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Peter J. Leithart on the Surprising Madness of the Gospel
In her forties, the Jewish philosopher Gillian Rose discovered she had ovarian cancer. Chemotherapy did nothing to arrest the disease as it ate through her peritoneum and pleura, and when the surgeons treating her could not agree on either her condition or her prospects for recovery, she said goodbye to conventional medicine.
She dabbled briefly in alternative medicine, but soon left that behind too, not for practical but for philosophical reasons. Alternative medicine’s upbeat message, she commented acidly, was “poor psychology, worse theology and no notion of justice at all.” Unless you live a perfectly happy life, alternative healers told her, you are predestined to death. Ordinary, unhappy, fractured mortals are reprobates.
Though apparently more pessimistic, religious “tradition is far kinder in understanding that to live, to love, is to be failed, to forgive, to have failed, to be forgiven, forever and ever.” Tradition has it right in exhorting suffering humans to “keep your mind in hell, and despair not.”
Rose especially bristled at the exhortations to become “edgeless” and at the endorsement of “unconditional love” that filled the literature of alternative medicine. Instead of being a time for release and unconditionality, for the destruction of bonds and boundaries, Rose took her illness as an “opportunity to make contact with deeper levels of the terrors of the soul, to loose and to bind, to bind and to loose. A soul which is not bound is as mad as one with cemented boundaries.”
Removing boundaries doesn’t nurture love anyway. On the contrary, learning to love is “to accept the boundaries of oneself and others, while remaining vulnerable, woundable, around the bounds. Acknowledgement of conditionality is the only unconditionality of human love.” So she put aside her shark oil and her aloe vera, along with her last rounds of chemo and further surgery, and reached for her whiskey bottle with the thought, “If I am to stay alive, I am bound to continue to get love wrong, all the time, but not to cease wooing, for that is my life affair, love’s work.”
Protest Against Reason
Rose’s illness and her philosophical musings on it are worth pondering for many reasons, but what caught my attention was a single sentence: “A soul which is not bound is as mad as one with cemented boundaries.” In that aphorism, Rose both captured the pathos of modernity and illuminated a path of escape.
One of the great twentieth-century experts on Continental philosophy, Rose understood that, since the Reformation, modernity purposed to solve the problem of imprisoned, cemented souls. It aimed to free souls enslaved to corrupt priests, souls beaten down under the indifferent brutality of an ancien régime, souls wrung dry by the machines they oil and repair, souls treated as soulless because of their color or geography, artistic souls with wings clipped by dead forms. In describing post-Enlightenment culture as a secularized form of “protestantism,” Rose recognized the continuity of impulse from Luther’s “ Hier ich stehe” (“Here I stand”) to Kant’s “ Sapere aude” (“Dare to know”) to Marx’s “ Proletarier aller Länder, vereinigt euch!” (“Workers of the world, unite!”).
Eventually, inevitably, protest turned against protest itself. Luther denounced popes and cardinals from the platform of the Bible; Kant challenged metaphysics from the dais of Reason. But Reason’s protest couldn’t stop until it turned against Reason itself, and we now live with the vertigo induced by the discovery that Reason floats above an infinite abyss. What the secular protestant tradition did not foresee was that, in the process of breaking the chains that bound souls, it would create its own kind of madness, the madness of the unbound soul.
Age of Acedia
Over the centuries since the Reformation, unbound souls have appeared in various guises. There is the “beautiful soul” depicted in a famous chapter of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and described by Hegel as the soul that lacks the “force” to “endure existence.” It “lives in dread of staining the radiance of its inner being by action and existence,” and in order to maintain its purity, it flees the world into the safety of impotence. Its hollowness is filled only with “emptiness,” febrile “yearning,” the melancholy indulgence of sweet sickliness. The beautiful soul comes to its greatest expression in the delicate Jesus of liberal Protestantism, and its madness takes the form of “Pietism.”
