At one point in The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard (or rather Anti-Climacus, his pseudonym) makes the striking claim that "to be ignorant of being in despair is the specific feature of despair." If one likes, one can congratulate oneself on perceiving the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose structure of this claim, but like most such arguments in philosophy, the "fallacy" here is a feature not a bug. (Strictly speaking there is nothing fallacious about the notion of a condition that structurally works against ones realization that one is in that condition -- and in fact such an idea figures in a good deal of contemporary ideology critique; arguably, this is part of the prevalent critique of "privilege," for instance.)
One of the consequences of Kierkegaard's identification of despair with sin, and vice-versa, is his conclusion that "the opposite of sin is not virtue, but faith." The above-mentioned account of despair not knowing that it is despair means that there can be forms of despair that look like anything but: that look "positive," life-affirming, or indeed "virtuous;" that look, in short, "healthy." Kierkegaard spends a lot of time underscoring that the spirit is as it were in crisis continually -- in a state of perpetual decision "before God" -- and that absent the notion of spirit (i.e., self -- "the relation which relates itself to itself"), ones philosophical anthropology will have no place to put the idea of sin; one will have only "health" or "illness." One could unpack the entirety of the critique of "the triumph of the therapeutic" (in Philip Rieff's phrase) from this passage in Kierkegaard.
Despair is perfectly compatible, S.K. warns, with feeling (in modern therapy-speak) "positive" and "life-affirming." One can have
an intense, energetic life, the secret of which is still despair. In the latter case, the individual in despair is like the consumptive: when the illness is most critical, he feels well, considers himself to be in excellent health, and perhaps seems to others to radiate health.But for S.K., the condition in question is spiritual, and
the condition of man, regarded as spirit...is always critical. [And] we speak of a crisis in relation to a sickness, not in relation to health.SK goes on: if a human being is regarded only "as a psychical-physical synthesis, health is an immediate qualification" -- that is, it is the assumed baseline, from which one can deviate. But "spiritually, or when man is regarded as spirit, both health and sickness are critical; there is no immediate health of the spirit." "Critical," in the sense of "crisis" -- a decision, which is continuous and onging, a decision to relate oneself to oneself by grounding oneself in God -- or not.
I remember a conversation about fifteen years ago about theodicy. I was talking with two fellow-Christians; we were discussing the question of suffering. The question arose out of a common and indisputable experience – the encounter with absurd and unrelieved hurt. Natural disaster, freak accidents, human malevolence, the relentless grind of ordinary nature chewing itself up – it doesn’t matter. The “problem of pain” is a real problem. Did I even need to justify saying so? I quoted with approval a passage from a book of semi-popular theology a statement of shaken faith: "I have no trouble believing that God is good. My question is more, What good is He?"
My appreciation of the stark pull-no-punches approach is not always shared. The friends to whom I was speaking were more than scandalized; they winced. One looked as if I had struck her. It was as if asking the question had broken a crucial decorum and occasioned real, even physical, discomfort. The idea of God being good had been conflated -- so it seemed to me -- with being good for -- good for something, some specific end, or and after end, as each occasion arises. God who “delivers”, not from the logical spiritual conclusion of our narcissistic self-sabotage, but from – terrorist attacks, viruses, sub-prime mortgages. Human vulnerability.
All such vulnerability ultimately points to the one great vulnerability of our lives -- that we die. And the turning of Christianity into one more ineffective salve on this vulnerability has been aided and abetted by the enormous success of all the technological and social maneuvers of the technologico-capitalist West, which has made it more and more easy to put off the remembrance of death until the last possible minute. (Say what one likes about Medieval Christianity, one thing it did not do was deny the reality of death.)
