Sunday reading for you: Love, Death and the Neighbour


The following post, written in 2010, scared me when I posted it. It was the first time I had dared use the word God and I put it in another’s mouth to make it safer.  Now I can see my understanding has deepened and grown in wholeness …


There are several things that frighten me about radical atheism.  One of them is the danger of throwing out vital insights on how to live that are contained in religious teachings.

One set of such teachings was given by the “desert fathers”, Christian monks who in the 4th century went into the Egyptian and Syrian deserts and set up monasteries.

Their teachings were discussed in a speech by Rowan Williams, the former Archibishop of Canterbury, when visiting Australia in 2001 and broadcast again by ABC radio in 2008.  Dr Williams titles the speech after the chief discovery made by the monks that:

our life and death remain with our neighbour.

“God” = wholeness

It’s important to get that Dr Williams is using interchangeably the word “God” and the words “reconciliation” or “wholeness.”  So if you’re not a Christian, even if you’re a radical atheist, you can read the speech and have it work the way it was intended.

It’s also important to get you can read his speech and replace the words “sinner” or “sin” with “one who has failed” or “failure”, and again, the meaning will be intact and pertinent.

Dr Williams draws two lessons from the writings of the desert fathers:

  • healing (or reconciliation, wholeness) occurs through solidarity or identification, not condemnation
  • our own wholeness depends on another’s wholeness; thus we are called to assist the other regain their wholeness.

Discovering the inescapability of community

It seems the desert fathers went in search of isolation and discovered only the inescapability of community. They discovered a monk, which is to say, all of us, must “die to his neighbour.”

Dying to our neighbour means putting aside our love of superiority over another, our moral high ground, our lust for winning, our inattention to the reality of the other.  It means standing side by side with our neighbour – the inferior one, the “sinner” – identifying with them, “dying” to them.

The authenticity of Macarius

What this looks like in action is sweetly illustrated by Dr Williams in the tale of Macarius the Great, one of the monks particularly remembered for “being hard on harshness”.  Macarius was visiting another brother called Theopemptus.

And when he was alone with him, the old man asked “How are you doing?”  Theopemptus replied, “Thanks to your prayers, fine.”

The old man asked, “Do not your fantasies war against you?”  He replied, “No, up to now, it’s all right,” for he was afraid to admit anything.

The old man, Macarius said to him, “Many years I’ve lived as an ascetic and everybody praises me, but though I’m an old man I still have a lot of trouble with sexual fantasy.”  Theopemptus said, “Well, actually Father, it’s the same with me.”

The old man went on admitting one after another that other thoughts warred against him until he had brought Theopemptus to admit all of them himself.

There’s poor Theopemptus quivering in his sandals, knowing himself to be unwhole and finding himself before the old monk.  He’s hiding, defensive, dishonest, obsequious – “Thanks to your prayers, fine.”  He’s expecting harshness and punitiveness for the unwholeness he feels must be written on his face.

Instead, he encounters a fellow, a kindred spirit (it strikes me now the relations of the word “kind”), one who stands next to him not over him.  And in that kindredness, the path to restoring his wholeness is opened.  It’s as if the old monk, Macarius, in his willingness to die unto the anxious man, provides a channel or clearing in which the man can be healed.

As Dr Williams says,

Harshness often comes from and goes with claims of superiority … the gift of the father here, in gaining the neighbour, is a gift which has to do with identification.  You can’t say anything, you can’t get anywhere unless … the senior … has put himself or herself on the level of the person asking the question.

Everyone sees what we think we’re hiding

He gives another example, one involving a Father Moses who was invited to attend a meeting about a monk who had committed a fault.  At first Father Moses refuses to go, and then he relents.

He took a leaking jug and filled it with water and carried it with him.  The others came out to meet him and said, “What is this, Father?”  The old man said to them, “My sins run out behind me and I can’t see them, and here I am coming to judge the errors of somebody else.”  When they heard that, they cancelled the meeting.

This “curious equation with the sinner,” Dr Williams says, that can be seen over and over again in the writings of the desert fathers, is

not a way of minimising the seriousness of failure, but recognising that failure it only healed by humility and solidarity, and not by condemnation.

Our “success” in life

The second idea Dr Williams introduces in the speech is the possibility that our “success” in life may consist in doing what Macarius did for the other monk in “dying” to him: ie, smoothing the path for another to be restored to wholeness.

He asks:

What if the real criteria for vital common life had to do with our failure or success in connecting another person with the possibility of reconciliation or of wholeness?

To put it another way, what if our own wholeness (and thereby, our joy, peace of mind, vitality, contentment) turns on enabling another to be restored to their wholeness?

To summarise, there are two moves to Dr Williams’s thesis he takes from the teachings of the desert fathers.

  1. We gain “God” (ie, wholeness) through “gaining” our neighbour
  2. We gain our neighbour through “our own willingness, our own freedom to face our weakness and our faults.”


Is this not magnificent and profound?  And does it not speak to all of us as human beings, Christian and atheist?  It inspires and moves me.

