To Whom Shall We Go?
By Thomas A. Peregrin - Washington, District of Columbia, USA - Advent/Christmas 2010
We know well that the paths to God and, just as importantly, the paths under Him, are many. For some it is as if they did not even need to be called, because they always knew. For others, God is to be found in the most direct encounters. For a third group, His Being is an obvious reflection of all that surrounds us. But I, who am of a skeptical and probabilistic disposition, have been led to find and shelter under God, albeit in a wayward and mediocre way, through intellect and will. Doubt has been my regular visitor, and need and reason my defense. I have not been touched by, nor do I claim to deserve to be under, the warming hand of His presence. But, even as I have failed in so many respects of the law of love, my faith has persevered.
I know that there are many who are like me, and I know that I have always found comfort and strength in the knowledge that others are struggling with me. I therefore offer these reflections, prompted by a series of discussions on religion with an agnostic but searching professor I know, in the hope that they may offer some grounds for solace in fellowship or, perhaps, even some insights. I make no claims that the wise will find anything new in them. But I have the thought that they may be helpful to some because I have come to respect the power of simply telling the truth about our experiences as reflecting, needing, and sinning beings who are hoping to be saved. It is in this spirit that these reflections are offered.
“From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with Him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered Him, Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that Thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6:67-69).
I believe that human life, taken on its own terms, is essentially tragic.
Human beings are born into a fleeting life of contingency, a life that, even with the best of fortunes, invariably ends in death. This is not to say that life does not have its joys -- quite to the contrary, life is full of pleasures and joys mental, emotional, and physical. But all are impermanent, fleeting, and ultimately nullified.
Death is the necessary and absolute dissolution for the individual consciousness of any and all thoughts, feelings, attachments, etc. -- love, honor, glory, success, contentment -- that give life, on its own terms, meaning. For the individual, there is no general being, no collective consciousness that has any real substance. In order for anything to be in any real sense for the individual, one must have being. We live our lives in our own heads and bodies, and therefore all the comforts or distractions that men have invented to convince themselves of their immortality through family or remembrance or history I find patently unconvincing. All of our sound and fury truly signifies nothing on its own terms. There may be objective reality, but the objective is purely academic without the subjective, our individual being. Thus the deepest, the unmovable source of the tragedy of man is the unmerciful impermanency of his being. Human life is, as Leszek Kolakowski aptly put, ultimately a defeat. Or, more earthily by Philip Roth: “Old age is not a struggle, it’s a massacre.”
But this is not the end of the human tragedy. For even in life we live under the reign of chance, of fortuna. Even in a life that is always shadowed by the certainty of death, we are ever prey to the vicissitudes of comfort and harm, contentment and misery, love and loneliness, success and frustration. Life is full of joys, for sure, but it is also full of Freud’s “ordinary unhappiness,” of “quiet desperation,” struggling with our modest problems, enjoying the loving people and good times that fortune gives us and enduring as we must life’s unavoidable sorrows. Some of us are quite happy and buoyant, but even this is a mystery. Why are some blessed and contented? For many, many others are miserable, afflicted by hunger, disease, or other sufferings, even the invisible but real sufferings of the psyche. Thus we all travel along life’s way, if neither always a joyful romp nor a “vale of tears” then for most of us at best middling, involving both ups and downs, before we must necessarily pass away, like “sheep to the slaughter,” “forgotten, as a dream passes at the opening day."
Beyond contingency we can also see the plain injustice of much of life. Even, Dostoevsky said, the suffering of one innocent child would make the universe unjust -- yet our world imposes the cruelest sufferings at quite a larger scale. Thus the second aspect of our tragic existence is the nature of our life while in the world, a life ruled by chance.
Human life, then, for all its joys and pleasures, is lived under a sentence of death under the reign of contingency. I am hardly the first to have noticed this. The sensitive and perceptive author of Ecclesiastes expressed this view already 2500 years ago, noting even then that this insight was “nothing new under the sun.” The tragic tone of the Homeric poems exhibits this knowledge, as did Plato, the Stoics, and others in the ancient world. Paul and John saw it, as did Augustine in a later era. Perhaps none captured it so well as Pascal and, in our own time, the existentialists have restated the point, none as well as Miguel de Unamuno. In literature, Shakespeare and Dostoevsky seem to me to have captured it best. There is and ought to be ample room for the humanistic admiration for the human being, but this admiration must of necessity always be a corrective to the underlying truth of our tragic condition, and indeed may in part derive from admiration for the courage and strength human beings exhibit in dealing with their tragic fates, a point Nietzsche made very strongly.
