Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.
No one shall be forgotten who was great in this world; but everyone was great in his own way, and everyone in proportion to what he loved… They shall all be remembered, but everyone became great in proportion to his expectancy. One became great through expecting the possible, another by expecting the eternal; but he who expected the impossible became greater than all.
– Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
Is there a Teleological Suspension of the Ethical?The ethical as such is the universal, and as the universal it applies to everyone. What is an example of the universal? The imperative to honesty in one’s dealings with others. If you say you’re going to be at the square at 4pm next Tuesday to raise a red banner, you’ll be there. You don’t go and raise a blue banner, or raise a red banner at 3pm, or go to a different square, or decide against going at all. You raise the previously-specified banner at the previously-specified time and place. Otherwise, you are in violation of the universal.
When you buy a t-shirt you pay the price you’re asked to pay by the girl wearing the dangly earrings. And you don’t take a pack of the mints with the crosses on them and hide them in your pocket. You take the bag with the t-shirt in it from the girl wearing the dangly earrings and when she smiles at you your face gets hot, and you think again of what you’re about to do, and it chills you. But you don’t take the pack of mints without paying for them. Maybe you take them and you also pay for them. That would probably be okay but hold on, no, you’re not going back now, you’re halfway out to your car already. What, no, stop that, she’s going to think you’re an idiot. Two packs, even? What, are you about to die?
Is there an Absolute Duty to God?The ethical is the universal and as such, in turn, the divine. Ethical duty becomes duty to God by being referred to God, but you don’t enter into relation with God in the duty itself. God becomes a vanishing point, provident over the world as the sun is over the earth on this hot day in late summer as you fly by the trees and houses with your windows down and your mouth full of cross mints. School starts tomorrow, and God will be provident over that too. He’ll be watching as you show up wearing that shirt. He’ll be waiting to see whether your shirt brings on the expected God appointments. Maybe the girl wearing the dangly earrings will be there as well. Maybe she’ll be impressed by your boldness and your breath.
Sometimes perhaps you feel as though you don’t even need God, exactly? Like, you could do this thing by yourself? But then you remember: whoa buddy, no way, Jesus died for your sins and wants you to do your best, and without Him would you even keep showing up in those halls with those pimples, that hair, those braces? No way. He only feels far away because you’re not trying hard enough to be near to Him most of the time. Remember the shirt. Remember that no cheating is tolerated in the world of spirit. Remember the girl wearing the dangly earrings. You’re going to be a star. You’re going to make them chuckle and repent.
Faith itself cannot be mediated into the universal, but you don’t know that yet. You are almost home. The bag sits in your passenger seat and inside it sits a wrinkled union of the fruit of the Spirit and the Loom. It bears the message you’ll carry into the halls of your high school tomorrow. It’s not an advertisement for a peanut butter cup, but, by some miracle, it sure looks like one.
Was it Ethically Defensible for Abraham to Conceal his Purpose from Sarah, from Eleazar, from Isaac?Does a bait-and-switch involving a commercial brand and Jesus Christ fall within the category of a lesser moral duty suspended for the sake of a higher one, or is something other than a moral act going on?
You wipe the tears from your eyes and look at yourself in the mirror of the handicap-accessible single-toilet off-limits bathroom by the principal’s office. You took a real psychological beating out there. Some muscular idiots became the God appointments God had meant for someone else — someone else who got sick and needed you to pinch-hit for them — and you really whiffed the pitch. They laughed at you. They didn’t want to talk. You found that you couldn’t talk, anyway.
And when you fast-walked with a hot face past her locker, the girl wearing the dangly earrings looked up and saw you in your orange shirt, but she didn’t feel moved by you as though you were some kind of tragic hero for the Lord. She didn’t understand you at all.
And look at you now, in this off-limits toilet, in direct violation of a prohibition on non-handicapped use of the handicap-accessible bathroom. You do a quick self-assessment and surmise that you are an idiot in front of your peers and a rule-breaker in the eyes of the law, i.e. the principal, who even now stands at the door and knocks.
What do you have to say for yourself, asks the principal on the strength of the universal? What do you have to say for yourself, imply your peers on the strength of popular opinion?
But you. You drink of the bitter cup. You realize that you have nothing to say for yourself at all. Your job is no longer to explain, but to be a witness to the absolute.
You open the door and walk out of the bathroom and when the principal opens his mouth to speak you walk past him, too. You walk past the muscular idiots and their sneers and past the locker of the girl wearing the dangly earrings and through the front door of your high school. You puff out your chest. Everyone can see that there is no peanut butter cup ad on your torso; there is only the “Sweet Savior.” You reach the front patio and look out into the parking lot. A Midwestern storm rages. You are higher than the universal, superior to popular opinion. You are a paradox. You are not just subverting a brand for the Gospel, but subverting society itself.
You walk on in the strength of the absurd. The rain stings like the love of God. You don’t look back. When you come to the steps that go down into the street beyond the parking lot you scale them all in a great leap and disappear from the view of the crowd, which has grown silent. The last they see of you is a flash of orange, and it brings again to mind your t-shirt and its message:
King of Kings
You walk home in the rain. Behind you the entire school falls to its knees and repents, but you do not look back.