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Living out of control

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 7 July 2010


It is part of the artistic tradition to paint great men, saints, theologians or rulers sitting at their desks before a skull or an hourglass or both. Today this would seem morbid but at the time it was to remind us that even great men were limited by death, that time ran inexorably like sand in an hourglass and propelled us towards non being. In other words, life is contingent, it is not, fundamentally under our control, we are beings subject to hazard and even though we take all precautions, nothing can totally secure us. As we say today “shit happens”.

The question of risk management is a question of anthropology, how we understand human being. In the absence of God the default position in anthropology is human triumphalism, the idea that we can do anything if only we put our minds to it. This position opens on to utopianism, the idea that everything can be made for the best.

This sets us on an endless path of improvement that is not only exhausting but puts the imagination to death. We now plan for the future as if that is at all possible. That life is contingent means that it is not determined, the future will remain obscure to us. When we try to determine the future, to stick to a “life plan”, we kill the imagination which always works to change how we perceive the world.

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The problem with human triumphalism is that it is closed to the transcendent, the unimaginable, that it why it is death to the imagination. This is why modern society can be so restricting and so boring.

Much management is driven by fear.

Because there are pedophiles in the world we are robbed of the touch of children. Because there will always be someone who will be offended we are robbed of truthful speech. Political life has become impossible because our utterances are hemmed in by interest groups that will cry foul if they think that their interests have been injured. No wonder our public life has become so colourless!

The downfall of Kevin Rudd was partially due to the fact that he “stayed on message” to such an extent that he became colourless and unattractive. When everything is managed the vibrancy of life goes out the door.

For example, a friend told me of an instance in America where on moving to a new neighbourhood a couple were told by their neighbours that their children could not play next door because they were underinsured. I have no way of finding out if this is an urban myth, but it came from a very reliable source and sounds about right for our time. When we try to manage risk to such an extent, when we always judge risk according to the worst outcome, we close down human life.

While prudence is a good thing, we must understand that the quest for absolute security robs us of the essence of life. The unforeseen will always happen no matter what precautions we put in place.

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The arms race in the 20th century is an instance of the quest for security getting out of control and producing the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Besides placing life on earth at risk, this fear driven quest for national security wasted talent and material on a huge scale.

The other side of this story is the 16-year-old girl who attempted a solo round the world sail with the full permission and help of her parents. To place yourself in such danger is foolishness and was obviously a publicity exercise. The number of bodies that litter the slopes of Mount Everest is also an illustration of how far people will go to assert their own triumphalism.

On the one hand we have risk management that suffocates our lives and on the other people who purposely place themselves at risk in order to prove their own bravery. Both of these attempts at the assertion of the human are wrongheaded and derive from the modern conclusion that man is the centre and pinnacle of the world. It seems that there is a new enthusiasm for building the tower of Babel.

The Christian tradition would correct both the suffocation of hyper risk management and manufactured risk taking. It would do this by convincing us of the contingency of our being, but more importantly by telling us who we are. Much of the distortion of the human in late modernity is due to our quest for identity. This is particularly true of those who place themselves at unnecessary risk. The scrabble for identity is endless outside of the church. We look for it in family trees, in achievement, in risky behaviour, in power and in sex and in money. But all of these identities are shallowly rooted in our lives and open onto nihilism, nothingness. Why do some of our highest achievers die from drug overdose?

In the face of the fragile self of modernity the church proclaims that we are not the authors of our own lives. What a relief that is! We are not our own project. Our identity is given to us “in Christ”. To our surprise this does not mean that we must become religious but rather is the path to a freedom that the modern world would regard as risky. To become a disciple of Christ is to answer a call to radical freedom in which we recognise the contingency of human existence and are freed from “risk management” and also from the attempt through risky behaviour to establish the self.

Contrary to public opinion, Christian faith is not about securing a place in the afterlife, or assuming an absolute ethic, or an attempt to be perfect, it is about the resurrection of the dead. Hyper risk management and self indulgent risk taking are behaviours tainted by death, the death of imagination, of the spirit and of life, sometimes literally. These are all examples of the unbelief that brings death. The only cure is resurrection, to pass from death to life. This can only happen when the triumphant self gives itself away or is put to death in the waters of baptism. Human hubris is displaced by the grandeur of Christ.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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