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Tensions: Necessary Conflicts in Life and Love – H. A. Williams

August 30, 2015

TsHarry Williams was able to help a generation by linking his experience of mental breakdown with modern psychology and theology so as to make sense of Christianity. However, a generation on, it’s almost as if he never existed., given some of the cheap grace and pap which is preached from the pulpits of many popular churches today.

We are called to grow up and reject simplistic, dogmatic assertions. It is possible to be orthodox without being conservative.

It’s even more relevant forty years on.


“Whoever will save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life will save it.” In everything he said he made clear that there is no such thing as an easy, comfortable, placid relationship with God. If we think that there is and that we have attained to it, that merely shows that we are asleep or dead or, perhaps more accurately, simply as yet unborn. We haven’t begun to be disciples of Jesus unless we know something, a very little, of the joy—with which he endured the cross.

Examples come easily to mind which will be gone into more fully later:

God is the ground of our being, the source from which we continually flow. Yet, while acknowledging our entire dependence upon God, there is a sense in which we have to fight for our independence over against Him in order that our individual personal identity may be established and con­firmed.

there are generally not two but hundred sides to every question. And this has very profound consequences in the realm of belief. If our beliefs are cut and dried, it means that we have anaesthetized ourselves against nine-tenths reality.

we can love God and our neighbour only at the expense of also being able to hate both of them. That is what Camus meant when he said that every blasphemy is a participation in holiness. Unless we are ready to entertain this conflict between love and hatred we shall never grow in the love of God or man. Drive the conflict underground and you deaden yourself, and your protest against your own deadness will manifest itself in neurosis, in one of those sterile destructive forms of tension from which we have to be healed and delivered.

Action, too, must bring its own conflicts. For to act means to choose to do one thing rather than another. It would be easy to act if by nature we were infallible or if we could fulfil every single possibility which presents itself to us. But neither of these conditions holds. We have always to act without fully knowing the consequences of what we do and without knowing what would have happened if we had done the other thing.

There is also conflict in all knowledge, in all our acts of knowing. Kant pointed out beyond refutation that we can never by observation and thought know things as they are in themselves. For, in order to be able to observe it at all, we have to put what we observe in mental frames which belong to us and not to the object observed.

that in prayer we not only meet God. We also in some sense become God.

I have tried briefly to summarize some of the healthy life-giving tensions in which we are all inevitably involved. I have also hinted more than once that we fall a prey to neurotic destructive tensions because of our failure to recognize and accept those tensions that are healthy and creative.

Because we have refused life with all the conflicts it inevitably involves, life will be against us instead of on our side. Or rather—and this is of cardinal importance—it will be against the perversions which masquerade as ourselves. That is a theme found frequently in the Old Testament: Yahweh will fight against his own people because they are not being authentically themselves—”But they rebelled and vexed his holy Spirit; therefore he was turned to be their enemy and fought against them.” Just as physical pain is a warning that all is not well with us and something needs to be done, so neurosis is a similar warning. It is a call to repentance—not to repentance in its all too familiar garb of moralism and religiosity, but to real repentance: a fundamental change in our whole outlook and attitude, a radical reorientation of our lives, a new beginning which is like being born again.

Clearly in rabbinic thought there is something extremely ambiguous about the Evil Inclination. First of all it is never doubted that God made it. Nor is it a matter simply of heredity; God implants the Evil Inclination directly in the soul of every individual at the moment of his conception or birth. Yet in his morning prayers the pious Jew asked—and still asks—God to guard him from the Evil Inclination: “Lead us not into the power of sin, or of transgression or iniquity or of temptation: let not the Evil Inclination have sway over us.” The Law is often thought of as the antidote to the Evil Inclination: “I created the Evil Inclination; I created for it the Law as a remedy. If ye are occupied with the Law, ye shall not be delivered into its hands.” …”God looked on everything He had made and behold it was very good,” says: “Is the Evil Inclination then very good? Certainly, for without it man would not build a house, nor marry, nor engage in trade.” The question was sometimes raised whether the Evil Inclination was to be found in animals. One rabbi said that certainly it was, because animals bite and kick.

It looks as if what the rabbis called the Evil Inclination is something like what we call aggres­sion, and they had too much insight and honesty to condemn it simply as evil. It was evil certainly from one point of view and one should pray to be delivered from it. But, on the other hand, it was created by God and was the source of man’s own creative capacities. Without it man would not be man. And it was by means of his Evil Inclination, of his aggression, that man was to love the Lord his God.

that it is God’s will that a man should be fully himself; and that if a man is to be fully himself his relationship to God cannot find expression only or exclusively in terms of depen­dence. If I may once more borrow from the rabbis, they interpreted Jacob’s wrestling with the angel at Peniel as his wrestling with God for a good covenant, for good terms. And because Jacob was not just passively dependent but took the appalling risk of wrestling with God for good terms, he got them. He was blessed “for as a prince hast thou power with God and with man and hast pre­vailed”.

