Life begins on the other side of despair

It was Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist novelist, philosopher, and playwright, who declined the Nobel Peace Price for Literature in 1964, who said it. “Life begins on the other side of despair.”

Sartre’s statement resonates with those who have stood at the edge of the abyss of the loss of life’s meaning. Some don’t make it to the other side. Some move to the other side of the abyss with no faith but faith in themselves to create meaning they once ascribed to God or some objective moral order. Others arrive on the other side with their inherited faith not only deconstructed, but re-constructed. I am one of the latter.

Reading of the shooting suicide of a 27-year-old Iraq War veteran philosophy student in the library at Mankato State University takes me back to Sartre’s statement about life and despair. Timothy Lee Anderson was an honorably discharged U.S. Army gunner in Iraq. His picture in The Daily Mail shows him in an Iraqi combat zone with his weapon. In the background of the photo, Iraqi women in traditional Muslim dress appear to be crossing the street. How, I ask, does a guy who served as a gunner in the Iraq War choose philosophy as his major when he comes home to the U.S.A.?

Philosophy is not a popular choice these days. Unlike computer science, it’s not job- related. The word ‘philosophy’ derives from two Greek words meaning love (philo) and wisdom (sophia). Philosophy is the love of, and the search for, wisdom.

Wisdom is born of experience, not inheritance. It’s not hard to imagine the dashed, unexamined, inherited convictions of a young Army recruit: a world dependent on American goodness and might; an America with a manifest destiny in the global order; an exceptional nation privileged and responsible, whether by religious or political creed, to bring its blessings to the rest of an ignorant, unenlightened, uncivilized, and sometimes terroristic and defiant world.

Nor is it hard to imagine a soldier’s despair upon return, reflecting on his experience in search of greater wisdom among the philosophers. The early reports of Timothy Lee Anderson’s life experience point to a less than comfortable homecoming with arrests for marijuana and violation of an order for protection. The gun shot he fired at himself on the second floor of the Mankato State University library was a shot of despair, whatever the immediate reasons or circumstances.

The great sorrow is a life that ended too early on the despair side of the yawning abyss of collapsed meaning. It remains to the survivors and the rest of us who look with sadness on Timothy’s tragic departure to learn that claims to religious-national exceptionalism and wisdom go together about as well as bombs and day-care, guns and libraries.

– Gordon C. Stewart, February 3, 2015.

 

 

The American Religion

“A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community…all those who adhere to them.” – Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, p. 17.

Emile Durkheim is one of the fathers of the social sciences and the father of sociology. When he first studied the aboriginal people of Australia, he carried with him a bias against all religion.

“During Durkheim’s life, his thinking about religion changed in important ways. Early in his life, as in Division, he argued that human societies could exist on a secular basis without religion. But later in his life he saw religion as a more and more fundamental element of social life. By the time he wrote Forms, Durkheim saw religion as a part of the human condition, and while the content of religion might be different from society to society over time, religion will, in some form or another, always be a part of social life. Durkheim also argues that religion is the most fundamental social institution, with almost all other social institutions, at some point in human history, being born from it. For these reasons he gave special analysis to this phenomenon, providing a philosophy of religion that is perhaps as provocative as it is rich with insights.

“According to Durkheim, religion is the product of human activity, not divine intervention. He thus treats religion as a sui generis social fact and analyzes it sociologically. Durkheim elaborates his theory of religion at length in his most important work, Forms. In this book Durkheim, uses the ethnographic data that was available at the time to focus his analysis on the most primitive religion that, at the time, was known, the totemic religion of Australian aborigines. This was done for methodological purposes, since Durkheim wished to study the simplest form of religion possible, in which the essential elements of religious life would be easier to ascertain. In a certain sense, then, Durkheim is investigating the old question, albeit in a new way, of the origin of religion. It is important to note, however, that Durkheim is not searching for an absolute origin, or the radical instant where religion first came into being. Such an investigation would be impossible and prone to speculation. In this metaphysical sense of origin, religion, like every social institution, begins nowhere. Rather, as Durkheim says, he is investigating the social forces and causes that are always already present in a social milieu and that lead to the emergence of religious life and thought at different points in time, under different conditions.”
– Paul Carl’s entry on Emile Durkheim published June 3, 2012 in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: a Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource.

QUESTION

Later sociologists like Robert Bellah look today at American society and ask what “sacred things” are enshrined in American culture and practices.

What are the equivalent beliefs and practices, “sacred things” set apart or forbidden, that give coherence to a fast-changing American society?

The Common Ground beneath the Gun Debate

Gordon C. Stewart, February 22, 2013 – Copyright.

“Ninety-nine percent of reality is perception.” Analytical philosopher Willem Zuurdeeg argued that perception itself is the expression of something far deeper, far more powerful.

Zuurdeeg, author of An Analytical Philosophy of Religion and Man Before Chaos: Philosophy Is Born in a Cry, spent his life listening to human speech, listening more deeply for what lay under the surface of the language.

Homo loquens (“man-who-speaks”) is homo convictus (“man-who-is-convicted/convinced”), the creature who establishes finite existence in time by powerful, unshakeable ‘convictors’ that anchor us against the chaos.

