Monday, January 03, 2011

On imagining the future: Human action is reaction

"Come now you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.' Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wishes, will live and do this or that.' As it is, you in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin."

- James 4.13-17 (NRSV).

If making confident assertions of the likely course of my personal life is arrogance that ignores the fact that I am not in control, then expanding such claims to society as a whole seems sheer hubris.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that this passage from James doesn't rule out all expectations of the future playing a role in decision-making. It is not that Christians are forbidden from considering the future or making plans based on such considerations, but that all our plans must be written in pencil, not ink. This requires a certain chastisement of imagination, or perhaps better, imagination's acknowledgement that it is imagination. The future is uncertain; it is an arrogant boast to confuse pictures of a possible future with our desires for the future and assume that we can (or must) ensure the realisation of those desires.

The future is not ours to seize and shape, but God's to give and take. Our role is humble receptivity, trusting thankfulness, loving perception and hopeful prayer.

Does this stance foster passivity, a resignation in the face of suffering and so a complicity in failure to secure liberation for the oppressed? It can and all too often has. But it need not. And a thorough account of human action will be more open, more honest, more creative and more effective for taking the priority of divine grace more seriously. God initiates, we respond. Human action is reaction. That is the lesson of James.

This does not require passivity, rather an openness to the unfolding possibilities of loving God and neighbour, an openness in which we take seriously our situation and take just as seriously the Spirit's power to breathe new life into hearts of stone.

Each of us is thrown into a concrete historical situation that is neither of our choosing nor our fashioning, born within a family and culture that we can only receive. Rejection or reformation are, of course, forms of reception. We do not begin with a blank slate, even if we wish to shatter or erase what is written. We are born amidst a broken glory. Unbidden, we both rejoice and suffer as a result. Our world, our selves and our time are not creatures of our will, to be made into whatever image we desire. We receive them. And we receive them as the gift of God despite the flaws evident in them, giving thanks for what is good, trusting that what is not is not beyond redemption.

No deficiency in my self or my shared world or the span of time for my life is excluded from this trusting acceptance because at the heart of the world, self and time which I receive lies Christ, who is the hope of healing, of new life in the deadest of ends, of space to breathe.

And so the gift received is my life: my self, my world and the time of the former amidst the latter. And the hidden centre of that gift is Christ, who is the image of my true self, the founding principle of creation and the alpha and omega of time. Human action begins in humble receptivity towards and trusting thanksgiving for that gift.

Yet I am also called to account for what becomes of my self, my world and my time. The gift brings responsibility. Not only is the gift to be received, but understood, entered into and explored. The gift invites not mere submission of the will, but the delight of the heart, the joyful harmonising of the affects. Coming to know this gift involves not simply the intellect but crucially love. Only a participation in God's passionate concern for his creation (whether or not this is how we conceive it) enables us to see what is actually around us. The dispassionate observation of objective inquiry is frequently a necessary step in this process, but it is a limiting of focus that occurs within a broader framework of care. We learn about the world and ourselves and the time available to us because we care what happens, who we are to become. We are responsible for the gifts we have received.

And having become responsible, we therefore care about possible futures, about paths that open before us, about the destiny of the good things entrusted to us. We face future prospects because we cannot do otherwise without closing our hearts and hands. And faithful imagination requires the abandonment of false hopes, as well as the rejection of myopic assumptions that things must remain as they are. The pursuit of responsible care for the gifts we have received may require of us the rejection of utopian fantasies, but also the questioning of the status quo. What we may hope for along the way is neither ease nor comfort, but that the road we walk will not, ultimately, be a dead end, that our labours of love will not be in vain.

The future is not ours to seize and shape, but God's to give and take. Our role is humble receptivity, trusting thankfulness, loving perception and hopeful prayer.

The path of faith, hope and love - that is, the path of true human action in the way of the crucified and risen Christ - is narrow, dangerous and often not immediately perceptible. It can only be walked with prayerful dependence and an ongoing openness to correction and further guidance. But it is a journey into life.


