Being Able Not to Be Able

Here’s another reflection from Byung-Chul Han’s book The Agony of Eros.

Eros is a relationship to the Other situated beyond achievement, performance, and ability. Being able not to be able (Nicht-Können-Können) represents its negative counterpart. The negativity of otherness – that is, the atopia of the Other, which eludes all ability – is constitutive of erotic experience: “The other bears alterity as an essence. And this is why we have sought this alterity in the absolutely original relationship of eros, a relationship that is impossible to translate into powers.” Absolutizing ability is precisely what annihilates the Other. A successful relationship with the Other finds expression as a kind of failure. Only by way of being able not to be able does the Other appear…
The Agony of Eros, Byung-Chul Han, page 11

Humanity’s Addiction to Ability

I absolutely love this phrase: “Being able not to be able.” I have many thoughts about this upon reflection on this passage in Han’s beautiful little book.

First, we may be able to, as Paul describes himself, remain blameless under the law (Philippians 3:4-6). However, this only describes what we are able to do. It does not confer the power to not be able. Thus do we inherently and inevitably cling to some form of the law, some form of performance measurement. From the very bottom of our souls, we must prove to ourselves and to those around us that we are able. This is the very root and foundation of the fall – we seized the power to control things ourselves, to be wise like God. We desired, not just the fruit, but the ability to control what we wanted. It is not just the knowledge of evil and sin that was conferred on us, it was also the knowledge of good. Both of these have become weapons by which we seek to confiscate the power and wisdom of God.

As an example, the most difficult thing I have had to learn as a parent is the necessity to stand back, to stop trying to teach, control, and rescue my children, and to allow them to make their own mistakes and to fail on their own account and to learn their own lessons. It is maddening to step back and to NOT jump in and solve their problems for them. The temptation is to jump in and assert control, to fix everything, to take action. Nothing is more difficult or frustrating than to purposefully stand back and watch a needless disaster unfold merely so they can learn a lesson. Yet if I step in time after time and fix their problems for them, they can never actually grow up. It is essential for me as a parent to learn the ability to not be able.

However, this is all a minor point. We will never quite learn this, which it turns out is the root of all true holiness. We will never really quite luxuriate in the sabbath rest. We will never really quite be still and know that God is God. We will never quite trust. We retain the drive and unction to act, to succeed, to improve, to control, to create, to judge. We lust most of all for this control, for this action. It is our justification. We inherently cling to this and loathe the idea that we might cede this control to an Other.

The One Who is Able to Not Be Able

But there is an Other who has proven to be able to not be able. One who was able to relinquish control over beloved others to the point that He actually allowed them to execute Him. One who allowed these others such dangerous autonomy that He died for it. In fact, the ability to not be able was His chief superpower. He was able to express a successful relationship with the Other as a kind of failure. He was able to turn such otherness as was murderously hostile and turn this failure into an act of ultimate love.

There is tremendous explanatory power in viewing humanity as lacking the ability to “not be able,” while viewing God’s superpower – however unintuitive it may seem to credit this to the Creator of the universe – as being able to not be able. Supposing there is an omnipotent and omniscient being who is greater than ourselves, it follows that this being is the ultimate barrier to our ability. God threatens our sovereignty over ourselves directly. So the ultimate play is to end Him so we can assume our proper ability to control things. We must assert our ability to be able. We envy God’s ability and power. It is central to our fallen identity. We see this as the direct stated animus behind the crucifixion:

For he was aware that the chief priests had handed Him over because of envy. Mar 15:10 NASB20

Why Humans Cling to the Law

As a corollary, this is why we cling so desperately to adherence to the law. If we cannot kill Him because of the resurrection, at least we might put a leash on Him and control Him by other means. The law becomes a way for us to leverage power over God, in essence to be the God of God, the sovereign over the Sovereign. The law becomes a way to prove that we are able. By claiming innocence before the law and conformity with the dictates of our conscience, we seek to silence God’s judgement and control over us, and to beat Him at His own game. We come saying, “Lord Lord didn’t I?” (Matthew 7:21-23) This in essence becomes a more subtle form of murder, of ending God’s rule over us.

The Essence of Faith

It turns out that this ability to not be able is the essence of faith. The law is not so much a doable set of guidelines for living, as it is a mirror that shows us how deeply we lack the ability to justify our own existence. The law is a teacher that leads us to a direct confrontation with the truth about ourselves: we are able to not be able, because we truly are not able to begin with. We do not need to struggle and strive for this ability, the ability to not be able is our central identity. The law strips away the lies we clothe ourselves with which whisper that we areable. The end result is that we find ourselves established by grace in an Eros “relationship to the Other situated beyond achievement, performance, and ability.” It is a stable and dependable and assured love because a lack of achievement, performance, or ability cannot damange it – such love is not established on these things. Thus we are able to embrace and rest in the ability of Another, where we find ourselves lost in a great Eros of the spirit in which we find our identity in Christ and He finds His identity in us.

7 “Let’s rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, because the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His bride has prepared herself.” 8 It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright [and] clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints. 9 Then he said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb.'” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” Rev 19:7-9 NASB20

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