Wednesday 16 July 2008

Homosexuality and the church: a meditation on the tragic (Part One)

A guest-series by Ray S. Anderson

Following the recent ruling by the California Supreme Court permitting the marriage of same-sex couples, a newspaper report included a comment by two men following their marriage, “Now we are not living in sin.” The comment sounded somewhat sarcastic and was probably aimed more at the religious community rather than a description of their own spiritual condition. Nonetheless, it reminded me of the impasse created in the discussion of homosexuality when the label “sin” is used to portray same-sex cohabitation as unacceptable to many in the Christian community. It is not that homosexual persons are not sinners, as are all humans. “No one is righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:9 NLT). But to label homosexual orientation and practice as sin in order to justify exclusion from the church and its ministry is too simple. The issue is more complex than that. Is there an alternative?

During the 1960s when I was pastor of a small conservative church congregation, two men living together in a homosexual relationship, both graduates of a Bible school and with a clear Christian testimony, became friends of some in the church and eventually asked me if they could join. They both knew what the Bible taught concerning homosexuality and knew that my position and that of the church was based on this biblical teaching. My response was: of course you can join. This is not a church for those who are perfect but for those seeking Christian fellowship and a place to worship and grow in Christ.

The word “sin” was not mentioned, by them nor by me. If they had asked me if I considered homosexual practice a sin, I don’t know what I would have said. I hope that I would have said something like this. Do you believe that a same sex relation is what God intended when he created humans as sexual persons? They would have answered, “No, but this is the only way that we have found it possible to live and love. While others may say that we have a choice, for our part we feel that this relationship is the only one that fulfills our life and meets our needs.” In several other ways, they had communicated much the same to me.

The Tragic as a Human Condition

It was my former colleague, Lewis Smedes, who reminded me that in the area of human sexuality we should not ignore the tragic as a component of all and every human sexual experience. In the discussion of homosexuality, he said, don’t forget the tragic. Not that a same-sex relation is tragic as opposed to heterosexual relations, but that it is tragic because all human sexuality must be understood as necessarily an experience of the tragic. The key word here is “understood.” The difficulty for many heterosexual persons with regard to homosexuality is that they have no way of “understanding” how such a practice and relationship can be part of an authentic human experience, much less one that is Christian. The concept of the tragic may be one way of understanding the complex experience of human sexuality that underlies both heterosexual and homosexual tendencies and practice.

When I am able to understand what motivates a rebellious child to act out in anti-social ways, I gain insight in how to relate to that child rather than simply use labels to describe their behavior. In somewhat the same way, if homosexual behavior is simply labeled as “deviant” or a “perversion,” one is not only free from attempting to understand, but one makes no attempt. What is needed is an underlying structure of human existence rather than a practice of human behavior to begin to understand and then engage in discussion with homosexual persons with regard to the church and its ministry.

The tragic is not something that happens to humans following their creation out of the dust of the ground and endowed with the divine image – but to exist as that particular human person is tragic. Thus the tragic is not the result of the fall, as though humanity as originally created did not experience the tragic. Rather, the tragic exists precisely because human persons experience the freedom of self-conscious existence with virtually unlimited possibilities while, at the same time, remaining bound by necessity to the dust out of which they are created. The tragic is the result of the fact that humans cannot be in more than one place at a time, and they are aware of that.

When caught in a dilemma in which responsibility to help another is the most important, a decision has to be made. Failure to be able to meet both demands is tragic. Even the first humans were confronted with the tragic. Not everything that is possible, not everything that is good, can be chosen or accomplished or experienced. Being aware of that constitutes the tragic.

Søren Kierkegaard called this irreconcilable tension between possibility and necessity Dread. I prefer to call it the tragic. Dread became for him simply the psychological/spiritual moment of absolute self-awareness. The tragic is more a construct of human existence that underlies all human life, not merely a moment of awareness. As a construct of human existence, the tragic cannot be avoided though it can be denied, as Ernest Becker profoundly described in his book, The Denial of Death (Simon and Schuster, 1973).

True, there is an existential experience of dread, as Kierkegaard argued, that can only be overcome by faith. But if faith can overcome dread, it cannot overcome the tragic. The most significant human relation that Kierkegaard experienced was his engagement to Regina Olsen, an “instant love affair” that lasted for several years until he ended it by his own decision – for her own good, as he put it, even though he continued to love her. In the end, while he could apparently surrender everything to the infinite for the sake of faith, he did not have the kind of faith that permitted him to enact a finite relation of love without losing his own self. “Had I had faith I would have remained with Regina” (Journals, Harper Torch, 1958, p. 86). In the end, I would argue, what kept him from marriage with Regina was not lack of faith, but failure to understand the category of the tragic. Faith cannot overcome the tragic, as if marriage (as an act of faith) would remove the relationship from the category of the tragic.

The Tragic and Redemptive Grace

The tragic cannot be overcome and eliminated without destroying human life as we know it. Redemption of the tragic is an eschatological event. That is, it will only occur when the “new heavens and the new earth” emerge with the end of this temporal order. It is only then that “there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain” (Rev 21:4 NLT). Until that time, redemption of the tragic will be provisional and partial with intimations of that eschatological reality illuminating the landscape of the tragic while calling us to embrace the tragic with redemptive grace.

Redemption is always within the tragic, but not from the tragic. Redemption from one instance of the tragic leads to an expansion of the tragic, not the elimination of it. When Jesus healed the paralytic who had been unable to work and had lain by the pool of Bethesda for 38 years, this was a miracle of release from his tragic situation (John 5:1-8). But we are not told what happened to him nor how he was able to make a living, having lived by the charity of others for all those years. If he ended up healed but without the means of making a living for himself, that too is tragic.

