As If Reaching Towards the Heavens

Last night, I posted a recent presentation of mine named the “Theology of Suicide”. Might as well just post the paper. Some footnotes proved frustratingly crucial to catching the arguments, anyway. Here it is:

Even in dire personal circumstances such as a terminal illness, in which treatment would cause varying forms of suffering to a person and their loved ones, or the condition of a prisoner of war under threat of enemy torture, suicide is often considered to be a violation of the most sacred of social mores.  Even more so then is suicide in the absence of such extenuating circumstances considered to be an ultimate taboo.  Accordingly, suicide is all too often a fact of life approached with a closed mind. Subjects of suicide are often lucid and considered to be rational in other aspects of their decision-making. Thus, it seems unlikely that suicide is always the result of insanity or irrationality; a person might have valid reasons for the decision to no longer live.

The reasoning behind suicide, then, must be examined and provision of compassionate theological and philosophical reasoning about these existential and ethical dilemmas ought to be a duty of the thoughtful believer. This essay’s chief aims are to examine the problem of non-sacrificial and intentional self-death under the worldviews of atheistic existentialism and Christian theism, to present arguments for and against this form of suicide in light of the key tenets of these two opposing worldviews, and, finally, to offer a Christian theology that best ministers to the subject in existential despair. This endeavor will be made with the philosophies of Albert Camus and Gabriel Marcel in mind.

  1. Camus’ Absurdity, the State of Man, and Arguments Concerning Suicide

Jean-Paul Sartre is famous for his claim that “Man is condemned to be free”.[1] This notion of condemnation is a consistent theme throughout atheistic existentialism. One of its best illustrations was made by Albert Camus. Comparing existence to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, Camus opens “The Myth of Sisyphus” by writing, “The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”[2]

Camus’ analogy seems apt for describing existential absurdity. Man finds himself thrust into a reality in which he is seemingly free, yet so confined within his own limitations. Camus struggled to make sense of the temptation of escape through suicide, writing, “In its way, suicide settles the absurd. It engulfs the absurd in the same death. But I know that in order to keep alive, the absurd cannot be settled. It escapes suicide to the extent that it is simultaneously awareness and rejection of death. It is, at the extreme limit of the condemned man’s last thought . . . The contrary of suicide, in fact, is the man condemned to death. That revolt gives life its value.”[3]

According to Camus, suicide does in fact resolve the problem of absurdity, but in the wrong way. It is an acceptance of a form of life in which the individual has no true say in the matter of his own existence. Instead of surrender to death, one must fight it. Camus continues, “It may be thought that suicide follows revolt—but wrongly. For it does not represent the logical outcome of revolt. It is just the contrary by the consent it presupposes. Suicide, like the leap, is acceptance at its extreme.”[4]

However, why think that revolt offers more value to life or that suicide is the most extreme acceptance of the absurdity found within it? There seem to be several reasons why this is not the case. Camus simply assumes that the suicidal subject’s choice in suffering is more qualitatively valuable than its termination, but it can be just as easily argued that the quality of an individual’s suffering is precisely his defeat in life. Reasons why this is not the case should be expected from Camus since he is proposing that the subject continuously multiply the quantity of his own suffering until natural death.

Consider taking Camus’ condemnation verbiage literally. Groups of prisoners, all wrongly convicted and awaiting execution, are housed within a death row ward. The halls of the prison tremble with the anguished screams of the innocent. Their executioners, acting as fate, are in wait for each of them. The guards are proud of the misery of their captives and eager at the prospect of claiming another life. An individual prisoner sits in his cell and, as earlier described, is sentenced to certain death. Every waking moment multiplies this prisoner’s suffering, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Yet, unbeknownst to his overseers, this prisoner has a blade, beside a will to revolt. Through the act of suicide, this prisoner can finally control for his own self both the quantity and the quality of his suffering, alongside eliminating all satisfaction of those in opposition to him, all while remaining distinct and autonomous from every group that surrounds him. In this case, the subject’s willful death is clearly a more rational response to his dreadful predicament, and it is a far more noble option than Camus’ rebellion. Furthermore, Camus ends his Sisyphus essay with a quote as famous as the essay itself when he writes, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy”.[5]

But Sisyphus wasn’t happy!