To read a full transcript of Dr Williams’s speech, click here.



18 thoughts on “Sunday reading for you: Love, Death and the Neighbour

  1. The desert fathers and mothers had a profound insight into their lives, motivations, and, the way to wholeness (holiness). They have shaped and influenced my own life and ministry.

    Peace be with you,


    • And with you, Mike. I saw you esteemed the desert fathers and mothers (thanks for the reminder there were women too) and it shows in the humility and kind(red)ness you create. I appreciate your presence here in the world of blogging x


  2. Wonderful. So much food for thought and discussion.

    To me, an RA, however, the whole problem comes from the repudiation of the spiritual in favor of the physical that seems to be accelerating in contemporary society. I believe this is because of the corruption of manichaeist philosophy to create a mind/body dualism which religion has reinforced into the idea that the here and how if physical and the afterlife is spiritual. If the spirituality of daily life were brought to the fore . . .we’d be a lot better off.


    • And it’s all nonsensical that life would be anywhere other than here, now.

      Some randomish thoughts …

      The dualisms that are everywhere around us — right/wrong, good/bad, like/dislike, physical/spiritual, religious/atheistic, left/right — are just more versions of the fundamental delusion. That who we are is our bodies, our minds, our thoughts, our feelings.

      If a philosophy, a religion, a person is not present to all this as delusion, then it’s more delusion.

      The chasm between the “our favourite bogeyman” version of religion/spirituality/God, and what it’s actually speaking of is grotesque.


      • Wikipedia says this of Hagglund’s ideas: “In contrast, radical atheism seeks to demonstrate that the so-called desire for immortality dissimulates a desire for survival that precedes it and contradicts it from within. Rather than being dependent on a transcendent ideal, all our commitments presuppose an investment in and care for the finite.”

        If this is what Hagglund is arguing, he’s making the same fundamental error. The “thing” that desires survival, that cares for the finite, is the Ego, otherwise known as the Devil (in Christianity), Dhukka (in Buddhism), the It (the name I use) and countless other names. In speaking of this he is speaking about a phantom, a cipher. He is not speaking of human Being.


      • Yes, that’s my understanding, and I agree with you about Hagglund, but recall we are in the Derrida zone so nothing is certain!

        When I call myself an RA, I’m thinking in the literal (radical = root) sense, i.e., that unless you start from an atheistic perspective, you cannot have a sufficiently open mind to fully explore your own fundamental spiritual essence. In other words, theism gives you answers that you should figure out yourself and puts up boundaries to inquiry. I know I’m being simplistic but I think that’s important on this subject..


      • Welcome to the crowd! Yes, about words like sin and atheist. Worse than caricatures, their agreed upon meanings become axioms. Time for a mention of the Procrustean Bed!


  3. Ha, I thought you might relish a Derrida mention!

    Got it re the RA now. And then I’m an RA too. Isn’t it weird and also predictable what’s happened to this word atheist? Like what’s happened to the word that was woefully translated as “sin”. They become caricatures.


  4. Wow! deep thoughts! I think you already know that I am an RA as well Narelle, although like my Native American friends, I sense that there may be a “power” of some sort. My take on religion is that if it helps you get through the night in one piece, then it is a good thing. But if it insists you be on the same page as the others sitting obediently and reverently in a room, then it is not a good thing. Having been subjected to various beliefs throughout my childhood, it seems perfectly clear to me that a physical “someone” invented the entire fiction , and had a good time writing it., hoping for a best seller. Another enormous difference of opinion is that Christianity celebrates the wish to be out of this life, instead of enjoying the one we’re in. In fact in a popular children’s nighttime prayer, it says “if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” I refused to repeat that one at the age of 5. What a horrible thought to send your child off to dreamland with.


    • Hi Kayti. The common view on what religion/spirituality/God is speaking of, and how it shows up in a child thinking of death before sleep, is a catalogue of errors. One of the biggest errors is the meaning of “eternal life”. Eternal life is here, all around us, the formless dimension we are capable of accessing at any moment. It has nothing to do with time.

      What religion/spirituality/God is speaking of is what this post speaks of: the call to give up “our love of superiority over another, our moral high ground, our lust for winning, our inattention to the reality of the other”.

      It strikes me that one of the reasons why human beings continue to misread the Bible and other spiritual texts is that we are not yet willing to give up these things. Instead of acknowledging our failure like Macarius or Moses does in the post, we attribute the failure to the text instead.


  5. Radical “anything” scares me. Any belief or thought system so extreme leave no room for any doctrine but their narrowly focused one of “We are right; you are wrong.”

    I’m always more comfortable in the middle–a place of inclusion. I think that’s what your are talking about here. This summary really got to the heart of it for me: “what if our own wholeness (and thereby, our joy, peace of mind, vitality, contentment) turns on enabling another to be restored to their wholeness?”

    Humans are not isolated entities. We thrive when we support and care for one another. Any system of thought that discourages cooperation and community seems destructive to the social fabric of survival, regardless of religion.


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