In today’s reflection, Peter gives us an overview of our Week 7, our final week of Atheism for Lent. Yes, we go a little past the actual 40 days of Lent. We’re rebels that way.
This final “week” of AfL’23 will actually comprise only a few days, and it will wrap us up with “my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” We’re taking a deep dive into the reality that we are alienated from everyone and everything around us, marked with a sense of separation. Sin isn’t about ethics or morality, doing “bad” or doing “good.” Sin is this sense of alienation that all of us feel in the marrow of our being. Grace, then, is less about overcoming separation and more about realizing that alienation is part of God, part of the Absolute, part of Existence Itself. (See Tillich.)
Example: at a very basic level, we can be jealous of a friend’s romance/success/career/connections, etc. and find ourselves unable to be happy for them. Why? Because we’re caught up in a fantasy that They Made It, They Got It. “They got rid of their alienation and I haven’t. I can’t! I’ll never be whole!” But what we must come to understand is that this fantasy is not true. This friend has their own problems, their own alienation that’s different from ours. No matter what appearances imply, our friend is just as divided and incomplete as we are. Their alienation is just as real and traumatic to them as ours is to us.
If we can find our way into this understanding of our friend’s truth, we will find our jealousy diminishing. We become able embrace that friend and their Lack in an encounter of grace and forgiveness. We become able to love them in sincere joy for any good that comes their way. The Lack — the debt — is not paid but forgiven, rendering the nothing (the Lack) nothing. It’s not a Year of Jubilee but a life of it. We don’t fill the Lack; instead we lose the pain of it. “O, Lack — where is thy sting?”
The deeper problem of believing that we can overcome our alienation is that we will always need a reason for why we can’t overcome it. There must be something preventing us; it’s something’s or someone’s fault. And so we choose a scapegoat, some person or group we designate as an evil obstacle to our goal of filling our Lack. And we join together with others who’ve chosen or are willing to choose the same scapegoat. This is how we get, for instance, a Westboro Baptist Church that relentlessly persecutes anyone who’s not “straight.”
We must shed the belief that there is anything in this universe or out of it that will make us whole and complete. Lack/estrangement/separation/alienation are built into the DNA of existence, woven into the heart of Reality. If the search for wholeness is the poison (and it is), then the antidote is remaining open to the Real erupting in our lives. These are generally miniscule events and moments that disrupt us, altering us and our life’s path forever. In this way, the Real is apocalyptic: the incoming of something that can change everything. It’s something that happens in the midst of normality that we could never predict or plan for, and it creates something new.
That’s God, and that’s faith. What we name God is the Meaning That Might Find Us — provided we maintain an openness to its possibility at all times. This openness is faith. “No, I don’t believe there’s Meaning…but I still open myself to it, because I might be wrong.” If you’re alive, then that Meaning is there, waiting to find you. When that Meaning breaks into our lives, rupturing us, our past becomes a prophecy. The call of faith is to remain open to this rupture — which comes in the form of “das Ding”/the Lack in existence and in the Other.
One of the most crucial ways we maintain this openness is in communion with others who are also open to the rupturing. Here, Peter makes a distinction between “communion” and “community”:
- in community, we are unified with others by a shared characteristic or belief;
- but in communion, we are unified with others by a shared loss or lack, making space for the trauma of being human, and making space for a new kind of ground where transformation takes place.
Architects and builders shape nothingness, molding empty space through the use of designs, tools, bricks, and mortar. In the same way, when we are in communion with others, we are forming a “building” around the empty space that is our collective Lack. We are accepted in our Lack and accepting of others in their Lack. I call this the “Communion of the Real”; Peter names it the “Collective of the Contradiction.” Both work really well, but I think I like his better. Either way, it’s a new kind of system in the world, one in which we all sacrifice and all benefit from the sacrifice, together enjoying the struggle. The kingdom of God lies in fighting for the kingdom of God.
This week, we’ll be looking at the stunningly gorgeous work of Pádraig Ó Tuama; Peter’s own “Guide to Making Love”; and the Crucifixion by way of one of Peter’s parables. We’ll end the week on the nature of Salvation: not eternal life as in “a life that goes on and on forever,” but Salvation as a transformation of the texture of our lives right now. We learn to be rooted in rootlessness, at home in homelessness. One thing that makes us depressed is the fantasy that we could’ve been happy, we could’ve been whole. The truth is that there’s no universe in which we wouldn’t have been alienated.
There is life after death, and this is it. We are marked by death the moment we’re born, and living intentionally with an acceptance of our markedness, our lack, that is our death’s afterlife.
I love this week already.