Don’t forget, you’re alive.

A few years ago, a high-concept app called WeCroak gained a bit of buzz in circles both mainstream and religious. Installed on your phone, several times a day the app will send you a reminder that says, “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.”

What peace, many wrote, to be reminded that our existence is but a blink of time! The argument you are currently having with your spouse, the project due this morning that completely slipped your Wordle-playing mind, the cruel things you snarled at the customer service rep over the phone last night: Who cares? None of it matters! Soon, you’ll be dead.

In his book Low Anthropology, Christian author David Zahl writes that, in addition to reducing anxiety by focusing the user on something beyond the present, the app also reminds us that all people experience death, of themselves and others, which makes grief a bridge across difference. “[L]oss is a touchpoint with our fellow citizens,” he writes, “however differently we may interpret that loss. More than that … it motivates sympathetic outreach to others who are suffering, regardless of what else we may or may not have in common.”

Which may be true, although you might think otherwise if you’ve ever seen how toxic Twitter can get following the tragic death of anyone associated with either political party.

I thought of this app today because I’ve been reading Kierkegaard (of course), and though I’m not in a position to presume to fully understand his work, it occurred to me that the reminder I need several times a day is not that I’m going to die, but that I’m alive.

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard wrote, “If a human being did not have an eternal consciousness … if a vast, never appeased emptiness hid beneath everything, what would life be then but despair?”

His point (despite his morose reputation) is that life is not despair, or not despair alone. Because we do, in fact, have eternal consciousness. (Later, in Sickness Unto Death, he wrote, “If there were nothing eternal in a man, he could not despair at all.”)

I know about death. I’ve seen loved ones die, and I was told, a few years ago, that I was going to die myself — and not in the usual, happens-to-all-of-us sort of way.

Tell me I’m mortal and I’m apt to roll my eyes at the obvious. I mean, I get the utility of it: Yes, someday I’ll be dead and none of this will matter, and with any luck it will happen before I have to go to that dentist appointment next Tuesday.

What I need is an app that will remind me several times a day that I’m alive, and eternal, and to ponder that, even if only for a moment.

Ellul: Do Not Confuse Christian Ethics with Morality

This entry is part 5 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Returning to Chapter 1 of Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World. (Remember, I’m taking these notes as I go, section by section, so I reserve the right to realize later that I’m making incorrect assumptions and assertions! In other words, maybe I’m getting it wrong; feel free to tell me so.)

In my last post, we discussed Ellul’s contention that only laypeople can present “theological truth” to the world, since unlike clergy, they have no separation from the world.

This means that we must live our daily lives as “salt of the earth, light of the world, sheep among wolves” — essentially, pointing the world to Christ — not by following any formula or set of rules, but by the way we act in any particular situation.

It would be easier to grasp Ellul’s point here if he offered concrete examples about what exactly it might mean to live as salt/light/sheep, but maybe he is avoiding examples on purpose. A concrete example would suggest that there is always a single behavior required for a particular situation, or a set of guidelines we can follow for living as Christians. But those guidelines would add up to “morality.”

And that, Ellul says, is the problem: we confuse “Christian ethics” with morality, or virtues. But moral systems are what we use to try and improve the human world, and that’s exactly what we cannot do. We’re so desperate to relieve the tension of living in a sinful world that we create moral systems to try and improve that world. But that world cannot be improved, and Christianity does not equate to morality. (EDIT: Maybe that would more accurately read “that world cannot be made less sinful.” There are things about the world that can be improved at a certain objective level, I think, but the sinfulness — and ultimate collapse — remains.)

If we want to understand this, we need to understand Ellul’s definition of Christian life, which he views as a state of constant struggle between judgment and grace.

At every moment, we are being judged, and we are being forgiven. It is the struggle between these two states that ensures our freedom because, at every moment, we are being “placed in a new situation.” That new situation sets us free from both “satanic fetters” and any pre-determined, legalistic program of morality.

