(Translation: I am going to attempt to draw together several different pieces of writing, which I have been reading recently. The difficulty in doing this is that each piece of writing is difficult to relate because of their own ambiguity and by their divergent perspectives on the questions: who are we and what are we doing here?)
My aim is to reflect upon several contrastive writings, hoping to exposit a thought for your personal reflection as well as mine. The texts are as follows:
1. The Plague by Albert Camus
2. "Kierkegaard and Nietzsche," an excerpt of Existenzphilosophie by Karl Jaspers appearing in Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre
3. "'Turning' Backward", an essay by John J. McDermott in The Drama of Possibility
4. The books of Job and Jonah from the Holy Scriptures.
If this selection seems too vast or disparate (or even, unfamiliar) I will try to do my best to make it recognizable.
Part I: Existential Sensibility and Ethics
Camus's book is written as an historical narrative of one who experienced first-hand a terrible plague in the city of Oran. Without spoiling the story, the narrator is one of the main characters of the story and this colors the presentation of the story, appropriately displaying a worldview that is best called "Existential Sensibility." Throughout the narrative we find the juxtaposition of the inevitable, capricious, destruction of the plague and the efforts of the populous to make sense of what seems an otherwise senseless ravaging. The story is draining, but its lighter moments come in the form of philosophical reflections and the portrayal of an ethics of life in the face of utter biological corruption. There are contrasting viewpoints offered: the religious, which is presented in dogmatic form throughout, but which is also strikingly altered in the face of the corruption; the atheist, which takes various forms, but which boils down to a indefatigable humanism that pursues one of two ends: sainthood or health. Since the religious presentation is already critically deconstructed I will leave it be, for it is the two existential viewpoints of atheism that matter for us at present.
The saint seeks salvation of the self, not by an ultimate deliverance from the corruption of the world, but more like an achievement within the corruption of the world. It is not a rising above, but a passing through. Nor does the corruption become incorruptible in the passage (if it can make it through), but it is somehow mitigated without self-deception, bad faith, or a denial of all of corruption's devastation.
The physician seeks a less romantic, but nonetheless as difficult an aim--to heal the corruption where its effects are most severely felt. There is no passage through into peace, but is rather like a boat that floats on the tide of the ocean--now upon the crest of the wave looking down over the world with an uncomfortable calm; now down in the shadow of the implacable force of the sea (of existence) that threatens to demolish all in its crash. All eventually sink into death, swallowed by the undulating appetite of nature, but the physician, whose thirst for life is only quench in keeping as many afloat as he can, pursues what measure of amelioration his efforts are able to effect.
Both of these atheists embody the existential sensibility, which is ultimately an ethics of humanistic relief: do what one can to alleviate suffering and foster growth of the individual in whatever way is possible. This ethic is situational insofar as it views every instance as unique, but it does not seek for changing principles to meet this unique moment, since every moment is connected to every other so that some measure of consistency is maintained. Whatever this consistency is for the existentialist, it determines how he will respond to the unique moment. Reflection is there, but may come before hand, during, or after the moment. Subsequent moments are conditioned by reflection in such a way as to purify the ethics of superficiality (whether moral, experiential, intellectual, and so on).
The saint seems closest to the ethics of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the physician seems closer to the existentialists who live in the malaise of the 20th century in the midst of WWII.
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche
Only a few brief comments are required on this piece of writing to further develop the existential sensibility I am trying to portray. Jaspers focuses on the contributions to philosophy that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche have accomplished more than their particular ethics or existential sensibility. Still, he says a few things that further expose what existential sensibility can be understood to be.
First, the questioning of reason and exposing the limitations of rationality. Both are irrational, but not the kind of emotional irrationality that we see in the temper tantrums of toddlers or in those grieving or enraged. Their irrationality is calm, considerate, and disconcerted by the ineffectual efforts of the "Enlightenment" to answer the needs of humanity. For all the pristine abstract systems that philosophy can and has built over the course of history, systems are incapable of nourishing the human being in his present existence (and existing) in the world.
Second, this ineffectuality of reason leads to a profound loneliness for both K. and N., which is only addressed through reflection. Reflection has been mentioned above, and it is key to existential sensibility because it is what enables human being to escape from the self-deception by which we seek to escape the reality of the human situation. The human situation is characterized by inescapable ambiguity in our "knowledge" of the world, the horrifying expression of humanity's destructive nature, and the ultimate death of all things and resulting nothingness which lies beyond death's pale.
