Beckett: The Two Kinds of Righteousness against Our Modern Fatalism

Rev. Dr. Leopoldo Sánchez wrote an article that is a crucial read in a world that has completely lost hope and has supplanted it with an unfortunate fatalism. Speaking to theological anthropology, he argues, “To be human is to have hope” (p. 25). Humans are the only creatures that hope; no other creature on earth does such an exercise. Hope can also be termed as “conscientisation,” which “affirms the need for students [and all people] to reach levels of critical awareness regarding their place in history that will move them from being mere objects of others to becoming self-determining subjects” (p. 25). Thus, with Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire, he argues that hope is a humanising exercise. With fatalism as the antithesis to hope/conscientisation, then, this means fatalism is a dehumanising exercise.

Yet what is fatalism? “A fatalistic worldview is characterized by a lack of confidence in the future and a life devoid of hope of any enduring significance.” For example, “Such a worldview gives birth to a conformist view of life that allows oppressed persons—from battered women to underpaid farmers to exploited children to drug addicts in the city—to resign themselves to their destiny without seriously considering the possibility of changing their situation or of the hope of a better future… Nothing has changed; therefore, nothing will” (p. 26).

I’ve experienced this unfortunate worldview in past ministry with addicts. I immediately relate to them because I’m an addict myself. With any addiction, the addict has no control over the substance, even though she convinces herself she does. It is the complete opposite, however. While the addict may feign control over the substance, the reality is that the substance has complete control over us. We are slaves to the substance. Thus, it is all too common and easy for the struggling addict to develop a fatalistic worldview. In my work with addicts—and in my own experience—the common thought pattern expressed among them is, “I was born to suffer. This is just the way things are. I can’t get out of it; therefore, I must accept it.” This sad worldview speaks to that resignation to a supposed destiny without any possibility for change or betterment that’s inherent in fatalism.

Fatalism is “a dubious dimension of humanity precisely because its future orientation in time takes humans farther away from the past and closer to decay and death. Therefore there is nothing positive about the future” (p. 26). This reminds me of something the famous Jackass stunt “artist,” Steve-O, said on a recent Hot Ones interview. The interviewer, Sean Evans, asked Steve-O to speak more to what he meant that he found religion in the camera. Steve-O commented, “Our human existence is a prank on us because we have only one instinct, which is to survive; and we only have one guarantee, which is we won’t.” This is his justification for performing such reckless stunts and not exercising sound and careful stewardship of his body. His worldview is hopelessly fatalistic and depressingly nihilistic.

I scrolled through the comment section of the video and read many comments that not only agreed with his statement but even found it spiritually enlightening. This is troublesome, and I found myself pitying Steve-O and the thousands of people who ironically look to him as a paragon of hope. His hopelessly fatalistic worldview, I believe, represents what Sánchez discusses in the article.

When I first heard what Steve-O said and while I was reading Sánchez’s article, I kept thinking, “How would I address this as a pastor?” I’m really thankful Sánchez spoke to this fatalistic dilemma in our culture by bringing in the Lutheran distinction between the two kinds of righteousness, especially in concrete terms. Without Christ, of course someone would develop a fatalistic worldview, often expressed as, “We are born to die.” (For that matter, so was Christ, but He is risen!) Only through Christ, then, can such fatalism die, beginning first with vertical/passive righteousness, or life coram Deo (before God).

In this vertical atmosphere, as Sánchez puts it, “In terms of human identity passive righteousness coram deo is what makes one human again before God through the merits of Christ the Savior” (p. 29). Thus, for the Christian, if we want to speak fatalistically, the destiny of the Christian is not certain death (though that will happen) but rather certain life eternal. Saint Paul is worth quoting here:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life [coram mundo]. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His [coram Deo].

Romans 6:3-5

As Sánchez put it prior to this two kingdoms discussion, “This means that life in the Spirit does not dwell in the old but rather thrusts the Christian into the hopeful new” (p. 27). Not only “the hopeful new” eschatologically speaking (and, therefore, we should preach on Jesus’ return more often) but also the hopeful newness of life Paul mentions, which is horizontal/active righteousness, or life coram mundo (before the world). In life coram Deo, then, hopeless fatalism finds its end in Christ that even though death is inevitable for all people, eternal life is even more inevitable for those whom God has justified by faith by the merit of Christ on the cross.

In the horizontal atmosphere of life coram mundo, this active righteousness or, in Paul’s words, this newness of life in which we walk “makes one human again before the neighbor. For Luther, Christ as example does not make one a Christian (that is, it does not make one righteous before God), but it does make one a responsible neighbor who suffers all things for the needy as Christ has given himself even unto death for you. The concern for promoting social justice and socioeconomic liberation… belongs precisely to this realm of active righteousness” (p. 29). In life coram mundo, then, hopeless fatalism finds its end in Christ in that the Christian whose life has been redeemed by Christ does not accept the way things are for the poor, marginalised, oppressed, or what-have-you—rather, he seeks to serve his needy neighbours to help them toward a better life that ultimately finds its centrality in Christ.

