Understanding Christianity through power of tragedy and poverty
In a jab at abstract theorizers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and bloodless systematizers like Carl Linnaeus, the Spanish thinker Miguel de Unamuno defined his interest as “the man of flesh and bone,” who “is at once the subject and the supreme object of all philosophy.” This concern for the fleshy man—for the person as subject—permeates Unamuno’s idiosyncratic brand of Spanish personalism. The best of Catholic fiction also places the “man of flesh and bone” at its center. And the church’s longstanding defense of “poverty of spirit” cannot be fully understood apart from this tragicomic personalism. For what the church means when it speaks of “poverty of spirit” is very much connected to a phenomenological experience of being that shapes and guides our spiritual identities prior to any reflective, rational project of theology or humanitarian praxis.
Our first task is to understand the Christian faith as animated by a certain tragic sensibility. This becomes apparent once we reflect on the Incarnation, which is fundamentally a sort of tragic grace. An understanding of salvation history is useful here, as it makes clear the unfolding reality of human fallenness and the relatively measured responses of an omnipotent God. Until the Incarnation, it seems God tended to maintain a regal distance from the brokenness of creation, a brokenness rooted in man’s capacity for freedom. Because God valued man’s freedom, humanity’s repeated failings elicited from God both severe condemnation and generous promises of clemency.
A Radical Shift
Throughout the Old Testament and Old Covenant theology, we can trace a recurring theme of transactional grace, of God entering into contracts of various forms with his chosen subjects. However, as Pope Benedict XVI has taught, the New Covenant represents a replacing of the old “logic of exchange” with the “absolutely gratuitous” reality of God’s participation in creation. The radicality of this shift from transactional grace to incarnational kenosis cannot be overstated.
And it is indeed tragic. For Aristotle, tragedy by definition requires three steps: 1) The arousal of fear and pity in the audience, 2) with the aim of affecting genuine katharsis, or a cleansing purgation, which 3) results in a restoration of right order. So it always ends with some kind of cadence, so to speak, with a resolution, with right order.
This idea of tragedy as purgation continues past Aristotle and throughout the Western literary tradition. And in this sense, Christianity’s soteriological dimension is distinctively tragic. The need for the Incarnation begets fear of just punishment; the reality of the cross begets a sense of pity and scandal at the reversal of debtor and master; and an enfleshed God orients us toward a proper appreciation of humanity’s “fundamental poverty.” Divine grace is in a sense tragic because God, when faced with human sinfulness, chose not to destroy humanity (which would be justified) nor ignore humanity (which would preserve God’s pristine dignity) but rather entered into the fallenness of creation himself, even to the point of death on the cross.
Salvation history can thus be understood as God’s openness to the contingency of human freedom; this openness is rooted in love and is defined by its sacrificial character. Man’s freedom, and God’s respect for that freedom, moved God to swap God’s place above creation for a place among the beings of creation, putting an absolute end to the “logic of exchange” between God and man and giving birth to the “logic of gift.”
The Logic of Grace
From the very outset of his ministry Christ took on a disposition of poverty. During the temptations in the desert, for example, Christ eschewed Satan’s various offers of worldly power. Johann Baptist Metz interprets the three temptations as three assaults on the “poverty” of Christ. Satan is baffled by the logic of grace; he tries to tempt Jesus by attacking his poverty because what he really fears is the power of powerlessness—that is, the powerlessness of God as a sort of “Trojan horse” that will open the human heart to its “native poverty[,]...suffer the misery and abandonment that is humanity’s, and thus save humankind.” This is, of course, exactly what happens.
It is important that the Greek word used for “poor” in our common translation of the beatitude “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” is ptochoi. In classical Greek from Homer on, this word has been closely associated with “beggarliness,” literally meaning “one who crouches or cowers” in a beggarly fashion. In this way, the word ptochos, “poor,” means much more than just a lack or deficiency of some kind. Poverty implies a more active (though receptive) disposition. The beggar, once he acknowledges his own deficiency, goes beyond it by accepting his condition and becoming actively open to receiving a gift.
Following Pope Benedict XVI’s exhortation for Catholics to “expand their understanding of poverty,” we choose to understand Christian poverty as primarily a phenomenological disposition toward a radical self-emptying openness—a condition of beggarliness similar to that which Christ assumed in the Incarnation.