To me this is the starting point for all human life, thought, and being. People are limited, incomplete, humble beings, destined to live a short time and then pass away. The human mind, justly our pride, can only grapple with, rather than overcome, the power of contingency and, ultimately, death. Reason on its own power can help us to ameliorate life’s conditions, especially its material conditions -- generally to the good, of course -- but it cannot help us to transcend our tragic state. For, if reason alone is our aid, our situation is hopeless. Reason itself demonstrates this. We are finite beings who, logically, cannot escape our finitude. And this is profoundly tragic. Pascal is perhaps the finest exponent of this point.
I should say that I do meet people who express no frustration or sadness at our condition. Life, they say, even a relatively short one, is to be lived, enjoyed, and dealt with on its own terms. They claim that they simply do not find this prospect tragic. Personally I find this unfathomable as an intellectual and spiritual position, though I can understand it as a matter of day-to-day living. Part of me suspects that it is simply the result of putting on a good show or distraction or ignorance. I myself devote an enormous part of my energy to the pursuits of my ambition, pursuits that I recognize as entirely vain, “vanity of vanities,” when I think with a clear mind.
Yet I persist, driven by my nature but also, as Pascal so perceptively detailed, because it is better to be diverted than to ponder our condition too much. Yet I am still afflicted, I suppose as a consequence of the nature of my being, by these questions. But some claim not to be, claim that they are not so afflicted, that these are simply idle speculations and unimportant, impractical. This I find an in-credible position. Indeed, many who take this line are reported to have dealt with their deaths quite badly, such as Voltaire. But it would be foolish and impudent not to concede that many simply are not afflicted by the tragedy of human existence. It certainly is to be granted that there is a natural rhythm to human life, of youthful vigor and growth, the ease and strength of middle age, and the sunset of senescence that seems often to end in boredom and fatigue and therefore a welcoming of death. The ancient Jews, Greeks, and Chinese, for instance, all seem to have had a clear concept of a “happy, blessed, and full life,” one that involved length of years, success, good health, and a family. My sense is that the difference between accepting this and refusing to do so, “raging against the dying of the light,” is one of those irreducible distinctions among people that cannot ultimately be explained but must result from some mysterious combination of personal disposition, experience, and so forth. Of course this is no guide to who is “correct,” if that has any meaning here. My own view is that the tragic perspective more aptly captures the situation, but such a proposition can hardly be “proved.”
I thus begin from this tragic position. But is it actually inescapable? What do I want, what do I seek? And is there any substance to these hopes?
The cause, I believe, of our tragedy as human beings is that we are finite consciousnesses who seek permanence and meaning but cannot obtain them on our own, and that we are beings who seek happiness, the fulfillment of our (philosophical) natures, but are ruled by contingency and destined, ultimately, to failure. We, our individual consciousnesses in some form, seek a happy permanence. Again, I doubt very much that this proposition can be “proved,” but it is clearly my own yearning and, I suspect, the overt or secret, acknowledged or unrecognized, yearnings of most, if not all, others. Further, I think it is a logical and necessary deduction from our natures. I buy the classical arguments about our natures and how they are inherently directed and about the necessary permanency of the Good et cetera. Further, my observations suggest that we all seek happiness -- the peace, flourishing, and contentment of our “souls,” our beings as we experience them. The conduct of more or less everyone seems to point to this. And the sadness -- sadness being, I think, an expression that something profound has gone amiss -- we display in the face of the deaths of others strongly suggests that we think permanence of some kind would be a preferable state. All other problems seem secondary to our search for happiness in eternity.
It seems clear to me that, on its own, our search for this happy permanence is hopeless. We do not have the power to make ourselves immortal or happy, let alone happily immortal. We struggle mightily to make ourselves happy, and have likely improved our state considerably over the ages, but we are infinitely far from the secure and perpetual happiness and fulfillment that we by nature seek. And the search for eternal life through human effort seems to me to be quixotic. Even if we could, as we seem likely to do, find ways to extend life significantly, we will always be under the threat of chance, of entropy, the universe’s native propensity towards disorder. And, indeed, would we want very long life without happiness? Might it not be some kind of torture? We want eternal life, consciousness in happiness. A tall order, no doubt, but it is the irreducible source of our yearning, at least as far as I can tell.
