For the last couple weeks I have had a mild break between the end of the spring semester and the beginning of the summer semester. I’ve put that time to pretty good use I feel: because I have amassed a stack of 4 books that I am reading simultaneously. I have them together in a stack that splits apart and rejoins periodically in different locations—sometimes in the living room, sometimes in my car, sometimes by the bed—like some sort of primitive, amoebic organism. I’m working my way through them, as the mood takes me. It’s thoroughly enjoyable.
One of them is Fear and Trembling by Kierkegaard, and it’s a fascinating little book that has just some great stuff in it. I’m only halfway through, but, as happens in the best of books, I already found an intriguing idea.
Kierkegaard (yes, I have no idea how to pronounce his name, either) was apparently one of the founders of Existentialism. But his philosophy is grounded firmly in Christianity. I really enjoy writing of this sort.
He explains faith as acting on the “strength of the absurd.” He means that all actions before faith, leading up to it, are founded upon human reasoning and human understanding, and a lot of people will mistake what he calls “infinite resignation” for faith. If I summarize correctly, he says a lot of people mistakenly think it is faith when they see someone accepting a situation as impossible and keeping a stiff upper lip; really faith takes a situation that is impossible (he uses the example of Abraham sacrificing Isaac) and believes and—and more importantly for Kierkegaard—acts as if the impossible will happen. I have not done it justice, but hopefully you get the point.
Anyway, he argues for doing things on “the strength of the absurd” and I think that’s just a great, really great, description for the Christian life. Follow me, I’m going to make a divergence and come back to this.
When I was a teenager, I read Douglas Adams’s wonderful series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a great Sci-Fi series that is mostly comedy, but the humor hinges upon the idea that the universe is a massively huge place, filled with (in the series) humans and aliens. In such a place, people and their actions are fundamentally absurd. We place so much significance on ourselves and our values and our money: and from the perspective of the universe, it’s all so meaningless and silly. The books adopt this perspective and thrive on it. They’re a great read.
The focal point of the books is a machine that the citizens of the universe have built which will tell them the answer to the question of life. In the course of the series (spoiler alert) they have a grand ceremony and the machine gives the answer: 42. That’s the answer, it says, but now they must find the question. I don’t think they ever do.
So, the point of the series is that the meaning of life is 42. And it’s funny and lots of funny things happen, and when anyone asks me the meaning of life, I can say “42” and have a funny little inside joke.
But I can’t imagine reading those books and actually believing this underlying philosophy. I enjoyed them and laughed and re-read them later, and I recognized the underlying principle of the humor, and I still laughed at it. But I rejected it and still reject it.
And here’s the wonderful thing about Christianity, and here’s what’s really funny about Christianity. All of those empirical facts about the nature of the universe are true: it is a big place, and we are insignificant if we look at all of it. But we have this record, this amazing record of a man who claimed to be the God that created this huge universe, backed up what he said by first performing hundreds—thousands—of miracles, and then topped all of it by coming back from the dead.
If the narrative of Christianity is true, and we accept it by faith, then it is one of the most absurd things I can think of. There’s not a fairytale that tops it. It’s absolutely absurd that such a story of creation and redemption should exist. We’re not worth it. (Well, I’m pretty sure that I might be worth it, but I know you aren’t).
But I still believe it, and so far the absurd hasn’t failed me. So far, the strength of the absurd is strength enough.