When I come upon an apparently homeless person with a sign requesting money for food, I ordinarily pass by. Some would point to that person as a tragic person, an object of pity if not compassion. But the tragic is not an object but a relation. It is my relation to that person that constitutes the tragic. I recognize the demand placed upon me in our common humanity and his uncommon need. If I were to take that demand as an absolute moral demand and respond out of my own means as a way of overcoming the tragic, I have only magnified the tragic in the form of other humans who place their demand upon me and my resources as well. To give everything that I possess in response to the tragic situation of the needy, would be to compound the tragic with regard to my own children. Stanley Hauerwas reminds us of this when he says, “Marriage and family require time and energy that could be used to make the world better. To take the time to love one person rather than many, to have these children rather than helping the many in need, requires patience and a sense of the tragic” (A Community of Character, U of Notre Dame P, 1981, p. 172).

Theologian Wendy Farley says that “Created perfection is fragile, tragically structured” (Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion, WJKP, 1990, p. 127). She goes on to say: “The tragic structure of finitude and the human capacity for deception and cruelty together account for the possibility and actuality of suffering and evil.” Humans are finite beings, they possess awareness of the infinite but cannot fully realize it. In this sense, the tragic is not something from which humans can be redeemed and still be human, but redemption itself must take hold of and suffer the tragic if it is to approach and take hold of humans. Farley puts it this way: “But to overcome the tragic structure of finitude, to be free animate beings from all suffering, to determine finite freedom so that it will always love the good and have the courage to pursue it – these things are not possible. The potential for suffering and evil lie in the tragic structure of finitude and cannot be overcome without destroying creation” (p. 125).

Perhaps Farley would be better to speak of the fragility of humankind rather than the fragility of creation, for the kind of fragility I have described as tragic is peculiar to human beings. We may think it tragic to watch our nonhuman pets suffer and die, but this is a projection of the human tragic sense onto and into the created order. Evil, then, is the intensification of the tragic measured by its power to attack and destroy the good that God intended.

Following Farley’s insightful analysis, I would say that the freedom of creation in its own authentic nature – as differentiated ontologically from the Creator – is only tragic from the perspective of human beings who are endowed with a spiritual nature (imago Dei) which promises a destiny beyond that of its own creaturely nature. For all creatures but the human, their nature determines their destiny. For humans, their destiny lies beyond the power of a creaturely nature, though humans “suffer” from the exigencies of a creaturely nature. In this way, because love is a possibility of human existence which is in itself tragic, love is “intrinsically tragic,” for it is an investment of the self (the power of personal, spiritual being) in the face of the powers of nature, over which it is, at times, powerless.

One cannot consciously live with full awareness of the tragic, as Ernest Becker reminded us. Denial of the tragic may seem to be the only way to survive without losing one’s own existence. Nonetheless, the tragic continues to underlie human existence. Faith will not overcome it as an existential movement of the spirit, as Kierkegaard hoped. Faith itself is an eschatological point of reference that is grounded in the promise of God rather than in an immediate release from the tragic.

This is one reason why understanding homosexuality as part of the tragic construct of human sexuality may offer a more redemptive approach than simply to label it as “sin” in order to deny its right to exist.


robert austell said...

thanks - that is really well done and gives the church a new (to me) perspective on wrestling with this issue

Teresita said...

The word "sinister" is from the Latin for left, but tragically it took on evil connotations. In China the tragic phrase "left path" stands for illegal or immoral means. Although 13% of human beings are born that way, many left-handed people remain in the closet in Muslim countries due to the tragic stigma associated with it there. As late as the 20th Century there were "ex-southpaw" ministries which attempted to condition left-handed people away from their tragic and filthy lifestyle choice.

Shane said...

Let's leave aside the practical pastoral issues of inclusion/exclusion and just talk about sin and tragedy. The point of your piece is apparently to convince conservative evangelicals that the issue of homosexuality is more complicated than simply considering the question whether the action is sinful.

Presumably this stuff about tragedy is supposed to be the motivation for your position. A dilemma occurs when there is no rational way to choose between two alternatives. The dilemma is tragic when the person is forced to choose between two comparable evils such that there is no rational way to decide between them. Now, a person who faces a tragic dilemma we do not hold culpable for choosing to do something evil, precisely because she could not have done otherwise. (e.g. Sophie's Choice)

You never explicitly say that homosexual orientation or practice are a tragedy, but you seem to be intimating such by saying that having faith won't resolve the tragic dilemma and so on. So you don't believe gay christians can "get better".

Although I suppose you mean your position to be more friendly to gay people than the standard evangelical line, I would imagine lots of gay folks would take offense to the suggestion that their sexuality was a tragedy or a lesser evil to be chosen or that it would get redeemed (=straightened out?) in the hereafter.

So here's the problem I have with all of this. I'll grant your major premise that "if a person is forced to choose between two sinful alternatives, she bears lesser culpability or perhaps even none at all". But I deny the minor premise that "homosexual Christians are faced with such a dilemma".

A tragic dilemma has to be a situation where you are forced to choose between two evils. What are the evils here supposed to be? And what is forcing the choice?

Let's grant for the sake of argument that a gay person cannot choose his sexual orientation. Then he has to choose whether to act on this orientation or not. Because you imply that homosexuality is a tragedy, you want us to think that the homosexual choosing to act on his sexual orientation is an evil (because it violates a divine command?), but one for which he isn't culpable, given the choice he faced. So what is supposed to be the evil on the other hand? Perhaps that he would be lonely, or sexually unfulfilled or something like that. What I don't see is why you hold that the good of personal sexual fulfillment is on a par with obeying God's commands, so that there is no rational way a person could decide which of the two she should do?

This doesn't seem like a dilemma to me at all. It seems to me like the clear answer is that one ought always to obey God's commands, even if doing so seems to have negative consequences. If one believes that God is good, then it seems rational to suppose that his commands are wise and will be good for us, even if we don't fully understand the rationale. If that is the case, then how could anyone ever look at obeying God as a tragic evil?

