When reading Scripture on my own impulse or in service of the needs of my academic work, I am much more of a “New Testament guy” [plus Genesis, a bit of Exodus, and Job] and, as a result, quite a while has passed since I last gave any focused attention to The Book of Wisdom. In approaching it again—through the lenses crafted by time, education, and reflection—I found myself taken aback by the opening chapter and its presentation of the views of “ungodly men”.
–written for a course in Catechist Formation–
Before getting into the text itself and my comment on its relation to modern life, I should probably explain a couple things about the interests and experiences that shape and color my faith. Prior to my [still quite new and always ongoing] conversion to Catholicism, I was not a “Christian” in any but (if you are inclined to stretch the term) a cultural sense of the term. Unbaptized and raised without any consistent community of belief, my spiritual life [the very existence of which I went so far as to put into serious doubt] was a product of my own reflection and devising. In the decade immediately preceding my conversion, that outlook had stabilized and is probably best described as “existential apatheism.”
In brief, where ‘atheism’ asserts that God does not exist and ‘agnosticism’ suggests a failure to conclude whether or not God exists, apatheism claims that arguments over God’s existence are pointless because the state of our daily lives is unchanged no matter who turns out to be right. In a sense it goes even further than atheism, because at least atheists care enough about God to argue over Him. Existentialism, which Sartre described as taking atheism to its logical conclusions (and who also described apatheism as an outcome, though he did not use the term), operates on the presumption that life is nothing more than it appears to be, that man has no purpose or essence, and that we are only whatever we choose to do in the world.
Or, to put it another way:
16 But ungodly men by their words and deeds summoned death; considering him a friend, they pined away, and they made a covenant with him, because they are fit to belong to his party.
1 For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, “Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end, and no one has been known to return from Hades.
2 Because we were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been; because the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts.
4 Our name will be forgotten in time, and no one will remember our works; our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud, and be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun and overcome by its heat.
6 Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist, and make use of the creation to the full as in youth.
8 Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither.
9 Let none of us fail to share in our revelry, everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment, because this is our portion, and this our lot.”
21 Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them,
23 for God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity,
24 but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it.
Part of what I find so striking here is how accurately this ancient book describes a philosophy that wouldn’t emerge in this form until the mid-twentieth century. The opening line of this section, “ungodly men by their words and deeds summoned death,” is particularly remarkable from this perspective because it makes an orientation towards death the basis for all the rest of the reasoning ungodly men do. In point of fact, a major influence and foundation for Sartre’s development of existentialism was the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose philosophy includes as a cornerstone concept the notion of Sein-zum-Tode (translated as being-towards-death). This philosophical position does indeed “summon death,” “consider him a friend,” and “make a covenant with him.” It is death, the awareness of death, and the overcoming-through-acceptance of death that is the ground upon which [atheistic or apatheistic] existentialism walks—and on that walk arrives pretty much right where The Book of Wisdom says it will.
There are reasons beyond my personal interests for bringing this up here. First of all, I think it dramatically reinforces the topic from last week by showing exactly how right these ancient books can end up being. Even more importantly, however, is that I don’t think that the experience of this existential despair and reasoning is limited to my life and that of a few Germans and Frenchmen. On the contrary, this being-towards-death of “ungodly reasoning” has infected and conditioned much of contemporary Western culture. In this light we might even—with a fair degree of accuracy—rephrase Nietzsche’s infamous proclamation, “God is dead,” as “God is death” and thereby describe the outlook that drives so many today out of or away from the Church and from God’s saving Truth. And knowing this does tell us something that is critical to the way we live our lives today. As I once wrote for another course:
God is dead to our neighbors but we know they are wrong; to open their eyes, we must be living signs of the Truth.