by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.
“The Kingdom of God cannot be conceived moralistically: it is on the other side of the distinction. It is the Fall that made moralists of us” (Berdyaev, Destiny of Man, p. 36). Ascesis is necessary in order to train the mind not to accept the obvious. Perhaps better, it is necessary so that the whole man, the Hebrew “heart,” will discern an unexpected path. Once again, William Desmond is instructive:
There is a disorder of self that is perverse; there is a disorder that is divine. There is order that is killing; there is order that gives creation peace. There is a self-love that is really a hatred of the self; there is a hatred of the self that is really a love of what is other, and a consent to being. There is a sacrifice of self that affirms the other; there is a negation that is also a transfigured affirmation of self. . . . The heart is fearsome. This too is part of the endowment of the good. (Being and the Between, p. 522)
This “fearsome” heart is where I want to locate those new powers Bulgakov was talking about. Josef Pieper clarifies the character of those who, according to Plato, are qualified to pronounce upon the nature of the last judgment. “Those who express themselves through such doctrines are for Plato in the end ‘the ancients,’ by which he means, not the ‘gerontic,’ not the men with snow-white hair, but rather those who ‘dwell close to God,’ ‘ the truly wise’ (For the Love of Wisdom, p. 229; cf. Philebus 16C 5-9). Wisdom, I suggest, is always a welcoming power. “When one makes a welcome one creates the conditions that promise of home. One makes it possible for the other not any longer to feel outside of or out of it, but to feel at home” (Perplexity and Ultimacy, p. 146). Unusual perceptiveness, delicacy, a certain royal dishabille is needed. “To make a person feel at home in strange surroundings is extraordinarily elusive in its intricacy” (p. 147). But all this is rendered a possible action by the superior vision that allows hospitality to happen. The ancients are aware, as the others are not, that the Father’s heart is the place of mansions. Though exiled, we are never truly lost. “In a way we are already at home, though not always at home. Any position ‘outside’ it is inside it, as a sleepiness, or neutering, or refusal, or blindness, or desecration” (p. 147).
Too often, the ecclesial power of binding and loosing is thought juridically, as an awful capacity to damn and exclude, rather than as a life-giving creativity. Julian of Norwich would speak of the lower doom, the necessary disciplines and modes of religious prudence in this world. Yet she reserved beyond the limited scope of such action an open space for the higher doom of God’s saving ingenuity. Many, of course, will refuse any possible gap; who, almost invariably, will bridle the heart and imagination, impugning the temerity of love as a carnal tickling of the ears. Contrary to the usual interpretation, the kind of hopeless rejection imaged in Michelangelo’s depiction in the Sistine Chapel, heightened by the stark dichotomies of apocalyptic, considered beyond qualification by the standard exegesis of certain of our Lord’s words, I have long suspected that Judgment is the beginning of healing.
“I am more than my life.” In the divine fire of uncreated light, the sham of sin is undeniable. Yet then, also, one can discern the irreplaceable call that has always tenderly held one amidst failures and lost freedom. “Only for God does the individual not disappear in the great number” (Robert Spaemann, Love and the Dignity of Human Life, p. 20). Love cleaves to the Prodigal who is open to love precisely because of a wandering in the abyss. Rowan Williams is not overtly talking about this in his incisive monograph The Edge of Words, but I would argue that the eschatological is what meaningfully grounds his assertions. At minimum, Williams warns against a sterile, univocal “common sense” that would resist the indeterminacy and metaphor-bearing quality of being. Against a preference for the obvious, Williams asserts that “there are dimensions in what we encounter that require recognition in the imaginative world of our speaking, over and above whatever initial register we have found useful or ‘natural’. The life of what we encounter is a many layered complex of invitations to that imagination” (p. 64).
To follow that invitation is to engage in a re-imagining. The world we think we know must be disordered. It must, indeed, be shaken to its roots, trembling before a pure Ardor of Divine Joy. The fictive reveals itself to be the really real, whereby identities are rendered malleable and mysterious. While moderns think of imagination as something that explores “possible worlds,” I think it is much more likely that our imaginations mediate realities—angelic, demonic, sophianic. Imagination at its most inspired taps into an infinite actuality, rather than infinite possibility. Or, if you like, the possibility is always secured by the already existent actuality, so that paradox always saturates our attempts to think about temporal possibility. Yet if the basis of imagination is an eschatological realism, one must not thereby presuppose a series of aesthetic epiphanies. The unique often happens quietly. The Japanese tea ceremony is the opposite of faceless kitsch. In one case, overt nakedness hides lack or refusal of the person. Here, a seemingly impersonal formalism gives sanctuary to a personal revelation hidden in the interstices.
Williams tends to present the situation as a counter-factual that may be licit because it provides an image of hope whereby loving action becomes possible.