Ken Smith said...

I've seen a number of posts recently on the topic of homosexuality, and many of them, like this one, present well-crafted, thoughtful theological arguments, arguing for the Church to take a more inclusive stance with regard to homosexuality.

My concern is that these posts -- and positions of this nature in general -- seem out of touch with what the Bible has to say specifically on the topic of homosexuality. I'm not a fundamentalist, not by a long shot, but I do believe, with nearly all branches of Christianity, that the Bible is our authoritative guide to faith and practice. And as we all know, what the Bible has to say about homosexuality is almost embarrassingly blunt. From everything I can tell, Paul believed, and wrote in our authoritative Scriptures, that the only "right" homosexuality (not homosexuals!) has to exist is that it's sent by God as punishment for our sins: it's a sin, but it's also punishment for our deeper sins of pride and idolatry.

Now, of course we as Christians are called to show grace, love and charity to those who, like us, are sinners. We are compelled by the Great Commission to invite homosexuals (and liars and greedy business people and alcoholics and adulterers) into Christ's Church so that we can show them God's grace and love, just as we have been shown God's grace and love, so they can experience Christ's mercy, as we have experienced Christ's mercy. We can have some useful debates about what that invitation and participation looks like, but that's not the question. The question I think we need to ask is, "Does Scripture teach us to use the category of 'sin' for homosexuality?" And I hate to be so blunt, but I see only one possible answer to that question. Every theological justification for inclusion departs from Scripture by precisely the degree to which it departs from using the term "sin". I'm convinced that's where we need to start, at any rate. Perhaps if we can agree on that, the rest of the debate will be more productive.

robert austell said...

Following up to Ken's comment: I believe that any sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual marriage (and some inside) are against God's will and is, as you rightly say, sin.

What the original post caused me to ponder is whether we may view all homosexuality as purposeful sin or even natural consequence (i.e., "He handed them over to their lusts...") and have missed the TRAGEDY of being outside the will of God.

Said another way: I see the distinction made in the original blog post as one that is helpful pastorally. It is, perhaps, the difference between seeing (any) sinful people (or specifically homosexually active people) as primarily disobedient, in need of discipline and rebuke and seeing sinful people as LOST and needing an invitation to grace, redemption, and a home.

I understood the tragedy to be the lostness, which is related to the sinfulness which we so often focus on exclusively.

Anonymous said...


You say:

"A tragic dilemma has to be a situation where you are forced to choose between two evils. What are the evils here supposed to be? And what is forcing the choice?"

My argument is that the tragic situation existed before the fall and that it is not a decision between two evils, it can be and usually is, a decision between two goods.

I expect that when Christians talk to each other they speak of homosexuality as sin, and rightly so based on biblical texts. My primary point is what effect on a homosexual person does the word 'sin' have when the word basically has to do with relation to God? Maybe I did not make myself clear. The second in the series deals more directly with the tragic and human sexuality.

Evan said...

Two thoughts/questions on tragedy, that you may address in future posts of the series:

-I think your move from "sin" language to "tragedy" is helpful, and while I generally agree with Shane's points, I didn't read you as abandoning talk of sin in moving to the tragic- I think you present exactly the context within which sin needs to be understood. That being said, I'm uncomfortable with the idea of the tragic as prelapsarian. Could you flesh this out better at some point? If a choice between two goods can be tragic, I don't see how this doesn't bring us right back to sin and evil, via an Augustinian idea of disordered loves. In that sense, even the choice that Shame speaks of is a choice between two goods, isn't it? So I'm not convinced that the tragic is present before the Fall... I also haven't read the sources you cite, so perhaps my answer lies there.

-I wonder how we might apply an understanding of the tragic to other situations of sinful creation. I think there's a lot of potential there, and it might set questions of sexuality in broader context.

Evan said...

"Shane", not "Shame". Sorry!

JKnott said...

It seems to me the deepest issue in this post is the question: "To light a candle or curse the darkness?" Many, both on the so-called "left" and "right" of the church, particularly on the specific debate about sexuality, say light a candle, then you won't have to curse the darkness (at least not the darkness within). That is, find some unproblematic theology, practice, etc., and do that, supposing that by doing so you are free from sin. For instance, exclude gays (and others from a laundry-list) and you'll have a community of children of light. OR, "include" everybody (really meaning all kinds of people depending on a very contingent, limited, and problematic spectrum of "diversity") and you'll have a just community over against the evil exclusive world. The latter happens all the time when people like Peter Gomes call homosexuality "The last prejudice."

On the other hand, others, and perhaps--PERHAPS--this post is an example, say curse the darkness and don't presume you can light any real candles. We're all involved in sin, and tragedy, and/or other things, so any attempts at relative holiness are hubris. Of course, Anderson admits that we can do relatively good things, but as to the issue of homosexuality, he seems to imply that any judgment, even a relative one, as regards the situation and/or practices of gays and lesbians would necessarily involve a kind of self-deception, assuming tragedy is avoided if gays are excluded or if they don't have sex.

As for me, I think we must light candles AND curse the darkness. That is, I believe, the position of Karl Barth as explained by John Webster in his book _Karl Barth's Moral Theology_, p.121 (citing Barth's _Christian Life_ 212-34, on "The Lordless Powers"). This means in prayer we call on God who can alone end our irreducibly sinful situations (and tragic ones), which involves a "curse" of sorts of these situations, while at the same time living in ways that prefigure the inevitable victory.

The foregoing does not, in itself, answer the question about what we should do with our sexuality. That's kind of my point. However, it does put it on certain grounds that will be seen (perhaps rightly) to be less amenable to much of our arguments about it.

Shane said...

