Academic journal article Theological Studies

A Sense of the Tragic in a Christian Theology of Freedom

Academic journal article Theological Studies

A Sense of the Tragic in a Christian Theology of Freedom

Article excerpt

Is THERE SUCH A PHENOMENON AS "Christian tragedy"? Much thought and energy has gone into trying to answer this question. The debate forms itself around two types of questions: esthetic or literary and those regarding tragic sensibility. The former is concerned with whether particular works of art, or entire genres, usually literary (poems, plays, novels, etc.), can properly be called both "Christian" and "tragic." Can, for example, Dostoevsky's The Brother's Karamazov or Shakespeare's King Lear really convey a Christian spirit while at the same time being categorized as a tragedy, or does one of the characteristics rule out the other? In other words, the first form of the debate is concerned with an esthetic form called "tragedy," as opposed to other forms like comedy, romance, or epic. While this is an important dimension of understanding what "tragedy" is and therefore what, if anything, "Christian tragedy" is, my concern here is not directly with the literary/esthetic debate.

The other form the debate asks: does the Christian narrative as a whole convey a tragic sensibility? Is there, indeed, any room for a tragic sensibility in a Christian conception of the world? One might flame this question not by asking whether Christian tragedies exist (as esthetic forms), but whether Christianity itself is compatible with "the tragic" and, if so, how. This form of the question is decidedly theological. The answer to it lies in wrestling with the questions that define Christianity--who is God? who are humans? how and from what are humans saved? what is the purpose of human life? It is at the theological level that I want to enter into the discussion, affirmatively answering the question of whether the tragic exists within a Christian conception of the world and gesturing toward why preserving room for a tragic sensibility in Christianity is theologically worthwhile.

THE STATE OF THE QUESTION

A small minority in the debate insists both that Christian works of art can be tragic and that a tragic sensibility is not foreign to Christian theology. The majority of Christians, however, agree that Christianity, while it may have much to say about sin, evil, and sorrow, has no room for tragedy except to surpass or to transform it. George Steiner calls Christianity "an anti-tragic vision of the world.... Christianity offers to man an assurance of final certitude and repose in God.... Being a threshold to the eternal, the death of a Christian hero can be an occasion for sorrow but not for tragedy." (1) Even the sorrow that comes with guilt from sin, Steiner argues, is not itself tragic, because in Christ there is always the possibility of forgiveness, and therefore at most there is "only partial or episodic [Christian] tragedy." (2) Karl Jaspers argues similarly that for the Christian guilt "becomes felix culpa, the 'happy fault'--the guilt without which no salvation is possible." (3) Redemption offered in Christ transforms the possible tragedy of sin into hope. For those who champion a view of the tragic in Christianity, Christ's death itself is often offered as the defining example--the "hero" of the story expresses abandonment by God and dies a shameful death. (4) But, the rejoinder goes, this death is not final, and the "heart" of Christianity expresses God's ultimate triumph over sin and death in Christ's resurrection. In Reinhold Niebuhr's succinct phrase: "The cross is not tragic but the resolution of tragedy." (5)

All theological rejections of the tragic depend on similar conceptions of tragedy and Christianity. Though few critics define tragedy with precision, in their refutation of its place in Christianity they tend to assign tragedy similar features: a sense of struggling against fate, the awareness that good does not always triumph over evil or that even in doing good one may inadvertently do evil, and an overwhelming sense of sorrow at unjust human suffering, with no final redemption offered to transform or resolve the suffering. …

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