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The Season of the “Sad Passions” – On Today’s SDA European Church


Argentinean born psychiatrist and philosopher Miguel Benasayag, now living and working in Paris, published, few years ago, a little book (“Les passions tristes: Souffrance psychique et crise sociale”) on what could be called “cultural sadness”. Picking up and applying Spinoza’s category of “sad passions” he describes the diffuse psychological pessimism, particularly present today in European young people, but tries to read it on a socio-cultural level. The individual pessimism would be, after him, the result and further extension, on a personal level, of a larger and more structural orientation of the European society as a whole. Benasayag’s differentiated diagnosis on pessimism is important because beyond its descriptive validity it also opens up a new horizon on a therapeutic level. Psychological or psychiatric intervention, are here definitely limited and insufficient because they don’t address the issue of psychological suffering at its source: as a cultural perspective, as philosophical and anthropological “Weltanschauung”. At this particular level is needed a true “meta-noia”, a cultural conversion able to re-orient and re-organize life, priorities, habits, strategies and expectations differently; in short, a paradigm shift.

The European current situation seems to validate and justify this diffuse pessimism described by Benasayag. The “old continent” appears today uncertain and stuck. Politically, institutionally and economically things are not nowadays as they used to be in the past. The economic vulnerability of some countries (the so called PIGS countries –Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain- now became PIIGS with Italy included) are just the visible part of the European iceberg of excessive bureaucracy, formalism and immobility condensed in the incapacity of reading the international present situation properly and adopt the correspondent dynamic and future oriented political and economic strategies needed. France, and even Germany, the so called locomotives of the European Union, are giving now evident signals of economic fatigue and slowdown. European GDP grows minimally since a couple of decades and recession lasts, in some countries, more than expected. Unemployment is reaching an unusual double-digit rate of 11% and particularly youth unemployment has touched in 2012, in some countries as Greece and Spain, the embarrassing and scandalous rate of 57 %. The pessimism about the future has transformed itself in scepticism and rebellion against the so called Europe “from above”, the Europe of treaties and institutions. The inflexible, unilateral and myopic policy of austerity and fiscal discipline defended by Germany and Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel in a period of recession, so much criticized repeatedly by some international economic analysts as Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman or Jean Paul Fitoussi, has finished by depressing the European economic system even more and reinforcing this way the already high dose of pessimism and uncertainty among the Europeans.

But European “sadness” is not circumstantial, just bound to this long-lasting economic crisis. It has historical and more structural components. The structural optimism and euphoria of the “first modernity” has been replaced by the structural disillusion, conformism and apathy of the “second modernity” of our days. The future doesn’t awake any more in Europeans, particularly in the young people, trust, hope and expectations but rather doubt, uncertainty and anxiety. This society keeps being a future-oriented society technically and programmatically but not anthropologically. Europeans keep creating new things, new strategies and new programs but knowing deep inside that these new artefacts, products of human high rationality will not have an enduring and meaningful impact on their concrete lives. As Reinhart Koselleck puts it paradoxically, the European future has stop of generating hope and has become a “Vergangene Zukunft” (a Past Future), i.e just a mechanical, a repetitive and an accelerated temporal reality unable to create meaning and anthropological curiosity and expectation. 

The SDA European church is not only forced to work within this socio-cultural context but is also thoroughly part of it. It shares from within, diffusely in its own members, this structural “cultural sadness”. But the SDA European church adds to this, something more; the additional pessimism of the little numbers and the frustration of the repeated and ritualized unsuccessful religious initiatives performed inside and outside the church. Sure, is not politically correct, culturally appropriate or ethically acceptable to manifest such a rough and unrefined pessimism particularly for believers. So European Adventism has learned to sublimate it in various differentiated more acceptable ways. One way is the compensatory obsession with efficiency and order sold as virtue. Another privileged way is the sophisticated and radical criticism of its own religious creed, events and initiatives, often bordering self-destruction, sold as cultural and theological awareness. That’s not new, Octavio Paz, for instance, already some decades ago in his book “The Labyrinth of Solitude”, had accurately made a meticulous description of the same socio-cultural compensatory mechanisms of such cultural pessimism. 

Is then, the SDA European church condemned to remain entrapped in this situation? Certainly not. It doesn’t need, neither to remain so nor to become necessarily something else, an American-like church for instance. It just needs to remain and to be itself, the best of what it is, a European church drawing from within the desire for living with imagination and trust more than with discipline or coherence. After Spinoza the notion of “passion”, as passivity, is indelible in human reality. And that’s not bad news because it reminds us of the illusory aspect of a certain religious Pelagianism present inside the Adventist church and not only in Adventist extreme perfectionist movements as much as in the positivistic attitudes still resistant in many sectors outside there in the society. In this sense Europe and European Adventism are paradoxically avant-garde movements, more than the American Adventisms, that from the south or that from the north, because with their “structural sadness”, a kind of European version of the classical tragedy, they are anticipating what probably will happen in some other countries still in the coming future: the sudden awakening of the illusory dimension of the Western, modern and post-modern, project of efficiency and success. But the heuristic notion of “passion” in Spinoza has a more fundamental dimension. It relocates the centre of human life, beyond rationality and will, in what he calls the “Conatus”, the “drive for living”. “Passion” becomes “Affect” when actively it expands the desire to exist. Spinoza becomes even scandalous by saying that we don’t desire something because it’s good but the other way round, something becomes good because we desire it. These “active passions” or “affects” are the “Laetitia” (joy) and particularly Love. But, love primarily understood not as moral virtue but rather as the anthropological affirmation of life or as Erich Fromm puts it in the title of one of his books, “For the Love of Life” using a typical Spinozean register. Fundamentally all this means that the negative aspects of this “structural sadness” and the resultant pessimism can not be removed by adding more rationality  (Believing) or more discipline (Behaving) but rather by reinforcing the pre-rational desire for living. This should be also the main target of every religious experience: learn to love life abundantly as offered graciously by Christ (John 10:10) before it becomes also a necessary and complementary rational, reflective or practical, exercise.

But to promote truly the desire for living we need to go beyond Spinoza’s “Conatus” understood as a centripetal experience of reinforcement of ourselves to discover the centrifugal experience of opening up ourselves to others individually and culturally by learning to trust and to be vulnerable. By affirming the life of others we affirm our own desire for living. Sadness is also the isolation from others in the myopic and twisted exercise of wanting to preserve uniquely ourselves and our own survival. Pessimism is at the end the lack of Solicitude as joy for the spontaneous affirmation of other people’s life. In this sense the construction of a noble and positive European Adventism passes through the acknowledgment of other Adventisms and other Christian confessions and through the serious intent to interact and to dialogue with them continuously. European Adventism can not choose naively and short-sightedly, as unfortunately Adventism is doing in certain regions of the world, to solve its internal problems and tensions, or to face today’s political, social or cultural challenges, following the illusory option of a reductive identitarian affirmation and escaping from others. This is also, on a secular dimension, Benasayag’s final proposal, learn to build up in our society –at school, at home or in our communities-  a “Clinic of bonding” that affirm particularly in our children and in our youth the desire and the love for living in the shared experience of taking care for others and learning to take care of the “Common  Good”.

Hanz Gutierrez, “Villa Aurora”

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