Saturday, July 31, 2010

Perplexed but not in despair: Christian pessimism II

Last week, I wrote of what Karl Rahner called Christian pessimism. I would like to continue those thoughts as the following quote is one way of understanding what I am trying to do theologically. Rahner is reflecting upon the Pauline text in 2 Corinthians 4.8, where the apostle describes his situation as being "perplexed, but not in despair". Rahner is trying to take seriously this perplexity as more than a passing experience for the apostle, but as a fundamental description of life in a world frustrated by finitude and fallenness, even and perhaps especially for Christians.

...yet not in despair
Yet Rahner wants to do more than describe such a "realistic pessimism". He is concerned lest his critique of idealistic utopian dreams becomes its shadow; "this pessimism cannot be the pretext for a lame and cheap resignation". There is a path that is neither disconnected from reality in its optimism, nor enervated by its despair: "we can act realistically, fight and win partial victories, and soberly and courageously accept partial defeats." Indeed, there is a second half to the apostolic description.
"For Paul not only tells us that, even as Christians, we will never grow out of our perplexities in this world, that we must see them and bear them, but also that in spite of them we are ouk exaporoumenoi (not driven to despair). It is true that as Christians we put our trust in God, and that we are freed and consoled in all our needs and fears by the Holy Spirit. It is for this reason that Christianity is a message of joy, courage, and unshakable confidence. All of this means that, as Christians, we have the sacred duty, for which we will be held accountable before God, to fight for this very history of ours joyfully, courageously, confidently. We also have the duty to bring about a foretaste of God’s eternal reign through our solidarity, unselfishness, willingness to share, and love of peace.

“Yet it seems to me that we have not yet mastered the problem of the two existentials put together by Paul. How can we be perplexed pessimists, how can we admit that we are lost in existence, how can we acknowledge that this situation is at present irremediable, yet in Paul’s words “not be driven to despair”? Do these two attitudes not cancel each other out? Are there only two possibilities open to Christians? Do Christians simply capitulate before the insuperable darkness of existence and honestly admit that they are capitulating? Or do they simply ignore their perplexity and become right away persons who have victoriously overcome the hopelessness of life? Is it possible for Christians neither simply to despair nor overlook in a false optimism the bitter hopelessness of their existence? It seems to me that it is not easy to answer these questions theoretically. Yet the questions and their answers are of the greatest importance for Christian life, even if they occur only in the more or less unconscious praxis of life, and even if the very question about this Christian perplexity falls under the law of this same perplexity."

- Karl Rahner, "Christian Pessimism" in Theological Investigations XXII
(trans. Joseph Donceel; London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1991), 159-60.

To note the tension between first and second half of the apostolic phrase is nothing new. But Rahner's placing of the very act of trying to understand this description under the perplexity of which it speaks is insightful. The dynamic in the Christian life between a dark realism that refuses all false hopes in humanly-grounded optimism and a confident trust that will not give way to despair is also present in our very ability to grasp the meaning of the Christian life. In attempting to articulate the contours of this life, we are constantly perplexed, but not in despair. It is a reality that always eludes final formulation, comprehensive grasping, and yet the inability to decisively articulate it is no barrier to the continual attempts to do so. What T. S. Eliot said of his poetry holds true for all theological discourse also: "a raid on the inarticulate/With shabby equipment always deteriorating" (from "East Coker" in Four Quartets). And so attempting to understand and express Christian pessimism is an effort trapped within the perplexity of all existence though that is no reason to abandon it.

Indeed, Paul's description comes in the middle of a string of similar pairings in the famous passage about treasure in jars of clay: "But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies." (2 Corinthians 4.7-10)

The treasure of which Paul speaks is "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (v. 6). It is this that provides the positive half in each pair. This is source of the extraordinary power that means that Paul is not crushed, not driven to despair, not forsaken, not destroyed. The experience of encountering the risen Jesus has not made his life easy or straightforward, quite the opposite. But it has given him an inner resilience to face difficulties, even where the outcome seems hopeless. It is important to note that for Paul, it is specifically his apostolic task that is the cause of most of his afflictions, at least that is the perspective from which he is viewing them in this passage as he defends his calling. And yet I don't think Rahner is inappropriate to find in Paul's self-understanding a model for a more general Christian attitude.

What is it specifically about the "treasure" that means Paul is not worn down, demoralised or paralysed by the aspects of his existence that are like a clay jar? Or, to put this another way, what are the spiritual and theological sources of perseverance and courage in the face of insuperable challenges?