Ellul’s Christian faith certainly reminds me of Kierkegaard and his “individual before God.” For Ellul, there can be no accounting of God’s ethical demands appropriate for every circumstance, because “all Christians are in fact responsible for their works and conscience.” Each individual’s faith is a “living attitude” and that faith is what will determine their individual actions in every circumstance, as opposed to a specific moral guideline.

But, and here’s the requisite complicated rub, just because there are no guidelines, doesn’t mean there isn’t any guidance. We are able to (and in fact, required to) “trace the outlines” of Christian ethics, so that we might better respond in “specific, variable situations.” But these ethics cannot replace the “combat of faith” within each individual Christian for determining their behavior.

So, as we struggle each day to deepen our individual faith in Christ, we decide on which actions to take based on that faith, along with the broad lessons (not hard-and-fast rules) we learn from Christian ethics. Those ethics themselves, Ellul says, should be “continually subject to question, review, and reformulation through the efforts of the whole church community.”

In this discussion of ethics and individual action, Ellul appears to embrace a Kierkegaardian existential faith, while also preserving a role for the church, of which Kierkegaard thought little.

Note: I’m going to try to figure out how to better track these Ellul posts, perhaps by creating a single page listing them in chronological order.

Ephemera, 8/15/23

I recently read Clare Carlisle’s biography of Kierkegaard; it was illuminating about Kierkegaard, but also a well-written and insightful work in its own right. She writes here about the way in which marriage impacted the life and work of both Kierkegaard and George Eliot. Of SK, she says:

“Kierkegaard once wrote that marriage requires complete openness between husband and wife, and that he could not open himself to another person in this way. Perhaps he was driven by his artistic and philosophical vocation to seek a solitary life. Or perhaps his decision to stay single (and celibate, as far as we know) was shaped by the belief, held as sacred by his Christian church, that certain forms of desire — homosexuality, for example — were sinful and shameful. Kierkegaard took these questions to the grave, boasting that no one would ever discover the secret that explained his inner life. All we know is that he felt unable to become a husband, and that he interpreted this incapacity as a spiritual situation.”

* * * *

I wrote earlier about the film Passages; the wonderful Garth Greenwell writes about it with much greater insight and greater style, and at greater length. His piece reminds me that there is so much more in the film than I could wrap my head around in my single viewing — including Tomas’ career as filmmaker. Of the Tomas character, Greenwell writes:

“He put me in mind of a line from the theologian Denys Turner, whom I’ve quoted before in this newsletter. Talking about the ascetical practices of certain mystics, Turner makes a quip about the ‘pre-ascetical self’ — the self before it’s submitted to any kind of discipline — being ‘a riot of desires,’ hardly a self at all. Art can come from that, of course — Tomas doesn’t hold a candle to the giants of artistic bad behavior; but Tomas’s emotional riots, his fervors, his temper tantrums, his utter disregard for others, are no guarantee of the quality of his art … The only thing they can guarantee — for everyone around him, for himself above all — is pain.

* * * *

So that people don’t think I only write snarky comments about Covenant blog posts, this one about Paul Simon, his career and his beautiful new album is quite enlightening and worth a read. I saw Simon perform during his “Rhythm of the Saints” tour a lifetime ago, and remember it as a great show. Most vividly I recall, before playing “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” he said something like, “There are two definitive versions of this song, one sung by Art Garfunkel and the other by Aretha Franklin. I only sing it to remind people that I wrote it.”

Kierkegaard as Poetry (Part 1)

Yes, It Is Nothing

But what does this
mean, what am I to do,
or what is the effort
that can be said to seek,
to aspire to God’s kingdom?

Shall I see about getting
a position commensurate
with my talents and abilities
in order to be effective in it?

No, you shall first seek God’s kingdom.

Shall I give all my possessions to the poor?

No, you shall first seek God’s kingdom.

Shall I then go out and proclaim this doctrine to the world?

No, you shall first seek God’s kingdom.

But then in a certain sense it is nothing I shall do?

Yes, quite true,
in a certain sense
it is nothing.

In the deepest sense
you shall make yourself
become nothing
before God,
learn to be silent.

In this silence
is the beginning,
which is to seek first
God’s kingdom.

