Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Embarrassing grace

At An und für sich, a beautiful way of posing at least a part of the riddle of evil. Adam Kotsko writes, citing part of his analysis in Awkwardness, that
awkwardness spreads. If you witness an awkward situation, even one you’re not directly involved in, you feel awkward as well.
Spurred on by Brad Johnson, he then puts this together with the notion of divine compassion, imagining that
...the Supreme Being who watches over all of us is constantly paralyzed by the force of human awkwardness. It’s bad enough to watch one guy get shot down hitting on a woman — how about millions, every hour of every day? What if you spent all eternity watching jokes fall flat, watching grown children unable to let go of childhood sleights while visiting their parents for the holidays, watching people panic as they realize that their transaction is over-complicated and hundreds of people behind them in line are seething with hatred?
In that case, the answer to the problem of evil is that God can’t do anything, as he’s locked into a permanent cringe.
I love the way Kotsko sees the way awkwardness spreads--though he does not identify awkwardness with sin, one could make a case for at least seeing it as a kind of karma. I also like very much his articulation of God as always-already-commiserating with us in our awkwardness. If I quarrel here, it is because I've been spurred by the account. Kotsko gives away too much when he projects our human cringe into the Trinity (and it bears mentioning that feeling ill-at-ease is far from the only human emotion that is "contagious" like this; in fact most emotions have some capacity to spread, not least positive ones; this is part of the force of Girard's account of social mimesis.) For surely (and I'm being theological here, so philosophers must just be patient) the resurrection bespeaks that--despite everything "the powers of this world" would wish or accomplish--awkwardness does not (or at least need not) paralyze us. I would even call Satan the force that would convince us that the wince is paralyzing--that we can do nothing but wince. Whereas I want to articulate a picture of a God whose love for creation endures even this pitiful spectacle that Kotsko paints, and always, always remains steadfast and "able to save."

The force of Kotsko's theodicy (in this post), like all theodicy, is that, after all, evil still exists and still requires to be, per impossible, "made sense of" somehow. And it's not a bad trick to account for this via God's empathy. It's been tried before: witness Nietzsche ("God died of His pity for Man".) The liability of my reply is of course that it doesn't account for the fact that the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer.

But neither does the New Testament "account" for this. Theodicy, in the old sense of the classical trilemma (God is omnipotent; God is omnibenevolent; Evil exists) is a problem for philosophy but is remote from the resignation of Ecclesiastes, the theophany if Job, the petitions of the psalmist, the cry from the cross. (Even the declaration in the garden tomb, He is not here, does not offer such an account, as it renders such an account moot-- but this is to say too much.)

The death of crucifixion was not meant just to kill, but to humiliate, publicly. The profession of the Gospel is not just that "God died for your sins," but that God underwent the worst the universe could dish out: not just death, not just a violent and painful death, but a shaming and objectifying ordeal that rendered Him a thing to be ritually abhorred, got out of the way as soon as possible. But my point does not hinge upon a particular understanding of crucifixion. I share Kotsko's emphasis upon the notion of God sharing our humanity, as the prayer says; I just want to spin this in a direction that does not wind up giving away one leg of the trilemma--i.e., converting God's compassion into God's incapacity. I'd rather keep the trilemma.

What is unfathomable is that we are not reduced to nothing but our awkwardness. Despite the worst that awkwardness, shame, and humiliation can deal, we are not caught in the paralysis of an eternal cringe.

A life beyond the triggers and mechanisms of defensiveness? In this world it is all but inconceivable. One can sometimes glimpse it in the lives of saints. But the Gospels seem to make it clear that Jesus himself did not make people more comfortable.

What's the opposite of awkwardness? Grace. But grace doesn't deny awkwardness (which is merely more awkward)-- it acknowledges it, "validates" it (if I may have recourse to an overused word of pop-psych), transmutes it. There is no room for defensiveness, for looking away, for shuffling one's feet, for the deflecting change-of-subject that our pride seizes upon with relief. There is only the dignity of humility.


  1. Happy Xmas,
    best wishes for the New Year and I hope we are spared that bad quarter of an hour for many more to come.

  2. ...so why DO bad things happen B? Why does God allow mutilated babies? Why does the cosmos generate so much 'Evil'? Venture a theodicy of your own?


  3. Michael,

    My only theodicy is the cross and the empty tomb. I readily acknowledge that this is not a philosophical position. I'll try to venture a fuller answer in a post or a longer comment later.