Robert E. Lauder
Contemporary thinkers tackle life's big question
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What one believes about God bears directly on what one believes about the future of the human person—like whether, for example, this world is the last stop and death the final ending. Divinity and the future of humanity go together. That relationship, and its importance, have been evident since the time of Aristotle.

What the great Greek philosopher thought about God is related to his thoughts about human persons and life beyond the grave. While Aristotle thought he could prove the existence of God (and his argument was good enough for St. Thomas Aquinas to adopt and adapt), he affirmed a God who did not love human persons and who did not even know they existed. For Aristotle thought it would lessen the divine majesty if God were involved with humanity in any way, even through knowledge. It is no wonder that St. Paul found the Greeks unreceptive to his preaching of the Incarnation. To them and to other Gentiles, the idea of God condescending to become human seemed like foolishness, even madness. It is understandable that Aristotle, who believed God had no involvement with humanity, would deny personal survival after death.

The linking of God’s existence to the possibility of life beyond the grave runs like a thread through Western thought. In the medieval period one sees it in the work of Anselm, Bonaventure and Aquinas.

But in the 19th and 20th centuries, we find a militant atheism, much of which Henri de Lubac, S.J., rightly described as an “anti-theism,” a rejection of God for the sake of human persons’ dignity and development. The God rejected by several influential thinkers—Feuerbach, Marx, Nietz-sche, Freud, Camus, Sartre and Bloch—was a God whose existence was thought to greatly hinder human growth. This explains, in part, the militancy of such atheists: they were killing the divine for the sake of human dignity.

To some extent that “murder” was moral, because the God they rejected should have been rejected. It was not the God preached by Jesus, the loving Father calling persons to a new freedom. Believing they were releasing human beings from an impossible burden, and denying any personal immortality, none of these atheists, with the exception of Sartre and Camus, mourned the finality of death. They were, they believed, paving the way for a heaven on earth.

Those two 20th-century existentialists, however, realized that the finality of death made human existence absurd. Still, they believed that by facing the absurdity, new meanings might be created. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus wrote of Sisyphus, eternally engaged in the pointless task of pushing a rock up a hill only to watch it roll down again: “He is stronger than his rock…. The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

We can admire Camus for his courage, because he takes death seriously, even if we find his response to death inadequate and neglectful of the implications of a deep experience of interpersonal love. Reflecting on his own mortality and the mortality of everyone he loved, he opted for absurdity. But can that be the final word?

The philosopher Charles Taylor has a more inclusive view of human life and death. He sees that both are illuminated by the experience of interpersonal love. Taylor has written: “For death is one of the things that make it very difficult to sustain a higher meaning of ordinary life, in particular love relationships. It’s not just that these relationships matter to us a lot, and hence there is a grievous hole in our lives when our partner dies. It’s also that, because these relationships are significant, they seem to demand eternity…. That’s why the greatest crisis around comes from the death of a loved one…all joy strives for eternity, because it loses some of its sense if it doesn’t last.”

Walker Percy, the novelist, made a similar point in response to an interview question about why he did not accept scientific humanism as an interpretation of human existence. “It’s not good enough,” Percy said.

Today, however, many not only deny the existence of God and personal life beyond the grave but also think that the lack of both enhances and enriches life on earth.

Recently, while reading Kerry Kennedy’s Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans Talk About Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning, I noticed that the comments of interviewees who are critical of the church and who no longer attend the Eucharist make no mention of Jesus’ resurrection or his promise of our resurrection. They seem to have missed the central truth of Catholicism. Reflecting on the mystery of risen life and our sharing in it even before our death, Iwas reminded of the scene in Thornton Wilder’s classic, “Our Town,” in which Emily is so overwhelmed by the beauty of human life that she asks the Stage Manager, who is a kind of quasi-divine narrator, whether anyone realizes how wonderful human life is while they live it, “every, every minute.” He replies, “The saints and the poets, maybe—they do a little.”