Third, and where existential sensibility links up with Christian ethics (an odd pairing to be sure, but all things come back to Christianity at some point): a desire for what is most basic. Both K. and N. seek to remove all the edifices that human rationality has build upon what is truly basic. For K. the basic is found in the New Testament Christianity and for N. the basic is found in pre-Socratic Hellenism. In response to the ease and slumber afforded by "system" both K. and N. are radical in their explication of the basic. K.'s exegesis of New Testament Christianity is eros toward the absurd and concomitant martyrdom for the its sake. N.'s exegesis of pre-Socratic being is eros toward will to power and concomitant exile from the herd for its sake. Restated simply, K.'s ethics require one to pursue the plain morality statements of the New Testament (particular of Christ) with the most literal and complete rigor: forsaking all else for simple (but the most difficult) obedience. For N. there is no moral statements for one to obey, but rather than tossing up our hands or following blind passions we are to bravely choose our own way accepting all consequences (including those that systems of morality would consider evil) with joy.
Fourth, and naturally following from K.'s and N.'s explication of the most basic, existential sensibility sees human choice as the most excruciating and troublesome fact of existence, but also as its most inevitable and liberating possibility of existence. To be self-determining in the face of inescapable determinism is the contradiction which all existentialists must face, embrace, and walk hand-in-hand with into the ever-dawning day of death and the void that lies beyond it.
Professor McDermott is a professor at Texas A&M and is my teacher for the course in Existentialism that I am presently taking. His essay is self-coined as a "jeremiad," which is a style, taken from the prophet Jeremiah of the Old Testament, that pronounces the present and impending doom, which we have brought upon ourselves and calls for a subsequent actions to resolve things before they become inescapably worse.
The important consideration of Dr. McDermott's essay, which completes my presentation of existential sensibility is the idea of a "turning." He takes the idea of a "turn" from the etymology of the Hebrew verb, teshuvah, "to recover" or as being "in recovery." He says explicitly:
It is a turn of the heart, not simply of the mind, even if there be such a phenomenon of the mind, on its own. A teshuvah is not primarily an enlightenment, as when John Dewey first read The Principles of Psychology by William James. Nor is it akin to the "dream" of Descartes, or to the separate, but equivalent, intellectually shattering discovery of Kant's Prolegomena by Nicholas Berdyaev and Martin Buber. We come closer if we think of the tolle lege ["take up and read"] episode in Augustine's life, or Kierkegaard's decision to "make trouble" as his Point of View.
Thus, a turn or a turning in the existential sensibility is a recognition of ("I was blind but now I see") and repentance from ("go and sin no more") what could be called the "sins" of: self-deception and bad faith. Self-deception is akin to those blind spots of the mind/heart and the will where we willfully or ignorant believe what is not really true. Bad faith are those willing actions against the truth that we know or suspect beneath what we are willing to admit. Thus, the turn is essential to any "ethics" of the existential sensibility because it exposes our deficiencies in such a way that we pursue a course of courage away from self-deception and bad faith--corrupting as they are in a corrupt existence.
Existential Sensibility can be summed up in the following expressions:
1. Sainthood/Healing: the aim of ethics is to pass through corruption into something purer or to heal corruption in a way that makes purity possible without the boldness to exclaim: holy!
2. Reason is incomplete to the task of living because no overarching system really answers our needs.
3. The inadequacy of reason leaves us "ontologically" lonely (that is, always lonely from the beginning and without escape).
4. Loneliness leads us to seek out what is truly basic to our existence in the hope of something real can be found in the fundamental.
5. What is basic is indeterminate apart from human choosing. You must be brave to choose for yourself what is basic and face without fear (and with joy) what necessarily must follow.
6. Essential to this choosing is experiencing a turning, which draws us out of self-deception and away from bad faith and into a less corrupting becoming in the world that must end in death and the nothing beyond.
Part II: Ethics, Job and Jonah
There are many places in the Holy Scriptures where one can turn to find ethical commands and principles. I take as my starting points two narratives, which have been taken by liberal theologians to be non-historical morality tales. While I do not share this conclusion with liberal theologians, I do think that this recognition represents a place of connection for unbelievers and for skeptics of the Bible and its supremacy and sufficiency for life and faith. In the stories of Job and Jonah we find exemplary ethical figures: exemplary not for their faith, but for their dogmatism. If this claim piques your interest and raises eyebrows, all the better. Because beside the exemplary ethical figures of Job and Jonah we find the defining ethical figure: God Himself. While I am no existentialist, I believe that the present world seems assured of the inscrutability of our existence in an increasingly globalized and yet fragmented world. In order to face these fears, we must as Christians own up to our own, true version of inscrutability: God's Hidden Will. Our certainty and the certainty of our ethics does not rest in our reason or its ability to formulate a comprehensive system of accounts for each and every jot and tittle of existence. Nor does it rest in our existential sensibilities. What it does rest in is our ability to humble ourselves before the revealed character of God and finding in Him our source of love, which is the only impetus for ethical action that does not founder in abstraction or fizzle in the feeble choices of men.
