Isn’t It Ironic? An Advent Reflection

Posted on the fourth Sunday of Advent, 2020.

No, this short and seemingly academic writing is not about all the damnable ironies of contemporary politics, embodied for me above all in the hypocritical obstructionism of today’s republicans.  Ironic, for instance, that the very folks who now profess deep concerns about deficit spending not long ago exploded deficit spending by their huge tax breaks for the rich.

No, this writing is about irony as central to faith – especially what my mentor Lynch even dares to call “the irony of Christ.”

For years I just skimmed the word “irony” while reading since I really didn’t have a clue about what irony meant.  Lynch challenged me to change all that with his last book Images of Faith, subtitled “An Exploration of the Ironic Imagination.” (Very academic wording, but spot on.)

We imagine and experience faith – both civic faith or trust in each other and religious faith – in many ways.  As joy, as consolation, as strength, as seeing through a glass darkly….  Yet these days we probably find the idea that faith must also be ironic to be almost incomprehensible, even scandalous.   Why?  Especially since some of our most important thinkers – from Socrates to Kierkegaard – have praised the central role of irony in living a good (and for SK, a good Christian) life.

I know, all this probably still seems very academic and not-understandable.  But bear with.

Lynch is among many who see ours as a terribly ironic age.  A culture filled with irony at every turn, from our comedians to our writers of both popular and serious literature, our talk shows and political commentary.  An ironic attitude seems to almost be the hallmark of sophisticated intelligence.  And, to the point, such modern cultural irony is essentially contemptuous.  The smart guys looking down their noses at all the fools.  Skepticism and contempt about piety and idealism and the intelligence of ordinary folks.  Etc.

Yet the predominance of such “ironies of contempt” in our days has blinded us to a much larger meaning contained in the earlier philosophical and literary and religious embrace of irony. 

What’s the meaning of that older understanding of irony?  Both the word and the attitude are hard to define.  So some examples. 

Cervantes’ Don Quixote was and remains a classic example of one writer “ironizing” a whole romantic tradition of “chivalry” by mocking it in his story of the Don.  The king has no clothes is a similar example.  Ironic observation pricks the bubble of pseudo-glorious pretension.  It throws the mighty from their thrones, to cite another magnificently ironic text from Luke.  Yet it does more than just puncture false magnificence.  As Mary also says, it raises the lowly.  At the start of the Don’s story, his servant Sancho Panza is a lowly figure trailing behind the glorious knight. By the end of the story of the Don’s disillusionments, Sancho has grown to be his one reliable companion, a man of good sense and real love.

In the classical Western tradition, irony is not about contempt but about healing and reconciliation, albeit in ironic ways.

So back to the irony of Christ which for Lynch is the very being of Jesus as the Messiah, the glorious and long-awaited savior.  For it’s terribly ironic that our truly glorious God (Blessed be God’s name, as Muslims pray), that this Godhead “chose” to save us, to lead us from death to life, to spread his kingdom among us, by having a poor woman of Nazareth conceive a son, soon fleeing for refuge, then becoming a lowly carpenter, and finally a wandering preacher, who ends up as a donkey-riding “king” soon executed as a political criminal.

And irony, of course, was not only central to the life of that unsuccessful savior, but to his teachings.  Blessed are the poor.  Really?  C’mon, get real.  Blessed those who suffer, who hunger and thirst, etc. etc.  And perhaps above all, the crazy idea that only through real and terrible death did that Jesus guy enter into a new and resurrected life as Christ, Lord and Savior.  True for us as well, for it is by and large only through suffering and being misunderstood and misunderstanding, and eventually of course by dying that we come to fullness of life.  Really dying. As we do through the many little deaths suffered during life and through that final death. It is for most of us only through such loss that we gradually come to understanding the real good of our lives, and finally (I believe) come to the great understanding given in the Beatific Vision.

More examples.

It’s a lived irony, for most of us, that the great sexual and romantic dreams that lead us to marry or bond in some wonderful or at least hopeful way, that these dreams are only realized – understood and actually embodied in our lives – by a long journey which involves loss, disagreement, disappointment, deaths great or small.  What little we come to know and experience as real love only happens over time and usually through much suffering.  Not a pleasant thought.  But true.

As also with career plans and paths.  With hopes for a good city and good politics.  We mostly experience shifts and reversals, some chosen paths revealed as folly, others becoming real only through suffering and disillusionment.  In such ways we as individuals and at times we as people move via ironic experiences to a more realistic common sense and sanity and yes trust in life and in others, and at least implicitly faith in God.

For real faith must embody (along with much else) a truly ironic sensibility.

A final example, or at least a hope.  We as families, as cities and nations around the globe…. we human beings are experiencing these days terrible, unexpected, unwanted suffering.  Yes, the pandemic, with its life and death chess game, and economic disaster for so many while the rich sit on their thrones.  And all of course against the backdrop of climate change, mass migrations, inevitable war and violence.

Let me stick with the pandemic. It’s not an ironic curse from God (as some scripture might suggest).  No it’s an ironic consequence of the processes of evolution.  Viruses, I’m told, are a central component in the evolution of life.  They live by living off biological life, or something like that.  And in this way, they prod biological life into adaptations for health and development.  They prod evolution, so to speak.  And always accompany it.  As we know from human history and again these days.

Yet it is just possible – this is my hope – that the pandemic’s destruction, at least for a significant time, of so many of our dreams and plans… its destruction of so much life through disease and poverty, might awaken us to see through many of those dreams, to come to see what’s really important.  To raise the lowly through attention to front line workers of all sorts – and through increased awareness of our elders’ frailty – and through attention to the needs of our kids so they might grow into the intelligent and sensible human beings this planet is going to need for dealing with our other forms of threat and suffering. 

