2. Linguistics Of or relating to the penult of a word: penultimate stress.
n.The next to the last. [From Latin paenultimus]
I thought I was pretty clever when I thought to call this blog "Penultimatum." Get it? Pens are for writing. Add to that the seriousness of an ultimatum and you communicate the idea that you have a serious blog. And in a sense--especially when we contrast this with our freewheeling podcast--this is true. We will address serious cultural issues here in a relatively dignified way. Politics, ethics, human rights, civil courage: these are all serious issues. Nonetheless, the concept of the penultimate helps set a more humane tone for how this blog will proceed. It's serious, but not too serious. Ideas matter. They aren't intellectual idols to worship.
This blog is about civil courage and the proposition that each of our earthly callings are important in their own right. It calls us to take our callings seriously because the world will be a better, more ethical place when we follow our purpose. But it isn't so serious as to treat issues in what Martin Luther called "the kingdom of the left" as ultimate in their own right. They are not the most important things, they are the-second-to-most-important.
I like the podcaster Adam Carolla's take on this (he talks about this regularly so excuse the lack of a precise footnote). As an atheist, he was asked if he wished there were more atheists. He said no. Newly-minted atheists, he thinks, are amongst the most obnoxious folks in the world. They form new religions without a history of learning how to get along in the world. Mormons are nice. Peta isn't. Mormons have "decanted." Peta is still flexing its new activist muscles. I don't care what you think of those groups at this point, I trust you reasonable readers will get the spirit of the point. I'm not a mormon. And I think humans are dangerously too comfortable with animal cruelty. But I think their contrasting cultural demeanors are noteworthy.
In any case, most of us tend to take penultimate things too seriously, and in doing this, we become idolaters. Whatever your religious perspective, or lack thereof, I doubt you seriously believe that earthly ideologies are all that matters. But many of us still act that way. And I guarantee that if you do take them too seriously, most of your co-workers groan when you show up to a cocktail party. (Unless you are a lobbyist and that's your job; then they just avoid you altogether). We must remember that the state is not God. Our favorite ideologies are not part of the pantheon. Our favorite legislative initiative isn't holy writ. So let's first get over ourselves, lighten up a bit, and then ask how best to serve our neighbors in this world, not how to win a political game.
When it comes to ethical thinking about contemporary cultural issues, people often choose to form gangs. It's easier than critical thinking. In doing this, they demonstrate they are more concerned about protecting their ideological gangsterism at the expense of deep understanding, other human beings, or empirical evidence. Let's agree to knock that off. Let's agree to be human beings and to care about our neighbors. Only then we can get to the business of debating how best to care about our neighbors. Let's start by agreeing that our neighbors are our concern. Most people claim to. Once we get that done, we can fight all we want about the best tactical approach to making a better world. In this, we can get rowdy. We can even get indignant about asinine cultural and political issues at times. But we must always remember that these are merely conversations about how to be most effective in making a better world. Ideologies aren't people, so let them die when they unjustly harm people, or when they get in the way of human flourishing. This is scary for some, because it requires study, thought, conversation, and courage. But if you don't have all that down, should you really trust yourself when making pronouncements about cultural debates?
Now, I'm a lay theologian (that's someone who's not an ordained pastor but who has studied theology at the graduate level). So was the founding director of Faithful Masks, Dr. Uwe-Siemon Netto. The world may not need too many of us. But there's at least one kind of moment when lay theologians can be helpful: when we need to address big picture conundrums related to the intersection of faith and culture. So, permit me to share an extended quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the hero my father suggested I do a sixth-grade report on, who stood up to Darth Hitler, the martyr who died for his civil courage. Bonhoeffer turned me on to this concept of the penultimate. In addition to it's political and cultural implications, think about the application of Bonhoeffer's concept of the penultimate when we try to provide answers to people who are suffering trauma in this present life:
"One must ask the question at this point, without answering it, whether people can live by the ultimate alone, whether faith can, so to speak, be extended in time, or whether faith does not rather always become real in life as the ultimate phase of a span of time or of many spans of time. We are not speaking here of the recollection of past faith, or of the repetition of articles of faith, but of the living faith which justifies a life. We are asking whether this faith is and ought to be realizable every day, at every hour, or whether here too, the length of the penultimate must every time be traversed anew for the sake of the ultimate. We are asking, therefore, about the penultimate in the lives of Christians. We are asking whether to deny it is pious self-deception, or whether to take it seriously in its own way is to incur guilt. This means that we are asking also whether the Word, the gospel, can be extended in time, whether it can be spoken at any time in the same way, or whether here, too, there is a difference between the ultimate and the penultimate. So that this may become quite clear, let us ask why it is that precisely