Seán Ó Conaill writes: Adult Faith Formation – Is ‘Alpha’ the Answer?
Adult Faith Formation: Is ‘Alpha’ the Answer?
Ireland’s younger generations are tuned out! This was an all-Ireland lament in our first ‘go’ at synodality in 2021-22. Closely linked is the urgent call for adult faith formation in most diocesan reports1.
This initiative at least does not depend upon a decision of the autumn 2023 Vatican Synod of bishops.
Lacking as we still do a properly resourced native Irish Catholic programme for adult faith formation, some dioceses are experimenting with what is probably the best-known ‘Intro’ to Christianity internationally – the Anglican-sourced ‘Alpha’ programme1.
Alpha is referenced in at least two Irish diocesan synodal reports (Cork and Ross / Waterford and Lismore). It is also well-praised by Canadian evangelist Fr James Mallon, whose Catholic makeover for Alpha – entitled ‘Divine Renovation’ – is also being looked at in some Irish dioceses.
Centred on weekly hospitality and then the viewing and discussion of well-produced videos, the eleven-week Alpha course needs a well-prepared team and a well-appointed meeting place.
However, Alpha’s video treatment of the question ‘Why did Jesus die?‘ raises a danger signal2. Presenter Rev Nicky Gumbel assures us that Jesus dies ‘in our place’ – just as Fr Maximilian Kolbe died in place of another unfortunate inmate of Auschwitz concentration camp in 1941.
But if it was a Nazi prison commander who murdered the victims of Auschwitz, who, ultimately, decided that anyone must die that day in Jerusalem, on Calvary?
Inevitably we are left with the possibility that God the Father sanctioned – and somehow required – the violence of the crucifixion. This suspicion originates in a medieval theology that remakes the intimate Father of Jesus as a distant medieval monarch who cannot let go of the necessity of divine retribution for sin.
While it is true that all sin, including our own, has consequences from which we need to be liberated, can anyone be fully transformed by news of a distant God who can restrain his punitory hand only if his own son can repay by his sufferings a debt to God that our own sufferings cannot satisfy?
All too easily this Alpha analogy could reinforce a fundamentalist take on the Jesus story – the attribution of a taste for violent retribution to God the father – even though Jesus himself rejects that slur in repeating the words attributed to God by the prophet Hosea: ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’ (Matthew 9:13).
Still to this day our Catholic leadership has not clearly acknowledged that from the beginning to the end the Gospels tell us that Jesus rejected the option of exercising a controlling power over others – and that, according to the same Gospel, it was with this son that the Father declared himself ‘well pleased’.
The Alpha presentation does not make the obvious case for Jesus’s acceptance of crucifixion as a rejection of the option of using force against his accusers – and therefore as a statement that for the Father also there was no option of imposing the Kingdom of God by force.
That human violence results also from sin, and that the punishment of Jesus was also therefore sinful, is left unsaid. On the contrary, the impression could be formed that the crucifixion was preordained and necessary as part of the divine plan. That only the rejection of the Kingdom of God by the social and religious elite of Jesus’s society had made it inevitable is also unsaid.
Does it follow that if Jesus was willing to suffer the consequences of the sins of his accusers and judges then God the Father must have approved his crucifixion also? No, but failure to say this explicitly leaves that inference open. That only Jesus’s accusers and judges were to blame, and that only the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, was analogous to the Nazi commander of Auschwitz, is left unsaid.
Inevitably, this Alpha presentation treats this story of Jesus’s execution as an entirely separate and utterly unique event, even though the Kolbe story offered an entirely different option – to see Jesus as standing in solidarity with Kolbe and with all of the innocent victims of history – the many, many scapegoats of arbitrary power.
As it was a Catholic French-American academic, René Girard, who has most brilliantly argued this case – and there is now an international colloquium in agreement – there is now no excuse for Catholic adult education in Ireland to ignore this school of thought.
