Presented to Mere Christianity Fellowship, Furman University, September 14, 2017
The live video of this talk is available on my Facebook page.
I want to begin with two disclaimers.
First, I am extremely public about my own Christian identity, or my attempt to become a Christian as Kierkegaard would say. But, that said, I am very skittish about speaking in confessional ways at academic institutions. My rationale for this is that I take the task of being a philosopher to require appealing to evidential authorities that are available, in principle, to all members of the philosophical community. But, here I am going to risk speaking as a Kierkegaardian “poor existing individual” rather than as a professor of philosophy. I beg your forgiveness for this, but hopefully it will remind us all that no matter how many degrees we get, life doesn’t get easier, although we might learn, as Jacques Derrida says, “to live, finally.”
Second, I fully intended to write a full-throated academic essay that would wow you with its rhetorical flourish and argumentative rigor. But, like most things in life, a funny thing happened on the way—well in this case, it is not so funny. I want you to hear my comments as less of a philosophical essay and more of a confessional invitation to think together for just a few minutes. Please don’t hear any of this as a lecture or confuse what I am doing now with what I do in my classes. This is me trying to figure out what it means for me to live as a Christian in a world that has made Christianity largely unlivable. My struggle may not be yours. And that is fine. Tonight, then, please call me Aaron. This is my name. Dr. is my title. Nothing of what follows is licensed by my graduate studies or my publications. But, ultimately Kierkegaard is right that all that is truly essential has to be learned for oneself. It can’t be handed over as completed by another.
So, let’s get started. Thinking well takes time.
My maternal grandmother was a preacher and toward the end of her life she called me and said: “Honey, I am simply too tired to go to heaven.” Her words deeply troubled me at the time, I mean how could my grandmother the icon of Christian witness in my life, say such a thing?
For my grandmother, surviving the early death of one of her children, the progressive blindness and eventual early death of her husband of over 50 years, and a range of longstanding health issues later in her life, perhaps the common phrase “rest in peace” literally described her state of mind. Here is how I have worked things out—having spent her life in the church, perhaps she realized that if heaven is anything the contemporary church, maybe she didn’t really want any more of it. It seems to me that her point was simply that life, and especially Christian life in the contemporary church, eventually weighs heavy upon us and sometimes rather than desiring more life, we simply desire a break. As Tennyson rightly noted in his poem, “Ulysses,” we are often “made weak by time and fate.” Though we may desire to be those noble souls that Tennyson describes as striving, seeking, finding, and not yielding, sometimes we may just need a nap.
Sadly, I have personally come to identify with such a view as a result of no less than three churches in recent years telling me that I need to find a different home for my family because I was a problem to their church. Look, I am sure that the pastors at those churches would offer a different narrative about what they were trying to do, but as I see it, too many contemporary churches function according to a conception of Christianity that is more about a market-driven logic of solidifying support for a determinate authority structure—and the ideological cultural framing that underlies it—than about living into the “costly grace,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (puts it, that is provided in the kenotic example of God in Christ.
So, let me offer an admission, a confession if you will. I am tired of Christianity, well by what Christianity is usually taken to mean within the generally Evangelical churches in which I have been raised. Elsewhere I have detailed some of the philosophical stakes of what I take to be going on in those churches (I am happy to provide those essays to anyone who is interested), but tonight, I want to do something different. I want to try to tell a story about two possible Christianities, one economic and one existential, and the way that C.S. Lewis stands as a profound resource for the second version precisely because he is so often taken to be a spokesperson for the first. Ultimately, we will see that what my grandmother was on to, and that many of us don’t pay enough attention to in our own lives, is that if Christianity is understood as a thing that is meant to overcome the human condition, then we are right to tire of it because being a Christian eventually amounts to the task of our becoming God, rather than our figuring out what it means to live fully in light of God’s becoming human. Whereas Economic Christianity requires that we stay on the hamster wheel of trying to be good enough for God’s grace by being better than everyone else around us, Existential Christianity invites us into a relationship with God that St. Augustine correctly described as providing “rest” for a weary soul.
