Neo-Revisionist Christian Pessimism

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“If Christianity is pessimistic as to man, it is optimistic as to human destiny. Well, I can say that, pessimistic as to human destiny, I am optimistic as to man.”1

The epigraph is from Albert Camus, a writer I have long admired. Something like this provokes questions. Are Christians really pessimistic about humanity? Do we place all our eggs in an eschatological basket? If you’re kind of a glass-half-empty sort of person to begin with are you already at a moral deficit as a Christian?

My difference from Camus is with the word “optimistic.” It has become a catch-all term for positive feelings about the present, but even more so about the future. Optimisms are the training wheels for hope, a deeper, more substantial, virtue. Optimism may be a mood, a sparking fizz in the moment. Hope is the marrow in the bones; without it we cannot fight off the infection of despair.

But Camus did not hold hope of the kind seen in Christians and Christianity. His was a sensual consciousness, an eros of the sun, sky, sea, and mountains. He loved this Earth in part because it is all we have. He was fiercely protective of it. It makes you wonder what he would have said — and done — had he lived to see the evidence of climate change.

I’m not sure a lot of Christians feel the same way about the Earth. At least within my religious community, a robust theology of creation gives way to the dry orthodoxy of a literal six-day creation and a young earth.

But as I was saying: Hope is so much a part of the Christian ethos that it’s almost heresy to admit a certain pessimism in one’s temperament. Someone — maybe Nietzsche — said all philosophy is biography. If you understand the context and history of a person, you can see how their philosophy of life flows from their origin as surely as a river can be traced back to its spring.

Hope’s source is external: it comes to us from somewhere, someone else, but it answers a deeply felt need. Optimism, I think, is generated from within. It’s not the same as hope. We foster it, like we induce the feelings of sadness and respect at the funeral of someone we barely know. We’re optimistic when we need a lift of the spirits. The sun will come out tomorrow, we say, when all is gray around us. But in traffic, amongst the distractions of our lives, optimism can dissolve when met with obstacles and delay. It’s like when a politician emerges from budget talks and says to the press, “I am optimistic that we’ll reach a deal soon.” She’s really saying, “We’ve got nothing, we’re at a complete stalemate, but I’m putting on my brave face.”

Delay, now there’s a trigger word for Christians. We’ve been struggling with delay since Jesus said, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I shall come again and receive you to myself . . .”2 It was enough of a question in the earliest Christian communities that Paul reminded the believers in Thessalonika that “the Day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night.”3 He asked them to go about their business with a sober mind, armed with faith and love. When the Lord returned, if they were alive to see it, they wouldn’t be caught out like everybody else, but they’d look up with joy and say, “Good! You’re here, we’ve waited for you.” Until then, said Paul, “hearten one another, fortify one another.”4

Paul’s observation that, “While they are talking of peace and security, all at once calamity is upon them,” gets warped in Christian circles in truly disastrous ways.5 Thus, peace-making becomes defiance of God’s will, as if Christians joining with others to bring about peace and justice is a betrayal and an obstruction of God’s world-ending plans. This is like saying that drawing a bath for the baby reveals an intention to drown the baby.

The fact that efforts at peace and justice are often thwarted is no reason for Christians or anyone else not to try. This gospel imperative to work toward resolving conflict in order to create conditions in which justice and mercy can flourish is bedrock to true Christianity. It is hard work. It does not come naturally. It is, in fact, a discipline that we take on ourselves as humans. For people of faith, whether that be faith in God’s justice or faith in upholding human dignity, this is crucial. And it is deeply engrained with hope.

Having faith is what sustains us to act in life. We have faith in each other, we have faith in God, we have faith in ourselves. Faith is good. What makes the difference, said Paul Tillich, is what we consider our ultimate concern. Faith as ultimate surrender is directed toward that which is ultimate. In Tillich’s theology that would be God. If we make anything else other than God our ultimate concern, whether it be the inevitable march of history, scientific progress, ideologies, church doctrines, or the economic power of capitalism, we will, says Tillich, be betrayed. “They’ll hurt you and desert you. They’ll take your soul if you let them. But don’t you let them,” sang James Taylor.

