Thursday, July 03, 2008

An Anthropology of Reconciliation

In an earlier post ("Toward & Away; Against & With") I argued that, psychological, the reason I might find intolerable even insignificant theological differences with others is that I have come to identify my faith tradition ( be that as an Orthodox Christian or as a Roman Catholic) with my own preferred style of coping conflict. On this Horney is helpful because she points out to us that all of this my is ultimately ground in my own self-image. Given this, it is not unreasonable that often theological polemics become personal. Given the affirmation of self I find in my religious tradition I am likely to take any disagreement or divergence from my tradition as a personal attack and respond aggressively. While the movements toward, against and away are valuable they are insufficient. What is need is that we learn not simply to move toward, away and against, but also move with each other. It is this, I would suggest, is really the goal of any ecumenical dialog. The "movement with" is the movement of reconciliation and communion. It is also the movement that the one that is most often neglected. In what follows I seek to offer a possible explanation for this.

Psychoanalysis and patristic anthropologies agree at least on this: The lines of conflict runs not so much between people and traditions as it does within each human persons. Our conflicts, as Horney argues so convincingly, are in the final analysis "inner conflicts." Before "we" are in conflict with each other, "I" am in conflict with myself. "We" are not in communion with each other, because "I" am not in communion with myself. Whatever else they may have gotten wrong, what the late Pope John Paul II called the "philosophies of suspicion" got at least this much right, conflict arise out of the human quest for power and authority over others—and we will use economics, politics and even the Gospel as a means to acquire that power.

Practically speaking what does this mean? Well, it means this, while I think I've been writing to others—or more probably some imagined polemicist be he Catholic or Orthodox—I'm really writing to myself. Or maybe, I should say, while writing to "you" I had better also apply my observations and admonitions to "me." Because the problem isn't in "you" it is not "out there" or in Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church. The problem isn't even in me. I am the problem because the only thing I know for certain is that I am a sinner.

None of this is to suggest that argumentation, withdrawal, or the seeking of common ground is to be rejected. Far from it. But it is to suggest that, while not unrelated to these, reconciliation represents its own, unique movement and means of social encounter. Further because we are created in the image of the Triune God Who is Himself a community of persons, implicit within the three movements of from, toward and against, is a desire to move and be with—that is a desire for communion.

St Augustine makes an analogous point in a brief discussion on the psychology of suicide. He writes that "Every willful desire for death is directed toward peace, not toward nonexistence. Although a man erroneously believes that he will not exist after death, nevertheless by nature, he desires to be at peace; that is, he desires to be in a higher degree." In like fashion, polemics embody not simply a person's desire to form his/her life apart from others. Polemics reflect is not simply a desire "not to be" with others or "to cease to be" with others. Rather, this desire to be alone is also a search for a deeper and more profound way of being-with-others. This aspiration to be in a different way is a movement toward communion.

Ironically, when the heart's aspiration toward reconciliation is only given form as movements "toward," "away from" and "against," it remains wedded to the dissonance of the starting point. Only when it is given form "with" others does the movement toward communion become liberated from the conflict of the heart's starting point.

In his book Existence and Existents, Emmanuel Levinas offers a phenomenological analysis of fatigue that can help us understand this paradox. Of singular importance is the description of fatigue as a letting go that is also a holding on. For Levinas, "Fatigue is not just the case of this letting go, it is the slackening itself. It is so inasmuch as it does not occur simply in a hand that is letting slip the weight it finds tiring to lift, but in one that is holding on to what it is letting slip, even when it has let it drop it remains taut with effort. For there is fatigue only in effort and labor."

The is in our polemics a certain sense of fatigue as Levinas describes it. This fatigue "a peculiar form of forsakeness . . . of being forsaken by the world with which one is no longer in step." The person is no longer in step with the world because s/he is no longer in step with him/herself.

I would suggest that each of the three movements of the human heart (toward, from and against) can be understood as a mode of fatigue, of a "letting go" that is also a means of "holding on." Freedom from the dissonance of the starting point, of the inner conflict or passion that fuels our polemical engagement of each other, demands that we change our way of relating to God, humanity and the cosmos, that we move beyond fatigue and to a "movement with" (i.e., conformity) God, humanity and the cosmos. In his philosophical anthropology, Levinas offers us some insight into how it is that we can move beyond this initial dissonance to a life of consonance (of what van Kaam might call our "movement with" others). This insight is found in a recurring theme in Levinas's work: the distinction between "need" and "desire." And it is this distinction that I will take up in my next post.

To be continued…

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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