There be dragons!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Tragedy of Christ

Most commentators suggest that the Passion of Christ does not fit the formal definitions of tragedy as laid forth by Aristotle.
I would argue otherwise and suggest that, human nature being what it is, it seems unlikely that the Gospel writers living in a culture surrounded by Greek Tragedy as the major idiom would have not employed that artform to tell their story. They must have used the elements of Tragedy or elements of the popular story forms available to them. It just is too unlikely that the Gospels sprang, fully formed, from the heads of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.
Consequently, I suggest that the Gospels do indeed employ the Aristotelean forms of Tragedy in order to convey an extremely profound insight into the nature of LOVE.
Aristotle says that:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions. . . . Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality—namely, Plot, Characters, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Melody.

Certainly the Passion is serious & complete and of a certain magnitude. Further it is embellished with artistic ornament (esp. in John's narrative which is an incredible work of art). It involves mostly action, not just narrative and it arouses (or should arouse if people take it seriously) pity and fear, thus accomplishing a katharsis.
To this degree it certainly fits the definition.
Moreover, Aristotle suggests that Tragedy is the “imitation of an action” (mimesis) according to “the law of probability or necessity.”
A chain of events is set in motion which results in one and only one ruinous conclusion. Again, the chain of events, namely Christ challenging the Sanhedrin and submitting to Crucifixion, seems to lead by necessity to one seemingly ruinous conclusion.
The major problem seems to emerge from what is referred to as the "tragic flaw":
...the peripeteia is really one or more self-destructive actions taken in blindness, leading to results diametrically opposed to those that were intended (often termed tragic irony), and the anagnorisis is the gaining of the essential knowledge that was previously lacking...
There is no flaw in Christ so his "ruin" in the crucifixion stems from his self-sacrifice, not his flaw. In him there was no guile. Consequently the Passion seems to defy the Aristotelean mode of tragedy; we have a great man, a king, brought to ruin not by his own mistake but by the mistakes or evil of other people.
But here I would hazard that the gospel writers are even more clever than we give them credit. As mentioned above, the gospels do not spring out of a vacuum; they are the artistic creations emerging from the cultural womb in which their authors lived. Consequently, the evangelists would have been familiar with Greek tragedy but also with Jewish mythology. According to the latter mythical idiom the Christian story is simply the conclusion of a longer story narrated in the Old Testament.
If then Christ is fully God and fully man, he is uniting the stories of man's ruin to the story of God. We certainly see in man's ruin a terrible tragedy; the rebellion from heaven and fall from Eden. Christ participates in man's tragedy in so far as he "shares man's smudge and bears man's smell." As man, he could have chosen not to antagonize the Sanhedrin, not to allow himself to be given up to his captors, to side with Peter and drawn the sword (or legions of angels).
In this sense, then, the tragedy is twofold.
First, that he by his very birth entered into a sequence of events that follows the law of probability or necessity. All men must die.
Second, that he willingly chose to take upon himself an action which he knew would lead to his death. Heroic and noble, but tragic. Yet still "...the peripeteia is really one or more self-destructive actions taken in blindness, leading to results diametrically opposed to those that were intended." The "taken in blindness" part indicates that Christ would not have known what his captors were about. Consequently the Passion again defies the classical form of tragedy.
But what of the God part? Here, I think, is where the evangelists were looking when they conceived this great tragedy. They were looking back to the very beginning in Genesis to the moment God created man. The tragic peripeteia is a self-destructive action taken in blindness. What self-destructive action did God take? He created man. Man is the mistake that proves to be the death of God.
This may seem utterly strange and even antithetical to our theological understanding b/c of course God cannot die in the literal sense. Nor is man a mistake in any malicious sense or erroneous sense of that word. But mistake can sometimes mean risk or hazard. For instance, when we fall in love we run the terrible risk of ruination. In fact any form of love will result in ruin b/c the beloved will die. Thus if we love we ruin ourselves; die to ourselves. To not love is to not run that terrible risk of loss of the other and of self. But God is Love. He loved so much that he created this world and granted us freedom, and in so doing he set in motion an inevitable chain of events that would end in his having to choose is own death.
Some might say that this puts a necessity on God and binds him to a thing greater than himself. I'd say, no, there is no necessity put on God for he at any moment might have chosen not to love; but there is necessity, as Aquinas notes, in that God does not go against his nature and his nature is to love. Love prompted him to risk creating a free being that could ruin itself and love prompted Him to remain bound to His creation through love so much so that He "gave His only Son" to die at the hands of his captors.
Thus the Aristotelean definition of tragedy is fulfilled in the Passion; Christ's death is the inevitable result of God's initial generative love.
But the Gospels remain superior to Greek tragedy. In the tragedies redemption does not occur. Learning, wisdom, greater insight come to Oedipus, or Orestes, or Pentheus, or Jason - they learn the hard way. But they are not redeemed. In the Passion we have a figure suffering the tragic consequences of his initial "mistake" of creating through love a world that sought his destruction. But after the Passion comes the resurrection and in this the evangelists claim something remarkable about the nature of love.
The classical world authors conceive love as a dalliance, a pleasure, a treacherous illusion, but not as an enduring reality capable of bearing all things. For them, life was sorrow with occasional relief found in the pleasures of love. They could not conceive of a love that endured intense pain and triumph. The evangelists, on the contrary, are suggesting that love is the greatest thing. Paul says this outright to the Corinthians: "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." Such a sentiment would be unheard of in the classical world. Even the greatest of the classical writers, Plato, held that love was a longing for something unfulfilled; a force that drove one to near manic state. But not something that endured.
Only the Gospel writers, with their commentary on the Tragedy of the Passion, could inspire the claim that "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails."
If God was willing to risk the "mistake" of creating us as free beings, if he was willing to bind himself to us by that mistake, then he was also willing to suffer the inevitable ruin of himself that would result in our salvation. He could not leave his beloved to die. This eucatastrophe is what separates the Pagan world, with all its glory, from the Christian. Only the Christian world can claim "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known."
Love never fails.
And in that reality lies our hope.

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