Christians live like Jonah in the belly of a paradox, said Thomas Merton. We are here in this world where we belong, but we’re asked to put our ultimate trust in a being “whose center is everywhere but whose circumference is nowhere.”6 “I am with you always,” Jesus assured the disciples, “even to the end of the age.”7 Forty years later, Paul had to remind his community this was still true. It’s still true today: their faith needed hope then, we need it today.

***

I was drawn to Camus as a teenager because of his sober lucidity and his courageous agnosticism. He spoke to my doubts and fears in language that was lyrical and without guile. When he looked up from his beloved Mediterranean Sea, he saw no heaven — “above us only sky.” That was a challenge to me. I believed in a new heaven and a new earth.

When his Dr. Rieux stoically cared for the sick and dying in The Plague, and Father Paneloux, the priest, thundered about God’s judgement on the people of Oran, my heart was with Rieux. He did what was right because it was right and because he could not sign on to a religion that condoned the death of children as part of God’s righteous judgement. I couldn’t see it either, but I had no recourse or understanding of anything else at the time.

Camus’ remarks in the epigraph were spoken to the monks of the Dominican Monastery of Latour-Maubourg in 1948. Read in context, they are a swift, but gloved, uppercut to the smug indulgence of Christians and Communists for their optimism. Whether it be based on God or history, argued Camus, their optimism passively awaited a future. In the meantime, the slaughter of the innocents went on while they watched cheerfully from the sidelines.

We are faced with evil, said Camus to the monks. We could spend our time arguing over its source. Or we could do something about it. “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured,” he pled. “But we can reduce the numbers of tortured children. And if you don’t help us, who else in the world can help us do this?”8

***

In time, I wrote a dissertation on hope, partly for the same vague reason that so many first-year college students declare a psychology major —because they’re trying to figure themselves out. I was trying to find how hope resists the strangling power of evil, having discovered that a low-grade pessimism was my default position in life. We all, like Paul, bear thorns in our sides.

What I had to find for myself was a view of God-in-Christ that could answer Camus’ critique — and not just answer it but stand in solidarity with it. A perspective on hope that came back from the future to transform the present, that gained its authenticity from suffering and its power from a great love.

Hope and experience: that was the tension that Camus lived within. It’s our experience with reality that so often saps our reservoir of hope. Too many promises made, too many broken, until we determine to live only by what we can do, only what we can accomplish. That is not wrong, it’s better than giving up. But it’s not enough.

Jurgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope opened my eyes and my heart. Jesus’ faithfulness got him crucified. He embodied compassion to the end, despite his fear and dread. His life and death created a space for God to work in the world and what God did changed everything.

The resurrection was God’s contradiction of everything Jesus suffered — all the humiliation, all the wickedness of evil. “Those who hope in Christ,” wrote Moltmann, “can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.”9

For God’s pilgrim people, whoever they are, who struggle with pessimism — hopelessness by another name — Camus’ sturdy and hopeful humanism is a refreshing counterpoint. As Moltmann says, “Temptation . . . consists not so much in the titanic desire to be as God, but in weakness, timidity, weariness, not wanting to be what God requires of us.”10 It’s not the evil we do, but the good we do not do that accuses us. It’s our lack of hope.

In the end, my pessimism still flickers fitfully in the background, but my hope arises, nevertheless. I am promised that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.11 Even better is the assurance that his grace is sufficient for me.12 That should be enough.

  1. Camus, Albert. Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. Translated with an introduction by Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage Books, 1995, p. 73.
  2. Jn. 14:3, NEB.
  3. 1 Thess. 5:1, NEB.
  4. 1 Thess. 5:11 NEB.
  5. 1 Thess. 5:3 NEB.
  6. Robinson, Marilynne. In “Marilynne Robinson’s Essential American Stories.” Casey Cep,
    September 25, 2020, New Yorker.
  7. Matt. 28:20 NEB.
  8. Camus, p. 73.
  9. Moltmann, Jurgen. Theology of Hope. Translated by James W. Leitch. New York: Harper and Row, 1975, p. 21.
  10. Moltmann, p. 22.
  11. Phil. 4:13, NEB.
  12. 2 Cor. 12:9, NEB.

