Sunday 13 December 2009

The promises of God in the midst of anxiety: The Consolations of Theology

We live in an anxious world filled with anxious people. Whether it is our anxiety concerning when the Global Financial Crisis might end, the threat of terrorism, whether human’s are causing global warming, the future of our job’s or our children, the signs of anxiety are everywhere. What do we do with anxiety? What does it mean for the human condition? Is it an inconvenient threat that we need to deal with medically or through counselling? Or do we pander ourselves with little luxuries in the hope that the anxieties of life go away? What about some of the other maladies of our age (or perhaps all ages)? What do we do about anger, obsession, despair, disappointment or even pain?

A recent book edited by Brian Rosner reminds us that the Bible has much to teach us about consolation that is immensely practical and that will lead us towards becoming the people God wants us to be? Rosner’s wonderful collection of essays records some of the papers of a conference that attempted to offer a theological perspective on all of these human conditions. It draws together what some significant theologians have said about the consolations of God and the individual authors’ insights concerning the Bible’s teaching.

Overview of the book

‘The Consolations of Theology’ was the outcome of a conference at Moore Theological College in Sydney that used the structure of Alain de Botton’s book the ‘The Consolations of Philosophy’ to consider the work of six theologians and what their work has to say about the consolations of God in the midst of the struggles, challenges and disappointments of life. Just as de Botton had followed the pattern of Jean Gerson and Thomas More who had in turn followed the genre of the pioneering work of the philosopher Boethius in the sixth century, the speakers at the Moore College took de Botton’s work framed by philosophy and instead applied a theological frame. The resulting publication has six rich and challenging chapters:

  • Richard Gibson considers ‘Lactantius on Anger’
  • Andrew Cameron considers ‘Augustine on Obsession’
  • Mark Thompson considers ‘Luther on despair’
  • Peter Bolt considers ‘Kierkegaard on anxiety’
  • Brian Rosner considers ‘Bonhoeffer on disappointment’
  • Robert Banks considers ‘C.S. Lewis on pain’
A quick summary of one chapter might give you a flavour of this wonderful 160-page book.

Peter Bolt on Anxiety

Dr Peter Bolt frames his chapter with Paul’s words to the Roman church, “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Hebrews 8:19) and proceeds to offer a discussion of the anxiety of our age that he reminds us is little different from previous ages. “To be human in this fallen world is to be anxious” for all have been anxious since sin entered the world through Adam. But the Bible suggests that rather than conquering us and leading us to despair and immobility, that anxiety can, indeed should, move us towards anxiety for the things of God (1 Corinthians 7:32) and his people (2 Corinthians 11:28; Philippians 2:20; 1 Corinthians 12:25).

Peter Bolt then unpacks Kierkegaard’s writing in the nineteenth century on anxiety as dread (“Angst”). Kierkegaard argued that anxiety must be distinguished from fear, since animals share the latter. Fear relates to real threats while anxiety reflects the mere possibility that something might happen or come to pass. Kierkegaard also stressed that anxiety must be distinguished from despair. Despair he suggests reflects us giving up on becoming the people God wants us to become, whereas “anxiety arises from the act of us becoming spirit, of becoming who you were created to be. It arises from the possibility that exists in the actual experience of our freedom”.

Bolt then summarises Kiekegaard’s ideas on the relationship between sin, freedom and anxiety this way, “there is a severe disturbance in all of creation, and we human beings are caught up in this objective anxiety. There is a profound disturbance at the core of our being as we live as part of a world subjected to frustration” (Bolt, p.92). The whole world is groaning in anxiety (Romans 8:19 reinforces).

As creatures that have had their relationship severed with God we live under the shadow of death. Bolt in presenting Kierkegaard, suggests that this is “an objective anxiety, a core insecurity, built into them” but there is a subjective anxiety that “arises when a person has set before them the possibility of becoming spirit”. Kierkegaard argued that anxiety is necessary “that the individual must feel the anxiety of the moment of decision, and by choosing to act, so they become human…as we stand in the moment, we stand as a being before God, who must become spirit. As we feel the anxiety of our freedom’s possibilities, we need to act in order to become the person that God wants us to be.” Kierkegaard also talks of anxiety “about evil”, that anxiety about evil can lure us to do evil. And he addresses anxiety “about the good”, anxiety that can lead us to be enslaved to NOT choosing to choose the good, to be the person God wants us to be, that God expects of us. This is an anxiety that shuts us off from the good.

Peter Bolt then takes Kierkegaard’s work and considers it in the light of the New Testament. Anxiety should move us towards God not away from him. He concludes:
“Anxiety is not something to flee from; but it is here, in the midst of anxiety that is built in the fabric of our world, that we can hear the promises of the gospel most sharply. It is here I am summoned to believe, to stake my all on the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Bolt argues that, “this is the age of anxiety”. Our very mortality makes us insecure, and we struggle day by day to cope with the anxieties of life, and can succumb to it. As a young 31 year old I can well remember how crowded in I was by the anxieties of life, the security of my young family, my career, relationships, the mortgage, and death. These anxieties eventually lead me to consider the promises of God and I committed my life to following Christ. But this of course did not remove life’s anxieties, rather it simply redirected my desire to depend on God and seek consolation in these anxieties knowing that my life was in his hand. I needed to learn to be strengthened by anxieties not weakened by them, and I’m still learning this lesson 26 years later.

In drawing on Kierkegaard’s thoughts on anxiety of the good, Peter Bolt concludes that our separation from God can so distort us. That is, the very promises of God and the purpose he has for us to live as the person he wants us to be, are seen as slavery rather than the freedom that the Bible promises in Christ. As the parable of the sower tells us like the seeds in thorny ground the word of God is choked and so are we. The Bible promises that there is a future, an eternal one, that nothing can take away. Nothing can separate us from the love of God:
The gospel promises bring us the most profound consolation. With the promise of this glorious future, even in the midst of the groans of our anxious world, there is a tremendous impetus to constantly turn our groans into prayers – to “cast all your anxieties upon him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

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Freedom to Choose (here)


Linda said...

I was thinking, and also discussing with some friends that with all that is happening in the world, some people are returning to being spiritual, including myself. There seems to be a shift occuring. I was watching a TV show a few months ago and the presenter said something quite interesting, we live in an age where stress and anxiety are not acceptable - we look for quick fixes - rather than recognising it's perfectly normal to feel stress or anxious from time to time, it's when these feelings start to play a huge part in a person's life is the time to seek help.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comment Linda. People certainly do have a deep need, and this shows itself at times in spiritual interests. We certainly live in an age of anxiety. I pray that people will seek God in the midst of this stress and anxiety. Trevor