The Void not suicide

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“Rebirth” by Delawer-Omar

I’ve been enjoying a Facebook conversation of Paul Hessert’s wonderful book Christ and the End of Meaning. I’ve quoted from Hessert’s book here before. It’s not an easy book to digest, but with the help of others each chapter’s review reveals bit more. Irish philosopher Peter Rollins also has an online discussion of the book, so naturally some of Rollins’ reading of Hessert is part of the conversation I’m in. If you haven’t encountered Rollins’ provocative and controversial ideas, check him out.

Rollins over-reaches, I think, in making his point against the “structure of meaning” we adopt from culture. I think he too indiscriminately dismisses the essential narrative/meaning-making structure of experience. It’s almost as if Rollins disposes of what we call the transcendentals (beauty, truth, goodness) or views them as impositions of fallen culture. I may be misunderstanding him, but I’m more confident Hessert isn’t doing this, and I want to focus on Hessert anyhow. But I fear that in trying to make my point (defending ‘meaning’ and ‘desire’), I might be understood as defending things I don’t believe in (i.e., false narratives and structures of meaning imposed on us by culture). In reading through Hessert (Ch. 2) again, I think I see his point more clearly, and I’d like to try to describe the common ground.

1) We are natural meaning-makers. On the one hand, we’re naturally driven to interpret our lives in meaningful ways – existentially, rationally, aesthetically, etc. We construct a ‘sense of self’ (an ‘identity’). This sense of self provides our answers to the questions, ‘Who am I really?’ and ‘What is my place in [the meaning of] the universe?’ question that get answered in terms of identity, relationships, belonging, significance, permanence, purpose, etc.). All textbook stuff.

2) Meaning-making as world-constructing. As finite, human beings, however, we don’t come into the world with pre-installed interpretations of life that give us the world as satisfying and meaningful. We’re born into the questions, not the answers. We have to ‘world-construct’ or compose our sense of self, and the materials out of which we build are the relationships and events of our lives, the very things whose meaning we’re seeking to establish. This search becomes a venture of despair for all of us. Why? Because nothing in or of the world (none of the ‘materials’ I use to world-construct) can tell me ‘who’ I am and what I mean. Why not? Because everything in the world is, like me, looking for its own meaning and purpose. Everything created is in that same fix, asking the same question. Indeed, to be created and finite just is to ask this question (a point on which Rollins and I may disagree if, as I suspect, he judges the question itself as misguided; that is, he sees the gospel as a way to free oneself from the questions since, in his view, there are no answers, only ways to live without them). Anyhow, we experience this failure immediately in life, but it typically takes a life-time to admit the failure of everything in the world to be a source of meaning and purpose. Hopefully our journey leads us to the Void, where only faith can lead us on.

3) Replacing ‘World’ with ‘God’. Now,  what is often said (which I’m guessing some read me as offering) is something like this: “Look, stop trying to derive meaning and satisfaction from anything in the world and just get it from God instead. God is not, like the world, caught up in some existential search. As benevolent creator, God can do for you what the world has failed to do for you – viz., give your life meaning and purpose.”

What I hear Hessert saying to this is: This isn’t enough. It’s not enough simply to replace ‘World’ with ‘God’ as the source from which we derive our meaning and satisfaction and leave everything else the same. There’s something else we’ve gotten badly wrong in confusing faith with the belief that if we just put ‘God’ in the place of ‘World’ then life will become satisfying and meaningful. There’s something structurally wrong here.

What’s structurally wrong is that this mere replacement leaves in place a fundamental failure to relate to God in terms of creaturely nothingness. It leaves unaddressed the mistaken priorities in how we self-relate (and world-relate and God-relate). Amazingly, it’s possible to replace the ‘World’ as our source for happiness with ‘God’ and still be unspeakably miserable. How so? Because the Self (the “I”) is still at the center, in charge of the meaning-making with both ‘God’ and ‘World’ as options on a meaning-making menu from which the Self chooses (from some imaginary location outside the two). What’s overlooked is the fact that the Self is constitutive of the ‘World’ that needs to be displaced. Too often today, even if ‘God’ replaces ‘World’ within a person’s explicit beliefs, the structure that supports and defends the Self is still in place.

