Some thoughts on existentialism and reason in theology + Meditation XXXVIII by Gerhard

Nota Bene: What follows is sort of a diatribe. If you clicked on this link because you want to read some Gerhard, scroll down; I won’t be offended. Heck, I won’t even know!

I have a soft spot in my heart for the existentialists. Mind you, this is not a patronizing statement. I mean it quite viscerally. Physiologically speaking, a soft spot in or near the heart is dangerous, as attested by the death of my beloved grandmother, whom an aortic aneurysm took from us fourteen years ago. The soft spot in my heart for existentialism is much the same sort of thing. Unlike my grandmother, though, I know that mine is there. I need constantly to be aware of it, lest it rupture.

In college I read a lot of Dostoevsky, some Kafka, some Sartre, some Nietzsche. After college I read Camus and Kierkegaard. Their atheism notwithstanding (Dostoevsky notably excepted and Kierkegaard…kind of), I really do think that these authors can be fruitfully read. The intense introspection of the basement of the soul, the honest recognition of the demeaning effects of modernistic “science” on the human person, the lambasting of benighted, soulless rationalism—all of these things are like bacon for Lutherans. And bacon is really good, unless you’re a vegan, in which case there’s no room for you in my metaphor. But because bacon is so good, the temptation to eat a lot of it is much stronger than, say, the temptation to eat a lot of broccoli. We Lutherans are especially susceptible to the tendency to go whole-hog into absurdism and irrationalism, or—as in the case of Jaroslav Pelikan, the most famous twentieth-century Lutheran convert to Eastern Orthodoxy—mysticism. We need to be careful. It’s easier to fall into a river than climb out of one.

Needless to say, under the influence of this drug bacon, Lutherans can become more than a little unbalanced, Ockham’s-razoring whichever limbs of the Western cultural inheritance of philosophy and literature don’t impart the buzz that a good Kafka novel can. Not only do some of us have inexplicable soft-spots in our hearts for these stark, raw portraits of the human condition, we also have wounds that are closer to the surface, some of which have scabs that we enjoy picking—for no good reason, in good existentialist fashion. Call it “the imp of the perverse.” (See? I do have college existentialist street-cred.)

Yes, for us Lutherans a sort of existentialism-as-such is a natural reflex. Indeed, one need not even have heard the word  Regardless of whether it’s consciously espoused or not, though, this reflex must be tempered. It doesn’t “work” as a total paradigm. Far from being a non-philosophical view of things “as they really are”, it is just as much of an artifice as any of the putative systems it disdains. Moreover, it is just as arrogant, just as myopic, and just as given to the “theology of glory” as the most obdurate medieval scholasticism. There is no “view from nowhere” this side of Resurrection. (And, frankly, I see little basis for supposing that human beings will be all-knowing on the other side of it: I don’t think “then we shall know fully” is referring to omniscience.) All views, even the best views, are “through a glass darkly”—and this is not talking about the Gospel, for when it comes to the Gospel, we don’t “see” at all! We hear of promises that are true contrary to all appearances, and from such hearing, faith comes. We walk by faith, not by sight.

But we’re given “sight”, i.e., reason, by God, and denigrating it is neither Lutheran nor (it should go without saying) even Christian. The trouble is, though, that when one becomes convinced, whether tacitly or explicitly, of the utter opacity of the human experience—that is, of its total impenetrability to human reason—even a “ministerial use” of reason starts to seem passé and “un-Lutheran.” At best, it ends up being something which is only grudgingly allowed, but not enthusiastically encouraged or exercised. Reason is regarded very suspiciously, and statements verging on Tertullian’s “credo quam absurdam”/”I believe because [it is] absurd” begin to abound. False dichotomies between “reason” and “the Bible” begin to flourish (granting, of course, that plenty of real ones exist), and anything systematic or logical is denigrated as “rationalism”, or, even worse, “Thomism.” Or “Calvinism”—it depends on whether you’re a convert to Lutheranism, and, if so, what you formerly were.

I have never heard the following statement, but I have read many iterations of its basic equivalent: “Why would I read Cicero? He doesn’t ever write about Anfechtung or the futility of human reason. Lame.” First of all, this is arguably not true, but if you haven’t read Cicero, you wouldn’t know this. I’m sorry if that sounds arrogant, but it’s true. There are plenty of authors that I haven’t read, and thus can’t offer a credible or worthwhile opinion on, but I have read Cicero. Secondly, statements of this genus often elide with what you’d think was the only thing Luther ever had to say about reason, namely, that it’s the “Devil’s whore.” But what does the Catechism say? “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them.” Moreover, I don’t think that we can sub out “reason” for “Devil’s whore” here and have it mean the same thing.

Luther was an ardent champion of reason in its proper sphere. “It is certainly true that reason is the most important and the highest in rank among all things and, in comparison with other things of this life, the best and something divine,” he wrote in 1536 in Thesis IV of his Disputation Concerning Man. Here and elsewhere, he carefully distinguishes between reason, which he praises as a creature of God, and “philosophy”, which he pillories as intellectual whoredom. And this makes sense, if you think about it: a whore is a woman who allows herself to be used for base purposes. But we do not behold a prostitute and conclude that women are bad; rather, we conclude that prostitution is a bad thing to do to a woman/for a woman to do to herself, etc. I hope the metaphor makes sense as-is, as I don’t want to make it more detailed.

