Gregory of Nazianzus: An Unhappy Faith

In the Western church, there’s a prevailing sense that a right faith is a happy one. A lot of today’s bestselling Christian pastors/authors have founded their churches on the idea that God wants you to be happy. But is that the faith that has been handed down to us by Christian tradition? Or is it something else? In an age in which the average person is a functional materialist (only believes in what they can see), have we ceased to believe that we can find fulfillment by following the plans of a transcendent being? Is the shallow feeling of happiness so enviable in our age because it’s the closest thing our culture can get to a sense of spiritual fulfillment?

I don’t know. Clearly those pointed questions say how I feel, but rather than circle back around to conversations about secularism, I want to investigate a bigger problem with the Cult of Happiness: it’s built on straw. Life stinks sometimes. People get sick. Your friends die. You step in a puddle and get wet socks. Life just ain’t always great. Rather than try to pretend we can get through it without being sad, why not just acknowledge unhappy feelings and grow in spite of them? Not only do we see that repeatedly in Scripture (see the Psalms and Jesus for some prime examples), but we see that in the writings of one of the greatest saints of all times: Gregory of Nazianzus.

Those of you that have followed me for a while may remember my previous entries on Gregory of Nazianzus. His poetry is just magnetic to me. Beyond it’s beauty and theological content, he’s not afraid to express himself. Gregory is downright miserable at times. Translator Peter Gilbert goes so far as to suggest he might be diagnosed as clinically depressed if he were alive today (On God and Man, 2). This is the faith of one of the saints that helped us understand the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and it wasn’t a particularly happy one.

Just look at this heartrending selection from On Human Nature:

…I keep an unchanging bent, while we rush
upon the sword in suicidal madness, like the swine.
What’s in fact the good of life? God’s light? But then
hateful and jealous darkness keeps me from it.
Nothing’s of any use to me. And what is there of no use to the wicked?
If only they were equally endowed,with troubles especially!
I lie helpless. Divine terror has bowed me…

93-99

YIKES!

The full poem is long, so I’ll give a little context to that excerpt: the poem opens with Gregory racked with anxiety, asking himself the big question: who am I (line 25). On one hand, Christ died to mingle his essence with the divine and lead him on towards holiness. He knows that! But on the other hand, he doesn’t feel particularly blessed. He describes himself as “a nothing… pommeled down by ills like a thing compacted” (line 43). In old age, his body is betraying him. It’s an “enemy that never lets up warring” (59-60), and he feels like he’s “carrying a corpse… locked in the hateful chains of life”(65). Where is this joy that was promised? Will it come? Was there a point to any of this?

Those of us hoping for a happy ending don’t exactly get one. He concludes his quest: “now’s a fog, but afterwards the Word, and you’ll know all, whether by seeing God or eaten up by fire… I headed home, laughing at my self-estrangement… heart in anguish smoldering,” (127-128, 130-133). This is not a happy man, but it’s still a faithful man. He ends this poem specifically because he knows he needs to trust God, even in his misery:

Stop. Everything is secondary to God. Give in to reason.
He did not create me in vain. I am turning
my back upon this song.

123-126

God didn’t create him for nothing. He moves forward in hope, even if he doesn’t feel particularly happy in the given moment.

This poetry is grim, and yet, I find it strangely compelling. It’s honest. I’ve felt these feelings. I’d go so far as to say that existential crises, self doubt, and unfathomable pain are near-universal experiences in this life. When I think about the preachers that are chasing happiness, I can’t even fathom them validating these kinds of emotions as legitimate. “God doesn’t want that for you! Seek joy!” But that advice denies the pain that we all know is real. Anyone who has lived knows that it’s painful sometimes. A saintly faith isn’t one that ignores the deep pains of the world. It’s one that sees the pain and weeps without giving up faith in God. Gregory knew pain. The psalmists felt pain. Jesus felt pain. The faith that’s been passed down all these thousands of years is a hard one sometimes. That’s ok. It’s part of the journey. To quote Rainer Rilke,

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Go to the Limits of Your Longing

We seek fulfillment in our eternal God, not a dopamine rush that might get us through another work week. When things are bad, it’s okay to be sad. It’s not a lack of faith; it’s honesty. We have to remember that God didn’t create us in vain and keep trudging on our way, trusting that in the end, God knows what he’s doing.

Can God Act? Charles Taylor and the Impact of Secularism

A few weeks back, I was chatting with my spiritual director and somehow I got on the topic of religious language.  A friend of mine uses religious language that’s really foreign to me.  For example, she might say: “I woke up this morning and was so grateful that the Lord gave me one more day, and so I thanked him with all my heart.  Later on, as I ate my cereal, I pondered, ‘Lord, what are you asking of me today?  What do you want?  Should I go to the store?’”  For some reason, her language just makes me a little uneasy. Obviously it bothered me enough that I wanted to process it with someone else! Why does she have to talk like that?

My director’s response was simple enough, “It’s very brave of her to talk like that.  She knows that most people in our world don’t sound like her, but she chooses to use that language anyway.  What makes you uncomfortable with her language?”

I threw out some bad guesses about religious background and education, but they were all nonsense.  I didn’t have a good answer.  I’ve just been sitting with that question for a few weeks, trying to ask myself why her language bothers me so much.

God must have heard me crying out, because I certainly ended up reading in the right direction; I stumbled back onto the work of Charles Taylor.  His work in A Secular Age may only be from 2007, but it’s a masterwork for religious people of all traditions.  He investigates the philosophy of secularism, how it developed, what ideas hold it in place, and what it means for religious thought today.  Admittedly, I’m not reading Taylor directly; I’m reading Andrew Root’s The Pastor in a Secular Age, which builds on Taylor’s work to see how pastors understood themselves and their society historically to determine what a pastor’s challenges are today.  That being said, it’s a book in Charles Taylor’s tradition.  Root is very much building on what Taylor’s work (in a delightfully readable way).

