Encounter

Essay written in about 1978 for a college course

at the University of Oregon (Eugene). Unedited from that time.

It was the disturbing spring quarter of my first year in college [1976]. The cavorting of the wild ruffians in my dormitory waned as the stillness of the maturing evening guaranteed a lessening of their activity. Having separated myself from them, I was now quite alone in my room, even though on any other night I would have found myself taking part in the activities of my companions. Having dispensed with my more mundane studies, I sat gazing at my imprisoned fish companion as he swam his circuits of impossible escape. The welcome quietness vaunted me to a high level of contemplation. I reached for the volume that had completed captured my interest through my History of Modern Philosophy class: The Portable Nietzsche. The ripening of my mood demanded that I again embrace the deeply disturbing prose of this infamous philosopher.

Existentialism was a word that I could barely define three months previous, but now it had become the object of my infatuation. Nietzsche was the prophet of its most iconoclastic side, screaming of the death of God (whom we have killed) and exhorting the shipwrecked individual to fly above the sickening weakness of man-qua-man and thus aspire to the realm of the absolutely autonomous Antichrist-like “Overman”. This message was hammered into my psyche in no uncertain terms. In relentless fashion this progenitor and personification of atheistic existentialism was dynamiting the last vestiges of my tottering and vague theistic conception one by one. The impediments of tradition were jettisoned. Overman beckoned.

These warring thoughts had made an unexpected entry. They surreptitiously gained power in my thinking. They were new, alien and incorrigible – sucking everything into their vacuum. My journey into philosophy had occurred quite accidentally during my first quarter when, while groping for classes, I captured a Social Philosophy course that fit neatly into my schedule. Most of my present state of being had its origin in this innocuous event. But as the year progressed I could no longer objectively analyze the schools of thought I encountered; I had to live them. After all, they represented some of the deepest thoughts of men concerning the very meaning of existence. This could not be taken lightly. Philosophy was not written solely to fill college lecture rooms or generate opaque dilettantish arguments.

This deepening of my philosophical investigations (no matter how embryonic they may have been) had also lead me into various religious philosophies, particularly those of the mystic East. But these theologies were savagely swallowed up in the urgency of the moment. I was impassioned with anti-theology.

After consuming a few hours worth of Nietzsche I laid the book down, bowing to fatigue. Yet any physical tiredness was superseded by the uniqueness of my predicament. How had I arrived at this position? This man, seventy years gone, whose name I could scarcely spell or pronounce, had exacerbated every hidden bit of despair in my consciousness, mixing it with a Dionysian excitement that left me in uncharted regions – regions where God no longer mattered. I faced the abyss, unaided by hope in the traditional sense. Providence could no longer afford me any relief. Everything would not just eventually work out. These sorts of optimistic maxims were destroyed because I was being existentialized. I was looking beyond dependence, for I was totally free to myself and from God. I had quickly arrived at an unexpected crossroads. This “philosophy” had transcended its ordinary title. The pompous aloofness that this definition connoted was obliterated. This philosophy had to be lived, not pondered, experienced not analyzed, embraced and not entombed in the graveyard of inaccessible erudition.

But wasn’t this all too ridiculously serious? Wasn’t I but a freshman just scraping the surface of philosophical inquisition? How could I have arrived at such a position? These thoughts did little to allay my anxiety; in fact, no comfort was allowed whatsoever. This was the existential dilemma. The comforting fluctuation of intellectual agnosticism was no longer permitted, for Nietzsche had adroitly dismantled its shallowness.

Epigrams besieged me with pure poignancy rising up from uncharted depths of thought-colliding and cannibalizing each other, yet all the time miserably failing to integrate into a coherent system. I navigated without bearing, craving stability in a metaphysical wasteland. As confusion and frustration oftentimes manufacture the intellectual recline of a recuperative depression, I was progressively aghast at the incessant insurrection of my psyche. I was granted no rest. My respect for social sanction had been shaken over the course of a few years of interest in radical leftist politics, but now a more iconoclastic mental revolution was underway which avalanched and destroyed the very bulwark of my presupposition: Was there any real order in life? Where was the overriding and underlying purpose and meaning? What is really left when God has vanished? My often clichéd-like questions had disappeared and been replaced by ones which evinced a new earnestness and seriousness. This was no game. Truth eluded me, yet I craved it. Where did it hide? Could life ever vouchsafe enough time for me to discover it? Was eternity long enough? I was choked in the straitjacket of human finitude. Would even the most dedicated emulation of “the intellectual” ever assure me of certitude in any area of my life?