Alexander Schmemann, one of the indispensable theologians of the twentieth century, has critiqued this modern aberration as secularism. That such secularism can sit comfortably with religion – or rather, vice-versa -- is part of Schmemann's point; indeed, secularism has forced other religions to compete with it on its own terms, but as Schmemann argues, secularism is itself a religion. Nevertheless, Schmemann’s account is different from that of those who point to the “religious” character of (for instance) scientism or Marxism. Secularism is a religion, Schmemann says, not because it too is somehow “based on faith,” but because like all religions it is
an explanation of death and a reconciliation with it. It is the religion of those who are tired of having the world explained in terms of an "other world" of which no one knows anything, and life explained in terms of a "survival" about which no one has the slightest idea; tired of having, in other words, life given "value" in terms of death. Secularism is an "explanation" of death in terms of life. (For the Life of the World p 98)Like Schmemann, I think of secularism as a Christian heresy, not only genetically derived from Christianity but (though this is a more challenging point to argue) unthinkable without it. Wiser heads than mine have seen the same thing -- I think, for instance, of Ivan Illich, or Rene Girard, or Jacques Ellul -- but as was often the case, Kierkegaard was there ahead of most:
There is and remains a difference, and it is a qualitiative difference, between paganism in the stricter sense and paganism in Christianity...namely that paganism does indeed lack spirit, but that is still is qualified in the direction of spirit, whereas paganism in Christendom lacks spirit in a departure from spirit or in a falling away and therefore is spiritlessness in the strictest sense.Schmemann thought that if it were a question of being reconciled with death, secularism was decidedly an improvement over Christianity or indeed over any religion, and that Christianity had already ceded too much when it tried to compete, casting itself as a religious "service", advertising
in subways and busses as a valubale addition to "your friendly bank" and all other "friendly dealers": try it, it helps!...but here we reach the heart of the matter. For Christianity, help is not the criterion. Truth is.But does the believer not turn to God for help? Indeed, "a very present help in time of trouble." Wittgenstein's worry at one point is precisely that in the absence of the ressurection, Christ is simply dead "and can no longer help."
If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like any other man. He is dead and decomposed. In that case he is a teacher like any other and can no longer help; and once more we are orphaned and alone. So we have to content ourselves with wisdom and speculation. We are in a sort of hell where we can do nothing but dream, roofed in, as it were, and cut off from heaven. But if I am to be REALLY saved, -- what I need is certainty -- not wisdom, dreams or speculation -- and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not my speculative intelligence. For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind. (Culture and Value p 33)But the "help" LW is asking for here is not the help in any particular instance, but a help beyond them all -- the help that saves, not the help that finds my car keys or delays me on my way to work so that I "miraculously" do not arrive in time to be killed by the rampaging disgruntled former colleague with a gun. Do such minor, trivial "miracles" occur? Maybe. But they are not and cannot be the object of faith -- of "ultimate concern," as Tillich called said.
When I met that wince, I of course did not know just what it meant, and I still don't – nor is it really my business. But it felt to me at the time like a rebuke simultaneously fierce and pitying. Nor was it an isolated incident; I've routinely encountered people who (meaning well enough, I suppose) try to encourage me to just "be faithful" in some way that would have meant to them more emphasis on something they would have called "Good News!" and less real acknowledgment of sorrow or pain -- or indeed, of sin. "Sometimes we resist being Easter people," one guy said to me. I had to hide my inner cringe. No doubt there is a scriptural warrant for claiming that Christians even or especially in tribulation are "more than conquerors" in Jesus Christ, that "nothing shall separate us from the love of God;" but there is plenty of scriptural warrant also for asking why the wicked prosper, how long God will hide His face, and why he has forsaken us.
All of this occurs to me because in the wake of my brother's suicide a little more than a year ago, I have been reflecting upon and owning my own deep melancholia. This has been a slow unfolding of an awareness of something that has always been the case. As awareness, it is also a shift: what is new is the realization that this was here all along.
