To regard

Look for the gaze

Richard Clare, Look for the Gaze, nd. Acrylic on canvas, 127 x 165.1 cm. Private collection, Letchworth.

‘Regard: from the French, meaning a steady gaze or esteemed.

To lead a place of reconciliation is to think of the stories that have been disregarded, that have been discarded, cast away, considered peripheral, or ignorable, and to know that people who have lived fragmented lives need to have their edges re-enlivened. Stories of hatred and stories of survival, stories of hope and stories of dreams where dignity is a reality. Reconciling involves making mistakes while trying to do good. Sometimes bad mistakes.

Even if we cannot make dreams true, we can regard each other. Because one thing is true: we are perfectly capable of making nightmares real. Just look around. Regard’.

– Pádraig Ó Tuama, ‘The Place Between’, in Neither Here nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality, ed. Timothy Carson (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 2019), 17.

Václav Havel on the need for a radical renewal of our sense of responsibility

Czech dissident Vaclav Havel speaks at hVáclav Havel is no stranger to this blog. I find myself turning again and again to his words – words matured in the crucible of suffering and of hope, in the illusive corridors of ‘power’ and in the freedom of ‘powerlessness’. Recently, I had reason to revisit reading a number of his talks given during the ’90s. It was challenging to re-hear these words from his famous Commencement Address given at Harvard University on 8 June 1995:

The veneer of global civilization that envelops the modern world and the consciousness of humanity, as we all know, has a dual nature, bringing into question, at every step of the way, the very values it is based upon, or which it propagates. The thousands of marvellous achievements of this civilization that work for us so well and enrich us can equally impoverish, diminish, and destroy our lives, and frequently do. Instead of serving people, many of these creations enslave them. Instead of helping people to develop their identities, they take them away. Almost every invention or discovery from the splitting of the atom and the discovery of DNA to television and the computer can be turned against us and used to our detriment. How much easier it is today than it was during the First World War to destroy an entire metropolis in a single air-raid. And how much easier would it be today, in the era of television, for a madman like Hitler or Stalin to pervert the spirit of a whole nation. When have people ever had the power we now possess to alter the climate of the planet or deplete its mineral resources or the wealth of its fauna and flora in the space of a few short decades? And how much more destructive potential do terrorists have at their disposal today than at the beginning of this century.

In our era, it would seem that one part of the human brain, the rational part which has made all these morally neutral discoveries, has undergone exceptional development, while the other part, which should be alert to ensure that these discoveries really serve humanity and will not destroy it, has lagged behind catastrophically.

Yes, regardless of where I begin my thinking about the problems facing our civilization, I always return to the theme of human responsibility, which seems incapable of keeping pace with civilization and preventing it from turning against the human race. It’s as though the world has simply become too much for us to deal with.

There is no way back. Only a dreamer can believe that the solution lies in curtailing the progress of civilization in some way or other. The main task in the coming era is something else: a radical renewal of our sense of responsibility. Our conscience must catch up to our reason, otherwise we are lost.

It is my profound belief that there is only one way to achieve this: we must divest ourselves of our egoistical anthropocentrism, our habit of seeing ourselves as masters of the universe who can do whatever occurs to us. We must discover a new respect for what transcends us: for the universe, for the earth, for nature, for life, and for reality. Our respect for other people, for other nations, and for other cultures, can only grow from a humble respect for the cosmic order and from an awareness that we are a part of it, that we share in it and that nothing of what we do is lost, but rather becomes part of the eternal memory of Being, where it is judged.

A better alternative for the future of humanity, therefore, clearly lies in imbuing our civilization with a spiritual dimension. It’s not just a matter of understanding its multicultural nature and finding inspiration for the creation of a new world order in the common roots of all cultures. It is also essential that the Euro-American cultural sphere the one which created this civilization and taught humanity its destructive pride now return to its own spiritual roots and become an example to the rest of the world in the search for a new humility.

