Romanes Lecture, Oxford - 'Religious Lives'
Thursday 18th November 2004A lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, delivered at Oxford University.
A religious life is a material life. Forget for a moment the arguments we might have about the definition of the 'spiritual'; living religiously is a way of conducting a bodily life. It has to do with gesture, place, sound, habit; not first and foremost with what is supposed to be going on inside. The whole idea of an 'inner life' is, properly, what we put together from a certain reading of visible lives; it is not a self-evident category, a cluster of intangible experiences or mental dispositions, but what comes to light as the sense, the intelligibility, of a certain pattern of acts. It's a point made more economically by the Apostle James in refusing to accept a smooth demarcation between belief and action. The devils in hell, he notes, have all the right ideas, their problem is not that they are mistaken about the nature of the universe and its maker; but it would be eccentric to call them 'believers'- or, in the terms I'll be using here, it would be eccentric to say that their beliefs entitle them to be called livers of religious lives.
I'm labouring the point because of the persistent cultural error of treating questions about 'religion' as questions about beliefs that may be more or less justifiable at the bar of public reason. The indignation of the media columnist is easily aroused over religious education in schools because it has to do, they maintain, with inculcating beliefs that have no evidence; as one such writer elegantly put it a few weeks ago, it is on a par with believing in the tooth fairy. But - leaving aside the failure so far of belief in the tooth fairy to generate martyrdom or the Divina Commedia - the fundamental mistake is to consider belief itself, in its corporate religious context, as more or less exclusively a mental event: an eccentric, 'vagrant' mental event, a virus, to use another analogy that has found some popularity. In this lecture, I want to look at what is involved in approaching religious life in terms of gesture and habit; how religious conversion is recognised, brought into speech; and what, in such a light, a religious life claims for itself. Part of my agenda, I confess, is to put some questions against what is fast becoming a cliché - the cultural currency of 'spiritual' identity as something favoured in opposition to 'religious' belonging. I don't deny that the statistics bear out the judgement of cultural popularity; but I suspect that there are lurking confusions in the use of the salient words, and that certain issues are effectively silenced by so easy a polarity.
At the most prosaic level, religious lives are indeed recognised as habits of behaviour - ritual words and acts, the mapping of an undifferentiated duration within narratives of sacred time. For the religious practitioner, these habits are not chosen as such, not created in order to express an attitude; they are acquired as habitual responses to what is presented. They connect with the habits and gestures that demonstrate in other areas - indeed, you could say, in the whole field of knowledge acquisition - an acquaintance with what is there to be 'negotiated'. Knowledge, it has been said, is first knowledge of how to move in a territory in which you are not the only agent or presence. Children learn to avoid walking into chairs and touching hot surfaces; chess players learn not to move onto the pawn's immediate diagonal; experimental scientists learn what impedes the collection of useable data - what 'laboratory conditions' are. Most religious persons would say that their ritual actions are more like these things than they are like the devising of conscious symbols.
We are here, of course, close to the uncomfortable frontier with magical thinking, and so to a source of potential embarrassment for the modern believer. But courage: the frontier is real, however fine. The believer may say that these gestures, these words, are the appropriate, even the natural, way of negotiating a territory; most would add that a mistake or a solecism or a simple refusal here does not of itself bring disaster. It simply empties out from your behaviour a particular dimension of meaning (more of this later) and leaves you without a compass in the territory of the heart. Acquiring the bodily habits of religious practice both is and isn't a matter of technique: this is how to respond; but this is not how to manipulate or control.
This is abstract. What I am talking about can be far better put:
And there is God. The girl who could not kneel but learned to do so on the rough coconut matting in an untidy bathroom. Such things are often more intimate even than sex. The story of the girl who gradually learned to kneel is something I would love to write in the fullest possible way. (Etty p.148).