in thoroughly grave situations, for instance when I am with someone who has suffered bereavement, I often decide to adopt a “penultimate” attitude, particularly when I am dealing with Christians, remaining silent as a sign that I shared in the bereaved person’s helplessness in the face of such a grievous event, and not speaking the biblical words of comfort which are, in fact, known to me and available to me. Why am I unable to open my mouth, when I ought to give expression to the ultimate? And why, instead, do I decide on an expression of thoroughly human solidarity? Is it from mistrust of the power of the ultimate word? Is it from fear of people? Or is there some good positive reasons for such an attitude, namely, that my knowledge of the word, my having it at my fingertips, in other words my being, so to speak, spiritually master of the situation, bears only the appearance of the ultimate, but is in reality itself something entirely penultimate? Does not one in some cases, by remaining deliberately in the penultimate, perhaps point all the more genuinely to the ultimate, which God will speak in God’s own time (though indeed even then through a human mouth)? Does not this mean that, over and over again, the penultimate will be what commends itself precisely for the sake of the ultimate, and that it will have to be done not with a heavy conscience but with a clear one? Of course, this question is not concerned only with a particular case. Fundamentally it embraces the whole domain of Christian social life, and especially the whole range of Christian pastoral activity. What we have said about this particular case applies in countless instances to the daily life of Christians together, and to the whole activity of Christian preachers with their flock." [Ethics, pp. 125-26]
"Preparing the way for the word: this is the purpose of everything that has been said about the things before the last. “Prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:4ff). Christ indeed makes his own way when he comes; he is the “breaker” of all bonds (Mic. 2:13). “He shatters the doors of bronze, and cuts in two the bars of iron” (Ps. 107:16); “he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). His entry is a triumph over his enemies. But lest the might of his coming should overwhelm mankind in anger, and in order that it may find them humble and expectant, the entry is preceded by the summons to the preparation of the way. Yet this making ready of the way is not merely an inward process; it is a formative activity on the very greatest visible scale. ... For those who are cast into utter shame, desolation, poverty, and helplessness, it is difficult to have faith in the justice and goodness of God. Fro those whose lives have become a prey to disorder and indiscipline, it will be difficult to hear the commandments of God in faith. It is hard for the sated and the mighty to grasp the meaning of God’s judgment and God’s mercy. And for one who has become inwardly undisciplined, it is hard to attain to the simplicity of the surrender of the heart to jesus Christ. That is not said in order either to excuse or to discourage those to whom these things have befallen. They must know, on the contrary, that it is precisely to the depths of downfall, of guilt, and of misery, that God stoops down in Jesus Christ; that precisely the dispossessed, the humiliated, and the exploited are especially near to the justice and mercy of God; that it is to the undisciplined that Jesus Christ offers his help and his strength; and that the truth is ready to set upon firm ground those who stray and despair. ... But all this does not exclude the task of preparing the way. This task is, on the contrary, a charge of immense responsibility for all those who know of the coming Christ. The hungry need bread and the homeless need a roof; the dispossessed need justice and the lonely need fellowship the undisciplined need order and the slaves need freedom. To allow the hungry to remain hungry would be blasphemy against God and one’s neighbor, for what is nearest to God is precisely the need of one;s neighbor. It is for the love of Christ, which belongs as much to the hungry as to myself, that I share my bread with them and that I share my dwelling with the homeless. If the hungry do not attain to faith, then the guilt falls on those who refused them bread. To provide the hungry with bread is to prepare the way for the coming of grace." [Ethics, pp. 135-37]
"Christian life is the dawning of the ultimate in me; it is the life of Jesus Christ in me. But it is always also life in the penultimate which waits for the ultimate. The earnestness of Christian life lies solely in the ultimate, but the penultimate, too has its earnestness, which consists indeed precisely in never confusing the penultimate with the ultimate and in regarding the penultimate as an empty jest in comparison with the ultimate, so that the ultimate and the penultimate may alike retain their seriousness and validity. This demonstrates once again the impossibility of any radical Christianity and of any compromising Christianity in the face of the reality of Jesus Christ and of his coming into the world." [Ethics, pp. 141-42].
Remember I said I thought I was pretty clever? As I conclude, I doubt I am. After all, I just dumped on you a bushel of theological quotation, which is a bad idea if you want to draw a broad and lively readership. There's another reason I'm not that clever. I'm a Johnny come lately: someone already put up a definition of "penultimatum" on urban dictionary, and some music for a video game has that title. As for penultimate as a name, there's an iPad app, which may have ruined the web optimization of a company that used to sell an actual ink pen called the Pen-Ultimate. Nevertheless, as far as I know, this is the first blog with the name Penultimatum. And because this term is so important for me and to the work of the Faithful Masks, in our common search for understanding how to live in the world, I'm sticking with it. Penultimately.