Hi Prof. Anderson,

I'm not sure why having to choose between two goods would be called a tragedy. If I can have pie or cake but not both, it might be a dilemma if I have no rational way to decide betwixt the two. But it's a happy dilemma, not a tragedy.

As to the other matters I've brought up, I think you're right to put them off till the rest of your posts appear. I'll wait and then reopen the issues once we get the rest of your position on the table.

Anonymous said...

How about a discussion of whether the (seemingly) relevant texts on homosexuality are, indeed, actually relevant. Can we actually get to that kind of discussion?

Bringing an understanding of the "tragic" into the discussion is an interesting angle to take on the issue, for sure, but in the end, it leaves most conservative or orthodox people able to conclude what they always have: that homosexual behavior and/or orientation is unacceptable as a means of human fulfillment and flourishing.

There are plenty of problems with all the New Testament passages on homosexuality, particularly with the Greek terminology and what it does or does not refer to. I'd assume (or, I'd hope) most people reading this blog would have some sense of this. Why do we not talk about it more? Some of the best biblical scholars out there (e.g., Dale Martin) have done great critical work on the issue, particularly with the Romans 1 text, which an above commenter referenced.

Problem is, that commenter's reference is incredibly troubling: Are we going to say to the face of gay and lesbian persons that their behavior/orientation are not only what's wrong, but that that behavior stems from the fact that they have chosen to worship something other than God? That's absurd. The audacity for us to think, let alone say, something like that to anyone else. We need a whole new perspective on that whole text, one that allows us to finally see the rampant exploitation in that passage--for example, Paul's use of, and failure to correct, the Jewish ethnic stereotype of human idolatry in reference to the Gentiles, perpetuating the myth that there were certain types of sexual immorality that occurred in only one group of people--and our own cultural heterosexism that frames the interpretation of the entire text. You can go on and on. There are problems everywhere with the passages in the New Testament (supposedly) about homosexuality.

Martin, I think, said it best, in his book "Sex and the Single Savior": "The burden of proof in the last twenty years has shifted. There are too many of us not sick, or inverted, or perverted or even “effeminate,” but who just have a knack for falling in love with people of our own sex. When we have been damaged, it has not been due to our homosexuality but to your and our denial of it. The burden of proof now is not on us, to show that we are not sick, but rather on those who insist that we would be better off going back into the closet. What will build the double love of God and of our neighbor?"

Anonymous said...

Shane is right to challenge the immediate connection between finitude and tragedy. The scriptures and virtually the whole of the Christian tradition aim to break that connection, fundamentally, with the doctrine of creation. To be a creature is to be made finite by a good God, and it is therefore good. Creatureliness is not a fateful fall into tragic finitude -- that is a doctrine of the Stoics and Gnostics (and I think Tillich too), but not of proper Christian theology.

As setting the stage for a discussion of homosexuality, this post by Anderson is already structured around a fundamental theological confusion. What can we expect from such a beginning...?

JKnott said...


I've read much of Martin's work, and though I find especially his book _The Corinthian Body_ to be a great source of information and insight, much of his work I find deeply flawed, especially the work you probably refer to on Romans 1, i.e., his article "Heterosexism and the Interpretation of Romans 1" (or something like that). Particularly, I find unsupportable his view that Paul was in Rom. 1 supporting a Jewish stereotype that only certain people (Gentiles or Polytheists, Martin confuses the issue by calling it an "ethnic" issue) are the only ones who can POSSIBLY commit certain sins.

Look at the beginning of Romans 2, "you who judge do the very same things." And 1 Cor. 5-6 in which Paul says there is a type of sin AMONG CHRISTIANS that is "not even found among the gentiles." Paul was indeed ECHOING a typical Jewish anti-Gentile polemic in Rom.1, but in a subversive way. Martin leaves behind his own best insights there because in _The Corinthian Body_ he recognizes Paul uses typical speech forms (such as homonoia speeches) in subversive ways, but in "Heterosexism.." he seems to assume that if Paul is echoing something from his context he must be passively accepting all of its presuppositions. No one in the history of the church was more influential in arguing AGAINST Jewish denegration of Gentiles than Paul.

In sum, it is not reasonable to say that Paul in Rom. 1 was assuming that ONLY pagans could commit certain sins and that worshipping only one God is an absolute guarantee against their commission. Otherwise, his frequent warnings against certain sins would be strange to say the least. As for this and other supposed problems with the "conservative" reading of NT texts, Rob. Gagnon's work remains definitive in my view.

Shane said...

I second jknott's endorsement of Gagnon. I find Gagnon a bit prickly personalitywise, but this may be a function of his taking a lot of heat for taking an unpopular position. I'm not sure Gagnon has said the final word on the question, but failure to take his work into account vitiates any attempt to show that Rom 1 or 1 Cor 6 aren't "really" talking about homosexuality as we know it today. Most of the time I hear people having an "exegetical" discussion of homosexuality, what they are really talking about is scholarship that is 30 years out of date, or fallacious philosophy of language points like, "Because the greeks didn't have a word for loving, equitable homosexual relationships, Paul must be condemning pederasty, not homosexuality in our sense."

@ doug,

I don't think Prof. Anderson is saying anything particularly gnostic. I do find the claim that there were tragedies before the fall a bit odd, however. I think maybe Prof. Anderson means there were dilemmas that forced one to choose between incompossible goods prior to the fall? That would make more sense, although, as I said above, I don't think that is a "tragedy" per se.

Anonymous said...

Evan, you wrote, "That being said, I'm uncomfortable with the idea of the tragic as prelapsarian." And then asked for a source. Hey, theologians don't need sources! Just kidding. My point was to separate the tragic from sin by arguing that the fundamental structure of human existence as God created us is tragic. As Farley says, we are finite beings with infinite possibilities. Thus, I posit (without a source) the view that Adam and Eve before the fall had aspirations, desires and possibilities which could not all be realized. In this case the tragic is simply letting go of one possibility in order to experience another. After the fall, to be sure, sin also has its tragic component, but redemption from sin in the present temporal order is not redemption from the tragic.

