Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Perplexed but not in despair: Christian pessimism

"We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair" - 2 Corinthians 4.8.
This is a verse I have often reflected upon, and it seems to me to justify a certain kind of Christian pessimism. Paul is no triumphalist; he makes no claim that the Christian life will consist of steady improvement or sudden perfection. Affliction, difficulty, confusion, grief, yearning, lament, dissatisfaction, weakness, dying: these all belong to the normal Christian experience. Faith in Christ is not a miracle cure for all of life's ills. In fact, it is what enables one to let go of all such delusions as the inevitability of progress or the impossibility of failure, to embrace one's finitude and acknowledge one's fallenness and the brokenness of the whole created order without being crushed by fear or guilt in the process.

Of course, such pessimism is not the whole story, but it is a very important part. Without it, faith is shallow, or simply in denial. Unless we are willing to lose all our false hopes, then real hope is obscured and diluted. Christian faith means the courage to face the truth about ourselves and our inability to secure the results we most earnestly desire.

Karl Rahner offers these thoughts under the heading of "Christian pessimism" as a reflection on 2 Corinthians 4.8.
“Our existence is one of radical perplexity. We have neither the right nor the possibility to ignore this situation or to believe that we can abolish it in any dimension of our experience. I need not point out, or bemoan in detail, the daily experiences that make us perplexed.

“In the beginning of Scripture God tells us that we must rule over nature and her powers. When we do it we start misusing them. We invent all kinds of social systems, and every one of them turns without fail into an occasion of injustice and abuse of power. We claim that we are looking for peace among all peoples, and we get ready for war in order to find peace. The whole of human history is a perpetual swinging back and forth between individualism and collectivism, and humanity has never succeeded in discovering a permanent and universally acceptable compromise between these basic demands of human nature.

“What matters here however is to understand that, for a Christian anthropology, this perplexity in human existence is not merely a transitory stage that, with patience and creative imagination, might eventually be removed from human existence. It is a permanent existential of humanity in history and, although it keeps assuming new forms, it can never be wholly overcome in history. This is an essential feature of a Christian pessimism. It does not matter here whether we explain this pessimism through the fact that we are creatures, and finite creatures at that, or through an appeal to original sin, or by making our ineradicable sinfulness an argument for pessimism.

“Of course, we cannot say that human finitude and historicity alone explain the fact that history cannot follow its course without friction and without blind alleys. Nor can this Christian pessimism be justified merely by the fact that it is impossible fully to harmonize all human knowledge with its many disparate sources, or to build a fully harmonious praxis on the basis of such disparate knowledge. We might also mention that we can never fully understand the meaning of suffering and death. Yet in spite of all this, the Christian interpretation of human existence says that within history, it is never possible wholly and definitively to overcome the riddles of human existence and history, which we experience so clearly and so painfully. Such a hope is excluded by the Christian conviction that we arrive at God’s definitive realm only by passing through death, which itself is the ultimate and all-embracing enigma of human existence. It is true that Christian hope has the right and the duty to project, in the empirical space of our human existence, an image and a promise of a definitive existence. But ultimately this is only the manner in which we practice faith in the consummation that God alone gives, that God’s self is.

“People are afraid of this pessimism. They do not accept it. They repress it. That is why it is the first task of Christian preaching to speak up for it.”

- Karl Rahner, "Christian Pessimism" in Theological Investigations XXII
(trans. Joseph Donceel; London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1991), 156-57.


John B said...

Nice post! I'm preaching on this passage on Sunday and a number of comments you made here have helped clarify my thinking. Thanks heaps.

byron smith said...

Glad you liked it.