The Secret of My (Deferred) Success

The Secret of My (Deferred) Success

"To invert a famous quip of Gore Vidal, in theology, it is not enough for heretics to fail; the church must succeed."

Last summer, I was fortunate enough to spend some weeks working at a church in Scotland, just outside of Edinburgh. It was certainly good to enjoy extended time back in the old country and do things I find difficult or impossible in the USA: eat a decent Indian meal; watch some decent sport on the TV; and read the best iconoclastic satire magazine in the world, Private Eye. It was, however, not so good to see that some areas of British culture remain depressingly familiar, foremost perhaps being the constant flux in government educational policy. Why education has become such a political focus in Britain is difficult to discern: perhaps it has something to do with a once-great nation trying to come to terms with its post-imperial status as a bit player on the world scene, and thus desperately seeking a magic bullet which will restore former glories. Who knows? Whatever the case may be, British educational policy is so silly and politically driven it could scarcely be satirized by the Private Eye crowd. It represents little more than a long war of attrition against excellence and merit. Of course, as a former grammar school boy whose whole educational background has been decried and dismantled by one inept government after another, I would say that, wouldn't I?

Take, for example, this hilarious educational crazy-but-true highlight of last summer: one of the teachers' professional organizations seriously suggested that the old system of pass-fail relative to course work and examinations should be abandoned, to be replaced by a distinction between a pass and something called, not a fail, but - wait for it - a `deferred pass.' I kid you not; this was a serious suggestion put forward by otherwise apparently sane members of the teaching profession. The thinking (for want of a better word) behind this is that the idea of a `fail' is just too negative and hurtful; that some more positive way of expressing the idea of failure will ultimately produce better members of society.

The idea has a certain attraction. First, the linguistic philosophy which underlies it is surely an attractive one. We could apply it across the board to produce a much more positive view on the world. Thus, illness might become `postponed health,' debt might become `delayed profit,' defeat might become `unrealized victory,' and death ` permanent mode of non-functionality.'

Then, for me personally, the idea of deferred success in particular has many attractions. At school I was hopeless at woodwork, metalwork, and technical drawing. The comment on my report card from the woodwork teacher, if I remember correctly, was `More concerned with finishing than with the finish.' And the teacher in charge of technical drawing suggested, on more than one occasion, that I use a pencil, rather than my thumb, to draw precise lines. Now, for nearly thirty years, I had assumed I was no good at woodwork and technical drawing, that I had failed at this subject; now I realize that I didn't fail at all, but that my success was merely deferred. All this time, I have actually been living with the oppressive guilt which the unthinking brutality of my schoolmasters inflicted upon me. That teacher who told me I'd failed was cruel, harsh, prickly; he crushed my embryonic talent before I could give it birth; and the numerous domestic woodworking disasters that my handiwork has imposed upon my house, my wife, and my kids in the years since were not my fault after all: they were all examples of deferred success, of craftsmanship of the highest order whose quality was merely postponed until some date in the future. That shelves were not level, that pictures fell off the wall - these were merely the birthing pains of the great eschatological realization that yes, I am as great a craftsman as Chippendale; it is simply that the reality has been deferred to a later date. My wife, I am sure, will be more than reassured by this fantastic news.

Of course, this is all complete nonsense, absolute drivel. My woodworking is hopeless because I am an utterly unskilled and useless person when it comes to working with wood. Not only that, but if my woodwork teacher had not failed me but had encouraged me to think that inside my woefully unskilled hands were those of a master craftsman just waiting to be coaxed out, I would have been set on a course in life that would either have left me virtually deluded as to my abilities or facing multiple prosecutions for having charged individuals exorbitant sums for ruining the interiors of their houses. Not a good outcome for any of the parties involved.

No matter which way you slice it, failure is not deferred success. Rather, it is failure, first, last, and always; and those who indulge in it, as I did with woodwork, are actual real failures, not deferred successes merely waiting for their moment to shine. It is not, of course, always irremedial. Maybe the person can learn the skills they need to pass whatever the test may be - I failed my driving test first time and later passed (in case you laugh at that, I am talking about the UK test, not the American version with its `Which is the car's front end?' `Is it the one with the brake lights?' 'Close enough. Congratulations, you've passed' variety); but to imply that failure, as and when it happens, is anything other than failure is cruel and not infrequently moronic. Failure, after all, is very important, indeed, as important as success. It is crucial to understanding what we are and are not called to be; and it is vital in protecting the innocent against inept wannabes, be they woodworkers, drivers, or even brain surgeons.