And Shane, having to choose only one good possibility out of several is not a "happy" choice. I am not happy about using food to feed my own children when there are other children going to bed hungry in my own city. And choosing to feed my own children is not evil nor is feeding other children.

And Doug, you may be right. But it is hard for me to envision created human kind before the fall as being fully satisfied as finite beings when endowed with desires and longings of infinite dimension. I can't see that the Fall altered the fundamental structure of human existence as God created. At the same time allowing for the fact that sin entered into the created order as a 'possibility'(the tree was good, beautiful and desired to make one wise) already points to the tragic. But I think that we are getting off point here.I appreciate your pushing me at this point.

Anonymous said...

To clarify, or to satisfy my own curiosity, Mr. Anderson, how much does R. Niebuhr's definition of the tragic influence your definition? It seems like there are many parallels (especially when talking about finitude, choices, the eschatological redemption while in the now the good and bad wrapped up together, etc.), but I do not want blindly assume. After all, you quote Hauerwas and we know how much he likes Niebuhr.

Anonymous said...


You are very perceptive! It has been years since I read R. Niebuhr's The Nature and Destiny of Man, but I remember with some appreciation his portrayal of the human self as poised, or rather, gripped by the contradiction of the finite and the infinite which was not sin but rather served as the precurser of sin. Following Kierkegaard (I think) he had a rather existential hermeneutic of the fall (and sin) with no place for a prefallen existence of humanity.

Evan said...

Thanks for the clarification... I think I'm tying sin and the tragic together more closely and that was the source of my trouble... I look forward to your continued conversations.

I would agree that Gagnon is a very good source for the biblical aspects of this question, although I was disappointed with his objection to the revision of the Heidelberg Catechism translation a few weeks ago at the PC(USA) GA... I think the "heat he takes" sometimes is earned rather than just the result of him voicing unpopular views.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Ray, for this deep and thoughtful post, not only for what it says but for its "mood" and probing style. I shall not consider putting my oar in before you conclude your reflections - not least because impatience and haste are a sign of the denial of the tragic!

Not many theolgians explore the "tragic" (and, alas, far too few theologians seem to know their literary tragedy). The great exception is one of the most brilliant English-speaking theologians of the twentieth century, Donald Mackinnon. Much influenced by Kierkegaard, his students Nicholas Lash and Rowan Williams would say that they are not fit to carry Mackinnon's sandals (though the eccentric Anglican Scot was once seen wearing no footwear at all on the streets of Cambridge!). Mackinnon saw "the tragic as an ultimate, irreducible form ... of the relation of the transcendent to the familiar", and saw its denial (common, he inveighed, in much Christian thought and culture) in the attempt "to establish a world without ambiguity." Hence Mackinnon's relentlessly interrogative style, and his resistance to what Williams refers to as "the tyranny of the total perspective."

I look forward to your development of the theme.

Shane said...

@Prof. A,

I wouldn't regard the fact that you have to choose between feeding your own children and not the children of others as a "tragedy". Indeed, I don't even think it's even a dilemma, (unless you're Peter Singer, but that's a different problem). I would regard the problem as "tragic" only if your feeding your children somehow caused the starving of the other children, so that you have a conflict between moral obligations: the obligation to feed your children and the obligation not to kill. This is a difficult problem, but I think the problem of world hunger is not a "tragedy" in that sense--it's just a shitty state of affairs. "Death of a Salesman" is not a tragedy--it's just a bunch of shitty things that happen to a guy. "Antigone" is a tragedy, because Antigone has to choose between conflicting moral obligations: burying her brother or obeying her uncle/king.

As to the other psychological claims you've made--I don't really go in for the weepy existentialist stuff, but that may be going off point.

Anonymous said...

It's so sad that the debate of homosexuality doesn't really end in the christian community.

It's blatant to anyone who reads the Bible that homosexuality is sin. What more do you want to believe it?

It's faith in the Bible we should discussing. Because if you are christian and still debating homosexuality, then you lack faith in Bible teaching.

Sad, really...

Anonymous said...

Kim, could you recommend the book one ought to start with when reading Donald Mackinnon?

Anonymous said...

Professor Anderson,

Forgive me if i am grossly oversimplifying your view, but would it be appropriate to summarize your sentiments by saying that often in life, matters of sexuality included, there is no "perfect choice."

Since we are unavoidably social creatures, bound up in a myriad of relationships where all equally deserve the "neighbor-love" of Jesus (as you put it in one of your recent books, the ethic of neighbor love "cuts across" all our relationships), we cannot hope to always make choices that are best for everyone. Hence, even in our best moments, a "tragic" element is unavoidable in our choices. Would you agree with this? I'm not trying to be combative, but trying to understand you. It seems to me that the chapter that deals with ethics in your book about the emerging church espouses a similar view.

Thanks for your thoughts professor. I may not always agree, but you always help me to think through matters in new ways.

Anonymous said...

Hi D. W.,

First, a spelling mea culpa - the "K" in MacKinnon should, of course, be a capital letter.

As for recommendations, the list is short, because (as far as I know) there is next to nothing of MacKinnon's work available in print. You can get a second-hand paperback copy of Explorations in Theology (1979) at Amazon, and Themes in Theology: The Three-fold Cord (1987) is available new (only in hardback, I think).

