by William Deatherage, Executive Director
Humans, by nature, grasp for what is outside their reach. Fear and anxiety serve as our most primal instincts. This is well-documented in the first chapters of Genesis. It was such anxious curiosity that led Eve to change the course of human history. And just like Eve, once we think we’ve finally grasped the forbidden fruit of our own desires, our anxiety and emptiness are only worsened. This leads to a fundamental question: how are we meant to react to the swelling up of fear and anxiety that overtake us periodically?
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Martin Heidegger. A controversial philosopher, Heidegger emphasizes death as the source of all fear and anxiety, and I believe that his observations are quite telling. How do we cope with fear and anxiety? Heidegger argues that many people simply go through the motions of daily life in a shallow boredom that merely distracts us from death. From a modern perspective, this comes in the form of sex, drugs, and other addictive behaviors. We either think we can delay the inevitable or seek to ignore it altogether. Rarely does it occur that man accepts his relationship with death and chooses to live with an authentic awareness of it every day. This is a rather extreme way of saying “live every day as if it were your last,” and Heidegger certainly did not seek for his philosophy to be used for such advice, but I argue that a Christian interpretation of his writings commands this approach.
Well, what are we supposed to do? We are faced with the impending threat of death, and then what? Heaven? Hell? Regarding the latter, I assert that Heaven is truly a terrifying subject , and anyone who is cheerily “enthusiastic” about it clearly has not contemplated it enough. Here is why. The two terms that come to mind when discussing Heaven are “infinite” and “perfect.” Already, we encounter problems with Heaven, though. Think of your favorite food, and envision it cooked to “perfection.” Now imagine eating it every day for the all of eternity. The reason that Heaven is so terrifying is (funnily enough) Heidegger’s own observation regarding boredom as the antithesis of authentic living. Think about it. The reason that sex and drugs fail to yield greater fulfillment is because of the boredom that they ironically produce. There’s a reason that the average drug addict seeks a greater “high” each subsequent trip. At a certain point, their satisfaction is diminished. Now, back to your favorite food. Envision how quickly you’d become bored of eating it. How about your favorite book? How many times could you read it before being bored? Or your favorite library? Sure, such pursuits are more fulfilling than drugs, but in a few trillion years, you could probably have read every book ever written in all of human history. What would that do to you? How would you feel? Now, what about adoration? Could you really imagine yourself singing to God all day, every day for eternity? For trillions of years? How many times can we sing “How Great is Our God” or “Tantum Ergo” without wanting to switch it up? This all yields another intense question: So long as humans remain fallible, is Heaven really anything to look forward to?
Thinking about all of this makes me anxious, and I can tell that it makes the world anxious too. Why else is our culture so obsessed with escapist pleasures that give us false assurance to diminish the stress that is natural for us to experience? Through addiction, fear is eliminated because we think we can rely on certain substances or actions to make us happy. Anxiety disappears because we distract ourselves from it. We turn to religion to solve our problems, but what happens when religion becomes a security blanket or worse, a drug? We think we can grasp all of life’s mysteries by studying theology and philosophy, and we convince ourselves that there is nothing to fear if we invoke the name of Christ enough. Marx’s “Opium of the Masses” statement really hits hard here, as we observe any modern cult (e.g. the Branch Davidians) and more importantly WHY they began their operations. It seems that even religion is not safe from the effects of fear and anxiety.
There is much to fear, and this is not an evil aspect of life. Again, I must emphasize that Eve was faced with the same internal conflict that all of us experience on a daily basis. The primary difference is that we now have an awareness of death, and we can choose to ignore it or engage with it. At long last, this is where today’s readings come in handy.
“If you trust in God, you too shall live; he has set before you fire and water to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” Trust. Why should we trust God? Usually, trust requires an assurance based on experience. For example, I trust that the ball will fall to the floor if I toss it because I’ve seen it do the same so many times before. I trust that my roommate won’t kill me in my sleep because I have woken up safely throughout the last four years of college. But with God we are called to trust that everything will be okay after death despite the facts that we have never experienced death and that those who have experienced it have never come back. Furthermore, we are called to trust in an incomprehensible afterlife that is impossible to be excited about by any empirical measure.
However, just as absurd as Heaven is our existence altogether. Heidegger’s broader project aimed at the question “why do we exist as opposed to not existing?” This is something we also cannot know, but it at least provides us with some basis for trusting in God. Nothing forced God to make us, yet here we are. The immeasurable amount of love God has for us, poured out in pages of scripture, helps to counteract the immense fear and anxiety that is associated with death. But still, Heaven, which is beyond sensation, must be anticipated by beings that rely totally on sensation to make judgments.
“We speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory.” God’s wisdom is infinite, yet we are compelled to rationalize God: to define Him. But if this is not what we are called to do, then how can we expect to go through life? I present to you all the virtue of hope. Hope is what gives us something to look forward to, regardless of empirical evidence. It helps us to hold fast to goodness and truth when darkness and evil surround us. When the ship is sinking, and the probability of survival is less than one percent, we are compelled to remain hopeful that, despite the circumstances, everything will be okay. In this sense, despite our limitations when thinking about Heaven, we are called to have hope for it. If there’s a situation where that virtue of hope comes in handy, it’s certainly with death.
Likewise, such a hope motivates us to hold Christ’s commandments in great esteem. “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” Such challenges are indeed daunting, as even looking at a person with lust indicates adultery. But our hope for the Kingdom of Heaven keeps us motivated. Again, this is not because of any observable phenomenon, but because of our trust in what we don’t know. We don’t know God’s plan for us in the coming years, days, or even moments. To acknowledge fear and anxiety is not to ignore them or drown ourselves in them, but rather to have meaningful confrontations with them as we recognize the moments in life that shake us to our core and humbly say “Jesus I trust in you.”