Friday, March 10, 2017

Taking ourselves seriously

I don't manage to read as much philosophy as I would like.  Yesterday I perused a few pages of Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, a book I've been reading on and off for a couple of years, and enjoyed it immensely.  It's mostly the continental philosophers I like to read nowadays, and I think that is because continental philosophy hugs the borders of religion pretty closely.  Increasingly I'm struck by the fact that I don't think there can be serious thought which does not interact with questions of ultimate meaning, and that means interacting with God, either as a presence or an absence.

I guess what I mean is this: a lot of what passes for thinking in our contemporary culture is pre-committed to the idea that our thinking just doesn't really matter, because nothing at all matters.  We, as thinking subjects, are not to be taken seriously.  Questions that ought to be big are made small because they are placed within the framework of meaninglessness.  Take the ethical question, for example.  I think we instinctively assume that the question 'What ought we to do?' is a Big Question, perhaps the biggest.  But when it is re-framed within contemporary naturalism, it becomes a small question, which can be answered by reference to nothing greater than my own preferences and a few societal norms.  It becomes almost a triviality.

Now, that isn't to suggest that there can't be any profound thinking that is atheistic.  Consider the way that the ethical question is framed by the existentialists, who accept naturalism but still take human beings as persons with absolute seriousness.  'What ought we to do?' is a Big Question in this framework, and that is why it is laden with so much anguish.  It is, if you like, a Big Question in a small universe, just as on the existentialist view human beings are Significant in a universe of insignificance.  Hence all the angst and stuff.  Now, that is profound thinking, which wrestles seriously with what it might mean to be an actual human being in a universe defined by the absence of God.  Go read some Sartre, or Camus.  Then go read A.C. Grayling, and see what is lost.

From a Christian point of view, I think one of the reasons the Christian message doesn't resonate with many of our contemporaries is that people don't think they are really human.  They don't take themselves seriously as ethical and purposeful beings, because any ethics or purpose they might talk about are squeezed into the framework of naturalism.  The questions only sound big; they are actually insignificant.  Without big questions, the big answers of the Christian story just don't find anything to latch on to.  Perhaps we need to take a big step back, and instead of providing answers we need to point out that if God has been here, in our reality as one of us, then we are actual, real human beings - and that means our big questions are really Big Questions.

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