We Are Always in the Wrong: The Absurd Command, Part 2

Continuing from last week’s first part. Kierkegaard once (indirectly) wrote that it is an edifying […]

Ian Olson / 4.10.19

Continuing from last week’s first part.

Kierkegaard once (indirectly) wrote that it is an edifying thought that “before God we are always in the wrong.” Not because he was an apologist for the perfectionist strain of popular Calvinism (thank God) but because this view recalibrates our lenses to assess what actually is the case. A theology of the cross, after all, permits us to call a thing what it is (Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 21) and to not be destroyed by the admission. If we could tell the truth about ourselves, Luther and Kierkegaard insist, we could recognize our lack as the point at which our lives actually intersect with the grace of God.

Resounding within this is an echo of vastly more nutritious words than the advice we discussed in Part 1. No, emotional sadism and the abandonment of hope are not the answer; neither of those will suffice to make me less of what it is I am so eager not to be, much less become something more. I put aside Gale’s book and sought out W. H. Auden’s “In Sickness and in Health,” searching for this hinge point:

Beloved, we are always in the wrong,
Handling so clumsily our stupid lives,
Suffering too little or too long,
Too careful even in our selfish loves:
The decorative manias we obey
Die in grimaces round us every day,
Yet through their tohu-bohu comes a voice
Which utters an absurd command – Rejoice.

These words have mediated such grace to me over the past year. They form a single stanza in a longer, beautiful poem that I have found impels me towards something worthwhile in a way the self-flagellation of populist Calvinism and Elan Gale both simply cannot. These eight lines in particular re-describe our ordinary experience: they fit it to new vocabulary and provide us with a different handhold for navigating it. But above all, they refocus our hearing, away from the improvement police, and toward the divine speech-act that whispers life into us.

The “beloved” that begins this stanza reflects New Testament language that addresses all believers as beloved in Christ, the Beloved par excellence. Paul, Peter, and John all speak to the earliest Christian congregations with the tenderness of God, hailing them and us with a name we would never have surmised otherwise. In hearing it, we accede to God’s testimony and become the subjects of a brand new language-game, relativizing the metrics and obligations of prior ones. Whatever else we are, we are the ones who are loved. Is there any one of us that doesn’t need to hear this? It’s a priestly form of address that Auden employs to soften what could sound, at first blush, like bad news. Instead, it recalibrates the pronouncement that follows as solace.

Being “always in the wrong” can sound like a bogus consolation, but I think that’s because we want to isolate disappointments and failures as outliers on the performance graphs of our lives. Acknowledging the truth of the matter can sound frightening if you insist on scripting a story that relegates wrongness to earlier in the plot, before you apprehended maturity, wisdom, or sainthood. But the saints are those whose lives do not yet resound with unadulterated rightness; they are the ones who name their only hope of that ever happening as Jesus Christ. Perhaps they aren’t as wrong as they’ve ever been, but neither are they routinely in the right for long, unbroken stretches. We are always, only ever, to some degree or another, wrong. We are not as far along as some of us presume to be, kilometers ahead of the infirm and ill-practiced, but none of us are hopelessly lagging behind the mass of Christians with their superlative moral agility and stamina, either. We are all prone to self-injury and moral astigmatism, wherever we are in our Christian walk. The best among us are in the wrong: there is no immunity for any son or daughter of Adam.

But this is not bad news. Thesis 17 of the Heidelberg Disputation asserts, “Nor does speaking in this manner give cause for despair, but for arousing the desire to humble oneself and seek the grace of Christ.” Auden’s diagnosis is like a reassuring clasp around the arm from a nurse, albeit backwards: instead of, “You’re getting better every time I see you!” it’s, “Of course you’re not in the right. And you probably won’t be for a long time.” These words are soothing, not hopeless. They cultivate a spiritual homeostasis as my intuitions of being wrong are confirmed, improving my vision as they disabuse me of illusions. It’s like being told, “You needn’t be so upset you haven’t been able to jump four feet in the air—you’re only able to jump three feet!” This reconfigures the entire dilemma. I’m falling short of my aspirations in this scenario, but I’m simultaneously doing (or approaching) the best that I am able.

Much of our anxiety is rooted in insisting we ought to have already arrived at a measurement we simply are unable as of yet to accommodate. Does this delegitimize the goal? Not in the least. It simply means that if we are always in the wrong then we can of course be wrong about what is most wrong with us right now. If we can own that we are always in the wrong then there is great likelihood that what we presume is most in need of changing is not, in fact, the highest priority in God’s triage.

Though we may deny we are “always in the wrong,” the reality tacitly pervades our senses and outlook. The serrated edges of “always in the wrong” slice most dolefully into our capacities for love. We are consistently misers when it comes to love—we want to heap up others’ love for us, but we are cautious in expending it on others’ behalf. Worried about florid displays of emotion, worried about over-extending ourselves, worried about being hurt. Even in our loves that are most dear to us—perhaps we gather we could never justify our friendship with gay Wystan to our imperious accountability coach; perhaps the thrill we experience in watching Avengers: Endgame trailers strikes our peers as juvenile—we freeze with restraint. We stammer when asked who we love, when asked what makes us feel alive. We do not take the risk of phoning our friends to stay with them rather than booking a hotel room or asking our sister-in-law to pick us up from the airport. We are afraid of telling our parents, our spouse, how afraid we are to lose them, and we are afraid of being vulnerable one more time because our confession or our affection didn’t land the way we thought it would before.

But there is something else. All of us “exist by grace of the Absurd,” Auden writes two stanzas later—“All chance, all love, all logic, you and I.” “The Absurd” is God himself in his incongruous giving, in his overturning the standards of fallen reason. We order our lifeworlds around metrics and expectations, apportioning the little we have at our disposal to those we have scrutinized as deserving recipients. We are so attuned to absurdity we become deaf to the Absurd.

But the Absurd isn’t locked out by the absurdity which so regularly burdens us—the Absurd can and does arise in the chaos of our present. And the Absurd sets a question mark to the question of self-improvement. How does “self-” modify “improvement”? Who is the agent, and who is the patient? The gospel announces that Jesus Christ and his Spirit are the agents taking up final responsibility for our becoming. And it is only for this reason that the tohu-bohu, the “formless void” (Genesis 1:2) we inhabit can become the site of the absurd command.

There is another place the Old Testament describes in these terms. Deuteronomy 32:10 describes the wilderness of Israel’s wandering as tohu, “a waste.” Like the primordial nothing from which all things came to be, the desert displays the non-possibility of life apart from God’s imperative. Here our “howling appetites” reign supreme, themselves nothings that do not lead us to life, but away from it. This is the wasteland the Savior enters into, recapitulating Israel’s experience and succeeding where they (we) so spectacularly failed. But this champion partakes of our nature and our experience so unreservedly that he counts his victory as ours. He keeps us alive on the Fury Road and dispatches the foes amassed against us, then says, “Rejoice—you have overcome.”


Read on to Part 3 here.