Saturday, April 23, 2011

Mark Johnston: More on the Significance of the Passion & Crucifixion

Because I find it one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking meditations on the meaning and significance of the Passion, I’m going to post more quotes from Mark Johnston’s Saving God: Religion After Idolatry. I’m jumping around a bit for my quotes, but all of them are from pages 172-174 in the chapter entitled “Without Spiritual Materialism”.

Why did Christ have to suffer and die at the hands of the legitimate religious and political authorities? Why wouldn’t the viper have sufficed? [This references an earlier discussion of replacing the Crucifixion with a fatal viper bite in the Garden of Gethsemane.] Not, pace Girard, because only then could the suffering and death of Christ be a reduction ad absurdum of scapegoating sacrifice, but because only then could it expose the mechanisms at the heart of false righteousness, this secret love of self-love trying at all costs to put down the anxiety of how we live, even to the point of murder. The Crucifixion discloses how far we are prepared to go in order to defend out idolatrous attachment to one or another adventitious form of righteousness.
. . . .
Of course, it not that the psychological power of self-love and false righteousness is actually diminished by the Passion and Crucifixion. Instead, self-love and false righteousness—that is to say, the central elements of the characteristically human form of lie—no longer make up a defensible realm.
. . . .
Contrast the death of Socrates . . . . Crucially, Plato’s Socrates recognizes the legitimacy of the Athenian state; he accepts its claims upon him and so does not flee even in the face of an unjust sentence. In this way the death of Socrates secretly valorizes the false righteousness of Athenian respectability, by showing that even someone who really understands virtue will bow to this false righteousness in the end. Human ways of going on are secretly redeemed by Plato’s Socrates. The Kingdom of self-love and false righteousness remains legitimated.
The ordeal of Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion is not at all like this. There is nothing noble or “humanly redeeming” about it, beginning as it does with his desperation in the Garden and ending with his despair on the Cross. It is not a cathartic tragedy. It leaves us at a total loss. We can return to human ways of going on only if we forget what happened. If we do not forget, we need to find a way to love that is not some form of self-love and false righteousness. And if we do not forget, we know that we cannot find this in ourselves. Then, and only then, are we prepared to take the two commandments*, the salvation from without, seriously.
. . . .
*Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all they soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength; this is the first commandment. And the second is like it, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

There is it is. That is the choice. Make the safe bet, the one for which you cannot be blamed, because all the others are doing it; take upon yourself some form of ready-to-wear righteousness and gradually have it adjusted to your own proportions. Or radically abandon yourself to the will of God.
Worldly wisdom says: better to hand one’s life over to a respectable conception of the good.

There you have something to meditate upon this Holy Saturday.