This insight was not unique to Jewish antiquity. You find it also in Greece. Much of Greek drama is concerned with that knife-edge between depen­dence on the powers that be and the necessity to assert one’s own autonomy. Fall either side and you are destroyed. Hubris certainly is punished. But you can also fall a victim to mania.

In a nutshell the inner conflict we are concerned with is this: in order to be people and not ciphers we must needs fight that on which we rely.

What does this mean in practice?

Karl Barth once said very characteristically that to call God “Father” is not to speak of God anthropomorphically but to speak of man theo­morphically.

the characteristic ambiguities, conflicts and crises which are part and parcel of a son’s healthy and maturing relationship with his earthly father will inevitably find their counterpart in a man’s relationship with God. As well as love and obedience, there will be resentment, rebellion and self-assertion—the bid, in short, for indepen­dence. Conflict of this kind is absolutely necessary if our relationship with God is to grow into maturity. And unless this absolute necessity is recognized, we shall misunderstand what is happening to us and be weighed down by an appalling load of guilt; or we shall repress the conflict so that it can find only a sneaking and perverted expression below the level of conscious­ness while we apparently remain God’s good little boys, futile and ineffective half-people.

What I wonder is whether we can truly love God unless from time to time we disbelieve in His existence. I suspect that to love God with all our heart will sometimes, perhaps often, involve us in being atheists. We must not evade the conflict of our atheism. We must be ready to accept the tension of our discovery at certain times that we think the whole Christian bundle of tricks is a lot of bloody nonsense. The last thing God wants is “yes-men”, for a “yes-man” is a far deeper denial of Him as creator than a man who can say “No”.

Jesus had reached the point where he could say nothing else than “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” that he was able afterwards to say “Consummatum est”. It was by his willingness at that point to become an atheist that he consummated his love for God.

Killing the father off, however, is only one form of the conflict. There is also sneering, ridicule, defiance, disobedience. Here our critical reason will seldom allow us to recognize what in fact we are doing. What I mean is that, granted our premises of belief, it is just absurd to sneer at God and ridicule Him. So instead we divert our anti-God feeling towards God-associated things: religious formularies and practices, pious people, our religious leaders, the church, the Bible, and so on.

What is really absurd and really blasphemous (since it defies the order of creation) is to imagine that we can love God without at times feeling highly aggressive towards Him. There is often more love in a “Christ Almighty” than there is in a spiritually castrated “Alleluia”.

Almost everybody needs to get somewhere, and to push himself to get there, for it is only after that successful self-assertion that he can begin to mature.

We do not pass through it gradually but steadily. Our maturity is a matter of fits and starts. At times we shall find that costly self-giving love is indeed a genuine expression of what we are. At other times we shall find the contrary. There is a wonderfully heart-warming letter which towards the end of her life the Spanish St Teresa wrote to a favourite friar. The friar had promised to go and see her but had been prevented by legitimate work. There is no holy resignation in St Teresa’s reply to the friar’s letter of apology. It is one long delightful and charmingly expressed grouse, such as might have been written by any woman of her education and literary talents. We love her for it and we love God, because she had the courage to be human.

the fundamental part which evil seems inescapably to play in the production of good—a terrifying fact from which much conventional Christian thinking hides by separating off redemp­tion from creation as though the Redeemer were not Himself the Creator. That separation is a funk-hole which produces either deadness or that protest against deadness which is neurosis. Yet, as a matter of formal theology and inherited belief, we do admit that evil is the instrument by means of which goodness is supremely revealed and su­premely effective. Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus, but the Son of Man goes thereby to his destiny as it is written of him. And for St John the judicial murder of Jesus is his exaltation. The men who crucify Jesus provide the context by means of which he accomplishes his work and is glorified.

