On Christian Pessimism

The church and clergy here, no doubt,
Are very near a-kin:
Both weather-beaten are without,
And empty both within.

Jonathan Swift, “Epigram IV,” (1726)

Alexander Pope was, I fear, taking some license when he wrote that “hope springs eternal in the human breast.”*  Hope is a hardy and tenacious growth, and its root can send out green shoots after calamities of frost and fire, but it is not deathless, and there are times when a man awaits those green shoots in vain.

“And then, the death of hope confessed,
The quivering lip and heaving breast,
The burst of tears, the homeward way
Made hateful by joy passed away.” **

Now I must at once admit that the hope of which Pope wrote was not a sanguine expectation of joyous success in love or war or the getting of gold.  It was, most decidedly, hope of “future bliss” in a “life to come.”  As for this life of struggle here on earth, Pope tells us it is decidedly hopeless.

“Oh sons of earth! Attempt ye still to rise,
By mountains pil’d on mountains to the skies?
Heav’n still with laughter the vain toil surveys,
And buries madmen in the heaps they raise.***

What Pope means is that the specifically Christian hope of heaven entails a specifically Christian pessimism about earth.  A Christian’s hope of “future bliss” entails a profound pessimism about every project and program that promises to improve life here on earth.  In the eye of a Christian pessimist, everything a “son of earth” undertakes in the hope of earthly paradise is, as Pope says, a “vain toil” that is ultimately doomed to failure, disappointment and destruction.

The placement of pessimism and hope is, of course, reversed for a toiling “son of earth.”  He toils in the hope of making an earthly paradise because he has conceived a profound pessimism about paradise in the life to come.  Indeed, he will intentionally spread pessimism about the heavenly paradise because he knows such pessimism excites earthly activity (vide Marx and Nietzsche).

It is easy for a Christian to see “vain toil” in the projects and programs of his enemies.  He joins in the laughter of Heaven when he surveys the earthly paradises that are promised by utopians of every description. But his mordant mirth disappears when he turns and surveys the projects and programs that are closer to his heart.

He forgets that he remains, himself, in large degree, a “son of earth,” and that his ecclesiastical projects and political programs are also, therefore, “mountains pil’d on mountains to the skies.”  He forgets that heaven laughs as he writes a Constitution that he believes will preserve  Christian liberty in a Godly republic.  Heaven laughs when he builds a Church and boasts that it will defy the “gates of Hell.”  Heaven laughs and awaits the burial of these Christian madmen in the “heaps” of earth they have raised.

The seed of these dolorous thoughts was planted at the close of last Sunday’s mass, as I listened to our priest plead for continued faith in the Church.  Last Thursday, as you may have heard, the bishops of Texas published a list of Texas priests who had been credibly accused of sodomy, rape and molestation.  The list was long, and it was far too long coming.  I strained my ear to hear the laughter of Heaven, and I do not think that what I heard was just wind whistling ’round the corners of a weather-beaten church. The seed of these thoughts was watered the very next evening as I stomped around my usual Monday walk, brooding on the near certainty that my golden years will be spent under the administration of a President Kamala Harris.

“The burst of tears, the homeward way
Made hateful by joy passed away.”

False hopes, false joys, false home.  The time has come to fully embrace the pessimism of the Jonathan S. with whom this post began.


*) Alexander Pope, Essay on Man (1733-1735)
**) William Morris, The Earthly Paradise (1868-1870)
***) Pope, Essay.

16 thoughts on “On Christian Pessimism

  1. Pingback: Reaction Times

  2. This sentiment is a strange thing. It is like your eyes have adjusted and you no longer see what you proclaim.

    All authoritative structures are currently in crisis, but this should not stop a person of faith. Every well-lived life is a struggle, but here hopes forever survives, that on this field, everyone can make it.

    Every hope beyond what you expect from yourself is simply pride in disguise. I do not think we are owed a revolution or something.

    I wrote this: https://darksamovar.wordpress.com/2019/02/05/a-parable/

    • Towers of Babel (and Babble), as I see it. I take it that is what you mean by “hope beyond what you expect from yourself.” How does this fit with the stricture against gnosticism in your post? Nice photos, by the way.

      • You are right, I have not made that point clear. The thing that should not be depended upon is the “objective” world.

        If you focus on what is “objectively” possible, you always focus on what you can persuade other people about. I guess you are right with the tower of Babel.

        But I’d say, that a person living his subjective life knows, that he can achieve anything, if he must.

      • Hello, Mr. JMSmith,
        I am glad you like the pictures, thank you for your kind words.

        I was thinking about what I replied to you, I am aware that it wasn’t very clear. The problem is that the matter isn’t easy to explain. It is something that people have always been searching for in solitude, something that is very simple and obvious as a proposition, very complex and heavy in all its realized consequences.

        The idea, that the world appears to each of us individually. I have tried to expound on this here:

      • You are right that there are things we know at age eleven that we must struggle not to forget, but that doesn’t mean we should always think about them like an eleven-year-old. As Robert Frost wrote: “They will not find him changed from him they knew, / Only more sure that all he knew was true. As we mature, we find reasons to be “more sure” of what we only intuited when we were eleven.

      • Oh, for sure. You have a decisive knack for finding the weakest spot in a text. I just wanted to put forward a few more words on the weird notion that certainty is found in subjectivity and empiricism, rather than in objectivity and expertise… And that the question seems to center around “who one is”, rather than on “what one does”, which is not very good, IMHO.

  3. Heaven laughs when he builds a Church and boasts that it will defy the “gates of Hell.”

    Yes. But Heaven decidely does not laugh when the Son of God, who is decidedly not a “son of earth’ though He shares fully and completely in in our nature as men, proclaims He will build a Church (partly but not completely) here below against which the gates of Hell shall not prevail.