Etty Hillesum, who died in Auschwitz in 1943, left behind her a journal for the two years before her deportation and death, an extraordinarily full and absorbing document which chronicles a complex sexual and emotional life, a deepening immersion in Rilke and Dostoevsky and a religious conversion of a very unconventional order. Her Jewishness is both a matter of immense significance - this is Holland in the 40's, after all - and curiously muted as a religious theme. Like others, it is as if she travelled to her roots by a long detour through the religion and imagination of modern Europe. But amongst much that is arresting in what she writes, the repeated references to 'learning to kneel' give a clue to something of what she understood by learning to say 'God' without embarrassment. Of her mentor and (briefly) lover, the psychoanalyst Julius Spier, she notes (p.181) his observation that 'it took quite a long time before he dared to say "God" without feeling that there was something ridiculous about it. Even though he was a believer'; and she notes too her mother's "Yes, actually, I am religious", commenting, 'That actually is the giveaway' (209). Finding the courage to say the word - without an 'actually' - is a sort of counterpoint to responding to the compulsion to kneel (c.f. pp.223, 225,516).
Spier, she says, taught her this courage. Yet she is at first inhibited in asking him what he does when he prays.
I know the intimate gestures he uses with women, but I still want to know the gestures he uses with God...Does he kneel down in the middle of his small room?...Does he kneel before he take his dentures out or afterward? (198).
Praying is a physically intimate matter. In 1942, she records the sheer difficulty of writing about the urge to kneel which 'sometimes pulses through my body, or rather it I as if my body had been meant and made for the act of kneeling...It has become a gesture embedded in my body, needing to be expressed from time to time' (320). And to say this is more embarrassing 'than if I had to write about my love life'. The gesture is demanded by some inner 'welling-up', a sense of 'plenitude' which transforms the grey landscape of dawn into spaciousness (216). And it is accompanied by a 'listening in' to the self (212); she observes much later that she needs the German hineinhorchen to express what is going on (519). It is an attentiveness to nothing external; and the dogmatically keen-eyed will notice the passages where she seems to settle for a highly subjectivised model ('what is deepest inside me, which for the sake of convenience I call God', on p. 494, or 'The externals are simply props', p.463). Yet this listening, hineinhorchen, is and is not a simple scrutiny of the self: 'it is really God who hearkens inside me. The most essential and the deepest in me hearkening unto the most essential and deepest in the other. God to God' (519). Loving attention to others is a clearing of 'the path toward You in them' (ibid.).
It is not easy to disentangle exactly what is being said in all this. Etty Hillesum can speak of thanking God for indwelling her (e.g. p.237) and writes in relation to St Augustine, 'Truly those are the only love letters one ought to write: love letters to God' (546). God is regularly invoked as source and giver. It would be wrong to read her as simply identifying God with a dimension of the self, something contained in the self; yet it is clear that her sense of God is inseparable from the sense of something growing 'inside'. She quotes approvingly Rilke's Stundenbuch: Auch wenn wir nicht wollen:/Gott reift - 'Even if we don't want it: God ripens' (192) - the conclusion of a long section dealing with the growth of a sort of divine image in us. What the journals present is a process of impassioned discovery - she can write in July 1942, during a crucial period of development when she is coming to terms with separation from Spier, 'I haven't finished with You by a long chalk, oh God, or with this world'(496). Her prayers, in the entries for these days, are exceptionally vivid and immediate; again we find the emphasis on kneeling, 'almost naked, in the middle of the floor, completely "undone"'(497), the struggle to be 'faithful' to God (and a complex awareness that something in the relation with Spier means something less than entire faithfulness (493), and above all the sense of accumulating something, growing in a way that carries a sort of responsibility. This is a life in which a task is accepted: a task that can be defined only as that of allowing God to 'ripen' in increasingly visible ways.