St Paul tells us that we walk by faith, not by sight. Sight stands for complete certainty, the absolute inability to doubt. People sometimes confuse faith with sight as though if faith were perfect it would be sight, as though perfect faith would consist of complete certainty, that absolute inability to doubt which belongs to sight alone. On this false assumption we may equate growth in faith with growth in certainty, and we may confuse growth in certainty with the anaesthetizing of our critical intelligence. If so, we haven’t in fact grown more certain. We have only put to sleep the man within us who asks awkward questions. The result is either some form of disguised funda­mentalism—what the Bible or the Church are supposed to say—or an irresponsible complacency which supposes that some clever thinker or scholar, unknown to us, has demonstrated that what we believe is true.

repressed doubt can make us into yelling zealots, fascists of the spirit who think the noise they make is designed to persuade others while it is really designed to persuade themselves. Here the Middle Ages provide an obvious example. Conventionally they are described as the ages of faith. But in fact it was faith confused with sight so that in the cause of certainty doubt was repressed. But it was not eliminated. It took the perverted form of torturing heretics and burning them at the stake, just as Hegel said of the Athenian people who killed Socrates: “It was a force within themselves that they were punishing.”

With luck the repressed conflict will lead to total breakdown whereby we somehow unconsciously force ourselves to face and receive what we have previously hidden away from, even at the cost of personal disintegration. And then we can start again from scratch because the old self has disintegrated. And that is genuine repentance which is always a dying to live, the homage of all we are to the life-giving cross.

Perhaps we could find a parallel in the kind of stormy marriage where the couple are devoted to each other but express their affection by bickering. So must faith and doubt live together, providing a tension which is creative.

the created order doubtless reveals to us something of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But it also denies Him. When the mighty fact of evil is not ignored or evaded it is bound to lace with doubt whatever religious convictions we imagine ourselves to entertain. And the initial questions—how can nature be red in tooth and claw and so totally indifferent to human suffering?—is the first step to that ultimate question: “My God, my God, why halt thou forsaken me?” Upon the cross there was no sophisticated rationalization about the foolishness of God, but the simple and suffering acceptance of plain destructive contradiction. Yet—here is the Christian paradox—it was precisely through and by means of the simple and suffering acceptance of destructive contradiction that there was achieved that fullness of knowledge where knowledge and life are one and the same. As man, it was through the grave and gate of doubt that Jesus passed to his risen and indestructible knowledge of God. And that is the pattern for us too, as for all men.

Perhaps in the short run they are ineffective if being a Christian means being a recruiting sergeant or getting people to vote for your particular religious party. But in the long run those prepared to admit that there is far more they don’t know than they do can be much more effective than others. In an autobiographical passage Albert Schweitzer wrote of his experience of preparing young people for confirmation when he was a Lutheran pastor in Germany. Most of his colleagues gave to their young people the impres­sion that Christianity explained a great deal about this world and the next. Schweitzer emphasized that Christianity explained very little indeed, that most was unknown. Then came the First World War. On the whole, Schweitzer says, the young men who had been told that Christianity gave most of the answers returned from the trenches having given up religion altogether, while those who had been warned that Christianity explained very little returned as still practising Christians. It was the pastor who not only admitted but did nothing to disguise his own cross of faith who in the long run was the most effective. If people are truly to share our faith, we must allow them also to share our doubt and the agnosticism which is its inevitable corollary. We must be ready to admit freely that there are important areas of Christian experience which contradict other important areas. We have already noticed predestination and free will. As another example we could cite the Christian evaluation of history. We are often told that Christianity takes history seriously. We hear a lot about God acting through His mighty works in history, and so on. But the fulfilment of all things is not, so Christians believe, within history at all. It is beyond history in the new heaven and new earth of the Apocalypse. If God works in history we might reasonably expect the historical order to become better and better. But that is not the pattern. The pattern is death and resurrection.

the tension between commitment and enquiry. We have to scrutinize, criticize, sometimes even attack, what we love and value most in the world.

Others will refuse enquiry, taking the view that Nicaea and Chalcedon have said the last word. But the living Christian future will belong to those ready to accept both commitment and enquiry in spite of the very great discomfort brought by the tension between the two.

By temperament, some of us are traditionals and some prophetics. There is no reason why either tempera­ment should despise the other, but each must fully accept the cross of faith and be ready to be pulled in two ways at once ….The traditionals will feel guilty for being fascinated by the dangerously new (“it was a force within themselves that they were punishing”). The prophetics will feel guilty (as we have seen) for criticizing and discarding the old and accepted. Only when each is ready to bear his particular cross will the tension between the two be creative. In our own age one of the great signs of God’s presence with His people is the way in which, since Vatican 2, the Roman church has recognized and accepted this aspect of the cross of faith. And the process was initiated by a pope who by temperament was one of the most traditional of men. For was not Pope John reprimanded by the Church Times itself because as a personal preparation for the opening of the council he went on pilgrimage to the Holy House at Loreto? I hope that one day the angels will repay us for all the fun we must give them. You must be prepared for what began as prophetic insight to become part of the hallowed tradition. T H Huxley said that new truths begin as heresies and end as superstitions

The tension of faith is one of the most exciting and stimulating things life has to offer. Once again let us recall the joy set before him with which, the New Testament tells us, Jesus endured the cross. As we have seen all along, faith has its very grim side “for the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discovering the thoughts-and intentions of the heart”. But, for all that, faith is also fun. “Shall I, a gnat which dances in Thy ray, dare to be reverent?”

