James Alison and the Heart of Christianity
The day has finally arrived! After nearly four years of planning, filming, building sets, sewing costumes, and film shoots till midnight, The Forgiving Victim video – all 18 hours of it – is edited and floating somewhere in a digital cloud! Now all that’s left to do is – okay, there’s a few things left to do, but before I list all of those I thought I’d celebrate a bit and give you a little background about how I arrived at this moment, ready to board a flight to Portland, Oregon tomorrow to begin to tackle what’s left to do.
It all began when I started reading the work of James Alison, Catholic priest and theologian, in 2004. Simply put, his books on theology, The Joy of Being Wrong and Raising Abel, allowed me to find my way back into my Christian faith. I had evolved into a Christian in name only, hollowly acting out the trappings of going to worship, of belonging to a church and serving on committees, even though I had long ago rejected what I thought was the heart of Christianity – that as a sign of his love, God had sent us his only Son as an atoning sacrifice for human sin. This was a God too violent and abusive for me to worship, but I couldn’t shake loose the idea that something important had happened at the cross, that the message of the empty tomb had shifted the center of human experience somehow. And so I found myself continuing to sit in the pews on Sunday, and unknowingly on a journey that would lead me to the theologian who would radically alter my understand of the heart of the Christian faith. There indeed was (and continues to be) a violent and abusive god demanding a death on the cross, James Alison teaches, but it is not God – it is human beings. Reading and living with James’ ideas, I came to see that I had the heart of Christianity completely backwards: it is not God who demands sacrifice, but us. My backwards theology is the modern residue of an ancient habit of our species to demand blood and then insist that it was God who made us do it. James calls what happened at the cross the “great reversal” – I slowly began to recognize it as my own, and humanity’s redemption.
I was lucky enough to meet James at a COV&R conference in Germany in 2005 and over the next few years to begin to work with him on a his vision for a new video course in Christianity, what he called an “induction into Christian vulnerability.” And with the filming done, we begin the next phase of work, which is to develop the website and support materials for group leaders. That’s where Portland comes in. This week I will be joining James at a retreat near Portland for 16 people who could give you moving testimonials like mine of the impact James has had on their lives and their faith. They are part of a cohort of people who are helping us develop support materials by agreeing to give us their feedback as they teach the course in their communities. In the next few weeks, James and I will meet with similar groups in Philadelphia, Chicago and Houston and by late spring 2013, The Forgiving Victim course will be ready for the world! We are past ready for The Forgiving Victim for this is a course that – well, I’ll let James explain it:
What I had in mind when I began putting together The Forgiving Victim course over 12 years ago, was to restore to the Christian life the wonder and transformative power of discovering not some new Biblical fact or church doctrine, but that you are loved far more than you know. Where a course of instruction tells you about something, gives you information, a course of induction, which is what The Forgiving Victim is, works cumulatively and allows you to find yourself summoned into being on the inside of something new.
By embarking on this course, you join others on a journey of discovery that will open your hearts and minds to discovering new things about yourself and your faith. It is a journey from fake goodness, from a false and insecure self, to relaxing into a goodness and security not your own, but in which you discover yourself held. And it is a journey from a unity that needs to create victims toward a unity received from the risen and forgiving victim in our midst. I hope that The Forgiving Victim will be a meaningful part of your journey toward a deeper faith and fuller life in Christ.
Christians may be surprised to hear that the heart of Christianity is a message of radical love and reconciliation that transcends religious, national, ethnic or any other boundary you can think of. As James is quoted on The Forgiving Victim website: “An earthquake project has been inaugurated that had as its aim, from the beginning, to set up the possibility of all people being reconciled.” My aim is a little bit more modest at the moment! To celebrate the completion of the video portion of the project, to begin to develop support materials with an amazing community of people all over the United States, and to spread the word that The Forgiving Victim is on its way to your community! Help us by planning now to use the course in your community and by spreading the word to everyone you know that an earthquake is on the way, one that makes possible nothing less than a new form of humanity. Remember Jesus’ admonition to his critics: Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’? (Matthew 9:13) The Forgiving Victim course is a journey of going and learning just as Jesus said we should. Now you know why I’m so excited! You can join the journey on Facebook, Twitter and by visiting the website.