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James Alison: “for” idolatry

May 10, 2011

James Alison, the master of the theological metaphor, has just posted a wonderful lecture on his blog, in which he explores the meaning of the word ‘for’ in theology. Picking up on the long history of the via negativa and the problem of the word ‘is’, James brilliantly analyses the equally great danger of the idolatry of ‘for’. Here’s an extract which, of course, needs to be read in context, but

It may be that a tiger in a game reserve in India is hunted down by the warden of the reserve and shot with a tranquilizer dart. This puts it to sleep so that it can be moved with comparative ease to another reserve where there is a better eco-system for its survival, and potential mates for its reproduction. As a member of the film crew accompanying this, you can see quite clearly that the whole exercise is for the benefit of this tiger in particular, and is being conducted by people who are in favour of the survival of tigers in general. All of this is entirely unavailable to the tiger, which can only relate to the unfolding events from within the framework of invincible tigritude. The tiger is quite unable to distinguish between wardens armed with tranquilizer darts and hunters armed with guns. No attempt by the warden to parlay with the tiger and explain why he was going to shoot a tranquilizer dart into it would have the slightest effect. When the exercise is finished, something has indeed happened for the tiger, but the tiger cannot talk about what happened being either for it or for tigers in general. For the tiger this was an arbitrary part of a kill-or-be-killed world in which, as it happened, it lived to prowl another day.

So when humans talk about the “for” in God we are actually saying that we are marginally different from the tigers, in that there has been some form of communication which does not totally pass us by; that there are some hooks in our cultural framework by which a “forness” which is entirely from outside our way of being, is able to be understood, and responded to, by us as having incidence within our way of being.

Now the easy way of coping with this is to say “Yes, in principle we can know nothing about God, but God has communicated to us in this or that way – by means of a cataclysm, or a book, or a prophet, or a law, or a sacrifice – so a perfectly straightforward positive knowledge of what God wants of us is now available to us”. Nevertheless, I hope you can see that any straightforward positive communication of a “for” us will always be interpreted by us, put to use by us, entirely within the pre-existing social and cultural framework which forms us. In other words the sense of the word “for” is as liable to idolatry as the word “is”, or even more liable. By definition, the sense of “for” is partial – partial to us, to me. So part of the problem of any claim that a communication of God is “for” us, or “for” me is that it it seems to be saying “OK, we’ve got all that negative stuff about God’s “being” out of the way, so now we can go back to a purely positive account of God’s partiality, one which meshes with our pre-existing sense of what being “for”, or being “me”, or being “us” means. And, whoops, although we’re convinced that we are right, because we have a positive communication, in fact, for all practical purposes, we’ve fallen straight back into idolatry.

It’s as if the tiger, recovering from anaesthetic in its new wildlife reserve, and discovering a gun left planted nearby, were somehow to have associated the gun with it being brought to this new place. So, along with other tigers, it worships the gun as a totem, entirely blind to the distinction between wardens with tranquilizer darts, and hunters with bullets, and with no alteration at all in its kill-or-be-killed attitude to its general surroundings. It would be an entirely futile form of worship because the tigers would not, in any way at all, be having the structure of their engagement with their own way of life altered from within such that they could begin to share, with a degree of equality of understanding, in the network of human relations which had done something for them. The gun-totem, bereft of the tigers being given from within the terms of reference of their own tigritude the wherewithal to interpret what it was about, including making sense of its potential ambivalence, would be worse than useless: it would be misleading, a false source of security.

James Alison, “Girard and the analogy of desire”, (Presentation for the Symposium on René Girard and World Religions, G.T.U. Berkeley, April 14th-16th 2011)

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