Our knowledge is in part veridical and in part imaginary. It consists, as Wordsworth put it, of what we half create and half perceive.

If that is true with regard to earthly things, how much greater is the degree of contradiction, the swing between unity and separation, which is involved when we are concerned with heavenly things. Like all other intellectual disciplines, theology must try as best it can to describe what is in fact the case. It must be concerned with what is there, with Reality. But in its attempts to describe Reality, theology is up against a fundamental difficulty. The Reality theology attempts to describe passes infinitely beyond the range of earthly things.

when it is objected that an established Christian doctrine is not a photograph of Reality at all, but of necessity no more than a collection of hints about Reality which both inform and misinform at the same time, the cry generally goes up that Christian thinkers are losing their nerve in the face of contemporary scepticism, that they are guilty of the trahison des clercs, and so forth, as if Clement of Alexandria and the rest had never lived at all.

For in the realm of knowledge, as everywhere else, to be invulnerable is not to be immortal. It is only to be dead.

In the Christian past this fact was put out in three main forms. There was the way of negation, what the Eastern Orthodox describe as the apophatic method: roughly, you say in the same breath that something both is and isn’t. There was the way of analogy which the schoolmen endeavoured to refine into what they believed to be almost a precision instrument: God could not be described directly. But in earthly things and earthly relations there was that which in some way or other corresponded to the Divine and its relation to the world. The crux here was the “some way or other” of the correspondence, so that the argument turned upon the question: In what way? And there was the way of paradox, favoured by the Reformed tradition. The Divine could be described only in terms which were apparently contradictory

Thought does not move au­tonomously in a social vacuum. It is always in large part the product of the social context in which it thrives.

We can think and speak of God, who by definition is absolute, eternal and unchanging, only in terms which are relative and ephemeral and highly conditioned by the society and culture in which we live. What, therefore, looks (and to many feels) like treachery and disloyalty to Christian truth may in fact be the highest form of loyalty to it, enabling it to have life and to prevail by restating it in terms which are sociologically contemporary—that is, in terms of the mental and emotional air in which we live and move and have our being.

Christian doctrines are like the theoretical models of science. They are neither literal pictures nor useful fictions. Christian doctrines are not a game of “Let’s pretend that so-and-so is the case in order that we may lead better and more loving lives.” They are an attempt to describe what is really there by the best models available at any time. But the models can provide only partial and inadequate descriptions, and they may speak meaningfully to one age and not to another.

If we refuse that death to the flesh and treat Reality and its models as one and the same, we become idolaters.

could say that Christian doctrines are symbolic representations of what is not directly accessible to our thought. And the symbolic representation has to be taken seriously but not literally.

That is another related aspect of the cross in our Christian knowledge, the tension between taking the symbol seriously but not literally. In this connection to flee from the cross is to identify seriousness with literalness so that we either take a doctrinal statement literally or abandon it al­together. That, I believe, has happened to a large extent with regard to the doctrine of Christ’s second coming. Those unable to take it literally have to all intents and purposes abandoned it altogether so that it has become a vestigial remain when in fact it should be telling us things of immense importance about the relation of the historical order to eternity.

Part of the difficulty we encounter in symbolic representation is that the symbol is the product of our creative imagination, and our creative imagi­nation needs to be held in check by our critical intelligence or discursive reason. Sometimes the one is entirely vanquished by the other. When the critical intelligence or discursive reason is entirely vanquished by the creative imagination, people will believe anything as the literal truth. The archetypes of the unconscious take over com­pletely: evil is believed to be literally a figure with horns and a tail in command of an army of demons; monks like St Joseph of Copertino are believed to be literally capable of flying like a bird—”Joseph flew upon an olive tree. . . . A marvellous thing it was to see the branch which sustained him swaying slightly, as though a bird had alighted upon it”; statues of the Madonna are believed to weep tears. When, on the other hand, the creative imagination is entirely vanquished by the critical intelligence you get rationalizations which flatten what is held to be the truth to a level which would be intolerably dull were it not often so extremely funny: the Five Thousand are fed by everybody suddenly remem­bering that they have picnic baskets, an odd thing to forget when you are hungry; the divine voice at the Transfiguration was that of a man hiding behind a bush; while at Cana of Galilee, as Vincent Taylor sourly remarked, the amount of wine created was excessive for the occasion. (Would he have been more impressed if the wine had been turned into water?)

