The helplessness and weakness of the Christ Child should be a scandal to our ears.
As a believer I still have trouble swaddling my mind and life around the Pauline imperative of preaching strength in weakness.
I struggle with it.
Terry Eagleton–a Marxist philosopher and literary theorist who was raised Catholic, and seems to be thinking himself back into the faith in books such as Hope Without Optimism–is one important ally I’ve found in helping me think through this scandalous aspect of Christian belief.
He summarizes the glorious gratuity of God’s free gift of Creation in Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, a book where he also dismantles the New Atheists whom he conflates into a legendary creature he calls Ditchkins, thus:
To see [as the atheists do] God as completely pointless, and the moral life as much the same, is not to deny that instrumental reason has its place. There would, for example, be no emancipatory politics without it, and no science or technology either. Aestheticians are seized by the beauty and sensuous particularity of things, theologians by the fact that their existence is so mindbendingly contingent; while scientists and technologists have to press these things into the knowledge and service of humankind, and so cannot afford to spend all their time emitting grunts of pleasure or shouts of astonishment. Even so, on this theological view, morality is quite as pointless as the universe itself. It is a question of how to live most richly and enjoyably, relishing one’s powers and capacities purely for their own sake. This self-delighting energy, which is entirely without point or function, stands in no need of justification before some grim-faced tribunal of History, Duty, Geist, Prouduction, Utility, or Teleology.
Pointlessness is his cheeky Britisher way of naming the gift of grace that cannot be imprisoned by human instrumentality. As Pseudo-Dionysus, and legions of theologians after him, have said: God is beyond the instrumental schemes and projects that human minds might project onto him. These projections are what we traditionally call idolatry.
Eagleton continues in Reason, Faith, and Revolution by describing how the life of Jesus embodies this “pointlessness” while overlooking the obvious example of the Christ Child (can’t win them all):
Jesus, unlike most responsible American citizens, appears to do no work, and is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. He is presented as homeless, propertyless, celibate, peripatetic, socially marginal, disdainful of kinsfolk, without a trade, a friend of outcasts and pariahs, averse to material possessions, without fear for his own safety, careless about purity regulations, critical of traditional authority, a thorn in the side of the Establishment, and a scourge of the rich and powerful. Though he was no revolutionary in the modern sense of the term, he has something of the lifestyle of one. He sounds like a cross between a hippie and a guerilla fighter. He respects the Sabbath not because it means going to church but because it represents a temporary escape from the burden of labor. The Sabbath is about resting, not religion. One of the best reasons for being a Christian, as for being a socialist, is that you don’t like having to work, and reject the fearful idolatry of it so rife in countries like the United States. Truly civilized societies do not hold predawn power breakfasts.
Now see how all of this compares with the theology of gratuity (grace, pointlessness from the point of view of instrumentality) laid down by Eagleton’s former teacher, the Dominican Herbert McCabe in his Faith Within Reason:
He could not make man by nature divine, but he has given him divinity as gift. This is what we call grace. We do share in the divine nature, we do behave like God, but not by nature… Just as it would be supernatural for a horse to write a poem, so it is supernatural to a human being to behave like God. This means that our divinity must always come to us as a surprise, something eternally astonishing…Now one of the things that sharing in God’s life involves is sharing in his knowledge of himself. This share in God’s self-knowledge is called faith, it is a kind of knowledge that we have not by nature (we could never have it by nature) but as gift.
Our instrumental reason, with its clamoring competition for the position of top-dog, is a pointless and embarrassing spectacle in comparison to every good and perfect gift, which is always from above.
I think here of Charles de Foucauld’s wise saying as exemplifying the latter attitude of hospitality and gratitude:
Be as tender and attentive towards those whom God puts on our path, as a brother towards brother or as a mother for her child.
Which in turn reminds me of Auden’s poem “Like a Calling“:
. . . But somewhere always, nowhere particularly unusual,
Almost anywhere in the landscape of water and houses,
His crying competing unsuccessfully with the cry
Of the traffic or the birds, is always standing
The one who needs you, that terrified
Imaginative child who only knows you
As what the uncles call a lie,
But knows he has to be the future and that only
The meek inherit the earth, and is neither
Charming, successful, nor a crowd;
Alone among the noise and policies of summer,
His weeping climbs towards your life like a vocation.
In fine, after all this, I confess my regret at missing this vocation in exchanges with friend, family, and foe. We all should have climbed down from our towers of power and treated each other more like the imaginative children (of God) we are.
I consciously make this confession mostly with the words of others, because I believe in the gift of speech. Frequently the words of others are a gift that helps us to express what is innermost in us. Some might see that as a weakness, but then for a Christian there is nothing wrong with weakness.
Remembering this will be the focal point of my Advent.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. The rest is for my confessor to untangle.
As a parting gift I leave you Eagleton explaining the point from Reason, Faith, and Revolution about pointlessness:
If want to delve deeper into the spirituality of Advent see: In the Beginning Was Poverty: Advent Should Rob You Blind.
You might also want to see my piece on Eagleton: Squishy New Atheist Pieties Miss Gospel Love’s Ruthless Demands.