The beatitudinal blessing cannot simply refer to a level of material poverty, for the question of salvation is not just a matter of separating rich from poor. Indeed, the fixation on material categories in order to determine questions of theological justice is precisely what caused the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to warn against materialist “concepts uncritically borrowed from Marxist ideology” in certain aspects of so-called “liberation theology.” Christ elsewhere reminds his disciples that the poor will always be with us, suggesting that the transformative love of God applies to internal conditions, not external, economic ones.
No, rather, Christian tragedy orients us toward a beggarly disposition in our own lives, an experience of our “native poverty” before all else. This is not a political stance but a disposition that practicing Christians inevitably take into politics. St. Augustine grasped this in a most profound way, by nature both of his own dramatic conversion from sin and his historical position at the end of the Roman imperium. As Pierre Manent has written, Augustine articulated a “half-practical...half-theoretical” disposition “that could be called affective or pathetic” for its emphasis on the tragic or transitory nature of human life.
The Radicality of the Cross
The Augustinian disposition is interior and personal since it gives pride of place to conscience rather than reputation. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross cannot be counted as a political victory, and only according to the rubrics of Christian love can it be counted as a victory at all. In fact, it would seem that in the crucifixion Christ faced total defeat. But at the Easter miracle, for the first time in history, we learn of a power greater than death. The radicality of the cross, then, and of Christ’s beggarliness generally, is that God transforms poverty into new life.
This tragic disposition is something distinct from an ancient pagan understanding of tragedy, which rests on external evaluations of “shame.” Pagan tragedy is political where Christian tragedy is personal; the pagan emphasis on reputation, or shame, suggests how thoroughly pre-Christian valuations of worth and justice are decided by reference to external reality over conscience. We need only glance at various depictions of pagan greatness to see multiple examples of this.
Pagan pride, motivated by the power of shame, is a central theme of Homer’s Iliad, for instance, as the driving force behind both Achilles’ and Hector’s actions. And Augustine addresses precisely this point when he evaluates the suicide of Lucretia, who stands even to this day as a model of Roman republican chastity. Lucretia erred in killing herself, Augustine argues in City of God, because she confused the external judgments of propriety with the truth of her own conscience; her inability to communicate the secret of her conscience (“conscientiam demonstrare non potuit”) left Lucretia unable to defend her virtue even to herself. Under pagan rubrics of shame, then, her suicide was not just understandable but necessary.
For Augustine, Christianity endows conscience with a certain agency that “liberates the human soul from the tyrannical grip of honor and public praise,” as Pierre Manent put it in his Metamorphoses of the City. The Christian looks to the example of the cross and concludes that death and dishonor do not in themselves constitute a moral failing but that instead what matters are the inner truths of the soul, which only God can know. Our native poverty makes us desirous of God’s personal love, while our natural freedom ensures that any love between God and man is truly relational. This relationality is distinct from paganism’s implicit sense of coercion. This empowerment of conscience is perhaps one of the most important and decisive revolutions in the history of thought.
Christianity destroys ancient pagan conceptions of tragedy, then, but we cannot say it forsakes tragedy completely. Instead it shifts the locus: rather than resulting from the conflicting obligations owed to desire and duty, tragedy becomes an internal process involving the dynamics of conscience and grace. That is why, for instance, the Christian tradition does not quite recognize Thomas More as a tragic figure: his conscience was clear. It is closer to the truth to call “tragic” figures like St. John of the Cross, Mother Teresa, or Augustine himself, who struggled at times to even desire Christ’s love. The cross provides a distinct moment of genuine tragedy, when Jesus himself cries out in seeming despair, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
To be clear, pagan greatness of spirit is not wholly misguided. A healthy sense of shame and honor and a desire to see the external order reflect the eternal one are all constructive impulses. But in light of Christian revelation—and the Christ event in particular—shame and honor can no longer be normative. Justice, as the end of politics, has been displaced or superseded by love in the Incarnation. The Christian experience is prepolitical, then, though it need not be antipolitical.
This shift in emphasis from the public to the personal is unavoidably demanding for the individual. Conscience purchases its agency at the price of the clarity that marked the pagan system of shame. Once the logic of exchange has been replaced by the logic of gift, the individual comes to occupy a space of relative freedom in which he must accept the proffered love of his creator, rather than defend himself against the predations of chance and demigods. This freedom is, as freedom tends to be, disorienting.
The Christian life, then, involves a unique degree of drama, even angst, since it requires a relational, organic and uncoerced act of love between creature and creator, a love which cannot ultimately be born of the pressures of shame.
The Here and Now
And this brings us to a diagnosis of tragedy in present age. Christians in the modern world must relearn to do what Lucretia could not: to communicate the secrets of their consciences and to be sensitive to the anthropological realities that mark them as created beings.
