Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Why Christians must grieve (and fear, rejoice and desire)

Or, why tranquility is overrated (for now)

"And so a rightly directed will is love in a good sense and a perverted will is love in a bad sense. Therefore a love which strains after the possession of the loved object is desire; and the love which possess and enjoys that object is joy. The love that shuns what opposes it is fear, while the love that feels that opposition when it happens is grief."

- Augustine, City of God (trans. Henry Bettenson), XIV.7.

The four basic passions (or loves) fall out on a simple grid: future or present, attraction or repulsion. Attraction in the present is joy, in the future is desire. Repulsion in the future is fear and in the present, grief. In each case, Augustine argues that there can be good or bad versions, depending on whether the love in question is rightly directed or perverted. This put him in opposition to Stoicism, which saw these four as emotional disturbance of the mind and as the origin of all moral failings.

Augustine goes on to show how the Stoics (Cicero in particular) argue that for three of these emotions there is a corresponding disposition "in the mind of a wise man". Desire, joy and fear are each disorders, Cicero argued, and need to be replaced by will, gladness and caution respectively. The difference between the positive and negative term in each case was for Cicero whether they could be held without variation. For example, caution differs from fear in being always present in the mind of the wise and thus not dependent upon changing circumstances, unlike fear, which comes and goes in the presence or absence of a threat. Mental vacillation arising from responding to changing circumstances was thus the cause of all moral fault. The highest virtue is apatheia, impassibility.

While desire, fear and joy each have a positive (since unchanging) Stoic counterpart, Cicero has no place for any disposition corresponding to grief. This is a significant omission, since it reveals a crucial difference between Cicero and Augustine, or between Stoicism and Christianity, namely the place of suffering. For the Stoic, it is impossible for the wise to suffer, since wisdom provides a stability of mind that is the opposite of the perturbations of suffering. Only a fool suffers the fickleness of the passions (desire, joy, fear, grief). If one is wise, then the steady dispositions of will, gladness and caution are unchanging in all circumstances.

The difference in the Christian mindset is eschatology: that the world is open to God's coming future, revealing the present brokenness of all things. This opens the possibility of suffering not always being purely negative. Suffering that yearns towards the future is ever pierced by the failures of the present ("the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present"). The restlessness of Christian desire ("our heart is restless until it rests in you") is not a failure of wisdom or stability, but the proper expression of creation's present fragmentation. Augustine is clear that these disturbing passions are proper to us in this present age. The impassibility so cherished by the Stoics is for Augustine a future hope, but currently an inhuman impossibility "while we are in this place of misery". It is inhuman because to not feel anything means you're not paying attention. It is impossible because no one has so lost touch with their natural feelings as to be entirely impervious to the vicissitudes of life as we presently experience it.

And so grief is as crucial to a healthy heart as desire, joy or fear because the world is not as it should be. Augustine locates the expression of this present fragmentation in the experience of disordered desire, that is, in sin. Grief is therefore primarily grief over sin, as the apostle Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 7.8-11. The possibility of grief arises from the tension between what God has promised and our present experience of failure. And it is not just grief, but all the emotions that depend on this dynamic. We rightly fear sinning more than any physical pain or loss. We rejoice over the repentance of our neighbour. We desire God's promises to reach fruition. And we grieve when we find ourselves once again at fault.

These emotions can be expressions of our disordered hearts, where we fear or desire, rejoice or grieve over the wrong things, or in the wrong way. But Augustine is adamant that the faithful Christian life (and therefore, the truly human life) includes each of these emotions in their proper place.
"Among us Christians, on the other hand, the citizens of the Holy City of God, as they live by God's standards in the pilgrimage of this present life, feel fear and desire, pain and gladness in conformity with the holy Scriptures and sound doctrine; and because their love is right, all these feelings are right in them."

- Augustine, City of God, XIV.9.