Another Week Ends

1. Over at Marginalia Thomas Millay reviews what looks to be a fantastic book on […]

Todd Brewer / 5.1.20

1. Over at Marginalia Thomas Millay reviews what looks to be a fantastic book on Søren Kierkegaard, by Sylvia Walsh. She provocatively contends that Kierkegaard believed humans were incapable of actually becoming virtuous. The virtues, for him, are the means to measure failure. The Christian life is not the progressive accumulation of successes, but continual failures:

The character of Christian life, according to Kierkegaard, does not have to do with an increasing realization of virtue. It is a mistake, in Kierkegaard’s mind, to identify Christian living with greater perfection in courage, apatheia, or magnanimity. Instead, Christian life is most fundamentally about pursuit of virtue, yet knowing one has failed.

The basic fact of our inevitable failure should cause Christians to reconsider the viability of virtue ethics. If an ethics of virtue necessarily presumes virtue can be realized, perhaps the whole premise of virtue ethics is flawed.

This basic difference between progressive realization and utter failure goes some way toward explaining the different descriptions of human life as found in Kierkegaard and, say, Alastair MacIntyre. Rather than participating in a communal life that inculcates virtues progressively realized over time, the only way we can come to a greater realization of Christian life in Kierkegaard’s mind is by a surer realization of our own failures and basic incapacity. Virtues can play a role in the latter realization, but—as Kierkegaard scholar David Gouwens has brilliantly pointed out—only in a negative sense: virtues set benchmarks that a human self will always fail to meet. Perhaps Kierkegaard would like to be a virtue ethicist, but, things being as they are, he finds he cannot take such a position. Instead, he begins with failure.

Temporal suffering is a sign of eternal blessedness, abasement is a sign of exaltation, and consciousness of guilt is a sign of grace. In the same way, when it comes to the self and its formation, failure is success. Any time the self fails to constitute its own self on its own terms, there is more room for God’s perfect gifts of faith, hope, and love. Thus, in the inverse dialectic of this life, dependence is responsibility. Furthermore, Kierkegaard’s inverse dialectic is not only qualitative; it is quantitative as well. The more suffering, the more blessedness; the more abasement, the more exaltation; the more guilt, the more grace; the more failure, the more success. If Kierkegaard is a character ethicist, he is a peculiar one at that. The human self develops character only in this inverse way, where our moments of complete incapacity and utter depredation are, simultaneously, our greatest triumph. To be a human being is to be a glorious failure.

2. Along similar Kierkegaardian lines, Wesley Hill has a beautiful reflection over at The Living Church on “Where to Look for New Life”.

According to the New Testament, the inbreaking kingdom of God isn’t only discernible in the moments of sunshine — the moments when the blind receive sight, the lepers are cleansed, and the poor have good news preached to them. It is equally discernible when those who face evil’s icy blasts are not undone by them but press through them in the power of Jesus’s indestructible risen life.

It’s telling, for example, to notice the sequence of Paul’s thought in a portion of his letter to the Philippians. First, he mentions the glorious, spring-sunshine reality of Easter: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection” (3:10). But then, immediately, he spells out what he means in the least intuitive way: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” Strangely, Paul seems to think the Easter life of Jesus is manifested in and through a growing conformity to the dying of Jesus. New Testament scholar John Barclay has spoken of Paul’s vision of the Christian life as one of “new life in dying bodies,” and that describes well the flow of Paul’s thought here. As Karl Barth once commented on this passage, “To know Easter means to be implicated in the events of Good Friday.” Apparently, the way Paul expects to “attain the resurrection from the dead” (3:11) at the last day is through a process of lifelong participation in Jesus’s sufferings. And he appears to think that that participation is itself already a sharing in the power of Jesus’ resurrection — that the perseverance he performs in his mortal body is what the power of Easter looks like in the present.

3. If virtue ethics is your sort of thing, then Bonnie Kristian is here for you, outlining “The 7 Deadly Sins of Pandemic”. As far as diagnoses go, this cuts to the heart. If greed, wrath, or pride isn’t your thing, her discussion of sloth will probably hit you:

The inverse of self-aggrandizing pride is sloth, but sloth is not limited to mere laziness. More substantively, sloth is a surrender to apathy, especially apathy toward doing needful good. Sloth is acedia, which Biola University professor J. L. Aijian describes at Christianity Today as “the feeling of dread when faced with certain tasks or the desire to distract yourself with easier or more pleasant work.” It is a refusal to care which may take the form of capitulation to distraction or indulgence in immobility. Sloth may have an element of fantasy: daydreaming about what you’d like to do as an escape from what you ought to do.

