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Divine presence and divine action: reflections in the wake of Nicholas Lash

Thursday 30th June 2011

An address by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, presented in absentia to a colloquium, ‘The Presences of Christ’. The colloquium was held at Durham University, 30 June 2011, on the occasion of the award of an honorary doctorate to Professor Nicholas Lash (formerly Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge).

In a careful and searching discussion of Martin Buber, Nicholas Lash wrote of the way in which, for the great Jewish thinker, the absence of God was not simply the cause of an erosion or decline in religious practice but in some sense also its effect.  ‘In the absence of that basic trust which is the precondition of relationship, it is the lack of human community which renders prayer impossible (rather than, as preachers sometimes suggest, the other way around’ (Easter in Ordinary, p.202).  A sense of the absence or ‘eclipse’ of God (Buber’s preferred term, for good reason) is not to be understood in abstraction from a sense of absence or eclipse in regard to humanity itself as a universal common given and a universal ‘project’.  If our starting point is the detached ego of late modernity, we are never going to resolve the question of God satisfactorily, since it will always be a question about how to bridge the gap between this ego and a possible other standing at a noetic distance.  If God is ever to return to presence in our world, it will have to be through the becoming-present of humanity in a new mode.

It is a necessary caution against what might be called the aestheticizing of the notion of divine presence, a language that would describe the problem as being that we cannot discern God and need to be educated in the skills that will allow us to perceive or experience the divine or the sacred.  This is not by any means a waste of time (as I hope to indicate); but to the extent that it sees the issue as something to do with the latent capacities of the ego and how they are to be fully activated, it carries some difficulties.  Foremost among these is the theme that Nicholas Lash has explored many times, perhaps most extensively in the essays in The Beginning and End of ‘Religion’.  It is the risk of positing as foundational a kind of pure subjectivity which must be taught to go in search of the truth, and which finds its most satisfying object in experience of the divine.  And this leaves the particular ego at the centre of the story, seeking ways of connecting with a hidden dimension of reality.  At its most problematic, this can lead to a commodification of the divine – the search for satisfactory ‘spiritual experience’, the linking of divine meanings to specific objects or practices that can be successfully manipulated and so on.  But even if the cruder errors are avoided, there remains what ought to be for the believer a real incongruity.   The divine is in danger of becoming passive; the hiddenness of God becomes a sort of accident which could be prevented or surmounted if better conditions prevailed.

The incongruity is in the failure to think through what it means to believe – as classical Christian theology has maintained – not only that God is by definition active in every imaginable circumstance but also that God is more particularly active in the life of the mind.  Divine presence, we could say, does not stand still to be ‘discovered’.  Augustine’s much misread argument about the divine image in his de trinitate (admirably clarified in a good deal of recent Augustinian scholarship, especially Luigi Gioia’s monograph on the subject) is in fact a sustained protest against the idea that the presence of the imago in the human spirit is something that can be observed as a structure of correspondence.  Its presence is always a foundational engagement, an entanglement, we might say, of the subject’s self-awareness with the unchanging activity of the Trinity.  We may indeed reflect upon it, even seek to draw some modest conclusions from it about how we speak of God and ourselves, but it is an engagement prior to our seeking or observing.  For Augustine, to be self-aware is to be aware that the self is eternally dependent upon and conditioned by the threefold act of divine being; it is not constituted simply as an immaterial individual that must set out to make a discovery of some other and greater spiritual substance.  Divine presence is first and foremost the action that constitutes the human self as a responding self, as already ‘implicated’.  And for the Christian theologian, that ‘implication’ has a shape and logic that is conditioned by the trinitarian reality.

The Christian narrative and grammar of God is of an inseparably continuous agency, ‘bestowing’ itself in such a way that it makes itself other to itself; that otherness in turn answers the act of bestowal by returning itself wholly to its source, holding on to nothing but making its identity a gift; and in this reciprocal flow of life, a third level of agency is generated as the act performed by the first two together, not identical with either, nor with the bare fact of their juxtaposition.  That is what is ‘present’ in and through every contingent state of affairs in the universe and indeed in any imaginable state of affairs in any universe – life as an outflowing that enables response, but a response that is sufficiently underdetermined to allow the relation between first and second agencies to exceed itself in further bestowal.  As always, such attempts to feel a way towards the centre of trinitarian language are deplorably clumsy.  But they allow a little heuristic space in which we may at least begin to imagine what a trinitarian account of divine presence might sound like.  The central moment, if we can so speak of it, is one in which the unconditioned response to the movement of life into the other becomes generative of a further difference – in which, to use at last the familiar dramatic idioms of doctrine, the Son’s self-giving to the will of the Father releases the gift of the Spirit.  Translating this into the phenomenology of the finite self, we should have to say that the knowing subject becomes aware of its derivative or receptive character, and insofar as it is able to allow this awareness to free it from the labour of defensive self-construction and self-maintenance it sets in train a movement that liberates otherness, excess of being and relation beyond any fixed world of individual essences.  If we seek to talk about the presence of an active trinitarian God, it must be in terms of  a particular kind of disruption of the self and its stories of itself, a disruption which creates what is in principle a radically unlimited space for a free but ‘indebted’ (receptive and responsive) other.       

Disruptions may simply happen as a result of significant and/or traumatic experience; but the tradition of spiritual practice is one in which there are ways of deliberately halting and disorienting the ‘ordinary’ expectations of the ego – by silence, by other kinds of temporary sensory privation, by a heightened awareness of the body’s rhythms and so on.  A restoration of divine ‘presence’ begins, in this connection, with an intensified presence to oneself, a practice of mindfulness, that is very consciously not a search for ‘experience’ in the usual sense but precisely a way of quieting the ego’s search for an object and for satisfaction in that object.  The point is, as it has sometimes been expressed, to become a ‘site’ for action rather than an agent.  Yet this does not mean a renunciation of decision or of particularity – more a matter of locating the self as acknowledging its derived nature.  It is perhaps to recognise that the primary language of the self seeking a way out of its fictive enclosure is gratitude, the expression of ‘giftedness’.  We cannot but respond, we never simply initiate; and if this is not to be the engine for complicated varieties of resentment (resentment that we did not, after all, write the script, begin the process), it must be an attempt to find words of thanks.  Presence is ‘recovered’ when both gratitude and the disciplines of emptying and silencing are basic to our understanding of where we find ourselves and so of who we are.  And in this attempt to live in a way appropriate to where and who we are, what happens is the excess of welcome or affirmation that opens the doors to an unlimited company of others.  In a way analogous to what is claimed in Northern Buddhism for the necessary connection between enlightenment and compassion, so here the awareness of being located at the point of receiving and responding, the recognition of being derived and of being ‘addressed’, is the generative moment of love beyond mere affinity or attachment.

This is one dimension of what it might mean to say that the ‘recovered’ presence of God is the presence of a certain kind of humanity: God as trinitarian act is allowed to reshape the human sense of self, through the disciplines of prayer and self-scrutiny, so as to create in the human subject a place where universal love can come to be – in fragile and vulnerable ways, indeed, so long as history continues and we are open to forgetfulness and selfishness, but with enough distinctness to be recognisable.  It is a redescription of what some of the Greek fathers of the Church meant by ‘dispassionate’ love, a love not determined by the character of individuals or by the nature of their present relation to the lover (it is worth looking at Maximus the Confessor’s Centuries on Charity here for an extended exposition of these ideas, especially I.13-25, 70-74 and II 10).  And it establishes the way in which what I earlier called an ‘aestheticized’ idea of divine presence is challenged by a model in which we try to begin from assumptions about divine action.  God’s presence is not to be conjured up by more and more subtle appeals to what can be discerned in the environment; it receives its meaning primarily in a particular kind of self-presence, a self-location in the dependent body which opens up the awareness of the dependent subject.  And lest this should suggest a privatising strategy of some sort, we have to spell out the trinitarian logic of mutuality generating excess, the definitive liberation of the self from enclosure when it returns in filial intimacy to its source.

Divine presence, then, is, as it was for Augustine, the recognition of a prior relatedness, a relatedness that has already established the very conditions for awareness and is acknowledged only in being appropriated in some way, through the disorientation or displacement of the individual ego.  It is thus a presence that can be spoken of in the lives of certain people who exhibit something of this displacement, and, more broadly, in the communities which sustain this language of trinitarian ‘implication’ in word and action, ‘sustaining’, as Nicholas Lash has written, ‘…the memory of him in whose dying we discern the transformative presence of God; communities which, in that act and process of remembrance, sustain an absolute hope for all humanity in the light of which to stimulate resistance to those dramas and nightmares in which individual nations and destinies, individual projects and policies, are destructively idolized’ (Theology on the Way to Emmaus, p.201; c.f. Easter in Ordinary, pp.216-218).  But this way of putting it draws us back to the so far unexamined Christological core of these arguments.  Resisting an aestheticized account of divine presence grows out of a particular set of commitments to do with the story of Jesus, and we must turn now to the questions associated with this.

