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    The Abyss of Grace

    A review of Costica Bradatan’s In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility

    By Ragan Sutterfield

    April 25, 2023

    Costica Bradatan’s In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility was released on the first Tuesday of 2023. At the time, my feed was brimming with resolutions, ambitions, and hopes that our varied failures might leave us behind on the next circuit around the sun. For the sellers of self-help, it was a season of fresh starts and new “followers” – all those people ready to do better this time. Podcasters were eagerly interviewing authors about atomic habits and the best bio-hacks for a better body. Even my local grocery store offered a twenty-one-day reset diet, guided by their in-house nutritionist. But instead of offering bright dreams and helpful habits, Bradatan offered a book about death, decreation, and disaster – personal and political. It is a dark book, one that might invite the tossing out of any new year resolutions, much less hope. And yet, in its stark approach, it offers stories and lessons on living a life a little more aligned with reality and the gifts that can be found close to the ground.

    Too little is said about cover designs in most book reviews (covers change while texts are the static eidos of the whole), but In Praise of Failure’s cover is a visual summary of the book itself. Framed in off-white, a series of concentric circles appears to be a target. All around are arrows buried anywhere but the bullseye. When we read Bradatan’s prologue, we find that these concentric circles are also the structure of the book itself. “Since failure besieges and surrounds us,” writes Bradatan, “it would not be unreasonable to imagine that it comes in circles: concentric, tightening circles, with us at the center – in the eye of the storm, as it were.” For Bradatan, a philosophy professor at Texas Tech and the University of Queensland, these tightening circles can be traced from the outer ring of physical failure into political failure, social failure, and finally “biological failure – our own mortality.” These make up the four lessons, each taught through the story of a person Bradatan portrays as illustrative of the ring in question.

    Bradatan is a philosopher with a literary sense and In Praise of Failure is a book structured around stories. Bradatan states that “we have to narrate our way into humility” (emphasis his), which is why he chose to include “so many stories in this book, from beginning to end. Without stories we would be nothing.” Each story is a woven tapestry of biography and reflection, with the relevant theme uniting diffuse observations. With Simone Weil, Bradatan paints a picture of physical frailty. Through her awkward embodiment, Bradatan proposes, Weil gained a kind of distance from the world, by which she could judge its limits and ultimately its failures. For her, the experience of an affliction born in the body was a key source of insight. It was through a year of brutal work in a factory that Weil was able to emerge as a dynamic thinker, one who constantly circled around Christianity though she was never baptized, a mystic with the vocation of an outsider. As Bradatan puts it, “Weil went into the factory to find out more about the social conditions of the modern worker in capitalism. Instead, she found Jesus Christ.”

    Intertwining Weil’s observations on slavery and the conditions of work in a machine world with Bradatan’s own reflections on the brilliance of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, Bradatan pictures Weil as a kind of Gnostic or Cathar – a person who saw some essential flaw in creation that demanded a remedy of nothingness in order to escape materiality. Reflecting on her Letter to a Priest, Bradatan recites her varied complaints against Christianity’s institutional existence. For her, writes Bradatan, “the root cause of the church’s ills lies in that it is an institution, and as such shares the sins of all human creation: corruption, injustice, immorality.” For those who continually experience the failures of the church, such a view is tempting. But as James K. A. Smith helpfully articulates in The Nicene Option, incarnation always means an entanglement with limits, ignorance, failure; it is in our profound creatureliness that Christ can show up, even in our world of limits and failures.

    From Weil, Bradatan turns to reflect on the political failures of Gandhi with regard to great programs of totalitarianism, especially those of the Soviets. For Bradatan, the lesson here is that democracy is a fragile thing, rare in history, because seizing power is always a temptation, and we are all too easily taken by political fictions rather than the fallen realities of life together. Bradatan writes that “out of an obsessive need for perfection and a misguided quest for purity, we end up muddled in ever more imperfection. Mistaking fiction for reality is not just naive, it is highly dangerous.” Our failure in achieving such fictions, however, offers us the chance to “achieve what might actually be within our reach,” and Gandhi’s failures teach us this.

    The final two lessons, centering on the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran and the Japanese author Yukio Mishima, are the most troubling of the book. In his prologue Bradatan warns that “if reading this book leaves you disturbed, it means I have not completely failed. For failure is a profoundly disturbing experience – as disturbing as life itself.” On that ground, then, Bradatan achieves success. The disturbing nature of these two chapters, however, can be helpful even to those who do not share his bleak conclusions. Like atheism, which can be a necessary repudiation of false gods, Bradatan’s humility in the face of the void is a helpful clearing. But like the fallow soil, the humus that seems to be all but barren in January, spring brings new growth if we wait patiently. We discover then that what we thought was death and decreation was compost, the gathering renewal of life. Humility offers us this gift. But it is not a gift clearly offered in Bradatan’s book.