I sat motionless at my desk, prideful of my understanding of such a difficulty philosopher, yet quivering at the consequences of my understanding. I reread the title of the book: The Portable Nietzsche. How fond I was of toting it around with me, letting the unenlightened know my status! This dreadfully misunderstood philosopher, whose core of atheism most people refused to take seriously, had become part of my identity. Yes, I had understood what I had read and it refused to give me rest.

Yet rest is a necessity for a productive college life so, after jotting down a few painfully brief notes in my journal concerning my turbulence, I waited for sleep to remove me from this predicament. It did not comply to my wished; my subconscious was not so easily placated.

After the darkness of the room and my mental and physical fatigue had given me sleep, a strange dream began-one that would continue where my waking thoughts had ended. My feelings of complete solitude were deepened as the scene of my dream was my very room. Surprisingly, my late night ruminations were not directly manifested in the dream, but the subtlety of its content was striking. The extreme lifelike quality of this chimera added intensity to an otherwise commonplace scene. Reacting to a small tapping sound I left my bed and stood before my lone third story window. What greeted me was, by itself, not a particularly gruesome or frightening sight, but its location accentuated the bizarreness of its appearance. My stare had been reciprocated.

A nondescript face shrouded in darkness appeared in the window. But I lived on the third floor. How and, more importantly, why would anyone climb to this absurd position? Or did they have to climb? My questions ended as I awoke from my abbreviated encounter. The terror of discovering this incongruent face was limited to a short few seconds in “dream time” but the underlying bizarre and haunting presence that the face represented was to remain.

I stared at the ceiling. The murky shadings of my box-like room enfolded me in a blanket of terrorizing solitude. I had rejected that presence that secretly sought me. I was completely alone. My conscience, even in its tremulous condition, held back tears – besides, they were useless. That hideous new conscience also halted prayer, for I was commencing the execution of God. In this state self-pity was unattainable. I hated God as a nebulous word, a by-product of weak generalizations, but I dreaded his concreteness, for if he existed he knew all – even this special agony: the agony of an existential autonomy that was rejecting him.

At this frozen moment time succumbed to ego and perished in thought. All existence ceased but my own. This anguished, fragmented self was infinitely separated from all. It despised its own company but had no other. It loved its despair; it clung to it with desperation. The brute reality of this situation could not be avoided. It was zero hour.

Shivering out of bed I hit a light. Then, grabbing a pen and paper, I began the impossible task of recording these maddening thoughts. The pen, squeezed by clutching fingers, began its jagged flight over the blankness of white. Fearing the dissipation of this bothersome brain-work I wrote with frenzied determination. The blankness of a few pages was conquered, the blankness of my soul was not. No degree of descriptive elegance could manifest the ineffable. The visceral danced with the cerebral in a desultory dirge. Heightened emotions which had gone unvented tore me asunder. Could this ever be explained – should it? Would I ever want to promote such horror in another? The danger of sleep now equaled the confrontation of wakefulness and my bed was as much of an enemy as my writing pad.

Emptiness. The avenues were blocked. Things had become existentialized to the supreme degree. I was my only real audience – and my only motivation. But I remembered that man hidden in a book I had tried to forget. Shelved in a dark corner of my room was a work by Kierkegaard. I had previously ridiculed him in a philosophy essay with gleeful abandon. He was in the other camp, like the face in the window. Though an existentialist, like Nietzsche, he had nothing more central to his philosophy than the belief in, and the encounter with, God. My scorn for him went beyond a personal animosity over a philosophical position; it went to the core of his message. My antithetical attitude toward him was more a protection from his disturbing thoughts than a judicious analysis of them.

A slim volume was now in my hands, one from which I had previously fled. Its title, alienating to most at first blush, characterized my condition: The Sickness Unto Death. I leafed through to a random page and began reading. My reading was of a queer nature. It was not the vicarious enjoyment received through the admiration of the author’s style and/or message. After reading a few sentences I knew at the roots of my being that I must not sink into that merely aesthetic trap. This was not the breed of book that could be read for aesthetic gratification. Nor could it be read simply to add another title to a list of books read which supplies the dilettante with another piece of pseudo-intellectual baggage. I could not so maliciously insult the author by adopting any of these positions. Instead, I listened to the sermon, a sermon unlike any that I had experienced. The moral prodding did not come from the sententious admonishments of a dogmatic moralist, but form the profound observations of a perceptive and honest man. The pages became mirrors luminously reflecting and magnifying the exactness of my precarious posture.

