Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Rowan Williams and the nature of Christian community

I am currently making my way through Where God Happens by Rowan Williams. This is about as good as it gets when it comes to articulating that nature of Christian community. I thought I would highlight one aspect of the book in hopes that it might speak something to someone today.

For the sake of context, allow me to clarify that in the book Williams is attempting to draw on the tradition of the desert fathers and mothers (around the 4th century) in order to get at the nature of Christian community. How we are in relationship with one another speaks of how we are in relationship with God. "The actual substance of our relation with eternal truth and love is bound up with how we manage the proximity of these human neighbors" (12). The goal, he says, is "to put the neighbor in touch with God in Christ" (15). Williams goes on to tease out exactly what proximity means here. "What if the real criteria for a properly functioning life, for social existence in its fullness, had to do with this business of connecting each other with life-giving reality, with the possibility of reconciliation or wholeness" (25)? From the desert tradition, Williams notes two modes of relational wholeness that are absolutely necessary if we are to be in the business of connecting one another to God, which he calls being a place where God happens, where the doors are opened for others to find healing and wholeness (24). These two modes of relational wholeness are called fleeing and staying.

I'd like to highlight his thoughts on fleeing and offer, perhaps, a few thoughts of my own.

There is a saying attributed to Abba Macarius that goes like this: "Abba Isaiah asked Abba Macarius to give him a word. The old man said, 'Flee from human company.' Abba Isaiah said, 'But what does it mean to flee from human company?' The old man said, 'It means sitting in your cell and weeping for your sins.'"

Flee from the "obsessional search  for absolution," from the "heavy burden of self-justification" (71), from "what makes us feel smug and in control (86). This leads not to a truthful examination of our inner life, but to the need to control the way others perceive us, typically by putting them down either by accusing them - in ever so subtle ways, if not directly - of their own sinfulness. This begins with a chain of obsessional thoughts and fantasies through which we seek justification, status, dignity, and power. Once these thoughts take over the inner life they spill out affecting and infecting the lives of others so we become a place where God does not happen.

The nature of Christian community is seen in those who "develop a ruthless eye for hidden weaknesses," not of others but of ourselves (77). Only those who so keenly examine their own brokenness are able to so delicately address the needs of others

How we speak and use language matters a great deal when it comes to the nature of Christian community. Paul's urging to speak the truth in love is at the heart of this (Ephesians). Thus, from the desert tradition emerges a theology of silence that has perhaps best been adapted by Simone Weil's notion of hesitation (84). Try some of these quotes on for size:

-"We 'hesitate' as we might do on the threshold of some new territory, some unexplored interior. It is an aspect of our reverence for each other."

-"Unless we are capable of patience before each other, before the mysteriousness of each other, it's very unlikely that we will do God's will with any kind of fullness" (84).

-"The times when we can be absolutely sure that we are wasting words are when we are reinforcing our reputation, defending our position at someone else's expense - looking for a standard of comparison, a currency in the market of virtue" (87).

And this one is perhaps the kicker that brings it all together:

-"So it isn't a matter of trying to run away from yourself but running away to yourself, to the identity you are not allowed to recognize or nurture or grow so long as you are stuck in the habits of anxious comparison, status seeking, and chatter" (91).

Flight and silence and hesitation are ways of speaking about one aspect at the heart of Christian community. Our goal is to put one another in touch with God. It is to recognize that when we look at others we are looking at Christ. It is to see Christ in the other. Flight is about a kind of relational proximity that is necessary for our connection with God, the distance, space, and room that we all need in order to work things out, with God's help, so that we don't squeeze the life out of each other (91).

We're like planets caught in each others gravitational pull. If we get too close we'll run into each other and die. If we stray too far we'll lose the presence of God that comes to us in the face of the other, which also leads to our death.

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