What this involves comes more plainly to light in the harrowing letters from the transit camp at Westerbork. She had written earlier of accepting suffering as 'passive activity' (27; the phraseology is Spier's), of the need to accept suffering that is in no sense chosen, including the trials that come from genetic and temperamental givens (160-1). She quotes Andre Suares on Dostoevsky: 'Pain is not the site of our longing, but the site of our certainty' (183), meaning that suffering is neither to be mastered nor to be fled but to be utilised and transformed. The 'site' is given: unavoidable suffering is what it is, not a stimulus to a longing for a better place or a pedagogy for moral improvement, but a datum which our humanity must humanise. And some months before her going to Westerbork, she says of Spier that his stature lies in having 'given shelter' in his person to 'a portion of life and suffering and God' (564): suffering is to be made at home in the human self - neither romanticised nor denied.
It is a comment that perhaps helps us understand what is going on in her thinking about God: the self develops as a place where certain realities can find a home, realities that are in one sense very much the inner business of the self and yet are unsought, not generated by the will or the imagination, but implanted - could we say? - by a life history.
Life can educate one to a belief in God. And experiences too are what bring this about; but I don't mean visions and other forms of sense experience which show us the "existence of this being", but, e.g., sufferings of various sorts. These neither show us God in the way a sense impression shows us an object, nor do they give rise to conjectures about him. Experiences, thoughts, - life can force this concept on us.
So perhaps it is similar to the concept of "object".
That is Wittgenstein, in 1950 (Culture and Value, p.86); and the significance of this in the present context is his surprisingly strong language about a concept being 'forced'. Etty Hillesum's writing about kneeling exhibits precisely what such force might look and feel like. But as we follow her to Westerbork, the nature of the imperative shifts subtly. She is conscious of just this need to 'give shelter', to accommodate, the reality of suffering so that what, if anything, is saved in or from the camps is not a matter of bodily survival but a mode of preservation that can become an offering, a word of intelligibility, in the postwar world; hence her apprehension about denying or ignoring the worst around (586-7). She sets herself to chronicle the unbearable (disease, the lack of sanitation; what is done to children - there are letters of August 1943 [pp. 642-3 and 644-5] of particular horror), while saying that her life is now 'an uninterrupted dialogue' with God (640). Uninterrupted? The first edition of her writings appeared under the title An Interrupted Life; but she read it as the 'ripening' of something, the expansion of her self to 'shelter' what must not be lost. The interruption of the nightmare situation at Westerbork forces her to a level of consistency or fidelity in her perception of herself, her 'speaking' of herself in action or attitude. It is not simply that, in Wittgenstein's words, a concept has been forced upon her; more that an identity has been imposed and accepted. The brutal imposition of the identity of a subhuman, the process which she chronicles with painfully dry irony in many journal entries, is woven in to the identity already accepted, the identity of someone who kneels to God only. The kneeling embodies something imposed from within, yet not devised or preferred by the ego; and this makes possible the peculiar freedom she notes when face to face with her Gestapo custodians.
It is a freedom that has slightly chilled some readers, as it alarmed some of her friends. Relatively early, in February 1942, she describes her experience of such an encounter (258-9), recording her sense of pity for the 'sullen...driven and harassed' young soldier who is supervising a large crowd of Amsterdam Jews being registered for deportation, her sense of his weakness and the contingency of his humanity ('Did you have an unhappy childhood, has your girlfriend let you down?'). He, as much as any person in the hall, is being shaped by the situation they all share, prisoner or guard: the space is the same, what matters is how you comport yourself within it, how much room you can make for the others in the shared space and their particularity. Again, a month or so later, she writes (308-9) about giving space for grief in a way that rules out cluttering the inner space with hatred or vengefulness: space for grief absorbs sorrow, hatred generates more sorrow. She notes more than once the arguments she has with those who want her to echo their hatred or to dehumanise Germans in their turn, but she is clear that this is a futile response.
