Taking arms against a sea of existentialists

July 26th, 2017
by Chris

Having just completed editing a short introduction to Christian Existentialism (look out for “To Be Or Not To Be” from David Moffett-Moore in the near future), I was grateful to Partially Examined Life’s blog for links to two talks on Kierkegaard. (The good news is they’re around 15 minutes each, the bad news is they’re very condensed.) Dr. Moffett-Moore uses the words of one fictional gloomy Dane as an introduction to those of another real one, which is a touch I much appreciate.

I am also at the moment reading through Paul Hessert’s “Christ and the End of Meaning” with Peter Rollins’ patreon group. (By the way, I strongly recommend that no-one buys the book at the price I’m seeing it at today on Amazon – the price always skyrockets when the book is being used for a course or is copiously referred to online, and then generally relaxes to something more reasonable, as it’s out of print and there tend to be relatively few copies available, but also normally relatively few people who want a copy.)

Meaning, as far as Hessert is concerned in chapter 1, is equivalent to purpose, telos or, as the scholastics would have it, “final cause” (a description which jars with me, as my scientific background makes me restrict “cause” to efficient cause). This is very much the operating area for Kierkegaard and the existentialists who followed him. It is not, of course, the first meaning I would understand from the word “meaning” (I’ve just demonstrated that first meaning in action!), that being the relationship between a sign or symbol and the thing signified by the sign or symbol. That kind of meaning is the one which Derrida (perhaps playfully) said his objective was to destroy, and happily Hessert apparently does not think that Christ was a type of Derrida (or vice versa)…

I am only at present at chapter 3 of Hessert, but his major thesis is already clear in chapter 2 – as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”. It offends both systems of seeking meaning, as a supernatural intervention for the Jews or as a revelation of divine order for the Greeks. For Judaism, the Messiah (Christos) was to bring in an era of peace in which Israel is the nation to whom other nations defer – and he would reign as King over Israel on behalf of God, having a long life and many children. Not, absolutely not, an early, childless, death on the cross closely followed by the destruction of the Temple and a new exile for the Jews. The death of the Christos undoes the expected telos, of a Jewish renaissance and permanent preeminence among nations (at the very least). No wonder Paul calls his preaching a “skandalon”, the root of our words “scandal” and “scandalous”.

For the Greek (and by this time Roman) mode of thinking, we need to think more along the lines of complete failure being revealed as the ultimate meaning of existence. The insight into the underlying order of things which was expected from divine revelation was the death of the person identified with the ruling principles of the universe – more, indeed, than Derrida’s “destruction of meaning”; something best exemplified, in this day in which we are used to the idea of Christ crucified, by Niezsche’s “God is dead” as picked up by Thomas J.J. Altizer, which caused huge outrage, not least when my local vicar preached on the topic in a televised service in the early 70s!

A foolishness, said Paul; more a total absurdity. Though, of course, existentialism did eventually lead to movements such as Dada… Jesus was identified as the Logos, and one of the meanings ascribed to Logos in Greek thinking was “intelligible principle of existence” – a little like Stephen Hawking’s “Theory of Everything”, which he now doubts can be discovered, even assuming such a thing exists. For a physicist, the lack of any possibility of a foundational theory might be similarly disorienting – but then, for the most famous Physicist of recent times, Albert Einstein, it was inconceivable that everything rested on chance; he famously said “God does not roll dice”. And yet, most of Quantum Mechanics rests on the assumption that yes, things are, at root, probability densities.

One thing which strikes me forcibly, bringing these things together, is that Kierkegaard, Hessert and Rollins all seem to me to be practising a variant on the evnagelical formula for conversion. In that formula, firstly one has to persuade people that they are sinners and they are damned unless they accept Christ, a task which is increasingly difficult to achieve in the more and more secular and irreligious society I live in. “Good news; you’re all damned to eternal conscious torment” tends not to preach well in the climate of today. In much the same way, Kierkegaard, Hessert and Rollins want to persuade us that there is a fundamental absurdity about existence. Kierkegaard in particular suggests that we need to become anxious about our rootlessness, and condemns those who adhere to conventional systems of meaning without radical questioning which pulls the metaphorical carpet out from under our concepts of reality as being “inauthentic”.

