Authenticity, Worldliness, Critique, Theology
by Eric Daryl Meyer
You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attendance upon my old age;
They were not such a plague when I was young;
What else have I to spur me into song?
Old man Yeats knew what was true. If you have no anger at this world, anger at its willful stupidities, its grim indifference, its real sins: its murdering hordes, its smug myths, exploitive habits, its catastrophic wastes, the smile on its hyena hungry face, its jackal tastes, then you belong to it, and you are one of its apes — though animals should not be so disgraced as to be put in any simile with man.
Old age ought to know. Death will soon enough come to its rescue. Till the knowing ends, all that was wasted and wronged in youth — through ignorance, haste, competition, bad belief — all that was bored by middle age into one long snooze, has borne its juiceless fruit, and is now known for what it is: nothing has been righted here. Yet if desire can be kept from contamination, if it can be aimed, as one’s fingertip, at the root’s place, if it is not harnessed to the horses of dismal domination, but is allowed to be itself and realize life, then the flutter of an eyelash on a cheek will assume its proper importance; Wall Street may crash and the gods of money smelted back into the sordid earths they came from; yet, unfazed, our heads will rest at least on one another, a fall sun will shine on the sheets, your nipple shall enter my ear like a bee seeking in a bloom a place to sleep; life shall run through us both renewed; we shall feel longing, lust for one another; we shall share rage for the world.
– William H. Gass, “Lust”
Brad posted this fragment of Yeats and the passage from Gass, noting that commentary could only swindle away the full effect. He’s right. But the paragraphs overwhelmed me enough that I wanted to share them; and wanting to share them, it seemed that I ought to do more than merely ride the coattails of Brad’s extensive reading. So with some reluctance, I’ll risk commentary.
Several of Bonhoeffer’s early sermons—given to a congregation in Barcelona—contain an unmistakeable debt to Nietzsche. Bonhoeffer shares Nietzsche’s distaste for the world-denying character of religion and calls his congregation (as perhaps only a young and somewhat naive pastor could) to a life of faith that resonates with Nietzsche’s unconditional affirmation of life. While he moved away from the rather titanic, muscular language of those early sermons, he remained convinced that faith, and therefore theology, must always enmesh a person within the concrete realities of life—the sites of rage and lust and desire.
I bring up Bonhoeffer only because of the collision of two thoughts which emerged while I read the passage above. First, that Gass traces out Nietzsche’s affirmation of life in tenacious, wounded, and haunting words; and second, that theology worth its salt ought to come from an attitude akin to this one. Bonhoeffer’s affinity for Nietzsche is based, I think, on something like that second thought. Theologians should not hide in rosy constructions of the world’s goodness, but should think and write with gritty soil between their fingers and on their pages, obstacles that prevent the pen from tracing lines too smooth.
The point of this post is not to suggest my similarity to Bonhoeffer. Rather, even though I stand by my gut-sense that faith and faith’s thinking are best done in the mud, I want to try to articulate some new-found second-thoughts about it, questions or qualifications.
First, to say that, “Theology ought to be like this!” is to set out a yardstick for “genuine” theology. It is to set up a high bar of “authenticity.” While such affirmations generally ring with a sincere ambition that theological thinking ought to reckon with the world in ways that it currently does not, they very quickly turn into bludgeons that measure the inauthenticity of others. Authenticity is an easy claim to stake, and perhaps for that reason it tends to generate more defense than creativity. I’m not wholly against measurements or bludgeons—not even theological measurements and bludgeons—but I’ve come to recognize that “authenticity” only generates vague and capricious criteria.
Second, saying “Theology ought to be like this!” can amount to a dismissive effort to capture the power of a critique without really reckoning with its barbs. Too quickly assuming that “genuine” theology rises in anger against “willful stupidities, grim indifference, real sins, murdering hordes, smug myths, exploitive habits, and catastrophic wastes” ignores theology’s own historical complicity with all of the above. It too easily turns theology into an airtight ideology where every criticism is colonized, and that seems to me like a fundamental betrayal. Perhaps loyalty to theology in the face of powerful sentiments like Gass’s (or the more direct criticism of Nietzsche) does not simply add a transcendant amplifier to those sentiments (e.g. “This is the voice of faith!” or “God shares such a rage!”), but abides with them in a self-critical sobriety—a reception much quieter than Bonhoeffer’s early sermons and more like his risky, tentative prison letters, where so much seems unhinged.