Is there any mystery that reveals God’s love for us and our significance as does the mystery of risen life? As people of faith in a secular culture, we know that the saints and the poets shed light on it. St. Paul expressed the mystery beautifully in his Letter to the Philippians: “For to me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” And Gerard Manley Hopkins stirringly described the resurrection in “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection.” After several verses about the changes and deaths in nature, the Jesuit poet writes:

Enough! the Resurrection,

A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping,

joyless days, dejection.

Across my foundering deck shone

A beacon, an eternal beam. Flesh fade,

and mortal trash

Fall to the residuary worm; world’s wild

fire, leave but ash:

In a flash, at a trumpet crash,

I am all at once what Christ is, since he

was what I am, and

This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch,

matchwood, immortal diamond,

Is immortal diamond.

REV. Robert E. Lauder, professor of philosophy at St. John’s University in New York, is the author of Magnetized by God: Religious Encounters Through Film, Theater, Literature and Painting (2004).

Comments

JANICE JOHNSON | 12/3/2009 - 3:53pm

Father, I'd like to apologize for the flub up on my responses to your blog.  While composing my response I was also listening to my daughter tell me something of great importance to her.  I accidentally hit the wrong key, saw a blank page and thought I'd lost everything.  So, I started over.  Evidently I am not a multi or even, bi-tasker and am still a computer klutz.  At least I have persistence!


In today's local paper. their official reviewer rated the play a "Critic's Choice" and  said:  "....smartly crafted and shot through with wit, heart and romance...............in most ways the work is a genuine and refreshingly understated pleasure."    I must have seen another play.  The one I saw had innocent people killed in cold blood. and it made me sick.


Father, what can one do to counter this kind of thinking?  I wrote to the playhouse director about another work, "Cry Baby" which had a long scene ridiculing a priest.  I got no response, not even from one of his underlings.  My season subscription is due for renewal.  I plan not to renew it and will add a note as to why.  What else can one do??


Janice Johnson

JANICE JOHNSON | 12/2/2009 - 11:04pm

Thank you, Father, for an inspiring and interesting article.  I have read and re-read it while trying to evaluate a play I saw recently which disturbed me.  The play is a musical called "Bonnie and Clyde" and is being produced at the La Jolla Playhouse.  It is slated to go to Broadway as many of the LJ plays do end up there.  The performance I saw got a standing ovation from most of the audience and the comments on the play in our daily paper were mainly positive.  The musical is advertised as-Romeo and Juliet with guns!  Can you imagine that??  One commentator compared Bonnie and Clyde to Robin Hood, taking from the rich and giving to the poor (themselves).  Actually, both Bonnie and Clyde came from hard-working families.  Having grown up in the depression and seeing my father and relatives work to support their families, I think this comparison is pure bunk! 


My friends and I agreed that the play glorified  these two bank robbers/murderers.  The play dramatised a great  romance with strong sexual attraction between them.  The actor and actress are very attractive  themselves.  There was an underlay of sympathy for them in the plot.


But, there was something more in the play , possibly having to do with the philosophy of the playwrights and producer, that upsets me.  This is it: -at one point  during the mayhem of robbing and murder, Bonnie gives the most passionate line that she gives anywhere in the play.  She bellows out: "God is dead!!!"  I can tell you it was a bellow as I sat in the second row only a few feet away from her and got the brunt  of it, including her spit.    There he was in the shadows, Mr. Nietzsche.  I put the play in the context of nihilistic philosophy.  When there is no God and no risen life, , life itself is cheap, whether one's own or that of others. If one is an anti-theist, how else does one portray  peo;ple like Bonnie and Clyde,, if not by romanticizing and glorifying  their sexual relationship or if Camus had written the play, showing the absurdity of their lives and the lives of their victims.  This is my take on  "Bonnie and Clyde".  I hope that you and Father Martin see and review the muscial when it comes to Broadway.  I would be very intersted in what you two would say about it.


