by Randall S. Frederick
Viktor Frankl once wrote, “There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning [for the conditions] in one’s life.” Humans are meaning-makers, homo poetica, and besides the events themselves, a significant part of the trauma we endure when we fail is the inability to make sense of it all. Confused and unable to trace back our steps, we ask questions of the Great Unknown like, Why did this happen to me? In search of meaning and a place in the cosmos, we turn upward. Why God? How did it come to this? For each of us, the answer is different. For me, I died. The person that people had come to know died, at least. And once I allowed myself the grace to die, to fail, and to let the full weight of “All That Happened” fall on me, to sit with it, I began a long process of coming back. It was such a comforting thing for me to accept failure. For the first time, I began to feel really human and the full measure of emotions. I cried, like I said, for three months and while I would never want to go back to that place, I am able to accept it with thankfulness because at least I felt something. I wasn’t numbing myself anymore.
When I began seminary, I learned that the Gospel of Mark originally ended without Jesus coming back. Check the footnotes on Mark 16. Verses 9-20 were tacked on to resolve a confusing and terrible story – Jesus dies, the adventure is over, everyone scatters, and then there is an empty tomb. Nobody knows how this happened, why it happened, but a terrible situation just got worse. They weren’t even allowed to properly bury their friend. Mark originally ended with broken friendships and people on the run. Not the best way to end a story!
Scholars say that the Gospel of Mark was the key source of the gospels – Matthew and Luke are copies and expansions of Mark, not separate stories written from the same prompt. They are dependent on Mark’s account, and may very well never have been written without Mark. Which makes me wonder on idle Tuesdays, what might Christianity have looked like if the story had ended with people running away from graveyards in “terror” and “seized with amazement”? What would have happened if, so traumatized, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Christianity’s core message might have become the First Noble Truth of Buddhism – suffering exists. And we don’t know why. Some things leave us in shock and awe, too afraid to say anything. If the great story of Jesus ended with failure, would the subsequent centuries of storytelling look different – would we allow failure to be a part of our theologies? The Markan account of Jesus isn’t the only example of this idea in scripture. The Bible begins with failure. In Genesis Chapter 2, God has failed and finds that creation is not good when we are alone. Chapter 3 ends with failure as the first people are evicted from the Garden. Chapter 4 ends with brother killing brother. Many times, we believe strands of theology dependent on failure and never even realize it. Our beliefs are built on the idea we’re still in the middle of a story of failure, trying to work our way out. Ezekiel stands out to me as a prime example of what I’m talking about here.
The story of Ezekiel from the 6th Century BCE, begins with the ruin of Jewish identity – the country has been conquered, the people enslaved, and the center of worship, the Temple, so important to the Israelites, had been destroyed. In exile some 700 miles from home, Ezekiel falls down at the edge of the river Kabar in Babylon. His wife is now dead, his home has been lost, and he is no longer a priest in the Temple.
Sit with that a minute.
His wife is dead. He has no home. He has no job. He has no identity. And he’s 700 miles from anything familiar. What now? Where do go from there? But Ezekiel isn’t alone in this. This isn’t the Odyssey, or even Quantum Leap, where one person – our rugged hero – goes through some hilarious shenanigans in the hope that he can find a way home. There is no home. There is no family to get back to. For Ezekiel or anyone else. The rules by which he lived his life no longer apply. And it’s times like these, of complete failure, that we have to break rules and begin again. Leviticus 26 gives us a window of insight into what happened when Ezekiel and the other priests accept defeat – they begin rewriting the rule book. Literally. God shows up like an armed warrior, very much like Krishna, and tells Ezekiel to begin again. And so the Israelites begin a long process of failure, of accepting defeat, and not letting failure have the final word. Out of this comes Leviticus 26, with an unprecedented shift in the Israelite religion.
Jacob Milgrom in his commentary on Leviticus writes that the majority of biblical scholars see a similarity between the language of the book of Ezekiel and the second half of Leviticus. So different are Leviticus 1-16 and 17-27 that many believe Leviticus is really two books. One is the familiar collection of butchers notes, and the other an ethical outline so strikingly familiar to the authorship of Ezekiel that there can be no doubt that Ezekiel either wrote it himself, or was standing nearby. The shift of the prophets and priests away from sacrifice and towards acceptance of failure was a radical and unprecedented move in how humans understood their relationship with the heavens and with each other. Religious thinking takes a gigantic leap forward towards a life lived for others, care for creation, and acceptance that everyone fails at one point or another. The fact that this insight comes while Ezekiel weeps at the river Kebar, allowing the full weight of All That Happened to crush him, sets the stage for him to finally see God and move to begin the process of recovery.
A theology of failure requires us to stop and let it be what it is – devastation. Ruin. Destruction. A burning of all our hopes and dreams and aspirations, even the tears in our eyes. We cry until we can’t cry anymore – until we are all cried out, with nothing left to give. We accept reality for what it is, not the thing we wish it was. We finally ask ourselves, “What do I really have left to lose?” and when there is nothing to answer that with, we begin again.
A theology of failure has the ability to do the thing we fear the most – it allows us to rewrite religion. This is a scary thing, but it can also cause us to take a leap forward, just like Judaism did in the 6th Century BCE. It affects not just us as individuals, but our communities of faith as well as other faiths. Obviously, the ramifications are tremendous. The nature of Jewish thinking has moved from ritual and sacrifice to concern for neighbors, living justly towards one another, taking care of the Earth, and talking things out, seeking understanding, instead of hard and fast rules. This kind of theology requires a high degree of risk, but then again, what do we really have left to lose? If we are holding on to some hope of a bygone era, it’s over. Gone. It’s not coming back. If we are so invested in the idea that God wants us to succeed, to dominate, to vanquish our enemies, then we’re still hypnotized by the idea that we really matter, that we’re supposed to be somebody, or do something, or be somewhere else while the world crumbles around us.
Theology of failure gives you the resolve to face up to what really happened, to give up the false projection before it destroys you, to develop an exit strategy before you are buried, and empowers you to get up one more time, not in a hologram of “victory” or some pathetic attempt at “winning,” but out of pure stupidity that refuses to allow anyone else to have the final word on your spectacular, colossal failure. Because you can rewrite the end of the story – maybe not the way you originally wanted or expected, but maybe it will be something even better.
At the heart of all theologies of success is the idea that God is consumed with you winning, which manifests in all kinds of destructive ways, not the least of which being the pursuit of personal security. But personal security undercuts the risky nature of religion. Rather than offer each other empty assurances, a theology of failure compels us to tell our stories, to fully own them and commiserate with others who have failed just like we have, and it also allows us – in telling our stories – to feel for a moment like we matter. To die with dignity. And in telling our stories, it offers some measure of hope that we are not alone, that we can get through this together, and in so doing finally realize that failure isn’t final.