Speaking as a sinner – that is, with some authority – I can tell you that one of the great barricades to repentance is an unwillingness to feel shame for our sins. Shame is such an ugly, unpleasant thing. It is that great sense of inner conviction that we’re awfully rotten people after all. And so we keep ourselves from shame, even if it means clutching onto a kind of secret pride for the very worst things we do. We really don’t want to let go of the Ring; we really delight in the very thing that brings us to death. And we say of our sins, “We know they’re wrong, but somehow they have been useful at least, if not good. Becoming fuel for repentance makes them good in a sense, doesn’t it? We can sin our way to salvation, can’t we?”
And so we see Oscar Wilde (about whom I spoke here and here) writing from the depths, from prison, experiencing much in the way of genuine repentance, but still unwilling to go all the way. He makes, as I said, suffering into a kind of grand aesthetic, and turns Christ into the Perfect Poet. The Jesus Oscar Wilde describes could very well end up in prison along with Wilde, as Wilde assigns to Him a trajectory that is devoted to fine feeling and fine feeling alone – to a kind of art for art’s sake or salvation for the sake of how pretty it looks – a trajectory that is, at its core, rather self-indulgent and doomed not to end well.
But this bad theology of Wilde’s – this creation by Wilde of a god made in his own image – runs side by side with moments of great grace and true confrontation with pain and guilt; indeed with moments of profound Christian insight. So the work as a whole (De Profundis) is a strange mix.
However, I would like to focus here on the core of Wilde’s error. I wrote earlier about certain deeply Christian teachings we would never hear from the pulpit these days. Oscar Wilde’s theological blunders are, by contrast, the sort things we hear from the pulpit all the time.
For starters, his Christ is all hippie and no Son of God. Wilde’s Christ is anything but wild. He isn’t even a reformer – neither a social reformer nor a reformer of souls. He’s just a galavanting poet with a keen sense of beauty who gets people mad at him because he lives outside the narrow social conventions of his day. He is a Christ of “luv” and not of “love”, of a VW van painted with psychedelic peace signs and not of that awful thing called the Cross – which Wilde bore for years in prison, but which, even at his lowest, he could not squarely face.
Not only that, The Oscar-Wilde-Jesus is really rather OK with sin. Wilde writes …
The conversion of a publican into a Pharisee would not have seemed to him a great achievement. But in a manner not yet understood of the world he regarded sin and suffering as being in themselves beautiful holy things and modes of perfection.
That is well said – said in a captivating and lilting way – but it is very wrong.
The conversion worked by Christ was never – and is never – the conversion of a publican into a Pharisee (which would be a step backwards), but a conversion of a publican into a St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist; a conversion of a Pharisee into a St. Paul, Martyr for Christ.
And what does Wilde mean when he says that Jesus “regarded sin and suffering as being in themselves beautiful holy things and modes of perfection”?
What he does NOT mean is that sin and suffering become good if they serve as material for repentance. What he means is they are good in themselves as being the ultimate and highly aesthetic expressions of the Lot of Mankind. Earlier, Wilde says that suffering is the one experience that is not composed of other experiences; it is a simple thing, not compound. It is a thing not hiding another – suffering has a kind of purity and simplicity; it is close to the essence of human life. That’s almost right, for suffering at least strips away our masks and our pretense. Wilde makes that clear when he talks about how the loss of his children finally brings him to an encounter with his own soul, stripped of all varnish and affectation.
But it’s wrong in that it fails to acknowledge the purpose of suffering, the teleology of it – which is to join us with Christ and make us holy. Suffering does a lot for Oscar Wilde, but it only goes so far. It stops at a kind of sensation and goes no further. It is not redemptive. It’s just another oh-so delicate experience – albeit rather horrible.
Likewise, sin for this aesthete is just another experience. It tells us more about the Human Lot, for it is such a common thing, and it brings about suffering, which is the purest of feelings. But it’s on par with every other experience. It is nothing to be rejected and repented of. It is not a mar on human nature, it’s just a part of human nature, no better or worse than anything else – in fact a bit better, for it brings us to the great delicacy of pain.
And, facing the Prodigal Son square on (but not quite the Son of Man), Oscar pontificates …
Christ, had he been asked, would have said — I feel quite certain about it — that the moment the prodigal son fell on his knees and wept, he made his having wasted his substance with harlots, his swine-herding and hungering for the husks they ate, beautiful and holy moments in his life. It is difficult for most people to grasp the idea. I dare say one has to go to prison to under stand it. If so, it may be worth while going to prison.
Well, listening to Wilde miss the mark is not quite the same as going to prison. It’s a lot more like going to a suburban Mass on a Sunday.
Oscar, there was one beautiful moment in the life of the Prodigal Son. It was not the squandering of his father’s money. It was not the squandering of his seed with hookers. It was not his wallowing in the mire with the pigs, hungering for their husks. These moments were not beautiful at the time and they did not become beautiful in retrospect, once the son knelt down and wept over them. Tears alone fog the eyes and make such things seem pretty to one who likes gauze and blur; it is only Blood that redeems.
No, these moments of sin were not beautiful and holy, and repentance did not make them so.
The one beautiful and holy moment in the Prodigal’s life was when he came to himself and said, “It is enough.” It was when he said, “I am returning to my father, a worthless sinner; and I will let him treat me as he may.” It was when he finally “manned up” and face his folly.
It was when he finally felt the most human emotion, the one emotion Oscar Wilde refused to sample. All his life long Wilde sipped of the fine and fruity wine, telling himself that all flavors were one, and that eating every fruit, including the forbidden fruit, would bring not death and despair but sophistication and finesse.
The one emotion, though, that this connoisseur refused to sample – the one chalice that he refused to drink to its dregs – was the cup of shame.