There’s so much to love in Simeon Zahl’s latest monograph, The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience. In addition to being a theological tour de force, the book offers numerous outstanding reflections on how theology might explain the experiences of everyday life. The following comes from Chapter 4, “Grace in Experience”, pp. 172-75 (emphasis added).

[A vital function] of the affective pedagogy effected by the Spirit through the instruments of the law and the gospel is to label and make sense of existing problematic and painful affects, and to create space for accepting and interpreting key dimensions of our experience of ourselves and the world that would otherwise be less understandable and less subject to conscious awareness. In this sense, the distinction between the law and the gospel provides a discursive diagnostic instrument for interpreting affects that bodies already feel, and for bringing greater awareness, through a kind of process of excavation, to forces and feelings that are present in the body but which have hitherto been shrouded, misinterpreted, or numbed. To label and excavate these experiences through the encounter with divine law, in particular, is a significant part of what Luther is talking about when, interpreting the Pauline claim that ‘through the law comes the knowledge of sin’ (Rom. 3:20), he says that the purpose of the law is to ‘reveal sin’ (revelare peccatum). It is through this labelling and this excavating that ‘the sinner is discovered to himself’[1] […]

It will be helpful at this stage to give a concrete example of how [this] affective pedagogy might work out in practice. Affect theorist Lauren Berlant has written about a phenomenon of experience that she calls ‘cruel optimism’. She defines cruel optimism as ‘the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object’,[2] and as the situation that obtains ‘when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.’[3] She gives the example of punishing attachment to the expectation ‘that this time, nearness to this thing will help you or a world to become different in just the right way’, no matter how often it does not actually work out that way.[4] Later she describes cruel optimism similarly as naming situations where ‘the loss of what’s not working’ in a person’s life is experienced as ‘more unbearable than the having of it.’[5] A relation of cruel optimism can obtain in relation to all sorts of objects: ‘It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project’, and it can also ‘rest on something simpler … like a new habit that promises to induce in you an improved way of being’.[6] Describing ‘cruel optimism’, Berlant is thus observing and analyzing a particular way in which human beings participate irrationally and compulsively in the generation of their own suffering. The phenomenon of ‘cruel optimism’ exhibits the affective reality of what Berlant calls ‘nonsovereignty’ — the fact that appeals to conscious agency often have so little power to explain what ‘makes bodies move’. And it identifies such nonsovereignty as fundamentally problematic, caught up as it so often is in patterns of personal and social self-sabotage.

From the perspective of a theological framework of law and gospel, we might interpret Berlant’s observations about ‘cruel optimism’ as an incisive non-religious analysis of certain experiential outcomes of the fact that human existence unfolds under a condition that Christians call ‘sin’. Theologically speaking, one core outcome of the Fall is that human beings are prone to trying to locate answers to their problems in objects in the world that by definition cannot deliver on the ‘salvation’ they promise. As Augustine argues, a key implication of the doctrine of creation from nothing is that objects in the world are not designed to provide lasting satisfaction or to help us in our deepest needs. They are meant to be ‘used’ for the sake of enjoying God, from whom their goodness derives, rather than to be ‘enjoyed’ as ends in themselves.The ontology of creation is such that created things will always fail us when treated as ends in themselves; the nature of sin is such that we will keep trying to treat them as ends in themselves anyway.

Understood in this Christian theological frame, we have a way of making a different kind of sense of the fact that, as Berlant observes, humans beings so often maintain attachments to ‘significantly problematic object[s]’. Theology gives a different language for speaking about the ways we cannot help getting trapped in Sisyphean hopes that ‘this time, nearness to this thing will help you or a world to become different in just the right way’, no matter how often it proves not to be the case. Interpreting the phenomena Berlant identifies through a theological lens does not necessarily change the problematic attachment directly. Berlant is talking about just the sort of affective attachments that prove to be so painfully intransigent, and which tend to resist easy transformation through discursive labelling, even theological labelling. We can imagine her echoing Luther’s exasperated response to Erasmus, ‘Ask experience how impervious to dissuasion are those whose affections are set on anything!’[7]

But a theological framework can and does make a new and different kind of sense of these problematic attachments over which we experience so little power.[8] It renders them less inchoate and less baffling. It can make them worse, adding the dread of divine judgment to our own self-critique and our perceptions of the critiques of others. And it can also render the cost of acknowledging our problematic attachments less acute by placing them within a frame of meaning in which there is a real possibility of efficacious help from outside, a help whose deep orientation is precisely to those who find themselves trapped in problems of their own making (‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come not to call the righteous but sinners’; Mark 2:17).

From a Christian perspective we can thus say that in describing the phenomenon of ‘cruel optimism’, Berlant has accurately and compassionately analyzed a major contemporary instantiation of the experience of life before the law, and of the idolatrous treatment of objects in the world as ends in themselves. But we can also suggest that understanding ‘cruel optimism’ and similar experiences through theological language about creation, sin, idolatry, and the salvific intervention of God in history does have power to reconfigure how we experience these experiences.

Ultimately, however, the theological framing goes one step further than this. It also introduces a new possibility within the closed system of self-inflicted suffering that Berlant describes: the possibility of hope for a deliverance that originates outside the system. The law-gospel hermeneutic interacts with the givens of our experiences as bodies in the world—in this case painful unwillingness to detach from things that harm us and others even when we can see perfectly clearly that this is what is happening—to testify that there may be a door in the wall after all. It is when ‘the sinner is discovered to himself’ in the encounter with the law that he becomes open to the possibility of encounter with divine grace.

[1] Wesley, ‘The Nature and Use of the Law’, p. 263.

[2] Berlant, Cruel Optimism, p. 24.

[3] Berlant, Cruel Optimism, p. 1.

[4] Berlant, Cruel Optimism, p. 2. Emphasis original.

[5] Berlant, Cruel Optimism, p. 27.

[6] Berlant, Cruel Optimism, p. 1.

[7] WA 18:634; LW 33:64-65.

[8] Cf. Riis and Woodhead on ‘emotional ordering’ (‘Religious emotional regimes help to order and pattern emotional life’); as well as ‘emotional transcendence-transition’ (‘religion often facilitates emotional transition’). See Ole Riis and Linda Woodhead, A Sociology of Religious Emotion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 76, 82, 76-88.