I don’t want to spend too long on Economic Christianity because I take it to be a rather easy notion to understand. On this model, Christianity is like a divine ledger book whereby God keeps track (sort of like Santa Claus) of those who are morally upright and rewards them with temporal blessing and eternal happiness. The characteristics of this version are moral clarity, theological triumphalism, and social stability (despite persistent claims of social exclusion). When Christianity becomes economically understood, faith becomes one’s payment for an eventual return on the investment. God pays us back, as it were, for resisting the world and those who are not part of our ecclesial community—think “culture wars” here or “battles over worldview,” etc.
Ironically, such separatist intuitions are strikingly at odds with the deep complicity that Economic Christianity has with the power structures of worldly recognition. Critique is unwelcome in Economic Christianity because there is too much to lose financially, politically, socially, and morally. This, by the way, is what I very regrettably think underlies those pastors’ worries about my influence on their congregants. For Economic Christianity, confidence is only had in light of certainty about morality, God, identity, national exceptionalism, and public policy. Faith is, thus, ultimately presented as a way of being complacent with oneself and one’s church, while becoming increasingly angry about the failures of everyone else. But, this makes sense because if Christianity is about an exchange function of faith for grace, as it were, then the desire not to be corrupted by those outside one’s own community is sort of like making sure that your property is safe for your kids and your dog. Economic Christianity is about putting up fences, rather than offering hospitality to those without homes. Yet, it is a fragile safety indeed that is brought about by the need to live with loaded guns. And, sigh, I wish I were only speaking metaphorically about fences and guns. God help us.
C.S. Lewis certainly doesn’t seem like someone who would give much solace to Economic Christians, but he has become something of a patron saint to them. The clarity of his prose, the confidence of his argumentation, and the rationalism of his conclusions (at least in some books) can seem to invite the idea that Christians are those who know the Truth (always with a capital-T) and fight against the rampant falsity proclaimed by those who deny the absolute moral law. Mere Christianity, in particular, is a book that often leans in such directions. When he claims that Jesus “never talked vague, idealistic gas,” for example, this can be read as seeming to support the moral clarity affirmed by Economic Christians. When he talks about the Christian demand to “be perfect,” he can appear to be suggesting that Christians are simply better than non-Christians. The apologetic gestures in this book and in books such as The Problem of Pain and Miracles, for example, are comforting to those who need to beat back those who would threaten our children (and our dogs?) with their dangerous liberal views of God, the Bible, and, you know, of women, immigrants, and Muslims. Yet, I think that this reading of Lewis, though not entirely implausible, is staggeringly short-sighted and flat-footed. If we read Lewis in light of Existential Christianity, however, a remarkably vivid new picture emerges not only of his work, but of the potential to use his work as a critical resource for disrupting the hegemony of the Economic framework.
Let’s think, then, about what Existential Christianity might offer as an alternative model of God and human selfhood.
As I was writing this very sentence, I stopped to check Facebook (yeah, I know), and there I saw pictures of friends of mine from college who just gave birth to their son today. Strikingly, the pictures are of a proud mom and dad holding their newborn. But, here is the thing, their son died in the womb. Surgically removed at 1lb 14oz, and 13 inches long, his birthday of September 13th at 9:39am is also the date of his passing. I cannot fathom what it would be like to lose a child (like my grandmother and my friends both have). But, loss is part of life. To be human is to suffer. Fine, but what cuts me to the core is not that my friends are experiencing this loss, as unimaginable and purely traumatic as it is, but that on their post that includes pictures of them holding their son they wrote this (which are lyrics taken from the song “Though You slay me” by Shane and Shane):
“Though You slay me, yet I will praise You. Though You take from me, I will bless Your name. Though You ruin me, still I will worship. Sing a song to the One who is all I need.”
This wrecks me. How does one hold onto God when it seems so clear that God is no longer holding on to you?
