Great-Souled Heroes

It is now a truism that humanity is thrown into the world, abandoned to the meaningless flux of life that ends in death, but this was common coinage even before Heidegger. Shakespeare for instance crafted great-souled men of passion who faced reality without excuses or illusions and knew the meaning of genuine self-sacrifice. For these tragic heroes there was no hope or possibility of reward after death. Life was instead to be experienced in all its bliss and terribleness without seeking shelter from the terror of existence. This radical celebration of life in all its totality—full of agony, suffering and pain—was infinitely worth more than a safe life which would inevitalby lead to a drab and mediocre existence. In other words, with no otherworldly meaning outside our lives, a certain kind of life still had its own reward; unlike the disillusioned and self-pity personalities of romanticism that sought to flee the present by yearning for a prestine golden past or a hopeful future. However, this escape from the present was nothing new. Humanity has always tried to find saftey beyond the tempest of ordinary existence by seeking comfort in the faith of immortality and a benevolent father above. But what proto-philosophers like Shakespeare valued were passionate people who cared more for honour, justice and truth than what common people would think. It is no wonder that the heroes of his tragedies were never understood by others. They were simply incomparable to the other characters in the play. But unlike religious martyrs who also gamble with their lives by standing out against the fray, Shakespeare—like Nietzsche after him—completely requidiated the after world. Perhaps this doesn’t bode well with a theology of hope, but it would be ill-advised to think eternity is a cut-and-dry solution. At the very least we must acknowledge Christians hold a profound diffidence and modesty regarding the otherworldly, even if hopeful.

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2 responses to “Great-Souled Heroes”

  1. Matt Martin says :

    If it is a “truism” that humanity is simply thrown, abandoned, into a meaningless flux terminating in death, it is a truism only for Post-Enlightenment secular thought. Charles Taylor, in his excellent history “A Secular Age”, discusses the post-Reformational rise of the “Reform Society.” This was (is) a society obsessed with change. This was connected to an “un-hinging” of the Transcendent that was at the core of secularization in Europe and America. This unhinging created a vast “gap” between the Divine and Creation, such that Creation flattended out and became the “nature” of the modern scientific world–a nature to be disected, studied, incapsulated, and used.

    The drive for reform, coupled with this unhinging of the Transcendent, created a mindset in which “we” have to create the change we want to see in the world. This new way of looking at humanity–as purely responsible for the reform of the world–has had two general effects. First, there are those who optimistically see humanity as forging its own future, reforming the world and overcoming our shortcomings and problems through (primarily) technology, science, and politics. However, a second broad group has arisen that despairs of the ability for us to reform. Because this group no longer has recourse to the divine (at least, not any recourse it can “justify” to the modern secular environment) it can only despair (Camus) or “man-up”, grow a pair, and face reality with a square jaw and a determination to see reality “as it really is”. (Nietzsche, Shakespeare)

    Both these responses, however, are in the end nihilistic. As for the second group, the nihilism is obvious–a faint grasping at a pseudo-reality we can create as we “enjoy” life “in its totality” while knowing ultimately everyone and everything will succumb to the absolute annihilation of death. The first, despite its optimism and valiant effort, is repeatedly defeated as reform systems that overthrow old orders or solve difficult problems only become those orders or create new problems. “Progress” has only proven a myth of the modern mindset. Additionally, even if all our reform efforts were to succeed, they only are terminated by the unstoppable march of death through time. Everything is torn down, destroyed, made meaningless. At least the Camus’ of the world recognized this much.

    Christianity has recognized in the very core of its history–in the Christ event–that the ultimate enemy is death. However, this is not simply a dieing of the biological organism. “Death” in Christianity is a much more insidious notion–one of breaking of relationship, of communion, of life. It insidiously infects systems of power and reform, as well as individuals, with Sin and brings all Creation back to its all-encompassing Nothingness. That is, it does without the intervention of the Transcendent.

    “Humanity has always tried to find saftey beyond the tempest of ordinary existence by seeking comfort in the faith of immortality and a benevolent father above.” That is true, because that is ultimately the only hope there is. We can say we don’t need God and, squaring our jaws, march forward to herald a “new” era of “change” and “progress” which looks, at its core, markedly like what we tell ourselves we left. Or, alternatively, we can “realize” God and the eternal are no longer legitimate recourses for us: that they are just “crutches” for the weak. Then, we still can square our jaws and march into oblivion while “creating” our own meaningless meaning. Either way, the outcome is the same.

    There is a difference in theology. Only a theology of hope can redeem us, because it alone will create the condition of the possibility of change–Hope. Without hope, everything dies. It is not the square-jawed skeptical philosopher who, realizing that eternity is an opium for the masses, seeks rather “justice” and “truth”. Indeed, such concepts are wholly meaningless for him, apart from some existential meaning he creates for himself (and which dies with him). It is those who patiently hope in light of a beatified future who can truly seek Truth and Justice, because it is only for them that such concepts are even real. With hope–a hope in a real eternity–we truly can live, and do so with true meaning.

    • Matt Cullen-Meyer says :

      Thank you for your reply. I think what someone like Milbank is saying is that after Scotus the the divine and creation were indeed separated as you said but that this does not end in a hands-off hope but a participation in the divine towards reform. Since I never see Milbank talk much about soteriology I’m going to assume, and I think this is a pretty close interpretation, he is more concerned with the immanent than the transcendent in a panentheistic conception of the world. In other words, he is more concerned with what Christianity does for us today than in the afterlife. Of course I’m talking about Milbank and you’re talking about Taylor (I just got his book yesterday and I plan to start reading him today) so maybe this is an apples and oranges argument.
      As for my Nietzschean/Shakespherian argument–I understand it’s not the most lucid article every written–I’d like you to at least consider, from their own words rather than their reviewers, how someone qualifies as being ‘great-souled’. Neither are looking for reform or progress and neither are despairing. They accept the condition of their time as it is without recourse to the past or present. Furthermore, they’re not too melancholic about it. They need neither hope for change nor meaning in the present. Granted they pass through and then beyond nihilism to a revaluation of everything (such as a passion and intensity to live creatively) and this is where I become more unsure. My thoughts are scatterbrain, I apologize. I should say my one quibble with a theology of hope is that hope is to ambivalent to hope in. I don’t know how it helps all that much because it seems as though you end up with all the same problems you had before (something like a paltry double of our current condition). In other words, I want to have hope but don’t know what to have hope in. Negative theology is a bitch

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