For these reasons I find the worldly answers to our predicament unsatisfying, for they do not solve this great problem (even as they may helpfully address very real but lesser problems of human life as it is lived). The ancient worldly answers rested on resignation, on the acceptance that there is no hope for transcendence and then making of the best of it. Stoical resignation is one way, but it is a surrendering embrace of rather than a solution to our condition. Further, what are the allures of honor and self-discipline without a purpose for them? Epicureanism, the sensible enjoyment of life’s pleasures and avoidance of its pains, of which some forms of modern pragmatism may be descendants, can hardly be endorsed by those with a tragic and restless disposition and, in any case, is also a surrendering resignation. If the mind, and what we may call the soul, is the pride of human life, the restless search for truth and the transcendence of our condition, then Epicureanism must seem base and of little appeal. On its own terms, Aristotelian good sense, conformity with nature and its dictates, while certainly immensely appealing as a guide to life, cannot satisfy the yearning for transcendence, for getting beyond the confines and limitations of human life on its own terms, that is the essence of our predicament. Plato, in his Phaedrus and Republic, seems to have come closest to recognizing our basic situation.
Modern worldly solutions offer no better path, even as they seem to have lost the classical world’s sense of limits. Many modern solutions seem more often to be substitute religions, attempts to bring about a worldly eschaton without recourse to the divine. Communism appears in this guise to me, as do even some forms of socialism and strong liberalism of the type represented by, for instance, Condorcet or, in our day, some of the most ardent partisans of democratization. More subtle and alluring is a more restrained and sensible liberal capitalism, one that seeks to lower the aims of human life, especially social life, and to engage man’s yearnings in pursuit of material productivity and general liberty. I think this, for the time being at least, the best -- or, better, the least bad -- of all socio-political systems. As Tocqueville eloquently described, it delivers prosperity, liberty, worldly fulfillment, and a modest happiness to great numbers of people, while providing us with ample diversions. It is the system perhaps best calculated for helping man to live through a strictly mortal life. It does not solve man’s essential predicament, but, at least in its sensible form, it does not seek to. Many can accept this as all, but I cannot, the principal reason for which I can only point again to some aspect of character. But I think also that people, to the extent that there are people who by their natures are thinking, conscious, and restless beings, cannot ever finally accept such a solution.
So what is there?
Beyond, behind, and below all other questions, I think, there lurks the question of God. Man is a finite, contingent being living in a finite, contingent universe. Is there an infinite, necessary being beyond this?
It strikes me that, by nature (both in the philosophical and the scientific sense), we are constituted as if there is a being who is the logical fulfillment of our deepest aspirations. But that does not make it so, of course.
In my view, Reason cannot answer the question of God -- not for lack of trying or knowledge or good will, but because the matter is by its very nature beyond Reason’s competence. Indeed, Reason itself, as Pascal (again) pointed out, shows its limitations. It is the use of logic to solve problems based upon given premises. But the question of God is precisely the question of those premises. It is the question that undergirds, that surrounds all the other questions.
These limitations of Reason cut both ways. The classic ontological “proof” of God’s existence -- that God must be because it would be against the nature of his perfection not to be and is therefore a logical contradiction -- is not dispositive, but neither is the argument that God is simply a product of man’s wish fulfillment. The existence of God may be the most logical explanation for the concept of perfection, for the creation of being and the universe, for the inkling and yearning of higher consciousnesses for the divine, and so forth, but they do not prove his existence. All these can be explained either as human wish fulfillment or arid philosophizing or the like. Similarly, that humans yearn for God as a product of their own psyches, that God cannot be reliably detected in the material universe, that the operations of the universe can be sufficiently explained without recourse to divine intervention, and so on do not show that God does not exist. For they too can be explained as necessary corollaries of the nature of an immaterial, transcendent, and infinite God who creates a universe with its own integrity. A method of knowing -- Reason -- that proceeds from assumed first principles cannot leave its moorings and deduce its own premises.
