COV&R-Bulletin No. 11 (Oct. 1996)
James Alison, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination. New York: Crossroad,
1996, 203 pp.; np.
James Alison has blazed a new trail in offering a new clarification of faith and hope as eschatological. Working creatively with the mimetic theory of Girard, modern insights into the role of story and imagination in human existence, and his own extensive knowledge of Scripture and the history of Christian thought, he offers a continual challenge to think--to imagine--differently. It is at this, the perspectival level, that one must encounter the book in order to profit from it. His biblical expositions are always rich and suggestive, and certainly sometimes debatable. But his primary objective is to engage and reorient the reader's way of reflecting on human existence and Christian faith. His thesis is that if Jesus used apocalyptic language, it was in order to subvert it. Eschatology is a stance towards the end--the destiny of individuals in community who exist always in relation to the Other--which undercuts apocalyptic with its God of violence and the reestablishment of an order based on vengeance. Abel, the primordial victim, is raised from the dead; the Son of Man, the innocent victim who raises Abel, sits at the right hand of God, offering judgment in the form of forgiveness and forgiveness in the form of judgment. This new revelation completely removes God from violence and shows that the end, "rather than being a vengeful conclusion to time, comes to be the principle operative in time, by means of which we may live out the arrival of the Son of man...." (127). He holds that "the eschatological imagination is nothing other than the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination" (125). To deal at all adequately with this inspiring feast of mimetic theology would require a lengthy essay. Here I would simply indicate aspects of the work which are particularly meaningful or suggestive to me, then I will mention a couple of critical questions.
(1) The principle of analogy. A key to the methodology of the book is the principle of analogy, which is fundamental to Catholic theology. In Alison's own creative use of it he points out that the Christian interpreter must avoid two temptations: to posit the death and resurrection of Christ at a completely other, ineffable and mysterious level which has nothing to do with the human story, and to affirm human reason and the goodness of humanity to the point that the otherness of God is lost. Alison's own analogical tack is to suggest that "the divine story is related to the human story, but as its subversion from within". God becomes human and creates "a real human story" (32).
(2) Christ as mediator of creation. "It is precisely the idea of creation in Christ which produces the final demythologization of the idea of creation" (54). The resurrection of Christ definitively separates the Creator God from any connection with the violent foundations of the world as cultural order
(3) Theater as metaphor. Alison uses theater and theatrical metaphors to open up a new way of viewing the Incarnation and Christian life. For example, he speaks of the death of Jesus as the "staging" of something real so that humans might become children of God. "The possibility of coming to be children came about not through some general decree of adoption, but through a creative act that demanded a mise-en-scène, a particular human acting out" (64). He realizes this could be misunderstood, but he is convinced that only a risky approach is finally convincing. This approach, by the way, is reminiscent of what Sandor Goodhart has spoken of as "God-acting": God acting in the world, if understood properly in the context of human relations, is God-acting, the acceptance of ultimate responsibility for the other (Lévinas). This is formally the same approach as Alison's, and there is probably much overlap materially in the understanding of hope and human existence.
(4) The relation of parables and the end. Parables are not instructions about the end, but about living in the present without dividing the world into good guys and bad guys. The parable of the fishnet (Matthew 13:47-50), for example, is not really about a violent eschatological separation of people but about living here and now without judging others (84-85).
(5) Hopeful morality. Alison does not discount morality, but he insists that it must be inspired by authentic hope. Preoccupation with our own goodness or badness, our moral balance books, prevents us from living in hope. He offers a very interesting, and certainly disputable, reading of the final part of the parable of the banquet in Matthew 22. Its point, he says, is not the harshness of God's final judgment, but the inability of the guest to imagine himself as at a wedding banquet. He imagines it as a place of judgment, and so "does not dare to speak when he is addressed," thus receiving "treatment according to his imagination" (153).
(6) Belief and mimesis. Alison engages in ongoing dialogue with historical (Reformation) Protestantism. Regarding faith, Protestants have tended to understand it as subjective commitment and trust through hearing the word of God. Alison is "obstinately Catholic" in holding that "Jesus came to create a belief as something truly and humanly imitable." The passion story he has given us enables us to "construct stories in flexible imitation of his own," and so he makes it possible "for our rivalistic human desire to be transformed into pacific desire, in imitation of the pacific desire of God, which we normally call God's love" (171). I have two critical comments about Alison's excellent treatise. His biblical exposition is peculiar, even eccentric at points, but that is primarily to the good in a work that seeks to intimate a new perspective which opens onto a vision of God's realm of pacific and loving mimesis. His reading of parables, for instance, is fascinating, but it sometimes gives the impression of arbitrariness. If we turn to the Gospels, I have the sense that Alison's point of view could contribute to a creative advance in their interpretation. Yet much more must be done for this interpretive approach to gain a proper hearing and foothold. Concerning Luke, for example, his point is well taken that according to Luke "the moment will come in which the risen victim will be the principle which illuminates all of human history and reality" (150). He might well have quoted Luke 17:20-21 in addition to 17:22-25: "The kingdom of God is not coming with observable signs; nor will they say, 'Lo, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom is in the midst of you" (17:20-21). But he doesn't try to come to grips with what biblical scholarship has recognized as the delay of the Parousia in Luke. He is obviously approaching Luke in a new way, but he should clearly relate and contrast his way of reading to the now generally accepted reading, which in fact comes out of liberal Protestant scholarship. One last point on bibical exposition. Alison ascribes an emphasis on patience (hypomone) to the later pastoral letters due to the subversion of the apocalyptic imagination that develops as time passes (163; Titus 2:2). But in fact Luke had already stressed it in two key passages (8:18; 21:19), and there are more references to it in the muchearlier letters of Paul than in the pastorals. My other critical comment, one more immediately serious, is that Alison does not do justice to the Jewish historical context of Jesus and the New Testament. Jesus' response to the Sadducees about the resurrection of the dead (Luke 20:27-40; Matthew 22:33-43; Mark 12:18-27) probably came from Pharisaic teaching. Alison does not acknowledge this. He says "Paul's conversion was from sharing the Ayatollah view of God [killing those whom the law excludes] to sharing Jesus' view of the good shepherd...."(43). This does not take Paul's own background as a Pharisee into account, which gave him most of his specific ideas and interpretive methods and which in turn were converted for Christian use (e.g., Abraham believed in God prior to the law of Moses and even to the circumcision command in Genesis 17). In addition, it gives the impression of appealling to a Western image of a vengeful, bloodthirsty Iranian Ayatollah to characterize the Torah. Alison probably intended to focus on Paul's particular understanding of God prior to his conversion rather than engaging in a simplistic condemnation of the Jewish law, but the language he uses should be reconsidered.. And finally, is the God of Genesis 22 still "a capricious deity"? (45). The assertion is at the least questionable because it does not take into account extensive Jewish and Christian discussions and readings of the Akedah, including some which have taken place in COV&R. Alison has opened up a wonderful religious and theological vista. Christian eschatology takes on new meaning and relevance in this pioneering study. His contribution should henceforth include participation in the Jewish-Christian dialogue that is now an important aspect of COV&R's work.
James G. Williams