Can the Christian be a Pessimist?

(This is Neil.) Of course, I can’t really answer such a question in a short blog post. I certainly don’t want to dismiss the very real possibility of clinical depression or other concerns. But I do think that the answer might be yes.  

The word “meaningless” (hevel) shows up three times already in the second verse of Ecclesiastes (it is usually translated as “vanity”). Qohelet (the writer) had attempted to define himself in terms of wealth and reputation and failed, finding out along the way that many relationships fail (Eccl 4:4). His attempt to understand God has failed (3.11), and, indeed, he concludes that it may be better to never have been born (7.1). 

We may wonder if, being Christians who “rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Rom 5.2), we can ever fully enter into the pessimism of Qohelet (remembering, of course, that Qohelet does not end in despair – see my post here).  

In a short talk entitled “Christian Pessimism”, the late Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner shows a way, I think, to say ‘yes’. He focuses on another Pauline verse, 2 Cor 4.8-10, which can be translated “we are perplexed, but not driven to despair.” Claiming that, indeed, “Our existence is one of radical perplexity,” Rahner noted that we should be well aware that no theory, technology, or institution can do justice to the mystery of  human existence, and that history is littered with the failure of well-intended Promethean attempts to do just that. “We invent all kinds of social systems, and every one of them turns without fail into an occasion of injustice and abuse of power. We claim that we are looking for peace among all peoples and we get ready for war in order to find peace.” Worse, this incomprehensible mystery of human existence is the stage for all sorts of horrors, some of which we ourselves are entangled with.

Rahner claimed that Christians must face all this: “As Christians, we should not try to spare ourselves failure, disappointment, and ruin with the ideological sweeteners being peddled in society and the church,” because any sort of easy optimism “is excluded by the Christian conviction that we arrive at God’s definitive realm only by passing through death.” The Christian is, after all, baptized into hope, because she is first baptized into Christ’s death. In fact, the implication of this is that the Christian needs to embrace the darkness, and finally (even as she tries to bring a foretaste of God’s kingdom to this world) surrender to its inevitability, trusting that, in it, she will encounter not despair but the paradox of the Cross.  

And, then, Resurrection. Rahner writes: 

(Christians) experience their radical fall into the abyss of divinity as their deepest perplexity. They continue to experience this darkness, always more intensely and more bitterly, in a certain sense, until the dreadful absurdity of death. They see that this experience of darkness is confirmed by the fate of Jesus. At the same time, in a mysterious paradox, they feel that this very experience is sent to them by God and is the experience of the arrival of God near them. The perplexity and the fact that it is lifted by God’s grace are not really two successive stages of human existence. God’s grace does not totally remove the perplexity of existence. The lifting, the ouk exaporoumenoi, accepted and filled with grace, is the real truth of the perplexity itself. 

So can the Christian be as fully pessimistic – perhaps even more pessimistic – than Qohelet, knowing that it is in such ‘pessimism’ that God draws near to us?  

Comments are always welcome.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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2 Responses to Can the Christian be a Pessimist?

  1. Fred says:

    Thanks for this post.

    I’ve just been reading an article by Fr. Giussani that also develops a critical line toward glib optimism.

    I’m also reminded of TS Eliot’s quote that humanity is always “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good” (also quoted by Giussani).

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Fred,

    Thanks, as always, for writing. I’ll definitely read Fr Giussani’s article.

    I’ve been struck by how difficult it is to let go of “systems so perfect”: once we manage to stop grasping to political or personal “systems,” it seems that we hold more tightly onto ecclesiastical “systems” that promise to create a perfect and unambiguous church in the midst of the disappointing world. Of course, these “systems” inevitably fail (or could never be put into practice to begin with), and we are left in bitterness, perhaps heading towards despair.

    Well, that’s gloomy.

    Let me thank you again.

    Neil

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