Thursday, July 21, 2011

In Defense of Christian Pessimism

Many people believe pessimism to be the mark of a sorrowful and hateful person. This view opines that the pessimist hates humanity and casts a cynical eye on every good deed.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Cynicism is incompatible with a Christian lifestyle. Pessimism is very compatible with a Christian lifestyle, if understood in the right context.
Pessimism – the attitude of expecting and preparing for the worst, is a form of realism. Christianity recognizes that the world is a fallen place, a “vale of tears,” as one prayer (the Hail Holy Queen) puts it. Because of the Fall and our own propensity to sinfulness, man’s lot on earth is suffering.
Wars, plagues, and disasters warn us that despite our time on earth, man is not called to live forever on earth. Christian pessimists realize that, this world cannot provide happiness forever, despite its occasional  flashes of joy and even ecstasy. Man’s happiness is to be found in heaven, not on earth.
This does not mean that Christian pessimists sit in perpetual inaction and wait for death and their entrance into glory. Christ’s warnings are far too clear for that. 
Nor do pessimists despair of humanity, as many claim. They merely recognize that human nature is fallen, and that the snares of the devil and the sins of fallen man are commonplace in a fallen world. The work of Christian redemption is difficult and requires overcoming human nature – a difficult task.   
But neither do pessimists expect peace and happiness on earth. The flesh, the devil, and the world all conspire to lead humanity into sin and darkness, and Our Lord permits incredible suffering on earth to test and purify fallen men. The Christian pessimist recognizes that these attacks will take place, and is ever vigilant against them.
But optimists expect to find goodness in people and in nature – a goodness that is often submerged by anger and sin. The drumbeat of crime, war, suffering and disease wrought by humans and shown every day on the news is a daily rebuke to the naïve attitude of the optimist, who expects the best of people and consistently receives the worst. Man’s inhumanity to man has proven more than enough to shake the faith of many optimists.
But a pessimist is never disappointed by natural disaster or human frailty. He understands that disasters are common, and that human nature, unredeemed by Christ, is fallen. The road to heaven is narrow, as Christ warns us. Most of humanity refuses to cooperate with God’s grace – and the Christian pessimist recognizes that fact. Many will fall astray.
And when man rises above his fallen nature with God’s grace and does repent or perform good deeds, the Christian pessimist is pleasantly surprised, and thanks God in gratitude.  
This attitude of Christian pessimism – one of prayer and humility in the face of suffering and sin, and one of joy at every rare good deed – is far more conducive to a Christian lifestyle than sunny, naïve optimism divorced from reality.


  1. Okay, I'm going to make some arguments, for the two cents that it is worth. :)

    First of all, I’m going to put out a simple definition of optimism: Optimism: The view that there is “a greater amount of good in the world than of evil”, and that “the world is essentially good.”

    I’m going to focus my argument for optimism as opposed to pessimism on the fact that I believe that MOST people will perform good deeds in this world, good deeds are commonplace, and that one should therefore not “expect the worst."

    You wrote that:
    "Pessimism – the attitude of expecting and preparing for the worst"
    This attitude of pessimism which is "expecting" the worst seems to me to be pushing the "realism" idea too far. Maybe you have not experienced this, but I feel that of the people I have encountered in life, they are generally willing to perform good deeds, especially in little things. You also mention at the end of your article about having joy at every "rare" good deed. Once again, I disagree that good deeds are rare in this world. I believe that most people believe at least in the golden rule: “Do unto others what you would have them do to you.”

    I will now proceed to explain why I think good deeds are more common place than you may think, using the idea that man's fallen nature is constantly striving for happiness and naturally tends toward performing good actions. (Man also naturally expects good deeds from others, who are also striving for this happiness.)

    First of all, while I generally agree with the sentence "Man's happiness is to be found in heaven, not on earth", let me remind you that there is a notion of happiness which does exist on this earth. This notion of happiness is “imperfect happiness” of which St. Thomas asserts that it exists: "Some participation in happiness can be had in this life"

    All man’s actions are done for some end and there is one ultimate end which all men are striving for, whether they disagree on what this ultimate end is or not. This end is what they think will bring them happiness.