A bunch of years ago, I was suffering from a very severe mold allergy and it resulted in extreme anxiety, depression, and even dissociative tendencies. It was horrifying. I remember giving a talk during that time and in it I said that I felt so very far from God—not due to sin or failure on my part, but simply due to the fact that God seemed nowhere to be found. Shakespeare describes this sort of situation well when he speaks of his tendency to “trouble deaf heaven with bootless cries.” Of course, one does not need to go to Shakespeare to find such frustration with God’s seeming coldness or apathy toward the human situation. The Bible itself is full of the cries of people calling out in agony and asking “how long, O Lord?” During that talk, during my own struggle to hold on to the slimmest shard of reality, I played this song for the audience. Let me have you listen to it since I think it encapsulates Existential Christianity: Ginny Owens, “If You Want Me To”
Though I am a bit hesitant about the seeming theodicy present in Owens’s account of God’s desire to have us go through the valley—I tend to think that it is simply a fact that there are valley, the theological question is whether we walk through them alone or not. It is that last verse of hers, though, that gets me every time. What you may not know about Ginny Owens is that she is blind, like my grandfather was. So, when she says “I will go through the darkness if you want me to. Cause when I cross over Jordan, I’m gonna sing, gonna shout. Gonna look into your eyes and see you never let me down,” somehow she thanks God for her very affliction. How does she find the strength to do this? How do my friends find the energy to worship a God who would seem to will their ruin?
When I wrestle with these persistent questions, I find all attempts to offer philosophical theodicies to fall infinitely, and offensively, short of the reality of the human condition. What does speak to me, however, is the testimony of those who found faith not simply despite affliction, but perhaps as deepened precisely by it. Consider the following from Simone Weil who suffered so greatly from physical ailment that it is amazing she was able to write at all.
“Affliction causes God to be absent for a time, more absent than a dead man, more absent than light in the utter darkness of a cell. A kind of horror submerges the whole soul. During this absence there is nothing to love. What is terrible is that if, in this darkness where there is nothing to love, the soul ceases to love, God’s absence becomes final . . . . The man to whom such a thing occurs . . . quivers like a butterfly pinned alive to a tray. But throughout the horror he can go on wanting to love. There is no impossibility in that, no obstacle, one could almost say no difficulty. Because no pain, however great, up to the point of losing consciousness, touches that part of the soul which consents to a right orientation.”
Weil has a way of getting right to the heart of the matter with such gritty and vivid descriptions that it is as if affliction becomes an embodied performance playing out in front of us. In light of these words, we might reasonably conclude that either we are better than God or that there is no God at all. Yet, this is not where Weil leaves us. Instead, she concludes:
“The man who has known pure joy if only for a moment, and who has therefore tasted the flavor of the world’s beauty . . . for him it is no punishment; it is God himself holding his hand and pressing it rather hard. For, if he remains constant, what he will discover buried deep under the sound of his own lamentations is the pearl of the silence of God.”
Weil goes on to say that “it is always possible for an afflicted man to suffer less by consenting to become wicked.” Or as Emmanuel Levinas puts it, “because we are afraid to become noble souls, we became base souls instead.” What Weil demonstrates is that the only faithful response to the trauma of the human condition is to stand firm, to stand unyielding, as Tennyson says, in the joy and beauty and love that one finds affliction to be a moment of divine silence, and an opportunity to live in light of God’s own human example.
Absent from Weil’s formulation is any patronizing notion of needing suffering in order to appreciate the good in life. Instead, we find a glorious commitment to faith as risk directed toward the idea that love matters. That we gain our souls in patience. That life is not about escaping living, but living fully in light of what life involves.
Existential Christianity’s postmodern saints have inspired me because they do not try to get God off the hook for the misery so frequently found in human existence. Instead, they understand God as the depth that surrounds us as we fear drowning. The point is not to embrace suffering or to desire affliction, but to refuse to give affliction the last word. Theologians from Marguerite Porete to Jean-Luc Marion have all rightly noted that “Love” is the proper theological name for God. So, when we stand committed to love in the face of affliction, the joy that overflows logic and language sings into the void left by the “groans and utterings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
Consider another postmodern saint. Facing his own death at the hands of the National Socialists that he worked to withstand, Dietrich Bonhoeffer cries out to God “Seize me and hold me! My staff is sinking; O faithful God, prepare my grave.” Which sounds a lot like some of the lyrics to the Rich Mullins song, “Hold me, Jesus,” which state:
“Hold me, Jesus, cause I’m shaking like a leaf, you have been king of my glory, won’t you be my prince of peace.”
