by Daniel Harrell
Watching it snow in May has been enough to turn this Southerner into a raving existentialist. Here’s a scenario went through my mind: While up late trying to figure out what to say in this sermon, suddenly it’s 2 in the morning and I imagine myself going for a walk to clear my head. It’s cold out, snowing and slippery. Springtime in Minnesota. Once outside, I get an uncharacteristic hankering to walk along the creek, intrigued as I suddenly am by the unusual quiet of the night. I stroll down to the water’s edge, where the current rapidly courses up to the bank due to recent heavy rainfall and snowmelt. I curiously step too close to the edge, slip, bump my head on a rock and tumble into the torrent, unbeknownst to anyone. No one sees me fall. No one hears me splash. Unconscious, I am carried over the Minnehaha Falls down to the river and eventually washed out to sea.
Dawn awakes and wonders where I went. By 8AM she’s panicked and calls the police who initiate a search, but nobody thinks to check the river because Dawn knows I’d never go down there late at night in the snow. The search continues for a while, but finally dissolves into futility. There are tears (a few). Some nice remembrances (perhaps). But in time life goes on. Danielle gets promoted to my job. Revival ignites. Years later when asked whatever happened to her husband, Dawn sadly shrugs and shakes her head, saying how we have to live life as it is rather than as we wish it was. More years pass and no one asks anymore. Silence descends over this work I now so energetically sustain and value. It’s a potent irony. In the end, all of my conscientious effort at life evaporates into nothing.
OK, so it probably won’t happen like that. But it will happen one way or another. It is the perfect statistic. One terminal existence per person, each of us ultimately destined to a noiseless absence, our obsessions and energies over meaning and worth rendered absurd. Novelist DH Lawrence despaired that: “The search for happiness … always ends in the ghastly sense of the bottomless nothingness into which you will inevitably fall if you strain any further.” Famed French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre concurred, “All human actions are equivalent ... and ... all are on principle doomed to failure.” Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher (and whose 200th birthday we celebrate today), is considered the father of modern existentialism. For example, “I see it all perfectly;” he wrote, “there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.”
Existentialists characteristically stress the utter pointlessness of human existence. If you’re doomed to die no matter what, why bother? Que sera, sera. You may find this depressing. A result of seasonal affective disorder, perhaps. Existentialists say they're just being realistic. It’s always darkest before it goes pitch black.
You can try to deny it. Or fight it. The premise at one local anti-aging clinic here in Edina, is that aging is an error you can fix. Your body naturally reduces its hormone levels over time which cause a rise in many of the diseases associated with aging, such as heart disease and dementia. By medically replacing these hormones, the clinic asserts you can stave off these diseases and effectively recapture your youth. The problem is that according to a recent study by government and independent health researchers, artificially increasing your hormones later in life also increases a risk stroke, blood clots, gallbladder disease, urinary incontinence and cancer. Hormones or not, you still die in the end.
Then there are the Trans-Humanists, committed to the elimination of existential risk through the acceleration of human evolution beyond its current limits. Technology is the savior here, imagining a future of cyber-humans whose brains no longer degenerate, our lives and thoughts preserved though social media, our bodies cryonically frozen until nanoelectromechanical systems and synthetic organs advance to the point of replacing our messy and error-prone biology. The enlightened Trans-Human Manifesto confidently envisions “broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.” Unbuckle your seat belts.
Ethicist Gilbert Meilander, author of the provocatively titled Should We Live Forever? The Ethical Ambiguities of Aging, observes how “The classical understanding of virtue referred to what philosophers in recent decades have come to call human flourishing—the excellence that realizes and expresses the full potential of our human nature. Because that nature is an embodied one, we might suppose that, whatever human flourishing involves, it must include the aging and decline that characterize bodily organisms. Since, however, we are rational animals, our full potential may be realized only through our freedom to remake ourselves, transcending indefinitely the limits of the body. We try—rightly I think—to cure and even eradicate disease, but whether we should approach aging in the same way is deeply puzzling. Still more, when we notice that some of the more ambitious proposals for age-retardation seems rather like a desire to escape bodily existence itself, we may begin to wonder whether the aim is to transcend or to transgress the body’s limits.”
Kierkegaard posited that while humans are indeed rational animals, we are also ecstatic animals. We possess an innate sense of transcendence which fuels our hunger for immortality. Prolongation of this life, sadly, no matter how long we prolong it, constantly fails to slake our hunger. It’s like a dinner party that won’t ever end. Or worse, a party that ends badly. “A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater.” Kierkegaard wrote, “I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.”
Existentialists describe life as existing in three dimensions: you, your world and that ominous maw of death they call the void which suffocates everything with its grim inevitability. To this three-dimensional existence, Kierkegaard advanced a fourth. Somehow, despite humanity’s most horrendous inhumanities—war, terrorism, torture and all sorts of individual evil—people persist in remolding new meaning and purpose. That survival and hope persevere in the darkest of voids testifies to this fourth dimension, which Kierkegaard recognized as the Kingdom of God. Human flourishing cannot happen apart from resurrection. By rising from the dead, Jesus changes everything—and not just the horrible deeds that kill, but the honorable deeds in which we falsely place our confidence too.
This was the apostle Paul’s existential realization as he languished in the darkness of his Roman prison cell contemplating execution. His words have proven worthy of cross-stitching, and I have devoted these Sundays since Easter to them. “God who began a good work among you will bring it to completion.” “Living is Christ and dying is gain.” “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow and tongue confess him Lord.” “God is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” I’ve seen this morning’s verses cross-stitched and hung in numerous places, most memorably over the toilet in a guest bathroom.
