Why Following God Should be Absurd
I was a well adjusted academic. Said no academic ever.
To prove it, one of my earliest memories of teaching philosophy was a lecture I gave on absurdity. And before you ask, “absurd” does not simply mean “stupid”.
In philosophical terms, absurdity is the moment when my expectations of meaning and order come up against the apparent reality. That apparent reality tells me, against my expectations, that no such meaning or order exists (Michael Casey’s book on meaninglessness is instructive here).
If I had it all over again, I would have made episodes of The Walking Dead compulsory material. I would have introduced them to Rick Grimes who in season after season, sought to provide a space for a meaningful life for him and his adopted family while escaping from a tsunami of zombies. Finally, at one point, he and many others make some admission that under all the islands of order they create, there lies nothing more than exertions of brute force and savagery that bears little difference to the zombies they are defending themselves against. As Rick says at one point, “We are the walking dead”.
However, this was that innocent age before zombies were a thing (again), so my students were introduced to something better for their brains (see what I did there?). These were the writings of Albert Camus (who gave us the definition of absurdity mentioned above) and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Because of restrictions in time, I only emphasised the common thread in both writers, which was their giving priority of real lived experience over illusions of reality posing as theories concocted in the mind. One of the most important illusions that had to be given up was the notion of order in the universe,(whether physiological or metaphysical. These ideas Nietzsche condemned as mere mirages propagated by the modern age. Like a mirage, the closer one got to this order, the faster it seemed to vanish in the face of real experience.
For both Camus and Nietzsche, the alternative to clinging onto an order that is not real, is to give into utter meaninglessness. Put another way, I can only really live when I commit myself to riding the waves of sheer luck. This was best put by Harvey Dent (better known as Two-Face) in The Dark Knight, who summarised the essence of that movie with this memorable quote:
The world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair.
Now, there is an instinct within many Christians that might cause many to dismiss Camus and Nietzsche. Against the affirmation of an orderless universe, Christians might turn to scripture and recite “He made the heavens with wisdom” (Ps 136:5) repeatedly and perhaps even fervently. However, the struggle becomes real when tragedy, loss or undeserved injury strike, as they do so like waves on the seashore, with every lap eroding that wall of order set against it.
What is more, as I made known to my students, the Scriptures themselves articulate the frustration borne out of the experience of absurity. There is a Scriptural witness to that experience of of a person coming to the conclusion that relying on the goodness of God is an exercise in futility, and this scriptural witness is even worked into the Liturgy of the Hours. Chapter 10 of the book of Job is a powerful case in point, but his experience may be summarised by the third verse in Psalm 69:3
I am exhausted with calling out, and my throat is hoarse, my eyes are worn out with waiting for my God
These and a host of other passages indicate that Divine Revelation is not indifferent to the experience of absurdity. What to do in the face of it is best summed up by the American Catholic spiritual writer Thomas Merton. He suggests that the Christian life, rather than an ordered existence, is one of constantly staring despair in the face. In his No Man is an Island, he wrote
It is better to find God on the threshold of despair than to risk our lives in a complacency that has never felt the need of forgiveness. A life that is without problems may literally be more hopeless than one that always verges on despair
Christians are in a manner similar to Camus and Nietzsche, called to embrace and bear absurdity, and be suspicious of those who deign to give easy answers in the face of suffering. In contrast to the often facile schema of pre-packaged answers popular with many well-meaning Christians, Psalm 69:3 provides a highly poetic, almost Romantic, alternative.
That line depicts a psalmist standing at a precipice, awaiting the arrival of an order that only God can bring, whilst at the same time becoming spiritually mummified by the heat of a nihilistic onslaught.
However, as much as it is a recognition of the precariousness of the Christian vocation, Psalm 69:3 is not a call to resign oneself to meaninglessness, since the line hints towards an eventual vindication of one’s waiting in the form of God’s triumphant arrival.
Indeed, the New Testament provides in the crucified Christ the embodiment of the mode of living articulated in Psalm 69:3. I suggest in my book Redeeming Flesh that, in actively and willingly moving towards His death, the Jesus embodies the embrace of absurdity of an innocent suffering the violence of a justice system, an open-armed embrace which results in the stretching out of His arms on the Cross. On Golgotha, Christ’s standing at the precipice is summarised by his uttering the famous lament in Psalm 22:1 – “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”.
Whilst articulating a lament and embracing this absurdity, Christ is also choosing to commit not to meaninglessness, but to the embrace of God, a commitment encapsulated in the cry “Father, into Your hands I commit my Spirit”.
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