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”Buy truth, and do not sell it;

buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding.”— Proverbs 23:23

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When I buy books, real books, the kind that fill the palm and give off the faint scent of forests and ferns, I most often buy used books. To put a noble purpose to it, I see it as a matter of providing a second or third life to a being whose greatest delight is to be itself in service to others. Used books, like used houses, contain quiet discoveries: a penciled note in the margin or a passage scored in red, with an exclamation point next to it. What emotions did it stir? What memories did it bring up?

I have a volume of philosophy, picked up in a second-hand bookshop in North Hollywood, which has a blue-inked stamp on the flyleaf: “If found, please return to —-,” with a name and an address in Los Angeles. Was its presence in that shop evidence of abduction or betrayal? Was it offered up in the dissolution of a love affair by a woman who wouldn’t stoop to throwing out a book with the potato peelings and coffee grounds? Or the New English Bible I found, inscribed, “To the most wonderful mother in the world. We love you—Rhonda, Carol and Ron,” given on Mother’s Day, 1970, and so lightly used that the pages had to be parted with two hands and a puff of breath.

I am reading now, No Other Book: Selected Essays of Randall Jarrell, which includes a bookmark made out of a horoscope from Sunday, March 7, 1993 (birthdate of Piet Mondrian and Daniel J. Travanti!), that advises me to “Shower family members with affection. Playing the hermit role keeps you trapped in an isolation tank. Spread the gospel of goodwill and exuberance.” It also suggests that I take up sports “like cycling, tennis or golf.” But since I am not a Taurus, perhaps that would be unwise.

For such books, received by others and then forgotten, I give a safe and warm home, an active life, the assurance of a deep and appreciative relationship, and the promise of continued service when I have passed on.

I buy used books, not simply because I love books, but because their histories trace connections back to the authors who wrote them, whose imagination and diligence while writing were often frustrated and thwarted, but who somehow followed a lantern of discovery deep into an unknown country. And there are sometimes geological layers of comments and annotations to decipher, connections to those who cherished them.

So when I find one that gives no evidence of having been pored over, hefted, carried along, returned to, and in a word, loved, there’s a residue of sadness for the writer who labored over this work, perhaps for years, before releasing it into the wild. Once out of her hands her book faced the world alone. Maybe it was sought for with open hands, or merely opened, flicked through, and replaced with a sigh. Maybe it flourished later with meanings that its author could not see, a gift extended.

Some of my books have been with me for most of my life. One of my treasured collections of poetry, The Major English Romantic Poets: Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats, I bought new in 1967 for ninety cents, 715 pages of poetry so impassioned as to blow open my imagination and enlarge the regions of my heart. Another one, Modern Poets, introduced me to Eliot, Yeats, Pound, Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and many others. I was searching for wisdom, although I did not think of it in that way.

In the tales of Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, the heights and depths of kings and battles in Winston Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking People, and in the terrors and stoic courage of Camus’ The Plague, there was a revelation of what Randall Jarrell calls “the Wisdom of the World which demonstrates to us that the Wisdom of the World isn’t enough.”1 Jarrell wrote that about one of Robert Frost’s poems, “Provide, Provide,” which, he said, gives us the minimum case for morality, but with a beauty and conviction that is far from minimal.

It was the conviction that beauty—seen, heard, and above all, rendered in language—is an indispensable element of wisdom, that drew me on in the search.

I was, most probably, not so much in rebellion against my strict but loving upbringing, as I was uneasy in my place, shifting and stretching, unable to locate my magnetic north, but unwilling to stop looking. When the body needs salt, it finds it; when the spirit craves awe it pauses at the roadside shrines. Our restlessness rings about us like an unresolved chord.

