Suicide and Hope
Is it possible that a person who commits suicide was actually a Christian? I think so. The event of taking one’s own life is usually fast and always irrevocable. Yes it’s something they do to themselves, but does that single volitional act always negate the beliefs of a lifetime that went before? It’s not as if they’re genuine believers but lose their salvation in the last minutes of life and therefore die outside a “state of grace.”
But on the other hand, it could be the result of a matter of some deliberation on the meaninglessness of life and the pointlessness of continued existence. Someone in that position might be welcoming what they are convinced will be oblivion, following the event. If that’s the case, then the suicide is evidence not of impetuous, thoughtless, irrevocable rashness but rather of a set of beliefs irreconcilable with hope in Christ.
Albert Camus wrote in his essay on the Myth of Sisyphus (see my post here) that the only real question in philosophy is whether to kill one’s self. I’ve thought about this often, because I see his point. Camus went on to a completely bogus answer of bootstrapping meaning from rage, but at least he was honest. If we have no agency then all really is pointless, and there’s no redemptive element to difficulties in life. We can grab all the gusto we can or end it all, it makes no difference.
Of course, most people don’t come to this stark either/or conclusion. Instead, they live with what I’ve heard described as “schizophrenia,” not really schizophrenia in its technical, psychiatric sense, but the word is a reasonable analogy. I’m trying to describe here a mental contradiction: that between having a sense of mortality, and of immortality.
On the one hand, we’re aware of the fact of death, including our own, but on the other hand, we put that fact out of mind and live as if it weren’t true. This is how most people go through life, unfortunately, employing this outlook to anesthetize themselves against harsh reality. This describes most agnostics.
Many people can’t live this far removed from reality, however. Christians reconcile themselves to the fact of mortality by embracing a larger story, in which supernature supervenes on nature. For them, death does not have the finality it appears to have to those who reject the supernatural.
This only “works,” however, if it’s all true. We instinctively know that pragmatism is a dead end. We can’t adopt beliefs because they make existence bearable. We can’t “adopt” beliefs at all. It’s more like they choose us, in a manner of speaking. We believe true things, or things we become convinced are true. We disbelieve false things, or things we become convinced are false. We can’t embrace a larger story like Christianity if we don’t actually believe that story is true.
That’s how fundamentally hard-wired into us Truth is. And it’s why, Christians say, God is truth. Not just that the grand story is a true story, but that even the unshakeable orientation to truth itself is authored by God. It is He who makes us constitutionally unable to “adopt” a belief because it “works,” and that inability is what creates tension for us in this life, driving some to test the truth of the Christian story, and others to continue to breathe inside the dissonance of this fraught, fear-infused “schizophrenia.”
All belief systems deal in one way or the other, successfully or unsuccessfully, with the fact of mortality. They are all driven by the truth orientation. Aside from Christians and “schizophrenic” agnostics, there are atheists, most of whom take pride in precisely what I’m saying here: that they aren’t engaged in truth-avoidance. They take pride in defiantly looking truth in the eye, and they take as true the absence of any meaning whatsoever. Mostly they haven’t thought that through, however, as Camus did. They don’t (typically) grasp the pointlessness of breathing, given their beliefs, usually because they’re too busy saying what they don’t believe (God, gods, leprechauns) instead of what they do.
Most of the people I know are in one of these camps: Christian, atheist, agnostic. There are other belief systems, of course, which I’ll mention, but they’re all committed to the truth orientation, because it’s so hard-wired into us that we are incapable of breaking free of it. I keep mentioning the truth orientation because it begs the question: where did that come from?
Water to Fish
No one seems to question it because it is like water to fish. It’s just the environment we swim around in, it is inconceivable there would be another environment, like air that is both above the water and which suffuses the water in ways the fish can’t observe, though they need the air (in the water) to breathe themselves. I’m sure you see the analogy to heaven.
I began to wonder whether this water-to-fish truth orientation is the subject of philosophical inquiry, and indeed it is. That’s why I’m reading Truth and Ontology by Trenton Merricks. “Ontology” is the field of philosophy concerned with being, existence, and reality, which sounds too broad to be helpful, but it’s not, it’s really concerned with, in this instance, whether truth is so inextricably bound up with the fact of existence that it is inseparable, and if so what does that tell us about reality. Traditional philosophy on this question held (and here I’m of course greatly simplifying) that the orientation to truth implies a Truthmaker, and of course Christians say the Truthmaker is God. Merricks is giving this background on the way to trying to disprove this traditional point of view, but so far I don’t think he’s pulling it off.
I mentioned there are other camps besides Christian, atheist, and agnostic. I’m thinking of all the other religious or quasi-religious (lifestyle-only) belief systems. Some of them differ from orthodox Christianity only in particulars, by which I mean they don’t abandon an objectively-real God, but they differ on the nature of that God and of His revelation. Here I’m thinking of Islam and Mormonism, for examples.
But then what about the vast range of religions we lump together as “eastern religions,” such as the various Hindu beliefs, Taoism, Buddhism, and so on? These are neatly summarized in Gregory Koukl’s book The Story of Reality. He distinguishes those beliefs from Christianity by calling them “Mind-ism.” A common element to them is the belief that mind is the greater reality to matter, such that physical reality (and our own physical life) is in a sense illusory. There’s more to it, to be sure, but the main point is that it eliminates what we think of as God and replaces Him with a kind of ambient energy that pervades physical things. It seems like a can-kicking dead end, to me.
I think this Mind-ism is particularly relevant to modern America because many who continue to call themselves “Christian” have actually adopted a form of this Mind-ism. I’m thinking here of those who follow the “liberal” branch of the schism in 20th-century Protestantism. That schism did not result in a new confession of faith, as previous schisms have, because the beliefs undermine the very concept of a confession of faith. Liberal Protestantism first held that hard principles of orthodox Christianity could be softened by interpretation, and subsequently, through the corrosive influence of postmodernism in the culture, began to hold that there are no hard principles anyway.
So we’re all really Zen Buddhists now, they must feel. This helps to explain why ostensible Christians write off bedrock beliefs of Christianity or their denomination as merely “my tradition.” Christian doctrines like Creation, immanence, Advent, Messiah, Resurrection, Ascension, and Second Coming are, on this view, historical artefacts only.