Neo-Revisionist Christian Pessimism

Photo by Fahad bin Kamal Anik on Unsplash

“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.

We Are Our Communication

“Every part of a system is so related to its fellow parts that a change in one part will cause a change in all of them and in the total system. That is, a system behaves not as a simple composite of independent elements, but coherently and as an inseparable whole.”

These dispassionate words may not come to mind when we see the shelling in Gaza or watch in horror the videos of what the Islamic State is doing to Christians in Mosul. But they give us a way to deal with these extremes and to understand them.

The quote is from Pragmatics of Human Communication (1967) by Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin, and Don Jackson, who were three of the principal researchers at the Mental Research Institute of Palo Alto in the late 60s and early 70s. The pioneering work that they did, trying to understand the connections between communication and human behavior, was an interdisciplinary venture that spanned psychopathology, mathematics, literature, systems theory, and communication studies. They wanted to know how communication as an interactional process affected our behavior.

Starting from the axiom that “all behavior is communication and one cannot not communicate,” they arrived at the conclusion that everything we do when we communicate with each other affects all our communication processes and cannot be separated out. Put simply, to say that the actions of person A causes the behavior of person B ignores the relation of B to A and the effect B may have on A’s subsequent reactions.

Like it or not, they seem to be saying, we’re all in this together. Every time Hamas fires a rocket at an Israeli settlement it is communicating; with the inevitable reciprocation on Gazan villages there is a deadly communication process in place that becomes a feedback loop. Every action results in a reaction which provokes a new action ad infinitum.

Furthermore, if we isolate an action in order to find its cause—and thus to blame—we miss the wider context in which that action takes place. We discover that actions happen in a context and that that context occurs within a relationship between people and groups. Focusing on the particular actions and not on the relationship between the parts of this system results in us missing the meaning of the actions that take place.

An example given by the authors is the difference between my foot kicking a stone and me kicking a dog. When my foot hits the stone it will move and eventually come to rest again. But if I kick the dog it may jump up and bite me. The kick has become not simply energy but information; my behavior has communicated something which the dog, rightfully so, interprets as an attack and responds accordingly. A kick is not just a kick within a relationship: it sends a message that grew out of the relationship prior to the kick and will affect responses to the kick.

As I read news reports of the actions of ISIS/Islamic State, watched videos, and read the comments of readers and viewers I could feel a tension building in me. I could imagine the desperation of the thousands trapped on Sinjar Mountain, the children dying from thirst and exhaustion. And I wanted to obliterate the militants surrounding them on the plains below. It wasn’t enough that American pilots drop supplies to the victims: I wanted to see the bodies of those fighters after the bombs tore through them. I wanted video of them calling out for help as they bled to death.

And then a curious but inevitable thing happened. As the tension in me built the world divided up neatly into right and wrong, black and white, us and them. Crush them all! Barbarians! Stomp their lives out! So they’re killing Christians and ethnic minorities? Damn Muslims!

In a flash I had gone from righteous indignation to murderous wrath, from a generalized tolerance for other religions to a Crusade mentality against all Muslims. From the particular to the general. Kill ’em all and let God sort it out later.

It got even worse when I stumbled across a website that is apparently run by Christians who believe Islam is Satanic. Their comments were raw hatred, all the visceral fear and fury of those who are absolutely certain that their enemy is the Devil and they are on the side of the angels. And these were self-confessed Christians. In the words of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, I looked from pigs to men and from men to pigs, and already I could not tell the difference. And that’s when I remembered Paul Watzlawick and his pragmatics of human communication.

I realized I was confronted with a moral dilemma that I couldn’t face—the slaughter of the innocents. I was helpless to do anything except inwardly rail against the perpetrators. The situation was too complex for me to handle, so I simplified it. I had divided my perceptual world in two: Christians and Muslims. But of course it’s much more nuanced than that. It’s Sunni against Shiite, Kurdish against Iraqis, caliphate against sovereign states, America against rebel forces, economic interests against religious and political ideologies, men against women and children, hate-filled Christian extremists against fanatical Islamic jihadists.

But even that was still too simple, a binary response to something multi-faceted and entangled. I recalled something I’d read years ago by William Irwin Thompson, a cultural historian and philosopher: “We become the thing we hate,” he said. And I remembered, too, how easily we are manipulated by media images, and how adept political and military groups have become at the propaganda arts. Our instant and ubiquitous media draws us all across the lines in the sand. By watching we become changed—and not for the better. All those Christian groups glued to their YouTube videos, who thought Hamas and Islamic State would be in our streets next week unless we nuked them, would be more likely to turn on their neighborhood mosque or to beat up someone wearing a hijab on the Metro.