That Jesus, and the Father, were thereby exposing the pattern of victimisation in every era, by power structures as such, must not be left unexplored. We must not be left with a contrary possibility: that the first person of the Trinity needed a prestigious sacrificial victim. The use of a passage from Isaiah on the ‘suffering servant’ in the Alpha programme ignores the strong possibility that the author(s) of the book of Isaiah had themselves witnessed similar scapegoating events in their own time.
To absolve the Father of Jesus from any hint of complicity in the Crucifixion the church now needs to see that Jesus’s self-sacrifice on Calvary – vindicated by the Father in Jesus’s Resurrection – was a final rejection of the option of religious coercion – and utterly non-violent. Blood was shed, violently, at the crucifixion, but not by the Trinity. The sacrifice that is rejected by the Father is the sacrifice of the life of another. The acceptable sacrifice is the merciful and non-violent offering of oneself.
Jesus, and the Father, validated Hosea by finally removing the distinction between mercy and sacrifice. They also starkly revealed the process by which political elites in all eras seek to maintain their ascendancy in a crisis: by ‘fitting up’ the nearest likely scapegoat. African American theologians see this clearly by recognising in the cross of Christ the ‘lynching tree’ on which so many of their own people died, in the decades after 18653.
As can be starkly seen in the events that led to the visit by Pope Francis to the first nations of Canada in July 2022, the Catholic Church’s long marriage of convenience with the state after 312 made it tragically complicit in the many injustices of Christendom. The medieval theology of the cross completely veiled the obvious similarity of the crucifixion of Jesus to the many other historical instances of scapegoating of the weak to buttress the power of a political establishment – including, for examples, the burning of ‘heretics’ and the vicious pogroms against Jews in the era of the ‘Black Death’ (1348).
That the Kingdom of God is a kingdom of intimate warmth, freedom and peace was clear to the earliest Christians. That understanding was obscured for many centuries by the Emperor Constantine’s self-interested claim in 312 that the Christian God had urged him to conquer under the sign of the cross. Learning from the justified disempowerment of Christian clergy in our own time there is every reason now to interpret that claim as politically motivated, and to interpret the Gospel and the Creed as proof of the Trinity’s intent to lead humanity, eventually, to a world without violence.
Only in this way can the violence attributed to God by some Old Testament texts, and implied also by a deficient medieval theology – and left open to interpretation in the Alpha course – be properly understood. It reflects the imperfect understanding of authors who could not discern what Jesus himself revealed. We humans learn the limitations of violence only via our mistakes. Those reached a crescendo – sanctioned often by state-linked Christian clergies – in the 20th century. We are preserved from mutually assured destruction now only by the grace of God.
An effective Irish course in adult faith formation needs to add this historical dimension to its understanding of Christian sacrifice and atonement, to meet the predictable objections of a western culture scandalised by Christian imperialism and violence. We surely cannot move forward if we do not fully own up to all of the mistakes of Christendom – including the mistake of attributing even a hint of imperialism or bloodlust – or punitory need or dissatisfaction – to the first person of the Trinity.
- 1. Diocesan references to absent younger generations and the urgent need for effective adult faith formation are collated on the ACI site at: https://acireland.ie/irish-catholic-dioceses-and-missing-young-people-in-2022/ and https://acireland.ie/scoping-faith-formation-across-irish-dioceses/
- 2. To be fair to Alpha, a member of its online team has assured me that the purpose of the videos is to provoke conversation, and that the issues I have raised here could validly be raised also at an Alpha discussion of ‘Why Did Jesus Die?’ On that basis I would be quite ready to participate in an Alpha course – as the issue of Christian fundamentalism also needs to be discussed if that tendency is to be clearly rejected.
- 3. See e.g. The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone, Orbis Books, 2011.
