Monday, March 05, 2018

Contemplating suicide

At the risk of oversimplification, there are two kinds of professing Christians. One of the puzzling things is when you encounter professing believers with a very thin theology. There are lots of things in the Bible they don't believe in, yet they retain their formal attachment to the Christian faith. Some of them are ministers, theologians, Bible scholars, and philosophers. Why do they stay in church? 

One explanation is that, for them, Christianity is an add-on. They think life is meaningful independent of Christian faith. They think morality is independent of Christian faith. For them, Christianity isn't central to their worldview. What's most important to them is true irrespective of whether Christianity is true. This attitude is epitomized by people like Randal Rauser and John Derbyshire. For instance:

I was once hanging around in the National Review offices talking to an editor (since departed) who was also an Anglican, though an American one — which is to say, an Episcopalian. We got to talking about the Thirty-Nine Articles that define Anglican faith. Did she actually know any of the articles, I asked? No, she confessed, she didn't. I admitted that I didn't either. We looked them up on the internet. There we were, two intelligent and well-educated Anglicans, a fiftysomething guy and a thirtysomething lady, gazing curiously at the articles of the faith we had professed all our lives. That's Anglicanism. In England it is quite a common thing for some Anglican bishop to get into the news by saying publicly that the Virgin Birth, or some other point of doctrine, is most probably false, and worshippers shouldn't feel bad about not believing it.

Working in America, and especially exchanging emails for several years with National Review readers, I lost my Anglican innocence. Take a fish out of water, it dies; take an Englishman out of Anglican England, his faith takes a blow. It doesn't necessarily die — I know plenty of cases where it didn't — but people of really feeble faith, like mine, need every possible support, and emigration knocks one prop away. In America, at any rate for most conservatives (taking my Episcopalian colleague as an exception), you are actually supposed to think about your faith, and even, for heaven's sake, read about it! With the keen immigrant's desire to be more native than the natives, I did my best with this, but found I constitutionally couldn't. The books sent me to sleep; and when I tried to think about Christianity, it all fell apart.

And the particular example I have in mind is when Christian apologists try to argue that atheism entails nihilism, and they support that claim with a sampling of quotes from prominent atheists who seem to have affirmed that view. You know, like Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre. And don’t forget that great Bertrand Russell quote in his essay “A Free Man’s Worship” about bearing up under “unyielding despair.”

I don't think it's coincidental that people with this intellectual bent are more likely to be cradle Christians. And I don't think it's coincidental that these people are more likely to become apostates. For them, leaving the faith is like a snake shedding skin. They outgrew the Christian faith, and they could do so without a profound sense of loss because it never occupied their core identity. That's the tender-minded position. Rauser's impatient with the tough-minded attitude because Christian faith is extrinsic to his core values. 

On the other hand, you have people who view meaning and morality as accessory to the Christian faith. Take Lewis's concept of sehnsucht: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” That was integral to Lewis's apologetic. 

Leibniz thought the most fundamental question in philosophy was metaphysical: Why is there something rather than nothing? And that's a great question.

However, Camus thought the most fundamental question in philosophy was existential: Why not commit suicide? As he put it:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest...comes afterwards.

If I ask myself how to judge that this question is more urgent than that, I reply that one judges by the actions it entails. I have never seen anyone die for the ontological argument. Galileo, who held a scientific truth of great importance, abjured it with the greatest ease as soon as it endangered his life. In a certain sense, he did right. That truth was not worth the stake. Whether the earth or the sun revolves around the other is a matter of profound indifference. To tell the truth, it is a futile question. On the other hand, I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living (what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying). I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions. 

It is merely confessing that that "is not worth the trouble." Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence, for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of

What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. All healthy men having thought of their own suicide, it can be seen, without further explanation, that there is a direct connection between this feeling and the longing for
death (The Myth of Sisyphus). 

To his credit, Camus was asking the right question, even though he gave the wrong answer. That reflects the dilemma of a French intellectual who can't take Catholicism seriously, but has no Christian fallback position. 

I don't think it's coincidental that people with this intellectual bent are more likely to be converts to Christianity. For them, Christian faith lies at the core of their identity. That's what makes life significant. That's a more presuppositional outlook. And by the same token, it's more resistant to apostasy, because they realize there's so much to lose. 

Ironically, there are some unbelievers like Sartre, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Camus, David Benatar, and Alex Rosenberg, who have a more clear-eyed appreciation of what's at stake that some professing believers. That's the tough-minded position. 

Lots of people who are constitutionally, psychologically incapable of taking the question seriously. They think it's overwrought. For them, animal faith is sufficient. Then there are people who appreciate the issue, but slam on the brakes just before they reach the abyss. 

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