A Question About the Character of Existence

Letter from the Editor, Vol. II, Issue I

By: Austin Lillywhite

Why ought you read this magazine? I would say because it is about God. Because it is about the character of existence. But I admit that I have run myself into a bit of a quandary here. As the editor of Brown’s only Christian publication, I naturally feel that these questions pertaining to God and the nature of existence are the most essential we could ask—and are worth exploring in the few dozen pages we at Cornerstone have to offer. But perhaps you do not necessarily feel this way, and may reasonably ask a few unavoidable questions: What is so remarkable about this “God” that you feel you should write about him? Even granting his existence, isn’t he a faceless unknown beyond our reach, and therefore merely frustrating and antithetical to our life here? How does he affect me, and why should I take him into account in my life? Why should I spend my time learning about him? Why must you carry on insisting it has to do with the character of existence?

I can’t provide answers to all of these questions, but perhaps my ramblings may in some way, however remote, provoke a curiosity in this magazine and encourage people to ask these questions of themselves.

About seven billion people walk the earth, but whoever you are, you probably take as an axiom that there is some sense in which we are all created equal. Consequently, we all participate equally in an existence distinct from other animals: that we are not simply oddly-shaped critters on two feet but somehow uniquely conscious people, with individual character, worth and will. We can think, and we can believe, we can feel justice and injustice, purpose and indirection, and we can reflect on these curious truths in a way that radically alters our fact of living. As distinct creatures, we are compelled to have faith in the fact of our existence; as malleable creatures, we ought to consider this fact carefully and resolve to determine its character to better shape our lives.

Admittedly however, amidst us seven billion, there are a host of beliefs that seek to respond to this question of the character of existence, and it seems unacceptably arrogant to hold up one’s specific faith as the proper response. Why, instead of indiscriminately accepting all characterizations of existence, should we align our life with one?

In the past, such characterizations have most commonly been built around the conviction that we share a real, immaterial personhood that is in some way continual or immortal. However, now that faith in the soul has been deprecated, the distinguishing feature of man has come to be termed “collective consciousness” or, perhaps more generally, “love for humanity.” Man is no longer a creation formed in the image of God, but simply the social animal, and his nations and churches are products of nothing but an opposable thumb and a subtle inner monologue misconstrued as a dialogue. Often we think of the former conviction as “theological” and this latter as “sociological.” It takes little effort to see which worldview on this campus is prevailing and which is unfashionable. And though you may side with Freud and laugh at my absurdity, or be more gracious and forgive my backwardness, I have not overcome the former conviction. I possess an unshakeable conviction and faith in the immortality of the human soul, and I cannot seem to shake its grip on me, even when I have wanted to, without so shaking my desire for life.

My existence is grounded in an unshakeable faith in the immortal beauty of the human soul; however, for the moment I would like to disassociate it from any of the religiosity we often pair it with. The more unfortunate aspects of human nature, to me, seem often to be exacerbated when attached to religion. The human attitudes of pride, the feeling of self-righteousness, of “I am, and so I am right” tends to translate into an exclusiveness (“I am”) that leads to the abuses of authority and judgment which cause so much pain in human existence. Unfortunately, I think the “Church” mindset, the religious position, throughout time and throughout peoples, has and does slip into precisely this prejudice of “you are different, you are a low-brow sort, you are not welcome in our elite Club”, the posture of “I am and you are not”, and its inevitable abuses.

This attitude is a thoroughly earthly one. It is a stance of “you get what you get”, “an eye for an eye”; it is an ideology inscribed into our ideas of wages, payment, and all human transaction and reciprocity, apparent in the edifice of human justice. It is a system of equivalent exchange, of measure for measure, a sort of logical and straight mathematics; a geometry of two dimensions that is too narrow to admit a third, that stubbornly declares that in no way is it acceptable that there be room for surplus when straightly connecting two points, in no way is it appropriate that two parallel lines should ever meet.

The reason I want to distance faith in the immortality of the soul (and in the life of all creation even) from the religious attitude is that religiosity often condenses itself into this earthly, mathematical logic, whereas faith in immortality is based on a radically inequivalent exchange that scandalizes the religious, an irrational geometry that confounds the reasonable. I fully believe that the human race has been touched by a power that is not bound by this enchaining logic of law, of eye-for-eye, that governs the world’s affairs. Indeed, this touch, this contact is hardly a law or an exchange at all but an unfathomable gift, one of which our earthly minds can be made aware but which they can never fully comprehend. One name for it is grace. Another name for it is Christ.

For this reason I believe that genuine faith in the immortality of the soul, in endless life and being, cannot be mistaken to come from the general “collective conscious,” or the “love for humanity”. Nowhere in our narrow earthly consciousnesses do we have room to accommodate for another besides “I am”; as earthly beings, nowhere in between our two ears is there room to imagine the logic required for universal harmony any more than there is room for two and two to make five. Without faith in this unearthly and immortal capacity for love and harmony beyond I am, either we must see human existence as fundamentally absurd, condemned to futility, cruelty or suicide, or we must forfeit our ability to think of transcendence and confess that we are just animals with a remarkable talent for wit.

If all life cannot be brought together within myself, if nature is unresponsive to my “I am”, the question arises: is there a being who could better our sense of what is just and rational, who could instill in us a logic that fulfills the human mind’s demand, the demand of law, of blood, the demand of “eye for eye” and “I for I”, who could forgive and fulfill? Is there a being who could make perfect all the suffering of humanity, all the loss of humanity, who could reharmonize all the violence, strife, and death into everlasting beauty? Is there a being who could wed all the isolation, the schism and segregation, the insensibility and dissonance into seemly organic synthesis and union? Is there one who could pay for our unavenged and our lack, our self-attitude and the endless pain and death it has caused, pay for it and raise us up to a logic beyond our narrow two dimensions and beyond the broken shards of our fragmented “I am”, beyond ourselves and our earth, to a full, eternal truth and love?

If you, like me, are compelled to faith in the immortal soul, and if you believe that such a faith depends upon a source and a life beyond our own, and if you believe that it had to be paid for in order to fill in our souls where our being was lacking, and that not only is the faith available to us now, but the beauty and harmony of eternal life will be available to us, then you do believe in such a One and in such a Being, whether or not you name him as Christ and his work as grace.

I think we all crave this higher beauty of life. I think we all thirst for this harmony that fulfills and forgives our lack and raises us up—we thirst for faith in it as the desert land, the parched earth, the withered grass thirst for rain. Too often do we teach ourselves to forget this thirst, or become numb to it, and explain it as something more comfortable, earthly and social. Though I am not certain of much, I am certain that this thirst is the character of our existence: that we are here constrained to know the thirst of death but that were made to taste the living water.

I believe only by coming to the living waters can we satisfy the thirst of our dry bones, of our withered marrow. It is my hope that this publication in some way speaks about our longing, and in some way reveals how this “character” is inextricably bound up with the wholeness and satisfaction of life in Christ; in turn, I hope that the efforts of each contributor will provoke a deeper thirst and longing in each reader.


In the love of Christ Jesus,

Austin Lillywhite

 

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