General observations of this type are certainly not difficult to make, nor are they new or revolutionary. Modern people are masters at describing the crises and the misery of the world which we shape, and for which we are responsible. We are much less adept at putting things right.

So what specifically is to be done?

I do not believe in some universal key or panacea. I am not an advocate of what Karl Popper called “holistic social engineering”, particularly because I had to live most of my adult life in circumstances that resulted from an attempt to create a holistic Marxist utopia. I know more than enough, therefore, about efforts of this kind.

This does not relieve me, however, of the responsibility to think of ways to make the world better.

It will certainly not be easy to awaken in people a new sense of responsibility for the world, an ability to conduct themselves as if they were to live on this earth forever, and to be held answerable for its condition one day. Who knows how many horrific cataclysms humanity may have to go through before such a sense of responsibility is generally accepted. But this does not mean that those who wish to work for it cannot begin at once. It is a great task for teachers, educators, intellectuals, the clergy, artists, entrepreneurs, journalists, people active in all forms of public life.

Above all it is a task for politicians.

Even in the most democratic of conditions, politicians have immense influence, perhaps more than they themselves realize. This influence does not lie in their actual mandates, which in any case are considerably limited. It lies in something else: in the spontaneous impact their charisma has on the public.

The main task of the present generation of politicians is not, I think, to ingratiate themselves with the public through the decisions they take or their smiles on television. It is not to go on winning elections and ensuring themselves a place in the sun till the end of their days. Their role is something quite different: to assume their share of responsibility for the long-range prospects of our world and thus to set an example for the public in whose sight they work. Their responsibility is to think ahead boldly, not to fear the disfavour of the crowd, to imbue their actions with a spiritual dimension (which of course is not the same thing as ostentatious attendance at religious services), to explain again and again both to the public and to their colleagues that politics must do far more than reflect the interests of particular groups or lobbies. After all, politics is a matter of serving the community, which means that it is morality in practice. And how better to serve the community and practise morality than by seeking in the midst of the global (and globally threatened) civilization their own global political responsibility: that is, their responsibility for the very survival of the human race?

No faith is an island

In a previous post, I draw attention to a comment that Stanley Hauerwas made in an interview wherein, discussing Friendship and Community, he said:

‘The last thing in the world I want is a personal relationship with God. Our relationship with God is mediated. And that’s the reason why without the Church we know not God … Our faith is a mediated faith through people reformed by word and sacrament. So I would never trust myself to have a personal relationship with God’.

I was immediately struck by this comment, spurted out in true Hauerwasian style. And while I reckon that Hauerwas needed to introduce a distinction here between ‘personal’ and ‘individual’ (I assume that it is the latter that he most concerned with) I think that his basic point is right.

Paul Tillich, in one of his clearer bits of writing (and there aren’t many of those), also argued that ‘the life of faith is life in the community of faith, not only in its communal activities and institutions but also in the inner life of its members … There is no life of faith, even in mystical solitude, which is not life in the community of faith’. (Dynamics of Faith, 118)

This same word was brought home to me again recently when I was reading Robert McAfee Brown’s book Is Faith Obsolete? In that book, Brown makes the point that we do not believe by ourselves, as individuals in isolation; ‘we believe as part of a community of believers, whether the community is a Benedictine monastery, a communist cell, a Protestant congregation, a Jewish minyan, or a Hindu ashram’. He continues: ‘To be sure, we must personally appropriate the faith of the community to which we belong and make it our own, and in this sense Luther was right in insisting that everyone has to do his own believing just as everyone has to do his own dying. But we need to remember also that the faith we personally appropriate is the faith of the community, and this means that even the most internalized, existential act of personal commitment will bind us into a communal relationship of shared belief with others. Even if the faith I appropriate were somehow brand new, never before conceived, the product of no apparent community save my own internal dialogue with myself, if I really believed it to be true I would perforce share it with others and thus, whether I directly willed it or not, a new community would be created around it’ (p. 141).

There is, Brown insists, a relationship between faith and community which is ‘inextricably joined together’. ‘Community’, he writes, ‘can only be created around a faith; faith can only be creative within a community’. And then he helpfully proceeds to identify five ways in which community nurtures and strengthens the life of faith.