Camus is essentially asking that one pretend that reality is not the way that it is. No system exists in which what is fundamentally illusory should be considered real.

  1. Gabriel Marcel, the State of Man, and Arguments Concerning Suicide

Thus far, suicide has been described from the viewpoint of existential atheism. However, the worldviews discussed might appear to take the non-existence of God for granted, or as Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “ . . . there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive of it”[6]. This assumption of atheism is important. If God is seen as no more than a mere postulate of man instead of a legitimate explanation of him, then the pains of existence may never be more meaningfully addressed and alleviated. This then leaves the Christian philosopher with an important question:  does the Christian God, as presented by our next philosopher Gabriel Marcel, offer any genuine help to the problem of absurdity?

As a Catholic philosopher, Gabriel Marcel affirmed that Christian dogma contained true statements about the nature of reality and that man’s reach towards purpose was not one which was made in vain. Marcel stressed that man’s inability to rationally connect his own desire for meaning with a world that seems so devoid of overall significance did not mean that the world is in fact devoid of this significance, but rather that the state of man is such that he is unlikely to find it on his own. For Marcel, it seemed to be the case that man is searching not only for purpose for himself, but purpose that transcends himself.

Articulated in another way, it appears as a hunger man does not have within himself an ability to gratify, towards an end that is unquestionably better for anyone to have than to not have. Humankind’s universal search for hope was evidence that he was in a state of significant awareness, and possibly even a vague knowledge of God, by the fact of his own moral and meaningful contingent experience. In other words, man cannot not know of God in some vital sense. However, Marcel did draw some important epistemological and phenomenological distinctions that must now be discussed.

Marcel’s existentialist approach to philosophy was multi-layered and each level is crucial to helping the suicidal individual find rest in an absurd world. Marcel’s first observation is that man finds himself with an ontological demand in a broken world. Marcel’s explanation of the brokenness of the world is unclear; however, what is clear is that man’s ontological demand is his terrible need of obtaining a state of rest. Man finds himself free and surrounded by others, yet is unable to involve himself into meaningful relationships with those whom surround him. Marcel believed that it was all too common to see both ourselves and others in a technical sense, meaning that we see ourselves and our fellow human’s label or utility instead of an image-bearer of God.

According to Marcel, this arose from a misunderstanding of the proper function of humankind because we were not meant to be seen, but known, both by ourselves and others. This destructive pattern of dysfunction led directly to despair and was broken by deep and ongoing forms of introspective experience, realizing one’s need for proper reflection in relation to others. This search, which he repeatedly refers to as the “ontological”, was a process that he believed was the chief aim of the philosophical endeavor.

For Marcel, proper philosophy was not an analytical examination of abstract ideas or concepts, which he called primary reflection, but rather a deep examination of oneself, which he called secondary reflection. Marcel believed that primary reflection could actually become detrimental to the true goals of philosophy because it at times impersonalized the search for meaning and negated one’s own capacity to realize oneself. Successful secondary reflection was phenomenological in character and brought one from a state of despair into a state of hope by leading one into an understanding of the difference between problematic and mysterious realms of interpersonal connections.

For example, if I were to remain in a primarily reflective state, then I would continue to see myself and others in the crude terms of our parts and the uses of those parts. I would only be adjusted with or separate from the other and would be in but a superficial possession of them, approaching them in an disingenuous manner. I might view us as I view an inductive argument or an algebraic equation instead of a brilliant and unique pair of individuals meant to be experienced by one another.