Sean O’Conaill is right to sound a note of caution regarding any program of catechesis or evangelism that is rooted in a model of atonement whereby God is portrayed as orchestrating the crucifixion so as to attain some kind of perverse satisfaction that blood has been shed as a price for Original Sin. Such models of atonement tend to be fueled by poor biblical exegesis as well as warped images of God. O’Conaill contrasts such accounts of atonement with Rene Girard’s account of the crucifixion as Jesus’ stance against scapegoating that is satanic in nature – a subject upon which Fr. James Alison expounds. Another strand of the Christian Tradition that challenges the vengeful models of atonement identified by O’Conaill would be the Franciscan view associated with John Duns Scotus wherein the Incarnation is regarded as God’s eternal plan and not a response to Original Sin and Jesus came to live a fully human life rather than on a divinely mandated kamikaze mission. In practical terms, this shows the need for theological reflection before adopting programs with an Evangelical bent. “Evangelical Catholicism” is something of a phenomenon in the US, alive and well in some religious congregations, universities, publishing houses, and programs of catechesis and evangelization. A case in point would the “Catholics Returning Home” program, once widely supported by US bishops, that in its materials urged participants to read the Adamic narrative as history in the chronological sense of the term.
Thanks to Seán O’Conaill for so well articulating this very important issue. With so much energy and focus now being put on synodality and the effort to restore the Church’s credibility, particularly in the eyes of Ireland’s thoughtful, well-educated younger generations, the question must be asked, “What message will they hear if and when they return through the doors of our churches and chapels?”
Sadly, it is this deficient medieval theology, so succinctly outlined in Sean’s post above, that is so deeply and unquestionably embedded in our liturgical prayers, hymns and sermons. I suspect many of us in the pews instinctively know something is wrong with what we are hearing, but never been presented with an alternative interpretation, we either settle for intellectual compliance or disengage our minds altogether. Thankfully for those of us not willing to settle for the distorted image of God we grew up with, better interpretations have been preserved in various strands of Catholic/Christian theology such as those important interpretations mentioned by Seán (Gené Girard’s) and Alan (John Duns Scotus’s) above.
I would suggest this is not just semantics, or about Alpha, or even about the survival of the institutional Catholic Church. I would go as far as to say we need to hear an incarnational, eucharistic theology centering on the sacred presence in ALL of creation if the human family is to survive the geopolitical and ecological crises that now face us. Salvation now and after.
On Alpha itself, I’ve been through it on a number of occasions. I agree with Seán in that its strength is based on hospitality, conversation and the premise that all questions are valid. However, evangelical programmes will always be tempted to present a settled package for consumption rather than setting people on a life-long journey of discovery. After all, we talk about the mysteries of faith. I would settle for creating awe, wonder and meaning in the hearts of participants.
‘The Christian idiom of Heaney’s work reminds us again that just as suffering touches every human heart, so too must hope if it is to be authentic. True hope subsists in the face of, indeed in the very teeth of, the worst of human suffering. In this, it is distinguishable from what Terry Eagleton calls the “banality of optimism”.
‘Christian hope resides not, as for Sophocles’s Greek audience, in the interventions of a detached deus ex machina who offers an unlikely “fix” for our sufferings, but rather in the consolation of the deus non incompassibilis – a God who suffers with us (in the words of St Bernard of Clairvaux).
‘By experiencing and then overcoming its very worst excesses, Jesus gave meaning to our human suffering. He gave humanity his consolation, the promise to be literally “with us in our aloneness”. Even as upheaval, at home and abroad, threatens every side of America’s partisan society, the one quality that continues to distinguish Joe Biden as a leader seems to be his capacity for compassion (he claims to keep a running tally of America’s pandemic dead in his breast pocket).
‘Where Heaney the poet was studiously God-shy, the politician he inspired is not. Indeed, Christian prayer is still the idiom of hope that resonates with millions of Americans today.’
Paul Corcoran in today’s Irish Times on Joe Biden’s debt to the Gospel and Seamus Heaney