The book spoke of a despair so acute, so piercing, that the God-rejecting individual internalized his despair by putting it onto the singularness of his being. He cherishes his despair because it is his and his alone. His pride drives him to unheard of heights of suffering. In this state, even if God in heaven would make himself directly known, offering to banish the suffering, the individual would reject him, opting instead to cultivate his odious despair. A reversal had occurred, the book was reading me, picking me apart with scrupulous exactitude.

I was laid bare – dissected and amazed. Was this newly discovered vital message a disclosure of Providence or a mere chance occurrence activated by my self-made freedom in a random universe? Legions of interpretations besieged me. I could not escape them, but I could escape the box that enclosed me.

It was early morning now. A time of roaring silence for me. Stark aloneness followed me out my door, down the three flights of gray stairs and on into the street. The hint of a new day loomed. I walked without direction as a physical automation possessing a mental maelstrom. Was I free to respond to this call to decision? What could I do with this awesome moral prodding? Yet I continued to love my autonomous despair with nauseating stamina. I had discovered the unthinkable: God was dead. Or was he? What was causing this crisis? Why was I thinking what I was thinking? No one could answer my query, no one except myself, or… God.

An occasional jogger broke the dawn’s quietude. The melodious tones of freshly awakened birds filled my path but failed to provide even an ounce of inner harmony. My gait was hulking but constant. The gravity of my thought had seemed to increase the gravity on my body. I carried too much to bear.

Chalkboards were filled and erased in my mind. A regiment of seminal thinkers fought to gain my attention. Their ideas, which had only recently gained my attention through the classroom, cartwheeled in my head. Karl Marx frowned and jabbed me, reducing the sum total of my experience to economic factors. My thoughts of God were nothing but a bourgeois illusion to him. Sigmund Freud appeared and spoke of my overactive superego. He labeled my thoughts about God as neurotic. Nietzsche doomed me to atheistic freedom. He instructed me to rebuke the God I could not destroy… And there was that melancholy Dane, Soren Kierkegaard. There was an infinite chasm between he and the others. He urged me to seek God with all of my heart and to stand naked and pleading before the creator, free from excuse. He was a Christian.

It was now nearing sunrise.

After an indeterminate period of time I discovered myself at the highest point on campus: the top of a hill next to the Student Union Building. I awaited the sunrise with passionate expectation. Feeling unalterably drained I desired renewal. Sunrises had always reminded of the beauty and intensity of the cosmic drama: the drama of creation and of its helmsman. I was dwarfed by the spectacle. Awe and mystery colored my perceptions as a tiny bit of red grew into a radiant orb of transformation. The final instant of night gave way to the newness of day. Tingling with a vague feeling of reverence, I signed deeply. My quest had not ended. Resolution had net yet appeared because the agony remained, but something had been beheld in a new and stunning way, something that I could never deny or rationalize into oblivion. My moral existence was not to gather any more strength from the defiance or denial of the divine.

Kierkegaard on Sin

When I read the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) in the spring of 1976, it opened the doors of myself that eventually lead to Jesus and his Gospel. In this excerpt from Philosophy in Seven Sentences, I explain Kierkegaard’s understanding of sin—a concept that showed me to myself for the first time. 


Kierkegaard on Sin

Kierkegaard is now ready to spring the trap. He says that “despair is sin.” It takes two forms.

Sin is: before God, or with the conception of God, in despair not to will to be oneself, or in despair to be oneself. Thus sin is intensified weakness or intensified defiance: sin is the intensification of despair. The emphasis is on before God, or with a conception of God; it is the conception of God that makes sin dialectically, ethically, and religiously what lawyers call “aggravated” despair.