Marcel called this the “problematic” approach to realty. This would again limit the way I view myself and others, thus limiting myself to only quasi-relationships and despair would continue. However, if I proceeded to a secondarily reflective state, then I would discover myself and others as individuals meant to experience one other in a profound and surrendered relationship. We could then achieve the metaphysical correlation for which we exist. Marcel called this participation with another a “mysterious” mode of relation. It is at this point that we are able to realize the sacred nature of the other and come to relate to each as a “Thou”. While the mysterious mode is the ideal way in which to enter relationships with others, it is also the way in which despondent individuals are able to enter into their relationship of the highest importance: their personal relationship with God, or the “Absolute Thou”.

Although frequently dealing with suicide in his writings, Marcel never offers a direct argument against it. Instead, his thoughts on the problem of death seem to be rooted in his insistence that we instead are in a primary struggle with the problem of life. He writes, “Surrounded by these accumulated obscurities which are somehow handed down from an unknown future to the depths of a past which is recognized less and less as something given, there is one certainty which is inescapable: I shall die. Only my death, among all the things which await me, is non-problematic.”[7]

When Marcel uses the term “non-problematic”, he is making a point that in a world without ultimate transcendence, one’s own death is the only thing he can actually confront with confidence; it is the only genuine fact that will be placed before him. Minus participation, all man’s interactions are likely to become problematically-natured abstractions. Typical to existentialism, Marcel views man as a free being; however, the willful decision of non-participation in the lives of others is an eventual rejection of God, since God is the highest Other. In an attempt to preserve our own well-being, we are actually acting in negation of God and, ironically, of ourselves. Marcel writes, “Who am I? You alone really know me and judge me; to doubt You is not to free myself, but to annihilate myself . . . The fact that it is here and here alone that the problematic is overcome, and that in such a life the imminent presence of death is abolished in the fullness of being itself.”[8]

As previously mentioned, Marcel’s philosophy centers around seeing another as a “Thou”. This required the idea of constancy or faithfulness, but constancy often lacked an idea of fidelity. While these words are typically thought of as synonymous, Marcel believed they were distinct from one another. This is crucial in correcting a worldview of despair because we approach and define ourselves and others with simple constancy in mind. While not opposed to constancy, fidelity was different in two ways.

First, it was an utterly humble expectation of your own nature and was not found in an individualistic view of yourself. Instead, it was an acknowledgement of yourself as a being meant for inter-subjectivity. While constancy often reduces one to mere function and consequence, fidelity embraced the painful expectations upon reality, and offered hope to oneself through its own expression to another. Contrasted with most atheistic existentialisms, autonomy was useful only to the point that it was used as an investment in the lives of others.

Second, fidelity was a constantly willed act. Continual renewal of this principle made it a creative fidelity. Marcel believed that this was key to understanding death and despair, writing, “It is important to notice here how the problem of fidelity is linked with the problem of death . . . is it really a problem? Insofar as I create a void around me, it is quite clear that I can be lured to my death and make preparations as for an indefinite sleep. The situation is entirely different as soon as the thou manifests itself. Fidelity truly exists only when it defies absence, triumphs over that absence . . . which we call death.”[9]

Fidelity, however, leaves the suicidal in a sort of quandary. Marcel would surely say that an individual’s outlook of despair, however virtuous that individual might otherwise be, would come from a constancy-based viewpoint of himself and others. This means that he might view life and relationships as a mere form of motions and simple actions. Yet, in order to change his outlook on himself, an individual would seem to require a previous revelation of fidelity. Upon closer reflection, however, this is not the case.

While elevated forms of reflection are a desired end, primary reflection is not in any sense useless. An individual may come to partake in what is secondary through primary understanding of its concepts. Said another way, man is able to intermittingly enter secondary reflection through primary reflection, as long as he acts upon what he finds in his primary reflection.[10]

It is at this point that Marcel’s idea of creative fidelity becomes most helpful to the despairing subject. Where the common rationale of the suicidal was a focus upon the well-being, or lack thereof, for themselves, Marcel encouraged an outpouring of oneself to another and an expectation of disappointment, even if a subject did not fully understand that act. If an individual finds him or herself in despair, they are to empty themselves of prideful dispositions toward that despair through hopeful relationships with others. When one felt they had no more to give, they ought examine the quality of what they offered to another and reoffer a humble rendition instead.

