I was speaking with a boyhood friend this morning, someone with whom I hadn’t spoken in earnest in over 20 years, about happiness. In passing, he noted that life is short and that we only have a finite length of time to live. And that’s it.
When I was 18, another friend, who’d been raised Lutheran and who’d been fairly sheltered up until then, recounted how “speechless” he was when, while running alongside me, he asked me what happens when one dies. He recalled that I said, “That’s it; your body goes in the ground.”
“I hope,” I wrote to him today, “I was just being funny, perhaps speaking partly in jest, but I suspect I wasn’t.” For then I was convinced of the veracity of secularism, which insists that there is, ontologically speaking, only this temporal world and nothing else.
How strange it is to be convinced, not really by force of argument but by virtue of embracing the default position of modern culture, that secularism is obviously true; how terrible it is to be filled with such unjustified conviction; and how lonesome and terrified this position leaves you.
It’s worse than that, actually. For while it may seem, as the inimitable Charles Taylor writes in his glorious tome A Secular Age, as if it’s the intellectually and morally courageous thing to do to face up to the ‘hard facts of secularism’ in lieu of plumbing for the cheap consolation of some ‘superannuated theistic religion,’ it’s, in truth, a way of shooting yourself in the foot–without your bloody knowing it.
If–here comes an old saw–I had a dime for all the times someone, especially while philosophizing with me, told me that we have “precious time left” or “a finite length or amount of time to live,” I’d be rich.
“The fact that it’s common,” you might say, “doesn’t mean that it’s not true.”
“Fair enough,” I’d reply, “but have actually taken time to consider whether it is true? I hadn’t when I was younger, and I bet you haven’t as you grow older.
I press on:
“Don’t you see that your fears and anxieties stem from the belief and feeling that your life is necessarily finite?
“Can’t you accept that your paralysis, now as you turn 40, can’t be understood unless you consider that alleged finitude upon which it rests?
“Do you really think your fear of death will ever subside until you get around to actually investigating your metaphysics?
“Don’t you see that there are more options than just an atheistic ‘that’s it’ and a theistic afterlife?
“How does it feel to treat your loved ones when you’re frantically thrust into impatient, restless, aggravated busyness owing to your desire to leave behind ‘some kind of legacy’ when ‘you’ are gone?
“If you call yourself a freethinker and a free spirit, then why this white-knuckled clinging to something that you’d be better off at least admitting falls, prima facie, into the great unknowing?
“Don’t you see that, like me at 18, you are clueless?
“My friend, you grant that there are limitations. Why not be more intellectually rigorous, huh? For all we need for a starting point for a genuine philosophical inquiry is for you to open yourself up to the possibility that ‘my consciousness is limited’ may itself be incorrect. Nay, even less: all I need from you is for you to open yourself up to the possibility that there are things you don’t presently understand and that those things just might be properly called ‘mysterious.’
“Earnest existential honesty invites you to drop the unwarranted convictions and to pony up to ‘I don’t know.’ Come on, friend! Pony up! What’s amazing is that your own experience, right now, is imbued with a kind of freedom you haven’t ever felt. An opening is an openness. Henceforth use a sniff test: trust your lucid, direct experience, not your alleged beliefs.”