There is a great essay on MacKinnon in Nicholas Lash's new collection of essays Theology for Pilgrims (2008) entitled "Renewed, Dissolved, Remembered: MacKinnon and Metaphysics". In it Lash quotes a passage from Rowan Williams' obituary for MacKinnon in The Tablet (1994), which goes "to the heart of MacKinnon's theological concern":

"... if the Christian vision had anything to contribute, it might be, not a consolatory word, but a recognition that tragedy was inbuilt into a contingent world. Not even Jesus' choices could be unshadowed: the triumph of the cross is the shipwreck of Judas and the beginning of the pathologies of anti-Semitism. Donald would not allow you to evade the particular, and his hostility to grand schemes that 'answered' the problem of evil has much to do with this."

Interestingly, Williams writes "contingent", not "sinful", though I wouldn't want to read too much into this choice of words, or speak for either MacKinnon or Williams on the question of prelapsarian tragedy.

Anonymous said...


You wrote: "relationships where all equally deserve the "neighbor-love" of Jesus (as you put it in one of your recent books, the ethic of neighbor love "cuts across" all our relationships), we cannot hope to always make choices that are best for everyone. Hence, even in our best moments, a "tragic" element is unavoidable in our choices. Would you agree with this?"

I do agree. The homeless man who asks food of me is my neighbor and Jesus tells me to be neighbor to him by giving him food. But God also tells me to feed my own children.


Donald MacKinnon was the external examiner for my Ph. D. thesis written for T.F. Torrance at Edinburgh in 1970 (Historical Transcendence and the Reality of God, Geoffrey Chapman, 1975).I only had one meeting with him at Cambridge, and found him to be a delightful, deeply brooding,but sensitive man. He would never look you directly in the eyes when he spoke to you, but then, with piercing eyes, look at you for your response! There are many stories about the eccentricity of MacKinnon, among them one told by his wife that she discovered his trousers after he had left in the morning for his office and assuming that it would be typical of him to go to the campus without his trousers hurried over with them only to find that he had without her knowledge purchased another pair!

JKnott said...

I wonder, since at least Ben and Kim on this site often speak approvingly of Barth and of the man who, in my view, is his best contemporary interpreter and even correcter, Bruce McCormack, whether a fruitful discussion might be had here at some point concerning the ways in which Barth was, or was not, or was sometimes and in certain ways, Kierkegaardian, particularly in the way Prof. Anderson (and Williams and his teacher MacKinnon) seem to be. I'm thinking that at least as early as Barth's controversy with Brunner, Barth saw "a certain type of Kierkegaardianism" as the last, perhaps, but certainly the worst mistake (cf. "Nein," in Brunner and Barth, _Natural Theology_, Wipf and Stock, 2002, pp. 119-20.). Can we have our Barthian cake and eat Kierkegaard too?

Anonymous said...


In the preface to the second edition of his commentary on Romans, Barth said, "If I have s system it is limited to what Kierkegaard called 'the infinite qualitative distiction between' time and eternity. . . God is in heaven and thou art on earth." This was written in 1921. My impression is that following Heidegger's emergence with his emphasis on an existential hermeneutic, Barth moved more away from this concept, though, as McCormack has shown, never really abandoning the dialectic. I let others judge on this matter.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Anderson - Many thanks for the MacKinnon reminiscences, and also for a very interesting and helpful application of the category of the tragic to the realm of sexual ethics.

Following on from Kim’s suggestions about reading MacKinnon on tragedy. I think there are really three essays which ought to be read together: “Atonement and Tragedy” in Le Mythe de la peine (Paris: Aubier, 1967), 373-378; “Subjective and Objective Conceptions of Atonement” in F. G. Healey (ed.), Prospect for Theology: Essays presented to H. H. Farmer (London: Nisbet, 1966), 169-182; and “Theology and Tragedy”, Religious Studies 2 (1967), 163-169. The first essay is reprinted in MacKinnon’s Borderlands of Theology (1968), 97-104; the third in his The Stripping of the Altars (1969), 41-51. All three essays are indebted to a book by a very interesting philosopher named D. Daiches Raphael (who first taught in Glasgow, I think, and then came to the University of Otago, Dunedin), called The Paradox of Tragedy (1960), which is still worth reading. That book isn’t entirely unrelated to the last query (re: Barth), because Raphael contended that in the end, the Christian conception of providence ruled out tragedy (in the technical sense of the term). MacKinnon, of course, disagreed, or rather, felt that things where much more complicated (or, as he would have put it, more difficult) than Raphael was suggesting. One book that is really worth reading on the differences between MacKinnon and Barth re: tragedy is Anthony Cane, The Place of Judas Iscariot in Christology, which was published by Ashgate in 2005.

Finally, in the discussion so far, the suggestion has been made that to identify a set of actions as “tragic” is to somehow introduce factors that might mitigate the culpability of the agent responsible for those actions. I’m not at all sure that this is in fact what tragedy, in the technical sense of the word, is about. Without wading into the very complex debate about what does and does not constitute genuine tragedy, I would like to suggest that Sophocles’ Oedipus and Shakespeare’s Hamlet do not offer any easy mitigation of the culpability of their chief protagonists (in fact, quite the opposite). As Milan Kundera points out in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where we would have Oedipus go merrily on his way, with perhaps a little bit of therapy – after all, his sins were the product of ignorance, and therefore, (so we might think) not really his fault, Sophocles has him pluck out his own eyes. This is not to say that tragedy is about increasing a sense of culpability for the consequences of actions which we may have committed without knowing what it was we were in fact committing ourselves to. Rather, it is that tragedy isn’t (it seems to me), first and foremost, an invitation to quantify culpability, but instead, an invitation to look at human actions for what they really are. That is, it’s an invitation to a kind of empathy.

Anonymous said...

While the suggestions to read MacKinnon and Lash on theology and tragedy are helpful, I would also then recommend reading David Bentley Hart's critique of them, and "tragic theology" more generally, in The Beauty of the Infinite, pp. 373-394. While acknowledging the pathos and partial profundity of MacKinnon's vision, Hart nonetheless rightly concludes:

"Theologians must not embrace MadKinnon's suggestion that the crucifixion be read as a kind of tragic drama, in the hope that tragedy's concern for the irreconcilable contradictions of the particular might put theology on the guard against any metaphysical solace that would ease Christian discomfort before the terror and desolation of the cross: metaphysical solace is precisely what the tragic is. It turns attention not toward the one who suffers, but to the sublime backdrop against which the drama is played out; it assures the spectator that this is how things are, this is the constitution of the universe, and that justice is strife; tragic wisdom is the wisdom of resignation and consent, a wisdom that is too prudent to rebel against what is fixed in the very fabric of being, and that refuses to suffer inordinately, enraged by death or resentful of civic order. Tragedy legitimates a particular regime of law, violence and war: it teaches that moira [Gk. fate] places and displaces us, and so leads us to a serene and chastened acceptance of where we are placed and how we are displaced; tragedy resists every motion outward, beyond the sentineled frontier, and reinforces the stable foundation of the totality. Christianity, however, feeds upon a different wisdom..."

We can see where the "tragic theology" of MacKinnon, Niebuhr and Anderson takes us: to the "realistic" necessity of certain tragic "choices," which is just the situation of humans as finite creatures of desire faced with infinite possibilities that are intrinsically morally ambiguous.

For an antidote to that kind of fatalist thinking, see also Hart's discussion of created human desire (which I won't quote at length) on pp 269-273, especially the bottom half of 270.

Shane said...

@ André Muller,

Of course in the classical greek world, inevitability did not imply lack of culpability. However, I think this would be a hard position for a Christian to hold--even that stalwart defender of Grace, St. Augustine argues that without the freedom of creaturely will, God could not legitimately condemn sinners (De Libero Arbitrio).

Gadamer has a remark in Truth and Method to the effect that in Christianity there are no more tragedies. And I think he means no tragedies in this Greek sense--there aren't any because the world is ruled by a kind providence, not the impersonal or capricious Fates. I think Gadamer is right at least to the extent that Christians do not fear the impersonal forces of fate. However, it seems to me a fact of life that there are situations which are tragic, in the sense I outlined above, namely being forced to choose between two evils.

(I'm taking this sense of tragedy from Rosalind Hursthouse, incidentally. Especially the chapter of her book Virtue Ethics entitled "Tragic and Irresolvable Dilemmas" or something like that.)

Anonymous said...

I'll keep Hart in mind, Prof. Harink, which is easy because thats where my sympathies already lie.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Harink - Hart's critique is very important, I think, although I'm not sure it's the last word on MacKinnon's view of tragedy, in part, because he was himself very aware of the dangers of putting the language of tragedy to work in a theological context (e.g., the fostering of an attitude of acquiescence). As Hart notes, MacKinnon is offering a suggestion (a word that needs to be underlined), about how we might go about reading the crucifixion. But it isn't a straightforward suggestion (nothing in MacKinnon is!): more like an attempt to wrestle with a complex set of problems that have arisen at the place where his reading of literature, his philosophy (the stress on the contingent etc.) and his attempt to make sense of certain aspects of the Gospel narratives, impinge upon each other. I don't think we can talk about MacKinnon's "tragic theology" here, because that assumes that he knew what the end result of that process of impingement was... But that's to misread MacKinnon and to ignore all the cavaets that he enters along the way. Of course, we could say that the set of problems MacKinnon was wrestling with were false, or wrongly framed, but we would need to be sure we knew what those problems were in the first place, and that is no easy task, not least because MacKinnon seems unable to articulate those problems clearly. In spite (or perhaps because) of this, MacKinnon is still worth reading I think, not because he gives us a "tragic theology" but because he forces us to ask whether the insights into human nature that we discover in Sophocles, Shakespeare, Faulkner or Styron might impinge upon the way we understand the Christian narrative (and, of course, vice versa).

Shane - Many thanks for the clarification.

JKnott said...

Mr. Anderson,

Thanks for your words on Barth and Kierkegaard. However, I think the discussion must go forward recognizing two things: there's more to Kierkegaard than his "infinite qualitative distinction," and there's more to "dialectic" than Kierkegaard. So whereas Barth certainly started, in a way, with the infinite qualitative distinction and never rejected it, it is still a question how much of Kierkegaard's whole thought in general he accepted, when, to what extent, etc. And there are Hegelian dialectics as well as Kierkegaardian. My sense is that Barth's biggest problem with what has been said so far is assuming we can know what the basic structure of human existence is, and then fit redemption into it.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Anderson,

I'm with Doug, and others, who've balked at your understanding of the tragic as existing "before" the fall.

I agree the tragic is not the (direct) result of sin. Instead, it is the response of the human spirit to the (dreadful) recognition of fallenness. The tragic is a coping mechanism, not a condition. It is a hermeneutic, a way of making meaning (as in David Tracy's understanding of the 'tragic vision.')

The Christian believes that apart from Christ, apart from God's future arriving in Jesus' death and resurrection, the tragic vision is the best hermeneutic, the most humane response to our condition. But in Christ, standing within the faith, we exchange the tragic for the hopeful. And this hope casts light for us both forward and backward, so that we can't not see creation as well as new creation as good.

This is not to say that our experience of the world isn't going to seem "tragic." But I think that in many ways it is for us a temptation to read our experiences that way, at least insofar as it takes our eyes away from the healed/wounded body of the resurrected Jesus and directs them to our own still-bleeding wounds.

All this to say, I think the way forward pastorally isn't by giving people eyes to see the tragic, but by giving them eyes to see the first rays of the "sunrise of God's justice" (Moltmann). We need not so much to say, "This is the way things are" as to say, "This is the way things shall be."

