October 16, 2003

The City

Category: Theology,Theology - Trinity :: Permalink

Toward the end of his introduction to Charles William’s novels, Thomas Howard deals with Williams’ view of the City as a complex system of order involving a mutual exchange of gifts:

Williams derives his picture of the City from Saint John the Divine and from Saint Augustine. In its perfection of order and architecture it supplies us with a pattern (or what Williams also liked to call the “web” or “diagram”) of glory. Things must be intricately worked out and interwoven. In any earthly city there are one-way signs, yellow lines in the streets, traffic lights, bus schedules, commerce, taxes, laws, police, a council, a mayor, and so forth. Every item forms part of the pattern without which everything would tangle, break down, and grind to a halt. If one car ignores the yellow line you have a shouting, hooting traffic jam backed up for blocks. The life of any city depends entirely on its obedience to the imposed pattern. The paradox, of course, is that this imposed pattern is the guarantee of everyone’s liberty. The attempt to break free of the pattern results in chaos.The difficulty is that all earthly cities are imperfect patterns. Corruption, sloth, inefficiency, stupidity, cynicism, and violence mar the pattern. But this only throws the thing itself into starker relief. There is no life that does not depend on this pattern of “co-inherence” — of you and me mutually submitting to the rules — for its sustenance, and where this is flouted you find anger, sorrow, and ruin, which is what you find eventually in hell (pp. 37-38).

That may be worth thinking about the next time I’m sitting at a red light waiting, perhaps impatiently, for it to change. Impatience while driving is a species of pride: “Why doesn’t everyone submit to me and get out of my way?” But at a red light, what are we doing? We’re regarding others — the people with the green light — as more important than ourselves. And then we discover that they also are compelled to stop and we get to go because the traffic light imposes a system of mutual deference, mutual courtesy.

It seemed to Williams that here was a principle. Everyone, all the time, owes his life to others. It is not only in war that this is true. We cannot eat breakfast without being nourished by some life that has been laid down. If our breakfast is cereal or toast, then it is the life of grains of wheat that have gone into the ground and died that we might have food. If it is bacon, then the blood of some pig has been shed for the sake of my nourishment. All day long I live on this basis: some farmer’s labor has produced this wheat, and someone else’s has brought it to market, and so on. These in turn receive the fruit of my work when I pay for the product. Money is the token and medium of the exchange that takes place: here is the fruit of my labor, which you need, and with this I purchase the fruit of yours, which I need. It becomes very difficult to keep all this very sharply in focus in a complex modern society where face-to-face transactions rarely occur. But the principle of exchange is at work in international commerce as well as in the village farmers’ market. It is just harder to see. Williams coupled this idea of exchange with two other ideas, namely, “substitution” and “co-inherence,” but they all come to the same thing. There is no such thing as life that does not owe itself to the life and labor of someone else. It is true all the way up and down the scale of life, from our conception, which owes itself to the self-giving of a man and a woman to each other; through my daily life, where I find courtesies such as a door held open if I have a package; and laws obliging me to wait at this red light while you go, and then you to wait at the next corner for the other fellow; and commerce, in which I buy what your labor has supplied; right on through nature, with its grains of wheat planted and harvested and animals slaughtered for my food; to the highest mystery of all in which a life was laid down so that we might all have eternal life.

The point for Williams was that all life functions in obedience to this principle of exchange and substitution and co-inherence whether I happen to observe it or not, or whether I happen to be pleased by it or not. It presides over all life, so that to resist or deny it is to have opted for a lie. For Williams, hell is the place where such a denial leads eventually. To refuse co-inherence will reward me with solitude, impotence, wrath, illusion, and inanity. I will have reaped the harvest I have sown in my selfishness and egotism. I will have got what I wanted. I will be a damned soul.

On the other hand, the City of God is the place where we see co-inherence brought to blissful fruition. What we encountered in this mortal life as mere genetics, say, in our conception, or as agriculture in the bread we eat, or as law with its traffic lights and yellow lines, or as courtesy with doors being held open, or as economics with its buying and selling, or as theology with Christ’s sacrifice — all this is unfurled in the dazzling light of the City of God (pp. 25-27).

What Howard doesn’t mention (perhaps because Williams hadn’t noticed it himself) is that all of this interaction, which Williams saw in all of life and which is encapsulated in the image of “the City,” is an image of the eternal fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of whom gives Himself to the others, seeking their glory. So, to ask the question again, what are we doing when we wait at a traffic light? We’re taking part in a complex system of rules and procedures which compel mutual deference and courtesy but in which we, as individuals and as a society, begin to image to some degree the mutual deference, courtesy, love, and humility –” putting others ahead of ourselves — of the Trinity.

Posted by John Barach @ 11:32 am | Discuss (0)

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