The Human Experiment

28 02 2011

It is the conceit of every generation that it thinks it knows enough to make confident assertions not only about the world but about ourselves and God. Lately, the contours of existence itself have become a matter of certainty, or at least inevitable certainty. Through all of this, the Church trudges on, speaking its message of Life into life, which each age appropriates for itself (or in some quarters, at least lately, outright rejects). It seems that human beings as a species desperately need and desire such a message and the transcendence it points to, and we will hang on to it tenaciously, come what may, no matter the certainty of other things.

Humans intuitively realize that life as it’s actually lived makes little or no sense without transcendence, without a wider framework of meaning that gives the texts of our lives context; gives all we hear, see, taste, smell, and touch some dimension. (Indeed, the very possibility of communicating and exchanging ideas by using words requires that those words have a larger context; all words are derivative ~ they have no meaning in themselves.)

Likewise, if we are the sole source of all meaning, the prime mover of all that we do, then this is significant for the meaning of meaning itself. The underlying conceit of atheism is that our rightful inheritance as a species is to make meaning, with our own collective humanity as the context (presumably our ancestors didn’t consult with the Woolly Mammoth when they started to invent language, or ask the rainclouds for advice with grammar). But meaning in a context no larger than itself is entirely arbitrary. If we’re the ones claiming meaning at the same time that we’re creating it, all meaning dissolves into absurdity ~ how can a picture be larger than its frame, or a text preside over its own context? This appears not to bother the atheist, at least not the dishonest ones.

(And this is all conveniently putting aside for the moment the obvious fact that we are a seriously flawed species ~ just watch your local news tonight in case you don’t agree, or look in the mirror ~ which means that there’s nothing in principle stopping us from redefining meaning at any point when it is either necessary or expedient. This is precisely the history of totalitarian regimes, particularly of the atheist or communist ilk. They make things up as they go along. Mr. Orwell made much of this.)

Though acknowledging that life is ultimately arbitrary is certainly an option to explain existence, it doesn’t end up explaining it fully or very well. It is an explanation, as far as it goes, but not a very robust one. It falls flat, has no echo, no resonance or content relative to everything we know. There are no contours or texture to the thing itself ~ to atheism ~ and by extension, to the life it tries to explain. Atheism is the great “flattener” where all chivalry is subdued, all anguish silenced, all truth voided out; where all  valleys are emptied and all hills brought low. Life in monochrome. Nothing suddenly means nothing. Indeed, if there is no wider context of meaning or purpose to any particular truth or event in life, then that truth, that particular event, is meaningless; ultimately, it is absurd. This was Camus’ and Sartre’s and Nietzsche’s point.

Thus, by simple extension, atheism, by the vapor it mistakes for its substance, embraces absurdity at its core, making all notions of truth, value, love, justice ultimately meaningless because they are all finally derivative of absurdity. Indeed, atheism itself, as an explanation of who we are and why we’re here, ultimately becomes a tautology, a futility of meaning that reduces words to nothing. Atheism becomes for itself what it claims for life to be: meaningless, absurd, singular. Atheism is a Derridaean moment.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, and quite contrary to popular secular sentiment, believing in God does not solve the mysteries of life, not even the mystery of death, as any of us who have half an ounce of genuine belief know full well. In fact, in many ways, belief in God increases the mysteries of life and death ~ to an infinite degree. Indeed, the morbidity of atheism is precisely this ~ its abysmal lack of mystery. Life is no longer a purposeful mystery but an absurdist dilemma. It’s simply a logical problem we haven’t yet solved. Nay, it’s an illogical problem we cannot solve. It’s a Rubix cube with one square missing.

In positing the ultimate good, however, as we Christians do, we allow for the presence of ultimate evil, and as such, life becomes more, not less, dramatic; more, not less, substantive; more, not less, rigorous; more, not less, tragic; more, not less, beautiful; more, not less, mysterious. Recognizing God’s irreducible presence in and around and through life gives it… well, life.

Two exit doors are presented to us at birth, one marked “Life,” the other marked “Death.” One of them, we are told, is a true door that will open when we turn the handle. The other is a false one, locked from the outside. Here’s the catch: we must choose the door we’ll go through before we know which one is which. We cannot try them both. And so we live our lives knowing that when our particular pageant has run its course, we’ll have already made a choice for one or the other: Life or Death. The choices we make, the paths we take, all of these chart the course we take. As my parish priest often reminds those of us in his care, in the words of Spanish poet Antonio Machado: Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. “Traveler, there is no road. You make the way by walking.”

My oldest and dearest piece of clothing is a ragged, white t-shirt from college. One Sunday 25 years ago, my friends Shelly, Hugh, and Angela invited me to join them for an afternoon of Bartles & James wine coolers and t-shirt painting. Naturally, I was all in. I had no idea what I’d paint on my brand new t-shirt, but a few wine coolers into the project, I was pretty sure it would be something profound and inspiring. I ended up drawing two Picasso-esque figures, one a Cowboy sheriff and the other a trampy bar girl. On the shirt I wrote the words the sheriff is saying to the girl: “In what direction are you headed?” My friends and I, having all studied German and being slightly inebriated, decided that the appropriate response to that question was: Grata aus. “Straight ahead.”

Not a bad response, I’d say, to a question that, turns out, is pretty profound. In what direction are you headed? Towards life or death? Whichever one you happen to believe to be the true door is the one you’re likely angling towards. Makes all the difference in the world, seems to me.

Best choose wisely.

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