I have slight tendencies towards grumpiness. Or at least seeming grumpy. This will come as no surprise to those who know me.
Indeed, when I lived in Scotland, my friend helpfully made the following image comparing me to a grumpy cat (for those who are confused, I am the one on the left):
I put it down to being born in the North of England before spending too many years in the rainy plains of Scotland. It’s not that I have a particularly cloudy outlook on life: by and large, I am a positive – even optimistic! – person. Yet, grumpiness tends persist.
In a flight of fancy this evening, I begun pondering about grumpiness and whether it could be classed as a theological virtue. There is a health warning on what follows: it is to be taken with a large pinch of salt and very little earnestness. Possibly. Maybe.
Church history tells us that many theologians weren’t the life-and-soul of the party. Whilst it was true that Luther was often to be found in the bars of Wittenberg, others – Calvin, for example – were known for a rather more austere approach to life. Of course, the fact that Calvin spent a large part of his life chronically ill probably did little to lighten his mood.
Yet grumpiness isn’t just a certain grimness in the face of otherwise irresistible cheeriness (here I think of Leonard Cohen’s quip: “I’ve also studied deeply in the philosophies and religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through”).
Neither, I think is it unhealthy cynicism or sourness. Both of those are clearly sins in the theological discipline where we are called to worship God and study with joy. But I don’t think grumpiness is necessarily antithetical to joy. Grumpiness is something much more British, much more positive and much more related to irony than either of those two.
I think grumpiness can also mean a certain impatience with novelty for novelty’s sake. On this account, it tries to resist narratives of ever-increasing improvement (whilst also resisting narratives of ever-worsening situations) and suggests that received tradition and wisdom are not to be idly dismissed. Grumpiness can be a healthy impatience with things that are superficial or self-serving, or a suspicion at new trends that seem to reinforce existing power structures.
If we entertain this definition of grumpiness, then, it could indeed be a theological virtue in the church.
A healthy scepticism – a ‘grumpy’ scepticism, if you will – towards new ideas is rooted in a knowledge of and debt to 2000 years of Christian history, and a pastoral concern for God’s people, lest an incoming trend distract from the main and the plain of love for God and neighbour. Grumpiness can also be a resisting force against ideas that shrink the living God of the Bible down to a riddle we can work out, an ethical theory or something we can grasp. It accords priority to God’s speech and action.
Grumpiness is wary of the latest ideas or coalitions, of gospel-centred beer brewing and relevant conferences with the latest big name speakers. Not because God is unable to use these – of course he can and does – but because such movements often have the unintended side effect of crippling the local church. Or these movements and their well-known leaders too often keep silent – and try to silence discussion – when it comes to publicised issues of plagiarism, abuse or domestic violence so as not to destroy the perpetual motion machine of the Evangelical Industrial Complex. Here, a grumpiness that has very little invested in the glamorous hierarchies of Christian celebrity and the glitzy world of gospel-centred-capitalism can again be a pastoral positive. Grumpiness resists the temptation to be in the Inner Ring and thus become a scoundrel (the ghost of this C.S. Lewis script of course haunts this paragraph strongly…)
If this flight-of-fancy is true, then, we could define grumpiness as an impatience at things that offer less than God or encourage people to settle for something smaller than God. Only the speaking, table-turning, unsettling and comforting God will do. And grumpiness insists time and time again that we do business with this God, not the multiple idols that we are so good at constructing.
Of course, this could all be rubbish and it could just be I am a grumpy git. That’s far more likely than anything else I’ve written above. Yet, even here, grumpiness means it’s difficult even to take one’s own thoughts too seriously. As Jeremiah soberly reminds us, “the heart is deceitful above all things and there is no cure” (Jer 17:9). Nothing sounds better than self-justification. So even the grumpiest of grumpy cats must eventually dissolve in laughter at the futility of ourselves.
Here, it’s always wise to remember words from St Karl of Barth (himself rather a chipper Swiss person):
“The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. They laugh at the fact that volume follows volume and each is thicker than the previous one. As they laugh, they say to one another, “Look! Here he comes now with his little pushcart full of volumes of the Dogmatics!” And they laugh about the men who write so much about Karl Barth instead of writing about the things he is trying to write about. Truly, the angels laugh.”
Quoted in Robert McAfee Brown’s “Introduction” to Portrait of Karl Barth, by George Casalis, trns. Robert McAfee Brown. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1964, p xiii.
Maybe there’s something useful to grumpiness.
Probably, I’m just dour.
Either way, not taking myself or my work too seriously is a good way forward – God is just too lively, too beautiful, too glorious to spend too much time staring at my naval.