Embracing the absurdity

April 25, 2012 | Viewpoints | Number 9
By Troy Watson |

“How can so much evil and suffering exist in a world created by an all loving, all knowing, all-powerful God?”

This question is often cited as the Achilles heel of Christian theology and the reason many ex-Christians no longer believe. I, too, have found no resolution to this haunting riddle, yet explaining the existence of so much goodness, beauty and love in this world without the existence of some kind of benevolent Creator is just as problematic.

I agree with atheists that my belief that God, existing outside time and space, created the universe, sounds like a fairy tale. Yet the notion that some sort of primordial soup or dense bundle of energy gave birth to everything in existence is just as absurd. Where did this pre-elemental concoction come from? Aliens? Where did they come from? It seems any attempt to explain the origin of the universe is ostensibly laughable. To quote singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn, “You can’t tell me there is no mystery!”

What drew me to existentialist philosophy in my early 20s was that it acknowledged and embraced the absurdity of existence. French philosopher Albert Camus compared our attempts to make sense of the world to the mythological Greek figure Sisyphus, who was eternally condemned by the gods to the endless task of pushing a huge boulder up a hill, only to watch it tumble back down as he was about to reach the top. Over and over, Sisyphus returns to the bottom of the hill to start again. This is our lot in life, according to Camus.

This sounds similar to the first chapter of Ecclesiastes: “Meaningless! Meaningless! . . . Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. . . . All things are wearisome, more than one can say. . . . There is nothing new under the sun. . . . What a heavy burden God has laid on humanity! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard believed that the only way to find meaning in life is by saying yes to the absurdity of the world. What could be more absurd, he writes, than “that the eternal truth has come into existence in time, that God has come into existence, has been born, has grown up . . . indistinguishable from any other human being”? Faith, to Kierkegaard, is a leap into the absurd that transforms the absurd.

For German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the only meaningful response to the absurdity of the universe is to say “yes and amen to all things,” and hope the world in all of its absurdity might forever repeat itself.

I realize many people might view this existentialist perspective as overly pessimistic and dark, but darkness is essential to life. Seeds, for instance, require darkness to germinate and grow, and an Arabian proverb reminds us, “Sunshine all the time makes a desert.”

The truth is that much of life doesn’t make sense. Much of what happens on this planet is terribly horrible and dark. Is saying “yes and amen to all things” the answer? The same question could be directed at Paul’s command: “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God.” Could there be anything more absurd?

Sufi mystic Rumi brings some clarity to the preposterous gratitude Paul and Nietzsche propose: “If God said, ‘Rumi, pay homage to everything that has helped you enter my arms,’ there would not be one experience of my life, not one thought, not one feeling, not any act, I would not bow to.”

One evening last fall I realized for the umpteenth time that all my attempts to understand God, life and ultimate reality were all meaningless, a “chasing after the wind.” As I embraced the absurdity of existence, something profound happened. All my worries, expectations, fear, doubt and desires were stripped away. In the abyss of absurdity I had nothing left to prove, figure out or accomplish, to feel adequate, worthy and whole. I was fully present, truly still . . . and I knew God. As divine grace and peace permeated my mind, heart and soul, everything in the universe made sense—until I tried to rationalize it and put it into language.  

The Bible informs us that divine wisdom is absurdity or foolishness to natural human ways of thinking. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. God’s ways are higher than our ways.

Although I continue to theologize and place great value on intellectual pursuits, I’ve learned faith—leaping into the absurdity with humility and gelassenheit (yieldedness to God’s will)—is the only key to some doors.

Troy Watson is pastor of Quest Christian Community, St. Catharines, Ont.

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