I am not at all settled on this. I could visualize myself, with the best intentions, running out into no mans land with my hands out, imploring both sides to cease fire, and getting shot before I could make my eloquent statement. Where am I on the non-violence idea? Generally for it, from the safety of my Maryland suburb. Children in Mosul were being beheaded, said a Chaldean-American activist on CNN. Is that true? I shudder to think so, and yet my children have their heads on their shoulders in the sweet summer evening air. Am I to feel guilt because we are safe, our home has not been bombed, my wife and daughter have not been raped? Guilt of that sort doesn’t seem productive and yet my heart can feel the terror and the blind rage and the sheer relief of having survived an attack, all in my imagination.

Hobbes thought the world was a place of constant terror, a life that was, as he famously put it, ‘nasty, brutish, and short.’ Kant was steadfast against lying and murder, for any reason, and Aristotle counseled moderation in all things. Courage and prudence were cardinal virtues that didn’t need to be moderated; how could you be too courageous or too prudent? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that Christian exemplar of integrity and ethics, said, ‘When a horse is running wild in the street, you stop the horse.’ There is a time for words and a time for action, he seemed to be saying. Pacifist that I am would I hesitate to shoot someone about to murder women and children? The Tao cautions that violence should be the absolute last resort, and be discharged with sorrow and not with triumph.

What is becoming clearer to me is that we are, all of us in this tortured, dark, yet beautiful world, bound to one another. The death of one—any one—impoverishes all of us. This, I am convinced, is not New Age ignorance disguised as bliss. It is, rather, part of the virtues of humility and courage that Jesus and others exemplified. We cannot not communicate. All that we are, says the Dhammapada, is a result of what we have thought. Our revolution begins from the inside—and affects the world.

Every Breath We Take

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1 (NRSV)

According to the Gospel of John the world begins with the Word. Communication requires two, not just one. The Tao Te Ching, the book of wisdom in Taoism, notes that:

The Tao gives birth to One
One gives birth to Two
Two gives birth to Three
Three gives birth to all things

In the astonishing clarity of the prologue to the gospel the writer gives us three phrases that build in intensity, each one leaping farther into the unknown.

“In the beginning was the Word.”

Not simply a word, but the Word. It’s a Word that is mysterious, yet so encompassing that the singular article exists to create the One that is all and communes with all.

But lest we think that this Word is alone, there is from the beginning a simple preposition, “with,” that evokes the image of relationship.

“And the Word was with God.”

This is not just proximity, an accident of spatial congruence that creates a false sense of belonging. To be with someone implies a confluence, a commingling, a relationship that continues even when the two are separated. “Are you with someone?” we ask the stranger at a party or a gathering. ‘Yes,’ comes the reply, ‘I’m just waiting for my friend.’ “And the Word was with God.”

Then comes the third phrase that jolts us with its audacity.

“And the Word was God.”

Not only is the Word with God, the Word is God. And it implies that the eternal One creates out of desire: it takes two to tango, it takes two to communicate. Bruce Springsteen and the Book of Proverbs say, ‘Two hearts are better than one.’

Everything begins with communication, with the Word. Communication gives rise to communion with the other, the one to whom we turn, without whom we are but silence beating the air, the sound of one hand clapping, a tree falling forever in a forest born before sound and light.

Everything and everyone begins with the Word; not just a word but the Word, and the Word is life and light and love. It brings us into being for each other, for without each other we are simply syllables looking for completion. Our lives against the vastness of the light of the stars are so fragile that we are drawn to each other in order to reflect God’s glory to each other.

The Word was and is God and thus is there from the beginning. The beginning is not just the beginning of us or of our glorious, fragile world, but a beginning of which we cannot conceive because we have no way of grasping how time can expand in all directions at once. We think in linear fashion: front to back, up and down, left to right, start to finish, but this beginning takes us back and back until, gasping, we are drawn in through the first word to some place infinitely beyond the beginning point.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That is a description of communication in action, of communion in process. That Word creates community within itself, and every time we open our mouths to speak we take on the risk to become one with that community, a community that exists within us and without which we are not complete. But as Thomas Merton reminds us, “The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, beyond speech, beyond concept.” The Word draws us into communion.

Communion is that possibility that exists between people—the eternal possibility—that we may actually come to understand one another, the first step toward loving another. In all our faltering attempts at communication, with every word that rises up from within us, that possibility is there. It is not yet embodied, not yet made flesh until breathed out in our words, but it is there. So in every breath we take—no matter what the word is—in that breath not yet become a word lies the hope for true understanding between you and I. Between Sunni and Shiite, Protestant and Catholic, homophobic and gay, progressive and conservative, man and woman, Israeli and Palestinian, Tutsi and Hutu, sex worker and client, border guard and immigrant.

Once upon a time God came to this earth; the Word became flesh and lived here with us. Now the Word continues in our communion with one another. The infinite possibility for peace is literally within us at every moment if we will imagine our words to be the Word that came into the world to bring us light.

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”