To catch a glimpse of transcendent truth in its symbolic representation, the creative imagination and the critical intelligence have to be held in continual tension. They have, like the lion and the unicorn, to chase each other round the town. Symbols are life-giving so long as it is recognized that they exist to be broken. They tell us what is in fact the case so long as we do not identify the wine of truth with the wine-skins of symbol by which it is conveyed.

One of the reasons why we need to be reminded of the necessary cross in Christian understanding is that we all have a vested interest in not knowing the truth, so that we take refuge in substitutes we miscall orthodoxy. One way of putting this would be to say that religious systems exist in part to protect people from the living God. There is a permanent validity in the age-old tradition that he who sees a god dies. T S Eliot is perhaps overquoted: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” But there is the witness of the word “apprehend”. We apprehend the truth, but the adjective from that verb is “apprehensive”.

It is a contrast classically summed up by the author of The Cloud of Unknowing: “By love God may be gotten and holden, but by thought of understanding, never.”

It looks as if we have here to do with the familiar contrast between knowledge about and knowledge of. Theological understanding gives us knowledge about God, but the knowledge is always so ambivalent and uncertain that it can never even begin to get a grip on Him. Knowledge of God is a form of love. In God’s love for us and our responsive love for Him we have an immediate experience of Him which transcends thought.

Transposed to the level of earthly things it is the contrast between knowing some­body intimately because we love them and knowing all the details of their dossier while in personal terms we may know them only very slightly.

I intend in this chapter to speak about prayer. And the contrast I have just drawn between prayer and theology may make it look as if all the tensions belong to theology and none at all to prayer. But that is by no means so. Prayer has its own conflicts and there is no way of prayer which is not also the way of the cross. From one point of view conflict belongs to the very stuff of prayer.

There is, first of all, the tension between what so far I have only contrasted—prayer and theology. For the relation between these two is dialectical.

what we learn is stored within us rather like coal in a cellar. And the time comes when the coal will be used. What we have learnt intellectually by, say, the study of a book, may be kept within us unused for a long time as far as our communion with God is concerned. But the time may come when we are ready to receive existential­ly what we have known so far only intellectually.

God does not necessarily require’ His children to be theologians. Most of them aren’t. But God always treats us as the sort of people we are. If we are educated folk (and that includes educated laymen) study for us is an essential preliminary to prayer.

We speak and the ventriloquist’s dummy answers and so on. The cross of prayer here consists of accepting the humiliating fact that it is by means of something like the ventriloquist’s dummy that God does in reality often get through to us, and in recognizing that in any particular instance God may not be getting through to us at all and we are left speaking only to ourselves via the dummy. When this possibility is not recognized the results, notori­ously, can be destructive.

Your wife, you see, has very often to have thrown at her the rotten eggs you really want to throw at God. And the joke is that God is not in the slightest degree taken in by the pantomime by which you deceive yourself. He knows what we won’t admit to ourselves, that the rotten eggs are really meant for Him. When we experience God as a meeting with another to whom we are closely linked as to a father or a friend, then the ambivalence of our feelings is inevitable. It is far better to accept that fact honestly and admit it to ourselves than to repress it. There is great wisdom in Mrs Patrick Campbell’s warning not to do it in the street and frighten the horses. But that prudent condition observed, if you want to blaspheme, then for Christ’s sake blaspheme. If you want in your prayers to grouse, then for Christ’s sake grouse. If you hate God, then for Christ’s sake tell Him you do and tell Him why.

One doctrine says that God is other than myself. Indeed He can be described as Wholly Other. And, though only metaphorically, He is none the less considered to be very much out there. The other doctrine says that God is the ground of all things. He is the Reality present in all things. Hence He is the ground of what I myself am. He is the ocean of which I am a wave, the sun of which I am a shaft of light. My own true identity is God’s identity. I am lived by God.

Belonging to the West, and to the Protestant West, it is with prayer as meeting another that we shall be most familiar. (There is great truth in Norman Douglas’s observation in South Wind that the God of northern Europe is an overseer while the God of the south is a participator.) The prayer of meeting is very rewarding and brings great riches of heart and spirit. We never outgrow it. And if we need to leave it for a time we shall certainly return to it. But we may need to leave it, at least temporarily, because for the time being it has given us all it can. We have exploited it to the point where, for the time being, it has become counter-productive.

