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.
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?