You may be wondering why I am banging on about this at such length. Why does it matter that God is “not an alien will but an affirming source”?
It matters because we are killing the planet, our only home, and we will not stop. It is not looking good. Technological solutions short of radical restraint are not going to save us. Our only hope is a change of heart and mind, of understanding and relationship, a conversion, a waking up. Metanoia.
It matters because it asserts that God is the source. I don’t have to be.
It matters because it asserts that Love is our source – what we are made of.
It matters because it asserts that we belong here. I am home. I have arrived.
It matters because it asserts that the actuality of our being is all the justification we need.
It matters because it asserts that we are good enough.
It matters because it asserts that we have enough.
It matters because it asserts that we are enough. I lack nothing.
It matters because if we really knew, in our blood, bones, and bowels, that God is our affirming source, we would be able to give up the exaggerated attachment to getting and spending, to power and control, to affection and esteem, to safety and survival, to possessions, to entertainment, to food and drink, to drugs, to noise, to more, and to the legion of ways we try to stake a claim in the world and to silence the terror of our perceived emptiness.
It matters because if we knew all this we would stop and breathe and give thanks.
It matters because this is more than we have ever hoped for.
When God is “an alien will” I may feel the pressure to make amends for the mistakes of the past and to work towards an improved self in the future. When God is an alien will there is a to-do list.
I do not advocate that we abrogate responsibility for making amends and improvements. It is not possible to live without causing harm. Individually and collectively we make choices that have personal and planetary consequences. Meanwhile, politicians fiddle with short-term advantage and image-management while the world burns. The future of the world looks bleak precisely because of a lack of accountability for amending fatal mistakes and making resounding changes.
However, our liability is not like the burdensome imposition of homework on a reluctant schoolchild. It is not the encumbrance of internalised parental and political propaganda that I must become a nicer, healthier, prettier, more intelligent, better read, better informed, more efficient, more productive, more helpful, more holy person. The curriculum of the alien will arises from a feeling of lack; the delight of true work arises from the realisation that everything I need has already been given.
There is a level of affirmation bringing us into, and holding us in existence, which we do not have to work for.
To know the truth that nothing is held against me (that nothing is required of me, that as I am, here and now, is it, which is (as they say) ‘what God wants’, which is another way of saying that there is no god that wants something of me) is to be set free.
By “yielding” to the “affirming source” (which is relaxing into what I already am, “a place where God is happening”) I am “emancipated” from the sins of the past and the demands of the future. I am free to receive the gift of the present. I am released into presence. This is Incarnation.
This is the experience of being this bodyin this place at this moment, an experience that is gifted to us and enabled by the realisation that our source is affirming not demanding. Through yielding to our dependency we find we have everything we need, and nothing is required of us. This being the case we are freed to be present: the past is gone; there is no future to work towards. This, as they say, is it. We can experience the joy of being alive.
And the delight of responsibility arises from the knowledge that there is work to be done if I am to live with joy.
When we are freed from the idea of God as “an alien will” we can fall back into an utterly relaxing Presence that is our “affirming source”. The alien will is jealous and requires attention and conformity to an arbitrary set of standards. The affirming source is not alien, not demanding, not jealous because we are what it is. We do not have to do anything to earn this. We do not have to work for it. There is no rivalry.
If God is “an affirming source”, then simply by being we are God’s will (the primal “Yes”) in action. When someone asks, “What is God doing?”, the answer is, “You are what God is doing!” You are what God is doing when you do what comes naturally to humans – the everyday matters of living, breathing, walking, eating, talking, loving, sleeping. You are freed from anxiety because you already are what is required. You can relax – which is another way of talking about “yielding”.
“Yielding” is not easy for humans. We don’t believe we are good enough. We like to be in control. We have lost confidence in authority and cannot trust those in power to be for us. We take our lives into our own hands. We hold ourselves safe.
While independence and autonomy is laudable in many human affairs – it is part of becoming adult and taking some responsibility for self-care and the choices we make – as an absolute it is simply not the case. None of us can really be ‘off grid’. Like a foetus in the womb of the Earth, we are utterly dependent upon the light from the Sun, the air that we breath, the earth we walk upon, the fact of being (for we might not have been at all).
We are here because there is an act that draws us into being and affirms our being. So we do not have to be our own origin; we do not have to try to be self-creators. There is a level of affirmation bringing us into, and holding us in existence, which we do not have to work for.
Through yielding (relaxing) into our dependency, we are “emancipated” from bondage to the gods – the self-improvement narrative. We do not have to justify or prove ourselves. There is no one to appease or impress. That we exist at all, like a mountain or a tree, is justification enough, impressive in its own right.
You can watch your breath, you can be conscious of your diaphragm rising and falling, conscious of the movement of life in you, and if you think at all about it you might just think, ‘Well, for this time as I breathe in and out, all I am is a place where life is happening.’ The breath moves in, the breath moves out; I am a place where life is happening. And if I am a place where life is happening, I am a place where God is happening.
… yielding not to an alien will but an affirming source …
The trouble with an alien will is that it is … alien, other. How can I know, respond to, and, in time, love something that is so far from and other than me? I will look outside myself, beyond this life, to another realm to know who to be and what to do. Then I am separated, as it were, from myself. Separation slips into anxiety: What is required of me to be acceptable, good enough, holy enough for God? How can I be more like God? I am in a catch-22 situation because I can never know the answers to these questions if God is alien.
