Absence

Christian Wiman, from his book My Bright Abyss:

“On the radio I hear a famous novelist praising his father for enduring a long, difficult dying without ever ‘seeking relief in religion.’ It is clear from the son’s description that the father was in absolute despair, and that as those cold waters closed over him he could find nothing to hold on to but his pride and drowned clutching that nothing. This is to be admired? That we carry our despair stoically into death, that even the utmost anguish of our lives does not change us? How astonishing it is, the fierceness with which we cling to beliefs that have made us miserable, or beliefs that prove to be so obviously inadequate when extreme suffering – or great joy – comes. But the tension here is not simply faith and the lack of it. A Christian who has lived with a steady but essentially shallow form of faith may find himself called to suffer the full human truth of God, which is the absence of God, may find himself finally confronted with the absolute emptiness of the cross. God calls to us at every moment and God is life, this life. Radical change remains a possibility within us right up until our last breath. The greatest tragedy of human existence is not to live in time, in both senses of that phrase.”

 

He goes on to describe this tragic outlook as being

“a final refusal of life – which in order to be life must include a full awareness of death – rather than a final flowering of it.”

 

Wiman is a poet and cancer survivor who wrote this book as a series of meditations about his relationship to God. One of the themes he comes back to is a felt sense of emptiness or absence, which he feels is at the heart of his faith. This is interesting to me because we’re encouraged by the hoot-and-holler form of Christian practice to get revved up with enthusiasm about the present Lord, inserting self-generated, motivation-speaker, sales-pitch enthusiasm to try to patch the hole in our hearts resulting from our separation from God.  This is all wrong, it has to be. And so Wiman is right, I think, in finding a sense of desolation at the heart of his faith. I think this is what it means, or part of what it means, to be one with Christ in His death, as well as in His resurrection (e.g. Romans 6:5, Phillipians 3:10).

 

I feel this same thing, though in my case not so much as a sense of despair or desolation, because I am healthy and take too much comfort from the things of this world, tiding me over or perhaps around the rough “midnight[s] of the soul” (St. John of the Cross, 16th century) that betide genuine Christians.  I feel not so much despair and desolation, as silence. The silence of God is taken by many to mean He simply doesn’t exist, but this is a result of the usual 21st-century obtuseneness to which we gadget-infested bipeds are prone. We’re a bit like those lawn-chair riders in Wall-E, with identities built on what we consume, unable to see past the nose on our face. Ok, I describe the worst of myself, I exempt you. Put on those words only as they fit.

 

The silence of God has been much on my mind lately because I understand that this is a problem for many, if not so much for me. Do you know how, if you read the Bible, it seems like you can go over the same passage again and again and it will yield fresh insights each time? So I was reading Second Corinthians this morning and the Apostle Paul wrote, in his usual way of throwing off asides on the way to explaining something else, that “while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord.” (5:6). Faith means mentally bridging the distance from us to Him, precisely because we are absent from the Lord.  Our absence from Him manifests as silence. The definition of faith in Hebrews 11 emphasizes trusting the reality of God though He is “unseen.” If He manifested to us visually, or to our hearing, He would not be “unseen,” nor would we regard Him as silent. Paul finishes his thought about being absent from the Lord with this quick explanation of why we believe despite this absence; this silence: “for we walk by faith, not by sight.”

 

This separation here and now is what I take to mean the absence we must bear, and we’re to expect that absence to be a heavy burden. It’s why, as much as I appreciate the torment of God’s silence in the movie, Silence, I think ultimately the priest came to the wrong decision. Apostasy means separation from God for eternity, death of the body is inevitable. Few are tested in the extreme way of the priest in the movie, but all of us are tested in how we live our lives. The end of this life comes gently or harshly, but it comes, and the question then will be whether we overcame the silent absence of ourselves from God with understanding and patience; whether we have been successful at seeing God in His creation despite our absence from Him while we are in the body.

 

His creation is a part of the evidence from which we can discern that He is, despite our absence from Him while we are in the body.  Is creation itself sufficient evidence by itself, like the Bible says (Romans 1:20)?  I think yes. Modern science tells us that things sprang from nothing, and so does the Bible. But that can’t happen without an outside agency. Kierkegaard wrote “the system cannot include the systematizer.” He was a philosopher, not a scientist or mathematician, but this thought presaged the conclusion of mathematician Kurt Godel, in his Incompleteness Theorem, which is a mathematical conclusion that everything inside a closed system relies upon a source outside that system. Every material thing, therefore, inside natural reality relies upon some immaterial “thing” outside of it. If you’re a philosopher of causation, you might say that everything we observe is contingently caused; the uncaused-cause lies outside the reality of contingent causes. Aristotle was right about the concept of pure actuality.  What “calls into being that which does not exist” (Romans 4:17) is God, the great “I Am.” (Exodus 3).

 

 

 

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