In this moving and challenging little book, KNOWING JESUS, the Catholic theologian James Alison delves into a topic most often associated with evangelical Protestant Christianity: having a personal relationship with Jesus. This early work by Alison, at the time of publication a priest of the Dominican Order, exhibits the influence of René Girard, an anthropological philosopher who is particularly well known for his work on "violence and the sacred" and the need for sacrificial victims. At the heart of KNOWING JESUS is the idea of "the intelligence of the victim."
In Jesus' context, Alison explains "the intelligence of the victim" as Jesus' self-understanding of his role as victim, and his freely given self-offering in sacrifice. This "intelligence of the victim" only becomes apparent to the disciples of Jesus after their experience of the crucified and resurrected Christ--and even then it took some time for it to sink in. As we ourselves apprehend "the intelligence of the victim" we can experience the freely offered grace of God's forgiveness and at the same time extricate ourselves from the role of victimizer, as participant in the violence of the world that led to Christ's death and that causes so much pain and destruction to this day. It is through "the intelligence of the victim" that we are boldly empowered to relate to people on a whole new level.
Through "the intelligence of the victim," we come to "know Jesus." We directly experience the crucified and resurrected Christ in the eucharist, in which we remember Jesus' establishment of the New Israel, the newly understood community of God's people that knows no national or ethnic bounds. "The real presence of Jesus in the eucharist is the real presence of the crucified and risen Lord, giving himself, founding the new Israel, making possible the conversion of the people who participate" (p. 85).
In KNOWING JESUS, Alison neither disparages nor rejects the emotional experience that some people have being in a personal relationship with the Lord. But he suggests that such experiences are really beside the point. Jesus does not see himself as an end, but as a conduit to the Father. It is through Jesus--as crucified and risen Lord--that we come to know who the Father really is (pp. 106, 108-109).
Alison's writing can be bracingly direct, colloquial, and even include pop cultural references; at many other times, it can be turgid and opaque. The transition between his lively and direct writing style and his denser prose seems to mirror his careening between more directly theological concerns and others that lean philosophical in nature. It's quite a ride; especially without a background in Girard, one is not always sure where one is headed. Aware of the reader's possible confusion, Alison periodically "checks in" with his reader to make sure that the reader knows where they've been and where they're going. Nonetheless, KNOWING JESUS is challenging spiritual reading.
For Christians, especially Catholic Christians, it is well worth the time to read and digest this book. I believe it will make you see things in a different light, the light of "the intelligence of the victim," and maybe change your heart and so your life.