David Foster Wallace Tells Us About Empathy, Redemption, Literature, and the Reality of Suffering

My sister texted me this quote. And I loved it. I have no idea where it’s from.

“I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple. I strongly suspect a big part of real art fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.”

-David Foster Wallace


Addendum to Marx Goes to Church

This isn’t a dialog. But. I wrote this dialog to try to sort through one of Karl Marx’s objections to Christianity. In it I toyed around with the idea that the rupturing of community is fundamental to both the Christian idea of man and the Christian idea of sin, taking from Genesis 3. One more somewhat obvious addition to that:

I was reading Jeremiah 18 in my Bible reading plan yesterday morning. I came on vs. 15-16.

“15 But my people have forgotten me;

they make offerings to false gods;

they made them stumble in their ways,

in the ancient roads,

and to walk into side roads,

not the highway,

16 making their land a horror,

a thing to be hissed at forever.

Everyone who passed by it is horrified and shakes his head.”

The interesting thing about these verses is the order it gives to the communities/relationships that have been ruptured. A broken relationship with God (“But my people have forgotten me”) inevitably leads to a broken relationship with our environment (“making their land a horror”). But the relationship with God is the source of the problem and thus also the locale of the solution. So this is basically an extension of the response to Marx’s critique that Christianity takes us away from community by making our most basic nature individual rather than communal.

Marx Goes to Church

Marx Goes to Church

Some notes.

1. I’m a philosophy major, so this is me trying to understand different philosophies and their relationship to Christianity. This is also me exploring any rabbit trails these philosophers set me off on. As such, any and all conclusions here are entirely tentative. To borrow a phrase, the only thing I’m certain of is that I’m not certain.

2. This isn’t necessarily responding to Marxism itself. It’s more taking one critique that Marx levied against protestantism and religion and thinking theologically about that.

3. Also, the priest does not represent me. The priest represents potential responses I could see someone making.

 4. And finally, I don’t know what’s up with this church, but whatever. 

Karl Marx walks into St. Cornerstone’s Church of the First Baptist. It’s set up like a super cool contemporary church, with lights and cool music, but he sees the priest–yes, priest–approaching him in full robes. He would wonder what sort of a denomination this church is a part of, but he’s too busy thinking about all the alienated labor the building represents.

Priest: Karl, I didn’t expect to see you here.

Marx: Neither did I.

Priest: You know, I’ve been reading some of your work lately. It’s been very interesting.

Marx: Oh really? What part.

Priest: Well, I just finished up “On the Jewish Question.” I had many questions of my own as a result.

Marx: I’m surprised you read it. It does, after all, critique religion quite intensely.

Priest: You’re right, it does. But I’m curious about the critique. I actually found myself mostly in agreement with it and yet, well, I’m still here at church, preaching, doing the sacraments, and doing other priestly things.

Marx: Then I don’t think you’ve fully understood the critique. To preach religion is to ask men to see themselves primarily as individuals. Protestantism specifically has turned man inward to focus on his own guilt before some sort of God. It then portrays salvation as an individual salvation that reconciles one to God and demands moral behavior as a result. But such a theology reduces man to an individual, taking him out of his species-life.

Priest: I actually don’t necessarily disagree with any of that. I would just want to expand your understanding salvation.

Marx: I’m listening.

Priest: Well, let me start with a question. From your perspective, what is the solution to this religious problem?

Marx: We have to see people primarily on a species level. We are all part of political communities and this political being, this communal, social being in a relationship not only with ourselves but also with others, is who we really are. We have to realize that we can only be ourselves, only realize ourselves, in a political community. Religion refuses to allow this, instead making the individual’s personal spiritual relationship with the Divine the focus, rather than their species-life.

Priest: Well, I’m not entirely sure. I think the Bible sees an individual’s personal spiritual life as one part in a much larger fabric that is the reconciliation of the entire cosmos with itself and with God.

Marx: How so?

Priest: Well, think about the storyline of the Bible. It’s interesting that the Bible doesn’t ever let us think that people are primarily individuals. In fact, one of the first lessons the Bible teaches us is that we are irreducibly social beings. Adam, after all, had to find another human before he could cure his loneliness.

Marx: But then it immediately turns the focus inward onto the guilt of the individual!

Priest: Well, not quite. Genesis 3 shows a rupture in the entire community. The community, at that point, is revealed to be not just Adam and Eve, but Adam, Eve, God, and even nature itself. How? The ground is cursed and will now resist Adam as a result of Adam’s sin. Adam and Eve are separated and start blaming each other. God is separated from all of them. Right at the start, sin is presented not fundamentally as the incurring of guilt but as the fracturing of a relationship. After all, the punishment for Adam and Eve isn’t that they now have to feel bad about themselves, or that there’s a legal sentence passed against them, it’s that they’ve been cast out of a perfect relationship with nature (Eden), a perfect relationship with one another (Cain and Abel), and a perfect relationship with God. There are aspects of personal guilt, but the guilt is actually a manifestation of a deeper problem. If we experienced harmony with everything as we ought we wouldn’t be guilty or experience guilt.

Marx: You seem like you’ve removed any guilt at all from this.

Priest: Also not quite. See, this is where personal guilt comes in. Individually, we can all contribute to this alienation from each other, the environment, and God by sinning. Sin ruptures communities and sins are committed by individuals. These sins do incur guilt.

Marx: And see, this is where religion goes. The fundamental problem is always the individual.

Priest: You have a point. I’m still tempted to say no, though I’m walking out on a limb here. The fundamental problem could actually be seen as a refusal to recognize our embededness in community and our need for others. So, for example, Genesis 3 displays two human beings, in perfect harmony with themselves, each other, the environment, and God heading out on their own to find what will give them individual pleasure and satisfaction. They refuse to find themselves in a perfect relationship with God and a perfect relationship with everything else. They refuse to find self-realization in community, and instead look to something individual to solve this.