Marcel’s creative fidelity was also an obedience to God and a path to discovering his true nature, writing, “ . . . if I stay on the hither side of the ontological affirmation, I can usually call into question the reality of the bond linking me to some particular being; in this domain disappointment is always possible in principle . . . But on the other hand, the more my consciousness is centered on God himself . . . the less conceivable this disappointment will be . . . but in the act in which I commit myself, I at the same time extend an infinite credit to Him to whom I did so; Hope means nothing more than this.”[11]

Counter-arguments offered toward creative fidelity can be difficult because objections made against it are problematic in nature.[12] In relation to suicide, Marcel’s philosophy seems to place one in an odd, even paradoxical, position. An inimitable phenomenological experience is required for secondary reflection and transcendence, yet one may come to recognize the products of secondary reflection as valuable through primary reflection. But according to most Christian doctrines, God is the primary giver of values known through primary experiences.[13]

So it then seems to be the case that those who are not in mysterious relationship with God are already committing a form of suicide, if indeed, separation from God is the “annihilation” of the self. And if death is the only non-problematic thing man faces, then why ought suicide not become a viable solution to man’s problem of life? Man’s desperation for purpose may be the essential product of his own awareness of the divine, however problematic or misguided. Yet, if this is allowed into consideration, it may very well be the case that the most desperate of men, especially the suicidal infidel, are those in the most earnest search for God.  This concern becomes the center of theological problems regarding suicide.

  1. The Hiddenness of God, Christian Doctrine, and Arguments Concerning Suicide

The God proposition is confronted with both obvious and nuanced objections. Its obvious struggle is best expressed in a question asked by laity and philosopher alike: if God, as described by Christian dogma, exists, then why is he so hidden? This is a rational objection. However, one must not accept it as a non-starter for dialogue on the matter. As previously stated, the very question of God’s existence and purposes are ones that already involve a vague concept of the Divine. So one’s ability to impose upon himself the question of God might suggest that God is not as hidden as we naturally assume. However, if man is of God, or the subject of which is the product of God, then why does the problem of absurdity even confront us at all? It should seem that these natures ought function harmoniously if, in fact, they were so similar and brimming with an objective purpose. It is now appropriate to reframe suicide in a Christian context and defend suicide as a less rational response to absurdity given Christian theism than atheism, while also offering ministerial advice to those in despair.

Christianity’s guarantee of suffering must influence one’s theological polemic against willful self-death. Traditionally Christian themes such as original sin or the general or total depravity of mankind permeate much of Christian thought to the point that a legalistic opinion of the nature of man seems inevitable. If these doctrines are true, then it may be argued that suicide is a final straw on sin; a single action that can be taken to eliminate all future sin, while advertently eliminating suffering. It could also be argued that suicide is but one way in which to eliminate future sin and suffering while also immediately entering into relationship with God.

  1. A Theology of Suffering

Appreciations of these positions are understandable, but it might be more effective to step into a theology that grants such doctrines but does not rely upon them, due to an idea that the traditional mode of Christian doctrinal operations might actually create an ironic block before transcendence itself. Instead, we ought entertain a theology of suffering. According to Christian dogma, humans are separated from God and suffer greatly due to this separation. Under the rule of sin, man has become a contradiction, unable to reconcile his own anguish to a peaceful and higher ideal.