It also strikes me that Hessert is proof texting, choosing a small passage from 1 Corinthians and loading it with theological significance (though he does allude to some passages from Galatians and Romans as well). I love speculative theology, but this does feel as if the selected passage is inadequate to bear the load he wants to impose, even when bolstered from elsewhere in Paul. Paul did, clearly, want to destroy the conventional Jewish and Greek concepts of how the world works, but he promptly spent most of the remainder of his seven authentic epistles loading up his concept of “Christos” with meaning (read Romans if you are not immediately convinced!). This was meaning both in the sense of telos and in the sense of signification; Paul thought the messianic age was already upon us, albeit it did not look like the conventional Jewish picture, and that Christ genuinely represented an insight into a new concept of reality, and not one which was fundamentally absurd, at least not to someone who had experienced the paradigm shift which Paul encouraged.

Granted, if Paul had been accurate when he dictated “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified”, things might have been different, but that was clearly rhetorical exaggeration. If he seemed to be resting for a moment in Holy Saturday (the only time I think Hessert’s approach might work), it was, for Paul, only clearing the ground in order to erect a new structure of meaning. Indeed, I think Hessert’s book would make a fine basis for any service on Holy Saturday, the day between the tragedy of crucifixion and the exhilaration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday, the day when “God is dead” makes the most sense in terms of the story of the gospels.

However, let’s just let Hessert have his way for the moment. What if there in fact IS no overarching purpose for existence; what if there IS no “theory of everything”? Is Christianity (or, at least, Paulianity) really the theological Dada or Punk, as Peter Rollins suggests? It’s tempting to suggest that existentialist concerns are totally anachronistic to Jesus’ teachings or Paul’s writings, but the first person to write “credo quia absurdum” (I believe because it’s absurd) was Augustine, in the fourth century…

We will go ahead and invent some meanings. As the much underrated philosopher Terry Prachett says, we are not so much homo sapiens (the knowing man) as pan narrans (the story-telling ape). We have developed with a propensity to see patterns in things, even when there are no patterns there (cloud castles, pictures in the emberse of a fire, fortunes from tea-leaves…). As the Norse epic Havamal puts it, “Cattle die and kinsmen die, thyself too soon must die, but one thing never, I ween, will die, — fair fame of one who has earned [it].” The creator of the gloomy Dane and of “to be or not to be” is read and performed wordwide 400 years after his death, and his fictional creations such as Macbeth and Prospero are world-famous – and his pictures of various English kings skew our appreciation of history to this day. We are going to tell stories about the world around us, come what may, whether they be grand narratives or scientific explanations of everyday phenomena. OK, there is value in not treating those stories as more than what they are – some of them may, perhaps, correspond exactly to the world as it actually is, but that is not demonstrable, and the history of Science indicates that there is always likely to be a better story (or theory) which can predict what happens a bit more accurately than the ones we have now.

Which stories should we adopt? Well, Terry Pratchett also wrote, in “Lords and Ladies” “The Monks of Cool, whose tiny and exclusive monastery is hidden in a really cool and laid-back valley in the lower Ramtops, have a passing-out test for a novice. He is taken into a room full of all types of clothing and asked: Yo, my son, which of these is the most stylish thing to wear? And the correct answer is: Hey, whatever I select.” In terms of style, that works perfectly well – but in terms of practicality, it might be better to select the mackintosh rather than the Hawaiian shirt if rain is forecast. If you’re not worried about getting wet and cold in order to preserve your cool, however? Maybe the Hawaiian shirt is better (granted, that’s a choice I would never make myself…)

I can always wear something different, or listen to a different story tomorrow…

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