Lecture by Nicola Hoggard Creegan
For the NZCIS Auckland Winter Lecture series, 18 August 2021
Anxiety has a history
We sometimes think of our own time as surpassing all others in anxiety. We gain some caution and some lessons from Scripture, but the events recorded there are from a very long time ago. When we see rivers polluted and the sky turning red, and of course plague and pestilence there are plenty of biblical images warning us of these situations.
But I want to turn to more recent images and more recent ages of anxiety. The twentieth century. And to look at how anxiety was woven into the theological landscape in a way that made it meaningful and more manageable.
An Iconic image is The Scream. Many of you will have seen it. In art galleries around the world.
It is one of the first recent apocalyptic images.
Edvard Munch’s explanation of the image is particularly apt:
I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun went down – I felt a gust of melancholy – suddenly the sky turned a bloody red. I stopped, leaned against the railing, tired to death – as the flaming skies hung like blood and sword over the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends went on – I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I felt a vast infinite scream through nature.
Was Munch just having a bad day or was this an unveiling of the future? Within a generation Europe was a blood bath and “half the seed of Europe was taken one by one”, as the poet Wilfred Owen described it. Following from that was crippling depression, and another world war, the escalation of technology of war, the holocaust, Hiroshima and then the Cold War with its persistent anxiety of conflagration. That’s just of course omitting all the other wars and famines and errors of empire building. In the twentieth century we barely ever left a time of anxiety.
The other persistent image during that time was the Doomsday Clock
You will see there was a little reprieve in 1991. Actually as someone who felt this anxiety acutely it was more like 1989; by 1991 I was living in North Carolina and planes were leaving for the Middle East and people all round me were welcoming Armageddon.
But what was made of this anxiety theologically?
To answer that we have to go back to a nineteenth century Dane, Soren Kierkegaard.
Kierkegaard was a melancholic and intense personality. Perhaps very similar to that of Greta.
She is really the only pure climate activist. He was the only Christian in Denmark.
He was obsessed with anxiety and dread as the common condition of the human who chooses, and especially the human in a state of sin. He wrote the Concept of Anxiety and Fear and Trembling. A few of his more enigmatic writings were translated and gave birth to existentialism.
How did Abraham feel as he took Isaac up the mountain? How did Isaac, and Sarah?
And then there was Adam. Moving from innocence to knowledge and constant choice and the state of anxiety.
Every person will also go through that state he writes, as they move into adult consciousness and the ever-present temptation to sin.
To be a choosing person is to be anxious. Original Sin was reformulated.
Two twentieth century theologians took up Kierkegaard’s anxiety: Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr
Tillich wrote ‘The Courage to Be’. And Niebuhr wrote ‘The Nature and Destiny of Man.’
Both leaned heavily on Kierkegaard and his interpretation of the Fall.
For Tillich there are three anxieties:
• Anxiety of fate and death; death overshadows all concrete anxieties and gives them their ultimate seriousness.
• Anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness; everyone who lives creatively in meanings affirms themselves as a participant in these meanings. They affirm themselves as receiving and transforming reality creatively.
• Anxiety of guilt and condemnation
Often they are all mixed up together—as in a pandemic. The answer is faith, not wealth or control.
Niebuhr likens the human to the sailor climbing the mast with abyss of waves below and crow’s nest above.
“Anxiety, as a permanent concomitant of freedom, is thus both the source of creativity and a temptation to sin”
Ignoring our finitude leads to pride, and an over emphasis on freedom.
Sin becomes inevitable though not necessary.
Science and technology exacerbate our arrogance and self-reliance.
On the other hand our creativity now is intimately bound up with science.
Both became household names in what was still a Christian America
Tillich had left Germany in 1933 at the age of 47. Niebuhr was also a German/American.
Tillich for example talked about meeting the dread with courage borne of faith.
Anxiety was woven into the narrative of everyday life in a meaningful way.
Imagine a long lead article in a popular magazine about theology today?? Including original sin, anxiety and pride all in the mix. Anxiety acknowledged and made meaningful.
So to end I want to add Science
If we think about it science made a lot of the glories of the 20th century possible, but also most of its hellishness
If we extend the work of Tillich and Niebuhr:
Science and technology also are a source of endless creativity and newness, but they also always tempt us to sin, to arrogance, and to overlooking our humanity. Science gives us choices all the time. Uncover the glories of nature, so that we love it more and respect it more. Or go further and further down a materialist path. It can take us either way.
The pandemic has shown us that it is only if we combine science and kindness, and respect for all people and their welfare that we have freedom. Science doesn’t magically heal. It needs the sacrifices of physicians as well.
Just following the science blindly can take us to all sorts of places we don’t want to go.
• Anxiety has a history
• The Bible has images of apocalypse—the imagery of our anxiety
• But so does recent art and theology
• The Church has faced anxiety, weaving it into coherent theological stories of original sin and faith, but the more nuanced conversations have been lost
• Important to look back and to recognize a sense of solidarity with the anxiety of the past
• It is not so much being in this situation as being human that makes us anxious
• And the temptations either to pride and arrogance or sensuality on the other hand
• Science has increased the stakes. It takes us to a renewed sense of God’s glory, or to a deeper materialism. Depending on how we choose.