Tuesday, March 10, 2015


I am a little more than halfway through Miguel De Unamuno's theological work on the nature of Christianity, and so far I am loving it. It is a theological application of the Christian Philosophy laid down in his most famous work, THE TRAGIC SENSE OF LIFE, which has been one of my favorite books for a long time.

One thing you must know about Unamuno's work is that his writing is broadly linear, but can be hard to follow. He kind of writes down a bundle of ideas, and from that bundle a genuine picture emerges. Then he uses that picture to work out a new bundle of ideas. In this way, there is an overall logical progression, even if particular chapters are a little more scattered. I find this way of writing amenable to my way of thinking, so I find him readable, but many others may not.

Unamuno begins his book by working out the philosophical concept of AGONY. For him, agony is a very rich concept, much like angst is for Camus or despair was for Kierkegaard. Agony, for Unamuno, comes from facing a need to rationalize what cannot be rationalized, and the pain that flows from this cognitive dissonance. Not any internal contradiction will do, it must be a paradox that pains the one who perceives it. One feels God's presence and comes to love God, but to love something is to desire to know it. But to know God, to truly know God is impossible. One cannot get one's reason around it. Indeed, the very idea may be anathema to reason. The desire for a love relationship and the inability to truly know what one loves is the source of immeasurable pain, at least at first. This is the AGONY that Unamuno speaks of.

But one should not think of Unamuno's work as one of despair of depression. Indeed, Unamuno thinks that despair and depression can be good things, and are indeed necessary stages on the road to genuine faith, but the ultimate end of Unamuno's work is love and hope. Unamuno says that the greatest hope is the hope born of hopelessness, and the greatest joy the joy of the depressed. No, for Unamuno this AGONY is not something to be avoided. Rather, one must enter fully into it if one is to discover God. For the AGONY we experience by our need to know and our inability to know is roughly the same AGONY God feels when He is forced to love that which seems all but incapable of loving Him. In that sense, the AGONY we feel is the very pain of God (Kazon Kitamori would've liked Unamuno's reasoning here, I think), and by embracing that pain we share in God's life, and that is the only way we can truly love God in this world.

Unamuno then goes on to argue that all true Christianity is mysticism. That to be Christian is to embrace a mystical attitude towards life. This is roughly connected to his perspective on AGONY, for indeed AGONY is a pathway to find unity or oneness with God. Indeed all true AGONY can be a pathway to God. Unamuno thinks that the honest atheist has more faith than the dishonest Christian, for the honest atheist has opened himself up to the possibility of feeling genuine AGONY. Unamuno makes a distinction between knowing God and knowing about God, and between the Word of God the letter of God. For Unamuno, Christianity has erred by putting to much faith in the letter and lacking the living Word of God. Mysticism is left behind for understanding, but any understanding Christians pretend to can be nothing but pretense. What is understood is not really God, and so one never faces genuine AGONY, and never finds the genuine, mystic union with God that brings real life. So you wind up with a false Christianity, and a false church.

Unamuno goes on to illustrate what he is talking about with the image of David's last wife, who remained a virgin to the day he died. She cared for him as a mother, David was unable to 'lie with her' at this point, but her love for him was intense. Unamuno sees in this a foreshadowing of Christ. We desire to 'know' God in the way the woman desired to 'be with' her husband. But being unable to know God, we instead seek to love God as a mother, and thereby we come to experience God directly. For Unamuno God is the sufferer we pick up off the ground and comfort, and by this act we know God's genuine love for us, we become One with God, and find the peace and happiness we seek. Faith that seeks to 'see God' in the world or seeks to get something from God is bound to be frustrated, in the same way David's last wife was frustrated. Only by becoming mother to God do we find God and fin our place in the universe. This vision of Unamuno's appeals to me greatly. It is roughly my own view, better stated. He made this particular Bible story come alive, I now share his view that within it is a cosmic significance. Christ is God made the suffering David, and faith is born not of being subject to Christ's power but of wanting to use our own power to comfort and console Christ. This is an unabashedly Christocentric vision of God, and one that I fully embrace. Unamuno has given form and function to what I have felt for quite a while. Wow, this stuff is amazing.

Unamuno argues for a kind of political neutrality for Christianity, based on the apocalyptic nature of Jesus' and Paul's teachings. This is the one big flaw for me. I cannot separate morality and religion has he does. I agree with Unamuno that Jesus and Paul's teachings cannot be the foundation for a political philosophy as we receive them in the text, but they can be adapted into political philosophies and grounds for action in this world. We cannot use them as absolute guides, but the can inspire us to think about political issues in a certain way. We cannot responsibly live as people for whom the world is about to end. We can live, and find a way to live responsibly, as people for whom the world might be about to end. There can be such a thing as Christian ethics, despite Unamuno's denial of such a thing. In fact, Unamuno himself, through his focus on the Cross and our relationship with God, has shown us a ground for moral action in the world. A religious idea that is morally neutral is dead. And I do not believe Christ to be dead.