A perceptive commentator has candidly reported her occasional frustration at the lack of what might be thought a proper anger here; I am less sure. The letters from Westerbork leave no ambiguity about her sensations of horror and disgust and, I think, anger, at the atrocities she witnesses. But we have to take very seriously the imagery of giving space. She is wholly persuaded that she has a task of internal housekeeping for her imagination and emotion that is to do with guaranteeing that certain things do not disappear from the human landscape. If anger drives out grief, something has disappeared that has the capacity to remake broken human bonds, because grief can be recognised and shared across a conflict and anger can't (and yes, the echo here is very strong of Simone Weil on the Iliad, and Priam's appeal to Achilles). Most decisively, what she believes she is doing is what can best be described as taking responsibility for God in the situation.
You cannot help us,...we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. (488)
There must be someone to live through it all and bear witness to the fact that God lived, even in these times. And why should I not be that witness? (506)
Perhaps the language jars; though no more than Bonhoeffer's well-known poem on going to God in God's need rather than running to God out of one's own helplessness; or even Teresa of Avila's account in her Life of a conversion on encountering the image of Christ at the scourging pillar, and recognising a call simply to be in some sense visibly where he is. This is not, in any of the cases mentioned, a speculative statement about some imagined metaphysical limit on God's liberty; all of those listed are clear that God is where God chooses to be. But God's nature and action entail that God is not an item in the world, battling for advantage. The religious life, on this account, would be taking on the task of ensuring a habitation for God, a God who does not guarantee for himself a place in the created world, a place alongside other agents, and so is visible only when a human life gives place, offers hospitality to God, so that this place, this identity, becomes a testimony. And another of Wittgenstein's aphorisms, from 1937 this time, echoes this, when he says that belief in Christ is something other than the acceptance of a historical record: it is the 'result' of your own biography, and so you must 'make a quite different place in your life for it' (Culture and Value, p.32e).
Paul Ricoeur, in an essay on 'The Hermeneutics of Testimony' (Essays on Biblical Interpretation, 1980, pp. 119-54), argued that testimony, the event that manifests a presence otherwise unthought or unknown, always 'gives something to be interpreted' (144), because it proposes a story that must be heard and weighed against other stories (testimony and trial belong together) and is not susceptible to generalising methods or a reduction to the terms of a system. There is a hint here of Kierkegaard's arguments also, that the 'religious' 'cannot speak' (Fear and Trembling, p.124), cannot, that is, argue and defend and even demonstrate in the ways that are appropriate to the realms of the aesthetic and the ethical. It is not, for either Ricoeur or Kierkegaard, that faith is therefore an irrational decision as opposed to a rational one - as if the human subject were faced with a set of parallel possibilities for belief, some well-supported and some not, with religious belief being just one of those things that the unpredictable will might settle upon. The religious life, the life of testimony, is generated by events of a certain kind, and it becomes itself an event of a certain kind. Its belief content is neither a reasoned conclusion nor an arbitrary mythology, but the necessarily gradual and complex outworking of the nature of the wider landscape implied in these events.
Back to where I began. A religious life is a material life in a particular place, marked by particular material patterns and rhythms. Its goal is for the place it inhabits to be place in which certain realities become visible. It takes responsibility for the appearing of God; in doing so it equally embodies responsibility to God. It makes a bid to be fairly 'tried' as a narrative among others; and what it has to show is that it is indeed a distinctive place, not a version of some other discourse. So the religious person describing herself has to do so in a manner that somehow makes concrete the sense of replying to uninvited initiatives. And with due respect to Kierkegaard's distinction between aesthetic and religious, this is comparable to what the creative artist will say of their 'self-positioning' by way of the realised artistic work: this is where I stand, not by my choice but because this is what had to be done or achieved. This is the appropriate response to how the environment and my embodied imagination have met each other.
