The proper response to the threats of despair to be found in a life without God is courage.
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What does this mean? I can’t help but think of those Christian ministers who sternly declare “Life without God is meaningless.” Even if I have very good, even convincing, reasons to question the Redemptive Truth of Christianity and strong sociological data that strongly shows that for human health and happiness Christianity has on balance been a disaster for humankind, my life is worthless as a driven leave. My life without God doesn’t matter, it has no weight, no seriousness, nothing to love. The truths of this world leave very little room for a God who acts in History. The only possible way for me to feel my life is worth the living, is to profess belief in things that I know to be false. Credo que absurdum. The most common way of reconciling this opposition between those things that I know to be true and those things that I ought to believe (but really don’t) is to favor one over the other. For many Conservative Christians this means choosing (their interpretation of their) Holy Scriptures over worldly science whenever this is disagreement between what they (oftentimes wrongly) think worldly science teaches.
My point of interest is narrowly personal. I was brought up in a confusing mishmash of various Protestant denominations by largely ignorant and uneducated parents. I say this latter not by way of accusation or with resentment, but as a simple statement of fact. I was left on my own to figure out Christian teachings and Doctrine. That was several decades ago. Since then, I’ve read some C.S. Lewis, but mostly Nietzsche. Curiously, it was Nietzsche that helped me understand and gain insight into Christianity and the meanings of various doctrines. Unlike my brief time as an angry atheist, I now longer fear those parts of my childhood and culture that have to do with Christianity. Reading Lewis’s Mere Christianity was a revelation. It explained how the various bits and pieces of Christianity that I had picked up over the years fit together. It almost goes without saying that I became an enthusiastic follower of Jesus. My time as a professing Christian lasted about 2 years. The end roughly coincided with my discovery of Nietzsche.
Long before I immersed myself in Nietzsche’s later writings, I was being dragged off to church and discovering the joys of naively wallowing in guilt (like anyone on the cusp of puberty, I was acutely aware of sinful curiosities and bad self-touching). I was quite the science and math nerd in middle school and high school. I read a lot, I thought a lot about what I read. Science magazines, novels, history, histories of mathematics and science, biographies of scientists. And I thought a lot. I remember one day, I pictured clearly in my mind how in the natural world every cause had an effect and every effect had a cause. I was a part of the natural world. Therefore, I & “I” (I didn’t know the word “subjectivity” at the time) was also a piece of nature. The picture I had was of me being dragged along through my life by the universe. This strict, naive determinism left no room for free will or personal freedom. It was up until then the most horrible experience of my life. I tasted unadulterated despair. It gave me a sick feeling in my stomach. My life was nothing.
Awareness of the emptiness and despair of my adolescent life would make its presence felt almost as a physical sensation at unexpected and unpredictable times. It was a fact of my existence at the time that the only possible cure for my chronic despair at my guilt was God, Jesus and going to church. In other words, some sort of Christianity. Life without God wasn’t worth anything. And I didn’t believe a word of it. There was what I knew to be true and opposed to that was all those things that I was morally obligated to know to be true (or at least persuade myself were true). Saying those things to be true when I knew they were not would be to lie. Lying is wrong. Everyone agreed that lying to God is especially bad, because God knows everything. I was willing to entertain the possibility that maybe I was wrong and that Jesus, God and Christianity might be True in spite of my (or anyone’s) best efforts to understand myself or my surroundings, even though I didn’t believe a word of Doctrine.
I was hopelessly confused and my thinking was absurdly muddled. It took me many years to figure out that the problem wasn’t one of truth or evidence but one of ethics, values and to speak Christian love. I did not know where my treasure lay.
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Earlier I brought up the Latin phrase, “Credo que absurdum.” I believe because it is absurd. Attributed to Tertullian, the phrase has a long history. It is presented as a justification of Faith in the face of evidence against the Holy Faith. Faith is placed over Reason, sometimes called Fideism. It is also a justification of Authority and authority. Prior to the Reformation, this meant the authority of the Roman Catholic Church which meant in practice submission to the authority of parish priests, bishops, and the who bureaucratic structure of the Church and not just to the offices held by men, but to the men who held those offices. It’s easy enough to understand the intuitive appeal of Protestantism’s ideal of each believer being his own authority. Hence the need to mass produce Bibles and the importance of literacy.
Skipping forward to the present, it is clear that demanding Faith hasn’t solved Fideism’s essential weakness. There are some persons, regardless of denomination, who have more authority to say what Scripture means and what God’s Will is. This authority may be based on training in ecclesiastical matters and psychological counseling, or this authority may be little more than being naively held captive by the charisma of a deluded soul. Or, as I am fond of saying, Speak with Confidence and the Weak-Minded will believe you. For most people most of the time this appeal of and to authority works really well because most people most of the time need someone to tell them what to think, feel and do. And conversely, there are some people who have an inordinate need to tell other people what to do. It’s symbiotic. This symbiosis rooted in placing Belief and Faith over Reason means it is obedience that is of the highest value. Of course, theological smoke and mirrors makes this surprising palatable to many, many people.
For a nonbeliever, such as myself, believing because I’m supposed to believe triggers a reflexive mistrust and curiosity. What is a life of Reason about? What is it about inquiry and checking for someone behind the curtain? Nonbelief is a consequence of each man being his own priest. If I am responsible for my relationship to God and the Higher Truths without the mediating apparatus of the Catholic Church how am I to decide on the meanings of Scripture? What counts as evidence? If my eternal fate hangs in the balance: an eternity of punishment and torment versus an eternity of bliss and happiness, then oughtn’t I be as scrupulous as possible in pursuing truth and meaning in Scripture? For most people most of the time, it is good enough to hazily believe and play the numbers in thinking about truth: most people believe X to be true, therefore it’s probably true.