(From “Look at the Birds, Look at the Lily,” by Kierkegaard, included in Without Authority, translated by Howard & Edna Hong; italics in original.)

Ephemera, 07/03/23

Yesterday’s Old Testament reading turned out to be the Sacrifice of Isaac, and hearing it read aloud in church for the first time since my experience with Fear & Trembling earlier this year made me realize how much of an impact SK’s book had on me. Murderer, I thought.

* * * *

Six episodes, about fifteen minutes each — I’m not sure I could take much more than 90 minutes a year of Tim Robinson’s brilliantly unsettling I Think You Should Leave. (And I couldn’t possibly watch all 90 minutes at once.) He takes an unpredictable premise, populates it with “normal” people (read: unattractive on the screen, unremarkable in person), and then Just … Keeps … Pushing. The skits almost always last longer than you think they might, to an uncomfortable extent. It’s an existentialist exercise in sketch comedy. You can’t escape the absurdity; it just keeps unspooling.

* * * *

“The post-Christian world is characterized by supercharged morality within a vacuum of meaning.” (Richard Beck)

Sin & Scandal

This entry is part 2 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Continuing my read-through of Chapter 1 of Jacques Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World. There’s a lot here.

Ellul (perhaps because he was a layperson) is most concerned with the plight of the laity in the modern world, because unlike the clergy, there is no separation between a layperson and the rest of society. “Claiming to be separate becomes more and more difficult, as each person is forced into a world that becomes more intrusive, crushing, and demanding than ever.”

Ellul argues that modern society differs from previous civilizations in the extent to which humans are immersed in the world. “Modern transportation systems, the interconnection of economic institutions, or the rise of democracy” — modern humans are submerged in larger systems from which they cannot easily extricate themselves. (Even moreso now than it was in Ellul’s time, obviously.) For this reason, he says, Christians “cannot consider themselves pure” in comparison to the rest of the world; they are not only individual sinners, but they share in the collective sin of society.

Having just finished reading Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death I’m pondering the difference between SK’s focus on the individual sinner and Ellul’s definition in this chapter. Ellul says that the reason that there is “none righteous” is not that every individual is wicked, “but because all things are confined under sin.” We are related to others in sin extending back across time and generations to the original sin. So the modern world makes clear (through our global inter-connection) what was always a Biblical truth: we share in the sin of all.

Original (hereditary) sin is a difficult concept to grasp (for me!), and I remember being somewhat confused by SK’s brief discussion of it in TSUD. Conceding my lack of familiarity with both authors, I think that there may be a similarity between these two takes on sin, that they might in fact be one, since they both describe sin as essentially a state of being, as opposed to actions or behaviors. This is definitely oppositional to (for lack of a better term) Americanized Christianity, with its emphasis on individual responsibility for specific actions or behaviors.

Laypeople feel this connection to societal sin most acutely, Ellul says. It makes them uncomfortable; it is scandal to be associated with the world’s sins. So they try to escape, in two ways:

  • Separate the material from the spiritual — eg, This is my personal life, and that is my spiritual life, and never the twain etc. They focus their effort on “spiritual problems” apart from everyday life, which is separate, their dayjob, so to speak. This sort of compartmentalization is hypocrisy. “God became incarnate; it is not our job to disincarnate him.”
  • Or, they try to “Christianize” everything. Let’s create a Christian state, Christian movies, Christian books, Christian psychology, etc. This is taking “the world” (of which we are, as noted earlier, specifically not a part), finding what we think is “good” in it, or glossing it with something we think is “good,” and calling it Christian. You can’t reform the world’s activities by “pronouncing a blessing on them.” On the social/cultural side, this is very reminiscent of the evangelical subculture in which I grew up; on the governmental side, more reminiscent of today’s dark illiberal impulses.

In both of these cases, Christians are attempting to “build a bridge” between themselves and the world. This bridge, Ellul says, is “morality” — and he is clearly not using the term in a favorable sense.

This type of bridge, he says, is the “most anti-Christian position possible.” But he also says that there is, in fact, “no possible solution” to the scandal that exists.