Tarrying with the Tragic

Yesterday I made some brief remarks on the Christian economy of pain. The subject came to mind again earlier today. The following are a few further thoughts on the matter.

In yesterday’s post I commented on the manner in which pain naturally separates us, but that for Christians it can become something profoundly different, as at the very heart of our faith is the notion of a fellowship of shared sufferings. Consequently, Christians should be marked by their capacity to have non-alienated fellowship with those in pain.

A forgetfulness of this truth can manifest in the Church in many forms. One of the most significant things that will happen when this truth is forgotten is that the whole realm of the ‘tragic’ will acquire a different character within the Church’s life. In particular, there will be a vacation of the realm of the tragic, or a re-description of it that denies its tragic character. Thorns in the flesh will be sugar-coated or those that experience them will be marginalized.

As Christians, of course, we can’t escape the biblical concern with those suffering or undergoing tragedy. However, we are constantly tempted to replace a commitment to presence with such for an approach that is fixated upon cure. When we can’t ‘cure’ the situation of the person in tragedy, they can become an embarrassment to us, or maybe even a cause of resentment (perhaps in part because we always tend to resent the people that we hurt). We retreat from them, although perhaps not before condemning them to a greater isolation by questioning the reality of their faith. For no one experiencing a situation of unalleviated suffering could have true faith, right?

Our society is one with a low pain threshold for suffering and tragedy, both its own and that of others. As Christians we are more affected by this than we might like to believe. While it might seem to be a positive thing to have a low pain threshold for the suffering of others, often this can be the very reason that we seek to remove those who are suffering beyond cure from our sight. For our low pain threshold for the suffering of others is not ultimately about their pain, but about our distress at having to witness it.

This vacation of the place of tragedy can be witnessed in the attitudes of churches to a whole range of different issues. In our vacation of the place of tragedy, we either cover up, marginalize, deny, disguise, sugar-coat, or abandon the place of sin and failure, the place of evil and injustice, the place of difficult celibacy and loneliness, the place of bereavement and death, the place of illness and disability, the place of doubt and despair, the place of depression and mental illness, the place of poverty and lack, the place of hunger and thirst, the place of homelessness and destitution, and the place of persecution and ostracization.

We can employ pious statements to mask the reality of sin and death in much the same way as the undertaker dresses and applies cosmetics and perfume to cover the ugly reality of the corpse. ‘All things work together for good,’ ‘It was obviously God’s will,’ etc. We can present faithfulness as a tidy recipe by which people can escape their situations. ‘If you truly believe you will not be afflicted with poverty or ill-health.’ ‘If you really gave your situation over to God, he would provide you with a partner.’ ‘The fact that you are experiencing depression is obviously a sign of unbelief.’

This inability to tolerate the tragic is expressed in theologies across the ecclesiastical spectrum, in many and various ways. It is expressed in the hypocrisy that flourishes in situations where the fact that Christians sin is a taboo, rather than something to be addressed with forgiveness and restoration. It is expressed in the valorization of youth, novelty, fame, hipness, and power over all that is marked by age, failure, or weakness. It is expressed in the inability to accept the notion of costly self-denial as constitutive of Christian vocation, whether that self-denial bites at the level of career ambition, lifestyle and personal wealth, sexual expression and fulfilment, or personal autonomy. It is expressed in the marginalization of the works of mercy within the life and ministry of the Church. It is expressed in the empty pews where those of other classes, races, ethnicities, or generations are missing, or where the mentally or physically disabled, or the chronically ill and elderly no longer sit.

The loss of the possibility of the tragic shapes the framing of alternatives. For instance, one group of Christians tells the single person to be sexually abstinent prior to marriage so that married sex will be more satisfying, and that God will bless such faithfulness with the reward of a faithful spouse. Another group of Christians tells the single person that sexual abstinence is an unreasonable expectation (and even more so when future wedded bliss is not a realistic hope or prospect), and that God obviously can’t expect this of people. Still other groups of Christians take the activist approach and set up endless singles’ groups and engage in vigorous match-making, to try to ‘cure’ the singleness, viewing the lost causes with pity or embarrassment, or as spiritual failures (if they are fortunate enough not to be carefully ignored). What all of these approaches treat as the impossible option or at least as the studiously unspoken possibility is that God might call some people to undergo the struggle of a singleness without any earthly ‘happy ending’ to look forward to, and that he might call people to deny themselves when they could find sexual satisfaction if they were not held to such a clear sexual ethic.

However we fall on the theological issues, I believe that this inability to acknowledge the possibility of the tragic powerfully shapes debates on such subjects as homosexuality in the Church. All sides of the debate seem to blanch at the reality of the tragic represented by the celibate homosexual. Some can’t admit the possibility of a homosexual orientation, and insist that it must be a choice. Some insist that homosexuality can be ‘cured’, failing to say what happens when – as is so often the case – it can’t, and viewing with guilt and embarrassment the many scarred ‘lost causes’ of this approach. Anyone who lives with homoerotic desires throughout their life must be a spiritual failure. For others, the tragedy must be resolved by the celebration of guilt-free homosexual partnerships. It is precisely the impossibility of the tragic that is pressed against the traditional Christian position on the matter. What hardly anyone can acknowledge is that God might call persons to a lifelong tarrying with brokenness and tragedy.

