The Optimistic Pessimism of Jesus

I wish I could post the entire “Yeshua” chapter in Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic. It has […]

David Zahl / 4.9.13

I wish I could post the entire “Yeshua” chapter in Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic. It has to be the freshest, most vivid, gut-level and just plain exciting writing about Jesus since, well, Robert Capon. Though unlike most of what Capon wrote, Unapologetic is less a work of theology than an extended exercise in “new persuasive words”–something for which Spufford has a serious knack. A gift even. Since there are simply too many remarkable passages to choose from, I figured we might start with his description of what Christ had to say about self-righteousness (and self-justification), which functions more or less like a printed companion to PZ’s Merciful Impasse lectures. I could put every line in bold–and trust me, it only gets sweeter from there. We are so thrilled that Francis will be our keynote speaker at the NYC conference this week! To quote a good friend, come and see:

DVD_Option_2a[Yeshua] isn’t a relativist, though. Far from it. He doesn’t think you should relax and do what you like, and it won’t really matter what. He believes in good and evil all right, to a drastic degree. He has a vivid, horrified sense of the HPtFtU, in all its elaborate self-deceiving semi-oblivious encrustedness, and he talks as if it overshadowed huge swathes of human activity, including human activities that humans tend to be proud of. Whenever anyone asks him about the law, he usually ups the ante; he amps the law up towards a perfectionist impossibility, in which anger is forbidden as well as murder, in which desire can be as much of a betrayal as adultery–in which internal states of being that apparently don’t hurt (or even affect) anyone else weigh as heavily with God as external acts.

Sometimes he seems to be a kind of radical pessimist about human nature. Who are you calling good? he says, when someone makes the mistake of addressing him with ordinary social politeness as ‘good man.’ No one is good but God. He talks as if virtue is almost unachievable, yet still compulsory. Rather than being a menu of demands that all can satisfy, for him it seems to be something that it would take feats of absurd unlikelihood to accomplish, rents or opening or transformations in the order of nature, so that camels can climb through needles’ eyes… Yet he is an optimistic pessimist. Come on, says somebody. How could anybody ever stand right with God, if it were as hard as you say? With God everything is possible, he says.

6BzpQemSaUezzGolPafL-Q2He annoys people when he talks like this. Because the implication of his perfectionism is that everybody is guilty; and if everybody is guilty, nobody gets to congratulate themselves, and murderers and adulterers cannot be shunned. If what he says is right, then those are only people in whom the universal HPtFtU has taken a particular turn, has been indulged in particular ways. They are not outcasts, they do not belong in a category of unclean persons that the clean rest of us can hold at arm’s length. Yeshua insists that being unclean is not a temporary violation of the proper state of things. It is the normal human condition…

He has a lot to say about self-righteousness, which he compares, not very tactfully, to a grave that looks neat and well cared for up top but is heaving with ‘corruption’ down below. Maggots, basically. And the point of this repulsive image is not just that the inside and outside of a self-righteous person don’t match, that there’s a hypocritical contradiction between the claim to virtue and the actual content of a human personality: it’s also that, for him, being sure you’re righteous, standing on your own dignity as a virtuous person, comes precious close to being dead.

If you won’t hear the bad news about yourself, you can’t know yourself. You condemn yourself to the maintenance of an exhausting illusion, a false front to your self which keeps out doubt and with it hope, change, nourishment, breath, life. If you won’t hear the bad news, you can’t begin to hear the good news about yourself either. And you’ll do harm. You’ll be pumped up with the false confidence of virtue, and you’ll think it gives you a license, and a large share of all the cruelties in the world will follow, for evil done knowingly is rather rare compared to the evil done by people who’re sure that they themselves are good, and that evil is hatefully concentrated in some other person; some other person who makes your flesh creep because they have become exactly as unbearable, as creepy, as disgusting, as you fear the mess would be beneath your own mask of virtue, if you ever dared to look at it. (pg 116-120)