At sixteen, the world appeared absurd to me. Beautifully so, but absurd, nonetheless. As I write, it is fifty-one years to the day that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, the last in a trinity of public figures whose lives, at that time, gave me reason to hope for a new order in the world.

Over against this was my dutiful play in the fields of the Lord and my willingness to be haunted by the Jesus of the gospels.

The world was absurd, intuitively understood, because the allocation of resources and wealth were both capricious and cruel. Not only that, the burdens that so many bore simply by accident of birth and race, could not be justified or accounted righteous in any universe I wanted to be a part of. As I passed the brown backs of laborers bent over the vines in the Napa Valley, I wondered how it was that I was blessed to flourish in the California sun, while thousands of miles away a little Vietnamese girl and her brother ran naked and screaming down a road, their flesh consumed by napalm, as the sky behind them boiled with clouds hellishly dark? “There but for the grace of God,” said some with a shudder. But that was blasphemy, an homage to a god even smaller and more ignorant than the systems that perpetuated it.

Therefore, entirely arbitrarily, due to no merit on my part, I had the luxury to be surrounded by choices, to have time and safety and the means to look ahead to college. Again, at sixteen it seemed absurd (and still seems so today), but the purest response could only be to use those choices wisely and well.

Albert Camus was an early and lasting influence. I shared his love for the sun, the sea, the night. “But these are gods of enjoyment,” he says, in Lyrical and Critical Essays, “they fill one, then they leave one empty.”2 Borrowing the faith of others, I agreed, but not for the same reasons as Camus. Such emptiness, the default position of the church made clear, could only be filled by a personal relationship with Christ. I wasn’t so sure. Couldn’t one love this Earth for itself, this sea, these stars? Wasn’t glorying in the creation also worshipping the Creator? Camus’ heaven basked solely beneath the sun—he held himself to an austere code of honesty—but he retained a wistful awareness, it seemed to me, of a transcendence he could feel, but would not be reconciled to. I believed it but could feel it only faintly.

Camus was seventeen when he knew he would be a writer. Describing the gradual awareness of this possibility, he writes:

“Something, someone was stirring dimly within me, longing to speak. Reading one book, hearing one conversation, can provoke this rebirth in a young person. One sentence stands out from the open book, one word still vibrates in the room, and suddenly, around the right word, the exact note, contradictions resolve themselves and disorder ceases.”3

For Camus, the book that gave him the courage to write what he lived was Jean Grenier’s Les Iles. For me? Well, I suppose some of my contradictions began to resolve themselves through the poets of Isaiah—all three of them—although at the time I only knew of one—and the Gospel of John, that mystical and earthy portrait of the Jesus of signs and wonders. In almost any translation or version, they held for me language that transcended my experience while keeping me rooted in this world. The Bible itself was a library, or better, a bookshop of well-used books, holding the histories of millions, and containing layers of connections and annotations and memories there for all to ponder.

Surprisingly, Camus (referring to Grenier) says, “For it is indeed lucky to be able to experience, at least once in one’s lifetime, this enthusiastic submission to another person.” He draws up the image of the master and the disciple, a confrontation which becomes a dialogue for life. “In the end, the master rejoices when the disciple leaves him and achieves his difference, while the latter will always remain nostalgic for the time when he received everything and knew he could never repay it.”4

Camus did repay it, however, in the ways he inspired and mentored people like me. Although I took a different, but in some ways parallel path to his, we were both searching for wisdom.

I am still stumbling along, trying to commit discipleship. In the books which the Spirit and serendipity lead me to, I find traces of wisdom well worth the price of experience.

  1. Jarrell, Randall. No Other Book: Selected Essays of Randall Jarrell. New York: HarperCollins, 1999, 24.
  2. Camus, Albert. Lyrical and Critical Essays. New York, Vintage, 1970, 328.
  3. Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays, 329.
  4. Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays, 329.