The representations with which we clothe Him evoke strong feelings within us and the language of being in love seems the appropriate language to describe how we feel towards Him. Those feelings, of course, are not so continuous as they are when we are in love with a woman or a man. But now and then, during the time of our prayer, we may get the sense of God thrilling us through. It is something to thank God for and accept gratefully while it lasts. But it must not be clutched at or demanded. We must not try to whip ourselves up to it artificially by psychic effort. Nor must we imagine that something has gone wrong when God no longer thrills us through.

God has a habit of detaching Himself from our representations of Him and the strong feelings they evoke. Our marvellous sensations cease. It is like ceasing to be in love with somebody and beginning to love them instead.

In my experience of prayer God ceases to be any of these things because He ceases to be anything at all. He is absent when I pray. I am there alone. There is no other.

If this experience persists—and is not the effect of ‘flu coming on or tiredness—it means that something of the greatest importance is happening. It means that God is inviting me to discover Him no longer as another alongside me but as my own deepest and truest self.

The initial stages of this discovery demand of us a costly surrender, a much more than little death. For what is taken from us is the warm intimacy. the loving harmony, of our meeting with the other. Our prayers appear to pack up on us completely. But here, as always, resurrection follows death, and the new life is incomparably richer than the old.

In human relationships the subject-object split can be only partially overcome. In God’s relation to man the subject-object split can be totally overcome. That is what what we call the Incarnation is about—God and man being one person, one identity. In this experience God is apprehended as what I myself most deeply am, and the experience is more real than the warmth of meeting.

We often divide prayer up into departments: meditation or contemplation, for instance, is one department while intercession is another. From the practical point of view this division may often be necessary, but we should recognize that it is no more than a division of convenience. For our communion with God in prayer can never be for ourselves alone. I cannot enter into the presence of God only for my own sake, or only for the sake of my family, or only for the parish, or only for the Anglican communion, or only for human beings. Being human I shall naturally and rightly be more concerned for the people close to me than for others. It is stupid to try to disguise this fact from myself.

Hence all prayer is on behalf of all things. Contemplation, because it is the discovery of who we truly are is intercession. For as our true selves we are God’s outgoing self-givingness. We are His love.

during our life there will be many doors accessible to us which we never opened, many roads we could have walked down but didn’t. We can’t, for instance, be both men of learning and also pastors available to all in need twenty-four hours a day. We can’t give to our family the time they have the right to expect from us and live for nothing but our work. We can’t both be married and be monks. And so on and so on. This necessity to choose between an either ‘or seems a matter of obvious common sense. But in practice it often gets loaded with a considerable degree of irrational guilt-feelings. That means that the doors we never opened and the roads we never walked down seem to rise up and accuse us. “Why”, they complain to us, “did you miss the opportunity of opening me? Why did you miss the opportunity of walking down me?” We hear the voice of a person in distress saying to us, “You were so busy studying that you didn’t even know I existed.” Or we hear the voice of somebody in real intellectual difficulty saying to us, “You were so concerned to preserve your self-image as a pastor that you neglected learning and thus you were utterly useless so far as I and people like me were concerned.” If to our irrational guilt-feelings about what we chose not to do we add the common human fallacy that other fields are always greener (because we know from experience the snags involved in what we chose to do and have no experience of the snags involved in what we didn’t choose to do), taking all this into account we can begin to see the necessary cross involved in action. Even within the small circle of our limited possibilities we have to choose to do X, and choosing to do X means choosing not to do Y. And the result is both the pain of feeling guilty and the suspicion that we may well have thrown away our chances and missed the bus.

Many people try to escape from this cross by repressing the pain it brings. The result is that they become pig-headed, obstinate, and insensitive in the bogus assurance that they have no doubts about what they do. The courageous man, on the other hand, is willing to bear his cross. He makes decisions and acts decisively once he has made up his mind and he remains firm and consistent in his purpose. But, at the same time, he is open to new points of view and is able to see new facets of a situation because he is willing to bear the burden of his guilt-feelings and his uncertainties. He does not try to run away from them and cover them up, however decisive and consistent his actions may be. It is the combination of decisiveness with the acceptance of himself as fallible, prone to guilt-feelings and in what he decides to do certainly doing harm as well as good—it is this combination which in the realm of action marks the man of the cross.

There is too about him something of the Pecca Fortiter. For behind the choices he makes and the actions which follow there lie his motives. I suspect that motives for doing anything are invariably mixed, a combination of generosity and self-concern, and, even more, a combination of a me who is genuinely trying to discover and establish his true identity and a me who is running away and trying to hide from himself.

We shall, as always, be serving the absolute by means of the relative.

Scrupulosity here may merely be a disguise for laziness or simply not caring or more probably fear—the burying of our talent in the ground because we know our master is a hard man.