4) Idol swapping. Leaving this structure in place leaves us with a Christianity that amounts essentially just swapping out idols – ‘God’ instead of ‘this’ or ‘that’ (wherein God is another this or that, if you follow me). This leaves intact the structures of existential despair. Even as Creator, Sustainer, and Savior, if God remains that which revolves around the Self, if this structure is in place, we’re still idolaters. If this is what Hessert is getting at (and I think it is), then (a) count me in, although (b) Rollins, I think, is saying something different (and more objectionable), but that’s another discussion.

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Dylan Guest sculpture

5) Restructuring and relinquishment. The fundamental restructuring (not mere replacing) that heals and redeems spells the death of the Self in all its false forms. It is an exchange that is both death and life: death of the autonomous Self, made relative to God as the Absolute in light of the Self’s nothingness. When our capacity for self-reflection (which cannot itself be an evil), for choice (which choices we cannot but make), and for meaning-making (the capacity for which cannot itself be evil and which defines choice inherently) is relinquished in the recognition of our nothingness, then structurally things are radically different. Now our meaning is “given” to us (not autonomously constructed “by us”) and relinquishment becomes possession, but a ‘possessing’ which is ‘being possessed’, a ‘desiring’ which is fulfilled in ‘being desired by’ God. In this sense we abandon our structure of meaning, but we are not unstructured or without meaning.

6) Transcendental structure. There are at least two different “structures” in Hessert’s discussion. Though he only discusses one, he hints at the other. One structure is the Self as centered and autonomous (whether bowing to an idol or to God) with God revolving around the Self in an economy of supply and demand that the Self orders and manages in terms of ‘power’ and ‘wisdom’ (1Cor 2) legitimized by culture. This structure has to be done away with. But what cannot be done away with is the transcendental structure of the human spirit – those God-given capacities (for thought, choice, self-relationality, self-transcendence, aesthetic perception and valuation).

The false self misappropriates these capacities in a despairing venture for meaning and certainty in ways culture permits, but functionally speaking these capacities remain intact for us even after our subjective powers of perception and agency become relativized by Christ. It is “I, not I, but Christ who lives in me” and not simply “I no longer live; Christ lives instead.” To judge these capacities as essentially mistaken or as an imposition of culture is to judge as mistaken the very God-given structure which makes possible “hearing” the preaching of Christ crucified and “faithing” (Hessert’s terms for “active, living, faith” that refuses cultural impositions of power and wisdom) in response. And that kind of dismissal, I suggest, is just the autonomous Self donning yet another disguise – this time the refusal to desire at all, the refusal to make-meaning at all, the refusal to feel or make aesthetic valuations at all, a kind of refusal to ‘be’ – all of which are impossible refusals to carry out. One sees how corrupt the autonomous Self is and so chooses to starve it into non-existence by denying all desire and meaning. But this leaves the Self in place just as securely as the culturally imposed structures leave it in place, because to deny desire and meaning is not to affirm the truth of one’s nothingness. That’s just a kind of suicide, and embracing the Void is not suicide.

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Nothing but nihil

skeleton-mirrorIf you’re unfamiliar with Dr. Alexei Nesteruk (Senior Lecturer, Department of Mathematics, University of Portsmouth, UK), I encourage you to explore his work. Start with his Light From the East. Here I’d like to share an interesting article of his (from 2005) that I’ve just run across this week. Given events in my own life the past month, this piece spoke deeply to me. Parts of the article connect with things I’ve tried to express about the Void, death, identity formation, meaning-making, and I’ll stop there. If it doesn’t connect with you the way it did with me, that’s fine. Its effect upon me had as much to do with where I am these days as with anything else. I tried to express my sense of discovering the meaning of life in the context of the Void here where I describe experiencing (as opposed to just believing in) “being spoken into being.” It comes up in Nesteruk.

There is a moment, a place, an experience of one’s own self, precipitated by suffering, loss, or the careful contemplation of one’s own mortality, that brings one into the truth of one’s utter contingency and absolute ontological poverty. James Loder calls it the Void. It’s depicted in the picture that accompanies this post. I spent quite some time trying to find an appropriate picture to represent this Void. Not easy. Every representation I considered portrayed the Void as outside one’s self, as a threat that is external to one’s existence. But the truth is that the Void is one’s self, an experience of one’s own existence. I don’t know how else to say it. If you’ve entered the black abyss there in the picture, you know. If you’re still under the delusion that your worth and value to God are something God perceives (as other than his own value expressed ad extra) and is attracted to and so dies on the Cross to affirm so you can achieve self-realization, in turn enriching and growing God’s own existence, then what I’m describing will all seem BS, because part of the Void is coming to see our gratuity and radical contingency in precisely this sense. You’ll just have to encounter what I’m talking about later; and you will. I’ll see you on the other side.