This does not mean that the question of God is an irrational or arational one. There are more and less rational -- or perhaps better, reasonable -- ways of addressing the matter. But, ultimately, the question is not one that can be settled through reasoning. Instead, my sense is that people come to this decision, again, because of and through very deep and inscrutable instincts, characteristics, and thought processes. How does one look at life and the universe? Does one see at least the possibility of a hidden hand, of an underlying order and purpose? The evidence can be read either way.
Ultimately, I think, the issue comes down to something of a Yes or No (or Pass, I suppose). One can see in life and in the universe purpose, order, and being, even of an inexplicable and mysterious kind, or one may not. Of course this bifurcation is artificially reductive: choices fall more along a spectrum than anything else (where does one fall who, for instance, believes, like Aristotle in a First Mover who is not a personal god?). But I think there is truth in this simplification. Either there is a being or force who somehow from without endows us with perpetual being and who provides meaning, purpose, and order to life and the universe, or there is not.
My own answer is Yes.
Why? And what does yes mean? What is it to “believe”?
Here again I must plead the irreducible inexplicability of such “decisions,” if they can be termed that, not least because belief or non-belief is never final but is always evolving, changing, growing or contracting. I can say, though, that, once I perceived what I took and take to be the facts of the case, if you will, I neither saw nor felt any allure from No, but saw and felt strongly the pull of Yes. Was I struck down like Saul by some blinding flash of light? Certainly not. But I intuited and thought and felt that the existence of a personal God, a God who is good and omniscient and omnipotent and sustaining and so forth, comports with the most fundamental intuitions and insights of human existence. I felt and intuited (and still do) very strongly that there must be an encompassing meaning and purpose to all this, to all experience and being. It simply struck and strikes me as more plausible that there is a grander order. So I thought belief in a personal God, at least in some forms, an eminently reasonable framework for seeing life and being. And I thought it advantageous and sensible, too, like Pascal in his wager. It made a lot more sense for me to believe in God than not to. This was true from a philosophical and pragmatic point of view – as a finite being aware of my finitude, I desired and desire eternal being – but also from a psychological one. I needed God, I yearned for him. “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God.”
It did not all happen in one fell swoop. Raised as a Christian but not in a particularly devotional household, as one of the first acts of my intellectual awakening as an adolescent I threw off the religion, but, over the course of my teenage years, in thinking through these things, I came back, but more as a convert. I suppose the major influence of my upbringing was the simple capability to see a personal God as a plausible possibility and as something I could conceive of essentially free of major psychological encumbrances.
I see my belief as inductive, as essentially willed, but willed within constraints imposed by my character, mentality, upbringing, and so forth. At the risk of being trite, it is like being in the dark and being unable conclusively to make out shapes. And we won’t know for sure until the light comes or, if there is no light, we will never know at all.
I hope it is clear from this account that I think it is reasonable to hold different positions, and not only reasonable but in many cases approaching the inevitable. There are many people who would like to believe but cannot. There are those whose conception of God has been so decisively colored by personal experience that they cannot look at the question divorced from it. And there are those who in perfectly good faith simply are not convinced that God exists. Given that we are all in the dark together and there is no clear, lit path out, I cannot but empathize with all those who earnestly and seriously seek if not an answer to, then at least a way to deal with, our predicament. I have less sympathy for those who hate the very idea or possibility of God, of eternal truth, and of eternal meaning – but who am I to judge the secret recesses of other’s minds? What perceptions do they have that I do not?
As for why I am a Christian and a Catholic, a full account would demand more space and take me further afield from the purpose of this statement than is possible at this length and level of generality. Briefly, I find the faith’s propositions compelling and convincing, given the premises I laid out above. I find plausible and believe that God is a personal, good, omniscient, omnipotent, and loving being who has created and sustained the universe, including human beings; I find plausible and believe that human beings are creatures of God who are nonetheless caught in an existence that is decisively other than what it could and should be -- that human beings need redemption; I find plausible and believe that a loving God could, should as an expression of his nature, and did intervene in history to redeem mankind from its “fallen” state; I find plausible and believe that the full and complete manifestation of this redemption will take the form of resurrection and eternal life in fulfillment and happiness; and I find plausible and believe that the expression of these underlying truths should take the form of love, including love during our mortal lives, even if this law of love is radically different from the logic of life as it is usually experienced.
Ultimately, I believe life is a question of Yes or No. Is life leading to eternal life, fulfillment, and meaning? Or not? I have come to believe and hope that the answer to that question is Yes. That “all the promises…of God are yea.”