Sánchez provides three helpful implications of the two kinds of righteousness that can help pastors and laypeople appropriate this doctrine into their lives in practical, concrete ways. The first is that “the practice of active righteousness allows us to be critical of an unfulfilled past and sensitive to the aspirations of people for recognition, an affirmation of their dignity, and, yes, their full inclusion in the church and her structures where decision-making takes place” (p. 30).

For example, as a Christian who occupies several vocations and as I look at my various neighbours according to these vocations, I view their dignity as a human being created in God’s image worthy of honour and respect. I refuse to put any labels on them. When it comes to my most needy neighbours, I wonder, “What’s their story?” Then, to the point of my article of pastoral ministry as table fellowship ministry, I befriend them and participate in table fellowship with them. I listen to their story and determine ways in which I might help them, which includes asking questions. Then, hopefully, if they become a member of my church, I involve them in church leadership so that their people have proper representation.

Second, “the practice of active righteousness does not only allow us to be critical of our past and sensitive to our aspirations but also to go work with the best God has given us in order to bring about critical changes that will serve our neighbor… It teaches a priority of love toward the neediest neighbors in our midst. If everybody is your neighbor then nobody is your neighbor, as it were [you can’t serve everyone]. Therefore active righteousness is not afraid to stand up and fight for the concrete neighbor(s) that God has placed before us in our various vocations. It is in the context of our vocations (for example, mother, pastor, business person, lawyer) that we are likely to find our neediest neighbors” (p. 31).

This reminds me of a lecture I heard Rev. Aurelio Magariño give when he said, “It is important for the theologian to know their history and the contexts they inhabit, for it is part of who they are and of the theology they create.” In other words, whereas in the previous implication I consider the stories of others, here I must also be cognisant of my story. Borrowing from Magariño again, what religious experiences, cultural biases, upbringing, language, and socioeconomic statuses do I have that affect and influence the way I envision, express, and live out my faith?

To use myself as an example, how might I use my musical talents God has given me for my neighbour? I responded by enlisting in the U.S. Army Bands to play music for my comrades in order to boost morale. (And, of course, simple enjoyment of the beauty of music as I perform in civilian life.) Or: how might I use my gift of writing to serve my neighbour? I responded by starting this blog, I have book ideas, and I’ve written in church newsletters. Another: I’m a good listener, so how can I use this to serve my neighbour? Not only do I apply this to pastoral counseling, but I also apply it when I go to my needy neighbour to hear their story. One last thing: because I went through my parents’ divorce at 16, I can minister to children who are going through the same tough ordeal.

Lastly, “the practice of active righteousness is realistic in that it avoids utopian dreams and the illusion of perfect sanctification or inevitable progress” (p. 31). Sánchez expounded on this earlier when, for example, mentioning that “[t]echnologism attempts to provide the future in the present, thus turning man into a passive consumer of goods rather than a self-determining subject, a conformist rather than a person capable of critical thinking and action. Technologism conquers man through the conquest of science” (p. 28).

This may be the point of the science fiction show, Black Mirror. This show portrays the dichotomy between man’s hope in scientific technology (technologism) for salvation and this same technologism conquers man. For example, in episode 4 of season 1, called “San Junipero,” the episode portrays hope that currently exists that we can upload human consciousness into a Cloud server after death to essentially live forever in a heaven-like state. The so-called society in this Cloud server is one that is utopian in which everyone can live however they want, except that it’s bereft with sin and is, therefore, far from utopia (e.g., premarital sex, drug abuse, and homosexuality). Yet in this episode as well as all the others, despite this utopian desire through technologism, the show also portrays its complete conquering of man. We are slaves to it and there are even episodes that portray technologism’s destruction of mankind, often in dystopian post-apocalyptic society.

Rather than aimlessly utopian, active righteousness, or life coram mundo, acknowledges that our works and efforts cannot create perfection—whether societal or personal—while also demanding that our neighbour receives a life of betterment. And life coram mundo not only makes such demands; it is also actively involved. To give a concrete example, I can help my undocumented immigrant neighbour toward a better life by helping her and her family receive the proper documentation to work legally and live a relatively healthy life while also acknowledging that adopting some sort of utopian Marxist ideal for said neighbour is not only impossible but also morally untenable.

Bibliography

Sánchez, Leopoldo. “The Struggle to Express Our Hope.” Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology 16, no 1 (Epiphany 2010): 25-31.

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