    Augustine says, "All men agree in desiring the ultimate end, which is happiness." And they desire to attain this end, whether it is riches, pleasure, heaven etc.

    So man strives for happiness. Our fallen nature makes us distracted with the little happy things and in order to attain true happiness you have to overcome these distractions. However, overcoming these distractions from our “fallen” human nature is not the same as overcoming our human nature strictly speaking which is good. You commented that “The work of redemption is difficult and requires “overcoming” human nature.
    However, I disagree.

    We don't overcome out human nature but we have to understand what is in accord with our human nature. The problem is that we don't realize the things we think will make us happy will not fulfill our human nature. Our nature is good strictly speaking –and fallen human nature may not always know what is good for it, but it still strives for the good. As Aquinas says, "The good in general, which has the nature of an end, is the object of the will."

    Furthermore, St Thomas asserts that, “Good works are necessary that man may receive happiness from God.” And in the world will perform good deeds and receive a portion of this happiness which all men desire!

    So here is my syllogism type reasoning in a nutshell:
    All men desire happiness
    Good works are necessary in order to receive happiness from God
    Therefore, all people desire, whether they realize it or not because of their fallen human nature, to perform good works for others. (Because this leads them to attain the happiness they desire!)
    Therefore, the majority of people will perform good works for others in order to attain a limited amount of happiness in this life.
    And this is why I am an optimist!
    (This is a bit repetitive, but it’s just my two cents worth, so please feel free to ask questions.)

  2. Well written, Anne! But I believe your response is fundamentally flawed on several levels.
    Before I respond to your comment, I should note that this post was tagged “The Contrarian View” for a reason. Posts marked with the tag “The Contrarian View” signify that I am giving a highly unpopular opinion to argue a point that needs fleshing out. I do not in any way argue that this is the teaching of the Church.
    An underlying assumption of your argument seems to be that pessimists cannot be happy. I vehemently disagree with this statement. Rather, the pessimist recognizes that the world, in the long run, cannot provide eternal happiness. In the short term, the pessimist can certainly be happy – and indeed, a Christian pessimist, drawing his strength from God, is indeed happy.
    I also take issue with your definition of optimism. The definition of optimism, as I am taking it from, states: “A tendency to expect the best possible outcome or dwell on the most hopeful aspects of a situation.”
    Optimism is not a view of the essential goodness of the world; no Christian pessimist denies that the world is fundamentally good. Rather, it is a tendency to expect the best from people and nature.
    And that, I argue, is fallacious.
    The question is not whether most people believe in the Golden Rule, or whether they seek happiness. Most people believe in God, too. The question is rather: Do most people actually follow the teachings of the Golden Rule? And do most human beings actually take the steps necessary to achieve happiness?
    And on both those counts, human beings as a mass do fail.
    Now, in a truly Christian culture, charity among men may well be commonplace. But in the wider world, where the infused virtue of charity is rarer, humanity tends to be lukewarm regarding virtue – unconcerned with doing good or evil, but only concerned about their own happiness. (And see Rev 3:16 for the result of lukewarmness.)
    In closing, I would argue that to deny that a spirit of Christian pessimism is possible is to deny holy Christian men like the hermits, who fled from the world precisely to avoid the temptations of the world, and concentrate totally on Christ.
    (As a side note, I know you used an alias, but please use an unrecognizable one next time – in keeping with the spirit of the rules of the blog.)
    Thank you for being the first commenter! God bless you!

    1. I came across this blog while looking for a book I read a long time ago, "Christian Pessimism", by a monk whose name and order I do not recall. It made points comparable to those of this blog. Just one comment, on cynicism. I used to tell my philosophy students that there are two types of cynicism: one holds that humans are no better than pigs; the other, that people simply act like pigs. And I acknowledged myself to be a cynic of the second order.