What we often describe as irrational speech, is, in fact, “convictional language”, the hidden power of which can only be understood by a kind of “situational analysis, i.e., the life “situation” (historical-convictional context) of the one who is speaking. Our varying perceptions are determined by the less conscious hidden convictions of implicit needs and unquestioned cultural traditions.

What is missing in the national debate is public expression of the non-rational perceptions of the word ‘gun’ and the unspoken convictions that shape our different perceptions.
We not only hear the word ‘gun’ differently. We hear different things differently.

Until we come together to discuss what we hear when we hear the word – our non-rational (not un-rational, as in opposed to reason, but non-rational, as in beneath the presumptions of reason) convictional worlds, the gun debate will be a shouting match that finds no common ground.

A simple exercise of word association demonstrates the difference.

Say the word ‘gun’ and listen for what it evokes in the hearer. In the ears of one, the word ‘gun’ means ‘safety’ and ‘protection’. In the ears of others, it means ‘without protection’ or ‘threat’.

But if we listen carefully to the apparently opposite responses, we discover a common ground they share: the threat of insecurity. The threat of chaos.

Whenever we hear a scream, something powerful is under assault. Chaos threatens. We cry out against the chaos. We cry out against death and extinction.

In Man Before Chaos, Zuurdeeg claims that, from its very beginning, western culture has been bound up with a powerful dread of chaos. Even Plato’s philosophy, argues Zuurdeeg, is born of a cry.

“Socrates has died. He himself does not fit very well into Athens’ political life. He is naked and defenseless and is not ashamed of it. He has the courage to cry against chaos and for Being and Goodness. All this has been smothered by the comfortable, although often quarrelsome, classical and medieval philosophy and theology. Who can live by a cry? Who can stand to hear such disturbing noise? Clear and calm reasoning under the guidance of venerable old philosophical schools (or just as respectable church fathers) enables us to live, make church and civilization possible. Who can endure permanently Plato’s uncertain, unsafe balance on the b rink of the abyss of chaos? By what does a man live? By a cry? Claims? The careful and broad elaboration of philosophy? All of them?” (Man Before Chaos, pp 43-44)

In the current debate about guns, the life situations, cultural traditions, and life experiences of the hearers are “worlds” apart. Perhaps…perhaps…if we could find the space to listen more deeply to our different cries in the face of chaos, we would find the common ground of homo convictus and move to something deeper than the shouting.

How I See the World

My way of listening and seeing is profoundly shaped by Willem Frederik Zuurdeeg, the late Professor of the Philosophy of Religion and author of An Analytical Philosophy of Religion, and Man Before Chaos: Philosophy Is Born in a Cry, completed following Zuurdeeg’s untimely death by his colleague and friend, Esther Cornelius Swenson, my undergraduate college professor.

They were those rare Christian philosopher-theologians whose work crossed the solid line between the philosophical rigors of empiricism and linguistic analysis, on the one hand, and the depths of existentialists Sartre, Heidegger, Camus, and Marcel and their precursors Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard.

Every day I start out with a fresh-brewed cup of coffee and read the newspaper. What a way to start a day!!! “Don’t give me no bad news, no bad news, no bad news!” But most of the news that’s printed is just that: bad news.

But good news reporting is a thing of joy and a call for celebration. My heroes include muckrakers like A.J. Muste, reporters like Edward R. Murrow, Harrison Salisbury, Daniel Schorr, Bill Moyers, Paul Krugman, and the comedians whose irreverent and sometimes coarse humor exposes the absurd and helps us laugh when we would cry: Jon Stuart, Bill Maher, Lewis Black, Steven Colbert.

I come at the news from a different angle than professional journalism or comedy. My ears are tuned by Willem Zuurdeeg, Esther Swenson, other beloved teachers at Maryville College, McCormick Theological Seminary, and Harvard Divinity School; the people of the congregations and campuses where I have been privileged to minister, and the criminal defense clients of the Legal Rights Center, Inc. where Dostoevsky’s world of Crime and Punishment, Dom Sebastian Moore’s The Crucified Jesus Is No Stranger, and Jesus’ Beatitudes and parables helped me to hear a deeper Voice than the cries that sometimes drove them and their defense lawyers to despair.

I have always had the sense of living at the edge of existence. From the edge I listen for the spoken and unspoken convictions “where ignorant armies clash by night” (Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach“) to win our minds and hearts, the wars between and among ideologies, ideals, prejudices, states, nations, political parties, religions, economic convictions that shape us for good or for ill.

Lately I have been drawn back to Gabriel Marcel’s The Mystery of Being and Homo Viator to which Dr. Swenson introduced me in college but which were then beyond my experience or interest. Many years later, I find myself more and more at home in the mystery of being itself. I resonate with William Sloane Coffin’s reflection in his last years of life following a stroke.

There is a Zen paradox whereby we may lack everything yet want for nothing. the reason is that peace, that is, deep inner peace, comes not with meeting our desires but in releasing ourselves from their power.  I find such peace is increasingly mine. It’s not that I feel I’m withdrawing from the world, only that I am present in a different way. I’m less intentional than “attentional.” I’m more and more attentive to family and friends and to nature’s beauty. Although still outraged by callous behavior, particularly in high places, I feel more serene, grateful for God’s gift of life. For the compassions that fail not, I find myself saying daily to my loving Maker, “I can no other answer make than thanks, thanks, and ever thanks.”

– William Sloane Coffin, Credo