Even for those who do acknowledge this possibility, the person called to tarry with brokenness and tragic is all too often regarded as the exception. What, however, if rather the vacation of the realm of the tragic, as Christians we have a vocation to the realm of the tragic? What if the role of the Church was to reveal the realm of the tragic in its full reality, by following its Master into its very depths? What if our Christian calling was not merely to people whose lives are marked by the tragic, but to be people whose lives are revealed to be marked by the tragic? What if the Church were the only agency on earth that could truly accomplish this? What if the tragic were a constitutive element, not merely of every Christian’s experience, but also of our mission? What if it is in the capacity of the Church to live in and with brokenness and the tragic, with failure, weakness, illness, death, suffering, and disability that the truth of Christ is known? What if it is only in the face of prisoners, the thirsty, the naked, the hungry, and the strangers that we can see the face of our Saviour (and to the extent that we see people as free, satiated, clothed, rich, and insiders, we are unable to see Christ in them)? What if the calling of the Church is to be the open wound on the face of humanity? What if this is the only way that the Church can be rendered Church, and the world rendered world? What if we can only encounter the Man of Sorrows as we walk in his steps?

When God first named Israel, he gave him a disability. From the day of his encounter with God at Peniel, Jacob walked with a limp. Disability and brokenness are sine quibus non of the Church’s existence and testimony, not accidental and embarrassing features. As the place of the purification of faith like gold, the Church must be the place where imperfections rise to the surface. As the place of testimony to a creation in birth pangs, the Church should be the place where that agony is most present, and must always be present where pain is most strongly revealed. As the people who bear witness to a new creation in which all wrongs are righted, all tears dried, all wounds healed, the Church must also be the place where these very aspects of the present order are most manifest.

Is it not in the Church that bears faithful witness to the tragic that the most powerful testimony to the coming return of Christ can be found? Is it not in fellowship with the broken, and in tarrying with the tragic beyond our cure that we most yearn for his coming? Conversely, is it not in the absence of a sense of the tragic in our midst that the Final Coming of Christ slips from our collective horizon? Most troubling, is it not in the absence of this sense that we most easily become the unwitting accomplices of evil, palliating people to its presence, and accommodating people to the tragic dimensions of existence?

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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11 Responses to Tarrying with the Tragic

  1. Eric Lee says:

    Thanks for this post. It really resonates with a lot of my own concerns in general about pain and brokenness. I think that the final passage you quote from Revelation is what ultimately allows us to see the tragic as tragic as opposed to a Stoic acceptance, or an amor fati, and thus to know that one day those wounds will be healed.

    I haven’t read it yet, but I finally got a cheap, used copy of Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo. Have you read that book? One of its main motifs is theology and the tragic.

  2. Tanya Marlow says:

    Thank you thank you thank you!!!
    I really really needed to read this today! I’m so happy that I happened upon it and I feel that God has ministered to me through it.

    You’ve really put your finger on what I have been feeling, both about ‘tragedy’ and sexuality.

    I have a chronic illness which is poorly understood and people are always trying to ‘fix’. It doesn’t fit into the neat ‘illness narratives’ of how society expects illness to be. (am drafting a few blog posts on this at the moment). I’ve been thinking this for a while, but you’ve said it so clearly – it’s that as (western) Christians we have a very low tolerance for pain/tragedy. I hadn’t followed through that thought to its implications on sexuality before – most helpful. Thank you!

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  7. Alastair, this is powerful writing. I can see myself sharing some of your words in retreats, in counseling classes, perhaps even in counseling sessions….I’ve tended to turn to Catholic writers for a theology of suffering, though there is nothing particularly Catholic about these ideas: they are simply biblical. And yet there is something so deep in our culture that is concerned with avoiding pain (and denying it when it is unavoidable), that our churches as groups, and our people as individual Christians really don’t seem to know what to say or do in the face of severe or ongoing pain……Recently I was thinking about how anti-ascetic the church culture I am in seems to be, and I think the lack of willingness to grow through ascesis makes us even less able and willing to face tragedy, and the spiritual challenges it entails, with courage.

  8. quinnjones2 says:

    Hi Alastair,
    These are wonderful words and so true.
    I just want to add a few words of my own. I have found that joy and sorrow are inseparably intertwined: the deeper the sorrow, the deeper my joy in the Lord and the darker my darkness, the brighter the light of Christ shines for me. The Prince of Peace brings peace and joy even as the storm rages.
    I also want to say something about the grief that leads to repentance. I find it extremely painful when I realise that I have got something horribly wrong and I wish I could put the clock back and re-write the script. While I am at my most wretched I become aware of the sweetness of God’s love and forgiveness. He is far more forgiving towards me than I am to myself and far more forgiving towards me than many people, including Christians, are towards me. But sweet though God’s forgiveness is, I still find it difficult at times to go through the anguish of remorse and at times I find ways of postponing it. Repentance and forgiveness really are good news, but up to a point I understand if people don’t take kindly to it when I say so.
    Finally – tarrying with the tragic – a beautiful term. Finding that in God’s presence we can, after all, bear the unbearable and think the unthinkable, and stop looking for someone to ‘kiss it better’,
    Thank you again.

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