There's a passage attributed (questionably) to Aristotle that asks "Why all notable men of genius" (or some such) have suffered from melancholy. I doubt if I am anything like a man of genius, but I suppose I do "suffer" from melancholia, and in a way that I also would distinguish from the modern sense of a word like "depression." Not that I believe there is no lexical overlap between the words, nor any psycho-somatic overlap between the conditions they name. But Melancholy is obviously a less modern, and less (modernly) medicalized, notion, and I don't think it's merely quaint antiquarianism on my part to identify more with the ancient term than the modern. There are connotations of both boredom and sadness bound up in melancholy and especially in the associated term acedia, which is identified as a sin (it gets translated as "sloth", which has far more connotations of laziness or disinclination to effort than either "depression" or "melancholia." There is a spectrum of these states which includes lassitude, boredom of the what's-the-point kind, despair, deep and paralyzing sadness, anxiety, and a kind of recoil at existence -- Sartrean nausea, maybe. All of these seem to me to fall under the rubric of the "Noonday Demon," which the old Christian desert fathers call acedia but which is also called Panic -- as in, terror of Pan, the "All."
That might seem like quite a spread, and the term Panic might seem hyperbolic. Certainly my own experience is what I would usually describe as "mere" melancholy -- a sort of wistfulness, a great sensitivity to what is called the "poignant," a keen appreciation of what the Japanese language calls mono no aware -- an untranslatable phrase for (approximately) the passingness of things, or maybe the "Ahh!" of things. I am certainly not usually "bored," and I am not paralyzed -- usually. But there are times when I am very much aware of how my usual mood could slip incrementally and yet decisively towards these more crippling states. (This is in my own case bound up with a sense of procrastination – of a struggle against and sickly acquiescence to time -- ) Moreover, sometimes these can burst upon me, almost without warning. I don't mean that I am volatile or that I wildly oscillate -- such moments are (thank God) rare, and also probably not as unpredictable as I make them sound. But I can "lose my balance." In fact, my "owning up" (as it were) to my lifelong melancholy is part of what feels like an effort to maintain my balance -- to claim honestly what has always more or less been the case but not always named.
I do not have an answer to the questions about the prospering of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous, nor to the questions about Nature Red in Tooth and Claw. I do hold that writing these off as non-questions is an abdication of thinking, and not just by Christian theology. If you haven’t really stood aghast at the problem of evil, you do really need to brace yourself. But the huge examples of suffering -- the famines and tsunamis, torture chambers and abattoirs -- are only the garish face of something much broader. The falling cherry blossoms that are given iconic pride of place in accounts of mono no aware are not instances of meaningless absurd cruelty; but there is still here a deep and poignant suffering in the passing-away of things. (In Sanskrit this is called viparinama dukkha, the suffering that arises because of impermanence -- even in the midst of pleasant experience.)
Kierkegaard's claim that one can actually look completely "healthy" and positive and still be in despair -- perhaps not even know it -- can be inverted. There would then also be a spiritual state which is keenly aware of the struggle of things, deeply tuned in to dukkha, but which would remain, by S.K.'s lights, faith -- a orienting of the self to the power that grounds it. Indeed, I admit that I cannot see how a stance that was unaware -- well, let us say, willfully unaware --of dukkha could even qualify as faith.
But if there is such a faith, what would distinguish it?
In 1982, Alexander Schmemann was hospitalized with the cancer from which he would die the following year. From his hospital bed he wrote a note of thanks to seminarians at St. Vladimir’s (where he was dean). The single scriptural citation in this note is three short verses from 1 Thessalonians 5:
Rejoice evermore.This names the very center of Christian devotional life; for "give thanks" here is (of course) ευχαριστειτε.
Pray without ceasing.
In every thing give thanks.
It is dangerous to so much as whisper the names of ones own attempted virtues, but over this past year as I have been thinking of my acedia, I've also had borne in upon me another perennial aspect of my own experience which I had not consciously connected with melancholy until now. It is gratitude. For a while I started to think of these somewhat like compensating traits: Yes, I can be (unduly?) aware of how hard things are, but I am also (often unexpectedly) overtaken by deep gratitude for things, even the most trivial. This is another aspect of mono no aware. More recently, I've come to recognize this thanksgiving and this sadness not as a mutual "balance," but as (de facto) inseparable: each of them is an apprehension of the way things arise and pass away in time. They are more like the sand and the waves on the shore. One can surely have waves alone, and one can have sand alone; but one cannot have a shoreline without both.