I am no expert on philosophy, by a long shot. I’ve always been a philosopher of sorts, I’ve just not studied enough to qualify as an expert on anyone else’s philosophy. If I had to categorize my own philosophy by other’s criteria, I suppose I would be considered a Christian existentialist, a la Søren Kierkegaard. Although, he would likely disagree with me in many ways.
The whole concept of existentialism (summarized to the point of error), is that the world is absurd (as other existentialists claim) or paradoxical, as Kierkegaard claimed. Both words work, I think. The world, in it’s current state, does not make logical sense and you cannot derive your meaning in life from the world we live in. In itself, the world cannot provide a meaningful narrative by which to live. For example, if we were to accept a Darwinian mentality, or more precisely, one based in genetics, we find no individual purpose in merely evolutionary terms, and any choice we think we possess is but an illusion. We even have to question our choice of narrative; some have even suggested that a belief in God is an evolutionary trait.
Even some who believe in a creator/god will argue that history is written beforehand, and the world as we perceive it is all scripted as in The Matrix–including whether we go red pill or blue pill. Again, it’s a narrative that gives no meaning to our lives. Score one for non-Christian existentialism. Life is absurd, deal with it.
The concept of either being merely a product of the universe or controlled in some other way seems to be entirely un-Biblical, and is not much fun. However, it does absolve us from any personal responsibility to succeed or for being a failure. For some, this is a positive, I guess. At best, we go on playing out our roles as we were programmed to do, as characters in a daily soap opera, eagerly awaiting the upcoming plot twists. If we don’t like our character’s story arc, we can blame genetics, the universe, or god (whichever one you want).
Kierkegaard, famously, talked about the “leap to faith” or “leap into faith” (not “of” as typically quoted). As I understand him, he believed that while we cannot derive meaning from simply being, we come to an existential cliff of sorts, and have to leap into a better narrative. For him, that was a faith in God. Sartre thought he was nuts and leapt elsewhere. Some just merely went with the flow of absurdity for the fun (or despair) of it.
Most people don’t think about it all that much, or perhaps not at all. Life is what it is, and, as Shakespeare wrote,
All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts…“As You Like It”
“It is what it is,” of course, works in many narratives, including an existential acceptance of the world. We live and we die, and we make the most of what’s in between. However, to do that, we must create for ourselves a working narrative to avoid insanity. Sometimes that calls for creating a certain type of narrative in which we appear sane, at least to ourselves.
A few days ago I ran across an interesting article from Time Magazine which stated:
According to a pair of new studies published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, conspiracy theorists—and there are a lot more of them than you may think—tend to have one thing in common: they feel a lack of control over their lives.
So far, this makes sense. In an absurdist or paradoxical universe, the perceptive among us realize that yes, we have no control over what is going on around us. However, as I just mentioned, we need a sense of control to avoid insanity. The article goes on to say:
Past research suggests that if people feel they don’t have control over a situation, they’ll try to make sense of it and find out what happened. “The sense-making leads them to connect dots that aren’t necessarily connected in reality,” van Prooijen says.
Thus, a belief in conspiracy theories. If we aren’t in control, someone else must be, and there must be some way we can retain some individual control. They are, essentially, bedtime stories that help people feel in control, or at least a sense of purpose and meaning, in a world that is seemingly out of control.
I think that personality cults exist for the same reason, perhaps in response to a certain conspiracy narrative. Someone needs to be in control, so it’s either Donald Trump, or the “deep state.” I find it interesting how many people believe in both, and because the deep state represents evil, the binary choice is a die-hard commitment to Trump.
While I may be off on the nuances, in general I think this is all a response to what we refer to as “existential dread.” That is, the feeling that the universe is random, absurd, and totally out of control, and us with it.
The Kingdom of God
Now, here’s where I get a bit hypothetically theological. That is, I am willing to accept I am wrong here, but to me this makes sense.