This brings me to the real point of this article: Christianity is all about failure. Think about it. The very history of theology is really a history of failure: heretics are those who have failed, through their theological proposals, to make sense of what scripture says; and orthodoxy is always a response to such failure. For example, trinitarian orthodoxy is the result of the failure of, among others, Arius to make sense of scripture with his proposals. Arius's Christ, a Christ who is not God, simply cannot save. Imagine what would have happened if Athanasius and company had merely decided that Arius proposal was a deferred pass. I'm sure there would have been hugs all around, lots of soul-baring, a bit of the old group counseling and confession of mutual failings, perhaps a few patristic `Iron John' weekends to allow Athanasius and Arius each to do a bit of male-bonding and to understand where the other was coming from, an ongoing and mutually respectful theological conversation; and, in the mean time, countless souls at best denied the full joy of a Christian life lived out in the knowledge of Christ, the divine-human saviour, at worst denied heaven because of a spineless lack of leadership at a critical moment in the church's history. To invert a famous quip of Gore Vidal, in theology, it is not enough for heretics to fail; the church must succeed. But the failure is that which provides the context for the success; and, thus, contrary to what our feminized postmodern Western instincts might lead us to believe, the recognition of failure and the correlative refusal to make truth negotiable or a matter of mere taste or aesthetics is precisely that which kept the church truly united on the gospel.

An even better example of the importance of failure is the late-fourth/early-fifth century controversy between Augustine and Pelagius over the nature of grace. It is a better example because failure in this controversy has a twofold reference. The first is similar to that of Arius: Pelagius, and, even more so, his disciple, Julian of Eclanum, stressed human autonomy and natural perfectibility to such an extent that they fell devastatingly far short of being able to make sense of biblical teaching. Yet it was through interaction with, and refutation of, their perversion of biblical truth that Augustine was able to unpack the conceptual foundations of that statement in his Confessions which so upset Pelagius (`Lord, command what you will, and give what you command'). In so doing, he was forced to wrestle with Pauline teaching as never before and gain insights into fallen human nature and God's sovereign grace the like of which the church had not previously expressed with such clarity and precision.

But there is a second point in the Pelagian controversy for which the whole notion of failure is crucial. Pelagius and Julian argued for a form of Christianity which placed great emphasis upon personal moral achievement. That is why Pelagius hated Augustine's Confessions: he regarded them as legitimating mediocre Christianity, a Christianity marked by moral failure. And there is a sense in which he was absolutely correct: Augustine's understanding of human nature was that it was turned in on itself and could never find by itself the right object to love, God himself. Doomed always to ask the right question, Whom should I love?, and doomed always to give the wrong answer, Myself, fallen human beings were ineradicably tragic figures. And, even within the context of the church, believing Christians could never be entirely free from this; rather, they would always inevitably fall some way short of what they should be and thus be dependent upon God's gracious favour for acceptance before him. In other words, they would always be mediocre failures.

To summarise, Augustine legitimated mediocre Christianity of a kind that accepted failure as failure and then pointed to God's grace in Christ as the only basis for salvation, whether at the start of the Christian life or at the end. Thus, the failure of Pelagius to make sense of Paul's teaching on fallen human nature and grace led to Augustine's enshrinement of failure as one of the hallmarks of the true Christian. And that is surely good news.

So the secret of my success is simply this: failure, miserable, abject, unconditional failure. As my personal insights into scripture have always fallen short, I have time and again gone back to the riches of the Christian tradition to get help and insight; and as my attempts to get right with God all by myself, or on a kind of co-operative basis, have always led to failure, I have been driven again and again to cling to the only thing that makes such failure bearable: the glorious grace of God. In both theology and life, therefore, my failure is the context for success. So don't give me all that patronising bunk about `deferred pass' or `delayed success.' Feminised postmodernism might find such language more palatable than the stright pass-or-fail in which I was schooled. But I want you to call me what I am: a failure. A theological and moral failure. Believe me, my theology and my salvation depend upon it.