1. The community is an economy of relations wherein the faith of individuals can be tested against the faith of the community. ‘The community has a long history; better still, it has a memory, which means that it can put its history to use. The individual has a short history that needs frequent checking against the community’s longer history’ (p. 142). This means that the practices and learnings of the present are to be in critical relation with, and to exemplify, the life of faith as the creative appropriation of an open past.

2. The community is an economy of faithful relations where the faith of the community can be tested against the faith of the individual. This means that ‘any community that is truly a community must be able to suffer fools gladly and even embrace the heretics that threaten its peace. Since communities are almost always careful and conservative, they need the leaven of fresh ideas, along with new interpretations of old ideas, and these are contributions that only the most venturesome within their midst are likely to propound’ (p. 143). This, Brown insists, is how communities stay alive and grow. He cites Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Hans Küng and Daniel Berrigan, as examples of those who were used by God to bring fresh wine alongside old wineskins.

3. The community is an economy of relations of faith where the burdens of doubt can be shared. Faith always – and necessarily – involves risk, some of which are too overwhelming and potentially destructive to be shouldered by the individual alone. At such times, Brown reminds us, ‘the community can be the place for “the bearing of burdens,” where things too heavy to be borne individually can, at least during crucial moments, be borne corporately. It need not be a sign of individual weakness, but rather it can be a sign of communal strength, when an individual can say of the forgiveness of sins or the inevitability of the victory of the proletariat, or whatever: “Look, that part of it just doesn’t make sense to me right now. It did once, and I hope it will again, but for the moment the rest of you will have to do the believing for me”’ (p. 144). This quality of sharing is not to be interpreted as an exposure of weakness but rather as charismatic, i.e. as gift.

4. The community is an economy of relations which contributes to the life of faith precisely because it functions as the locale where faith can be celebrated and faith’s loves embodied, where the community’s members may ‘draw assurance that their faith is a future possibility for all because it is a present reality for a few’ (p. 145). Is this not precisely why we compose community-forming liturgies, and, conversely where we are made communities by that same liturgical action, in order that we might dramatise our graced convictions and spur each other on to participate in, and be continually recreated by, the faith we share and which has taken hold of us. At the very centre of this action, participation and recreation is the eucharist, that event-location around which communities gather to both remember, in the sense of recalling the past, and also to re-member themselves. There is an important (re-)ordering that needs to takes place here too, and that with ecumenical implications. We ought to eat and drink together first, and then talk theology. To invert this ordering is a nonsense. Debra Dean Murphy recently reminded us, ‘Through the sacramental gifts of Christ’s body and blood, the community receives itself – it becomes the body of Christ, blessed, broken, and shared. As the Great Thanksgiving says, we are made “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” In this act the Church is united across time and distinctions between the global and the local are collapsed, for in every local assembly is the whole body – “the world in a wafer,” as Bill Cavanaugh has said’.

5. Finally, community is an economy of relations which ‘contributes to the life of faith by being the place where faith is energized to turn outward. Communities cannot remain ingrown, concerned only with their own inner life. They too must exemplify faith as the dynamic interrelationship of content and commitment. They must thrust their members out into the “strange land,” into the arenas of life not populated by the community’ (p. 146). In other words, the community called by God and re-membered around generous helpings of broken loaves and poured out bottles of Shiraz is ever the apostolic community, i.e., it is always a people being ‘sent’ out in order to invite others to the feast.

Perhaps Hauerwas’ comments are not so strange after all.

Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part VIII, On Abortion

‘The Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade meant that country girls like Leeta or Teri or others like them, who found themselves “in trouble,” would have the option of privatizing their problem by removing the stigma of an unwanted pregnancy from the eyes of the congregation. It wouldn’t be necessary for the community to promise to help raise the child. The church would not have the opportunity to offer the hospitality of Jesus to a scared teenager and her family. Nor would it have a chance to fail to do so, as it had sometimes done in the past. No one would know. It was none of the community’s business’. – Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, 208–9.

Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part VI, On Gossip

I recently posted on Luther and Calvin on Slander; now here’s Richard Lischer offering a different take on a similar theme – gossip:

‘The word gossip originally implied a spiritual relationship. A gossip was a sponsor at a baptism, one who spoke on behalf of the child and who would provide spiritual guidance to the child as it grew in years. A gossip was your godmother or godfather. Gossiping was speech within the community of the baptized.

For all its negative associations, gossip retains something of its salutary function in a small town … Gossip is the community’s way of conducting moral discourse and, in an oddly indirect way, of forgiving old offenses. In our town all desires were known, no secrets were hid, and every heart was an open book. Every life was gossiped by all, and all were gossips.

The continuous reworking of the community’s stories, characters, and themes served two purposes. Gossip helps soften the edges of people who are simply too accessible to one another, who irritate one another to death, but who can’t escape one another or their common history. Gossip also explains peculiarities … and tells how they came to be.

Second, our gossip was common discourse. It contributed to a moral consensus on, say, what constitutes decent farming, honorable business, tolerable preaching, or effective parenting. Gossip was our community’s continuing education … Gossip is always a painful business but, when it functions as speech in the community of the baptized, it can serve a constructive end. In my wife’s case, the sifting of stories led to grudging appreciation of a ‘peculiar” sort of prairie wife’. – Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, 95–6, 99.

Frederick Buechner on the communion of saints

KereruWith the Calvin Conference over, and a few days before I get back into the swing of preparing lectures again, it’s time to share another gem from Buechner (certainly I’m too tired to write anything intelligent myself):

‘At the Altar Table the overweight parson is doing something or other with the bread as his assistant stands by with the wine. In the pews, the congregation sits more or less patiently waiting to get into the act. The church is quiet. Outside, a bird starts singing. It’s nothing special, only a handful of notes angling out in different directions. Then a pause. Then a trill or two. A chirp. It is just warming up for the business of the day, but it is enough.

The parson and his assistant and the usual scattering of senior citizens, parents, teenagers are not alone in whatever they think they’re doing. Maybe that is what the bird is there to remind them. In its own slapdash way the bird has a part in it too. Not to mention “Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven” if the prayer book is to be believed. Maybe we should believe it. Angels and Archangels. Cherubim and seraphim. They are all in the act together. It must look a little like the great jeu de son et lumière at Versailles when all the fountains are turned on at once and the night is ablaze with fireworks. It must sound a little like the last movement of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony or the Atlantic in a gale.

And “all the company of heaven” means everybody we ever loved and lost, including the ones we didn’t know we loved until we lost them or didn’t love at all. It means people we never heard of. It means everybody who ever did – or at some unimaginable time in the future ever will – come together at something like this table in search of something like what is offered at it.

Whatever other reasons we have for coming to such a place, if we come also to give each other our love and to give God our love, then together with Gabriel and Michael, and the fat parson, and Sebastian pierced with arrows, and the old lady whose teeth don’t fit, and Teresa in her ecstasy, we are the communion of saints’. – Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 30–1.

Anderson on the Kenotic Community

‘The kenotic community as an imperative which the Incarnation demands permits no distinction between the Christian and the non-Christian which resides intrinsically in the Christian (or the church) as such. When one ‘defines’ the church or the Christian, then, the distinctive must be solely in the ‘difference’ which has its source in the historical transcendence of God. The ‘difference’ is Christ, not that redemption is set over against creation, but so that man is liberated to participate in Christ’s ek-static fulfillment of all creaturehood through the life of the Spirit. The ‘difference’ is the centre (Christ) and not in distinctions drawn between men, or between the church and the world as entities’. – Ray S. Anderson, ‘Living in the World’, in Ray S. Anderson (ed.), Theological Foundations for Ministry: Selected Readings for a Theology of the Church in Ministry (Edinburgh/Grand Rapids: T. & T. Clark/Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979), 591.