Friday, July 14, 2017

God's Strange Gift of Melancholy: A Reflection

One of Luther's radical theological moves was to rearticulate faith's relation to knowledge and action. He took St. Paul's insistence that Christ was a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks as a wedge to destroy Medieval theology. Following Aristotle, it became a commonplace to understand Humanity caught within the binary of contemplation and action. Meister Eckhart produced the finalized version of this through his interpretation of Mary and Martha. Unlike Aristotle, who merely placed contemplation as superior to action (and both were Human and superior to creating/making (poieisis)), Eckhart saw contemplation only ever emerging superior when it went through the fire of action. Thus, Mary only becomes Mary through the way of Martha. Action leads to contemplation. This became standard practice for Medieval monastic practice.

Luther blows this a part by recognizing the receptivity, not instrumentality, of faith. Christ offers Himself to us, giving Himself to us sinful Humans through the preaching of the Gospel. This is not an offer, rather Christ is given. This is how faith is a gift. We already have Christ, we only open our hands for the gift to be ours and be our benefit. For Luther, this was the receptive life (vita passiva), something that happens to us. This is not inaction, but rather our world is shaped by the address and call of an Other, through which we are constituted. In this, faith reconfigures our knowledge and action. In faith, both knowledge and action can come to life and serve their God-given purpose. Without Christ, knowledge and action will always threaten to become demonic, moving towards self-justification. Being addressed, hearing God's word draw us into reality (namely, we are perishing sinners in need of redemption which God has decisively accomplished in Christ). We undergo this process, which stops dead attempts at knowing and acting which gives our lives meaning, fulfillment etc.

While we no longer are beheld to Aristotelian metaphysics, our modern metaphysics of subjectivity need to hear this Pauline injunction even more. The modern world pushes us to act, act, act; to justify our actions and our knowledge. Are we effective, efficient, productive? Are we doing anything useful? The Modern world is marked by the removal of all ends, a part of Liberalism's suspension of the ultimate, but was unable to replace this social dynamic. An end, something for its own sake, was elusive. Culture, art, civilization, knowledge, none of these were able to bear the weight of being a civic religion. Now all that is left is endless progress, a search for the search, ever onwards and upwards. 

However, we may do well to consider the phenomena that many call "depression". While I detest the term, as it is highly clinical, the state of mind is a forced experience of jamming the ideology of progress. In a bout of melancholy, one is overwhelmed with a sense of iniquity and uselessness. One's works turn to ash. Friendships are exposed, usually with the flash of pessimistic creativity, as unable to bear the weight of expectation. No one really seems to be your friend. Now, the bout of melancholy does not mean one generally rejects these things (you might still imagine other people have friends, a purpose, accomplishments etc.), but it does suspend it in your own life. There's a moment when it all of life, in all of its mundane features, is nothing but an empty play, "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".

However, this is a great opportunity for the Christian to awaken to a fundamental feature of reality. The truth is that we are never in a position of arbitration and authority. We are born in media res, in the midst of things, which shape and define us. Before we speak, we are given a name. We only know when we are known. The whole of life, in all of its particularities, is a given.

Of course, for the Pagans of old, this was not an uplifting or good fact. The gods were cruel and capricious, to be known was not necessarily a benefit. The walls of the polis and rituals of the variety of cults were intended to ward off, to form boundaries, against the world of the divine, to limit the interaction. By blocking of this ultimacy, the truly Human was bracketing our givenness to focus on a realm of control and mastery. The marble of Hellenic art does not show a love of the body, but the love for the ideal of body. Our actual givenness is separated towards the form that we perfect towards our distinctly Human goals. In Antiquity, this was for the freeborn and the aristocratic, who were authentically Human by divesting themselves as much as possible from the accidents of creatureliness. All theology of glory is an attempt to escape from our God given limits. There is no Christian theology of glory, though some Christians practice a theology of glory. Rather, it's the root of all Paganism, whether monotheistic or polytheistic.

For those who suffer the bouts of depression/melancholy, that come up like a storm, it's an odd gift that shatters these illusions. We are confronted with the all too Human in our present state, one that is in a cursed world and in exhausting circularity or in downward spiral. One caught within a depression recognizes that he is being identified, and paralyzed, through an addressed from the whirling storm of his psyche. The gift in this is to deflate the vanity of the Pagan division between act and thought from the primacy of givenness. The reflective melancholic knows that at a moment he could be stung with paralysis. Now as Christians, we are called to mastery over this form of madness, and one way is to see how beneficial it can be in a world that obsesses with progress. Because Christ addresses us in His promises, His Gospel of raising up the poor, the broken, and the sinner from the dusts of death, we can survive these storms and bless the Lord. This is a thorn that Christ leaves in the side, a means to battle Satan and remain realistic, the definition of humility.

We are called first, we are given a name, the Lord chooses us for nothing we can contribute. This is our great hope, and melancholy's strange virtue may be to illuminate this startling beautiful and hopeful truth. In the midst of the wreckage of the storm, God comes bearing gifts, He who is without Limits among us limited creatures. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. This has meant a lot to me at this point in my life: thank you for the helpful thoughts.