Peace, Division and Creativity

I’m relieved to hear from other scholars that it’s not unusual to change your mind and disagree with your own work, even in the time window between submitting a manuscript and seeing it appear in print.

What I’m rethinking –and I knew I would have to do this even as I was writing it– is the relationship between peace and division. In the last chapters of the book, I was trying to answer for myself the question, ‘What’s the relationship between the kind of earthly, imperfect peace, often shot through with compromise and tragedy, that’s possible in this life, and the fuller, eschatological peace of the kingdom?’ For Augustine, the two are different in kind, not in degree. For post-Vatican II Catholic theology, there’s more of a sense of continuity, of growing from one towards the other.

In the book, I dealt with it by describing two different kinds of peace, ‘piecemeal peace’ (with apologies to Gerard Manley Hopkins), aka peace-by-division, and true peace, or the peace of the resurrection. We know about peace-by-division: it’s the kind of peace you secure by cutting yourself off from what disturbs or harms you, whether psychologically, interpersonally or socially. So we gain peace by suppressing memories, or by cutting ourselves off from others who are hurting us, or by securing our borders. That can be bad, involving othering, structural violence etc., but it can also be morally neutral, and it can definitely be necessary –think about a woman separating from an abusive husband. What I wanted to say, though, was that this kind of peace-by-division was somehow incomplete, tragic (necessitated by a world of sin and damage) and in need of transcending, even if only eschatologically. I contrasted this piecemeal peace with the peace of the resurrection, which is a peace gained not by shutting out what we fear (like the disciples in the upper room), but by allowing ourselves to be confronted by the victim of our own piecemeal peace –the person we cut off. That’s hugely tricky –we protest against calling the abusive husband in the previous example a ‘victim’, for example– but I want to hold out for this kind of eschatological reconciliation as a possibility, and as a sort of moral summons, even if we know it isn’t always possible within our lifetime, or within the bounds of a sin-affected creation.

My doubt when I was writing it was this: this scheme inevitably paints division as inherently something bad, or less-than-perfect. My thought, at the time and now, is this: division is also creative. When God creates the world in Genesis 1–2, God does so by a series of divisions/distinctions: light from dark, waters above from waters below, dry land from water, and so on. Division is the precondition of order – the alternative is chaos (Gen 1:2). If that holds true in creation on a macro level, I think it holds true on a psychological level as well: there are separations and divisions that are creative. Growing up and becoming adult means separating from one’s parents, including individuation on a psychological level. This may be painful and involve conflict, but it’s necessary and good –the alternative is that we never become ourselves. In relationships, too, preserving boundaries and being savvy about what truly belongs to us and what belongs to the other -disentangling projections- is also necessary and healthy. (In this connection, in Rashi’s interpretation of Gen 2:24, ‘Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh’, ‘one flesh’ refers to the parents being united in the child. Husband and wife cling, but they are still distinct, and their distinctness is the precondition of their creativity.) In these psychological and relational examples, division/distinction/cutting off can be in service of our emergence as whole persons rather than detrimental to it, and it serves, rather than erodes, our pursuit of healthy relationships. And all of these movements of division and union, drawing close and backing off, are in continual motion, they’re not one-off occurrences.

As I think about the relationship between distinction, division, creativity and peace, I’ve been enjoying exploring Jewish exegetical traditions about the Genesis narrative and Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, and asking whether the story Christians read as one of temptation and Fall was a necessary (even divinely planned!) sort of human ‘growing up’, a separation from God that enables human maturity and therefore the possibility of a real choice for God. I’m also reading more psychoanalytic texts, and more theological and philosophical engagements with them – some recommendations below, and any recommendations you have would be welcome!

(I now can’t find the genius who tweeted the photo, but if you see this, consider yourself thanked…)


Lytta Basset, Holy Anger: Jacob, Job and Jesus (Bloomsbury Academic, 2007).

This is a superb book – one of the most creative and challenging pieces of theology I’ve read in a while.

Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (Pilgrim Press, 2002).

As ever, Williams is subtle and challenging on the subject of reconciliation and encountering the victim.

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