THE ILLUSION OF CONTROL

And The Pointless Pain We Suffer To Sustain It

Leighton B. U. Grey, K.C., Creator & Host of The Grey Matter Podcast

Helmut Thielicke was a 20th Century Lutheran theologian who stood between two worlds: academia and the church. Thielicke was born in 1908 in Barmen, Germany, a boiling pot of cultural and religious upheaval. It was there that Thielicke’s cultural teeth were cut. Following his early schooling, he attended the renowned Gymnasium in Wuppertal, known for its successful graduates and astute teachers. Thielicke was drawn to theology because he perceived it to be the most learned and complex of all disciplines. He entered the University of Greifswald in 1928 before going to Erlangen to study with Paul Althaus. He later enrolled in the University of Bonn, where the great Professor Karl Barth taught. He concluded his education at the University of Marburg, where he wrote two dissertations for which he received doctorates in both philosophy (1931) and theology (1934).

“Man is not valuable because he loves God. Man is valuable because God loves him.”

― Helmut Thielicke

Like his contemporary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thielicke struggled under the Hitlerian regime during the period of conflict between the Confessing Church and the Nazi Party, which essentially put Der Fuhrer at the head of both church and state.  Thielicke’s public critiques of Nazism caused his expulsion from a coveted teaching post at Heidelberg in 1940, where he had taught since 1936.  Bishop Wurm aided Thielicke by ordaining him in 1941, and he served quietly as lecturer and pastor at Stuttgart for the remainder of the War.  As a theological professor, Thielicke exhibited the remarkable ability to communicate effectively with both the German academy and laity alike.  He was not a theological reformer who sought to change the face of Christianity or the structure of society.  He was not at all concerned with politics, except to the extent that they interfered with the work of the church.  He was however keenly concerned with updating the language of theology so that it addressed and inspired people from all walks of life.  

Thielicke quickly resumed his post-war professional career in August of 1945.  He joined the faculty in Tubingen, where he remained until 1954, before resigning to join the newly formed theological faculty at the University of Hamburg.  In his writings of that period,  he took on the complex dilemmas and perplexing problems which Germans faced in their families, churches, institutions and government.  He strove to set forth theological and ethical premises for living within the new German milieu.  Thielicke’s most popular sermonic work is called “The Waiting Father” (1959).  This treatise is a book of sermons on the parables of Jesus, including a prescient exposition on the parable of the Seed Growing Secretly, in which he both reflects upon the scientific arrogance of the early Cold War era and presages the current 21st century globalist agenda:  (at page 84)

“Now, what will this human voice say? It will say:  Man must be biologically re-bred.  The obsolete apparatus of the created human organism must be modernized.  Biometrics (as this new method is called) will take these long-since outworn designs of the Creator, this hoary and somewhat antiquated old dodderer, and breed the new man, the space man….we are convinced that we can make anything.  Good heavens, what have we not made with our technology! Why should we not be able to also change the biological construction of the author of all these things—man himself?  After all, this is what the Marxists have always wanted to do.  All you need to do—this is their formula—is to change the social conditions and man will change.  Then you can turn him from a human person with an unpredictable will and an unmanageable conscience into a compliant marionette, indeed, into an insect which will conform without friction to the termite state.  The possibilities are endless.  No rules are laid down for us, nothing is prescribed as far is creation is concerned; we are not limited by an alleged Lord of the world…Everything is Divinely created, you say? Nonsense! Everything can be made! You have not seen anything yet.  And Adam and Eve, the human beings of the first morning of creation, will still marvel at what we shall make of this world supposedly made by God, at how we shall turn it upside down.”

Werner Heisenberg, in his book “Modern Physics And Its View Of Nature”, made this profound statement:  “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wants to will.”  By this he means precisely what Thielicke elucidates in the preceding quotation, written 65 years ago:  we cannot change ourselves.  We may want to free ourselves from a lot of things which bind and fetter us (sexual bondage, depression, physical disability, addiction, gender identity, race, poverty, class, etc.).  We want to shuffle off these mortal coils; but the disquieting discovery is not that we cannot possibly bring it off but that we cannot even seriously want to do so.  In other words, we find that our will really is sown with weeds, that the evil enemy and his poisonous brood have already entered the house of our own ego, that he himself has occupied the cellar of our unconscious and is influencing the direction of our will.  For anybody who holds that everything can be made (for example a pandemic virus and its panacea) must also want to make and control everything.  And anybody who has taken everything in hand must then keep on moving that hand.  He can no longer be still.  He must continue to pretend to wield the very hand of God.

Our overactivity, which constantly keeps us blazing down the information super highway and yet, no matter how fast we go, gets us nowhere, but only makes us dizzy, is not caused by the fact that we are so nervous or that we have no time.  Quite the contrary: we are anxious and we are rushed like the Mad Hatter because we think that everything will stop without us since we are so vital.  This is why we hold on to everything convulsively and thus wear ourselves out all over again.  Indubitably, all this is connected with the ultimate decisions of our lives and and not so much with medicine or the problem of our post-modern ways.  It is because we now feel the need to do everything ourselves and therefore must always be producing something that we never escape constant care or concern.  For one who takes everything upon themselves finds that everything depends upon they alone.  In the estimable lyrics of the Simon Garfunkel classic:  “I am a Rock, I am an Island.  And a rock feels no pain.  And an island never cries.”

Consequently, we go about worrying over how we shall pass tomorrow’s examination, what will happen to our children, and how we shall survive the next market fluctuation.  We are literally beset by threatening possibilities.  The Titanic, our world, is unsinkable and our navigation is perfect.  But why then is it that the captain keeps pacing the bridge so anxiously?  After all, is it not a grand thing to have control of this smoothly vibrating, powerful ship and to guide it over the mighty ocean of our existence?  Why does the Promethean assurance of our self control not cheer us?  Why do we worry still?  Is it because there is nobody there upon whom we can cast our cares?  Yes, the Titanic is our world.  We are captains no longer able to just let things happen.  We stand alone on the bridge.  We have taken charge of the firm and the ship, and now we are dying of our privileges and prerogatives.  We must always be on deck.  Not for one moment can we live like a lark or a lily.  We can never let down or let up.  Perhaps when we intoxicate or medicate ourselves we can escape momentarily.  To get high or to pray: that is the question. 

Thielicke thankfully posits that the solution to this chaos is all too simple.  What we have forgotten is how to rely upon the fact that it is God who clothes the lilies and feeds the birds of the air, that He provides our daily ration of bread, and that His kingdom comes no matter what happens.  God the partner on whom we once depended as a culture is still omniscient, and we need not stand alone, utterly alone, on the commander’s bridge as the wild weather blows up, feeling that nobody is there with the authority to command the waves and guide us through winds and icebergs to our safe harbour. 

In poetic terms: