Wednesday 10 November 2010

On smiling and sadness: twelve theses

1. The precursor of the human smile was the caveman’s savage grimace (Angus Trumble, A Brief History of the Smile, p. 3). The invention of dentistry is the main difference between this threatening grimace and the polite social convention of the modern smile.

2. In the Protestant West today, smiling has become a moral imperative. The smile is regarded as the objective externalisation of a well ordered life. Sadness is moral failure.

3. The motif of late-capitalist society is the stylisation of happiness, the cultivation of lifestyles from which every trace of sadness has been expunged. Peter Berger identified ‘the Protestant smile’ as part of Protestantism’s cultural heritage in the West. In a Catholic country like France, it is still considered crass to smile too often, or at strangers. Evangelical churchliness is the ritualisation of bare-toothed crassness. Our cultural obsession with health, happiness, and positive thinking is a secularisation of the evangelical church service.

4. The cultural triumph of the smile leaves behind a trail of casualties. Where evangelical churches theologise happiness and ritualise the smile, sad believers are spiritually ostracised. Sadness is the scarlet letter of the contemporary church, embroidered proof of a person's spiritual failure.

5. When the church’s theological rejection of sadness was secularised, sadness became a pathology requiring medical intervention. The medicalisation of sadness is the final cultural triumph of the Protestant smile. If Luther or Kierkegaard or Dostoevsky had lived today, we would have given them Prozac and schooled them in positive thinking. They would have grinned abortively – and written nothing. The truth of sadness is the womb of thought.

6. Somehow the appellation ‘man of sorrows’ attached itself to the church’s memory of Jesus. The sinless humanity of the Son of God was manifest not in happiness or success but in a life of sadness and affliction. Erasing sadness from our culture, we also erase Christ.

7. I know a little boy whose mother had to go away for a few days. When she came home, he cried and told her he had missed her. Touched by his infant sadness, the mother said, ‘It’s nice to be missed’ – and he replied, ‘It’s not nice to miss.’ It is nice to be missed because we learn what love means in the sadness of another. The face that always smiles is the face of a stranger. Love is written on the face of sadness.

8. I know a fellow who was interviewed for ordination in an American denomination. Asked to describe his hope for the church’s future, his eyes filled with tears and he admitted, ‘I don’t know if I have any hope for the church.’ Perplexed by this response, his ecclesiastical interviewers furrowed their brows, scribbled little notes and question-marks, conferred gravely about his fitness for ministry – though they ought to have asked for his prayers, or poured oil on his head, or sat at his feet and made him their bishop.

9. Where sadness is expunged from a culture, the cry for justice falls silent. Johnny Cash carried darkness on his back, refusing to wear bright clothes as long as the world is unredeemed. Why do we dress our priests in black? Are they not in perpetual mourning for a world that is passing away? Is not Christian joy carried out in the shadow of this sadness? In a culture of happiness, it is all the more necessary that our priests continue to wear black, refusing the cheap comfort of bright vestments and the empty promise of the rainbow.

10. At the turn of the millennium, J. G. Ballard wondered how the next generation would perceive the 20th century: ‘My grandchildren are all under the age of four, the first generation who will have no memories of the present century, and are likely to be appalled when they learn what was allowed to take place. For them, our debased entertainment culture and package-tour hedonism will be inextricably linked to Auschwitz and Hiroshima, though we would never make the connection.’ How do we explain the fact that Auschwitz and Hiroshima are immediately succeeded by the cult of happiness and the triumph of the smile? How can it be that the worst century was also the happiest? Our children will interpret our happiness as blindness and self-forgetfulness. We have drugged ourselves against history; sadness is truthful memory.

11.Why are clowns so frightening? Their demonic aura comes from the fact that they never stop smiling. Hell is the country of clowns, where tormented strangers smile at one another compulsively and forever. The devil is the name we give to the Cheshire Cat that is always vanishing just beneath the surface of our world, leaving everywhere sinister traces of a cosmic painted grin. This grin is the secret of history.

12. The Bible promises the end of history and the end of sadness: ‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away’ (Rev 21:4). This can be understood as eschatological promise only on the presumption that history is catastrophe, a vale of tears. Sadness is overcome through cosmic redemption. A culture without sadness is a culture without hope. The cure for sadness is God.


Anonymous said...

People who burst into tears when asked questions are mentally unstable. This is all pure drivel. You should be ashamed.

Anonymous said...

A different anonymous wants to disagree with that last anonymous. Praise God for the insight in this piece.

Andrew said...

"As baptism is received in infancy, we have all defiled it, but we cleanse it anew with tears. And if God in His love for mankind had not given us tears, those being saved would be few indeed and hard to find." - St John of the Ladder.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ben for another great set of theses. It reminded me of this prophetic comic strip!


Unknown said...

This is glorious. Thanks for your insight.

insidium said...

I think what you render here is honest and truthful, but I do not believe Jesus was solely or overridingly sorrowful, and there is a half-truth that presents itself here. He was also full of hope, faith, love, joy - to eliminate happiness or to call cheap entertainment happiness does a great disservice to the word. The only way we can know this other than historical surmising is through The Holy Spirit who procures the joy that can sustain self-sacrificial love for the world; our strength and Christ's also.

Highanddry said...

@ Arthur,

That Huxley/Orwell piece is very good. Thank you for the link.

In general, I am seduced by this post. As a melancholy person (tending towards depressive) I like to think of myself as spiritually superior to my happy-faced friends and colleagues. But I am also deeply suspicious of this seduction.

How I long to be rid of the discontent in which I live! How I long to laugh sincerely!

I wonder whether Jesus' words don't hold the key to this riddle. "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh." (Luke 6:21b)

I wonder whether our mourning is not indicative of our longing for the newness of God and despair over the brokenness of the world we see. I wonder whether our pain is not a symptom of the 'birth pangs' of this world's passing away.

And yet in all this is a profound longing for the joy of God. Perhaps we weep because we wait in hope of God's future. Perhaps we do not dare to laugh too soon. Perhaps in doing so we suppress the in-breaking of God's newness and deny the transformative reality of God's victory.

Anonymous said...

Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. (Ecclesiastes 7:3)

Thank you for this. So, true.

Si Hollett said...

In response to #11, it's not that they are always smiling, it's that they aren't what they are meant to be. They are twisted normality - sad people with huge painted smiles, funny people that aren't funny at all.

They are meant to be comedic, but they are tragic, they have big painted smiles and grins, but you somehow know that that's false. Younger children all spot it until they believe the lie that they are funny (they never are) which covers a multitude of misbehaviour by the clown - including throwing a ball at my face so that it hurt (in Harrods, no less, you'd expect a better class of clown there), while everyone else had walked past him, just because I looked sad. It wasn't funny, it was sociopathic, but "he's a clown, he's always funny". You can't trust them at all.

Jon Coutts said...

This is a fantastic piece with its finger on an important truth, pointing quite piercingly in a number of appropriate directions.

When I was interviewed for ordination I expressed my passion for theology and the church with a certain melancholy seriousness and one of the interviewers accused me of not really seeming very passionate at all. I did not go into the etymology of 'passion' -- thankfully the other interviewers did not seem to take him all that seriously -- but kind of wish I would have.

Anyway, thanks for this. Despite my deep resonance with it, however, I do agree with some of the above recollections of joy. I am reminded of Chesterton's adage that today's priest, as the bearer of news that is good, might be needed not so much to remind the world that it is on the road to death but that it is not dead yet. But joy and 'happiness' are not the same thing.

roger flyer said...

There is a saying in the contemplative tradition.
Joy and sorrow are sisters in the same house.

Ed Gentry said...

I'm reminded of my lecture lasts week on the Psalms. I'm always struck by the breadth of emotion expressed here. And by the deep cords of sadness and lament fill its volume.

I think that is is Brueggemann's idea that the message of the psalter taken as a whole is that the road from obedience (ps 1) to delight (many of the psalms at the end) is through lament (on third of the psalms in the middle).

Blessed are those who mourn ...

Dan Reid said...

:-( = :-)

Anonymous said...

Boo Hoo, Boo Hoo, Boo Hoo!

I'm crying so I must be a sainted bishop.

Oh, wait, I'm actually smiling in derision at your frowning theoretical nonsense.


myleswerntz said...

I'm reminded of Dwight Schrute's quote from the American version of The Office:

"I never smile if I can help it. Showing one's teeth is a sign of submission in primates. When someone smiles at me, all I see is a chimpanzee begging for its life."

myleswerntz said...

Why so many anonymous haters today? Must be Hide-Behind-the-Internet Day...

kim fabricius said...

"Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps."
-- William Blake

Thanks, Ben.

Unknown said...

Regarding point 3, if the stylization of happiness were a late capitalist phenomenon, than 18th and 19th century comedies of manners would be unintelligible. The cult of the image could perhaps be invoked here as a novelty, but looking at magazine advertisements from the forties and fifties, it seems that the smile was far more fetishized than it is even today.

Regarding point 5, doesn't this assume that psychological biographies of these figures are accurate when you say that they would be medicated? I find those works far more troubling than any psychosis found in the writings of Luther, Kierkegaard, or Dostoevsky.

scott said...


A very insightful series, but I have a theological question, which leaves me uneasy about the formulation of your last point -- the eschatological abolition of sadness (all "tragedy," all death), which you tie quite closely to the closure of history itself.

After thinking a while about Augustine and Barth on our creaturely nature and it's relation to death, I've come to think its quite problematic to think that illness itself, or all forms of suffering, are the result of sin. The question comes down to our own original (and final) mortality, to the rightfulness of our non-immortality. In my view, part of the "triumph of happiness" I think you so perceptively diagnose has to do with the increasing sense in the West that every form of "death" (mortality itself) is a consequence of sin, all suffering is moral failure. But Jews couldn't have thought like this; Paul talked about the "sting of death"; and Augustine (although I think he is part of the problem here) also distinguished between the "first death" of our embodied nature, and the "second death" that is the result of sin. I think this area is one of the greatest theological challenges facing contemporary Christianity -- and you have laid your finger on the pulse of so many of the practical issues (love, justice) it is tied to.

But why conceive the eschaton as the closure of history -- i.e., the final end of mortality itself -- rather than the irrevocable judgment of creation's groaning, its ubiquitous entanglement with the history of sin? I think to rush too quickly to a polarization of eschatological happiness and historical tragedy may only foster the dominant notion that the real problem with our creatureliness is mortality itself -- and thus relieve us of the work of discerning which forms of illness, suffering and death should be embraced as part of our proper morality -- as an ontological limit to the guarantee of self-fulfillment -- and which must be resisted as works of Death.

myleswerntz said...

Somebody's been reading their Stringfellow, Scott...

scott said...

Yeah -- him too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ben. I'm afraid of clowns and cry when asked questions too. People avoid me because I always frown at them. Now I realize that I am just a better Christian than they are. Damn Evangelicals.

Justin said...

Christianity makes me a very sad panda.

roger flyer said...

So..I think Anonymous (the first and last) is a happy evangelical, no?

byron smith said...

Thank you, Ben. You preach to the heart and liberate the groans we share with creation and the Spirit.

greg said...

I had a friend who did an internship at a 'sunny' southern Californian evangelical church. At summer's end, during his evaluation, he was given only two pieces of feedback: (1) take some management courses; (2) smile more.

roger flyer said...

@ Greg. Is he now working as a clown?

Thatjeffcarter said...

this is one of the greatest things i've read. thank you.

Anonymous said...

I had a friend who did an internship at a dark cathedral. At winter's end, during his evaluation, he was given only three pieces of feedback: (1) take some philosophy courses; (2) frown more; (3) fear clowns.

Fortunately, he burst into tears and, kneeling at his feet, his evaluators immediately made him an archbishop.

But, seriously, clowns are really scary. Any Christian who doesn't frown and fear clowns is responsible for overprescription of psychoactive medications ... and the Holocaust.

Pamela said...

Should be working, Ben, but this needs a comment!
Wonderful. The old cliche: I've learnt so much more from sadness than the happiest of times (and there have been plenty of happy times).

kim fabricius said...

My daughter is coulrophobic. I recently mentioned it in my father-of-the-bride speech - and then reassured the guests that it isn't an STD

roger flyer said...

But seriously folks... (rimshot) (Roger adjusts tie)

@Anonymous (the latest and greatest).

Are you OK out there? I'd buy you a beer if you are ok with drinking one and I hope I don't cry in it when I ask:

What are you talking about? I really want to know. (At least I think I do.)

roger flyer said...

@ Kim. Sounds like a hoot at the wedding!
and congratulations to the father of the bride!
Clowns are coulros en francais?

Paul Tyson said...

Thanks Ben. I think there is a dialectic going on here. The intrinsically superficial notion of happiness is indeed incompatible with sorrow, but sorrow and joy – as deep even ‘metaphysical’ realities – are in dialectical union in much the same way that happiness and sadness – as explicitly apparent phenomena – are in dialectical union. This, of course, means that one can look happy and be in sorrow. And I would have to say that people manufacturing an emotional state of sadness in attempted sympathy when one is obviously in sorrow, is far more repulsive that the obvious superficiality of a smile. Psychologically I am of a sunny disposition, so I hardly ever look sad. Indeed, I smile and laugh a lot. But I would venture to suggest that I am almost always in some form of sorrow. (And my sorrow for the church is why I can’t get through ordination hoops, no matter how ‘happy’ I appear to my ecclesial gate keepers.) Indeed, it seems that compassion is a joyful giving that can only arise from an entering into another’s sorrow. And this leads me to Scott’s comment.

An eschatological paradise where God wipes away every tear from our eye and where sorrow and death are no more is, I think, no optional tack on to the gospel. I presume (but Scott is far brighter than I and always deep and passionately serious, and I may not be understanding him) that Scott is a mortalist materialist Christian, and for this reasons your final thesis (and possibly not a few Christian beliefs) is problematic to him. Myself, I cannot understand how one can be a mortalist materialist Christian. Further, as I think compassion works as a form of joy for Augustinian reasons, I am not sure how the reality of both joy and sorrow (which I know Scott knows) can be compatible with the belief structure of mortalist materialism. That is, following Augustine, evil, sorrow and even death, are not finally Real. But to enter into the place of evil/sorrow/death in the kenotic manner of Christ, and burst it from within, by participation, is to know “the joy set before Him” wherein Christ spurned the shame of the cross, triumphed over the grave, and made a spectacle of all the principalities and powers of this fallen order. Mere happiness and sadness have no spiritual power to go where compassion goes, for they have no hope for anything other than the material and mortal present.

kim fabricius said...

Yeah, Roger, I was hoping to post my speech here at F&T, but my daughter said she'd disown me and my wife divorce me - it was that evil!

roger flyer said...

@ Kim--But full of joy and tears I presume...?

scott said...

Not a full-fledged response to Paul (to whose assessment of my problems I could say both Yes and No), but just to clarify my last sentence above: it was meant to read "...should be embraced as part of our proper mortality'...', not morality.

I will just say, briefly, Paul, that I'm not worried about an End per se, or the possibility of some final removal of all forms of suffering/death from creation -- the question is if what's then left is creation, and if so, when "immortalized", then in what sense. I am worried that the certainty that that End (the abolition of sin as the end of mortality) is the Christian hope is in fact bound up with a historical conflation of the original problem, and the Last Enemy, with our own creatureliness, our non-divinity. As much as he has going for him, the Augustinian problem of death's "unreality" -- insofar as it is a problem of every temporal form -- is inescapably bound up with the materiality, and transience, of our "animal natures."

byron smith said...

Scott - Yes, this is very important: correctly relating and distinguishing finitude and fallenness is one of the critical tasks in doctrines of both creation and eschatology (and plenty of others in between too).

Chuck said...


This is really timely for me. Thank you for this post, I could relate to most of what you've written as plastered smiles is also a staple in contemporary Philippine churches and I myself have been thought of as a source of pessimism in my church for always lamenting with how things are. Reading your post made me find words for the tears that have rolled down my cheeks in the past and even now. Thank you

Anonymous said...

@roger - 2nd anonymous = an evangelical who is sometimes happy and sometimes sad. And in many ways my evangelicalness is the source of both.

Paul Tyson said...

Thanks Scott. I think I get what you are saying, and, if I do, I think I agree (but possibly not entirely) with you. An eschatological redemption of creation, if it is without death or sorrow, is so entirely unlike anything we can imagine, and so entirely unlike materiality as we understand it, that it is totally unconceivable, and cannot be though of in the terms of ‘life after death’ or any such notion which is defined by how we understand life and death, joy and sorrow, or even existence, now. That is, as the scriptures indicate, what is eschatologically prepared for the beloved of the Groom, no eye has seen and no mind has conceived. We simply can’t imagine life without death (or birth), joy without sorrow, creatureliness without some type of mortality, or, for that matter, sexuality without bodily sexual organs or procreation. (But I do not see why a state without mortality must be a state without creaturely finitude.) Regrading the eschatological ‘future’, only the darkest image through a glass is in any way accessible. Sentimental notions of re-unions beyond the grave which are sort of super continuations of our present understanding of reality are simply delusions. Yet even here, I suspect that this sentimental delusion as a parable where the deep truth of love is indeed freed from the bonds of death, may have the deeper truth than flat material mortalism.

Even so, Scott, I do think there is a real connection between the original problem and the last enemy – where death is the ontological state of our religious (in Barth’s sense) mortality. But that has to do with the manner in which I read the opening of Genesis in the light of the New Testament (and here I do not have much time for historistic biblical scholarship with debt to Strauss), and here I suspect we possibly differ quite deeply.

I’m not sure what you are getting at regarding Augustine and animality. I presume you are pointing towards the fact that Augustine is too much of a Platonist to hold materially embedded transience as having any sort of final purchase on reality. But in that very regard, the language of Paul – the present mortal body as a tent, as clothing, as an earthen vessel that does explicitly not endure, even though we, as changed into a new resurrection body, will endure – is also Platonic, though, of course, there is no disembodied soul in his Hebraic outlook. Do you maintain that Augustine denies any valid acceptance of material animality because he holds to this Platonist/Pauline view of the genuine transience of mortal materiality at the same time as he hopes for an unconceivable embodied redeemed creaturely materiality that is not transient?

By the way, Scott, I love your work with the ABC. It’s a feast.

Jason Goroncy said...

By far the happiest thing I've read all day. Thanks Ben.

Wood said...

This is beautifully written and largely true.

I would take some issues with the stuff about clowns... but that doesn't really matter.

Point is, yes, sorrow is not a medical complaint. True happiness is the recognition and conquest of sorrow, not its absence, just like courage is the conquest and recognition of fear, and faith is the conquest and recognition of doubt.

"It was there by faith I received my sight/And now I am happy all the day." Stuff like that makes me cry out inside for some sort of truth or proportion. False happiness

Lucidus said...

"He is a [sane] man who can have tragedy in his heart and comedy in his head." - GK Chesterton.

Thank you very much, Ben.

scott said...

Paul... I don't have time to respond at the moment -- but I just need to clarify, I am not Scott Stephens of ABC fame. My name is Scott Prather. Sorry if I inadvertently dragged Mr. Stephens (whose work with ABC I also respect) into this.

I was wondering why you thought you knew me so well!

Paul Tyson said...

Ha! Sorry Scott! (Thats a very big oops... excuse me whilst I wipe egg from my face). And sorry to SS too if he's tuned in! Oh shit. (Well here's some more humour!)

byron smith said...

Lucidus: that quote reminds me of one by Horacle Walpole: "The world is a comedy to him who thinks, a tragedy to him who feels."

Anonymous said...

... and then I thought of Desmond Tutu.

Unknown said...

Wow. How unfortunate that you have so many readers. And what an unfortunate perspective on emotional health.

Being unnaturally, artificially happy is no worse than putting on a fake cloak of sorrow because you think it's somehow holier than being happy.

