To Find God: An Existential Argument for the Passionate

When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. (Revelation 8:1-2)

Bergman-101

In Western literature and especially film, we encounter certain philosophical motifs that toy with man’s existential situation, as it were. From Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, we as the audience are just enamored with these themes that address some of the most important questions in life: love, passion, truth, sin, meaning, God, despair, and many others. The utilization of these themes function as a sort of perverse art – shifting and constantly disrupting our everyday experience with the “usual”; pushing us to the heights of our existential vertigo.

French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) in his Pensées presents us with the reality of death as an attention grabber:

One needs no great sublimity of soul to realize that in this life there is no true and solid satisfaction, that all our pleasures are mere vanity, that our afflictions are infinite, and finally that death which threatens us at every moment must in a few years infallibly face us with the inescapable and appalling alternative of being annihilated or wretched without eternity. Nothing could be more real or more dreadful than that. Let us put on a bold a face as we like: that is the end awaiting the world’s most illustrious life. [1]

There is a scene from Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) where Woody is conversing with his parents about his conversion to Catholicism. After trying to explain to his father why he made the “dramatic change”, Woody interestingly asks his father, “You’re old, aren’t you afraid of dying?” After saying a few more words, his father replies: “I’ll either be unconscious or I won’t. If not, I’ll deal with it then. I’m not gonna worry now.” This is the central aim of Pascal’s point: to create that worry.

Pascal is trying to create this worry within you so that you might be sensible; and hence, passionate towards a pursuit for truth [2]. As Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft rightly discusses this matter of being passionate: “Fine, be an agnostic, then, if you will, or even an atheist, but be an honest and passionate one. If you honestly think religion is just a fairy tale, then expose it. But don’t patronize it, or the people who believe it. Wake them up if you think it’s a dream” [3].

This is why I believe Kreeft is right where he says that the entire goal of reading Pascal’s Pensées, Augustine’s Confessions,  or say Kierkegaard’s Training in Christianity, is not so much to be moved [towards religion], but towards envy: “Envy of their passion, and shame at your lack of it” [4]. Approaching these questions in a heart of sincerity (dare I repeat?) and passion is the proper attitude to have when pursuing truth. Moreover, that we shouldn’t be operating within this mode of indifference so as to treat these questions as ones only worthy for philosophers and great religious men.

To summarize what is to come then, I hope that I as the author can only function as the medium between you and God; to properly designate you as what Kierkegaard called a “white light” in the face of eternity. You, the individual, are “not a fall but a peak, not peripheral but a secret center, a principle of freedom and personal responsibility” [5]. Furthermore, to draw upon this individual’s fear and trembling “about its eternal destiny, [deep consciousness] of its solitude, finitude and fallibility” [6]. Kierkegaard was surely a master at this art of “stepping out of the way” as author. John Caputo explains:

As the author, [Kierkegaard] argued, he himself is nobody, as good as dead, infinitely light relative to the gravity of the reader’s existential fate. . . This is not the ‘infinite irony’ of a prankster but existential irony, indeed, finally, it is Christian irony, the irony of a man who sought a way to excite Christian passion in his readers without interposing between the individual and God and without posing as an authority or as a personally worthy representative of the Christian life. [7]

The Reality of Death 

Pascal once made the shocking declaration: “Anyone with only a week to live will not find it in his interest to believe that all this is just a matter of chance. Now, if we were not bound by our passions, a week and a hundred years would come to the same thing” [8]. To refer to another scene from Hannah and Her Sisters (excuse the subtitles), view the following:

The interesting thing to notice in this scene is Woody’s initial despair of being confronted with the news about his brain tumor. Once he is told that he is okay, he starts to run out into the streets celebrating that he is going to be just fine. All of a sudden, you notice that he begins to slow down and come to a complete stop: even though he has been given the good news of his health, he still hasn’t escaped the clutches of death. This is an interesting subject that Allen presents (I believe) brilliantly in his films.

With respect to our own situation outside of the doctor’s office, it is as if we are confronted by Death from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Though we aren’t given the opportunity to play chess with him in order to be freed and let go – as Antonius Block does – we really have no other choice but to follow behind him once he comes calling our name. However, there is something interesting to notice in the Hollywood films and the artistic portraits that present death as this black hooded figure – pale, low-monotone voice, tall, slow moving, etc. – that we should be careful to take away from.

The symbolism I believe that we are supposed to take away from this picture is one of fear and mystery. Namely, that we don’t know what lies beyond it’s wholistic embrace of us (mystery) and hence this may provoke an ignorant fear of not knowing what is ahead. Thus, I believe it is for this reason that we should seriously consider the question of whether or not there is meaning in life, if there is a God who instantiates this meaning, and most importantly of all if we can be in fellowship with Him.

Of course, am I thence suggesting that the reality of death points to the existence of God? As if, the existence of man’s finitude requires an explanation from God’s being. No, that is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that sensitive to this entire matter is not so much the particular position held (agnosticism, Christianity, atheism, etc.) but rather the passion of the subject’s pursuit for truth. Namely, to not act as if these issues can be taken on from the sidelines; to not treat them as theoretical complexities but as existentially relevant questions that require our immediate attention. To conclude this section then, I am going off of Pascal’s point that death creates passion.

Conclusions on Seeking Truth 

Although rational arguments for the existence of God of course have their logical operation, they are nonetheless psychologically weak. More so than minds we are concerned for hearts; it is the heart that needs to be changed. Of course, that isn’t to say that the arguments aren’t effective or useful, but they do not have any salvific weight so as to coerce someone into fellowship with God, passionate commitment to Christ, and so forth. I am concerned for the passionate individual with a focus on truth – to find happiness and stop pursuing vanity for the sake of cheap, fast-food emotional experiences that don’t develop the individual for the “white light” that he or she truly is.

___________________________

Notes:

  • [1] Quoted from Peter Kreeft, Jacob’s Ladder: 10 Steps to Truth (Ignatius Press: 2013), p. 15.
  • [2] See ibid., p. 17.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 18.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 20.
  • [5] John Caputo, How to Read Kierkegaard (Granta Publications: 2007), p. 3.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 6.
  • [8] Blaise Pascal, Pensees. Penguin/Krailsheimer trans. (Penguin Classics: 1966) 326.
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