Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

The Ides, Failure, and Grace


Today is the Ides of March, so everyone be careful out there. It is a day about tyrannies and ideologies and internal threats. It is also about failed expectations and unhappy truths. Julius Caesar, ambitious with and for power, is killed by his inner circle. And the world changes in an instant. With the betrayal of Brutus, the sting of the knives are even more sharp. Lent is a season of betrayal, of good intentions gone wrong, or gone off the road. We start off so strong and then we find ourselves in the middle of it and we lose our way. Everything changes in an instant.

Have I been good about keeping vegan? Yesterday's Shake Shack s'mores frozen custard at lunch proves otherwise. My actions undermine myself. My intentions undermine myself. Paul writes to the Romans about how he does things he doesn't want to do and doesn't do the things he wants to do. The Ides is a day for Romans and we are all Romans, now.  Indeed, we are our own worst enemies.

It's about power, really. Caesar seems fated to fail. And we seem fated to fail. The power of failure and the power of the threat of failure is, well, powerful. And we have to let ourselves fail. We can't let ourselves be more hubristic than we already are. Caesar spurns his wife's, Calpurnia's, warnings. She's had bad dreams. There are bad omens. Nothing would stop Caesar. Until something did. Because he couldn't stop himself. It's okay to fail. But you have to let yourself fail. Sometimes failing will keep you from getting killed. 

Failure is what is good about grace, that grace – and being gracious to one another – is a power that absolves power. Being gracious to each other is a powerful act. It is also a powerful thing to allow oneself to receive grace. Grace means that we cannot do it on our own. We often seek to assert our self-sufficient power when we are most stressed, to be the least gracious to others who may be able to help us. When times are the most inauspicious, we are quick to try to fix it ourselves. And we accidentally do ourselves in the process. So it was with Caesar.

In Lent, we fail and we fail ourselves and we fail others. It's part of being human. But it is not the end. We don't have to think of ourselves as Brutus or Judas, two of history's greatest traitors, nor should we. We do not live on the Ideas of March. We do not live on Maundy Thursday. We are not them, though we may feel like we are at times, for what we do to others, for what we do to ourselves. Let us be gracious to ourselves and let ourselves off the hook. And part of that relief is allowing ourselves to ask for help. And in asking for help, we are gracious to ourselves. In asking for help, others hear the opportunity to be gracious to us. And then it is mercy, love, and kindness that attains a greater power. Lent is a time of love in the wilderness. A very risky kind of love.

We cannot be ideological in Lent, lest we create a brutal code and tyranny for ourselves against which we can only fail and betray. But we can fail without the betrayal. The betrayal is the internal collapse because of hubris, because of the foolish desire for autonomy. Let us not be legalistic or we will surely kill ourselves under our own codes and empires. Beware. Be wary.

In other news, one thing I did do recently was finish reading John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. This was a project I started on Calvin's five-hundredth birthday back in 2009. It has been a terribly long slog through a work that I knew would be difficult. I picked it up and put it down so many times over the years, that it slowly took on the form of an albatross. I made a promise to myself that I would not read any more of my theological and philosophical library until I had made it through that book. I still don't have the mental strength to describe and analyze it. It really took a lot out of me. One day, I'll get to that. At the moment, I can say that I believe I have an inkling of what Calvin is doing and that, while I admire his genius, I cannot agree or support him in how his world and god exist and act. Not like that. Calvin's theological universe is airtight and his view of Scripture is airtight, that is, Calvin exists in a vacuum. And a vacuum suffocates. Even his concept of grace suffocates. I see now the revolution of Karl Barth. He offered real breathing room for Reformed theology. While I have always been a big fan of Barth, I am finding more safety (and more grace) with Lutheranism.

It was necessary to read, the Institutes. And to realize that soon after they were completed and creating a new undestanding of the world, Galileo and Descartes were smashing ideologies, too. It was a ripe, ripe time for ideas. I am now about to start reading Descartes for the first time in fifteen years and Modernity is strangely a breath of fresh air. Descartes doesn't work anymore, of course. But it's good to see what will drive our understanding of self, being, and action for the next few hundred years. It was quite radical at the time. And Descartes had his falling out with the Jesuits, who had trained him. But like Augustine and the Manicheans, Descartes could never quite escape the Jesuits.

But all in all, it is still the Ides of March. And we should watch our backs. And watch out for close friends in togas. Seriously.

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By Burke
Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.


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