God as the prince of peace is what I think my grandmother longed for in her weary final days. God as the one who “prepares our graves” is what I imagine that my friends are clinging to as they prepare for the funeral of their son who will never take a breath, open his eyes, or experience either the joy or the affliction of the human condition.
Where is God in any of this? Well, I don’t know. And yet I hope, I trust, I risk myself on the proposition that God is there-with us, not telling us that it will be ok, but holding on ever more firmly to our shaking hands. The point here is that when Christianity is understood as presented by Weil, Owens, Bonhoeffer, Mullins, and so many others, it is not a matter of triumphing over affliction by obtaining worldly status, which would amount to escaping the human condition. Rather, it is a matter of understanding the human condition as not something God allows us to escape, but instead something into which God throws us ever more deeply. As my own philosophical mentor wrote upon receiving the diagnosis of stage 4 cancer, which would soon after take his life, “in the end there is the unmanageable, but we would be trivial beings without it.” God did not make us trivial. The joys and the affliction are both significant because they are where we find ourselves longing for a God who doesn’t seem so deaf. And yet, they are also where God finds us as the sorts of beings for whom existence matters. Christianity is not, in the end, about escaping life, but living ever more fully. Indeed, life “more abundantly” is not likely to look very much like life if it was devoid of what makes life non-trivial.
Existential Christianity offers a model whereby God is best understood as trouble. Trouble for our complacency, for our expectations, for our assumptions, for our arrogance, for our very ideas of God. When God becomes present enough to cause us to become silent, and also when God’s seeming silence causes us to cry out, we find ourselves as made in the image of God. This is not a perfectionist Christianity, whereby Christians are separate from the fallen world, but instead a Christianity that perfects us by leaving us precisely where we are, but not as we were. Having been transformed for service, we can say with Bonhoeffer that at the point when God becomes trouble, then “Christ is no longer [merely] an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world.”
According to Existential Christianity, Christian faith is ultimately, as Kierkegaard says “a task for a lifetime” and defined by self-denial, rather than the self-exaltation that accompanies Economic Christianity. Rather than moral clarity, we have deep and persistent ambiguity—as Bonhoeffer says (contra Luther), “We can always do otherwise.” Or as Ginny Owens says, “the pathway is broken, the signs are unclear.” Ultimately, there is nothing obvious about “what Jesus would do.” Instead, almost everything that the religious leaders thought that God would do was laid to rest in light of the disruptive person of Christ. Rather than power, we find a servant. Rather than triumph, we find humility. Rather than militarism, we find grace. Rather than riches, we find an invitation to give everything to the poor. This is far from a God who reinforces our own sense of self—and our political, economic, and social ideologies.
C.S. Lewis stands as a model of Existential Christianity, however, when he rejects what he terms “Christianity-and-water.” This is Lewis’s version of Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace.” Christianity-and-water wants the heavenly blessings without the demands of self-denial. At the end of Mere Christianity, Lewis notes that “There must be a real giving up of the self. You must throw it away ‘blindly’ so to speak.” Notice here the abandonment of his typical rationalism and self-possession. Ultimately, Lewis recognizes that Christianity is not about getting us out of the human condition, but of making us better as people. He goes on to say that the “first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new self . . . will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him.” Set your eyes on Christ, as it were, and you will find yourself. Reinforce your own status and you will not only lose Jesus but also yourself even while gaining financial power and political influence. This Lewis calling for self-denial is the Lewis who eventually realizes that the theodicies of The Problem of Pain must give way to the agony of A Grief Observed. The difference between these two books is simply this: one attends to a logic, the other attends to life. One was written from the speculative position of the professor, the other was written from the engaged perspective of the lover.