Conversely, if God is “an affirming source” everything changes. If God is the source then I am because God is. God is the ground of my being. God is the source, and is a source that affirms. God is not alien, and not wilful. Surprisingly, it is rather like there being no god at all. What a relief!
This one, fundamental idea is at the very heart of a way of being in the world. I belong and I have everything I could possibly need. It is how I want to live. In essence, this is what I want to convey as a spiritual director and writer.
This is not identity: I am not God; I am not the Universe. This is belonging: God is what I am, my home, my birthright, “my place in the family of things”. God is the stuff I am made of; just as the Earth is the stuff I am made of; as stardust is the stuff I am made of. When I look at the stars (as I did last night) I know I belong: this body is made of the same matter, despite the loneliness of separation by distances too vast to imagine let alone traverse. Loneliness signifies kinship. And so I can call everything and everyone a sister or a brother, for that is what they are. Nothing is alien now.
God is “an affirming source.” God says, ”Yes,” to me and about me. Could it be that God’s first ‘word’ was “Yes”? And that I am, and you are, and everything is because of this “Yes”?
If God is “an alien will” there is always a tension between who-and-what-I-am and who-and-what-God-is. If God is an affirming source then I am who-and-what-God-is. There is no possibility of separation between God and me. I am not separated from myself. I can relax.
I look to and gaze at God, not to find out how to live and what to do, but to see revealed there the depth of the reality of who and what I am…
… and, more fundamentally, that I am.
I will never finally know who and what I am. But I know that I am – my presence as this body, as the being of God in this little scrap of the world, the outworking of God’s “Yes”. This is the cradle of joy.
Christians are adopted into a dependent relationship to that which Jesus called ‘Abba, Father’. Our human identity therefore becomes one in which we both acknowledge in prayer this dependence and respond to the gift that sets up not only our being but our renewed being in Christ; and in acknowledging that dependence we are empowered to ‘do the work of God’, to be ‘in Christ’, as St Paul puts it. It’s about an authority that emerges from yielding not to an alien will but an affirming source– recognising that we are here because there is an act that draws us into being and affirms our being. So we do not have to be our own origin; we do not have to try to be self-creators. There is a level of affirmation bringing us into, and holding us in existence, which we do not have to work for. … [We] are empowered, emancipated, to use the transforming energy we can exercise by acknowledging our dependence upon an unconditional source of affirmation.
I love Rowan Williams’ writing, though I find it frustrating at times because I am too impatient for the dénouement. The opening pages clear the ground, set the scope, and dispel misconceptions. I want to know where we are going. Are we there yet, Rowan?
And then: Bam!He hits me with a sentence like a Marvel Comic knockout. He articulates a thought so clearly and succinctly that I am knocked back on my heels and I have to stop – dazed, ears ringing, seeing stars – and recollect myself.
… yielding not to an alien will but an affirming source …
Let’s have that again.
… yielding not to an alien will but an affirming source …
These few words are the fulcrum of a foundational life-question with which I struggle every day. By habit, I anticipate the presence of “an alien will” under whose gaze I am not good enough nor doing the right thing. Shame (I am not ok) and guilt ( I’m not doing it right). Every day, in every prayer, “an affirming source” says (I paraphrase), “What the f*** are you talking about? That is not what I meant at all. That is not it at all.”
I struggle to withdraw my transference (to give a psychoanalytic skit on this) … Once upon a time, I heard the message that I was not good enough, and that my life would go to pot if I didn’t behave right and make the right choices. God was one more “alien will” who would give me the same message. … And so it goes. I know I’m not alone. It is hardly breaking news.
But it is a rookie error to see God as one more voice in our cacophonous culture of voices clamouring for attention. It kills the life, stifles the Spirit. If God is an alien will then I can never relax. Even if God is utterly benign and has my best interests in heart and mind, nevertheless I have always to be alert to ‘His’ will.
Most religious language (“the Father, the Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth”) and teaching, at least in its immediate sense, conveys this notion. The conservative churches; the so-called ‘traditionalists’; those who have to align their lives to one reading of scripture, one way of praying, one way of loving, one way of living; those whose “goodness carefully worn / For atonement or for luck” is measured in observance; even the dear old, exasperatingly inoffensive, middle-of-the-road Anglican church’s meagre fare: all this is underpinned by the image of the alien will that must be obeyed, appeased, or impressed. The task is to find out what this god wants me to do and how to live in accordance with ‘His will’. And a worrying number of people seem to have answers to these questions for others. An idea of God and Christianity is being peddled that is, at its least offensive, merely disenfranchising and dehumanising, but too often is, frankly, about power and control.
The common and erroneous notion is that God is an “alien will”. ‘He’ (it is almost invariably ‘He’) is out there, gradually beating a retreat as the telescopes delve deeper into the Universe. Perhaps God is dark matter? Perhaps there is no god? My suspicion is that this is the god that vociferous atheists denounce – and rightly so – and that your common-or-garden secularisthas an alien will in mind when they say they don’t believe in God.
There they stop; for what else is on offer to put in its place?
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