‘There is, in God, nothing else to see but Jesus Christ’ (Believing Three Ways in One God, p.79); thus Lash sums up the significance of the narrative element of the Apostles’ Creed.  The life of Jesus of Nazareth is the visibility of the trinitarian life.  Here is the one to whom all authority is given and who, at the same time, professes to do nothing but what he sees the Father doing: receiving without reserve from the Father, he gives in return without reserve.  The culmination of that giving and that ‘seeing’ of the Father’s work is his torment and death; the resurrection displays how that mutuality is uncontainable by death and can never be a matter of past history.  And the excess thus signalled is bestowed on the friends of Jesus in the gift of the Spirit, so that the mutuality of bestowal and response is the atmosphere in which the believer lives.  Jesus is the visibility of the trinitarian God, the life of faith is the visibility of Jesus.  It is indeed true that we can and should speak of the Church as ‘sacrament’; but in the light of what we have so far been arguing, the notion of sacrament needs to be clarified.  Sacramentality has been too often understood as a rather static manifestation of the sacred (the familiar language about sacramental understanding of the world can mean simply that the world affords glimpses of the holy); but if divine presence is always necessarily divine action, what is sacramental about the Church is its transparency to the divine act of mutual self-gift.  This does not reduce merely to the presence in the Church of impressively holy lives, let alone of impressively edifying projects: as I have argued elsewhere, it is as much as anything to do with the Church’s acknowledged failure, and thus with its unceasing repetition of the narrative of Jesus, through baptism and Eucharist, as a story which is currently active and formative for the community.

Does this mean, then, that we should let go of any interest in God’s ‘presence in the world’, i.e. outside the boundaries of the Church?  There are two points to be made at once about this.  The first is that whatever is manifest in the life of the believing community is precisely the energy that sustains finite reality itself, not simply some part of it.  It is why the sacraments are seen as eschatological signs, actively moving finite reality towards its purposed goal.  To borrow some phrases from Nikolaos Loudovikos’ fine and provocative recent study, A Eucharistic Ontology, sacramental life, especially the Eucharist, presses towards the realisation in all things of ‘dialogical reciprocity’, being as a ‘circulation of gifts’ (see for example pp.4-10, 139-143).  But such a mobile understanding of divine presence in the finite world requires the specific narrative of incarnation and kenosis and the gift of the Spirit; any account excluding this dimension would lack the critical edge of hope.  So the second point is that where we recognise – as we undoubtedly have to – certain human experiences as moments of openness to the sacred or the holy, to a dimension in reality that is not exhausted by even the fullest accounts of working and function, we have to be wary of turning this into an encounter with something that is essentially just there to be looked at.  In Augustine’s famous words (Conf. VII.20), what we encounter in the contemplation of God is ‘not only to be looked at but to be lived in.’ The holy is what we, knowingly or not, inhabit: more exactly, it is what actively inhabits us as a form or shape of life, the unceasing exchange of life from self to other and back again.  The moment of perceiving the sacred is fully significant only when it becomes also a moment of perceiving that I as subject am being acted upon and that my own perceiving is activated by what I ‘see’.

The role of the Church, then, is neither to go in eager search of experiences of the divine, hoping to produce some kind of evidence for its convictions about God, nor to deny any true awareness of God outside its own practice and discipline.  It is to try and keep alive the connection between the disorienting moment of perceiving the holy and the comprehensive narrative and (we may as well use the word) metaphysic of trinitarian activity.  If ‘the holy’ is not just a dimension among others in the experiential repertoire, if it is recognised as fundamental and generative, the Christian narrative offers a way of understanding how it is generative and how finite action may become transparent to it in such a way that the generativity flows further.  And this depends on a very close attention to what is said about encounters with the holy – the degree to which they genuinely relativise the perspective of the ego, the degree to which they ‘invite’ into something more than momentary, the degree to which they nurture change in behaviour and habitual perception.  Grant any or all of those and it is possible to begin a conversation about active presence and its focus in the events of Jesus’ life and death.  Ignore any such connection and you are left with a spirituality which may console but does not transform.

If God is as Christians claim, God is to be encountered in the world – but not simply as a particular dimension of it, however numinous.  The widespread human awareness of the numinous relates not to a discrete object of possible experience but to what cannot be exhausted in experience, since it is the animating ground of the whole life of the experiencing subject.  Hence the tension Lash explores in several places between a putative science of religious experience and a theological account of divine presence.  It is expressed most sharply in his Alister Hardy memorial lecture where, towards the end of the piece, he identifies the strictly theological content of what is loosely called religious experience as ‘selflessness strenuously worked out in darkness’.  ‘If’, he continues, ‘…Christianity has an experiential “root” or “core”, then this is to be found not in “fleeting” or “puzzling” transient states of private consciousness [he is alluding to phrases used by David Hay in his work on religious experience], but in the experience of Jesus in Gethsemane and on Calvary, and in the experience of his followers’ (The Beginning and End of ‘Religion’, p.110).  I would only add that the task then remains of connecting the ‘states of private consciousness’ with paschal narrative and trinitarian ontology, and of displaying the latter as the inner structure of the story of Jesus in such a way that we can see what it might mean to recognise it as also the story of the universe.