When read as an Existential Christian, Lewis is not about getting us out of the world and off to Narnia, whether during the time of the White Witch or of the Last Battle. Instead, he is now about showing us that heaven is not ultimately about going someplace else, but as he demonstrates in The Great Divorce, it is about receiving the fullness of the world itself. Lewis understands that God is trouble when he notes that “Aslan is not a tame lion”—as if we could domesticate the divine and make it suit our purposes. And yet, he goes on to state that nonetheless, Aslan is “good.” Here we see the existential trust that defines the risk with direction that is faith itself.
My grandmother was too tired to go to heaven, but what I really think was the case is that she was too tired of Economic Christianity. But, by admitting of her exhaustion, of her need for rest, she modeled for me the humility and vulnerability of Existential Christianity and gave me the strength to try to live into it. Her greatest testimony, so far as I see it, was not that she lived faithful to God, but that her faith did not eliminate her weary humanity—joy and love continue.
C.S. Lewis is too important to let his legacy and message be defined by Economic Christians. It is entirely appropriate that we get tired as Christians, but when we tire of Christianity itself, it is likely that we are no longer seeking God and finding ourselves, but that we have lost ourselves in the attempt to find God as the self that we wish we were.
The unmanageable remains, but so does God (I hope). We can always do otherwise, and that is why decisions matter (I trust). God is often too silent for us, but we are often too loud to hear God (risk continues). By reclaiming Lewis’s legacy as an invitation to Existential Christianity, rather than viewing it as the apologetic voice for Economic Christianity, we leave open the possibility that we can all be “surprised by Joy.”
Open to such surprise while continuing to walk through the valley. Here we stand within the human condition, but where else could we possibly be? My grandmother may have been too tired for heaven, but one other thing she told me in her last few years was how convicted she felt for sitting around praying that God would go ahead and take her home. Eventually, she called me and said “well, I think God is telling me that he is not through with me yet, so I need to get busy living so long as I am alive.” Echoing Ginny Owns, my grandmother realized that in her 80s that she was still called to live in joy despite affliction and to find God where she is, because that is always where God finds her.
My mom always said that it is important not to “grow weary in well-doing.” I wish that for myself, my son, and for all of you. This week is unlikely to be a week of joy for my friends as they bury their child, but as we pray that God holds us, we must also help each other appreciate the deep theological insight of Tennyson’s encouragement “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1967. Letters and Papers from Prison, Revised Edition. Ed. Eberhard Bethge. New York, NY: The Macmilan Company.
Derrida, Jacques. 2007. Learning to Live Finally: The Last Interview (with Jean Birnbaum). Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Hoboken, NJ: Melville House Publishing.
Kierkegaard, Søren. 1983. Fear and Trembling and Repetition. Ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Levinas, Emmanuel. 1989. The Levinas Reader. Ed. Seán Hand. Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell.
Lewis, C.S. 1980. Mere Christianity. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Owens, Ginny. 2006. “If You Want Me To.” On the album If You Want Me To: The Best of Ginny Owens. Rocketown Records. Lyrics available at: http://www.allthelyrics.com/lyrics/ginny_owens/if_you_want_me_to_live_version-lyrics-156957.html. Accessed September 14, 2017.
Shane and Shane. 2013. “Though You Slay Me.” On the album Bring Your Nothing. Fair Trade Services. Lyrics available at: http://www.lyricshall.com/lyrics/Shane+And+Shane/Though+You+Slay+Me/. Accessed September 14, 2017.
Shakespeare, William. n.d. “Sonnet 29.” Available at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45090/sonnet-29-when-in-disgrace-with-fortune-and-mens-eyes. Accessed September 14, 2017.
Tennyson, Alfred Lord. n.d. “Ulysses.” Available at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45392/ulysses. Accessed September 14, 2017.
Weil, Simone. 1977. The Simone Weil Reader. Ed. George A. Panichas. New York, NY: David McKay Company.