    Bradatan’s lessons are meant to teach humility, and it is in this instruction that I think the book begins to falter. For Bradatan, failure is the necessary process that will lead to the “humility that failure engenders, and the healing process that it triggers.” Quoting Iris Murdoch’s definition that humility is a “selfless respect for reality,” Bradatan says that “when we achieve humility, we will know that we are on the way to recovery, for we will have started extricating ourselves from the entanglement of existence.” In his presentation of each lesson, it is this extrication from existence that is central; the four stories attempt to show our lives on the edge of a nothingness which is the true nature of reality. Bradatan finds the pessimistic philosopher E. M. Cioran with his famous book The Trouble with Being Born or the eccentric Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima’s samurai-inspired suicide to be instructive for our journeys into humility. These are people who chose to live into the void and to embrace failure as a path toward their self-extraction.

    But in his understanding of humility, Bradatan offers something different from the long Christian tradition on the virtue. Humility is an orientation to which Christianity has a strong claim. It was not favored among the Greeks and Romans, who saw lowliness as a state to avoid. Some question whether the ancient Roman world even possessed the concept of humility. From the Hebrew scriptures on, however, Jews and then Christians held a special place for the vulnerable and low – the anawim in Hebrew, the tapeinos in Greek. They saw it a good thing to be counted among their number. In Philippians 2:3 Paul takes the Greek word for lowliness and makes it into a practical orientation, calling the church to practice humility (tapeinophrosune – literally, a lowly mind), thereby coining a word found nowhere in Greek before him. He goes on to link this term to the life of Christ, saying that our humility should imitate the One who humbled himself to the point of death on a cross – a grand and shameful failure, if there ever was one.

    The humility that Bradatan writes of fails to deliver the “and yet” of the Christian story: that death leads to life, that Christ’s kenosis and humility open a glory in which we are invited to share.

    This Christian humility of emptying oneself is not meant to be a way of living in the face of an ultimate void. Instead, it is a path toward recovering the truth of our lives as creatures – suffering and limited, finite and fragile, and yet made by love and proclaimed good from the very beginning. Christian humility empties itself unto death, but not unto some existential void that hangs beyond our illusions of meaning. As the Cistercian Andre Louf puts it, in the Christian sense the humble person “has nearly touched the abyss of sin but at the same time has plunged into the abyss of God’s mercy. … He knows nothing any longer except how to give thanks and praise to God who is always at work in him in order to bring forth marvelous things.”

    “Humility is the garment of God,” wrote Issac the Syrian, but Bradatan’s humility is one without God, especially without a humble God. Bradatan’s is a humility in which the suicidal are “limit cases” of a desire for the stillness of nonexistence; a humility that looks at life, the created order itself, and makes no pretense of mattering in the midst of all of it. “Humility, thus, places us where we belong. We are reduced to our true condition: next-to-nothingness,” writes Bradatan. This is an insight that takes us right up to the edge of our truth, but fails to deliver the “and yet” of the Christian story: that death leads to life, that Christ’s kenosis and humility open a glory in which we are invited to share.

    Bradatan is right to point us toward our relative unimportance in a world focused on the positive performance of isolated individuals. But if we’re not careful, such an orientation will just become another means of enacting our singularity in a show of ultimate pride (I would argue this is what Mishima did in his suicide). “Meister Eckhart found God easily associable with ‘emptiness,’” writes Bradatan. And that, essentially, is where he stops. But that is not where Eckhart stopped. As the theologian Andrew Root recently put it in a reflection on Eckhart, “When the self acknowledges that it cannot know God, the path opens to receiving a true encounter with God, who is outside and beyond the self. … The negative way relativizes the self so that the self can be a creature able to receive the gift of the real presence of God.” Life as a creature able to receive the gift of the presence of God is what humility is all about. It is a going down to the adamah, the humus, so that we can be recreated as adam, human, once again.

    “More than a form of behavior … humility should be seen as a form of knowledge,” writes Bradatan. Such a knowledge has always been essential, but it is now so more than ever as our creaturely existence is threatened on every side. Flawed though it may be, In Praise of Failure is a helpful orientation into this way of knowing – one that is an invitation toward the ground of our being. That the book is in ways a failure may be the best praise I could offer, in the end.

    Contributed By RaganSutterfield Ragan Sutterfield

    Ragan Sutterfield writes regularly at “The Way We Practice” on Substack.

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