Contrary to what many believe, the central figure in Job is not the man Job, but the God who is Just and is Judge. Job the righteous is made a mockery by the malicious will of Satan, but by the superintending will of God Job is made an example of what it means to be humble before the only righteous One: God very God. Though with his lips Job did not sin against God in the immediate aftermath of Satan's attack upon all he owned and was, Job surely spoke without knowledge when he subsequently appeals to Heaven for God to act as Vindicator of Job. Job thought himself righteous, rather, Job KNEW himself righteous because of his impeccable obedience to God's law, and not just in a pharisaical fashion of creating man-made rules, but in the true spirit of serving the poor and widows and judging the unrighteous according to righteous principles. Job was the epitome of the Godly Christian, to use an anachronism. But in his obedience Job did not recognize the plight of humanity, he could not see the corruption that is ontological to our existence. In looking at his own holiness, Job could not see the incomparable holiness of God. But Job was made to see when God confronted him at the end of the narrative. God did not vindicate Job, nor did He gives Job the reasons after which Job sought. Rather, God gave Job a lesson in His character. Job could not see that his questions impugned faith. Not because they were foreign to his situation, for indeed they are the questions that all human beings would desire to ask in the face of immense loss and suffering. No, Job's questions impugned faith because he could not (until the end) relinquish his own righteousness before God to the Sovereign righteousness of God and His superior Will. In the end God restored to Job all that he had lost and more and Job's righteousness remained intact throughout, but now with a humility that would submit itself in faith to the inscrutable Will of God in bringing about His purposes in every detail, whether horrific to us or magnificent.
But lest we risk faltering upon an ill-proportioned picture of God's character that would only take account of His Justice and Judgment, let us turn to the figure who encountered the Mercy and Grace of God in an equally inscrutable fashion.
The story of Jonah is read on the highest holy day of the Jewish calendar. It is recognized as the perfect picture of God's grace and mercy upon humanity whose sinfulness, though bleak, is not irredeemable in God's eyes. The significance of Jonah in discussing ethics is not apparent upon a superficial reading of the narrative. The unfolding of the tale reserves important facts until after the events have been relayed to the reader. Why did Jonah disobey? It was not out of fear. It was not out of cowardice. It was out of a strong sense of two things. Jonah revered God's law so much that he was willing to flee God's command so that he could see God's just judgment called down upon the unrighteous people of Ninevah. But Jonah also knew that God's grace and mercy extended beyond the people of Israel, to the unrighteousness of all men who would repent of their sins before Him. Jonah knew that if Ninevah repented at his word from God that God would relent of His judgment and allow these unrighteous men to live without paying the full penalty for their sins. But God's grace and mercy is also extended to Jonah, as it was to Job, because God desired Jonah to understand the fulness of His character, and not pick and choose for himself what God would be. God uses the qiqqayon (plant) to show Jonah that God is at liberty to have compassion upon what is His own creation. Jonah did not work to cultivate the qiqqayon, but he enjoyed its work enough to be angry when it was destroyed by the worm. Jonah had compassion on the plant for which he did not labor or cultivate, but he was willing to have God destroy the Ninevites (and their animals) whom God had created and caused to flourish upon the earth. God, despite the utter disregard of the Ninevites for His character and law, would see them spared from their sin because of His great mercy and grace. It is inscrutable to Jonah why God would spare these sinners, especially when compared to the destruction that God enables Satan to wreak in the life of Job the righteous.
What are we to make of Christian ethics? Is there a Christian Sensibility that can respond to Existential Sensibility, which has long since grown cold to abstract explanations, but still clings to some kind of truth and authenticity in this existence? There are systematic theological answers to the questions raised by the stories of Job and Jonah. There are also responses that we are supposed to have in our own person to the presentation of God's character in these two God-breathed accounts. It is not enough to know that God works all things for good, that He is Sovereign, that He is Just and Holy and Gracious and Merciful. These characteristics are true and in the abstract they give us a system of understanding that allows us to give reasonable answers to those who seek to use logic against God and Christianity. But if we do not find the existential (in the sense of embodied living in the world with other human beings and time-bound circumstances) response to God's character, we end up looking like Job and like Jonah who were blinded by the certainty of their own self-righteousness. Acknowledging the inscrutability of God's Will does not impugn the veracity of the knowledge we can and do possess about His character and the ethics which He has clearly given us in His Word. God's Law is not tossed aside because we do not understand all that He is doing in bringing about His own glory. Nevertheless, we ought not to pretend that our attempts to explain God to those who suffer in this sinful world will approach humility and love if we do not recognize how little we really know about the particularities of God's Sovereign acting in every circumstance. We must, like the Job of the end of his story say:
"I know that Thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of Thine can be thwarted. Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge? Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Hear now, and I will speak; I will ask Thee, and do Thou instruct me. I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees Thee; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes." Job 42:2-6
What we know we must speak with boldness. But we ought to be circumspect about knowledge and what it is we really know. If pretend to know more than Christ and Him crucified we risk our own self-deception and words spoken and deed done bad faith. Let what angels will dance on the head of a pin to our silent awe, and let what is clear be preached from our lips to the praise of God's glory and not our own self-righteousness.