God gave us a HUGE range of emotions, and it was a good gift. I might even go so far as to say that it is VERY good. No one of them is any good by itself, and none of them are bad.

Balance, in all things.

Erin said...

Life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think. - Jean De La Bruyere

Erin said...

enjoyed the post Ben!

Anonymous said...

History ends when you wake up from its dream/nightmare and find The Beautiful Room of Perfect Space in which it all seemed to be occurring.

Two pieces of common trivia which point to this understanding

Merrily merrily life is but a dream.

Ignorance is bliss.

Fat said...

Forgive me Father Benjamin for I have smiled.......

Irith said...

My theological training is zero, but from my personal walk with God I am coming to appreciate the spiritual poverty, and mourning, described in The Sermon on the Mount. It seems to me that they are both types of emptiness. Poverty is to have no resources. In my perception of my own poverty I can look for and obtain God's provision, God's resources (in terms of spiritual needs, i.e. I'm not espousing the 'prosperity doctrine'...). I am weak but He is strong. And when He works it is amazing, and I know not my own doing, which is an incredibly liberating experience and becomes a hunger, a desire to see it repeated continually. Mourning is the emptiness of resources too. I am mourning because I can see pain, I can see need, I feel compassionate, but I have no answers and I can see no answers. I can do nothing but weep. When we have the courage to mourn we are exposing the great need, the great deficit, to God and allowing Him to fill that space. To mourn is to have no shame, it is refusing to deny the pain, it is to insist on acknowledging it before God, it is looking to Him to address it...and He does. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. I don't believe this is limited to an 'end time' recalibration of the world's ills. I believe, I have experienced, God's comfort as an incredible answer to pain and grief that is able to give life and hope in real ways and ways that change lives. If we don't mourn how can we have solidarity with those who suffer? If we don't mourn how can those who suffer ever enjoy compassion from others? If we don't mourn how can we keep ourselves still so that God can act?

roger flyer said...

@Irith...Some thoughtful stuff from your heart. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ben. I think you have perfected the art of blogging - provocative and insightful stuff. It makes me sad and happy simultaneously.

Erin said...

a nourishing post.
it is ironic how much relief, even joy, it brings.
(and not just 'cause emo makes me laugh.)
there's a follow up somewhere about the connection of pain and honest humor as an antidote too.

Pamela said...

@Irith...I can only agree with Roger Flyer, thank you for sharing those thoughts.

Anonymous said...

When you fast, be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance. Matthew 6:16
A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance: but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken.
Proverbs 15:13
Nehemiah 2:2 so the king asked me, "Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart." I was very much afraid

Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? (God asked CAIN, who had just murdered)
And I have heard it said that those pesky westerners are the largest percentage of charitable givers; Here is a verse about that.
He that despiseth his neighbour sinneth: but he that hath mercy on the poor, happy [is] he.
May the LORD smile on you and be gracious to you.
Numbers 6:25
Proverbs 29:18 Where [there is] no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy [is] he.
WE COULD PICK AND CHOOSE HAPPY/SAD emotion verses all day long, but God gave us the full range, and I love smiles better than sadness. When people smile at me, I feel happier inside. When I have had deep times of worship with my Father, I am happier inside and my face shows it! :) It is a reflection of things being well within, for me. This was a very dreary piece up. (but I AM a sanguine who can find a piece of light anywhere and only in deep intercession for the souls of my lost friends come to tears in earnest hope of their salvation) The rest of the time, I thoroughly love to smile and make their days brighter. Cheery-O!

Andrew Gleeson said...

Thank you Ben for a wonderful post.

There has been some discussion on the thread about eschatology, and the apparent tension between 'Love is written on the face of sadness' (as you beautifully put it) and the expectation of a peacable kingdom. For myself, I can't see how they are reconcilable. Love is not possible without suffering and sorrow.

I am interested in Paul's position (Paul your commenator I mean!). He rejects life after death emphaticallly -- which I can only assume includes resurrection conceived as a state that lies in the future like next year's Grand Final does -- but also rejects 'materialist mortalism'. The problem of course is how one avoids materialist mortalism if one rejects life after death. Paul admits the problem, and (if I am reading him rightly) also admits he cannot really an answer (it is "totally inconceivable").

