Existentialism and Faith

“Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb,

and naked shall I go back again.

The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;

blessed be the name of the LORD!”

Job was quietly going about his luxurious life when God took Satan up on his challenge. In one fell swoop Job lost everything–cattle, sheep, camels and all who tended them as well as his entire family. This is a tragedy of epic proportions as the author tries to delve the depths of life and sin.

I have been teaching a class in the Institute of Continuing Learning at nearby Young Harris College as well as two sessions on Paul, John and Mary in Ephesus in adult formation at church. The latter led to side discussions on the roles of women in the early church as well as the re-emergence of the feminine divine. Now I have some time to post on a more regular basis.

Reading Job in the light of my class on Sartre and Camus has led me to conclude that Job may have been an early existentialist. Look at the passage above. Also consider the Sartrean nature of the following:

Obliterate the day I was born.

    Blank out the night I was conceived!

Let it be a black hole in space.

    May God above forget it ever happened.

    Erase it from the books!

May the day of my birth be buried in deep darkness,

    shrouded by the fog,

    swallowed by the night.

And the night of my conception—the devil take it!

Later in the same chapter (3) Job says:

What’s the point of life when it doesn’t make sense,

    when God blocks all the roads to meaning?

24-26 “Instead of bread I get groans for my supper,

    then leave the table and vomit my anguish.

The worst of my fears has come true,

    what I’ve dreaded most has happened.

My repose is shattered, my peace destroyed.

    No rest for me, ever—death has invaded life.

“Vomit my anguish” took us right back to Sartre’s novel, Nausea.

Then I stumbled upon a piece of wisdom literature, Ecclesiastes 1 and 2:

These are the words of the Quester, David’s son and king in Jerusalem

Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.]

    There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.

What’s there to show for a lifetime of work,

    a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone?

One generation goes its way, the next one arrives,

    but nothing changes—it’s business as usual for old

        planet earth.

The sun comes up and the sun goes down,

    then does it again, and again—the same old round.

. . .

Then I took a good look at everything I’d done, looked at all the sweat and hard work. But when I looked, I saw nothing but smoke. Smoke and spitting into the wind. There was nothing to any of it. Nothing.

There is being and nothingness in the Bible. Life is seen at times as absurd, lacking in any meaning.

Merton, the mystic, was an existential monk who understood that God was to be found in his own lived experience, not in formulated creeds and orthodoxy. Like the atheistic existentialists, Merton embraced the nothingness of existence; however, like Job in the first passage cited, Merton found hope and meaning in his own nothingness:

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind or the brutalities of our will.  This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us.  It is, so to speak, His name written in us.  As our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our son-ship, it is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven.  It is in everybody.  And if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.  I have no program for this seeing; is it only given.  But the Gate of Heaven is everywhere. (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)

Like Job, he could say, “Blessed be God” regardless of what was happening in his life. Merton was ever aware of God’s presence as he lived out his call to be conformed to the image of God within which was his face before he was born. Amid angst, alienation, commodification of stuff in a materialistic world and despair, Merton grounded his hope in the incarnate One who emptied himself (kenosis) in loving:

To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.

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