Thursday, March 06, 2008

Williams on our delusions of control and finality

"Human beings are perennially vulnerable to the temptation of arrogating divinity to themselves. It is a temptation manifest in the refusal to accept finitude, creatureliness and dependence – what Ernest Becker has called the 'causa sui project', the delusion that the world is my world, a world controllable by my will and judgement. But it is no less manifest in what we call the apocalyptic delusion, the belief that we can stop, reverse or cancel history, that we can assume the 'divine' prerogative of acting with decisive finality in the affairs of the world, that we can 'make an end'. Because our human history is marked by an ultimate severing of relations in death, and because death is something we can inflict (though not resist), it is not surprising that we nurture this delusion. It can be a source of relief: by the murder of another, by the obliteration of a race, by the consignment of someone to the isolation of prison or hospital, by the suffocation of my own memory, I can be free ('A little water clears us of this deed'). Or it can be a source of horror and despair: death ends all hope of reconciliation, it fixes in an everlasting rictus the hopeless grimace of failure in a relationship. We may stand appalled at our destructiveness, believing that we have indeed destroyed, annihilated, our possibilities.

"The resurrection as symbol declares precisely our incapacity for apocalyptic destruction – and equally declares that the 'divine prerogative' of destruction is in any case a fantasy. God’s act is faithful to his character as creator, and he will destroy no part of this world: his apocalyptic act is one of restoration, the opening of the book which contains all history."

- Rowan Williams, Easter: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, 17.

Williams makes at least two important points here. First, our desire to "wrap things up", achieving neatness and cohesion, can be a symptom of a refusal to be a creature, a misdirected protest against our own finitude. Not only is this futile, it is destructive. The attempt to achieve a 'final solution' to problems ought to make us shudder. Our projects remain provisional and ambiguous; they are open to correction, misunderstanding, clarification, reinterpretation, confusion and opposition. The attempt to leave an indelible and irrefutable stamp upon history is an inhumane megalomania - a warning against all utopian dreams.

Second, this desire for finality is often expressed in fantasies of destruction, obliteration, erasure. But God doesn't work like this. He is the creator of new things through the resurrection and transformation of the old. The "end of the world" of which Jesus' resurrection is a sneak preview is not really an end, but a new beginning in which all things are made fresh.
Both these points are in a similar vein to these two quotes from Moltmann.

6 comments:

Craig Bennett said...

I think this is what Piper is addressing in his preaching about Christian Hedonism, in that our new life starts here NOW - the Kingdom has come and yet is still to come...

byron smith said...

I'm familiar with Piper's conception of Christian hedonism, but could you spell out the links to RW's quote a little more?

Will said...

Because our human history is marked by an ultimate severing of relations in death, and because death is something we can inflict (though not resist), it is not surprising that we nurture this delusion. It can be a source of relief: by the murder of another, by the obliteration of a race, by the consignment of someone to the isolation of prison or hospital, by the suffocation of my own memory, I can be free ('A little water clears us of this deed').

I think this also connects with what Stanley Hauerwas says about Americans who talk about the 'sacrifice' of those in war. It displays some need to make their death seem meaningful. There is not talk of resurrection in war, so to protect the whole enterprise from being useless, we talk of the sacrifice of soldiers and call them heros.

byron smith said...

Interesting thought Will - the need to understand war as purposeful, as achieving some kind of resolution. And hence the threat to national and personal meaning when a war is protracted and there is no clear 'winner', where it resists a simple narrative (e.g. the forces of democracy against the axis of facism).

Craig Bennett said...

Byron, I was linking it to your second comment about our desire for finality. Far too often our preaching / teaching / concept of God is looking towards the last day and that our time here is spent impatiently waiting for that time to come...

Instead it is now that we are a new creation (believers), the old has gone, the new has been ushered in. Therefore the reality is that we have already died and do not, should not wait for the end of the world for us to experience new life...though indeed we should look forward to its completion, enjoying the now.

RW says,

"The resurrection as symbol declares precisely our incapacity for apocalyptic destruction"


On another note,I find it interesting that we (society) become detached and inoculated to death until we come face to face with it through the death of a loved one. We can sit through a movie and enjoy death as entertainment - often the gorier the better and be satisfied that justice had been done...yet if it is the hero who is killed it leaves us with dissatisfaction that the story did not portray true justice...

Perhaps there is something in that we (society)like to think good works deserve life!

byron smith said...

I keep coming back to this quote. It really is stunningly important.