In any case, it had an answer to my burning question: I’m a pretty secular person. It’s no wonder that language about a God that acts feels wrong.  Does God exist?  Sure!  But it’s uncomfortable to address him as a being that acts and moves and has a being.  God is, after all, in us!  He is sustaining all things!  He is creating!  At least, that’s the way we talk about him in mainline churches.  But if we’re being honest, that’s all pretty passive, impersonal stuff.   God looks suspiciously like a weird spark somewhere between personal inspiration and natural law.  It’s not the kind of God you really need to worry much about, and it’s certainly not one that you wake up every morning talking to.

Here’s two big reasons that really hit me as why mainstream Western society has a hard time talking about God in an active voice:

1. We’ve dis-embedded God from public life.

Historically, God’s will was understood to be the foundation of public life.  Just think about Joan of Arc!  Why did she fight the English?  Because God wanted France to win.  She was God’s instrument, and God’s will was made manifest through her.  Again, think about the “divine right of kings.”  Why was someone the king?  Because God wanted it like that!  There was no way to divide what was happening in the world from the active work of God.  God acted, and the world was shaped according to his authority.

The rise of democracy made God’s action in the world a little harder to understand.  Power wasn’t vested in a king; it was in the will of the people!  But if you consider the way that God’s authority was popularly interpreted in the public square, that brings a bit of a problem to seeing God’s work in the world:

[In democracy,] sovereignty comes from the people, not from the king; but the king’s sovereignty comes from above, from God; so democracy is already an implicit rejection of God.

Taylor, Dilemmas and Connection: Selected Essays (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011), 228.

Ever wonder why so many American founding fathers were deists?  This is why!  When public life is a primarily a product of human will, rather than divine action, it’s harder to believe in a God that actively takes an interest in public affairs.  We moved from a system in which God was acting and the world was shifting according to his will to a system in which people were responsible for organizing themselves to manifest God’s ideal world.  God ceased to be the primary actor in public affairs and the role of the individual became far more prominent than ever before.

If you’re a citizen in a Western democracy, you’ve probably internalized this logic.  For example, what’s your first thought when a political candidate you despise wins the election?  Probably something like, “Dang, we needed to mobilize our voting base more effectively and appeal to a broader audience.” You probably don’t worry that this is a judgement from God for failing to live faithfully. When we have such power at our disposal, it’s hard to envision the results of an election, the outcome of a war, or the laws that we live by as a product of God’s action, rather than our own successes or failures in the public arena.

2. We’ve divided the natural world from divine purpose and action.

In previous eras, everything that happened was full of deep meaning.  Lightning struck near you?  Sign from God.  Good crops?  God is happy.  The sun rose?  God wanted the sun to rise.  The whole world was a theater for the divine, and God’s intimate work was everywhere.  Was it superstitious by our standards?  Oh, absolutely.  But every detail mattered intimately.  Today?  Well, today it’s hard to believe that anything is particularly meaningful.  The discovery and codification of natural laws have brought huge breakthroughs to the understanding of science and medicine, but (when they’re coupled with the elements of our secular philosophy) they’ve also closed off our understanding of the universe.  Whereas before the universe was open to God’s action, constantly being affected by the divine will (or the will of other, less pleasant entities), now the system is largely seen as self-governing and closed off to any outside parties.  For example:

When the fifty-five-year-old woman asks her pastor about her cancer, we’re quick to claim that its cause is impersonal. It’s just the odds, bad luck, the randomness of an impersonal order, or childhood exposure to some toxin or chemical. Yet if this is so—and it might be—then it becomes much harder for her to trust that a personal God can act to heal her. It is less frightening to assume that it is just the odds or bad luck that makes her sick—it’s nothing personal. She did nothing wrong, nor is some malevolent personal force after her. Yet, while this is less frightening, without a personal cause it is much harder to imagine (and explain) the intervention of a personal God in a presumed impersonal universe. And maybe more importantly, it becomes a challenge to provide meaning to her illness and death. She is stuck with a meaninglessness to her disease because, though deeply personal to her, her disease is only a fading echo in a dark, cold, impersonal universe where everything dies, swallowed in the tsunami of massive, impersonal time and space. If the cancer is caused by no personal force, how can a personal God affect her, other than by providing some banal comfort or cold indifference?

Root, Andrew. The Pastor in a Secular Age (Ministry in a Secular Age Book #2) (p. 56). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Where we previously saw God reaching into our world and acting, now we only see the cold logic of natural law. It’s harder to blame God, but it’s also harder to expect anything from him.

Hopefully none of this feels like a glorification of the past and an utter rejection of our present world.  Not at all!  After all, I live here and there’s some pretty cool stuff to enjoy!  It’s just a way of trying to explore why previous generations could easily see God acting in the world around them, and why we find it so hard.  Their philosophy naturally emphasized the role of the divine, whereas ours emphasizes human action and natural law to a far greater degree.  No wonder my friend’s language made me so nervous!  God is doing things?  Talking to people?  Planning stuff?  Eew.  Gross.  Please use more passive language for your God.  It sounds ridiculous when you act like he exists. 

What would it mean to imagine that God can talk over a bowl of cereal?  That he wants something and that we’re capable of hearing it?  More than that, that other people are capable of hearing God too, and he is acting in the world to make his will manifest?