One of the most difficult things I have done as a pastor is to stand beside people as they face a terrible problem’s irresolvability. I’ve felt guilty, even, in enabling a person’s admission of the irreparable character of something horribly broken: a disabling disease, a lost child, a prison sentence, a closed professional pathway. Some things won’t change; some things won’t get better. To say so out loud can seem a betrayal of Christian hope.
Like everyone else, I am a child of my times. One thing this time of the virus has been exposing is a deep conflict between our culture and our Christian metaphysics; and not just culture in general, but the culture of replaceability, the environing expectations that anything that is amiss can be restored, perhaps improved; and not just any metaphysics, but a metaphysics of finality, that sees at least some things, the most important things, as divine “givens.” Our cultural expectations tell us that economies can be re-routed, that tasks can be reconfigured, that infections can be treated, that viruses can be vaccinated against, that normality is always within our reach again. This, of course, is a hopeful attitude. But deep down, many of us also know something else: we will not get these years back; many plans lie in ruins; many valued goods, material and immaterial, are simply gone. We know, that is, that some things are unfixable, irresolvable, and definitive, just the way they are. God is the God of both sides of this conflict. Some honesty here would be in order.
The idea of a culture of “replaceability” goes back at least to Marx, whose discussion of commodification (or commodity fetishism) in Capital is based on the idea of economic “fungibility” or “exchange”: all human labor has a price that allows it to be converted into something else and moved around and used (or amassed). Not just food or material goods are fungible; so are services, artworks, and ideas. In a Marxist perspective, capitalism converts all of human energy, including people themselves — human souls (Rev. 18:13) — into fungible entities.
Economic theories of commodification are limited, in that they reduce everything to human labor. But many of the most important aspects of human life are not made; they simply “are” or are “simply given.” The value of “use,” however, is certainly something that our economic lives have inflated. What is useful, in turn, is also convertible. We live in a society in which, precisely because everything is determined by its usefulness, everything is also replaceable by some alternative method of accomplishment. There are no limits to our energies; no limits to our production; no limits therefore to the values and hopes we pursue. We feel that there are no endings, just recyclings and revisionings for the sake of whatever goal we have. What we consider a good, indeed, what we consider good itself, must always be within reach. If it is not, we are already dead.
In the present moment, of course, this has been a driving assumption in our response to widespread disease: have a plan; retool the schools; rethink distribution; come up with new ways to do the old things. Ingenuity is surely a virtue. But it is a virtue most especially for a culture defined by the functional, the fixable, and finally, the improvable.
In the present moment, however, we are also (re)discovering limits and are thus facing the immovable reality of, in rather important ways, “loss” itself. There is no need to give a list, though it is odd that so many of us are still reluctant to articulate what might be on it: dinners with grandparents and families; grandparents themselves; summer camp for kids; a trip to the corner bookstore; time with friends; our children’s time with friends; the touch of a distant parent; strength; communal joy; a year. Perhaps a string of years that might have been but will be no more.
It is interesting to reflect on how the Christian churches have themselves contributed to a culture of replaceability, commodification in the broader sense. For centuries, of course, the Christian tradition insisted on certain immovable features of irreplaceability, most starkly in the insistence on final judgment, which might include eternal damnation: there are places, whose pathways lead back to the present, from which, finally, there is no exit. Related to this venerable Christian view was the fundamental uniqueness and irreplaceability of the human person. While one might do something “on behalf” of another — the atoning “ransom” of Christ being a central example — nonetheless, in the end we bear our own burdens (Gal. 6:5; Rom. 14:10). Whether these convictions were the ground for or rather the consequence of other Christian sentiments, like the expected death of family and the depletion of worldly goods, for a long time Christians mostly assumed that there were basic boundaries to human striving that barred the way on any number of avenues of fungibility. Here and there, and often all over the place, Christians stopped and admitted that “this is the end of the matter.”
But Christians have also always had a strong commitment, literally, to convertibility. Sinners can be converted; the gospel can be translated; the truth can be summarized, worship can be transposed; philosophies can be repurposed. The dead can be raised. Somewhere along the way — the 16th, the 18th century? — European Christians became ever more functionalist in their outlook, transforming the hope of the Resurrection into a strategy of “hope accumulation.” The expanding missionary enterprise of early modernity and beyond is an example. Calvin was pretty sure that there wasn’t much more one could do in terms of world evangelism, and his view was shared by many (including earlier medieval Christians). The doors were closed; the world’s enlarging vistas were a mirage; the globe itself was wrapped in final loss. As this kind of attitude was turned around and galleons sailed across the oceans filled with intrepid preachers (and soldiers), however, more and more seemed possible for the Church: more persons to be converted, more languages to be learned and used, more methods of persuasion, apology, and not a little coercive pressure to be deployed. As Catholics and Protestants (and Protestants among themselves) vied for missionary success, the possibility of infinite replaceability became a fuel for hope and the benchmark of spiritual wealth. If this or that doesn’t work, something else will; indeed, it must. Never give up!
Christian mission is a Christological imperative. Of that I have no doubt. But its transformation into its own form of relentless cultural functionalism is striking and problematic. There is no reason to think that everyone will be reached, or that everyone will understand, or that everyone will believe, or that everyone will be saved, certainly not in any methodical way. All along the way there is loss. But even more so, there is no reason to think that every context can be joyful, or that every disruption has a silver lining, or that every difficult event can be repackaged in a useful way. Some things just don’t work. Some things are “lost for good.”
Many contemporary Christians worry that admitting this is giving into fatalism and, yes, hopelessness. In some cases it may well be, though that is not, in our time, the great temptation. The fact that we have been trained to confuse the intractable bits and pieces of our lives — as well as their immovable outer boundaries — with the color of despair is telling. Does not God give us “weal” and “woe” — for whatever reason we cannot tell? Can one not love a God who gives us just what we are given, and does not pretend that it’s really something else? The confusion of intractability with hopelessness is, perhaps, simply a symptom of confusing ourselves with God: we reach our ends; only He can never do so since there is no end in Him.
The value of a gift lies in part in that it is not something else. It cannot be “exchanged”; it cannot be re-invested; it cannot be improved upon; it can only be what it is. “What? Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). This attitude, though not commonly articulated in the Bible (cf. Lam. 3:38), nonetheless stands as one of the great claims about hope itself, uttered by the man whose whole life, as in a whirlwind, is revealed as nothing but some incomprehensible gift, as “all gift” in its core and clothing both. Hence, to acknowledge this kind of gift is to stake out the grounds of hope. “In all this did not Job sin with his lips.” He did not, because he was only stating what would become the vessel of our salvation: “Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18:11). From the sounds of this confession of divine and inscrutable gift are shaped the songs of the Resurrection. But resurrection is not the replacement of a life; it is a new life altogether, the divinely irreplaceable now made absolute for us. Thus, we always give thanks for what we have been given; and we pray for what is yet to be received in the fullness of glory. Holding both together, “His praise shall always be in my mouth” (Ps. 34:1).
God, as I said, is the God of both sides of the conflict between our culture and our metaphysics. Our yearning for replaceability and our (often unsteady) sense of the unique givenness of all things are, in themselves, neither enemies nor contradictions, except as we insist on driving away one from its embrace of the other. In that embrace, after all, may lie just the light we need for the times we are in.
The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto.
I think this is an extremely fine and thoughtful essay.
I have three PhD students working on Ecclesiastes. It is a book for our time. Brings tears of recognition about the deep truth of things. Or does this, in keeping with Radner’s truthful words. All has been said. The end of the matter. Fear God and keep his commandments. That is what is. It cannot be replaced by anything else.