Nesteruk explores the Void in other terms in his piece “The Universe Transcended: God’s ‘Presence in Absence’ in Science and Theology” (2005). But whatever you call it, it has to be faced. Momento mori (“Remember to die”) so it is said. It is not evil, by the way, though relating to it falsely spawns all manner of evil. It is simply the truth of contingent finitude. We are loath to confront it. It is the death of everything in us other than the good God gives and invites us eternally toward. But that incomparable glory of being we crave is knowable by us only on the other side of the Void. Nesteruk nails its logic and description, and I highly recommend it. Here’s a portion:

In order to know about God, one’s mind should descend inside the hellish furnace of the Big Bang in order to realise all emptiness of impersonal being. Only then becoming aware about the Big Bang as merely a lure of the evil one, who wants to distract and detach our consciousness from the reality of it hypostatic incarnate existence, is it that human consciousness attempts to acquire back itself as existence in a concrete person. But having divested itself, i.e. cleansing itself from all sorts of contents about impersonal substance, hypostatic consciousness realises the whole scale of the paradoxical tragedy of its own existence: on the one hand, being incarnate consciousness, it exists in the context of substance of the world, but is not rooted in this substance; on the other hand it does not understand the foundations of its own facticity: it feels itself brought into being without knowing its reasons and motives. It is through this acute feeling of ontological loneliness and an incessant desire to enquire about the foundations of personal life, that some other channels of human communication with reality at large experience transformation so that the intentionality of repentance comes forth, and at this initial stage one can claim that faith in God is called out in a being by the power of God and his Spirit. In a way the very fact of awareness of the loss of personhood and the mystery of its own facticity comes from acquiring a sort of faith. To feel loneliness in the universe and abandonment by God one needs faith: “those who do not believe in God do not know the meaning of being abandoned by Him.”

And when a human being by the virtue of its fate is placed to contemplate the perspective of its finitude and finality, the perspective of its own dissolution and return into that substance from which it was born, at this very moment, man realises the scale of its own falleness and apostasy against God – that single and life-giving source which makes human life indeed the most valued thing in the universe. At this very moment a human being reduces itself to the zero of feeling alone and realising a tragic mode of existence of a person in a vast and hardly comprehensible universe without a link with God, in its own effective loneliness in being withdrawn from God, that God who is still present in his incomprehensible absence. This acute awareness of the mystery of life in personhood, which is devoid of any visible care from God and comprehension of its own facticity is described by Archimandrite Sophrony as “uncreated energy,” as the arrival of the Divine Light, and the entry of the Spirit of God into the heart of a person: “…through the repentance given to me – even up to the extend when I hated myself – I unexpectedly for myself experienced a wonderful world, and uncreated light surrounded me, permeated through me and transformed me into light, and was giving to me in the Kingdom of God of Love. The Kingdom to which ‘there will no be end’ (c.f. Matthew 18: 10-14).”

This entry of the Spirit acts also as the invocation through the repentant soul (so that the intentionality of the Spirit enters human cognitive life only through the ontological repentance in which the tragic place of hypostatic consciousness in the case of detachment from God is realised) of that God who is the real Father to all humanity and to the whole universe. Here the Spirit exercises its action in a human heart providentially: through the awareness of the tragic facticity of personal life and effective abandonment by God, the economy of the Spirit reveals itself tacitly by showing us God in the conditions when God withdraws from His phenomenality and is given to us through some mediated manifestations.

A moment of true vision, when man faces himself before the abyss of nothingness, when he perceives, through being providentially abandoned by God, all transitiveness of cosmological being, this moment one can compare with that grace, which is given to a man for the first time, which enters the reality of the human heart when one is reduced to zero and when one is open those flows of Divine energies which transform the human constitution and when God, being initially absent in human life, comes back into consciousness of a man in the form of ‘presence in absence’. Afterwards this ‘presence in absence’ becomes that stable phase in the human condition in which human freedom is subjected to a trial: freedom either to achieve the fullness of communion with God, or, alternatively, to reject God and to live blind life by being turned onto itself through following the cult of mere rationality. (bold emphases mine, all the quirky spelling is his!)