Etty Hillesum learned to kneel. The physical position is part of a whole protracted story of how she 'places' herself in the world in such a way as to become a symbol and an event, the witness to the fact that God lived during a certain epoch of terror, dehumanisation and the apparent absence of God. The role of physical discipline in religious life has probably never been less significant than in the modern Western world (how many people actually kneel in churches now?), but it is at the very least a statement that what is encountered in religious life is, as we noted earlier, no less a matter of negotiating our way around the bare thereness of something than the techniques of mapping our path through a world of material objects. The pattern of a physical life traces the outline, so to speak, of a discovered object, which is made visible only by the continuing process of 'tracing'. Beginning with the conscious practice of such a pattern, a whole biography can take on the same character, to become a symbolic outline. Etty Hillesum learns to kneel, and learns in due course to plot her location within the tumultuous spiritual geography of the Gestapo office and the camp at Westerbork. And those religious traditions that lay special emphasis on material disciplines would say that the planned engagement with the processes of your own body that constitute Sufi or Zen or hesychast contemplation is a training for a free engagement with an entire material and historical environment - for a liberated life. We begin to learn how to be a sign inhabited by God's meanings as we accept a shape for our physical practice that arises in response to the sort of pressure Etty Hillesum charts, the pressure of a passion for transparency to oneself and truthful feeling, the pressure Wittgenstein seem to speak of.
Where does this leave us with the fashionable disjunction between the religious and the spiritual? I accept entirely that the language here is rather arbitrary; it so happens that the public (well, the questionnaire-answering public) associates the religious with limits, with doctrine and regulated corporate life, the spiritual with self-development, wisdom and loose communal structures. There are other idioms, especially among theologians, which would point in a different direction - those, for example, that oppose the religious to the biblical, that is, the sphere of securely controlled practice to the sphere of transforming obedience to revelation. The shadow of Karl Barth hangs over this discussion, and I have myself used such an opposition to the detriment of 'religious' identities in this particular sense.
But what I have been suggesting in the present context is that 'religion' understood precisely as the realm of limit and physical determination, including community and language, carries with it a different order of freedom from a spirituality that is focused on the nurture of the inner life as such. The 'spiritual' as a category which can be applied to a range of phenomena or traditions of speech and action seems in current usage to work with a model of the self selecting from this range a vocabulary and a set of practices which might serve an existing sense of need, and which may add to the self's repertoire a degree of access to further experience. Whether we are speaking of versions of traditional practices - the reshaped Kabbala popular with some or, rather more seriously, the revisionist Sufism of 'traditionalists' like Frithiof Schuon - or of more obviously constructed practices - the world of New Age communities of divers kinds - the point is the same. What is to the fore is not so much the possibility of locating yourself in a territory so as to become a sign of an alien or exiled presence as the deployment of skills to settle and assure the self.
That this is no ignoble or wicked enterprise, I don't dispute; but I am concerned to look for ways of distinguishing it clearly from something potentially more radical. Teresa of Avila wrote of her need to distinguish experiences beginning in God and terminating in the self and those beginning in the self and terminating in God; the latter left the self altered in unpredictable and sometimes alarming ways, but had the effect of enlarging it rather than simply consoling it (Interior Castle, IV.1.4-5). This strikes me as similar to what I have been trying to discern. And, put in this way, it helps also to clarify a point that might be made against the formulation I have used. D.Z.Phillips, in his recent book on The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God, has some observations on the difference between what he calls 'temporal' and 'eternal' covenant: a temporal covenant is one in which human beings implicitly make a conditional contract with God -a commitment to believe provided that certain things do not happen; and eternal covenant is one in which the only point of loving God is loving God, and no conditions are specified, no outcomes regarded as invalidating the agreement. 'The point of loving God is not that hope should not perish or that the world should be a meaningful place. The point of loving God is not even to be found in the persistence of belief in him on earth' (pp.161-2). The eternal covenant is a habit of life in which all that happens is in advance located within the practice of the love of God.