So maybe we need to think about what 'materialist mortalism' is, and what, by contrast, 'triumph over death' is. Paul rightly recognises that triumph over death is not a matter of God contriving to do what modern medical science strives to do -- keep us going indefinitely. Even if it could succeed, this techical triumph, a triumph of worldly physical force, is in a deeper sense a capitulation to death, for it makes survival the most important thing, the be-all-and-end-all. That, I suspect, is actually a form materialist IMMortalism, something just as mistaken as its mortalist counterpart. The enemy is not death itself but, so to speak, 'Death And Survival', the placing of THAT ISSUE (will I survive or not?) at the centre of our lives.

Here is an alternative. Death is defeated on calvary because calvary shows that love is stronger than death. The crucial issue is: stronger in what sense? We so easily fall into thinking it must be the survivalist sense. But that, really, is putting death -- or, as I say, 'Death And Survival' - above love by making it the criterion of success. There is no neutral criterion here by which we can compare love and death and say which is stronger. It is a choice between rival criteria of success. If love is stronger then it is stronger on its own terms and from its own persective. Its triumph is in being able to say 'Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do'.

I admit to being immensely attracted to this sort of position. The problem, of course, is: what room is left for a literally empty tomb?

geoffc said...

but i want my 3 and 1 year old children to be always happy and smiling...why?

Bobby Grow said...

#6 was profound, Ben!

#12 is just, true!

They were all good points, thanks for sharing them.

Saul of Tarsus said...

@Andrew Gleeson,

I want to share a secret with you, we won't all die, but we will all be changed. Our hope is that the stuff we're made of now will be transformed into new creation stuff that is similar too but also categorically different than our current embodied existence. Yeah, I know it sounds kinda weird, but so does calling a crucified Jew "Lord," so you know, deal with it.

Also, I know the Bultmannians and Barthians will jump in here when we start talking about a "literal" resurrection and how this is a category mistake, when we all know that it means, "well if we found Jesus' tomb would it have a body in it?" If the answer is "yes," stop being a Christian because we've been misrepresenting God. You don't have to hate us, just feel sorry for us.

And if the tomb is empty, might I suggest that this means that God has raised Jesus from the dead (I know, I know, there's no logically necessary connection between an empty tomb a belief in the resurrection, but a bunch of us saw Jesus) and so our future hope is that we too will be raised, and so this frees us to live our lives here with our noses to the grindstone working for the Lord in whatever we do, because our work in the Lord will not be in vain.

Just some suggestions,
Saul (my Greek friends call me Paul)

Mary said...

Very, very interesting post, although I'm not at all sure that I agree with most of your points. I would certainly agree that the wholesale cultural and spiritual rejection of sadness is a rejection of something essential in our humanity and spirituality...on the other hand, it's not too much of an exaggeration for me to say that Prozac (and some good therapy, natch) saved my life when I was 11 or 12. So...I have a hard time with #5 especially. It's a common trope to focus on sadness as a necessary part of artistic development; but what about all of those potential thinkers and artists who were too weighed down by misery to live up to their potential? We say, "Oh, Van Gogh created miraculous beauty out of despair"; I wonder what he would have come up with if he'd lived into old age. There's simply no way to know.

As for the cure for sadness being God--I believe that now; but when I was a child, what I believed was that, because I was sad, God had abandoned me.

I get what you're aiming at; I really do. But this is simply not a topic that I can separate from my own experience. I guess what I'm trying to say is that sadness is essential, but despair is toxic. And it's very, very difficult to separate the two; and it's very easy to fall from one sort of blaming those who are suffering into another.

Andrew Gleeson said...

Dear Saul (and anyone interested),

Presumably, we think there is something tawdry about the pursuit of immortality through medicine, about (for instance) cyrogenically freezing our bodies till science advances enough to stitch us back together and keep us going indefinitely. We rightly see that same tawdriness in the purusit of youth and beauty through gyms and plastic surgery and so on that so excites our society.

My worry is: how is Saul's 'literal' resurrection different?