On the other hand, vocations will differ. And it is not for a person called predominantly to one style of life to look down upon somebody called predominantly to another. (You must forgive me if I think it is still necessary to emphasize what St Paul wrote to the Corinthians.) The public campaigner must not look down on the pastor concerned with the private and personal, nor vice versa. Nor must either of them look down on the man of prayer, nor he on them. To some extent the three will be combined in each person. Lord Shaftesbury was a man of prayer and very concerned about indivi­duals. Somerset Ward, a great Anglican director of souls between the wars, was very aware of public issues, as his book on Robespierre shows. And Thomas Merton, the contemplative monk, was a superb pastor whose comments on the American way of life were reminiscent of the Hebrew prophets. But these all-rounders were exceptional men. In most of us there is a bit of this and a bit of that, while predominantly we are the other. We are somehow led to make a choice about our priorities.

Bonhoeffer: “The truthful word is not in itself constant; it is as much alive as life itself. If it is detached from life and from its reference to the concrete other man, if ‘truth is told’ without taking into account to whom it is addressed, then this truth has only the appearance of truth, but lacks its essential character.”

Say I am musical and attend a concert. From one point of view I am totally passive. Indeed, unless I am passive, unless I cease from activity in the usual sense, the music is wasted on me. But after the concert is over I find that I am quite tired, happily tired no doubt, but tired none the less. My tiredness shows that my passivity in the concert hall was also a deep form of activity. To receive and take in the music was a spending of energy. So also in the prayer of contemplation, when the mind and the feelings are quietened and we become passively receptive in the presence of God, our passivity is a deep and costly form of activity. It is action of the highest human order which always consists of letting go and letting God take on. And when at prayer we are thus receptively passively active so that we let go and let God take on, then it inevitably colours and gives wings to all we are and do. That is why, at regular times, we should cease from action in the more superficial sense in order at prayer to find that receptive passivity which is action at its human highest because it is the point where our letting go is God taking on…. This letting go and letting God take on in the on-our-knees prayer has its counterpart in that wider prayer which consists of all we do in the workaday world.

Art, we say, consists in limitation. If the artist is to give expression to the freedom of his insight, he must submit himself to the necessities imposed upon him by his medium, be it paint and canvas, or stone, or words, or notes. For the artist the necessity of his medium is the vehicle of his freedom. But then art is a contained affair. It is concerned with what you can do simply with paint or stone, etc. In the wide and varied jumble of our lives in general it is far harder to see necessity as the vehicle of our freedom. Yet such it is. We are hedged in by our circumstances and disposition, and our freedom consists in our relationship to them. We may shake our fist at necessity as our foe, and if we do we shall remain its victims. Or we may welcome necessity as our friend and ally, and if we do that, it will be on our side and create us.

Here inevitably we are caught up in the subsidiary tension of discovering if what we took to be necessity really is. If we can change a situation for the better, then we should change and not accept it. If I have tuberculosis I must change it into health by using the drugs for that purpose now available. In such circumstances mere acceptance of the disease would be psychopathological. But when we have discovered that a necessity is really necessary, that it is unalterable and we can do nothing to avert or change it, then our freedom consists in the acceptance of the inevitable as the medium of our creativity. It is in the very thing which compels us that we find our freedom. Great writers, for instance, have often had to write for money to support themselves and their families, and have thereby discovered the wings they possessed to soar in the freedom of their spirit. For to be free is to be fully ourselves, and it is to this becoming and being fully ourselves that we harness the hard necessities laid upon us.

Involved in conflicts of this kind—and sleep or death are the only alternatives—it looks as if being alive and growing is a pretty tough business. And so it is. The pilgrim’s progress towards the Celestial City is no easy promenade, nor can it be done in some luxury coach of total resignation or complete certainty or perfect knowledge or some absolute dream of a prayer. We have to slog along on foot, and the most taxing thing about the path is neither its roughness nor its steepness but the fact that, as Jesus said, it’s so narrow. Indeed it is often a knife-edge, as we have seen.

to sit light to yourself is true humility.