The self is divided against itself in two ways, which are two sides of the same self. The first state of sin is to give up willing to be oneself. This is “intensified weakness,” which may sound odd but is not. One may shrink back from any task at hand (inward or outward) by hiding in excuses, such as “To err is human” or “Nobody is perfect.” These statements are true, but not the kind of truth the self should be satisfied with. The self is a movement and is not static. We know what an error is, and we do not praise it. We know what imperfection is, and we do not praise it. We embody both error and imperfection regarding moral intensions and actions. Kierkegaard will not let us rest in the popular phrase “mistakes were made.” We wonder how all these mistakes occur by themselves and without agents making them. Weakness is intensified when we play the victim when we are not the victim. I once accidently hurt a young playmate of mine. It was not traumatic to him, until his mother appeared. He then threw a fit over the egregious injury I had so unjustly caused him. His weakness was intensified.

The second state of sin is when we will to be ourselves in despair. We continue in a pattern of life that is less than ideal, with no hope of reform or renewal. People may say, “I’m just a big eater [meaning: glutton]” or “I will never get organized,” but they will to be this way—and without hope. Yet the conscience is not clean; it is not satisfied with chronic tension and disappointment. It is resigned to its condition but still feels guilt. Think of Friedrich Nietzsche’s defiant boast in Thus Spoke Zarathustra where he speaks of a life considered well-lived. This is a life so well-lived that one could bear repeating it eternally. Of the whole life one can affirm “Thus, I willed it.” Nietzsche said yes to the overcoming self, the self which is free from excuses but also free from scrutiny outside the self. For Kierkegaard the Nietzschean self is no self at all. This is because the essential dynamic of despair has been dissipated in the pure, untrammeled will. (The apostle Paul calls this “will worship,” and it is thus a form of idolatry.) But surely the will can go wrong. If so, then the will in itself cannot correct the will.

Nietzsche deftly illustrates Kierkegaard’s idea of “defiance.” To ignore or to repress is not to defy. Defiance pits itself against something. Nietzsche, in the voice of “the Ugliest Man” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, says,

But he had to die: he saw with eyes that saw everything; he saw man’s depths and ultimate grounds, all his concealed disgrace and ugliness. His pity knew no shame: he crawled into my dirtiest nooks. This most curious, over-obtrusive one had to die. He always saw me: on such a witness I wanted to have my revenge or not live myself. The god who saw everything, even man—this god had to die! Man cannot bear it that such a witness should live.

This defiant despair is not just found in Nietzsche and a few others. I know it from the inside out. As I mentioned, I was assigned The Sickness Unto Death in a history of modern philosophy class. When I began to read that book I found that it was exposing the deepest dynamics of my soul. Through my study of atheists—such as Nietzsche, Freud and Marx—I thought I had dispensed with God. However, I could not fully suppress my awareness of God (see Romans 1:18-21). Yet I did not want to submit to this God. Rather, I would will to be myself in my despair. As a rebel against God, I wanted to be a witness against him. Kierkegaard made me distressingly clear to myself, which was the reason for his book. This literary, philosophical, spiritual experience opened a tightly shut door that a few weeks hence led to my confessing myself as a sinner and Christ as Lord (see Romans 10:9; John 1:12-13).

We still hear the word sin quite a bit, and most of the lingo is not very compelling. Augustine has already deepened our understanding, but we will face a daunting challenge to conceive this concept aright. Most references to hell today are glib and unthinking. Some years ago a cartoonist drew a strip called Life in Hell, which had nothing to do with the place Jesus Christ warned about. Why this flippancy? This old, grave word was evicted from its home and is now acting as a vagabond, casting about for some shelter far from its native country. The ghost word sin now alights on notions such as mistake, miscue, false guilt, and needless shame. It finds no grounding in gravitas. According to the oracle of Google, there is a group named “The Sinners” and another called “Sinner.” But Kierkegaard does not discuss it in the way that Billy Graham or Rick Warren does, although all three hold to the historic Christian doctrine of sin. Nor does Kierkegaard resemble the approach of Jonathan Edwards’s much-excerpted (and much-misunderstood) sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Kierkegaard labors to explain and treat sin in existential-psychological categories, but without denying or compromising the church’s historic confession of humans as sinners. (He deals with original sin in The Concept of Anxiety, which is a companion to The Sickness Unto Death.) Kierkegaard sought to look inside the human condition to sound out its often obscured depths: its desires, its despair, and its possibilities. He feared that people could easily lose their selves in a labyrinth of popular dead ends but still receive the applause of the crowds and the money of investors and customers.

Groothuis, Douglas. Philosophy in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic (p. 136-139). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.