Essay / Misc.

A Theology of Hugging

I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about the call to let others be. This, I take it, is the ethical correlate of the Christian doctrine of creation, in which the perfectly strong God makes room for the world, in which he lets it be. It is true that creation is always utterly dependent on Father, Son and Spirit for its very existence. It is also true that Father, Son and Spirit have given that same creation space and time to be itself on its own terms. So it is in our relationships with one another, relationships in which we are called to both depend on one another and let one another be.

We cannot escape relationship. We can distort it. We can bend it to our own ends. We can dominate others. Or, we can lose ourselves in relationship. We can refuse to take responsibility for ourselves and muffle our voices. We can be dominated. But we cannot, in the end, escape relationship. That said we do find rather creative ways to stifle, to frustrate, sometimes to just plain trounce one another. To expand on that would be to belabor the obvious, to say again what each of us thinks on a daily basis. Instead, I’d like today to say just one thing about how we might care for one another better. Perhaps it’ll get at how we talk to one another coming up to an election. Perhaps, too, it’ll help us simply be kind, maybe help us make room for one another, help us give one another space and time to be ourselves.

A number of years ago, I read and was marked by Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Volf is a Croatian theologian, who lived through genocide in former Yugoslavia. I can think of few books that are more theologically, morally or pastorally compelling. At the core of Volf’s argument is a description of reconciling embrace. Embrace has a fourfold rhythm to it:” opening the arms, waiting, closing the arms, and opening them again.” Where Volf thinks first of embrace in reconciliation, I’d like to reflect on it with reference to the rhythm of relationship in general.

1. Opening the arms.

This is the fundamental move of openness, vulnerability and desire for relationship without which the embrace of reconciliation and fellowship is impossible. Here one opens and offers oneself to another unconditionally, with great hope for relationship. One also stands before a mystery, the mystery of the other. In so doing, I cannot know what you are thinking. I cannot predict your response.

Openness is a posture in which one is easily attacked, from which it is difficult to defend oneself. And this is exactly the point. Self-defense, though ubiquitous as a modus operandi, is a guaranteed failure in attempts to establish fellowship.

2. Waiting.

Next, we wait. An embrace can never be demanded. Coerced affection cannot exist. But neither can it be awaited with indifference. In waiting for the other to respond, a person demonstrates a desire for them that, precisely in this desire, affirms the other as other by resisting the temptation to demand what can only be freely given. Still, the person also resists the temptation to re-fold his arms in lackadaisical self-protection. (This is, of course, a tricky moment. How is one to demonstrate desire for relationship in such a way that respects and establishes the freedom of another to choose or reject that relationship?)

Alistair McFadyen speaks of a “‘letting-be’ which is not a ‘letting-go'”. It is a making room, a giving space and time to another, but not the sort that disengages or shrugs them off. Surely, at times we must let-go in order properly to let-be. But the end of letting-be, for Christians at least, is the embrace of fellowship. This doesn’t sit well with us, though. It is utterly counterintuitive to think that my letting you be might serve the longer purpose of fellowship between us. And, to be sure, this letting-be must be a real letting-be, not a power play masquerading as letting-be.

3. Closing the arms.

Here is the moment towards which this entire movement is orientated. This is the moment of arrival, the fulfillment of the desire for relationship. Volf warns, though, that “a soft touch is necessary. I may not close my arms around the other too tightly, so as to crush her and assimilate her, otherwise I will be engaged in a concealed power-act of exclusion; an embrace would be perverted into a ‘bear-hug.'” So she remains ‘she’, a person unique to herself who is not simply to be understood on my terms. Indeed, to allow the other to continue to be the other, “it is essential to acquire the unusual ability not to understand the other.” Mystery must remain.

Closing the arms is also a moment of departure, however, insofar as it leads into a second opening of the arms. There are no arrivals without remainder this side of the eschaton. The good work of right relationship abides. Hence the rhythmic quality to the embrace of fellowship.

4. Opening them again.

Fellowship precludes clinginess. The embrace of friendship must conclude with an opening of the arms, in which I and you remember that, even as we are called to communion, this is a communion which we must continue to choose and which we can never demand from one another. The distance created in this moment both reminds one of who one is and recalls one back to relationship.

I wonder which of these moments is most difficult for you, gentle (if rapid, internet-savvy) reader. For me, it’s the waiting. How much I’d rather jump from the opening of arms to their closing in embrace. Or, I’d rather keep my arms closed, thank you very much. I’m happy to open myself to you, so long as I know you’ll reciprocate. But what if you don’t? Relationship of any stripe–ecclesial, friendly, romantic, collegial, filial–if it’s to be right relationship, one in which fellowship is freely given and received, never forced, well, that’s relationship I’m not always so sure I want. Of course I want it, but…

So many of our daily relationships presume that invitations are accepted. If you invite me over to watch The Office, it’s a fairly safe bet I’ll come (schedule permitting). If I ask you for a reasonable favor, simple etiquette allows me to assume you’ll be happy to oblige. But it’s precisely where our fears and hopes dovetail that we have the least cause to assume.

Then again, the final moment is similarly vulnerable; for it’s just in the moment of embrace that one can (wrongly) begin to presume an intimacy without risk. The opening of the arms after an embrace signals the abiding trust and hope which form the hallmark, but also the risk, of fellowship. When I refuse to open my arms following an embrace, I begin to smother.

This sort of thing is entirely counter-productive, of course; our attempts to force affection never work. They might establish a short-term detente, but they will never keep the peace over time. They breed resentment, insurrection. True friendship, lasting reconciliation trade on the possibility of friends-become-enemies, even as it hopes for the abiding dynamic of strangers-become-friends.

All of which to say, this side of the eschaton, St. Paul seems to have been right: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three.” The loving embrace of others calls for faith and hope, which is to say it calls for risk taken in light of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faith and hope take their cues not from bland optimism, but from the one who raised Jesus from the dead. As Volf puts it: “Central to the Christian faith is the belief that the Spirit of the crucified Messiah is capable of creating the promised land out of the very territory the Pharaoh has beleaguered.”

Faith and hope are hard, of course. But then, as Aeschylus says, “exiles feed on hope.”

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