A number of months ago I wrote pair of posts called Why Doesn’t God Make Things Clearer? and God and the IRS. They touched on what has become a intellectual cornerstone of my own personal transition out of evangelical Christianity, namely, “divine hiddenness” – the idea that God, if there is one, does not seemed to have made things very clear for us.
But as we say in Texas, there is more than one way to rope a steer. (Actually, I think I just made that up. But it’s pretty catchy, yeah?) Here, I’d like to make this same point a little differently, and, hopefully, more entertainingly.
So let’s start with the basics: people disagree about God. They disagree about God’s existence, and, even among those can agree on this much, they disagree about God’s alleged nature.
But how is this even possible? How can there be so many different religions, creeds, theologies, churches, sects, and denominations? Especially if God, as is alleged, wrote a book to lay it all out for us! And if he did write us a book, then why are their so many, many views about what it really means and what it tells us about this God? This state of affairs does not seem to obtain with the IRS, where the instructions for its basic form, 1040, are intricate, perhaps, but overall pretty clear. To the point: if there is one Almighty God, and this God has one single, simple message of salvation for us all, then why doesn’t he just write the damn thing down – clearly?..
So the other day I was watching my son eat lunch.
Of course, “eat lunch” sounds much more, well, contained than anything usually accomplished by most 22-month olds. He grabbed big spoonfuls and/or handfuls of his mac & cheese and shoved them, fist and all, into his mouth, depositing most of it, losing a bit, and in the process coating his face, hands, hair, shirt and table in gobs of that inimitable nuclear orange cheese sauce. This was something that did not bother him at all. I found myself wishing I could focus on anything in the world as well as he focused on his mac & cheese. This kiddo really likes to eat.
And he had not a shred of self-consciousness. He did not care how he looked or how messy he was. He simply enjoyed his meal, and with a singularity of innocence and pleasure that makes sappy, sentimental parents like me want to weep. He had no awareness in the world that I was watching him, or indeed of anything else at all. He was entirely immersed in the immediacy of his experience, with no thought to what anyone else thought. I found it both striking and beautiful.
And it got me thinking about this matter of “self-consciousness”. The capacity to lose self-consciousness – to be present and fully immersed in the messiness of one’s bodily existence, and to live (if only briefly) without pride, shame, or false modesty – is a rare quality…
Epilogue – I have now completed my series on existentialist ideas as they pertain to fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity. It was an exceptionally brief tour of a complex and rich philosophical tradition, but I hope I have helped impart a somewhat clearer picture of what the existentialists were trying to say: life is sad, sometimes, and frightening, and often difficult, and there is no philosopher’s or theologian’s balm that will anesthetize the pains of life. We are thrown into a world not of our making, not designed to meet our needs, and we find ourselves alone, with no one in charge, and utterly responsible for what we do. We find we grow, and grow old, and that life is thereby a series of losses – friends, parents, youth, pets, potential, eventually life itself. These things are all a part of being human.
But in that very anxiety before loss and our own deaths, in the duty to self-create, in our loneliness and vulnerability, lies our salvation – for in forsaking the illusions we wish we could believe about life, we find we are truly able to see life, for the first time. And what we see is breathtaking: the stunning preciousness of life, and the indescribable beauty of the world and of those around us. All we have to do is face our fears, make our peace with the uncertainty and “groundlessness” of our lives, give up on the fantasy that someone, somewhere will recognize our own specialness enough to swoop in and save us from life’s pain. Then, and only then, can we really begin to live…
Meaning - Finally, the issue of meaning resonates powerful among many de-converts, and existentialists addressed it in great depth. Yalom here usefully distinguishes between cosmic meaning and terrestrial meaning (individual, “local” meaning – the meaning of my life, not of all life). His focus is on the latter, as cosmic meaning tends to be the purview of religious systems. Indeed, existentialism rests on the assumption that there is no cosmic meaning to life; there is only terrestrial meaning.