Miguel De Unamuno's THE AGONY OF CHRISTIANITY Part 2
Miguel De Unamuno goes on to comment on what he believes a truly Christian life should look like. For him, any Christian life must in some way 'embody' or 'incarnate' the agony of God and the true agony that lies at the heart of the Christian life. For this reason, Unamuno is skeptical of any attempts at apologetics or at a rational Christianity, for he thinks that such an effort seeks to remove the 'agonic' aspects of Christian life. Robbing Christianity of it's essential tension, of the tension that causes rage and pain, is to rob Christianity of it's very spirit, and it's creativity. For Unamuno, the war between reason and faith, between an agonic Christianity and the attempt to create a rational culture, is the war that births true and authentic western civilization.

Unamuno doesn't think a simple roadmap can be given as to how a Christian should live. Rather, we must look for people who seem to be paradigms of Christian agony and try to live like them. We must 'incarnate' these lives in our own, just as they incarnated Christ in their own lives. The truth is, though, that Unamuno does think one particular kind of Christian life is purer...that of the monastic. For him, the monastic's pain at separation from the world, and his total devotion to God is a kind of living testimony to the true cost of discipleship.

But even in a monastery, politics and human relationships play a role. The world seeps into the monastic community, and this causes tension and discord. Everyone has to make SOME compromise with the world, and this compromise is the source of proper agony, as Unamuno sees it. Involvement with the world is inevitable, and everyone must accept this. But to accept this is not to like it. One has to feel a fear, a kind of dread, a dread that one's very soul may be at risk as a result of this compromise with the world. From this dread comes the agony that is the very heart of Christianity.

The two men that Unamuno thinks most exemplify the agony of our faith are: Blaise Pascal and Father Hyacinth Loyson. Unamuno thinks that Pascal felt more acutely than most the conflict between faith and reason. Pascal was both scientist and theologian, and he couldn't see any way out of life besides suicide: either of the self (by rejecting faith) or of the mind (by accepting it). Pascal's marriage to this kind of suicidal pact is, on Unamuno's view, proof of his agony and thus of his union with God. But Unamuno leaves out the 'night of fire' that Pascal speaks of. Unamuno paints Pascal as a man who never found a firm ground for his faith. But this isn't entirely true....Pascal's mystical experience ended up being the resolution of his inner contradiction. Thus Pascal is not as much a tragic figure as Unamuno makes him out to be. The agony of Christianity ended in unity for Pascal, and so agony turned to joy.

Father Hyacinth, who I was unfamiliar with but now really want to know more about, apparently was a monk who fell in love with a woman, and so left the cloister to join with the world, where he became a theologian and political speaker. Hyacinth was keenly aware of the compromise he was making by joining the world, and this filled him with the kind of dread that Unamuno thinks is the mark of the true 'agonic' Christian.

In the end Unamuno remains an essentially tragic thinker. But to me his tragic premises do not need to lead to tragic conclusions. He has, unwittingly, opened a way out of tragedy and agony, by coming to understand it's divine roots. For if sharing in God's agony leads to union with God, then it is also a pathway to joy and peace. Not a joy and peace found by leaving the storm, which Unamuno rightly sees as cowardice and weakness, but a peace within the storm, a peace born of its very essence. The Cross is proof that such a peace and such a union with God can be found. Unamuno's method and premises are spot on, and this book is one I thoroughly enjoyed and learned from immensely. But his final conclusions are off. In the end, I highly recommend this book, but only for those who can think critically and who are not too easily influenced. For it is dangerous in its persuasiveness. Embrace agony...but seek in the end to transcend it.

It's A Question of Agony
Related Post: http://ljtsg.blogspot.com/2013/07/miguel-de-unamunos-agony-of.html

To love something is, in part, to want to know it. It is the desire to truly know the other. To love is also to desire to be known. It is knowing and being known that true spiritual union takes place, and it is for that reason that 'know' has to meanings in the Bible- one intellectual and one sexual/physical. Any created being God creates will be finite, and so will be unable to fully understand Him. Thus God, loving His creation, knows the pain of loving that which cannot really understand you. Those created that love God know the pain of loving that which you cannot really understand.

In the Cross God tells us that we are fully understood, and so our love has one side complete. In that same Cross God fully understands, and so part of His love is made complete. Yet our desire to understand is not fulfilled, and God's desire to be understood is similarly not fulfilled, except in a very limited way. So the Cross stands as a complete fulfillment for one half of the equation for both sides, and only a partial (and a painfully partial) fulfillment of the other side of the equation, for both sides.

Which is the greater pain? This is Miguel De Unamuno's question. Is it worse to not be understood, or to not understand? Probably it is a moot question, as both kinds of incompleteness give birth to agony, according to Unamuno (and I would agree with him). But perhaps what is happening here is the creation of a need. God makes the world so that He needs something and so that something needs Him. We have in ourselves the need for God and the need to be needed by God. This fits well with my own theological axiom, oft-stated here and on Facebook: "sometimes we need God, sometimes God needs us, sometimes we need God to need us, sometimes God needs us to need Him." Wholeness is found when we join together with God. I can't say I am completely okay with this thought, but it is beautiful and worth pondering. Some thoughts are too beautiful not to be true. Is this an example? Something to think about.

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