    2. Regarding the second type of cynicism, your point is well taken. Thank you for reading!

  3. How pessimist should one be, as to detach from the world completely?

    Don't bother with school, that is worldly. Do not bother with the internet either... But if one can argue that school or the internet are essentially good, just like healthcare, or justice systems... There is a limit to such pessimism.

    I say hope (optimism) on others so that they have a chance to enter heaven and be a (pessimist) to self capacity to sin.

  4. To be sure, an attitude of unbridled pessimism, which can easily lead to moral paralysis, is dangerous in the extreme. All things in due measure!
    As for the second part of your statement, whether others enter heaven is up to them; it is best for men to avoid thinking about how likely it is that others will be saved (except to help others attain salvation, of course), and to know and correct one's own faults as best as one may.

  5. Optimists, pessamists, there are plenty of both in the world. Some say their glass is half full, while others say their glass is half empty. But, why not have a shift in thinking--change the paradigm. My glass is full, full and even over-flowing of the living water that is Jesus Christ. Once you drink of this water, you will never be thirsty again. And because our God is a true God, He tells that it will not always be easy, but that we need to continue to fight the good fight. Neither to the left or to the right we should go, but to stay the course. Beause as christians, we know the end of the story, and we need to faithfully march on!

  6. This entry was brilliant. It was just what I was looking for It was 100% spot on. How do I switch from Protestant (Disneyland) to Catholic?

  7. Great post. In its defense I recall Karl Rahner offered these thoughts under the heading of "Christian pessimism" as a reflection on 2 Corinthians 4.8 :

    “Our existence is one of radical perplexity. We have neither the right nor the possibility to ignore this situation or to believe that we can abolish it in any dimension of our experience. I need not point out, or bemoan in detail, the daily experiences that make us perplexed.

    “In the beginning of Scripture God tells us that we must rule over nature and her powers. When we do it we start misusing them. We invent all kinds of social systems, and every one of them turns without fail into an occasion of injustice and abuse of power. We claim that we are looking for peace among all peoples, and we get ready for war in order to find peace. The whole of human history is a perpetual swinging back and forth between individualism and collectivism, and humanity has never succeeded in discovering a permanent and universally acceptable compromise between these basic demands of human nature.

    “What matters here however is to understand that, for a Christian anthropology, this perplexity in human existence is not merely a transitory stage that, with patience and creative imagination, might eventually be removed from human existence. It is a permanent existential of humanity in history and, although it keeps assuming new forms, it can never be wholly overcome in history. This is an essential feature of a Christian pessimism. It does not matter here whether we explain this pessimism through the fact that we are creatures, and finite creatures at that, or through an appeal to original sin, or by making our ineradicable sinfulness an argument for pessimism.

    “Of course, we cannot say that human finitude and historicity alone explain the fact that history cannot follow its course without friction and without blind alleys. Nor can this Christian pessimism be justified merely by the fact that it is impossible fully to harmonize all human knowledge with its many disparate sources, or to build a fully harmonious praxis on the basis of such disparate knowledge. We might also mention that we can never fully understand the meaning of suffering and death. Yet in spite of all this, the Christian interpretation of human existence says that within history, it is never possible wholly and definitively to overcome the riddles of human existence and history, which we experience so clearly and so painfully. Such a hope is excluded by the Christian conviction that we arrive at God’s definitive realm only by passing through death, which itself is the ultimate and all-embracing enigma of human existence. It is true that Christian hope has the right and the duty to project, in the empirical space of our human existence, an image and a promise of a definitive existence. But ultimately this is only the manner in which we practice faith in the consummation that God alone gives, that God’s self is.

    “People are afraid of this pessimism. They do not accept it. They repress it. That is why it is the first task of Christian preaching to speak up for it.”
    - Karl Rahner, "Christian Pessimism" in Theological Investigations XXII
    (trans. Joseph Donceel; London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1991), 156-57. 


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