The tension we face is that, perhaps alone among the animals, we seem to hunger for meaning, we want to be told our lives serve a larger purpose – but they don’t. Yalom notes Camus’ observation: human beings are meaning-seeking animals in a universe that is meaning-neutral. There is no grand design to the world and hence, no meaning “out there” to be discovered. Yet we seem constituted, as creatures, to seek meaning anyway. Camus calls this state of affairs “absurd”, and it’s not hard to see why.
One can deal with this dilemma by seeking ready-made meanings in a system, such as fundamentalism, and there are few things about such totalizing ideologies more seductive than this aspect of them. How sweet the thrill in playing a part of the Greatest Story Ever Told! The Master of the Universe wants you!…
So far we have reviewed the existentialist themes of death and isolation, why they are considered to be ubiquitous human issues, and why they are important. Then we looked at the fundamentalist Christian “answer” to these issues, and how I suggest that answer goes awry. Here, we continue with another existentialist theme: our freedom.
Freedom/responsibility - Just as we are, each of us, our own parent, so too are we the author of our lives. No better term exists for the description of the rock-bottom responsibility – an unavoidable responsibility – each of us has to create our lives. I am the author of my life. I write my life in the first-person; I do not “find” it in the third-person. I am responsible for my decisions. I constitute my world, no matter what my circumstances, no matter what I am given; if nothing else I am still responsible for my attitude toward my life.
It may sound odd but how, really, could it be otherwise? For any proffered external basis for valuation and decision-making – such as “you should do x because x is reasonable” or the pragmatic “you should do x because it helps you achieve your goals” – it always can be asked: “and why should I care about that?” Even the justification “You should do x because God says so” (and even assuming I agree that God does in fact say so) requires something further – after all, why should I care what God says?…
Author’s Note: This is the third of a five-part series examining fundamentalism from an existentialist perspective. In what follows we begin to review the existentialist motifs that Irvin Yalom discusses in his Existential Psychotherapy. This post examines death and isolation.
Death - Yalom writes:
“It is one of life’s most self-evident truths that everything fades, that we fear the fading, and that we must live, nonetheless, in the face of the fading, in the face of fear.” (p. 30).
Existentialists often speak of this in terms of “finitude.” Finitude means an awareness that we are vulnerable creatures, with limited abilities and power to shape the world, and that we are subject to the passing of time and the loss that it brings – including, ultimately, death. Thus, it follows that grief is an intrinsic part of life – and the sweeter the living, the deeper the grief at its inevitable passing. The term “finitude” also includes death anxiety proper: a bedrock awareness that I, myself, and all those I care about, and all the things that matter to me, will not last forever. My life, all my cares, all my projects will eventually cease.
Yalom suggest we are all intrinsically aware of our finitude, though it is frightening and we often push it aside…
Author’s Note: This is the second in a five-part series examining fundamentalism from a existentialist perspective.
We will begin by looking at some of the themes that emerge in existentialist thought, and see how they can help make some sense of many of the features of fundamentalist Christianity. My thesis is this: fundamentalism is a response to these basic human (which is to say, existential) “givens” in life. It is a way to assuage some of the most difficult and vexing anxiety that comes part-and-parcel with being human. But in doing so, it separates the believer from full participation in life. It is, in the end, life-denying, not life-enhancing.
My guiding text will be Dr. Irvin Yalom’s wonderful 1980 Existential Psychotherapy. Yalom is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and writer working at Stanford who has written extensively on the intersection of existentialist thought and psychotherapy – a topic that could comprise a book in itself. Yalom’s book has become a classic in the field. His clarity and lucidity in representing existentialist concepts and placing them in a psychological context (for, really, where else could they be placed?) has no equal. It is relatively non-technical and I highly recommend it to the interested reader.
Yalom divides his work along four “themes” that were predominant within existentialist writing: death, isolation, responsibility, and meaning…