The unbound soul also appears in the guise of the judge, the detached observer too sensitive to hypocrisy and power to cling to any community, any creed, any lover. We can call this madness “Criticism” and note that he is closely allied to the unboundedness of “Irony.” Here, Diderot’s Young Rameau is a chief fictional exemplar, a failed musician turned bohemian sponger, who sees nothing around him but slaves and tyrants, who cheerfully dismisses marriage, friendship, and parenting as “vanities,” who considers gratitude “a burden” and believes that “every burden is put there to be shaken off.” We might call this madman a “Postmodernist.”
Each of us could sketch a dozen more types of the unbound soul. Our world is fairly stuffed with them. There are still some liberal liberationists about, but they have a hard time finding clients. It appears that few, if any, cemented souls remain to be freed, and as a result, we find ourselves in an age characterized by what medieval moralists would have called acedia, the deadly sin of sloth.
For Dante as for other medievals, sloth was a defect of love, a tepid pursuit of the good, and as such, a corrosive of all other virtues. It was the vice that led the Israelites to look back fondly to the slavery of Egypt, that led the Trojans to settle for Sicily instead of pressing on toward Rome. Decades ago, Dorothy Sayers already noticed that this sin set the tone for contemporary life. In her essay, “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” she wrote:
In the world sloth calls itself tolerance, but in hell it is called despair. It is the accomplice of every other sin and their worst punishment. It is the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing and remains alive only because there is nothing it would die for.
Nihilism & Fanaticism
Having discovered that there is nothing holding us up, modernity abandons itself to nothing, desperately embracing the nihil. It is not surprising that belief in nothing, commitment to nothing, can turn on a dime into total commitment to a cause, any cause. Idols are vanities, literally nothings, and idolatry is just a more focused and fanatical form of nihilism.
This is where we stand today, but it is unstable, and dangerously so. Our nihilistic moment is ripe for fanaticisms, and fanaticisms tend to turn bloody. Souls cannot remain unbound forever. It was Joseph Goebbels—the Goebbels of the “Big Lie” and Kristallnacht, the Goebbels who was a devoted follower of Hitler— that Goebbels who said, “It is almost immaterial what we believe in, so long as we believe in something.”
Before we let the chill of that sentence wear off, we should recognize that the very same might come from the mouth of a “traditional values” conservative. Of course, the danger is non-partisan: Whatever we think of President Obama’s policies, the adoration he receives, and the iconography that surrounds him, they are all too familiar to anyone with the slightest knowledge of twentieth-century political history. To paraphrase Chesterton, the danger for the unbound soul is not that it will cling to nothing but that it will cling to anything.
This is the deeper irony of modernity’s gospel of freedom: Secular protestantism not only produced its own unique pathologies; it actually reinforced the very illness it was designed to cure. It did not simply free souls from ignorance, poverty, and dead tradition. It promised to liberate souls from every yoke, but, offering nothing stable in its place, it has often forged yokes far heavier than it could have imagined. The souls of medieval peasants may have been cemented and windowless, but they were blessedly free of gulags and Auschwitzes.
A Higher Madness
So there is madness on every side: The madness of the soul without bonds is matched by the madness of the soul enslaved by its bonds. But there is a higher madness. Asked about the confinement of the poet Christopher Smart to St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, Samuel Johnson commented that madness often shows itself “merely by unnecessary deviation from the usual modes of the world.” This is the madness that modernity has systematically excluded, the madness that counts as madness indeed, but it is the Messianic madness of Jesus’ “do not be anxious,” the apostolic madness of “do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
In the end, Gillian Rose found that madness. She died on December 9, 1995, at the age of 48, and on her deathbed was baptized into the Church of England. George Carey, then Archbishop of Canterbury, expressed his delighted “surprise” at the news, and many intellectuals, especially Jewish intellectuals, were angry at the news. For those who had traced the trajectory of her thought and life, however, her baptism was just the right final chapter. She spent her brief life protesting the corrosive insanities of secular protestantisms, longing for what she called the “broken middle” between attachment and the unbounded detachment of modern culture. And in the end, she found in baptism what she could have found in nothing else: a bond that could set her free.
Peter J. Leithart is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and teaches theology and literature at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. He is the author of Ascent to Love: A Guide to Dante's Divine Comedy and Against Christianity (both from Canon Press). He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.