It goes more without saying, though, that Luther no rationalist: he despised needless abstraction. Yet with equal and opposite fervor he advocated liberal learning and classical study. “Let every one know, therefore, that it is his duty, on peril of losing the divine favor, to bring up his children above all things in the fear and knowledge of God,” he writes in the Large Catechism, “and if they are talented, have them learn and study something, that they may be employed for whatever need there is, to have them instructed and trained in a liberal education, that men may be able to have their aid in government and in whatever is necessary.” He authored several works on education, among which his 153o Sermon on Keeping Children in School stands as a veritable tour de force on the importance of both liberal and servile education.

As for Luther’s in/famous disdain for “philosophy”, we will certainly fall prey to equivocation if we think that the term philosophy is a res ipsa loquitur, “a thing [that] speaks for itself,” no matter the context in which it is used. Witnessing the philosophizing of his day, Luther concluded that it was a perverse use of reason, setting reason above Scripture, etc. His denunciations of “philosophy” have something specific in mind; they are not plenary condemnations of anything which was or will be termed “philosophy” by somebody somewhere in history. The term “philosophy” doesn’t mean much when it’s devoid of context. It means “love of wisdom,” sure, but what’s to stop you from dipping both of those words in the same deconstructionist acid-bath? “So, what does ‘love’ mean?” “What does wisdom ‘mean’?” Don the black turtleneck, Ray-Banns, and berét and initiate infinite regression into the dictionary in search of the Ding an Sich, if that’s your idea of a good time. I won’t be joining you, as I didn’t much like being nineteen, and I don’t want to repeat it.

But I digress. This little essay started as a few brief prefacing remarks to one of Johann Gerhard’s “Sacred Meditations”, and it kind of took another direction. As I was reading Gerhard’s piece (Meditation XXXVIII: Concerning the fleeting nature of the present life) I found myself stirred in the same part of my soul which is the usual province of my beloved existentialists (and—lest I forget!—of the Anglo-Saxon dream poets, the authors of The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and The Dream of the Rood). It is an elegy on life in the broken realm of the world, the groaning creation despoiled of glory by the rebellion and sin of man, the seeming futility of existence. Whereas others of Gerhard’s works are themselves groans of longing, upborne by tristitia saeculi, “the sadness of the world”, this piece is more spare, more reflective. Again, it reminded me of some of the existentialist literature I’ve read. Yet it’s more capacious, and, indeed, more honest than Sartre, Kafka, or Camus, for in it Gerhard alludes to that great interruption of existence which none of these men could accept: the Gospel, and the future hope of the Resurrection that gives meaning to the present struggle.

It’s piquant, though, to note that Gerhard was able to wear other hats, too: he was no irrationalist, and was in fact the father of Lutheran scholasticism. Now, I’m not going to tie myself to the mast of seventeenth-century Lutheran Orthodoxy and say that we should try to repristinate it—they had their significant faults, to be sure. But they also had significant virtues which we would pass over to our harm. I completely reject the modernistic Lutheran opinion which regards these spiritual and theological giants as having “fallen away” from the genuine article of Lutheranism, as having bequeathed a theology to the Church of the Augsburg Confession which “led to” Pietism and Rationalism, such that “real Lutheranism” then had to be “rescued” by nineteenth- and twentieth-century theologians, who (we are to believe) were somehow free of philosophical presuppositions and were interpreting Luther and the Confessions “as they really were.” This is simply a different shade of Lutheran metahistory and parochialism from that which is espoused by the repristinators; it’s just as bad, however. I could argue that it’s worse, but that axe falls outside the scope of this particular grinding-wheel. (Seriously, you’ve got to check out these new grinding-wheels that come with scopes…)

Anyway, here’s Gerhard.

Oh, and hat-tip for this piece goes to the sweet and perceptive girl who’s going to be my wife in six weeks. It is not good for a man to be alone; it is good for a man to find a woman who is not only beautiful, but who also will send him ponderable bits of Johann Gerhard’s devotional writings…



XXXVIII. Concerning the fleeting nature of the present life
Wade R. Johnston, translator

What is the life of men? A cylinder. Consider, devout soul, the misery and fleeting nature of this life in order that your heart may be elevated to the longed-for heavenly inheritance. While this life draws on, it also draws shorter. While it grows longer, it diminishes. Whatever it receives it at the same time loses. The span of our life is a mere point in time, and yet even less than a point. While we spin around, immortality is near. We are aliens in this life and home. Abraham had no foundation laid on this earth, but only a grave for an inheritance (Genesis 23). So also, the present life is a place of guest-lodging and burial. The beginning of this life immediately marks the beginning of death. Our life is like sailing. Whoever sails, whether he stands, sits, or reclines, is always approaching his port and hastens to it, impelled by the ship. So also we, whether we sleep or remain awake, whether we lie still or walk around, whether we will it or not, are always carried closer to the end by the momentum of time.

