a nutshell.

That’s one way of thinking about this text, and I won’t quibble with it. But I would like to propose another. I suggest that the most important verses in today’s Gospel reading are the ones that immediately precede John 3:16: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” This is one of three passages in John in which Jesus refers to being “lifted up.” In John 12, he says, “Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this worldwill be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”

I’d like to suggest that in today’s Gospel Jesus is calling on us to adopt him as our model, as the true object of our desire. To shed all the sinful desires, false models and resulting rivalries and idolatries that keep us condemned to repeat the darkness of the mimetic contagion. From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus went out of his way to call attention to his person and encourage the kind of mimetic hero worship he knows is built into us. His first disciples ask, “Where do you abide?” He answers, “Come and see,” only to reveal that he is the one who abides in the will of his Father. And he invites them (and us) to “Abide in me.” He identifies himself as the “way, the truth and the life.” He says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Again and again, Jesus calls us into a mimetic relationship with himself, even conditioning eternal life on it.

On the cross, Christ was indeed lifted up, attracting the eye of the whole human race, drawing all men and women to himself “so that everyone who believes … may have eternal life.” I would suggest that to “believe” in Christ is not merely to give intellectual assent to a set of propositional statements or creedal formulations.  No, saving belief in Christ is to take and hold him as our model, to desire nothing but him and his holiness, to appropriate his identity for ourselves: “I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” This is how “the ruler of this world,” that “murderer from the beginning,” that “liar and the father of lies,” is driven out of our lives and out of our world. And if taking on the persona of Christ becomes difficult, St. Paul has the remedy: “Imitate me, even as I imitate Christ.” Through the saints we can imitate those who imitated those who imitated those who imitated Christ.

Thanks as always to my friend Gil Bailie, another of Rene Girard’s most important interpreters, for loaning me his insights. 

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  • Nes

    This is good preaching. Thanks Mark.

  • Nes

    This is good preaching. Thanks Mark.

  • http://speciouspedestrian.blogspot.com Dominic Holtz, O.P.

    Thank you for this reading of John 3, which I find to be quite helpful, consonant with other readings while offering a genuinely different focus.

    I do have a question, re: Girard, and I mean it not as a critique but for better understanding. I am puzzled by the notion of the “scapegoat” as fundamentally a failed and sinful mechanism. Why? It was God himself, at least in the Biblical narrative, who instituted the scapegoat! (So, if what follows is what in fact Girard is getting at, or else is rooted in a misunderstanding of Girardian theory, I am more than happy to be set right!)

    I wonder if what is going on here is not unlike Benedict’s reading of the sin of worshipping the golden calf presented in his Spirit of the Liturgy. There, Benedict notes that the worship of the calf is not understood as the worship of an alien God. Indeed, the Israelites claim to be worshipping he very God who led them out of Egypt. What, then, is the sin? The problem is in their presumption that they can initiate and determine what right worship of God is, that they can, on and from their own resources, know God well enough to know how best to draw near to him and to draw him near to us. In contrast, the service given by the Law, while materially in most ways indistinguishable from the sacrifices of the neighbors of Israel, nonetheless is received, not asserted, and comes as God’s way of leading us to him in fidelity and uprightness, not our way of determining who God is and what we want him to find pleasing.

    So, perhaps we can say of the scapegoat, and mutatis mutandis the other sacrifices of the patriarchs and the Old Law, and most especially of Jesus Christ, that they direct us away from our being the arbiter of who or what is to die, from asserting that we can manage grace and righteousness through our own moral calculus of death and life. Rather, the death only comes at God’s initiative, in the manner God chooses, and (as in the paradigm case of the binding of Isaac) always directs us away from the sufficiency of any other death than the Lamb of sacrifice that God will provide. This, it seems to me, is also why faith in the Passion and Death of the Lord Jesus Christ is indispensable, exclusive, and unique in its saving power. Only Jesus Christ is God’s being lifted up to draw all people to himself. Any other person’s death, any other victim of our moral calculus, any other model (which is not, like the saints and martyrs, already an imitation of Christ) is always our assertion, our presumption and initiative, our attempt to set things right by blood.

    • Mark Gordon

      Dominic. Sorry to have taken so long to reply. It’s insane how little time I have (even though I’d rather be spending all of that time thinking and writing about this stuff).

      Girard sees the entire biblical tradition as a progressive deconstruction of the sacrificial violence at the heart of human religion and culture. The crucial (!) event in that progression is of course the passion and death of Christ, which both replicates the violence visited upon sacrificial victims “from the foundation of the world,” and decisively breaks the power of the sacrificial system.

      During that progressive deconstruction of sacrificial violence, there are many signs and markers. One, of course, is when God first demands the life of Isaac and then relents. In light of the biblical tradition that story is shocking; but in the world of Abraham human sacrifice was ubiquitous. All the gods were satisfied in that way. All the founding myths told tales of danger and upheaval overcome by original acts of violence. In order to deconstruct that system, God begins by replicating it, only to offer Abraham a different path.

      It’s the same with the scapegoating ritual in Leviticus, in which two male goats are selected. One is immolated on the altar. The other has the sins of the people ritually imposed upon it and then it is cast out into the wilderness. This system of substitutionary atonement using goats instead of human victims is a major step forward in the anthropology of religion, even though it still relies on blood sacrifice. God’s first covenant with the people of Israel is all about preparing the ground of history for the revelation of Christ, through whom God will extend his deconstruction of the “sin of the world” to all peoples. In the new and everlasting covenant, the Church, the sacrificial system will be replaced entirely by the sacramental system.

