Variations on a theme in theological anthropology

Variations on a theme in theological anthropology

A. Ernest Becker

Men aren’t built to be gods, to take in the whole world; they are built like other creatures, to take in the piece of ground in front of their noses.

from The Denial of Death, (Free Press, 1997), 178.

B. Rowan Williams

Theology must rediscover itself as a language that assists us in being mortal, living in the constraints of a finite and material world without resentment. […]

What we are are our limits, that we are here not there, now not then, took this decision, not that, to bring us here and now. And if this is true, understanding a person is understanding their limits, their materiality. […]

My unity as a person is always out of my field of vision (I can’t see my own face), just as the divine condition for there being fields of vision at all, for there being a world or worlds, is out of my field of vision (I can’t see my own origin).

from “The Suspicion of Suspicion: Wittgenstein and Bonhoeffer,” in Wrestling with Angels, (Eerdmans, 2007), 186, 193.

C. Nicholas Lash

My body is not simply this lump of matter by means of which I communicate with other people. My body is also the world constituted by the personal, social and economic relationships in which I share. These all form part of me. My language, my family, my city, are parts of my body. When I die, it is not merely this lump of matter that dies: the whole network of personal, family and social communications which I formed a part, dies a little too.

from Theology on Dover Beach, (Wipf and Stock, 2005), 174-5. Cf. Theology on the Way to Emmaus, 175; Seeing in the Dark, 112-3.

Rowan Williams on the forgiveness of sins

Rowan Williams on the forgiveness of sins

“Belief in forgiveness is just as much a matter of faith as anything else in the creed. It is no more obvious and demonstrable than the existence of God or the divinity of Jesus Christ. This is perfectly clear if we think a little about the meaning of forgiveness and the realities of human existence and relationship. I am what I am because of what I have been and done, good and bad. My self is woven out of a great web of complicated motivation, reflections, intentions, and actions, some of which have turned out to be creative, while others have been destructive for myself and for other people. And mature persons need to be able to see and accept the inevitability of others – to own the whole of ourselves, to acknowledge realities both past and present, to destroy all the crippling illusions about ourselves that lock us up in selfish fantasies about our power or independence. I depend on the past, and it is part of me; to deny it is to deny myself. I am my history.”

Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness, 3rd Ed., (Cowley Publications, 1995), 49.

Rowan Williams on religious interiority

Rowan Williams on religious interiority

My obscurity to myself, yours to me, and mine to you, are not puzzles, waiting for fruitful suspicion to uncover the real script, Marxian, Freudian, sociobiological (though all these stories may be true, need finding out). They are to do with the inescapability of taking time. ‘I do not really know myself’ must be heard as ‘I don’t yet know what to say; how to speak so that others listen and answer and build up in their words a way for me to go on speaking so that others may answer; how to become a partner in the world.’ The sense of a choked or imprisoned or elusive interiority is, on this account, a sense of skills not yet learned and nourishment not given, of not knowing what it might be to be heard and so set free — which is why the resolution suggested by a religious believer like Bonhoeffer has such powerful pertinence: I have been ‘heard’ by God, and I have been given words — of praise and penitence and thanks — that direct me away from the question of how I shall ‘know myself.’ I have been given time to learn what to say, with the help of the language of praise; because this is a language in which my finitude and limit are affirmed at the same time as my freedom and value, I may better learn from this how to speak to others without assuming their refusal, giving time to them and inviting them to give it to me.

Religious interiority, then, means the learning of patterns of behavior that reinforce the awareness of my finite and provisional status, my being in time. It is neither a flight from relation, not the quest for an impossible transparency or immediacy in relation but that which equips us for knowing and being known humanly, taking time with the human world and not aiming to have done with knowing (and desiring). Religious language can be the ally of projects of ‘suspicion’ to the extent that they question the easy, restrictive social practice that discourages taking time (puzzlement, invitation, dialogue) — the kind of practice or discourse we label ‘superficial’; the ‘false consciousness’ of the Marxist. The point at which suspicion itself is under criticism is when it comes itself to the point of discouraging the taking of time. The religious critique, as formulated by the writers we have been looking at (I have no qualms about seeing Wittgenstein’s polemic as ‘religious’ in this context), directs itself against the potentially tragic and inevitable self-and-other-diminishing fantasy of abstracting knowledge from attention and response, from a material history of action — from the world, in fact. But what sets it apart from pure human pragmatism is that it proposes to us a self-description enabling us to set aside once and for all the illusion that our value or ‘reality’ depends on the success with which we can activate a suprahistorical knowing subject in penetrating to the hidden structures beneath the world of time and flesh. As Augustine memorably put it, we are driven at last to fling ourselves down upon the human mortality, the skin and bone, in which the Wisdom of God speaks to us so that “in its resurrection we too shall rise.”

Rowan Williams, “The Suspicion of Suspicion: Wittgenstein and Bonhoeffer,” in The Grammar of the Heart: Thinking with Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein: New Essays in Moral Philosophy and Theology, Ed. Richard H. Bell, (Harper & Row, 1988), 50-51. Essays collected in honor of Paul L. Holmer