Wednesday, June 22, 2011

distance, freedom, responsibility

I have been lately missing my brother and sister. I cannot say much more than this, at least at the moment. They live in California, at the very south-western corner of the United States, and I live in British Columbia, in Victoria, at the very south-western corner of Canada. The geographical distance which exists between us is rather aching evidence that even with those close to us, trusting in mutual growth and abiding love is all we can do. Often it feels that we are having no real influence, and are not being influenced, by the love we have for each other, and which binds us.

If only we could get rid of space and time and responsibilities, then we could meet together and really connect. Right? As much modern philosophy would have it, freedom is understood as only possible when you and I, as independent and self-contained subjects, meet within the neutral common-ground of transparent discourse and unmotivated proximity. Only when everything unique about us has either been ignored or explained into irrelevance can true free, and thus loving, community happen.

Surely this quasi-gnostic refusal of time, linguistic ambiguity and physical embodiment is not the answer. We see the problems of the attempts to (often quite coercively) inaugurate such Habermasian perfect discourse situations in the very vacuity of the discussions about the nature of the human/common good which take place within governmental congresses and academic conferences. As for the various other organizations which unwittingly or quite enthusiastically support the continued ravages of global capitalism and/or a 'soft' totalitarianism (like the World Bank, of the IMF), need we say anything more?

Yet in this very feeling of incapacity there is room for a more genuine understanding of freedom and relation to emerge. For freedom (Galatians 5:1) is the only real condition for our coming together (Matthew 18:20), yet so often what passes as freedom - our choices made in the twilight of certainty, at the far edge of the world of peace we strive so hard to dream of - seem fraught with consequences both unknowable and therefore seemingly outside the scope of providential patterning. In other words, it is when we are separated - ignorant, afraid, arrogant, stubborn - that coming together again, communing, has especial sweetness, and indeed seems to be something which, like a good idea, seems almost to 'occur to' us.

This is all very nice and clean-cut. But what about in the meanwhile? How should we think of the nature of our actions, in relation to those we love (and thus in regard to a desire for mutual influence), and in relation to the more troubling and broken aspects of existence (which includes not only 'the world out there' but also our very selves)? How do we go on doing and making and thinking and wanting and praying when there seems no way to trace out how such things have an effect?

The Anglican theologian John Milbank has some interesting thoughts on this. He acknowledges that we really cannot know the effects our actions have, and that while this is frustrating, it is also probably quite good for us (lest we claim to exceed finitude through self-possession {a.k.a. The Fall}). What he proposes in his essay 'A Christological Poetics' is that we should think of our activity in the world as "a simultaneous and risky openness both to grace and the possibility of sinful distortion – for which one is responsible and not responsible – within every action which is always from the first ‘other’ to itself, and hence always already a series of actions and not a single action alone.

But, conversely, the later series of actions still forms but a single action, such that all the actors taken collectively in their diachronic series constitute humanity as at last free and responsible. If they (through all history) we may believe, are open to receive by grace the work of humanity, then here is only trust, and no risk of sinful distortion, since here at last the only other co-partner in responsibility is God. Yet this means: only humans together and through all history are the one free human subject, free to receive their own work.” (126-27).

This provides, perhaps, a quite startling understanding of our freedom, one that makes something like monastic prayer for the peace of the world totally vital and indispensable. For prayer, in the eyes of the world (like art) is quite useless. Yet if we take a moment to consider how ambiguous and little are the ultimate effects of actions which are deemed very 'useful' by the world, and how prayer transcends the calculus of mere efficiency, how it undergoes a daily quest for the world's healing and awakening into the knowledge that it is and has always been and will forever be the beloved child of God, how it refashions our very mode of existential relation with the Creator and Redeemer into one of realism and gratitude and hope; then perhaps prayer is the most important thing of all.

It is prayer, in this light, which constitutes our very freedom, as stuttering, tongue-tied interlocutors with the Word himself, making ever more evident (and yet all the more mysterious) that the place of our speech with God is more often than not the very embodied interactions we have with others, friends and enemies, strangers and neighbors. We are in it together. Indeed, as Rowan Williams recently wrote in The New Statesman, "there is another theological strand to be retrieved that is not about "the poor" as objects of kindness but about the nature of sustainable community, seeing it as one in which what circulates - like the flow of blood - is the mutual creation of capacity, building the ability of the other person or group to become, in turn, a giver of life and responsibility. Perhaps surprisingly, this is what is at the heart of St Paul's ideas about community at its fullest; community, in his terms, as God wants to see it" (para. 9).

This, as a manifestation of the importance of prayer, is an insight long understood by Orthodox monasticism, I think (which comes as no surprise given the Archbishop of Canterbury's intimate association with Orthodox thought); that we are in fact our brothers' and sisters' keepers, that the suffering of others - through Christ's own radical self-identification with 'the least of these' - is our own suffering, whether we recognize it or not, and that I am not free until all have been made free in Christ. For true responsibility, after all, is a sort of thankfulness for our own free ability to respond to God's gift of himself, and to the gifts that we all are to each other in Him. And yet through sheer stubbornness and pride, how often do we close ourselves off to what others have to give! These are difficult realizations.

In light of all this, my missing of my brother and sister is reoriented and imbued with perhaps not a more romantic sense, but a soberer and more acute sense that their presence, in Christ's patient and incomprehensible waiting for and guiding of us to see ourselves as He sees us (as infinitely beloved), is a presence more near than the very table at which I sit and type, insofar as they have shaped me, and insofar as I am willing to let them to continue to shape me, in part through remembrance, and in part through seeking to be in their presence again. For love is nothing less than a vital expression of my freedom to be with others, to choose to extend beyond the (illusory) walls of my 'buffered' self.

And in this sense part of what would be a genuine response to missing my brother and sister in California is to also direct my attention toward my brothers and sisters (friends and enemies, strangers and neighbors) up in Victoria. Where we find ourselves as yet incapable (and we shall!), we trust in and pray for God's mercy, abundant and ubiquitous, like air.

That amazing Oxford Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins says it better.

Sometimes a lantern moves along the night,
That interests our eyes. And who goes there?
I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?

Men go by me whom either beauty bright
In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.

Death or distance soon consumes them: wind
What most I may eye after, be in at the end
I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.

Christ minds: Christ's interest, what to avow or amend
There, eyes them, heart wants, care haunts, foot follows kind,
Their ransom, their rescue, and first, fast, last friend.

'The Lantern Out of Doors,' by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

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