Before I took part in last week’s performance of Peer Gynt my knowledge of Ibsen was shaped entirely by Hedda Gabler and The Doll’s House. So I came to Peer Gynt expecting more of the same. Imagine my surprise when the climax of the play refused to live up (or down) to my expectations. Instead of the curtain closing on a scene of hopelessness and despair, Solveig’s response to Peer manages to infuse it with a sense of hope and (dare I say it?) redemption.
Peer himself approaches the final scene of the play in despair. All his dreams of worldly success have turned to dust and ashes. He returns at last to Solveig hoping that she will condemn him. When she refuses to do so, he asks her a riddle: ‘Where has Peer Gynt been since last we met? . . . Where was I? Myself – complete and whole?’
Solveig’s answer takes him completely by surprise. ‘In my faith, in my hope, and in my love.’
Her answer took me by surprise as well because of the way it resonates with certain fundamental aspects of a Christian world-view. We are only truly ourselves in our relationships with others. To be human is to be a nexus of personal relationships. ‘We relate, therefore I am.’
Granted this is not an immediately obvious element of Christian thought. Rather it arises out of a relational view of the Trinity such as that developed by the Cappadocian fathers when juxtaposed with the idea that we are made in the image of God (thus made in the image of a God who is one by virtue of being three in relationship).
But in spite of being less than obvious it turns up in some interesting places. For example, Luther defined sin as a state of being incurvatus in se, i.e. being turned in upon oneself. Real life is the opposite of this: a state of being turned outwards towards others, of being in relationship. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?' asked Cain. And, for a Christian like Solveig, the correct answer can only be ‘Yes, I am.’
Or one might think of C. S. Lewis’s reflections on the death of Charles Williams. Lewis felt that it deprived him not only of Williams himself but also of aspects of Tolkien, Barfield, etc. that were only brought out by their relationship with Williams. We are not isolated individuals who can realize our identity apart from others, but social beings who only find our identity in our relationships.
Or again the seventh-century Orthodox theologian Maximus the Confessor built an entire theory of redemption upon the notion that it is about the restoration of broken relationships. To be precise, a fivefold restoration of the relationship between God and humankind, between humankind and nature, between man and man, between man and woman, and between man and himself (and with that last point, possibly anticipating modern psychoanalysis by more than a millennium).