Being as Communion

beingA few years ago,  I picked up a book by the Greek Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas entitled, Being as Communion.  It was not an easy read, and as a consequence, I have probably read it three times over the years.  I was drawn to what the book was trying to express, even though I found it difficult to penetrate.

On a basic level, what I now understand that book to in part be saying is that each of us is brought into being as and through communion with God and the human family.  That is, our “self” is given to us through an inevitable act of communion between us and the community of which we are a part, including God.  Indeed, Zizioulas points out the the Christian vision of God as Trinity is a vision of God’s being as communion.  In the Christian vision, the oneness of God arises from communion.  Existence is communion.  Everything is communion.

As we have begun at my church to explore the work of the theologian James Alison, we have encountered a line of thought which he has borrowed and adapted from the philosopher Rene Girard about the social other.  Alison defines the social other as everything that exists, everything that has been created (God, therefore, is not a part of the social other, since God is not a creature of creation).   He argues that for each of us, our “self” is given to us by the social other.  We come into being through the social other, beginning with the actions of our parents which begin to bring us about, and continuing after we are born and encounter our families and, as time goes by, wider communities.  In other words, none of us exists in and of him- or herself.  We exist, each of us, because the social other has brought us into being.

As we mature, the self that is given to us by and through the social other begins to interact and negotiate with that social other in important ways.  As we encounter new people, new communities, and new cultures, new possibilities of being are offered to us and we must make choices.  But all the choices come to us from the social other, even though we may appropriate them in new and creative ways.

In some respects, this is dense stuff, and I don’t pretend to yet understand it perfectly or represent it adequately.  But what is clear to me is that John Zizioulas, James Alison, Rene Girard, and probably an abundance of other thinkers are pointing to what seems to me a fundamental truth of our humanity:  that our notions of our individuality are illusory.  Rather, we are brought into being by and through communion, by and through the social other, and the self that we know and take such pride in is a self that arises from a complex web of relationships.  Indeed, this is a truth that is expressed in various ways through nearly all of the world’s religious traditions.

To put it as simply as possible, there is no “I” outside of relationship.  Relationship is life, and life is relationship.  Another reason, perhaps, why Jesus was so keen that we should love our neighbors as ourselves — because it is our neighbors, broadly conceived, that are bringing us into being every day.

The Great Allower

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Recently, I have begun reading the book Immortal Diamond, newly published by Richard Rohr.  It’s a great book, and I commend it to you. There are a number of passages already in the book that have gotten my attention, and one in particular.  Rohr writes,

God is the Great Allower, despite all attempts of ego, culture, and even religion to prevent God from allowing.  Show me where God does not allow.  God lets women be raped and raped women conceive, God lets tyrants succeed, and God lets me make my own mistakes again and again.  He does not enforce his own commandments.  God’s total allowing of everything has in fact become humanity’s major complaint.  Conservatives so want God to smite sinners that they find every natural disaster to be proof of just that, and then they invent some of their own smiting besides.  Liberals reject God because God allows holocausts and torture and does not fit inside their seeming logic.  If we were truly being honest, God is both a scandal and a supreme disappointment to most of us.  We would prefer a God of domination and control to a God of allowing, as most official prayers make clear.

— Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, pp. 18-19

I was quite struck by this image of God as the Great Allower, an image that rings deeply true for me, for all the reasons that Rohr cites.  And I am also struck by Rohr’s observation that this so flies in the face of who we really want God to be.

We have a tendency to want God to be a Supreme Being, the all-powerful One who can do whatever God wants to do in the world.  We have a tendency, I think, to view God as something like a parent – only a Super Parent, much more powerful than our own parents.  But when God does not live up to this Super Parent image, we react, as Rohr observes, by being scandalized or disappointed.  We deal with this reaction by inventing opportunities to see God at work, punishing the wicked, or we decide there really is no God at all.  Or, that God is uninterested in us and has long since left the world on its own.  People can come up with some rather stunning feats of theological gymnastics to try to deal with their disappointment that God the Super Parent has not protected or helped or intervened in the way they imagine that he should.