And the rich and powerful, at least some of them, I hope, will be emptied of false pretensions (sent away empty) and take their rightful place amongst us as civic and business, religious and political leaders now working above all with and for the lowly.

Wouldn’t that be ironic? 

11 thoughts on “Isn’t It Ironic? An Advent Reflection

  1. Well done, if a little too deep for me on a Sunday before Christmas. Stay well and give everyone a hug for me and the Boss.

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  2. A long and very insightful reply about irony from my longtime Regis colleague and Friend Prof. Randolph (Randy) Lumpp, which I post with his permission.

    Your piece on irony is excellent!
    It would be nice to have some longer conversation, but in its absence, let me just offer a couple of quick connections.
    • Irony emerges from expectation. In McLuhan’s way of reckoning, expectations are shaped by sensibilities. They arise from what we have learned to expect, so when we perceive something, we look for those expectations to be realized. When something else happens, we are thrown back on our established patterns of interpretation. We can react in denial or fear or wonder or….
    • Irony also invites us into mystery. Mystery refers to a kind of experience that, quite the opposite of a puzzle to be solved, gets deeper the deeper we go into it. Even “ordinary” religion is full of mystery and irony. One seeks to know the unknowable, to manage the unmanageable, etc. Without a sense of irony, this can seem entirely irrational, inexplicable. An appreciation of “mystery” in this sense moves us beyond paradox into irony—which is far richer.
    • In the realm of faith, irony abounds: “My ways are not your ways.” So expect the unexpected. Expect that God’s will is not discerned from reading the tea leaves and plotting out some pre-ordained plan, but by being alert to that “dearest freshness deep-down things,” as Hopkins puts it, alert to the creative, renewing, blossoming of life that comes from God’s creating love. This sort of love is thus fundamentally all-inclusive because it demands radical trust in God, radical openness to the other in order to perceive what the creative thing to do really is, and the confidence to act on it. In this way of thinking, truth is less a conclusion than ongoing revelation, “. . . as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.” Loving one’s neighbor and/or one’s enemies or the man who was accosted by thieves or the stranger at the gate is not good feeling (although that may be fine) but Creative Engagement. It is directed radically and unceasingly toward ongoing extension of the Reign/Kingdom of God.
    • The Etruscan idea of time as measured by the length of a full human life—something like 80 years—was called a saeculum. It’s a rich idea in that it reveals time as not as a singular, uniform, linear flow nor as a cycle of eternal return but as a rhythmic, nuanced pulsing that each generation embodies, shapes, colors in its distinctive way. We used to say, “. . . per omnia saecula saeculorum,” more recently translated as “forever and ever” or some such thing, as though it’s the same old same old. On the contrary, it is better translated as something like “. . . through all the generations of the generations.” For the Christian imagination each saeculum brings its own possibilities and opportunities for good or ill into which the Good News is proclaimed and lived out or abused and denied. “Go to the land I will show you. . . .So Abram went. . . .”
    • All this puts great demands on the human capacity to imagine. For this we have the Scriptures and the Sacraments and the Saints, but also all the arts and sciences and events of our time, to feed and fuel our imaginations and thus our actions. We need one another. Hence, we assemble, and we invite co-operation of all others. (How to do that requires immense imagination!) Imagination is more fundamental than behavior. It requires less security in the answers we have than in the questions we ask, ongoing “con-vers-ion,” “turning-with”.

    Thanks for enduring this barrage of stuff. Your blog got me going!

    Tonight we can view the “star” of Bethlehem. How ironic in this time of pandemic and every manner of confusion, disorder, disruption! Shalom!

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  3. Thank for this piece. I use irony all the time in a Latino environment that takes everything literally. I post a cartoon of a cat taped to the wall so his “master” can work at his computer and only a few will find it funny. “How could you even consider doing that?” Is the prevailing (accusatory) mood of the rest. In my Charlie novel some readers saw the wife as oppressed when my intention was to say she’s a little crazy but that’s why I love her so! Go figure.

    Enviado desde mi iPhone

    > El dic. 20, 2020, a la(s) 12:02, With a Cane escribió: > >  >

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  4. First, John, please say “Hi” to George for me with whom I shared happy “Beacon days” 58 years ago!

    Your reflections enrich these days of Incarnation. The irony of awakening through the pandemic to what’s really important, particularly in the realm of touch and smiles is, well, important. Prof. Lumpp’s distinction between enigma and mystery is a salient fruit of irony. Mystery keeps surprise at our door steps.

    The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl made two resolutions to keep his sanity when he was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp; 1) to shave everyday even with a piece of glass, to keep his sense of dignity; 2) to nurture his sense of humor by finding something to laugh at every day.

    Analogously I can apply these particular examens to nurturing a sense of irony, i. e. to daily reflect on something I consider ironic, thus keeping open my sense of surprise and mystery.

    Here are two possible areas of irony in our present political scene: If Biden, with his careful and responsible approach to Covid, were to catch the virus, that would be ironic. What good could come from it? A sense of humility, which is, I think, a daughter of irony. Secondly, and actually happening, it’s ironic that Pelosi is encouraging the Dems to back Trump’s increased stimulus package.

    Merry Christmas!

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  5. The use of irony is everywhere in our best works of art from Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation” to Oscar Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray” to Andy Warhol’s “Gold Marilyn” to…. enjoyed reading your piece. I have just posted a movie review on my blog that points to irony as protagonist, so to speak. I hope you get a chance to read it. Thanks for this post.

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