Marx: So salvation is the community. That’s my point.

Priest: Here’s where I definitely have to disagree with you. I think the mistake you make is by assuming that humanity’s individual life is the problem but their species-life is basically fine. But communities themselves can be ruptured.

Marx: But as you said, they’re ruptured by seeing ourselves as individuals.

Priest: And so for communities to be healed that individual sin (guilt) has to be healed. That’s not the end goal. That’s a step along the way. The perfect community isn’t salvation, the perfect community is what we would call heaven.

Schweizer’s Thoughts on Righteousness

So, this sounds off, and I’m really not sure I buy it, but it was interesting enough to share. From Schweizer’s commentary on Matthew I quoted yesterday:

“If, then, we follow the Old Testament in understanding the righteousness of God as the power of love seeking to carry the day on earth and win men’s hearts, we can no longer make a sharp distinction between God’s actions with respect to men and the human actions that spring from God’s. The question is only one of emphasis.

Earlier, he made this claim:

“[In the OT, God’s] righteousness is without exception salvation for his people (Isa. 4:5; Ps. 22:31; 40:10; 69;28; etc.), which of course includes judgement upon Israel’s oppressors.

That seems fairly obvious. But how we get from that to righteousness = love I don’t understand.

Four Foreigners and Jesus

In Eduard Schweizer’s commentary on Matthew, he notes that the four women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy are all relatively minor:

“It is striking that the familiar matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah are omitted, along with other women mentioned in the Old Testament. Matthew singles out the minor women–Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba–those who were not celebrated, to reveal something of the strange righteousness of God, which does not choose what is great in the eyes of men. Even more striking is the mention of Rahab, although the Bible says nothing of her marriage. What do these four women have in common? It might be suggested that all of them, rightly or wrongly, were suspected of adultery…Is this meant to exalt the power of God, who can raise even those of humble or disreputable origin to the positions of the highest honor?…Probably all four are mentioned because they are aliens. Pre-Christian Jewish writings (and possibly Ruth 4:12?) term Tamar an alien; Joshua 2:1; 6:25 do the same for Rahab. Ruth is a Moabite (Ruth 1:44,22 and passim). Bathsheba is not mentioned by name but is introduced as Uriah’s wife because she became an alien through her husband, who always appears in the Bible as “the Hittite” (e.g., 2 Sam. 11:3). If so, the four women are meant to prefigure God’s activity–to culminate in Jesus (28:19)–that will embrace not only the Jews but all gentiles as well.

Of course, Jesus is also a foreigner as well, though admittedly not in the same sense. But what could be more foreign and “other” than a God coming to earth?

Cultural Amputation

John Stott, commenting on Matthew 5:29-30: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”

“Jesus was quite clear about this. It is better to lose one member and enter life maimed, he said, than to retain our whole body and go to hell. That is to say, it is better to forgo some experiences this life offers in order to enter the life which is life indeed; it is better to accept some cultural amputation in this world than risk final destruction in the next. Of course, this teaching runs clean counter to modern standards of permissiveness. It is based on the principle that eternity is more important than time and purity than culture, and that any sacrifice is worth while in this life if it is necessary to ensure our entry into the next. We have to decide, quite simply, whether to live for this world or the next, whether to follow the crowd or Jesus Christ.”

Assorted Thoughts on Matthew 5

I’m teaching a bible study on the Sermon on the Mount this fall, so I may use this blog to organize some of my thoughts. Like right now. Fair warning: I make no guarantees that the following thoughts are coherent, right, or even intelligible.

What might be called Beatitude #9 (“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account…” [Matt. 5:11-12]) is likely an elaboration on Beatitude #8 (“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”) since the reward promised for Beatitude #8 matches the reward for Beatitude #1, setting off that section.

5:11-12, then, seems to elaborate on Beatitude #8, indicating that “righteousness” is just another name for Jesus, to put it starkly, or that the righteousness in view is the righteousness of Jesus. Interestingly enough, this seems to start the comparisons that permeate the sermon.

For example, Jesus starts his famous expansion of the law section with a comparison: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (5:20). He then ends that section with another comparison: “You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” (5:48)

But there’s another comparison before that when Jesus says he has come “to fulfill” the law and Prophets. The verb there, plēroō is used a few times before this in Matthew, in the so-called “fulfillment quotations” where Matthew will quote an OT verse (for example, Hosea 11:1: “Out of Egypt I called my son”) and say that whatever just happened in the narrative happened “in order to fulfill (same verb” this OT prophecy.

Basically, “That verse I just quoted? This is what it was talking about.”

Which means when Jesus says he “fulfilled” the law, he’s basically saying: “Do you see the law and the prophets? They were talking about me.” Jesus is the law. The law described Jesus. So when Jesus expands the law he is further describing himself. It seems we could then outline the section as follows:

1.  Be More Righteous than the Scribes and Pharisees (v.20)

2. Be Righteous Like the Fulfiller of the Law (vs.21-47)

3. Be Righteous Like God (v.48)

Basically meaning that the whole section is about being like Jesus, which might recast Jesus’ expansion. He isn’t giving us a bigger, more thorough set of rules that now govern the heart. If we treat what he says as just more rules, we’ll likely fall afoul of his warnings in Matthew 6 and start doing our righteousness so other people can see it. The point isn’t to follow more rules, the point is to be more like Jesus. The rules help us, but imitation is the point.

Anyway. I was planning on trying to think through the Beatitudes more, but I think I’ll have to put that off for another time.