Saul of Tarsus said...

Dear Andrew,

The difference is that human efforts at extending life indefinitely are a work of the flesh, the resurrection is an act of God and thus wholly-other.

Has God acted, will God act, does God act?

byron smith said...

how is Saul's 'literal' resurrection different?
Perhaps because it is not something we pursue?

Bobby Grow said...


It's an issue of recreation and the heart, not a tawdry narcissism grounded in the tawdry universe of "me".

Or, Heaven's not for "me" it's for "us," and "we" are for "Him" because we are in "Him" and thus in "God" (as creatures of course).

scott said...

Dear Saul of Tarsus,

Can you please clarify your position vis-a-vis the distinction you make elsewhere between sarx (flesh) and pneuma (spirit)? Your friends, the Jews, have been whispering in my ear, telling me it cannot be reduced to a distinction between time and eternity, or worldly life and a heavenly thereafter. They say it's closer to the distinction between the one creation of God under two kingdoms, two different rules.

If you still want to claim those friends as your own, can you clarify how your sarx-pneuma distinction can come to mean -- as it does in your other reader, Augustine -- that our "spiritual bodies" means bodies so perfectly subordinate to the immortal soul that they will not need to eat, and will probably be able to fly?

(Bobby -- your parenthetical "as creatures of course" seems to constitute a nod in the general direction of the actual issue. What that means is the question.)

Anonymous said...


I must confess I haven't read the comments, so I don't know if this has been covered.

However, as someone who has been all over the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox map in the US, I'm very certain that anyone who spends a great deal of time addressing issues that are tiny, insignificant, and ultimately irrelevant doesn't have a prayer of understanding what the world really needs for redemption.

In short, waging a crusade against smiling is as useless as waging an effort to smile all the time.

Paul Tyson said...

Hi Andrew. I do believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus from the grave, and in ‘life after death’ as resurrection after the same manner of Christ’s resurrection. However, the disciples obviously had a hard time recognizing the resurrected Jesus – even though he ate fish and had a material body of some sort (that could just appear and vanish) – and I put that difficulty down to the problem Plato plays with in Meno. That is, we can’t understand, comprehend or even apprehend something we don’t already know in some manner. (By the way, Augustine’s “The Teacher” answers the problem of learning that Plato raises most satisfactorily for me.)

Your point about death and survival is I think very interesting. Christ dispensed with both survival and ‘rational self interest’ in his ministry and in the cross, and I think this is the most powerful argument for the Mennonite stance on the politics of non-violence as the responsibility of every follower of Jesus. Yes! Victory over death is not about survival at all! And hence – contra Augustine – “Just war” seems to me to compromises the Christian witness very seriously. Further, I believe that the paradise of God wherein the resurrected live is of an entirely different order of reality to what we currently inhabit, an order where death and survival and evil and goodness (!) are all swallowed up by love, life and light (see John’s letters). So whilst we cannot avoid thinking about the things of the coming world in the terms of this world, our thoughts are always inadequate, though they may have some symbolic significance. But obviously notions of survival have no significance in that world, linked as they are to agonism and death. The Barthian emphasis on the unknowable God – whom we can know only by recognizing our ignorance and being known by Him – and the ‘totally other’ conception of the apocalyptic inbreaking of God into our lives that you see in Moltmann – are I think very important truths to keep in mind when thinking about things we can only just barely frame; things on the other side of that unreturnable event horizon we call death.

Ian Packer said...


I wonder if you secretly despise the book of Proverbs in your purpose-driven stride across your not-so-large-as-you-think American map trumpeting "what the world really needs for redemption."

Things so small as ants, lilies, dogs, specks in eyes, and birds can open up doors to larger worlds. And even particular kinds of smiles on a culture.

Having one's eye's opened to this is most certainly not the same joining a 'crusade' against smiling. The pumping adrenaline from so much travel has possibly led to some slight exaggeration...

Justin Ireland said...

Point 11 re the endlessly smiling clown reminded me of the (quite scary) book and movie "It" by Stephen King, in which the smiling and laughing clown turns out to be the personification of the irrational force of evil in the world.

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