The Kingdom of God (alternatively, the Kingdom of Heaven, as appears in Matthew), was the focus of Jesus’ ministry on Earth (up until he died for the sins of the world). It’s normally defined as the state of being ruled by God, or the place or state where God is ruling (aka in control). This is what the Gospel of Mark has to say about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry:
Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”Mark 1:14 15 (ESV)
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he would teach, “the Kingdom is like this” or “the Kingdom of God is like that.” He contrasted any earthly activity with Kingdom activity. Jesus was building a new narrative about what it was like to live as a resident of God’s Kingdom, in response to a world order that didn’t represent God’s Kingdom, and as opposed to any earthly worldview. He spoke against religious legalism, he spoke against political rebellion, and he spoke against relying on money or power. As Jacques Ellul wrote, Jesus taught us to live “upside down.” He taught that the greatest in the Kingdom was the least, the meek, the lowly, the sinners–not those who claimed power or authority.
While I believe in the traditional concept of the Kingdom of God–as living as an authentic citizen of Heaven–I am seeing that Jesus presented this as an existential narrative, in contrast to other means of dealing with an absurd (sinful) world. At the edge of the cliff, with the absurd universe at our backs, Jesus encouraged us to make a leap into the Kingdom narrative, leaving all other narratives behind.
Faith in politicians? “My Kingdom is not of this world.” Earthly power? “Take the lowest seat at the table.” And what about the need for security in an absurd world?
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.Matthew 6:25-33 (ESV)
Jesus never merely preached a simple “get saved and live forever in heaven” sermon. He let many people go without ever preaching the “gospel” message, or even telling them who he was. It was almost as if that weren’t crucial to his message, or to his purpose.
What Jesus did, to my understanding at this point, was to provide the one true narrative, the “narrow gate,” the truth that will set us free (John 8:32). This message is not just for our eternal destiny, but it has real-time applications. It is a working existential narrative. We should be living in this “upside down” narrative now, in order to be free of the absurdity around us. This is the beginning of the process of “being saved (1 Corinthians 1:18).”
This narrative, by the way, is in opposition to some existing “Christian” narratives, many of which are popular in America and elsewhere. Fundamentalism is a competing narrative, as well as much of what calls itself evangelicalism. You can tell simply be comparing what is taught and demonstrated to what Jesus taught. Simple enough.
There are also a variety of prosperity narratives, “Christian” political narratives, and various supernatural narratives. All of these are self-focused (more power, more money, more prestige, more privilege), and are contrary to the basic Kingdom narrative. As a wise man once said, “not by might, not by power..”
I believe we have choice. We can choose the narrative by which we live. As Jesus taught, we have the ability to choose the Kingdom of God over the kingdoms of men. I also believe that we are faced with many distractions, as you would in a paradoxical world, and Jesus also talked about being focused and ready, and not distracted by false teachers and prophets. We shall know them by their fruit, and their fruitcakes…
Now, when I talk about making a leap to the Kingdom of God, I’m not talking about being “saved” in the classic, evangelical sense, going to Heaven when you die. I don’t care if you prayed a “sinner’s prayer”–that doesn’t automatically mean you’re living the Kingdom narrative. No, I’m talking about being “saved” in the midst of absurdity, living the Kingdom of God narrative here and now. The Gospel that Jesus taught had immediate, real-world benefits that foreshadow eternity.
Making a wrong leap will leave you swimming in absurdity, trying to make sense of the chaos. Conspiracy theories, political “saviors,” fluctuating retirement portfolios, and the rest, are all false narratives. In fact, I would simply call them idols. There’s no eternal benefit to putting faith in them, and likely no immediate benefit either, just more absurdity and uncertainty.
In an absurd, paradoxical, uncertain world, we are faced with a number of absurd narratives. I believe that Jesus presented the only valid, true narrative for surviving in the midst of chaos, one which stands against the false narratives of politics and society; and that narrative makes it fairly easy to make leap after leap, remaining in the Kingdom (mindset) of Heaven.