Ruminating on Existence
Before we begin this little ramble, a big thanks to you, the reader, for making August the highest-viewed month in Church of the Malcontent history. We’ve had well over two hundred views, and the month isn’t even over yet! That makes this the fourth straight month to see positive growth in readership. Let’s keep that trend up! And I would be remiss to not thank my friends and colleagues Wes Spears and Austin Davis (hosts of Theophilusian Fragments and Life Under a Tree, respectively) for hosting my latest post, Muslims and Mosques and Imams, Oh My! which definitely gave me a boost last week. Much love, brothers. Now, to your regularly scheduled program…
For some strange reason, I cannot get the idea of existence off my mind. People keep posting Facebook statues about it (usually in the form of Rick Warren or John Piper quotes), I keep running across books about, and, for some strange reason, I am forced to deal with it on an almost daily basis (unless I flee to cyberspace, but even then I can only go so long before I need food or drink). So, being the culturally astute commentator that I am, I’ve decided to throw in my two cents regarding the problem of existence.
One should always begin a philosophical discussion by exposing one’s biases, so that all the readers can know exactly where one is coming from. So, let’s get this out on the table once and for all. I am an Existentialist. Whew. Feels good to get that one off my chest. But most of you probably already knew that. I’m also a considered to be a moderately liberal Christian (though I prefer the term Orthodox). Take those two terms for what you will. I’ll try and explain how these two ideas influence my understanding of existence.
I won’t attempt to define what existence is, as that’s far too abstract and requires a brain far more agile than my own. And since I believe philosophy is not merely a stuffy academic discipline but an actual way to live out our human existence, I will attempt to be relatable. I think the biggest problem when grappling with existence is one of human nature. What are humans like, fundamentally? Can we be reduced to a set of common denominators? Can we shrug things off on our nature? Is our nature fixed?
No. No to all of those questions. There is no such thing as human nature. Why? Because “human nature” is an affront to the God who made us. If there is a human nature, I am bound to it; it is inescapable. I have no freedom, and instead many (if not all) of my actions are decided by a nature I did not choose. Allow me to reiterate. I have no freedom, and certainly no free will, and therefore nothing I do is worthwhile; God becomes a cruel dictator calling the shots from heaven. If there is human nature, God has created automatons, not beings who can respond freely to his invitation to love and community. If there is to be any free response, if salvation is to have any meaning whatsoever, there cannot be any such thing as human nature.
What about original sin? I hear you say. Simple. I don’t believe it exists. And neither do you, not really. Unless you believe babies go to hell. Or that Jesus was sinful. See, original sin is a concept introduced to Christianity by Augustine in the fourth century. Even John Calvin admits that Augustine was the only church father to teach the doctrine (but for Calvin, that somehow lends it credibility, instead of vice versa). But if original sin, as described by Augustine, is a real thing, God is a pretty capricious individual. Not only would he be punishing an entire planet full of people for a sin they never committed, but he’s continuing to allow us to be made imperfect. If we really believe we are created by God, and believe in original sin, we must believe we have been created imperfectly. Or that God’s a jerk. Either way, it leads to bad theology.
We are all sinners, though. I have no qualms about saying that. But we’re sinners because we choose to sin, not because we’re made full of sin. See, my Existentialist understanding removes all culpability for any of my own actions from anyone except for me. I am the only arbiter of my will, and each of my decisions is my own. Even if I’m wrong on the human nature thing, I can combat my nature. Even if I am sinful, I continue to make decisions to sin. It’s my fault and my problem.
Not to say that I can deal with it on my own. Not true. In fact, the reason it seems we all choose sin is pride. We believe we can do things on our. We know that we can, in fact, because God created us this way (able to do things, I mean. Not prideful). But this pride, this desire to do everything apart from God, shatters our relationship with Him, and it’s a relationship we cannot ever repair on our own, no matter how hard we try. It requires God to extend forgiveness, to suffer with us, to enter into the human realm and deal with the sin that we have created all around us. And he has, so beautifully, in the person of Christ. In an attempt to reunite himself with the creation that has sundered itself from him, he enters into our sphere and attempts to mend the community that we broke. He is a tender and caring God, not a dictatorial potentate arbitrarily creating existences for us.
Because a free response to His grace and forgiveness is the only way for us to enter back into communion with Him, he created us free. Free from a nature, free from fate, free from anything. We have put the bonds in place. We have created our own natures. We have chosen sin. He has chosen redemption, and it cost Him everything, but it is there to be had. The relationship can be made whole again, if we stop making excuses for the way we are and work with Him to become what we can be.
This is the fundamental nature of existence. Take responsibility for your own actions. Freely respond to the great mercy that has been extended to you. Throw off the shackles of bad theology and enjoy a freedom you’ve never known you had.: the freedom to love the God who loves you with all of His being.
Grace and peace, brothers and sisters.
(Join me some time in the near future for a look at purpose, in light of this brief attempt at a theology of being).