Against Enthusiasm

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In his Gospel, St. John reveals on several occasions just how fickle the adulation of the crowd could be for Jesus. A prominent example exists following the feeding of the five thousand, in which Jesus steals away to the other side of the lake, only to find that the crowd has enthusiastically followed him, enough to bother with the hassle of getting in their own boats and searching for him.

They are bemused at his version of the Irish goodbye. After all, didn’t he just do something amazing for them, and didn’t they all declare that he was “the Prophet who is to come into the world?” Why then would he leave such a rapt audience after teasing them with such wonders? Isn’t garnering a following of loyal fans what Jesus was here to do?

Understanding the fickleness of the throng and the duplicity of the question, Jesus lays bare the real reason for their fandom:

“Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” (John 6:32-33)

This response doesn’t garner another exclamation of faith. Instead, the crowd gets into a theological argument with him, which itself is merely another cover to get to what they really want from him: to do more miracles, to become the sort of leader they want him to be.

Jesus always knew how to dampen the enthusiasm of his followers, and proceeds to say things that causes almost everyone who was just a day before proclaiming him the Messiah to walk away shaking their heads at his craziness.

A similar event takes place following the resurrection of Lazarus. Such an event naturally attracted spectators and hopeful disciples alike. As he entered Jerusalem, their enthusiasm reached a fever pitch, so much so that they began to acclaim him as king. Their hopes for someone to overthrow the Romans and restore the kingdom of Israel was surely about to come to pass. Such a hope is easy to spread far and wide:

Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him. So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!” (John 12:17-19)

True to form, Jesus proceeds to (not literally) rain on their (literal) parade, by announcing that he is coming to Jerusalem not to claim a kingdom, but rather to die. This had a similar effect of culling the herd.

Enthusiasm is a fine thing in the moment, but its capricious nature leaves much to be desired. It can whip up the furor of passion in a moment, and lead to the most devastating disillusionment in the next.

Etymologically, enthusiasm comes from the Greek entheos, which has the sense of “possessed by the gods.” In its original idiomatic sense, it did not necessarily have the sense of holiness, but rather that of a divine frenzy.

This understanding of entheos is well-attested to in ancient Greek literature, and notably Homer’s Iliad. There are numerous examples of various heroes being possessed by the gods, which generally leads to a sort of battle-frenzy in which fell deeds are performed that an ordinary mortal could not carry out. However, this divine frenzy could be as capricious (for the individual possessed) as it was effective, as the case of Hector illustrates.

Patroclus, who was Achilles’ companion, had chosen to don Achilles’ divine armor and lead his troops against the Trojans. Hector led his forces out to meet Patroclus, and Hector ended up killing Patrolcus and, in an act of eventual sacrilege, took Achilles’ armor for his own, intending to use it against the Greeks. This raised both the ire and the respect of Zeus, who consents to grant Hector such a divine frenzy, even though it will mean his death:

From far away, cloud-gatherer Zeus gazed down on Hector,
as he dressed himself in the battle armour
of Peleus’ godlike son. Shaking his head, Zeus
then spoke to his own heart:

                                           “You poor wretch,
you’re not considering your own death at all—

it’s getting closer. So you’re putting on
the immortal armour of the finest man,
who makes other men afraid. You’ve just killed
his comrade, a kind, courageous man,
and then vainly stripped the armour off
his head and shoulders. But for the moment,
I’ll give you great power, to compensate you,
since you’ll not be coming back from battle,
or handing over to Andromache
the glorious armour of the son of Peleus.” (Iliad, 17)

With this Hector’s ill-fitted armor is recast to fit his body, even though one might also consider it the portending of a coffin being measured for his corpse, at it will spell his doom. Yet in the moment, Ares possesses him and he is in the throes of entheos:

The son of Cronos spoke, then nodded his dark brow.
He changed the armour so it suited Hector’s body.
Then the fearful war god Ares entered Hector,
filling his limbs with strength and courage. He set off,
to the tremendous shouts of all his famous allies,
as he paraded there in front of them, dazzling them all
with the armour of the great-hearted son of Peleus. (Iliad, 17)

For Homer and the Greeks, when the frenzy of the gods possesses you, it ultimately means you’re about to die.