If our speech is given us as a means of challenging what is the case in the name of an imagined world of greater justice or mercy or joy, if what it is to manifest is not only a static mental content but a divine purpose or desire, can we say that a saving fiction is invariably impermissible? (Edge of Words, p. 48)
But there is a long history of abjuration of the fictive as equivalent to lying. Williams tackles the by now classic ethical dilemma posed to pitch the question at excruciating levels. What does the honest man do who knows that a Jewish family is hiding in the basement when Nazis come knocking at his door? Does lying to the Nazis constitute an ethical lapse, even if committed to preserve the lives of innocents? Heroic moralism believes that it does. Williams cites Augustine as a source for this venerable sensibility. With circumspection he probes the foundations. “Augustine may have said that temporal harms—to others as well as myself—are less grave than the spiritual betrayal involved in lying; but surely he underrates the spiritual betrayal involved in so relativizing the avoidable hurt of another, obliging others to pay with their lives for my own truthfulness, colluding with a powerful and pervasive injustice” (p. 49). Noting that Paul Griffiths has asserted that “such cases show how the gift of God’s grace is a violent disruption of our secure consciences,” Williams questions if such a bold elevation of moral duty above the heart’s protest is not capable of ruse itself, potentially a form of sloth.
How can we be sure that adhesion to Augustinian truthfulness will not be, in the hands of anyone less passionate about the priority of grace, simply a way of identifying an unambiguously right course of action that will soothe our consciences rather than disturb them? Plainly, how do we know that this hideously costly truthfulness will not be the occasion of smugness rather than anguish?
Indeed, how good is the man who Nazis can rely upon to spill the beans? What is needed is more akin to what Gabriel Marcel called “creative fidelity.” Goodness is not, after all, the dull and unimaginative dupe that Machiavelli used as foil to his prudent wickedness. On the contrary, “the God-givenness of truth, requires not just a faithful reproduction of data but a faithful alignment with whatever can be discerned or received of a merciful purpose, of the eternal generosity of the threefold divine life” (The Edge of Words, p. 49).
The welcoming imagination is a matter of the proleptic grasp of the eschatological. Think again this ethical conundrum pitched to the highest degree. The Nazi at the door is the Bringer of Perdition. The Jew in the cellar is all of poor humanity, with the complication that those hiding in the world are complicit in their own sin and deathward pull. While many hold to an imagination of dualist separation, exhort a violent honesty that refuses to lie to the questioner at the door, the Christian should not be satisfied with “guileless” simplicity. Williams’ probing of the nature of such moral integrity indicates the potential for self-delusion and lack of love in complacent acceptance of “the facts.” Rather, the Christian is called to a more daring and difficult fiction. When the Doomslayer calls looking for the excluded outsider, dove-like innocence shrewdly answers with serpentine charity. “No strangers are here. There is only family.”
Not always but in some cases, not right away but eventually, not all at once but from time to time and fleetingly, catching our breaths between bouts of thrashing and sobbing, the Easter recognition begins to dawn. This family will not break. This quarrel is between lovers. Love bade us welcome. Willy-nilly, recognized or not, Love has held on to us, all the while comforting us with its touch. From time to time, eventually, the storm may break, the air clear, the bread and wine bear the passion of love’s kiss, of pleasurable embrace, of taking in one another’s life. (Marilyn McCord Adams, Christ and Horrors, p. 295)
Of course, one may object that God is the judge at the door. Yes, but the Destroyer is a projection of bad theology. Alternatively, Christ knocks at the door, bringing healing compassion. Or, the Judge is also secretly, and not so secretly, advocate for the accused. Further, the Holy Spirit is meekly working to answer. The advocate is already on both sides of the door. You just don’t know it yet.
What should characterize ecclesial existence above all else is generous awareness of the surprising Good. This is an artist’s sensibility. When lost, forgotten, never even knew about it, the church becomes a merely human institution prone to careful consolidation of gains and the construction of hedges to prevent the unwary from wandering off into corrupt and whimsical paths. Then the Church’s response, which may still be a place of heroic compassion, is trapped in a condition of passivity. Acts of kindness, acts of protest against power, even martyrdom are understood at the level of exemplary moral action. What else can we do? The tendency is to “wait on the Lord.” Or, the impatient ones adopt progressive social action in the name of the gospel. Neither attempt properly attends to the new powers given to humanity in Christ. The action of love may superficially appear no different from what can be accomplished by those who are ignorant of the transformative powers of Christ’s presence in humankind. The difference is decisive. To speak a name in love, to begin to discern in a place of wretchedness, even unto perverse horror, so that the instinct of human self-preservation draws back, the face of Christ is to begin to make a welcome. It is only from such agapeic heights that metaphysical transformation happens. Then St. Francis of Assisi kisses the leper, the despicable is embraced, from the dust, a glorious destiny arises. “Born under a dark star, we gave birth to the world” (Anna Swir).