Discussion of divine presence and our ‘experience’ of it needs to be rescued from the seductions of a model of both presence and experience that assumes a plain duality between divine presence as a feature of the world and a subject who can in some way ‘find it out’.  What Nicholas Lash has contributed to this task is not only a philosophically-informed critique of the fiction of raw experience but also a theological insistence on the inseparability of the eclipse of God and the eclipse of humanity – and thus on the connection between recovering ways of seeing divine presence and identifying ways for humanity to be present to itself afresh.  My purpose here has been to draw out some more of the theology that will keep such a connection in focus.  In the first place, this is simply about the conviction that divine presence has to be active and self-coherent in its activity – so that awareness of divine presence is also awareness of the subject’s own derivative and dependent nature.  The practices of self-examination, controlled privation and silence are ways of inviting such awareness in a conscious pedagogy designed to resist any dreams of manipulating the divine or simply enjoying it as an object.  But such practices and the rites and narratives that go with them are an embodying of the basic shape of the Christian narrative and ontology: displacement, gift and return, the ‘excess’ generated by mutual and radical bestowal, these are the essential aspects of what Christians have to say about the threefold divine life.  The presence of this life can be traced in the shape and direction of particular biographies, but also, crucially, in the corporate language and ritual of the Church, understood as the revelation of God’s purpose for the whole complex of finite reality.  Those occasional, ‘fleeting’ encounters with the divine which are the focus of a good deal of discussion divine presence and religious experience need an intensive reading in terms of the prior actuality of trinitarian mutuality and the genesis of shared patterns of hope.

And in this context, talk about the hiddenness of God takes on a different flavour.  A discussion that remained at the level of the occasional experience would be bound, explicitly or implicitly, to hint at a definition of this hiddenness which would see it as almost a function of the general inadequacy of our ‘habitual’ perception of the world, even of the barriers which language erects against spontaneous perception – a cluster of ideas seen off with great energy and clarity in Lash’s Hardy lecture already mentioned.  In contrast, if we are talking about the connections between the eclipse of God and the eclipse of the human, the challenge of divine hiddenness is a matter both of a culture which frustrates an adequate imagining of the human and of a personal subject’s opacity to herself.  The hiddenness of God is, in other words, not a condition almost arbitrarily interrupted by momentary shafts of unexpected light.  It is bound up with the sense of an intuited but hard-to-attain stillness in which the world is fully inhabited; God is ‘hidden’ in the sense that there is not and can never be a portion of the experienced universe of which we can simply say, ‘That is God’, but also hidden in that the conscious inhabiting of finite reality in a way that acknowledges its ground and sustaining life is profoundly elusive.  To use another Augustinian commonplace, my habitual absence from myself – in chaotic craving, in deluded self-mythologizing or in any of the varieties of misshapen desire that keep us prisoner – is the issue here; not God’s absence but mine.  Augustine’s own picture is of a self aware of its own intractable hiddenness, its inexhaustible questionability, gradually discovering that this mysteriousness is to be understood in the light of the fact that the self is what is invited into being by the divine initiative in creation, the divine communication which establishes an indestructible possibility of response.  The deeper we go into the self, the more clearly we shall grasp that its elusiveness is the effect of its constitution by the divine address or invitation, by the infinite generative act that is the Trinity itself.  And hiddenness is overcome not by a moment of manifestation but by the commitment to this endless journey into divine reciprocity which we call faith, realised in the common life of the community that steadily holds itself responsible for announcing and embodying a hope without limit.  Further – to pick up a point discussed by Lash in his engagement with Buber (Easter in Ordinary, p.209) – the sense in which Jesus of Nazareth could be said to abolish or overcome divine hiddenness becomes clearer.  The revelation of God in Jesus is, as Kierkegaard argued, not a matter of our now being able to identify some bit of the world with God, as if the conditions had now been achieved which made it no longer necessary for God to be obscured to our view.  It is being gifted with the freedom to yield the frontiers of the ego in the face of the Christological paradox: ultimate authority brought into speech and human relation in the form of absolute dispossession.

Spelling this out further would need a much longer essay.  But perhaps enough has been said to indicate the way in which Lash’s arguments about divine presence take up the central themes of an austerely classical theological ontology – God as pure act, the Trinity as the eternal ‘shape’ of that act – in order to establish a foundation for two entirely contemporary and demanding projects: the imperative need for a deeply iconoclastic discipline of contemplation at a time when it seems all too easy for language about God to revert to the descriptive and anthropomorphic; and the summons to rethink the Church as a community whose transparency – and transforming or liberating effectiveness – is to be found in its penitence rather than its self-defence.  Such a vision of the clarifying and radical task of theology has always characterised Nicholas Lash’s writing, and it is why Church and academy alike have reason to celebrate his work.

©  Rowan Williams 2011

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