Enthusiasm thrives on the pomp and the spectacle. It is especially infectious in the crowd and in the din of the noise. It can accompany great moments of wonder and elicit emotions that clamor to aim at something higher or greater. But as Zeus capriciously intervenes and interferes in the battle based upon his emotions of the moment, so enthusiasm can vacillate wildly and eventually evaporate.

The crowd that acclaimed Jesus as its king and was hopeful and expectant of better things would later not only abandon him, but call for his execution.

The stakes are perhaps not always this high, but banking on enthusiasm is a sure-fire way to disaster. Yet often I wonder if a large part of the modern church’s strategy isn’t based on enthusiasm.

If one takes a careful look at much of our marketing, we tend to accentuate the spectacle, the emotional, the “what’s-in-it-for-me-ness.” We cater to desires and emotions, marketing ourselves in ways that appeal to certain demographics or that highlight something that appeals to X or Y.

In our worship we can too often mistake enthusiasm for worship. It is effortless to elicit emotions in worship, and we have become masters at discovering and implementing the formulas that give us what we want, or what we think our target market wants. We can create moments that look great as a video promo or can seem deeply profound as a social media post. We strive to make people want to be a part of something, and in our programming and in our production can even seem to be the Ares to our audience’s Hector, giving them all the good feels, stirring up a sort of frenzy of passion that promises the world in the moment.

The danger, however, is that enthusiasm is ultimately sterile. It cannot cash the check it writes, and is as capricious as the emotions upon which it is based. It is great at attracting a crowd, but it is lousy at keeping disciples. Reflecting on Jesus’ reception in Jerusalem, Robert Cardinal Sarah in The Power of Silence observes that

The Gospel explains how important it is to mistrust sterile enthusiasm, intense passions and ideological or political slogans…

When the festivities were over and it was late, oddly enough, seeing no one to offer him hospitality or to give him something to eat, Jesus left the city and went back to spend the night in Bethany with his disciples.

The Son of God was welcomed triumphantly but found no one to open his door to him. Similarly, in our age, how often our welcome, our love, and our praises are superficial, without substance, merely a coat of religious varnish. (p. 49)

We can become so entranced with the enthusiasm of the moment, with the spectacles we create, with the emotions that grip us in the midst of them all, that we can completely forget to welcome Jesus to stay. The divine frenzy that takes hold is only momentary, and then we are left asking: what now? It’s easy to be passionate with the crowd. It’s easy to let the music or the words carry us away in the moment. It’s easy to follow when everything caters to our desires and things go our way. We begin to mistake passion for truth, emotion for faithfulness, spectacle for reality.

Insidiously, like the divine armor of Achilles appropriated by Hector, we can even begin to believe that certain techniques or strategies are the ways to make our worship or ministries “successful.” This is an especially seductive temptation now that it is easier than ever to see whatever cool thing X church is doing here or Y church is doing over there. The visual equivalent of entheos is very social media friendly, making it easy to mistake the efficacy of the armor for the quality of the semi-divine hero, so to speak. We can effortlessly get distracted with the superficial, chasing after that which doesn’t help us fulfill our purpose as the church, but which may help us think we’ve increased our cultural bona fides. The urgency of the now and the new can hollow out our worship if we let it. Sarah remarks:

Today we content ourselves with performing rituals that have no effect on our everyday lives because they are lived without recollection, without interiority, and without truth. The inhabitants of Jerusalem did not understand the profound significance of the visit from the Son of God; the people, indulging in their passions and their political ambitions, were demonstrative, superficial, and noisy.

The people did not welcome Christ in their souls; they indulged in a mere demonstration of colorful and excessive force. The most difficult thing is to love Jesus in spirit and in truth, so as to welcome him into one’s heart and into the depths of one’s being.

True welcome is silent. It is not diplomatic, theatrical or sentimental. (p. 49-50)

The true enthusiasm we should strive for- the state of being totally possessed by God- can thus not be found in the passionate or the emotional or the spectacular or in the aesthetic. It is discovered in the silence of one’s heart where the frenzy of enthuse cannot enter. There may be moments for great deeds, for glorious wonders, for passionate fervor, but unless one’s entheos can abide in stillness in the unfathomable depths of one’s own interiority, it is a mere outward display, the god-charmed armor of Achilles passing from one doomed soul to another, the clamor for bread that can end in a call for crucifixion.

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Jason Watson

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