All of this is why I find myself attracted to the language used by theologian James Alison with respect to God, whom he calls the “other Other.”  He uses this term to emphasize how much God is different from ourselves, and to make the point that God is not simply another being or thing in the universe.  God transcends all of our categories, and is properly not a “being” or a “thing” at all.  Yet, this transcendent God, this “other Other”, reaches out to us in a personal way.  And while this personal mode of reaching out to us enables us to connect with God, it is also a temptation to imagine that God is another person like ourselves, only with massive power and knowledge.  We seize upon our experience of God as personal and extrapolate that to imagine God as a human being writ large.

Not only does our image of God as a Super Parental Person-Like Being pose problems, so do our assumptions about the way God should interact with our world.  We assume that the power to make things happen according to our will is the greatest power there is.  And so, we assume that if God is all-powerful, then it must mean that God can and will make things happen according to God’s will.   And yet, the Gospels themselves, in describing to us the life of Jesus, indicate that this is not where the greatest power lies.  Jesus, quite deliberately, did not impose himself on others.  He did not exercise power over people in order to make his will be done.  Indeed, the life of Jesus suggests that for God, the greatest power lies not in making things happen, but rather in being present.  God in Christ shows up in people’s lives, is present with them in their lives, and by that very presence, opens up new possibilities.  But the realization of those possibilities is never forced by Jesus: it is always dependent on the willingness of people to respond to those possibilities.

And I think it is the presence of God with the universe that makes the universe itself a possibility, including, of course, our lives in the universe and on this world.  We generally assume that God caused all of this to come into being as a manifestation of God’s will.  But perhaps it is more appropriate to consider that God “showed up” and allowed the universe, and everything in it, to come into being.  God’s very presence opened up new possibilities for being that arose and evolved.  And God’s presence with us opens up new possibilities for us, but they are possibilities that we must act upon.  We have been waiting and praying for God to act.  But perhaps the greatest power of God is not in acting, but in being present so that we may act.

We All Fall Down

Ash+CrossI have no idea who Jenni Friedman is (and, shockingly, I haven’t Googled her!), but I saw a quote attributed to her that I like:

Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our humanity.

And, that is precisely so.  The liturgy for Ash Wednesday (which is next week, on Feb. 13) is all about reminding us of three fundamental truths that we often prefer to ignore:

  • that death is waiting for each of us (or, put another way, time’s a-wastin’)
  • that in our head-long rush through life, we make plenty of mistakes (we all fall down — multiple times!)
  • that God is waiting for us to turn from this head-long rush so that we might find life and forgiveness in God

The first of these truths seems obvious enough.  Each of us is mortal, each of us has a limited time on this earth.  Much ancient spiritual wisdom counsels us to live with an awareness of this reality, not so as to make us morbid and sad creatures, but actually to help us appreciate what a tremendous gift life is to us and that each precious day of it should be embraced as fully as possible.  Yet, most of us go through life pretending that our time frame for this life is infinite, as if death will never come to us.   Ash Wednesday is meant to be a forceful reminder that this way of living is self-deceptive:  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

There is a big focus in the Ash Wednesday service on sin — again, not a popular topic with most of us.  Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that sin does indeed cling closely.   This does not mean that we are horrible, terrible creatures that deserve nothing but contempt.  It simply means that we make mistakes, and a lot of them.  Some of these mistakes are small, others are huge.  The net sum of these mistakes is that we end up living distorted lives and we bring distortion into the lives of others.   The forcefulness of the “sin language” in church on Ash Wednesday is a testament to how hard it is to get us to admit that we do make mistakes that cause real pain for ourselves and for others.

The third truth I mentioned is perhaps the least obvious.  It is captured preeminently in the words “repent” and “repentance” on Ash Wednesday.   Far from being an invitation to feel badly about ourselves and sorry for all of our mistakes, the invitation to repentance is really an invitation to recognize that the only way we can deal effectively with the reality of death is by finding life in God — life that cannot be taken away from us.  It is also an invitation to accept God’s gift of forgiveness — a gift that frees us from our need for perfection, from our guilt over our mistakes, and liberates us to embrace the mistake-ridden yet beloved people that we are.

Ash Wednesday, perhaps more than any other day in the church calendar, invites us to get real about ourselves.  Indeed, it insists that we get real about ourselves.  And it launches us into the gift of Lent, a season in which we are invited to practice living with the knowledge that we all fall down, multiple times, and yet God invites us to get real, to turn toward God, and to live in the grace of forgiving love.