Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Existentialism in a box

One of the perils of wearing clericals is that you immediately become a target for ridicule. One of my recent encounters was with a particularly brutish individual who asked me whether I believed in Jesus. Of course, I said I did, but the individual concerned was not the type that you could consider really having a rational debate with. Indeed, he was probably of the opinion that Logic is a brand of Adidas Trainers. When it was clear that I just wasn't prepared to engage him in conversation (I was on my way home with a load of shopping at the time), he loudly proclaimed that I would one day be put in a box in the ground and that would be it. Then he just launched into some colourful blasphemies against our Saviour which didn't offend me in the slightest since there was no way I was going to dignify his tirade with any value, and that Our Lord has met with Satan face to face and conquered him soundly.

However, underlying this is a common attitude which is at the heart of our society: the Finality of Death.Why would this individual want to confront me with the statistical certainty of my own demise? After all, I know that I am going to die. I'm sort of prepared for it. I do look forward to it in the sense that I love my life now and I believe that Death is merely the gateway to continuing that life further in a state of perfection - Life is great and in God is true Life. Of course, the Lord tells me that I should not love my life above Him (St Luke xiv.26) but I should love the Life that He is. I do fear dying, but not Death itself.

But then, I am very happy at the moment; I have not always been so. However, many of my fellow Christians are in agony at the moment as ISIS seems to want to torture and kill anyone whose thinking is incompatible with their minuscule and contemptible grasp of Reality. Many of my non-Christian brethren are in agony too. This does diminish my happiness as I think of their suffering. Of course, I pray for their relief from suffering and torment. I do believe, however, that God is working something here that will justify such suffering. St Paul reminds us that "the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us." This doesn't mean that God will just dismiss our sufferings, but rather reveal to us their purpose and show us that even the most agonising torture is working out some good that is at present beyond our understanding. After all, Our Lord's resurrection body proudly bore the scars of His execution because they meant something indescribably glorious. Likewise God will not ignore the sufferings of His children, but transform their scars into something beautiful.

What if my brutish friend is right, then? What if all that there is to my life and yours is going to be shut in a box, put into the ground and left to rot? What are the consequences of this?

Well, both Iraqi Christian and ISIS member will end the same way - both put into a box to disappear. They may both approach Death with an air of joy which will turn out to be empty. The Christian will approach her end in the hope that her sufferings will be ended and that she will meet with a god who will turn out to not really be there, and that her sufferings meant something, that she will find joy in a heaven that isn't there. The ISIS member will approach Death in triumph knowing that he has defended his belief by ending the lives of infidel as commanded by his nonexistent deity, clinging onto the equally vain hope that he will spend eternity in the arms of many virgins. Since they will both just case to be, they won't know the disappointment of the supposed truth.

If the box is the end, then the murderer who is never caught will never face justice for his crime, while the victim's existence is cut short. If there is no life after Death, then why bother living a "good life"? What is a good life anyway? Why bother caring for other people, or falling in love? After all, you're just setting yourself up for unhappiness in the long term when the object of your affection dies and is put in a box. Why not just be in it for maximising your own happiness without getting attached to other people? Why cause yourself unnecessary pain?

Except, human beings just don't work like that. We do seek to love and be loved. Our happiness involves family, friends and spouses. We seek deeper and deeper relationships and, in our marriage rites, we are reminded that Death marks the end of the marriage. That is the risk of loving.

Love, happiness, and the Box seem to be an incompatible trio. We naturally seek happiness; we naturally love; we naturally die. If death is the end, then human beings are faced with the inevitability of unhappiness when a lover dies, or unhappiness in trying to live a life without love. If Death really is the end, and one cannot be happy, why not end it all?

The great existentialists like Sartre and Camus are fond of telling us about the fact that the existence of the Box makes Life absurd. For them, the only meaning of life is the meaning that the individual puts on to life, a meaning that will just rot in the Box.

