A modern paradox

Albert Camus’ essay, The Myth of Sisyphus wrestles with a kind of schizophrenia that emerged out of the Enlightenment. On the one hand, there is the human world of meaning, morality, etc. On the other hand,  the meaningless, mechanical world of modern science. The earlier unity between the human and the cosmic has been shattered, yet we also fail to dissolve the human into the cosmic. Regardless of how objectively meaningless we may say the world is, we cannot but think and act as if we had free will, as if our lives had meaning.

Thus, for Camus, human existence is absurd. Our task then, is to simply take our human striving itself as self-justifying. Sisyphus’ boulder may always roll back down, but the effort of pushing it is enough for him.

Camus’ answer is inadequate, but I like him for confronting the paradox, which is something that cannot be said of, for instance, the new atheists:

When Watson writes about a lack of wholeness, he seems to be gesturing at the destruction of the synthesis that Eagleton sketches. We feel alienated from the cosmos because we struggle to integrate the truths of science with our everyday desires and emotions. Proselytizers for science like Richard Dawkins often miss this point. In 2009 Dawkins wrote an essay promoting science entitled “There is grandeur in this view of life.” But we already know that science discloses grand, even sublime truths. The problem is that this grandeur has proven difficult to connect with purpose, intimacy, emotion—the stuff that matters most in people’s everyday lives.

This, for Eagleton, is where Christianity excels. The Christian worldview was structured around a narrative that began with Creation and ended with Heaven/Hell. In such a world, humans found themselves in the midst of a quest, and we could choose to act accordingly. Before science discredited it, religion had what Eagleton calls “the power to motivate”; science, he says, lacks this.

Of course, the fact that Christianity has the sort of synthesis which eludes modern thought is no promise that it is true. Even a very coherent worldview should be resisted if it has little relation to reality.

But then it it also not the case that science has ‘discredited’ religion. It has not even discredited the Aristotelian notion of final causality. The pioneers of modern science decided to methodologically bracket such concerns as being irrelevant to the investigation of those aspects of reality that are quantifiable, manipulable and predictable. Religious and philosophical concerns do not aid in the technical advancement of man, and so became increasingly intellectually marginalized. Well, philosophy somewhat less so, but by the time you reach the present, it’s starting to look a bit de trop.

What about art, then? Craig’s article is spot on:

God’s death just means that we need to construct our own, non-authoritative narratives and art, replete with purpose and meaning. Instead of one unified story to which everyone subscribes, we should play around with a plurality of downgraded stories, which can form the basis of our day-to-day lives.

But, of course, this is what we already do, and it is less a solution than a re-statement of the problem. His various narratives won’t provide the emotional relief he wants. For just as Christianity made sublime and cosmic “truths” accessible on a human level, so it invested everyday human life with cosmic significance. With God out of the picture, this is lost. Watson quotes the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s beautiful summary of this problem: “Existence is something tremendous, and day-to-day life, however indispensable, seems an insufficient response to it.”

Art cannot save. Oscar Wilde, who was something of an aesthete, wrote a novel making that point.

The sort of cheery, optimistic atheism that refuses to wrestle with these things is insipid, just as forms of religion which do not grapple with sacrifice, suffering and evil are insipid. Yet, for both believer and nonbeliever alike, this tends to be the norm. We’re not just a therapeutic culture, we’re an anesthetic one.

(h/t Dreher again)

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About Josh W

A Catholic; an occasional writer.
This entry was posted in Catholicism, fragments of culture, What Is This Beast Called Man and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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