Terry Wright said...

A very insightful post - thanks.

besideourselves said...

"We face future prospects because we cannot do otherwise without closing our hearts and hands"

Very good.

Y'know, I love reading the monastics, but I wonder if the idea that the life of the heart is independent of the life of the world (harmless enough in the hands of the old mystics) is actually a very valid expression of the faith of Abraham.

And on facing the prospects of the life of the world, I read passivity in your text as standing opposed to my idea of biblical meekness. I quite like Zodhiates paraphrase of Aristotle on this point;

"Prautes (meekness) is the middle standing between two extremes, getting angry without reason, and not getting angry at all. Therefore, prautes is getting angry at the right time, in the right measure, and for the right reason ...."

byron smith said...

Peter - Yes, meekness doesn't rule out anger, indeed, it may require certain forms of anger at times. I don't entirely buy Aristotle's account of the virtues as middle paths between extremes, but it is occasionally an illuminating concept.

As for the life of the heart being independent of the life of the body and world, I thank Nietzsche for awakening me from my Platonic slumber on that score.

besideourselves said...

Yes, I knew that would be a contentious source! But he can be important for establishing usage, and I don't think he needs to be bought into entirely to be occasionally enjoyed;

"I do like Aristotle, he is so very dry" - Unknown.

And thanks for the pointer to Nietzsche, new territory for me; I really like the idea of exploring the antithesis a bit more closely...

byron smith said...

Not particularly contentious: I have huge respect for Aristotle. He pretty much established the field of ethics as a domain of inquiry. But it doesn't mean he got everything correct.

besideourselves said...

Apologies; I've just started to explore one of your heroes, Karl Barth, and I wondered if you might not be a little more suspicious of an ethic originating outside of direct revelation.

I'm not sure at this early stage whether Barth got it all right either (I'm thinking primarily of the anologia entis here). But even he may have the left the door a little way open for Aristotle to sneak through (via say, Aquinas) as philosophia christiana, so perhaps a Nicomachean view could still be further entertained.

I heartily agree that a creative and loving response requires us to thankfully accept where we are, and when we are, but not necessarily how things are. To me, the 'meekness' that tries to determine what should be borne with and what should be opposed/redeemed is also a 'mean' in another way; i.e., trying to avoid the extremes of fatalism on the one side and materialistic humanism on the other... those seem to be the pitfalls the church is falling into anyway.

... But perhaps once I've gotten further with Barth the whole view will change and I won't be quite so partial to Aristotle ;]

Thanks for a great post and also for indulging my fumbling forays into the wide world of theology.

byron smith said...

We're all fumbling. Anyone who claims otherwise is probably selling something. ;-)

I list Barth as a hero not because I agree with all he says, but because it let me say Barth, Bart (Simpson) and (Jed) Bartlet, thus neatly referencing theology/ethics, humour/cultural commentary and politics, which were all aspects of my interests in starting this blog. But I do generally like Barth. :-)

Yes, your "where, when but not how" was a good line. I'd only add a "who" as well: we also need to understand ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post Byron, brings together many things that have been on my mind lately as well. A favorite line: "And a thorough account of human action will be more open, more honest, more creative and more effective for taking the priority of divine grace more seriously." I especially appreciated your appropriation of the text of James for this purpose, and it bears mention that Paul is using roughly the same logic in Romans 6.

I'm not quite sure I'd go with your wording a bit later though, how can "rejection" fall under the bounds of reception? There may be a better way to explain the dynamic nature of a receptively ordered moral life, as you argue in the post - it surely will not involve absolute freedom, but neither does it detach us from the task of moral judgement and measured participation. Would it be better to say that we are called to participate on a social level, but this does not free us from discernment as to the shape of that sociality?

byron smith said...

Thanks Jeremy.

Regarding rejection as a form of reception: I should have added that rejection is not usually a very healthy form of reception! I was merely pointing out that just because one rejects one's historical and cultural inheritance doesn't mean that you don't have one.