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In God’s Company

I consumed two pieces of media before breakfast today. I was unable to sleep and stumbled downstairs ridiculously early for a day off with the kids on Christmas holidays. I plugged in the Christmas tree, made a pot of coffee, and settled into the wonderful pre-dawn stillness of the darkest day of the year.

First, it was Roy Scranton’s piece over at the New York Times that lured my attention with the cheery title, “We’re Doomed. Now What?” What followed was a rather grim reminder of our present state of affairs, on most readings of our planet’s predicament. Apocalyptic warnings about human induced climate change, dreary rehearsals of our lust for tribalistic violence, fears of overpopulation and ignorance and greed, and all against the sunny backdrop of philosophical nihilism. The question, for Scranton, is whether or not we humans have the resourcefulness to imagine/manufacture a sort of meaning for ourselves (or for our children, at least) that can withstand the brutally inconsiderate realities of existence.

Among his prescriptions for our “global catastrophe” and our nihilistic times is this:

Most important, we need to give up defending and protecting our truth, our perspective, our Western values, and understand that truth is found not in one perspective but in their multiplication, not in one point of view but in the aggregate, not in opposition but in the whole.

The claim that truth is found not in one perspective but in a multiplicity of perspectives sounds suspiciously normative if nihilism is the ultimate reality with which we have to deal, but there you go. Our future is very dark and bleak indeed, Scranton says, but perhaps we can mitigate the arrival of our inevitable doom if we start to cling a bit less tightly to our “truths” and embrace the truth of, er… nihilism? Pluralism? Tolerance? Western philosopher-ism? and embrace the task of “conscious self-creation, ” to build a new world among the ruins of the one we have made.

The second piece of media I consumed before breakfast as the Christmas lights twinkled in the background of my dark dining room was a talk by Rowan Williams called “A Good Christmas.” A number of people that I respect had linked to this piece and this morning presented the first available chunk of time to actually sit down and watch it. It was a marvelous talk from a marvelous thinker. Williams unpacked some of the theology behind the carols we sing each Christmas, and explored the question of whether or not we Christians have the capacity to be sufficiently surprised and unsettled by the nature of God and God’s coming to be among us.

Williams also referred, if somewhat obliquely, to the darkness of our days and the bleakness of the future that many envision. He, too, recognized a need for newness in a world choking and dying on the fumes of oldness. For Williams, Christmas is a reminder that newness is at the heart of the story of God and of God’s coming to be among us. New possibilities, new ways of being human in the world, new ways of imagining God and God’s attitude toward the world and humanity—all of these things and more are what Christmas is all about.

Of course, it is self-evident that however gratefully these words may be seized upon by Christian ears—and the Christian ears that I happen to be in possession of are almost without exception very grateful for the words of Rowan Williams!—they will do little to assuage nihilist suspicions about the true nature of what is and what is possible in our world. The idea of a God who brings newness to the world and to human beings is a pleasant fiction, perhaps, for the weak-minded. Or, worse still, represents an abdication of responsibility for the present in favour of leaving the newness to some kind of fantastical future.  What of those who cannot or will not believe in such a thing.

Williams was asked a version of this very question following his lecture. At one point in his talk, he had made the point that the incarnation demonstrates that God doesn’t need to be persuaded to be interested in us. The question in response—and it was a rather obvious one, given our post-Christians times—came quickly.

That may be true, but it seems that people very often need to be persuaded to be interested in God. What is the church or God doing wrong?

Williams response was as simple as it was illuminating and hopeful. He said that one of the constant challenges of our times, as people of faith, is to somehow “convey the truth that faith enlarges rather than shrinks our humanity.” The people who have any kind of authority or influence in our world are very often those who exhibit a humanity that is not “pinched and nervous,” not fearful and reactionary, not gloomy and foreboding, but open and expansive (even toward enemies).  A humanity that has let down its defences in imitation of the God who let down his. These are the kinds of people that can direct others toward God, toward newness, toward the possibility of human lives that can be a net benefit for the planet, I think. These are what lives look like when they are, to borrow a phrase from Williams, “lived in God’s company.”

Lives that look rather like the life that God lived when he came to dwell among us, full of grace and truth.


The image above is a piece by Lalo Garcia called “Creadora de Luz” and is taken from the 2015-16 Christian Seasons Calendar.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Christoph #

    Your quote starting with “most important…” is exactly what happened at Wheaton College this last week

    December 21, 2015
    • What happened at Wheaton was certainly interesting. I wish the parties involved would have taken more time for patient dialogue and clarification of terms, etc., but that’s probably too much to hope for in the internet age. 🙂

      December 23, 2015
  2. Paul Johnston #

    Seems a fools game to me, for mere mortals to think they can quantify, much less live, “truth”. Morality seems the more realistic enterprise. Honesty, integrity, sobriety, generosity, mercy, compassion….these qualities and others are better understood, defined and lived. Easier to measure; transparent. Harder to hide behind. Some of mankind’s worst behaviors have been an abominable expression of someone’s , “truth”.

    December 21, 2015
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Do you ever wonder if in fact Williams and the like aren’t part of the problem. All this verbal posturing and abstract supposing…”faith enlarging rather than diminishing our humanity”….seems a rather obvious expectation. I imagine every ethos, Christian or otherwise assumes this about itself.

    But what does it mean? In real terms, what advices and or encouragements does it offer? What repentence does it promote? What reverence of God? What worship? How does it feed the hungry? Heal the sick? Comfort the lonely….do for the least of “His”? How does such a statement and the myriad of statements like it, by scores of well paid professionals, impact the Kingdom here on earth? So much, “Christspeak”. So many, “Christspeakers”.

    Are there better ways?

    What is it that really encourages? Words or example? Words alone, mean nothing. Words undermined by example do harm. Words that align with example are useful, but only insofar as they are lived.

    Our story and it’s incredulous explanations only have influence insofar as we live this life of discipleship so many of us love to talk about.

    If all we have is our story we will be rightly relegated to the dustbin of ancient superstitions by those who do not believe.

    December 23, 2015
    • Do you ever wonder if in fact Williams and the like aren’t part of the problem?

      Not really, no. I don’t think any of the things you advocate above are ruled out by Williams’ statements or the context in which he delivered them.

      December 23, 2015
      • Paul Johnston #

        So the answer Williams gives his questioner, the thousand of similar answers, given by thousands of similar lecturers, these answers convict? These answers bring the unbeliever to God?

        I would say with confidence, not likely.

        December 23, 2015
      • I would say, with confidence, that sometimes such answers, delivered alongside lives of faithfulness, mercy, compassion, generosity, hope, and love, can play a part in bringing people to God.

        I would also say, with confidence, that sometimes such answers do not convict. Hearts and minds can, after all, remain hard. The failure of an answer to “bring the unbeliever to God” is not always the fault of the answer or the answerer, after all.

        December 24, 2015
  4. Paul Johnston #

    ….on this day, a day I would prefer to spend in the, “blessed sacrament” (a chapel where the Spirit of Christ resides) I will be beyond busy attending to the material aspects of Christmas….and so it goes….CS Lewis and themes of busyness come to mind…Williams simply avoids the question. What is the church doing wrong? Lots! Every western context of church needs a radical overrhaul. Pope Francis says it well. “We need to become a poor church serving the poor.” We must offer sacrament ( the presence of and relationship with our Lord) and solace. We must live lives very differently from the way we live them. We need more Apostles and fewer professional speakers.

    December 24, 2015

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