Disjointed Theses Towards a Tragic Theology

I have written elsewhere about the compatibility of Christianity and tragedy. The more of life I experience, the more confident I am that Christianity not only conforms to the criteria of tragedy but is in fact constitutive of tragedy and furnishes its defining attributes. The following are additional thoughts on how to develop these themes.

As I see it, for Christianity to qualify as tragic we must satisfy two tasks : 1) Articulate a conception of Christianity in which subjective human experience is deemed sufficiently onerous or burdensome, and 2) Articulate an objective definition of tragedy derived from Christianity itself.

In the path of task 1) lies our impoverished understanding of God’s goodness, and in the way of task 2) lies our failure to recognize Christianity as issuing a standard according to which this life falls short.

God, Goodness, and suffering

The debate over whether Christianity is properly tragic typically involves several misconceptions, primarily confusion over the nature of God’s relation to Goodness. Too often God is thought to embody Goodness, a misapprehension that inaugurates a circular appeal to God’s character nowhere justified or examined over the course of subsequent theological discussion. God is accepted from the start as equivalent to Goodness, and no thought is given to how we might define Goodness apart from God’s nature. The predicate is simply absorbed into God’s being, and reference to Goodness can do no more than reproduce some vague notion of God’s fair treatment of humankind. The fact that a tenable definition of fairness depends upon an independent understanding of Goodness also goes unnoticed.

The problem then becomes squaring God’s Goodness with his conspicuous refusal to intervene in instances of human suffering. To overcome the apparent contradiction, theologians resort to dubious theodicies meant to justify God’s allowance of suffering in spite of his unqualified capacity to eliminate it. Whether soul building or the preservation of free will, we are told that God has ulterior motives for permitting natural and human evils. God’s greater Providential agenda pardons his negligence, and we are assured that God acts in accordance with our happiness. As a consequence, Leibniz’s fantastic ideal of the best of all possible worlds is upheld intuitively, if tacitly.

This theological effort to merge Goodness and God gains further momentum under the influence of Greek eudaimonism, which maintains that virtuous activity always conduces to our wellbeing. It is one thing to assert that behaviors tending to our flourishing are virtuous, but it’s quite another to insist that all of virtue tends towards our flourishing. Regrettably, this latter, more problematic claim is the one taken up by the Christian tradition through Aquinas. Whether we acknowledge it or not, most Evangelicals hold to some version of eudaimonism. We think that if we behave virtuously we will flourish. We ignore the many biblical examples of virtuous, morally-obligatory actions leading to misery or death.

When the question of God’s relation to Goodness is framed in this manner, any possible affinity between Christianity and tragedy is eliminated from the start. How could the Christian Weltanschauung be tragic when God’s principle of action assures that even calamities ultimately tend towards our wellbeing? All we must do to maximize our earthly welfare is observe biblical imperatives. Put aside the issue of prosperity gospel—that’s not my target, here. I’m concerned with a far less pernicious but no less indefensible theological outlook, the one that equates obedience with happiness.  

One sees everywhere the influence of eudaimonism in the form of insidious contradictions. Church laypersons simultaneously affirm God’s logical freedom to permit suffering and their faith in the fulfillment of their earthly desires. Just this week I heard a middle-aged man at church voice his confidence in God’s intention to supply him a spouse. It pains me when the prevalent theological conception of God’s Goodness produces these naïve and unfounded expectations. God owes us nothing and promises us nothing prior to our arrival in eternity—our assurances lie in the eschaton. When pressed, most Evangelicals concede this point; why then do they go on behaving as though their virtuous behavior marks them as deserving of happiness? How do we maintain such unjustified expectations in light of the apostles’ own tumultuous, unhappy lives?

I say unhappy, not joyless. Joy is distinct from happiness and can abound in the most desperate of conditions. Joy is recognition of a happiness not yet attained, of a promise not yet fulfilled. Our expectation of happiness is well-founded when situated in the context of eternity, where it is vouchsafed. We are commanded to be joyful and to praise God for his mercies, and it is fitting we do so. Alternatively, happiness is a contingent disposition entirely dependent upon our circumstances. It is possible to live a virtuous, joyful life bereft of happiness.

We know all of this, of course. And yet we slide unconsciously into thinking our conduct merits reward in the form of happiness.  

A more sober conception of Goodness

To avoid these confusions, we should revisit the way we conceive of God’s relationship to Goodness. God and Goodness aren’t interchangeable concepts, one standing in the place of the other. God is “good” because he is morally blameless: as the originator of moral obligations he is independent of moral duties. Nothing God does is subject to moral censure. This is the “bite-the-bullet” resolution of the Euthyphro Dilemma, and it admittedly entails certain unsavory corollaries. We must concede that morality is the product of divine fiat, contingent but not arbitrary. Moral law isn’t rooted in the independent “nature of things.” This concession decouples morality from any facile notion of “goodness” implying fair or preferential treatment in exchange for human compliance. God isn’t “good” because he abides by the rules or honors our sacrifice. He’s “good” because he is simply free of all obligations and therefore amoral (as Jesus, however, God was indeed morally praiseworthy). That he spares us from the worst of all possible worlds—which he would have been entirely justified in inflicting upon us—is evidence that he loves us. He could at any time deprive us of all happiness—as he did Jonah and Job—without compromising his moral blamelessness. A life of faithful devotion is, therefore, just as likely to result in misery as it is happiness. Of course, as creator, God is uniquely positioned to coordinate moral commands with the natures of things, and so has apparently considered how moral obligations impact our interactions with the material universe. It would be foolish to suggest that there is no correspondence between moral conduct and human flourishing, just as it would be foolish to insist there is perfect accord between moral conduct and human wellbeing.

I’m not a nominalist about Goodness—I affirm the existence of objective standards of aesthetic excellence, for instance. But concerning moral duties, I don’t see how else we arrive at a theologically stable ethics without reference to God’s will. God decrees moral obligations, apart from which no moral duties exist, certainly none that pertain to him.

The Fall and tragedy

The foregoing discussion addresses the issue of subjective human experience and its compatibility with a tragic interpretation of Christianity. We cannot expect obedience to God to render our lives tolerably happy, so the path is clear to consider whether objective conditions exist to indict this world as tragic.

Unlike naturalistic and materialistic atheism, Christianity posits a standard according to which we can measure our current predicament. Christianity upholds an ideal, the prelapsarian Edenic state of union between God and humankind, as a paradigm of human flourishing. It is against this rubric that we can judge life after the Fall as lacking.

Nietzsche famously insisted on affirming the totality of life—including its miseries—because he recognized that passing judgment on any aspect of existence was tantamount to invoking a metaphysical ideal against this mundane world. He finally broke with Schopenhauer over the latter’s pessimism, which Nietzsche interpreted as too Christian, too bound up with concepts nowhere instantiated in lived experience. Yes, life is difficult, but who is to say those difficulties are the exception rather than the rule? Against Schopenhauer’s metaphysical escapism Nietzsche issued the theory of eternal recurrence. The true test of a free thinker, or one who has disentangled herself from the lingering and decadent influence of Christianity, is whether she can wish to live this life’s miseries over and over for eternity. Only unqualified acceptance of life signaled for Nietzsche liberation from the dominance of Christianity.

Christianity teaches the Fall, the partial corruption of creation and the ostracization of humankind from God. It also assures us that God will restore humankind, but that promise is as yet unfulfilled. We await reunion with God in a state we were never intended to endure: separation from our creator. What better criterion exists for a tragic interpretation of life?

There is ample cause for joy. There are even occasions prompting boundless happiness. I expect none, but welcome all.   

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