Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Tillich, Kierkegaard, and Jon Stewart

Posted by John Montgomery on October 16, 2010

I keep reading about the tea party movement(s) and I must say the more I read, the more I get confused. So, I thought I would put my own theological two-cents into the discussion as well. Why not?

Now I’m going to make some generalizations about alienation and reconciliation, themes Paul Tillich and Soren Kierkegaard associated with sin and grace. I’m not saying these comments apply to anyone in particular, even Glen Beck. But having said this, I think we have got to struggle with transforming the present climate of anger based debate, and in that context raise the question how we might move our conversation (if it really is a conversation) to a different level.   

A couple of weeks ago, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) withdrew its endorsement from the One Nation: Working Together march (which frankly was for the majority of the 400 or so endorsing organizations a self-select process activated mainly by pressing a button on the website and uploading a logo). The decision was made primarily because the rally had evolved into a political gathering self-consciously mobilizing voters for the Democratic party in the upcoming November elections. Parallel to these developments, the rally had become for many a counter demonstration against Glenn Beck and his tea party followers. Jim Winkler was correct in that while our church can advocate for certain values and strategic policies, it can not become a partisan organization.

As Jim Wallis so famously taught us, God is not a Republican, nor is God a Democrat. I still have that bumper sticker on my car. Now I’m looking for someone to produce one that suggests that God drinks coffee as well as tea.

In the long run, One Nation became a partisan pissing contest to use a theological term. Most estimates suggested that Beck’s rally gathered more followers. Few lives were transformed and the public debate was simply reset expressing a deeper separation between the parties than we started with.

An alternative approach has been emerging that might in the long run actually serve  as a grace event in the midst of the growing chaos defining current public debate. Of course, I am speaking about the upcoming rally/march sponsored by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Stewart has indicated that the rallies are not responses to Beck’s Restoring Honor event, but are meant to satirize the political process, and the news coverage spawned from it. But whether it is a direct or indirect response, their joint call for a Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear qualitatively changes the essentials of the conversation. If you stay with me, I even have a theological justification for why that might be true!

So, let me start with Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard was for many the father of 20th Century existentialist theology. SK was a 19th Century Danish pastor and theologian who wrote a lot, but the center of his reflections at their best had to do with sin and faith and how those traditional notions were tied to our own most intimate experiences. If you are looking for a book, I would begin with The Sickness unto Death.

I’m going back to Kierkegaard because as I look at the present Tea Party Movement, much of what I see looks to have more to do with anger, despair and paralysis than a new movement generating effective proposals.  If one is going to talk about despair, then SK is the place to start.

SK’s existential analysis begins by pointing out that human beings are relational creatures through and through. We are relationships that take relationships to our relationships and in taking a relationship to those relationships we posit a relationship to the one who put us in these relationships to begin with.

Despair (the sickness unto death) is defined as the intensification of alienation and separation and understood as the reality being talked about when we Christians talk about sin.

SK describes three “stages” in the faith journey, if you will three modes of despair. It starts in immediacy, turns inward to circumspection and then moves to defiance (first active, then passive). One might notice that the first and last are more reflective of a public, outward posture and the middle stage is more private, and inward.

Immediacy has to do with despair that the world is not the way we think it is supposed to be. 

Circumspection focuses less on the world and more on the self – I’m not what I am supposed to be, so I withdraw.

Active and passive defiance, which in one way or another is where one shakes a fist in the face of God is a series of lived rants that proclaim if the world and if my selfhood are not as they are suppoed to be, then God is not what God is supposed to be and I’m going to let the world and others know it. I’ll be the best mistake that I can be.

Paul Tillich discusses these dynamics in several places. Obviously, for the most thick conversation, one might look to his systematics. The Courage to Be contrasts the Christian transformation occasioned by a grace event with Stoic grit/n and bear perserverence. But, where  time and again I find him most helpful is in his short sermon, You Are Accepted.

Tillich contrasts sin and grace as a state of being versus a transformative event. A witness to grace leading to faith is not a process of making an argument for a better way, but the shattering of an illusion leaving one with a choice to either move forward in faith or reassert ones despair.

Grace is an event that happens – it happens at the moment of one’s deepest despair – it happens or sometimes, it doesn’t – it certainly doesn’t happen if one does not think it is necessary. Now it seems to me that in the context of SK’s model, the grace event might be somewhat different depending on the stage of despair.

So, it seems to me that immediacy is transformed by expanding the context – putting the basics in perspective. I am struck that given the current trend of mission trips, when folks return in one way or another they report that while they went to serve, they discovered that in reaity they had been served.  Given a new perspective, a new sense of unity was at hand.

The shattering of the illusions undergirding circumspection is transformed not by expanding the context, but by “rubbing one’s face in the fact of innocent suffering.” You’ve got it bad and you just want to sit and feel sorry for yourself.

One of my favorite stories of late is the witness of a man who was dutifully but reluctantly serving in a soup kitchen because his wife pushed him to do it. Suddenly, standing in the line, he finds one of his friends from work looking to get a box of food to help his family to make it through the next couple of weeks.

In such a shocking encounter, he witnesses that his arrogant charity suddenly became compassionate solidarity.

Finally, it seems to me that defiance is not transformed by attention to a larger content or a deeper identity with that context. Defiant despair is a lucid response and is not transformed by new information. Such despair is only tranformed when one grasps how silly defiance is. Perhaps, this is the power of a Jon Stewart or a Stephen Colbert addressing our current malaise. Humor, even sarcasm, satire, even gentle teasing can become the event of grace.

I plan to watch the impact of these susprisingly effective manifestations of the word. Camus has something to say here as well, but I’ll wait until my next blog post!








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