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Irony, Awakening, and Dissolution

January 17th, 2008 | 1 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Esolen’s Ironies of Faith hangs upon the premise that the Christian understands irony differently than his secular neighbor.  Esolen writes:

Contemporary literary theorists have attempted to distill the essence of irony, that which underlies both the winking assertions of ignorance made by Socrates, and concatenations of events that seem (but only seem) to suggest design, or that demolish any sense of design. Irony, they assert, is a universal solvent: no theology or epistemology can contain it. It dissolves—it “deconstructs”—every assertion of absolute truth.

He continues:

But in fact, irony commonly is used to exalt rather than undermine. It can stun us with wonder and raise our eyes to behold a truth we had missed. All kinds of unsuspected truths, particularly those combined in paradoxes, await our attention, but we are too dulled by habit to notice. Then irony—verbal or dramatic—awakes us….

It is, then, not the unexpectedness of a thing that produces irony—a violin flung at a man’s head is unexpected, but not ironic—nor is it ignorance that produces irony—after all, if he saw the violin he would duck. Irony arises, rather, from the ignorance of unseen or unexpected order (or, as it may happen, disorder), from the failure to note subtleties, or from seeing subtleties that are not there, especially when the ignorance and the failure are highlighted before observers in a better position to see the truth. That is the sort of thing we feel as ironic. A violin flung at a man’s head is not ironic. A man missing a sharp as he tries to hum the Kreutzer sonata is not ironic. The same man botching Beethoven as the violin sails his way—now that is ironic.

Christian irony, then, does not undermine the ordered world or look behind it. Rather, it breaks us free from our habits of thought and allows us to notice the world in a new way. It is a heuristic device—but when removed from its proper context as a tool for understanding, it becomes a bludgeon that destroys objectivity.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.