Easter Day, Robert Browning (Poem)

Here are the opening lines of Browning’s awesome “Easter Day“.  Although my primary intent is eventually to say something about the relationship between Browning’s dramatis personae and Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms, I thought it might be useful to preface that with a bit of Browning speaking, as it were, in propria persona, and speaking in a way that, to anyone who knows Kierkegaard, will sound remarkably familiar.  The poem is a dialectical tour de force, a deep and deepening investigation of all the ways in which faith is denatured, each a way of making it easy or easier to be a Christian.

Easter Day

HOW very hard it is to be
A Christian! Hard for you and me,
—Not the mere task of making real
That duty up to its ideal,
Effecting thus complete and whole,
A purpose or the human soul—
For that is always hard to do;
But hard, I mean, for me and you
To realise it, more or less,
With even the moderate success
Which commonly repays our strife
To carry out the aims of life.
“This aim is greater,” you may say,
“And so more arduous every way.”
—But the importance of the fruits
Still proves to man, in all pursuits,
Proportional encouragement.
“Then, what if it be God’s intent
“That labour to this one result
“Shall seem unduly difficult?”
—Ah, that’s a question in the dark—
And the sole thing that I remark
Upon the difficulty, this;
We do not see it where it is,
At the beginning of the race:
As we proceed, it shifts its place,
And where we looked for palms to fall,
We find the tug’s to come,—that’s all.

Reading “RM” 9: Skepticism and Christianity

One of the most remarkable paragraphs in Merleau-Ponty’s essay on Montaigne is this, the final paragraph in the section on Montaigne’s religion, his Christianity.

What he retains of Christianity is the vow of ignorance.  Why assume hypocrisy in the places where he puts religion above criticism?  Religion is valuable in that it saves a place for what is strange and knows our lot is enigmatic.  All solutions it gives to the enigma are incompatible with our monstrous condition.  As a questioning, it is justified on the condition that it remain answerless.  It is one of the modes of our folly, and our folly is essential to us.  When we put not self-satisfied understanding but a consciousness astonished at itself at the core of human existence, we can neither obliterate the dream of an other side of things nor repress the wordless invocation of this beyond.  What is certain is that if there is some universal Reason we are not in on its secrets, and are in any case required to guide ourselves by our own lights. ‘In ignorance and negligence I let myself be guided to the general way of the world.  I will know it well enough when I perceive it.’  Who would dare to reproach us for making use of this life and world which constitute our horizon?

I am in almost complete agreement with this.  (My disagreements should show through in what I am about to say.)  One of the accomplishments of the paragraph is that it reveals Montaigne’s skepticism finally to be (what I am calling) Church-Man’s skepticism.  Merleau-Ponty inscribes into the paragraph Montaigne’s lexicon of Church-Man’s skepticism:  ‘ignorance’, ‘strange’, ‘our lot’, ‘enigmatic’, ‘monstrous’, ‘question’, ‘answerless’, ‘folly’, ‘secret’.  Montaigne’s skepticism has an epistemic side, and so can avail itself of failures to know of a standard epistemic sort, and subsequently use those failures to humble our pretensions to certain (forms of) knowledge.  This is one form of ignorance and one use of it relevant to Church-Man’s skepticism.  But Church-Man’s skepticism centers on existential, not epistemological, ignorance:  on not-knowing classified best as ‘alienation’ or ‘restlessness’ or ‘dissatisfaction’.  This skepticism is not one that construes religion, Christianity, as providing solutions or as yielding a self-satisfied understanding.  It construes religion as acknowledging mysteries, acknowledging our monstrous condition.  Its questioning is justified, then; as questioning of a mystery, it remains answerless.  (Not all answerless questioning need dehort.)  This is Christianity’s vow of ignorance.  For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.  A familiar passage; but not often enough reflected upon.  It stresses asymmetry:  I now see God’s face through a glass, darkly.  God now sees my face, face-to-face free of any darkling glass.  (A strange one-way mirror that has only one side.)  Now I know in part, I know partly.  God now knows in total, He knows totally.  We long for symmetry.  Our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee. 

And of course we will have to guide ourselves by our own lights—but we need remember that not every light we count as ours is one we lit or one we power.  No one should dare reproach us for making use of this life and world.  What else do we have, here under the sun?  As the Church-Man says (in Ecclesiastes 3):

So I became aware that it is best for man to busy himself here to his own content; this and nothing else is his alloted portion; who can show him what the future will bring?

In my days of baffled enquiry, I have seen pious men ruined for all their piety, and evil-doers live long in all their wickedness.  Why then, do not set too much store by piety, not play the wise man to excess, if thou wouldst not be bewildered over thy lot. Yet plunge not deep in evil-doing; eschew folly; else thou shalt perish before thy time.  To piety thou must needs cling; yet live by that other caution too; fear God, and thou hast left no duty unfulfilled.

We cannot help but to orient ourselves, or to dream of orienting ourselves, on something above the sun, some other side of things to which we make constant wordless appeal.  And so fulfillment, surely our own, perhaps not our duty’s, is denied us.  What we find here under the sun is not valueless, but it’s value is not full.  We live amongst valuable vanities. We are fools in the farce who eschew folly.  We are wonders, mysteries, to ourselves.


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