Now I have spoken of Etty Hillesum's notion of the religious life giving place to God on earth, taking responsibility for God's appearing; is this to settle for a temporal covenant, committed to 'the persistence of belief'? I think not. Etty Hillesum does not decide that the world would be a better place if belief in God persisted and so decide to make her life a locus for God. Something unarguable is happening to her apprehension of who she is, something exhibited in her material life; and whatever happens becomes part of that uninterrupted conversation with God, that listening to a foreign voice in the heart of the self, which becomes habitual. She does not follow the practice of loving God so that a particular outcome may be guaranteed; if she dies, the responsibility for God's appearing on earth in one sense dies with her. That place is occupied, built over by the violence that kills her. But the pressure towards testimony is part of the pressure to exhibit - by kneeling, by speaking to God, by refusing to occupy inner space with hatred or revenge - what the world cannot deliver, cannot produce, cannot master and thus (in another sense) cannot destroy of kill. The point of it all, or, in Teresa's language, the terminus, remains God, not the success of the self. Testimony may or may not persuade; but it remains. And the 'eternal covenant' is expressed in its attempt to include an entire biography, irrespective of its success in compelling assent.
It asks to be read and interpreted. Stanley Cavell pursues the question of why we seem to need just this metaphor, of reading, as we try to make clear what it is we understand of a body (a body as opposed to a mass of material), and observes that it has something to do with seeing, with 'being advised', with a tone that relates to narrative or history (The Claim of Reason, pp.363-4). A life that claims, like Etty Hillesum's, to 'give shelter' to God and love and suffering invites a particular kind of interpretative labour. Why should we think that God and love and suffering were concepts that had become homeless in the first place? Her language presupposes that they are at risk. So we cannot read without knowing a larger history which might explain such a risk. What is it to 'give shelter'? We should need to attend to what she has to say about the economics of the emotional and imaginative life, about what habits of mind and speech make it impossible to go on entertaining certain categories. We should need to look at the record of the material habits that embody a grammar of response to the non-negotiable, what it might mean to say that a life was receiving its shape rather than creating it in a vacuum. We might - though probably not in this case - conclude that the claims were misplaced. The situation is not so serious, and the concepts are not homeless after all; or the record of habits suggests an element of willed symbolisation or even dramatisation. But we should have the tools, I believe, to begin to recognise what sort of claim it might be that a life was a religious one - rather than a spiritual one or a moral one. And it would have a lot to do with how we saw a life offering itself, so to speak, into the context of a possible language about God, becoming a 'word', a sacred text.
Etty Hillesum is engaged with several concrete texts - the Bible (notably the Psalms and Matthew's gospel), Augustine, Dostoevsky, Rilke. Some of these are orthodox Christian texts, some not. Her practice engages with an aspect of traditional discipline, kneeling, thanksgiving, and so on, but it is not part of a corporate Jewish or Christian discipline and its relation with classical Christian ethics is a nice question (I think not only of her idiosyncratic - though never exactly casual - approach to sexual encounter but of the difficult pages in which she describes her efforts to induce a miscarriage - an episode which later entries imply she had second thoughts about; see pp.168-9 and 293). Is she in this respect, at the end of the day, another selective modern, with an isolated contemporary soul, so that we have finally to let her go as an apostle of communal religious identity? It is a question that needs care. I believe that her idioms are often those of the modern soul, but that the outcome of the story is something for which he modern individualistic or voluntarist account of religious experience will not provide an adequate vehicle. What is distinctive and angular is that she has elected to be identified, not to identify God simply in her terms, to be a word, a sign. If the religious, as distinct from the simply spiritual, is about responsibility to and for a foreign and transcendent presence, there can be little doubt where to place her.
To make oneself a sign: the phrase echoes, deliberately, what a noted French theologian early in the twentieth century said of Jesus in his last days - that he 'placed himself in the order of signs'. The Christian narrative - not exclusively among religious traditions, but with a marked force and priority - deals with a biography regarded as wholly and without interruption an offering 'into' language, place wholly occupied by God, yet without qualification a human locus in history. As such, it determines how the Christian tradition understands holiness, the perceptible alignment of a life with God. I do not want to embark on a theological essay here, nor to argue what might be in common between different accounts of holiness in diverse religious discourses. But the idea that the paradigm religious life is one that 'gives shelter' to a vulnerable divine presence, a narrative that seeks to embody God, to take responsibility for the appearing of God (and of suffering and love), has a particular resonance with Christian and Jewish tradition, and illuminates why a life like Etty Hillesum's is hard to read without that tradition in mind.