    Which is not to say that some stretches of its unbroken continuity will not look decidedly touch-and-go, especially for the people living during them.

  4. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 02/10/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

  5. I am not able myself to believe in a life after this one, or rather, as a tribal Catholic, the continued existence of the Catholic Church was to be my afterlife, and now even that hope has been taken away.

    Still, the claim that my tribe is morally inferior has not been demonstrated to my satisfaction. You say that this list was long. Well, to what more virtuous group are you comparing? Texas is a large state with a large fraction of Catholics. No doubt this study, like the rest, insisted on going all the way back to World War fucking II, including in particular a period of time (roughly the 70s) when the idea that pedophilia is no big deal was widely held (https://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/12/how-pedophilia-lost-its-cool). If we’re all a bunch of child-raping monsters, why is that always necessary? If one were to gather a proper control group of, say, school teachers, rabbis, and Protestant pastors covering the same period, would the list be shorter (or, more precisely, if the numbers were unequal, would the rate be lower)? In fact, there is no reason whatsoever to think so (http://www.themediareport.com/fast-facts/).

    Second, the haters of my people always forget that “credibly accused” is an incredibly weak standard. Many of these men are innocent. The John Jay report estimated about half, but given the public’s hysteria which has only increased since then (the Church having gotten no credit whatsoever for her 2002 reforms), I think it very likely that a substantial majority is innocent. And yet their lives are ruined, and they will never be given a chance to defend themselves. There is no justice in this.

    There is no justice in the destruction of my people. We’re no worse than any other. No one has produced a shred of evidence to the contrary. Not one shred. These lists and anecdotes could equally well be used to prove that people whose last names begin with “M” are moral monsters. And yet I have lost my one comfort in the face of oblivion.

    • Tell it, brother. If they could *show me* that Catholics are more perverse than most, then and only then might I begin to wonder what sets us apart. They have shown no such thing, nor anything close to it.

      Is there any other institution whatever that – notwithstanding her manifold prevarications and equivocations on the topic – has so forthrightly grappled with the scourge of homosexuality as the Catholic Church? No; compared to the Church, all the other institutions whatever have *totally caved* to the homosexualist agenda.

      Institutions of the realm formerly known as Christendom, that is. Homosexuality is rather more consistently and sternly dealt with in dar al Islam, for example.

      So, like I say: tell it.

      Except not the bit about the incredibility of the Resurrection of the Body. The Resurrection of the Body is no more incredible than the Surrection of the Body in the first place. Likewise with the World to Come; it is no more incredible than the World that Came, and that Now Is, and so Comes. The 7th Heaven is no more incredible than the eggs with toast you had at breakfast.

      And, given the Resurrection of the Body, the Church Triumphant is – well, it’s just a foregone conclusion. So that your hope need not by any means be circumscribed by the firmament of this cosmos. Unless, that is, you want it that way.

      What is the limit of a cosmos, after all? Is it not – when you follow the trail all the way to its ultimate end – that which transcends all worlds? Is it not him, who transcends all worlds, and is their forecondition?

      You can’t figure all this out, and nor can I. But are we the limit of understanding?

      • They’d (who’re they?) better be careful or I’ll start thinking that what sets Catholics apart is being singled out for particular shaming without our having been particularly shameful.

    • This is mostly to play Devil’s Advocate, an extremely dangerous position at the best of times.

      I grant (with extreme prejudice) your observation of lack of proof. I posit myself, Catholic Christianity being the true religion, that Catholics are by and large significantly less likely to indulge in at least serious sins than the ‘general populace.’

      Because of the Church’s unique charism, any falling away from virtue by a member of the clergy is necessarily a big problem that the Church must endeavour at extreme cost to correct. This is especially true if the sins committed are particularly heinous and/or inveterate. This is especially true if the sinners have formed a conspiracy within the body of the Church to protect and promote their sins.

      The problem in this situation is that the Church has given up to Her sworn enemies all of Her secular office and nearly all of Her religious office as well.

      So what do? I don’t know, in the slightest. But the answer certainly isn’t, “Rally around sinful or heretical priests because they’re Our Guys.” It also isn’t, “Give in to the demands of our enemies,” or, “Start a populist witch-hunt,” either.

      • > So what do? I don’t know, in the slightest. But the answer certainly isn’t,
        > “Rally around sinful or heretical priests because they’re Our Guys.” It also isn’t,
        > “Give in to the demands of our enemies,” or, “Start a populist witch-hunt,” either.

        No doubt the correct policy is a mean between opposing errors. However, I’m going to keep advocating “rally around sinful and heretical priests because they’re Our Guys” because everyone else is on the opposite side.

    • I would not say that Catholics are “morally inferior” with respect to sexual sin; nor am I astonished to learn that they are not as morally superior as one might like. The salient moral virtues for me are courage and honesty, not chastity. I know it is not consistent to ask for excellence in these virtues while accepting mediocrity in the other, but I think lust is stronger than fear, and so feel more pity for lechers than cowards. At the very least, fear often attacks us in public, where pride can come to the aid of virtue. Lust attacks us in the dark.

      As I’ve written here before, I hate to hear the Church denounce “sexual abuse,” since this is a term from Liberal sexual morality. In our sexual morality, the absence of consent merely aggravates an act that is wrong in all circumstances.

      I credit you with persuading me that the friend-enemy distinction is primary in moral reasoning, but I must confess that I have begun to wonder how many friends I actually have. Men build institutions to protect themselves from the wolves, but it seems the wolves sooner or later take charge of these institutions. It’s all very well to “circle the wagons,” but the tactic won’t work if half the indians are inside the circle.


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