“A life without God is meaningless” means obey the authorities. They know best. In practice it means ignoring and retreating from the uncertainties and unpleasantries of this life. Look away from difficulties. For all the appeals to figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., or Bishop Desmond Tutu, there still seems to me to be a specific form of cowardice at the root of faith. I can only describe it as epistemic. Certain fundamental beliefs and propositions are not scrupulously evaluated. Even as I write this some Christians that I’ve known are vociferously complaining that faith, real faith is not a matter of professed adherence to certain fundamental beliefs and propositions, or at least, not merely so.
The paradox of this latter sort of faith is that the more it is insisted that it is not grounded in specific beliefs and propositions, the less that it can be said to be Christian, at least as Christianity has been understood historically and even by most practicing Christians and most Christian theologians. In many cases all that remains is an empty label and a fetish for a name coupled with a tediously evasive reluctance to admit to an actual break with anything that anyone else would call Christian.
In a secular world, epistemic cowardice means a lazy self-justifying avoidance of the beliefs and experiences of other people. “I have Jesus” means “I already know all I need to know.” In other words, cowardice in one’s living and in one’s dealings with other people. Where there is cowardice, there is fear and an inability to trust. “If I already have Jesus, there is no need to look further into my motives than I am comfortable in doing.” This might strike many as a caricature, but what is a caricature but the exaggeration of its subject’s most prominent features? The exhortation to believe X also means that questioning X leads to needless fear, uncertainty and doubt. The road beyond X leads only to Mordor.
It is a peculiarity of inquiry that its limits cannot be externally imposed. “These beliefs and doctrines maybe be questioned, but those may not.” Questioning, irony, satire, comedic treatment all have in common a refusal to accept that anyone can control the career of an idea, doctrine or belief out in the world. Part of Christianity is expectations about how its beliefs, propositions and doctrines are to be treated, meaning that it is what the usual authorities say that counts all else is blasphemy worthy of condemnation and punishment. Don’t ask too many questions and don’t laugh at the wrong things. This is all that Truth means.
And what of life in a post-Christian world? Christianity, and ideological systems in general, have at their foundation cowardice as their attitude toward life. Exhortations to believe this or that distracts from what we do in fact think and feel. This is no longer an emotionally or spiritually satisfying way of life, assuming that it ever was. It is not enough to give up belief in God and in the Gospel like some intellectual exercise. Feelings of guilt and dissatisfaction remain, only now there is no promise of Redemption and being washed clean of Guilt and Sin in the blood of the Lamb. Giving up God, Jesus and Christianity with its story of Redemption leaves us without any ready means to articulate certain moods, sensations and feelings, as well as without rituals to assuage those moods and feelings. We no longer have a story of how the world is not what it’s supposed to be. The world is as it is, as it is supposed to be: broken, ugly, unhappy but most of all indifferent. We cannot hope for a better world. We have to live in the world as it is. Anything else is cowardice and escapism. Resignation is not the right word. We didn’t lose anything, anymore than someone who stops playing the lottery regularly after many years loses millions of dollars. The fantasy was always a distraction and even evasion of a life without those millions of dollars. No, it’s not resignation.
The loss of God and Jesus means that we no longer know how we should live or how to approach life. This ignorance makes life into something new, even innocent. The vastness of our ignorance is enough to make is weak in the knees. It is courage we need. Courage to look at the scary, ugly and unexpected. Truthfully, we do not even know if something is scary or ugly until we make our examinations of it. We only know what we’ve been told and maybe what was true yesterday.
Above I described the life of Faith as one of submission to authority. What, then, is the life of Reason? It is deciding for oneself what should count as truth. It is a devotion to one’s autonomy. For the longest while, I thought of autonomy as managing one’s own affairs. Not as an act of will and choice. Free-will is just theological smoke. The answer to those feelings and sensations of making a choice is a reinterpretation of those feelings and thoughts. Autonomy is the culmination of decisions and choices in the feeling that one is the author of one’s own acts and behavior. Further, this authorship rests on a swarm of largely unconscious calculations and judgments that it is possible to achieve satisfaction of one’s needs and desires.
Life in a post-Christian world rests on a foundation of courage. Not just the physical courage of firemen, for example, but also courage in our feelings and thoughts. The ideal is never giving into nameless fears, but always looking our horrible nameless fears in the eye so as to give it a name. Once it has a name, we can decide what to do about it. Maybe it’s reasonable to be afraid. Maybe it’s not. Maybe we do what we have to do, even and especially when we’re afraid.
I’m skeptical that moral exhortations do much more than inculcate a sense of failure. We all fail to live up to our ideals. As the Apostle Paul, “There is none righteous, no, not one.” We are not supposed to meet our ideals. If we could then they wouldn’t be ideals. An ideal is a guide to making decisions about what counts as acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Failure to live up to the ideal only means an opportunity to do better next time. Sometimes an enemy can only be properly sized up after retreating. Sometimes it’s a matter of recognizing one’s own cowardice in retrospect and owning up to one’s failures and to one’s successes.
A meaningful life is full of those things felt to be important. That doesn’t always include safety and a happy ending either in this life or any other. Whatever faith might have been, now it is less than whistling in the dark. We can close our eyes in prayer and cower in our sometimes not so metaphorical corners, or we can—