And it also focuses a difficult question about secularised or secularising cultures. Could there be a cultural environment in which the religious in this sense was no longer accessible? Assuming a continued decline in allegiance to traditional religious bodies in the post-Christian West, and bracketing for a moment the issue of how Islamic religiousness constructs its stories in such an environment, could we come to a point where Etty Hillesum's self-descriptions would no longer be understandable? Answering the question without recourse to theology, we might have to say that yes, this was a possibility; but we should need then to consider the implication that human lives might lose the possibility of 'sheltering' certain things; that the possibility of suffering meaningfully, for example, might vanish. Remember that for Etty, the self's 'safeguarding' of God is inseparable from that careful attention to what is given room in the self's encounter with itself: making space for sorrow, without its being crowded out by anger or hate, is bound in with the self's hospitality to God. Indeed, a self conscious of the idea of God and taking no responsibility for the rest of its inner ecology would be only very questionably religious. If responsibility for the persistence of God and for the possibility of radical sorrow (and its issue in compassion) belong together, a culture in which awareness of God at this level was not understood would atrophy in its freedom to feel and show grief and pity; and a culture in which grief and pity were pushed aside by cultivated and socially nurtured resentment would have little capacity to understand what 'God' might mean. The answer (if answer there is) is not, though, a campaigning for religious dominance or security; it is simply to conserve narratives like these, in the hope that their cross-references will open some doors of comprehension.
Olivier Clement wrote that any renewed religiousness in the modern and postmodern West had the primary task of Promouvoir le gratuit,l'inassimilable, ce qui ne sert a rien mais eclaire tout: 'to bring to prominence the gratuitous, what resists assimilation and serves nothing yet clarifies everything' (Anachroniques, 1990, p.62). To give over a life, in any circumstances, not only the dramatic and terrible context of Westerbork and Auschwitz, to making a habitation for grief and for God is the most effective resistance possible both to a secular reduction of human meaning to the level of arbitrary choice and commodified feeling or imagination, and to a pseudo-religiousness, a spirituality, in which religious symbolism itself becomes a fashion accessory for the post modern self. There is a significant difference between a symbolism borrowed to illustrate the choices of the ego for a short season and the bestowal of a life to become a symbol. The latter is ineluctably a matter of cost, a foregoing of certain freedoms that results, so it is believed, in a different sort of freedom, the sort that allows the enemy to be seen with pity and human curiosity, and that seeks to lay a foundation for peace in shared grief. It serves no externally or publicly determined purpose, but neither does it serve the agenda of an ego; it is in what is beyond or between these that religious people try to locate the concept of the will and purpose of God. What Etty Hillesum determines to embody and welcome is the intuition that a life given over in this manner makes speech possible at a new level, because it seeks to live from that inner space in which all human seriousness is grounded. But to talk of this as a place where God is lodged - and remember her insistence on letting go of the embarrassment at the word 'God' - this is to perform the most radical relativising possible of the individual ego, to say that I am answerable for all I do and say to what I do not control or grasp. A religiousness that 'clarifies everything' perhaps costs everything also; which is why it is reducible neither to mere orthodoxy nor to spirituality, neither of which clarify in Clement's sense.
'God is in safe hands with us despite everything', she wrote, in September 1943. She died in November. To see that what matters is not that you are - in any easy sense - safe in the hands of God but that God is safe in your hands is to turn upside down any consolatory version of faith, to stake yourself indeed on an 'eternal covenant'. On this kind of inversion, we do not decide. Doors open, because of how life is in our times; through them something enters that we do not understand. A life is shaped, to the extent that we call it a home, a shelter, for something. And we argue for it or commend it not by dialectical nimbleness but by fidelity in some very prosaic things; perhaps we might even start by practising how to kneel.
© Rowan Williams 2004