Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Truce of God 2: “The Truce of God”

“The truce of God” was instituted by the Cluny monastery in medieval times. It sought to restrict the fighting amongst Christians to three days per week. Sound ridiculous? Well, that’s the point: Christians taking communion and then turning and fighting each other is ridiculous (25). “When King Henry II refused to give the kiss of peace at Mass to Thomas Beckett, he was a better theologian than he knew. He recognized that giving the kiss would not only suggest he was at peace with Thomas (which he was not), but would also commit him to seeking peace (which he did not want to do).” (26)

The suspension of hostilities is something that goes beyond governing Christians’ relations with Christians, however. For the call of God is extended to all humanity, and thus the church doesn’t know where its ultimate boundaries will lie. “The Church proclaims that there is one human destiny and that is found in relation to one focal figure, Jesus; but also that what this human destiny means cannot be worked out without ‘communion’, a relation of costly and profound involvement with each other and receiving from each other.” (27) Hence the church lives to unsettle [by its very nature], living in “creative dissatisfaction” as “a compelling symbol of a humanity able to live by sharing and by loving, reverent mutual attention” (29). And hence the church, as sacrament of common human destiny, is catholic. “It strives to show and interpret and share the gifts of one person or group or nation, offering them to all; and to each, it offers the resources of all.” (31) The church represents that future “given coherence by Jesus, in which each human partner in communion has a distinct and unrepeatable gift to share, and cannot therefore be ignored or discounted.” (39)

It is this which opposes, in political policy, any situation of “balance of terror”, that “the welfare of some may rightly be secured by the dispensability of others.” (38) Williams develops this by looking at the price paid by the world (especially Africa and Latin America, for the “peace” brought to the West through nuclear détente, the MADness of mutually assured destruction. The sixties and seventies should have been the decades of development and responsible government for newly de-colonized Africa, for instance. Instead, Africa became a site where the conflict of East and West was displaced in endless, bloody local conflicts (37).

How does the church bear witness to this future? Through [a good Williams word] “attentiveness”, [be]holding the other in contemplation. This is a theologically rooted and ethically directed contemplation. Contemplation is what is owed to God, and to other creatures: to God “because he is inexhaustibly what he is, resisting capture and analysis, always more, always further” (39); to creatures [which bear witness to God] which take us beyond the power of the ego to control through “rendering”, and which cannot be reduced to “our plans, projects and expectations” (39). That which is not reducible to human control bears witness to the Transcendent.

But contemplation is also God’s way with creation. “Creation is there because of the limitless capacity of God for contemplation—allowing the other to be, and engaging with the other, shaping a common story of God and the world, a shared ‘drama’.” (40) But God does not engage with creation out of need, for God’s love (contemplation) is his nature. And what for God “is nature, for us is destiny, vocation.” We are the image of God the creator, in time, while at the same time we have to grow into this image by living in a creation which “delights and assaults” us in its mystery, and by living in “a world of persons in which we can be invited to love by finding ourselves the objects of love, where we learn contemplative attention as we ourselves are attended to.” (41)

We can, however, also deny creatureliness in “a struggle to remake the world around [the] self”, to refuse the network of mutually supporting relationships (42). Beyond this stands “the privacy of Satan”, “diabolic detachment” (43), and at the limit “the Luciferian impulse to destroy reality for my sake” (42)—or suicide. This satanic “freedom” is actually bondage [a freedom to violate]. God’s freedom “is seen in the creation of bonds and networks of sharing, making a world which he wills, in Jesus and in his Church, to be engaged.” (43) To learn this kind of freedom and to refuse the other requires “the patience of attentive love.” (43)

This is quite a powerful chapter. It reminds me of what attracts me most to Williams: his ability to take essentially Augustinian themes [e.g. the complex relation between contemplatio, caritas and eros] and to present them in [nearly?] un-Platonized ways, but ways also profound for understand the church and the world. He also refuses recourse to political pragmatism or Niebuhrian realism [and if ever there was a case to prove that Reinhold Niebuhr misreads Augustine, it’s in this chapter], choosing instead to interpret the world in the light of its destiny in Christ. “Nuclear peace” [the peace of Mutually Assured Destruction] is wrong because it violates our destiny given in Christ, and makes impossible the kind of life the church is called to bear witness to.

I think one can also read the struggles of the Anglican communion here, as Christians particularly from the global South anathematize their brothers and sisters from the global North, and vice versa. In his response to our Anglican “wars of religion” Williams’ strategy has been to try to do two things [arguably neither particularly well]: (1) hold the different parts of the church together, compelling them to listen to each other (because the catholic vision says each has a gift that the other needs); (2) acknowledge the giftedness of all individual members of the church, especially those silenced (gays in particular). He's been accused of "selling out the cause" by liberals in not pushing through the progressive agenda he championed in the 1990s. I don't think this criticism is fair. His critics also complain that (2) is being sacrificed for the sake of (1). And in this criticism they’re not wrong, in my opinion. Learning “the patience of attentive love” is a [life]long and excruciating [and note well the etymology of that word!] at times difficult process. Is it also exclusionary? Can we learn "the patience of attentive love" in a covenant where an inner, conservative circle is separated from an outer, liberal circle?

That’s the question we can only answer in hindsight as a communion. Living in media res can be a bummer.

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