But if the empowerment of conscience marked the pivotal break between pagan and Christian thought, then the destruction of conscience marks the break between Christian and modern secular thought. For conscience requires a healthy sense of sin, and the rise of ideology in the modern age has dismantled a formerly solid consensus about sin, goodness, grace and mystery. Eric Voegelin, who explained the mechanics of ideology with unique insight, understood that the ideologue ultimately seeks to control the world, to eliminate its tragic contingency. If the Christian attempts to use his natural freedom in order to reinforce his native poverty, the ideologue does the opposite, using his freedom to create an alternative reality—to reshape himself and the world around him. The ideologue cannot content himself with the alienating in-betweenness of existence, much less let it orient him toward heaven.
This results in a kind of self-imposed blindness as the ideologue looks to construct alternative universalizing epistemological systems to make sense of the world. These various systems share a rigidity that can be understood as what one observer called an “unwillingness to submit to the structure of reality, and to bear the evils of the world.” It is precisely this same pretension to existential omnipotence that constitutes man’s first sin and that motivates Satan’s cosmic act of rebellion. It is also, as we have already mentioned, the opposite of God’s kenotic openness to the contingency of human freedom as seen in the unfolding of salvation history.
We should note here with Voegelin that Christianity has had some role to play in enabling ideology: In “de-divinizing” the pagan world (that is, by revealing its untruth), Christianity left an opening for nihilism to take root. In place of ancient pagan practices, which amounted to various forms of hedonism, relativism and brutalism but which undoubtedly captured the imaginations and dominated the external lives of pagan people, Christianity offers an interiorly focused—that is, experiential—call to personal holiness. The temptation to ignore the hard personalism of Christian holiness is one not easily resisted, even by professed Christians. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor voices this danger perfectly when he indicts Christ for not “giving a firm foundation for setting the conscience of man at rest for ever, [but rather choosing] all that is exceptional, vague and enigmatic.”
This shift from the pagan external to the Christian internal leaves a space in the political sphere for ideological speculation. Furthermore, the space between the Christian and ideological view of history is rather narrow. The Christian God’s salvific action in history lends coherence to time, establishing a beginning, middle and eventual end. The ideologue makes the fundamental if understandable mistake of thinking this structure is animated by anything other than divine love—by economics or racial superiority, for example—and simply works to effect the promised “self-salvation” ahead of schedule.
Thus Christianity has a crucial role to play in countering ideology and can do so only by maintaining an organic connection to the “man of flesh and bone” and by embracing a disposition of poverty of spirit that is in clashing tension with ideological self-glorification on one hand and pagan triumphalism on the other. It is precisely in understanding how a beggarly disposition gives way to charity that Christianity can “redivinize” the world.
The ‘Mystery of Incompleteness’
This discussion begs for recourse to fiction. If our central contention is true—that is, that Christianity constitutes in its essence an experiential rather than a political or even intellectual reality—then fiction is the most appropriate medium through which to explore this truth. Fiction, rather than apologetics or academic philosophy, can mimic the interior, narrative nature of Christian revelation, and the best fiction invites us to test our consciences against the experiences of compelling characters.
In particular, Flannery O’Connor understood the power fiction has to open people to the transformative power of Christian tragic grace. “Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin,” O’Connor wrote, “whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not.... The novelist doesn’t write about people in a vacuum; he writes about people in a world where something is obviously lacking, where there is the general mystery of incompleteness and the particular tragedy of our own times to be demonstrated, and the novelist tries to give you, within the form of the book, the total experience of human nature at any time. For this reason, the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul.”
O’Connor’s view of the Christian imagination both defeats pagan dynamics of shame and honor—since it takes our universal experience of “native poverty” as a starting point—and confounds ideological attempts to narrow and sanitize the scandalous nature of Christian love—by embracing the “mystery of incompleteness” particular to any given time. This tragic Christian love, which we arrive at by way of death, was modeled by Christ on the cross. It is by the same self-emptying stance of beggarliness that we come to authentic abundance, and by the powerlessness of death that we come to the fullness of life.
Tragedy requires a certain restoration of right order as its final cadence. In fact, acknowledging man’s native poverty is the restoration of the right order of things. And the Christian narrative and the serious work of fiction are essentially portraits of this tragicomic drama. Shakespeare’s tragedies always end in death, and his comedies in a wedding. The biblical story, in a way, ends in both. As a path out of our current state of moral confusion, we could start by pondering that central tragicomic Christian paradox.