Anonymous said...

Hi André,

Thank you for that splendid explication of MacKinnon on tragedy (and your detailed bibliography of more obscure texts of which I was unaware - I'm only doing MacKinnon 101!). Yours is a much more sympathetic reading of MacKinnon than Hart's (who I think is even less sympathetic in his reading of Lash, whom he accuses of "more or less collaps[ing] Easter into Good Friday"). You are certainly right to say that it would be inaccurate to call MacKinnon's (or Lash's) theology "tragic theology" tout court; it's more, I think, a way of reading both the biblical narratives in the light of great tragedians and the human condition in the light of the biblical narratives - as well as a caveat against epistemological - and theological! - hubris.

Hart's discussion, by the way, brilliant as it is, needs to be read in the context of his broader attack on contemporary theologians who critique the classical notion of the divine impassibility (like Moltmann as well as Jüngel), as well as those (like Jenson) who draw together the immanent and economic trinity and see history as the locus of God's self-determination.

Aric Clark said...


No, the decision to feed our own children is not usually experienced as a dilemma - but I think Ray Anderson is right that it is tragic and it is definitely a conflict of moral obligations. Every human has an obligation to be concerned about the welfare of every other human being. In this basic sense every action we take is a choice between qualified goods and has moral implications that are tragic - in that potential goods are being lost or even destroyed. No the choice to feed your own child does not directly cause the hunger of another child, but in this world of complex causation we cannot deny our responsibility for hunger, suffering and death all over the world.

Anonymous said...

Could I perhaps add to the discussion the names of a couple of people who might also help re: this discussion around Professor Anderson's posts? The first is Professor Kenneth Surin, who has made some very important contributions to the discussion about theology and tragedy (including an essay on Styron's Sophie's Choice). The other person is a British philosopher named Gillian Rose, whose career was sadly cut short by cancer. I think Kim may have already mentioned her in another post, but her talk of "the broken middle" is perhaps relevant to the present discussion (it may, in fact, be more helpful than the category of the tragic). Of course, those who reject talk of the tragic will probably reject Rose's language too - and for much the same reasons.

Anonymous said...

André is bang on about Gillian Rose. This Simone Weil-like, exilic philosopher, so intellectually restless, a creative expositior of Hegel and deployer of Kierkegaard, and another huge influence on Rowan Williams - she would make a brilliant partner in this conversation.

"What [finally] brought her to baptism," Williams writes, "is the belief that thinking and loving are connected." And yet for Rose the idea of "love without violence" is characteristic of bad faith: love is always discovered to be implicated in violence. On the other hand, Rose's work "can be read as a protest against the essentialising of violence" (Williams). Rose rebels against premature closures and tidy reconciliations. Hence "the broken middle" - an ambiguous existential place we have always already entered, fraught with ethical risk, yet a "position that allows the past to speak to the realities of the present without determining it," and so open to the possibilities of self-dispossession and practices of peace.

I confess I haven't read Rose's most important work The Broken Middle (1992) - the themes of which are "anxiety of beginning, equivocation of the ethical and agon of authorship" - all very gnomic! - but I can recommend her short book Love's Work (1997), which is a gem.

Anonymous said...

How would you respond to Christ? Is his response to humanity tragic considering he invested his time in very few people considering he is God? Hauerwas would be disappointed in Christ's investment on Peter or Matthew who would be consider social rejects by modern society. I think the tragic viewpoint is flawed because it is to narrow a view, almost to conservative. I think it should be balanced against God sovereinty to make it carry the weight of the homosexuality argument.

Anonymous said...


You say: "I think the tragic viewpoint is flawed because it is to narrow a view, almost to conservative. I think it should be balanced against God sovereinty to make it carry the weight of the homosexuality argument"

Actually, I think that it is God's sovereignty that holds the tragic under the promise of redemption. God withholds his sovereinty partially in order to give humans space for freedom, but not total autonomy. In that freedom humans live in time and space where not everything that one longs to do or have is possible. But the loss of one thing in order to have another is a loss that does not rise to the level of the tragic in our awareness until it causes pain. In God's sovereinty, grace is experienced both as redemption in time and ultimately from time.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to enter this scholarly discussion on McKinnon et al with a simple question... for what it's worth.
When I do funerals I include in my committals the words "God has blessed us with finitude" and then go on to talk about hope in the resurrection. Am I wrong to talk of blessing here? Is the blessing also tragic per se (whatever that might mean) or is the tragic a consequence of some aspect of our human situation.

Bruce Yabsley said...

In the discussion on whether the "tragic" has a place in a Christian understanding of experience, I'm surprised that the Wisdom literature has not been taken in evidence: Ecclesiastes in particular. The teacher's complaint (and analysis) that all is absurd, including things that he ascribes to God and calls good, is clearly relevant here.

There's a technical argument to be had about whether "tragic" is quite the right word, and exactly what one means to say by using it, to be sure. But the idea that such categories are inappropriate to Christian analysis --- or should be limited or reduced to cases of unavoidable-choice-between-evils --- is untrue to experience (because too flattening) and I see no way to square it with Qohelet.

So, a "but the Scripture clearly states" argument can also be made on behalf of Ray's position here, and to me it seems a pretty strong one.

Ben Myers said...

Following Bruce's comment on Ecclesiastes, perhaps I should also point to Ray's book of sermons on Ecclesiastes, which I reviewed here.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Thanks for the link Ben.

Anonymous said...

Bruce Hamill

I have tried to put 'finitude' (time and space) as part of the construct of the tragic under the promise of redemption from the beginning, with the final act of redemption with the eschaton when the 'new heavens and earth' (whatever that means!) replaces the old. So 'bless finitude' for in doing so one is embracing the realty of life here on earth as God created, God purposed, and God blessed.

Post a Comment


Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.