"The Law says 'Do this', and it is never done..." (Martin Luther, The Heidelberg Disputation; Thesis xxvi)

“The Law says ‘Do this’, and it is never done…” (Martin Luther, The Heidelberg Disputation; Thesis xxvi)

This life is more death than life, for every single day we die, since every day we lose some of our life. This life is full of past pain, present labor, and fear of the future. Life begins with weeping, for an infant begins life with tears, as though it had a premonition of future evils. It progresses in debility, for many diseases afflict us and many worries cause anguish. It ends in horror, for we do not depart alone, but come to it along with all our works, and pass through death to the severe judgment of God (Revelation 14:13; Hebrews 9:27). We are conceived in guilt, born in misery, live in pain, die in anguish. We are born in filth, caressed in darkness, delivered in pains. Before we are delivered, we burden our mothers. In the delivery, we tear them like viper fangs. We are foreigners in birth, nomads in life, compelled to migrate to death. The first part of our life is self-ignorance. The middle part is burial in worries. The end is oppression under the troubles of old age. All the time of life either is past, present, or future. If the present, it is unstable; if the past, it is now nothing; if the future, it is uncertain. We are putrid in our entrance, a bubble in all life, a meal for worms in death. We conduct ourselves on the earth; we wear down the earth; we will be earth. The necessity of being born was cast upon us, as was the misery of living the hardship of dying. Our body is an earthly habitation in which death and sin dwells, by which it is consumed daily.

All our life is spiritual war (Job 7:1). Above are demons keeping watch for our destruction. The world opposes us from the right and the left. Below and within the flesh keeps watch. The life of man is military service, for in it there is perpetual wrestling between the flesh and the spirit (Galatians 5:17). What joy is it possible for men in this world, when nothing in it is secure happiness? What is able to border upon pleasure for us in the present life, when, at the same time that favorable things are perishing, that which threatens us does not pass away; when that which deeply pleases us here ends, and that place where pain never ends is always drawing nearer? What good is a longer life since in a long life we merely do more evil, see more evil, and suffer more evil than in a shorter life? What good is a longer life, since in the Last Judgment there will thus be more accusations of sin?

Job - León BonnatWhat is man? The slave of death, a transient traveler, a light bubble, a brief moment, more worthless than an image, emptier than a sound, more fragile than glass, more changeable than wind, more fleeting than a shadow, more fallible than a dream. What is this life? An expectation of death, the stage of a laughingstock, a sea of misery, a half-pint of blood that the smallest misstep may spill or a little fever spoil. The course of life is a labyrinth. We enter this labyrinth at birth; we leave through the threshold of death. We are nothing but earth, yet earth is nothing but smoke, so we are therefore nothing but smoke. This life is fragile like glass, winding like a river, miserable like war, and yet it appears exceedingly desirable to many. In this life, a nut may appear splendid on the outside, but in truth, when you open it with a knife, you will see that it is nothing but worms and rottenness inside. Fruit grown in the region of Sodom may delight us with its outward appearance, but it will turn to ashes when touched. The happiness of this life may delight us outwardly, but if you look more closely, it becomes clear that it is smoke and ashes.

Do not choose, therefore, to devote your highest thoughts to this life, O beloved soul, but always aspire to the future joy. Compare the brief amount of time granted you in this life with an infinite and never ending eternity, and it will become obvious that it is foolish to cling to this fleeting life and neglect eternity. This life of ours is fleeting, and yet in it eternal life is acquired or lost. This life is most miserable, and yet in it eternal happiness is acquired or lost. This life is most calamitous, and yet in it eternal joy is acquired or lost. If, then, you aspire to eternal life, desire it with your whole heart in this fleeting life. Make use of the world, but do not let your heart cleave to the world. Negotiate in this life, but do not let your mind affix to this life. The use of external, worldly things does not cause injury if internal love is not joined to them. The fatherland is in heaven; the sojourn is in the world. Do not then choose, therefore, to delight in the day by day lodging of this world, lest you are dragged away from the desire for the heavenly fatherland. This life is a sea. Eternity is the port. Therefore, do not choose to delight in the momentary tranquility of the sea, lest you fail to aspire to the port of eternal tranquility. This life is like an unfaithful lover who does not remain faithful to the ones who love her, but often flees from them, contrary to all expectation. Why then would you want to place your trust in that one? It is most certainly dangerous to try to promise security for even one hour, since very frequently it is in that very hour that this fleeting life ends. It is safest to expect the end of life to be present in every hour and to prepare yourself for that with serious repentance. In the ivy in which Jonah delighted, God prepared a worm to destroy it (Jonah 4:7). So also, in the things of the world to which many cling with love, nothing is stable, but the worms of corruption are born in those things. The world has already been so seriously damaged by the disgrace of such things that it has even lost some of its seductions. Indeed, as much as those who do not consider it worthwhile to flourish with a flourishing world ought to be praised and commended, that much those who take delight to perish with a perishing world ought to be corrected and accused.
O Christ, draw our hearts away from the love of this age and stir up within us the desire for the heavenly kingdom.