  • http://speciouspedestrian.blogspot.com Dominic Holtz, O.P.

    Thank you for this reading of John 3, which I find to be quite helpful, consonant with other readings while offering a genuinely different focus.

    I do have a question, re: Girard, and I mean it not as a critique but for better understanding. I am puzzled by the notion of the “scapegoat” as fundamentally a failed and sinful mechanism. Why? It was God himself, at least in the Biblical narrative, who instituted the scapegoat! (So, if what follows is what in fact Girard is getting at, or else is rooted in a misunderstanding of Girardian theory, I am more than happy to be set right!)

    I wonder if what is going on here is not unlike Benedict’s reading of the sin of worshipping the golden calf presented in his Spirit of the Liturgy. There, Benedict notes that the worship of the calf is not understood as the worship of an alien God. Indeed, the Israelites claim to be worshipping he very God who led them out of Egypt. What, then, is the sin? The problem is in their presumption that they can initiate and determine what right worship of God is, that they can, on and from their own resources, know God well enough to know how best to draw near to him and to draw him near to us. In contrast, the service given by the Law, while materially in most ways indistinguishable from the sacrifices of the neighbors of Israel, nonetheless is received, not asserted, and comes as God’s way of leading us to him in fidelity and uprightness, not our way of determining who God is and what we want him to find pleasing.

    So, perhaps we can say of the scapegoat, and mutatis mutandis the other sacrifices of the patriarchs and the Old Law, and most especially of Jesus Christ, that they direct us away from our being the arbiter of who or what is to die, from asserting that we can manage grace and righteousness through our own moral calculus of death and life. Rather, the death only comes at God’s initiative, in the manner God chooses, and (as in the paradigm case of the binding of Isaac) always directs us away from the sufficiency of any other death than the Lamb of sacrifice that God will provide. This, it seems to me, is also why faith in the Passion and Death of the Lord Jesus Christ is indispensable, exclusive, and unique in its saving power. Only Jesus Christ is God’s being lifted up to draw all people to himself. Any other person’s death, any other victim of our moral calculus, any other model (which is not, like the saints and martyrs, already an imitation of Christ) is always our assertion, our presumption and initiative, our attempt to set things right by blood.

    • Mark Gordon

      Dominic. Sorry to have taken so long to reply. It’s insane how little time I have (even though I’d rather be spending all of that time thinking and writing about this stuff).

      Girard sees the entire biblical tradition as a progressive deconstruction of the sacrificial violence at the heart of human religion and culture. The crucial (!) event in that progression is of course the passion and death of Christ, which both replicates the violence visited upon sacrificial victims “from the foundation of the world,” and decisively breaks the power of the sacrificial system.

      During that progressive deconstruction of sacrificial violence, there are many signs and markers. One, of course, is when God first demands the life of Isaac and then relents. In light of the biblical tradition that story is shocking; but in the world of Abraham human sacrifice was ubiquitous. All the gods were satisfied in that way. All the founding myths told tales of danger and upheaval overcome by original acts of violence. In order to deconstruct that system, God begins by replicating it, only to offer Abraham a different path.

      It’s the same with the scapegoating ritual in Leviticus, in which two male goats are selected. One is immolated on the altar. The other has the sins of the people ritually imposed upon it and then it is cast out into the wilderness. This system of substitutionary atonement using goats instead of human victims is a major step forward in the anthropology of religion, even though it still relies on blood sacrifice. God’s first covenant with the people of Israel is all about preparing the ground of history for the revelation of Christ, through whom God will extend his deconstruction of the “sin of the world” to all peoples. In the new and everlasting covenant, the Church, the sacrificial system will be replaced entirely by the sacramental system.

  • Ronald King

    Mark, I thoroughly enjoyed your post. Girard’s psychological construct of human beings fits with current knowledge of interpersonal neurobiology and attachment in forming one’s identity. Of particular interest is the role of mirror neurons and how they are influenced by the environment to wire the brain according to what is observed and experienced beginning at a pre-verbal and pre-conscious period of development. This gives the developing human being a better chance to gain a safe attachment to the caretaker and then to the community. It also begins the development of prejudice and tribalism. To follow Christ completely can only be accomplished through the gift of divine grace because without Him it is impossible to overcome the powerful influence of those primitive survival mechanisms which is the source of all violence. Christ literally changes the way our brains are hardwired. God Bless.

  • Ronald King

    Mark, I thoroughly enjoyed your post. Girard’s psychological construct of human beings fits with current knowledge of interpersonal neurobiology and attachment in forming one’s identity. Of particular interest is the role of mirror neurons and how they are influenced by the environment to wire the brain according to what is observed and experienced beginning at a pre-verbal and pre-conscious period of development. This gives the developing human being a better chance to gain a safe attachment to the caretaker and then to the community. It also begins the development of prejudice and tribalism. To follow Christ completely can only be accomplished through the gift of divine grace because without Him it is impossible to overcome the powerful influence of those primitive survival mechanisms which is the source of all violence. Christ literally changes the way our brains are hardwired. God Bless.