Nowhere in all literature is this point put more devastatingly or more poignantly than in King Lear. From the start Lear takes himself with the utmost seriousness. His pride makes him utterly blind and leads him to actions which drive him to insanity and destruction. If only he could see the joke he would be saved. But he can’t. Yet the Fool tries continually to make him see it, and Lear’s self-imprisonment in a situation where humour is so totally out of place as to be obscene is one of the most horrific aspects of the play…., from the bottom of your heart thank God when you can see the joke popping out of your circumstances, even when they are grim. Thank God when you can take a delighted pleasure in the comic spectacle which is yourself, especially if it is yourself devoutly at prayer. (Why am I like a famous jackdaw?) Thank God when you can laugh. It means that you are on the Delectable Mountains and that your redemption has drawn nigh….. And another very important thing to notice is that in the love which is laughter we never try to get something for ourselves on the sly from the people we think we love. The most common perversion of love is a disguised acquisitiveness, a possessiveness which murders love. But a love which laughs is never possessive or on the make. It is too delighted with the caperings of the other person to have any time to think of itself. “That is why a man in a passion of any kind cannot be made to laugh. If he laughs, it is a proof that his passion has been dissipated” (Auden).

Altogether, I suggest that laughter is the best and clearest reflection we ever get in this world of God’s love for His creation. In laughter we see the Celestial City in what is more than a passing glimpse.

In terms of time the eternal Lord of all order appears to be the Lord of misrule. No wonder the pharisees, who seem to have been always wholly serious, had to have Jesus put down. He couldn’t be allowed to go on indefinitely standing everything on its head and making their piety look ridiculous. Why, in the end, they might even laugh them­selves, and that would be the ultimate catastrophe.

Who in reality had ever witnessed a pious man blowing a trumpet before he put a pound note in the church box? The notion was irresponsibly misleading. And then there were camels going through the eyes of needles, not to mention camels

being swallowed easily by those who choked when they swallowed a gnat. And if people did sometimes get a speck in their eye who ever heard of a man, and an improving teacher at that, who had a log in his? And worse: idlers who were given full pay, stewards who were successful cheats, spendthrift and debauched sons being feted on their return home—what had all this pernicious non­sense to do with religion? It could only undermine the morals of society, and, being socially danger­ous had to be stopped; stopped before the contagion of eternal love showed up the whole solemn system of moralism and religiosity as a complete knockabout farce. So the Jester had to be crucified.

But Eternity had the last laugh after all. For that is the final joke—the resurrection. Here are Caiaphas and all his crowd, Pilate and Herod and all theirs, sitting complacently in a state of grave and dignified self-congratulation. They have done their duty and justified the authority vested in them by efficiently disposing once for all of a dangerous fool. He is safely dead. And with solemn calm again restored they can concentrate once more on the really serious matters to which their lives are dedicated. But behind their backs, without them having the slightest inkling of what is going on, the fool has popped up again like a Jack-in-the-box and is dancing about even more vigorously than before and even more compellingly.

the fun continues in heaven which, as Julian of Norwich said, is right merry. Perhaps—who knows?—we shall see Athanasius and Arius laughing together at the absurdity of their theo­logical definitions; or Augustine and Pelagius slapping each other on the back instead of in the face. We may even see Mr Gladstone enormously and unashamedly enjoying the company of those he has mistaken for fallen angels. But the best of ii will be those white robes supplied by the celestial Moss Bros, because they certainly won’t fit and w shall all look like dustmen got up as dukes. And the fun of that will make the party go with a bang…. although we are still on our journey, when we laugh we know that really we have already arrived. The party has begun and we are there.

Did not part of the agony of Jesus in Gethsemane consist in his awareness of the haunting possibility that there may have been some fundamental mistake in the embodiment he had tried to give to the kingdom of God? Tolerance of that possibility is the price which must always be paid for creativity.

Whatever Bonhoeffer I think that it is in this sense that we must understand coming of age. It is not that in the twentieth mankind has come of age in any evolutionary sense, it is God’s will that a man should be fully himself; if a man is to be fully himself his relationship to God cannot find expression only or exclusively in terms of dependence. If I may borrow from the rabbis, they interpreted Jacob’s wrestling with the angel at Peniel as his wrestling with God for a good covenant, for good terms. And because Jacob was not just passively dependent but the appalling risk of wrestling with God for good terms, he got them. He was blessed “for as a prince hast power with God and with man and hast prevailed”. This insight was not unique to Jewish antiquity. You it also in Greece. Much of Greek drama is concerned that knife-edge between dependence on the powers t be and the necessity to assert one’s own autonomy. Fall either side and you are destroyed. Hubris certainly is punished. But you can also fall a victim to mania.

In a nutshell the inner conflict we are concerned with is this: in order to be people and not ciphers we must needs fight that on which we rely.

What does this mean in practice?

Karl Barth once said very characteristically that to call God “Father” is not to speak of God anthropomorphically but to speak of man theomorphically. That is the sort of profound but crude statement allowed to prophets and poets, and Barth was both. The point is put, I think, far less strikingly but with greater finesse by means of the concept of analogy. . .

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