Thank goodness for the saints and poets.  The section of the poem by Gerarad Manley Hoplins is just beautiful.    How blessed we are in our faith in Christ.  "I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am"  Just imagine.


Janice Johnson

JANICE JOHNSON | 12/2/2009 - 10:16pm

Thank you, Father, for your inspiring and thoughtful article. I have read and re-read it while trying to evaluate a play I recently saw, which disturbed me.  The play is a musical called "Bonnie and Clyde" and is currently being produced at the La Jolla Playhouse.  Like many of the LJ's plays it is slated to go to broadway.  The play got a standing ovation and except for one negative comment in our daily paper, it was praised.  I must say that the production values were excellent.  It was the content and underlying philosophy of the play which disturbed me and I am trying to figure out why.  The play is advertised as -Romeo and Juliet with guns!.  One commenter compared it to Robin Hood (stealing from the rich to give to the poor, i.e. themselves.  Actually both Bonnie and Clyde came from families that had jobs and at least a minimum standard of living.  Having grown up in the depression and seen my father and relatives work hard to provide for their families, I call this comparison, bunk!   

Thomas DeAngelis | 12/2/2009 - 12:54pm

 Thank you for the inspiration! 


There is something profoundly convincing about the experience of faith – when accepted and lived. This conviction can not be known or experienced without a humble acceptance of life, which is faith itself – in short, faith has to be tried in earnest to be proven. Short of that it is senseless and suspect as personal human experience. 
 
That human experience of faith opens up the spiritual logic, logos, of the perfect sacrificial love on the cross and the Resurrection – they complete the logic of faith. It gives breathing room to them as true human experiences, intimately linked. And sends one to the Scriptures as “science book” of these experiences – the place where I can learn more from “the experts” who have experienced it in full. And to the saints, who have successfully done that applied “research and development” before us. 
 
It often seems to me that Camus, with all his deep reflection on human life, had an unexamined predisposition toward human maturity, or adulthood, or the existentialist concept of liberty. 
 
This predisposition made it impossible for him to experience the humble acceptance of life as “given” – that is, the experience of faith, and of God as Love, and the “Giver” of human experience – including our absurd experiences. And I often wonder why, with all his brilliant analytical capacity, he never uncovered that deeply held predisposition. 
 
Without the experience of faith in earnest – the deep, human, and personal experience of the dawning of God in our lives – and given only the “remaining facts” of human experiences without faith, Camus is correct. The absurdity of human existence is the only reasonable conclusion. 
 
And his willed embrace of it – “The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” – really is the best we can do under the limited set of experiences he proposes. 
 
But with Percy, I would say, “It’s not good enough.” He left out the best part – and wonders why he gets poor, absurd results in the end. 
 
I often tire of the constant denial in our popular culture, implied and direct, of the deep, personal, fully human experience of faith, and of God as Love, in our lives. I tire of the assumption that it is somehow intellectually or culturally inferior to the existential, atheistic – or anti-theistic – experience and logic of life which has infected, and is beginning to dominate, our culture. A culture of death that is “the best we can do and must be imagined as happy!” 
 
The truth is, there is something in our very human existence that anti-faith, anti-theist, existentialist folks have not experienced, something they don’t get – they are literally missing the punch line of life. 
 
In the experience of faith, Camus could have found “true absurdity” in Christ’s perfect sacrificial love on the cross – and the Resurrection to complete the absurdity of Love! 
 
But it would appear he never really tried that absurdity in earnest. And missing that is the real tragedy of human life – and can never be imagined as happy.
 
I guess that's why the Lord left us all with the mission to share the Good News! 
 
Thanks again for the inspiration! 
 
Bill Parks | 11/30/2009 - 1:58am

The secular world you speak of appears to be getting more secularized! For example, in the United States, prayer is forbidden in public schools and the name of God is often asked to be removed from our coinage and pledge to the flag. The fact that "politically correct" politicians and judges fall for these banal requests to remove the name of God indicates how ignorant our nation's elite have become concerning the need for recognizing religion in public life and in government.

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