The Incompleteness of Christianity

“Who’s been hit?”

These words ring out over the black screen at the close of the first season of the West Wing. My sister and I had been watching the show, binging through the first season, and then this happened… this cliffhanger… and we didn’t own season 2… I repeat, season 2 was not in the house; dread filled my heart. Then I remembered we have a JB Hi-Fi 15 minutes away. A quick 30 minute round trip and we knew who had been hit.

I have lost sleep, bailed on social occasions, left work early; all because of the disturbing feeling an incomplete television show induces. Until I know that the hero prevails, the girl gets the boy, or who shot Mr Burns, I cannot rest easy. 

Now this serialised example might be a little trivial (wait, no, who am I kidding, TV is everything), nevertheless this disquiet in the face on incompleteness pervades our entire existence (both individual and societal). From finding a remaining measuring cup after you thought you’d finished the dishes, to the mounting pressure of unfinished work/assessments. From the incessant checking for retweets as we begin to question whether that joke we tweeted really was ‘publishable’ funny, to nervously awaiting the return of medical tests. From the stomach turning feeling of waiting for that person to return the nice pen you lent them, to the fear of the unknowable future. We like things to be complete, tied off, final, done and dusted – bad news is generally better than waiting – losing is better than the feed cutting out in the final minutes. Perhaps this aversion to Incomplete manifests in two broader ways still 1) this might be a reason people have problems accepting evolution, or that the universe is continually expanding – we want the process to have completed, no more surprises. 2) Maybe this is why we have trouble accepting new knowledge/evidence/theories that are counter to that which we already hold – we like to be given the answers as if they are all wrapped up and ready to go, we don’t want to live in the ambiguity of the ‘show your work stage’ or live on the unstable ground of ‘well this is the best theory we have so far, but that could be disproven by a kid in her garage tomorrow’.

Despite this, Christianity revels in incompleteness. In disturbing, disrupting, and breaking cycles of completion. In refusing to let cycles continue on ad infinitum. The characteristically Christian virtues not only promote, they require, things remaining incomplete.

Forgiveness requires the breaking of the cycle of retaliation – allowing grievance to go incomplete in the refusal to get even. Forgiveness is the commitment to letting the old cycle lie incomplete while we seek new processes of reconciliation.

Hospitality breaks the cycle (or economy) of exchange – where, normally (reasonably) the cycle is completed by hospitality or generosity being returned (or paid back): we had them over for dinner, so they’ll have us back next time, or, I make a big donation so that I’ll get my due recognition – true (pure) hospitality, the way Jesus practiced and advocated, involves the inviting to dinner, the extending of hospitality to those who could never return it, it involves giving in secret, so secret that our right hand is in the dark to the comings and goings of the left. Hospitality is only hospitality if it is incomplete. Following this, the hospitality we extend to God, the openness to the visitation of Divine provocation, to the call of Christ to bring the Kingdom – is not something we do to get a sense of comfortable completion, placing our future ducks in a row. No, like Mary extending the hospitality of her body to the Christ child, the hospitality we show God, opens us to uncertainty, to risk, to that which is beyond ourselves and out of our hands – the call of God, the lure of the tremendous mystery is a provocation beyond the self, beyond control, contentment, complete to the incompleteness of love of the world.

Love cannot be in control. One of my favourite things Peter Rollins has said is on love and marriage (unsurprisingly it doesn’t follow with a discussion on how it goes together like a horse and carriage). He talks about how love is really love if on the day before you were to be married, someone showed up from the future with a DVD (I guess they still use them in the future) of your forthcoming marriage. A DVD filled with the fights, the silences, the times you both wanted out, perhaps even the out itself. If you take this DVD, break it in half, and, defying the odds, go ahead with the marriage, that’s love. Love doesn’t know the future, and isn’t based on that. Love is an overabundant foolishness – love isn’t a conditional gift based on what I’ll get out of the arrangement, it is filled with incompleteness (it might all blow up in our face, it might not be reciprocated), but it goes on nonetheless. If an accounting firm tells you it’s a smart choice to get married, it’s probably not a decision based on love. This goes even further when we consider the way love is spoken about and practiced by Jesus, where it is about loving the unlovable, loving neighbour (who, from the story turns out to be a stranger, from an outside community), and loving enemy (which makes that neighbour thing sound mundanely reasonable). There is little chance that our enemy will love us back, every chance that it will be incomplete love, but that’s what we have to do. There’s no indication in the story whether the wounded man sent a thank you note to the Samaritan, life goes on, but the love is out there.

I could go on and on exploring the various virtues and vocations of the Christian life and how they fit this reading of incompleteness, but that probably betrays the idea a little. I want to finish briefly by arguing that the very ‘now, net yet’ nature of the faith points to this thesis of incompleteness. Advent is my favourite season. A season devoted to waiting, to anticipation – to the realisation that we are going to have to wait some more so we may as well get down to business – to wrestling with the fact that the Messiah came yet this life is still a bewildering, beautiful mess. Christ has come, Christ will come again… we hope, but this is a pretty bonkers model – unless there is something to right now, to the incomplete time in which we live, to the incompleteness of life itself. Heather and I recently watched the magnificent mini-series Olive Kitteridge and ever since then I’ve been haunted by it’s final line:

It baffles me this world… I don’t want to leave it yet.

I don’t want life to be complete. Not in a temporal or an existential sense. I want more life and I want it to be filled to the brim with the incomplete. Otherwise all the things I’ve already mentioned are just dance steps worked out in advance, or exchanges to keep the hinges of the machine lubricated. For this reason I must keep fighting with the tendency deep within me (and the world) to seek out completion, to try and remove the disruptive nature of the faith, to place conditions of exchange upon the unconditionality of the call. 

There’s more I could say, but this is enough for now.