What, then, of Good and Evil, right and wrong? Indeed, what of morality? How can we answer the question "what ought I to do?" if the Box is all there is?

Ultimately, whatever one does will just end in the Box. If one seeks happiness (as all do), then the means to that happiness will be accidental? If one takes pleasure in destroying the lives of others and escapes any negative repercussions from doing so, he is happy nonetheless despite the fact that he would not escape the Box. If King Joffrey had died in bed at the age of 90 after a lifetime of continuing his cowardly and psychotic pleasure, then that would be the same end as Rob Stark who stood for justice and right and yet was betrayed and executed as a traitor by Joffrey. Yet, this is highly offensive to us. Something in us cries out for justice - we want Joffrey to die a pitiful death for his crimes. What if he doesn't? Doesn't that mean that our sense of justice is just an accident as well?

The Psalmist writes:

"TRULY God is loving unto Israel : even unto such as are of a clean heart.
2. Nevertheless, my feet were almost gone : my treadings had well-nigh slipt.3. And why? I was grieved at the wicked : I do also see the ungodly in such prosperity.4. For they are in no peril of death : but are lusty and strong.5. They come in no misfortune like other folk : neither are they plagued like other men.6. And this is the cause that they are so holden with pride : and overwhelmed with cruelty.7. Their eyes swell with fatness : and they do even what they lust.8. They corrupt other, and speak of wicked blasphemy : their talking is against the most High.9. For they stretch forth their mouth unto the heaven : and their tongue goeth through the world.10. Therefore fall the people unto them : and thereout suck they no small advantage.11. Tush, say they, how should God perceive it : is there knowledge in the most High?12. Lo, these are the ungodly, these prosper in the world, and these have riches in possession : and I said, Then have I cleansed my heart in vain, and washed mine hands in innocency.13. All the day long have I been punished : and chastened every morning.14. Yea, and I had almost said even as they : but lo, then I should have condemned the generation of thy children."
(Psalm lxxiii)

If  there is no justice in the world, then surely we do condemn everyone irrespectve of what they've done. All are indeed damned to the Box. Justice doesn't matter. If justice doesn't matter, then good and evil are merely illusions. Unhappiness is inevitable; happiness exists only in an island surrounded by darkness and oblivion. If there is no justice, then ISIS can hardly be condemned for their treatment of the infidel. They will take pleasure in their extermination of innocents and will rejoice in the face of death because they believe that they have done justly. The Box holds no terror for them either.

Why not, then, just live in a meaningless existence, punctuated only by the noise of the nails being driven into the Box? It's not going to do any harm to do so. If one becomes unhappy, why not end it all? If there is future happiness then it's also going to be accompanied by future unhappiness, and missing out on future happiness isn't really going to make much difference, is it? Despite Camus' protestation, suicide is a perfectly effective way to prevent all pain and suffering. Indeed, murder is a perfectly kind thing to do as it also prevents another from pain and suffering.

But I do believe in Right and Wrong, Good and Evil. I do believe in the existence of Justice as having a meaning which underpins the structure of law and order in society. I believe in rights for human beings and in freedom too. Perhaps I am just a sentimental idealist. However, if there is such thing as Good and Evil, then this must point to some intrinsic meaning in being. If Good and Evil stand outside of human existence, and indeed human construct, then they must stand outside of the Box too. There must be some justice that goes beyond the grave so that the one who escaped justice in this life will not escape it outside of this life. This points to some experiential existence of the individual beyond the Box, and thus beyond the confines of human sense. That, to me, points to God the source of Good, and the existence of the privation called Evil.

I believe that the Box belittles humanity. I believe that it makes a mockery of the sufferings of innocents. I believe that the Box is an affront to the fundamental dignity that each person has regardless of race, religion, sex, gender, orientation, predilections, fallibilities, strengths, loves and laughs. That's partly why I believe in the One Who burst the Box.

Now how do I tell that to my churlish detractor?

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