Chapter 3 commenced with Paul taking aim at those who insisted Christian faith be augmented with conformity to Jewish ceremonial ritual, specifically circumcision. Salvation by faith through grace by itself was not enough. We waltzed through this confusing territory last Sunday, confusing since Paul also argued that our salvation by grace be “worked out with fear and trembling” (coincidentally, the title of a Kierkegaard classic). Paul’s point, however, was not that our work can earn our salvation—grace is no reward for good behavior. And yet grace must still show itself to be true. Good works of love are the visible fruits of salvation.
Customarily, we Americans presume ourselves to be basically good people, exceptional sometimes. 71% of Americans still believe in hell, but less than ½ of 1% ever imagine themselves going there. After all most of us do not murder, do not cheat or steal to any criminal degree, do generally behave with baseline levels of kindness, and do as little harm as possible. There are mistakes to be made, a few sins here and there, nobody’s perfect, we’re only hummus, which is all fine and good until you find yourself at the edge of that existentialist void and discover that being good doesn’t do any good. You’re going to die anyway.
This is what happened to Paul. If anyone had any reason to think himself exceptional it was him. As the Pharisee Saul, his credentials were impeccable: circumcised on the eighth day, a descendent of Abraham of the tribe of Benjamin, as Hebrew as you could get; zealous and blameless as to the law, a very holy man. Yet happily riding down that road to Damascus, Saul was violently cast into darkness by the light of Christ that exposed Paul’s whole life as a sham. “Whatever gains and assets I had, these I have come to regard as loss and liability, and flush down the toilet because of Christ.” It’s not as if Paul now minimized his credentials, humbling considering them to be no big deal. Uh-uh, Paul looks at his impressive successes and accomplishments and he is horrified.
I’ve told you about how easy it is for pastors to visit people who’ve just received bad news—whether it’s the bad news of sickness, a lost job or a troubled child just flunked out of school. Any pastor can pay that visit. People who’ve received bad news are actually glad to see us. As bad as bad news can be, it can also be the threshold for spiritual conversion. Good news, on the other hand, is spiritually perilous. It takes a better minister than me to visit a person who’s just scored a large bonus or bought a huge house or been promoted at work or whose child just got into Harvard. When things are going good, the last person we want to see is a minister. We don’t want God meddling with our success. We stay off Damascus roads. Jesus did not condemn Paul’s wickedness as a Pharisee. Jesus condemned Paul’s goodness. His treasured reputation and achievements were all garbage, filth fit only for law-abiding dogs. “I regard it as all rubbish,” Paul wrote, “compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord for whose sake I have suffered the loss of all things.”
All that mattered now was being found by Christ as having no righteousness or goodness of his own. “[Grace] works like a trap,” Kierkegaard said. You cannot capture it. It has to capture you. There was an exceptional time in my life when I’d committed some spectacular sins, which I shamefully tried to hide though they ate me up inside. When I finally confessed, I did so to Christian people I didn’t know so well, not wanting to risk disappointing those I cared for most. These Christian acquaintances quickly brushed my iniquities aside, kindly providing rationalizations and excuses to guard my self-worth. Nobody’s perfect, you’re only human, everybody makes mistakes, you’re still a good person. Yet ironically, all their unconditional support only made things harder. It wasn’t my self-worth they needed to guard as much as their perceptions of me. How could we still be friends if I was a real sinner? Feeling this burden, it is was unbearably stressful to finally confess my sins to one of my oldest friends. Given our longtime relationship, I knew I would deeply disappoint him. But grace works like a sweet trap. My friend assured me I needn’t worry about disappointing him. He’d never thought that highly of me.
The efforts we make to impress and to generate admiration and attention, the résumés on which we count to earn merit and favor, these all inevitably evaporate into nothing. In the presence of Christ—whatever was gain is counted as garbage. And this is good news. Paul flushes all his meritorious efforts and credentials down the toilet gladly. Paul gladly gives up what is exposed as nothing so that he might attain everything. His loss is gain. His defeat is his victory. His death is his life. Grace captured him. “I have been found” he writes, “with no righteousness of my own that comes from obeying the law, but only that which comes through faith in Christ”—and not even necessarily his own faith. The phrase is just as easily translated as the “faith of Christ” such that in the end what saves us is not even our own faith—which can be so wobbly and uncertain—but instead Jesus’ faith in us based on what he has done for us and in us and to us. Grace is a sweet trap.
Grace is our hope—a hope that ethicist Gilbert Meilander describes as the virtue that sustains us on our way toward the true beauty we long for, the genuine goodness that finally catches our heart and holds us still, protecting us against any presumption that an indefinitely extended earthly life could ever quench our longing, whether that life be organic or virtual, by way or hormonal replacement or technological trans-human cryonics. Our longing is for more than this life’s dinner party, sumptuous as it may be, something other than just indefinitely more of the same. Our life, however long, always seems less than complete.
This is why the communion table has always featured only a bite of bread and a sip of wine. It was never meant to be life’s banquet, but an hors d’oeuvre for the real thing. It whets our appetite and arouses our hope. As we gather around it, let us gladly flush our gains as losses, that we too, like Paul, may find ourselves sweetly trapped by Christ.