Reconciling the Irreconcilable

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I have some doubt as to whether anyone can truly dispose of the belief that life has no purpose. Even one who comes to that conclusion can’t leave it alone. This book is witness to that fact, an attempt to find out and confront the meaning of non-meaning. I suspect that only someone well on his way to being damned could truly leave it alone—that is, truly ignore it,  not even think about it, not be aware of the problem it poses—because doing so would entail an almost complete insensibility not just to the idea of God but to good and evil, truth and falsehood. I have known any number of people who professed to believe that life has no meaning, but not one who was genuinely indifferent to the idea. They betray themselves by their strenuous insistence upon it, clearly driven by strong emotion, which would not exist if they were truly reconciled.

For me, at least, there is a greater obstacle to the belief that life has a meaning than the absence of proof that it does: the question of evil. Horowitz uses a couple of horrifying stories to bring this home; no more are needed.

I mentioned earlier that I did not find this book challenging in the sense that I took Horowitz to mean it, that is, in the sense that it challenged my convictions as a Catholic. That’s not because it isn’t in fact a challenge, but because it is one to which I am accustomed. I deal with these questions every day. Whatever my faith is, it is not knowledge that was given to me, as it was given to St. Paul—not knowledge of a fact. And it is not a sense of God’s presence, or a consciousness of his love. And it is definitely not a certainty; I am never without some awareness of the possibility that I may be wrong. And I never see a news story about a murder or a war or a natural catastrophe, or even pass by a dead dog on the road, dead only because it was too innocent to fear properly an oncoming automobile, without wondering why the God in whom I place my trust permits such things to happen. My faith is a conscious decision, renewed every day, to accept the Christian revelation and to order my life according to it, or at least make a persistent effort to do so.

The intellect cannot make this decision for me, cannot force it upon me as an indubitable certainty. The heart wants it, but the heart often wants what it should not have. Does it want what it cannot have, not just practically but in the very nature of things? Of course it can and does in the immediate course of life, but can its ultimate longing be for something that does not exist? The idea that it can is a deeper puzzle than is generally recognized.

Is the longing for heaven like a dog dreaming of a bowl which is never empty of hamburger? Well, suppose it is; suppose that is the best a dog might think to ask of heaven. It doesn’t matter. The important question is not what sort of heaven the dog might want, but whether he can want it at all, whether he can have the self-awareness and the ability to step outside the moment necessary for him to have the dream, and to know he is having it. And, after all, hamburger does exist; we assume the dog can’t long for something that he can’t imagine. And I’m not convinced that we can, either, though the intensity of our longing and our difficulty in naming its object leads us to use words like sehnsucht. Like the dog with his hamburger, we have tasted it, if only briefly. We have imagined that there is something better than we can imagine.

But back to the book. I don’t think I’ve conveyed just how enjoyable it is: its graceful writing, its contemplative tone, its recourse to the inconceivably precious texture—and, one must say, the meaning—of ordinary life. In spite of the fact that the conclusion it draws are the opposite of my own, I’ll return to it, for the way it faces the problems it raises.

I have sometimes distinguished between deep and shallow atheism: the former understands the seriousness of the question, the latter does not, and thinks a shallow materialism answers all. I don’t think Horowitz describes himself as an atheist—if I’m not mistaken he uses the word agnostic a few times—but like most agnostics he takes the assumption of the absence of God as the outcome of his doubt. At any rate, his unbelief is definitely of the deep variety. And I always suspect that those who hold it are closer to the Kingdom than they realize, or is apparent to us.

Horowitz blames his own people for helping to fuel the expectation that history will arrive somewhere:

Deep in the millenial past, Jews were the original progressives and invented the idea that we are on our way toward a brighter future, which perhaps is why our history is so filled with tragedy and defeat.

I can’t help seeing a trace of ironical Jewish humor here: in other words, the Jews invented a system for making themselves miserable for all time. But did they invent it? Or was it given to them?

I neglected to mark the passage, and may not be quoting it perfectly, but Horowitz says something to the effect that we comfort ourselves by imagining that we inhabit stories that have no end. After I had written most of this review, I ran across the last lines of the last book of The Chronicles of Narnia:

All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page; now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no man on earth has read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.

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  • maturin20

    A chilling reminder that atheism can be just as apocalyptic as religion.

  • Stephen_Brady

    Maclin, your review was excellent, and has moved me to buy the book.

    Please ignore the trolls. They show up whenever there is an attempt to make people think or reflect …

  • David

    Until a person is enlightened by God to see and understand with the heart that this life is only a brief intermission hanging by a thread, And as, it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment, the person will seek purpose and meaning in the things of this world, For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, the deceitfulness of riches is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.

  • mlcblog

    The trouble with God is that he is invisible. Only those of us who have chosen to believe can apprehend the amazing and wondrous events that come to fruition by his influence. Upon making this choice, we can often feel quite foolish and alone. It is not always comfortable, but I have found it to be well worth the price of admission. Extreme humility. Very costly.

  • JakeTobias

    I was in my late teens when I realized, not only had I lost the point of life, I had lost the point of heaven.

    But after reading Ayn Rand, I came to understand, that besides myself, the blame lie largely with a liberal run education system. But I had hope again, because of Rand. I had found my God-substitute. And then the roof caved in. Then the floor fell to the basement. And I was lost, not for a decade, but for nearly two decades this time. Since that time, I have found a muted hope. A hope, that maybe America can be saved from an internal collapse. Because my muted hope comes from three extraordinary experiences. First, in the form of a spontaneous healing, I prayed desperately for. And second, from two separate experiences with altered states of consciousnesses, brought about through meditation. I know now, there really is a mystical aspect to life, and reality. But I wish I had more hope. And I wish I could make peace with Christianity. I can not accept the belief, that if one is born into a different faith, or culture, one must be eternally damned.