4. In the macroeconomics world, the best piece I’ve read on the effects of the pandemic comes from Edward Tenner, “Efficiency Is Biting Back”. He notes how the constant push for efficiency (or the “cult of productivity”) has both hastened the spread of the virus and exacerbated its effects. I’ve worked enough shifts at Starbucks to know the perils of efficiency, but I think the trends he describes on a wide scale mirror what many of us are feeling day-to-day. If our lives were previously optimized for efficiency, the monkey wrench of the pandemic has led to a myriad of unforeseen cascading disruptions. In place of efficiency, he calls for “strategic inefficiency” — let the reader understand…

The pain, grief, and economic ruin brought by the pandemic should teach us that efficiency—though still a worthy goal—must be tempered by what can only be called “strategic inefficiency.” We must make room for an optimum amount of waste. Strategic inefficiency does not mean simply going back to old ways. It does mean recognizing and paying for redundancy and flexibility—larger stocks of essential materials, spaces designed to be reconfigured as hospital rooms, just as the SS United States was designed to be readily converted to a troop ship in wartime. Likewise, calculations about the minimum square footage that office workers need will have to take into account the threat of contagion. We have all seen signs warning about occupancy levels that are “dangerous and unlawful.” We need to rethink office plans and co-working spaces; higher rents can be less expensive than insurance bills and sick days. We also need to look more skeptically at industry trends that may make society more vulnerable by concentrating production in a small number of giant plants.

5. Taking his cue from the maxim “laughter is the best medicine,” Giles Fraser encourages us all to have a good chuckle at Covid-19, since laughter is one of the few coping resources we have. Feel free to post your own COVID-19 jokes in the comments section below.

A year from now you will all be laughing at this virus. Well not all of you, obviously.

Too soon?

First rule of comedy: it’s never funny unless it risks something, unless there exists the possibility of disapproval, of offence. And the greater the possibility of offence, the funnier it is. To be clear: it’s not the offence itself that makes something funny. Many would-be ‘brave’ comedians make this mistake. But the presence of the possibility of causing offence is certainly a multiplier when something is funny. The greater the repression, the more explosive the release.

We laugh in the presence of Covid-19 death charts because, well, what else can we do? The darkness of the present situation is not an argument against the possibility of laughter, but exactly why it is so necessary. We laugh to transform what we fear into something that cannot psychologically overwhelm us. It is a strategy of resistance.

6. Speaking of humor, you’ll never look at Groundhog Day the same again. Megan Garber contends that Groundhog Day Was a Horror Movie All Along”. Forget Contagion or Outbreak; Bill Murray is the real tragic hero for our quarantined life. What first seemed like a gift has become more like a curse, with only Sunday’s Zoom church being marginally different from other days.

Phil, at once invincible and confined, comes to ask questions such as this one: “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”

This is comedy that operates, at its edges, as horror. It understands what Phil comes to realize: how easily time itself, when it refuses to move forward, can become monstrous. Groundhog Day has been interpreted as an allegory for ethics, for religion, for psychoanalysis, for self-help, for economic theory; it is also, however, widely recognized as an analogy for the dread of unchanging circumstances. The Oxford Handbook of Military Psychology offers a chapter on the psychic effects of contemporary modes of warfare. It is titled “Boredom: Groundhog Day as Metaphor for Iraq.”

That interpretation does a lot to explain why the film has become a meme in this moment. For those fortunate enough to live a life of easy monotony, time looms. Monday becomes Wednesday becomes Sunday; the activities that differentiated them have largely fallen away.

7. Along similar lines, Damon Linker reflected last week on “When Time Stops”, noting the perils of life without a future. He doesn’t cite Thomas Aquinas or Robert Jenson, but he might as well have. Humans live between the times, informed both by the past and future hopes. Take one of those pillars away and everything falls apart. To translate Linker into a bit more Christian terms, the collapse we feel now is more evidence of the transitory nature of life and the need for a more firm temporal structure, namely the past death/resurrection of Jesus and the future hope of deliverance.

Human beings live their lives in time. Our sense of ourselves in the present is always in part a function of our remembrance and constant reinterpretation of our pasts along with our projection of future possibilities. We live for the person we hope to become. We look forward to who we will be a month or a year or a decade or more from now — and we commemorate the transitions from present to future with rites of passage celebrated in public with loved ones and friends. This makes us futural creatures.

A life without forward momentum is to a considerable extent a life without purpose — or at least the kind of purpose that lifts our spirits and enlivens our steps as we traverse time. Without the momentum and purpose, we flounder. A present without a future is a life that feels less worth living, because it’s a life haunted by a shadow of futility.

8. Some humor for this week:

Monday, April 27, 2020, 6:15 AM- Because you have multiple children at our school, please know that Child A will have her Zoom meetings at 8:53 am for Math, 10:07 am for Science, 2:21 pm for Social Studies, and 4:14 pm for Story Time, while Child B will be having his Zoom meetings at 9:32 am for Morning Meeting, 11:46 am for Music, 12:09 pm for Story Time, and 1:13 pm for his daily Primal Scream. It is important that your child arrives promptly to these Zoom meetings, and we will be sending out homework assignments in the five apps on your child’s iPad that they must access daily. These assignments will be posted in no particular order, and there is no search function, so you will have to scroll down through 200 weeks of posts to find them.

  • The Atlantic has some “white lies” for you to tell to get off a Zoom call.
  • Artificial Intelligence has gotten into the meme business and the results are surprisingly funny.
  • Calling all “Parks and Recreation” fans! ICYMI there was a brand new half-hour special on last night and it’s well worth your time.