Although man’s suffering is great, God took it upon himself to enter into man’s dismal condition and suffer alongside him. Man seeks shelter from this concept, but great hope is to be found within it. A theology of suffering embraces the absurdity of life, our nature, and God by embracing grief itself. It is only through suffering that we might appreciate hope and enter into communion with the Creator. A theology of suffering seeks to imitate the tortuous life of Christ, not avoid it.[14]

When one thinks of relief in a Christian sense, he conjures up images of resurrections, renewed spirits, and positive outlooks on the mysteries of God. However, this is a sharp reversal from Christ-centered positions.

Resurrections are achieved only through deaths, renewed spirits through anguish, and the imperatives of God to man are not as mysterious once one takes an honest look at the example made by Christ. A theology of suffering practices a hopeful and creative fidelity with the other in a pure Marcelian sense while placing the weighty burden of existence described by Camus squarely upon us as a weight we should all hold for one another.[15]

A theology of suffering also asserts that man’s freedom is one that renders him responsible to others for his own actions while accepting the idea that we will never be wholly rid of our individual torment by means of our own autonomy. It affirms that greater qualitative and quantitative amounts of suffering are to be praised insofar as they are suffered for the sake of another.

We are free to end our lives or to continue it in self-negation, and it is in this sense that a theology of suffering is a theology of suicide. Nevertheless, a theology of suffering must insist that one not sell themselves so short by a single act of physical suicide. In its place, one should view life as a privilege of ongoing dying, aimed towards a purpose higher than one’s own mortality.[16]

An absurd trust in God is indeed required for full appreciation of such an enduring act, but it is an absurd trust that man seems designed to take. It is man’s responsibility to step towards the great ocean of life and admit that he will never fully understand it. It is in this sense that a theology of suffering is beneficial to both the agnostic and the believer, as long as they are freely acting in accordance with God’s nature in a way that they do understand: that it is better to act upon the sole interests of another rather than themselves.[17]

It is this radical duty that matches the absurdity of life while paving a path towards discovery of ourselves, the other, and God.[18]

It is by an unreserved reach towards the other that we are in fact reaching towards God himself, or as Marcel wrote:

. . . a philosophy of transcendence must never divorce itself even in principle from a type of reflection. . . culminating not in a theory, but rather, an understanding of saintliness. . . the fact is that here and here alone that the problematic is ultimately overcome, and that in such a life the imminent presence of death is abolished in the fullness of being and presence itself. The fact that this saintliness, realized in some individuals, in some witnesses spread out over the centuries, is not felt to be an unnatural and outrageous anomaly by a weak humanity; that it evokes echoes in our hearts, that it is for the indecisive mind a permanent stimulus. . . just as we perceive in the inspired and creative individual on one level- the mediator of Him who no advance in technique, in knowledge or in what is called morality, will ever bring nearer to the individual who appeals to him from the depths of his suffering.[19]

This appeal is a Christian requirement, not an option.[20]

[1] Sartre, J. Existentialism is a Humanism. 1947. Tranlabels. Macomber, C. Yale University Press, 2007. Pg 29. Print.

[2]Camus, A. “The Myth of Sisyphus”. Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre. Ed. Steven M Cahn. London, England: Penguin Books, 2004. Pg. 375. Print.

[3]Camus, A. An Absurd Reasoning: Absurdity and Suicide. Paris, France, 1955. Pg. 7.

[4] Camus, A. An Absurd Reasoning: Absurdity and Suicide. Paris, France, 1955. Pg. 7.

[5] Camus, A. “The Myth of Sisyphus..” Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre. Ed. Steven M Cahn. London, England: Penguin Books, 2004. Pg. 378. Print.

[6] Sartre, J. Existentialism is a Humanism. 1947. Trans. Macomber, C. Yale University Press, 2007. Pg 22. Print.

[7] Marcel, G. Creative Fidelity: The Transcendent as Metaproblematic. Trans. Rosthal, R. 1964. The Noonday Press: New York. Pg. 140. Print.

[8] Marcel, G. Creative Fidelity: The Transcendent as Metaproblematic. Trans. Rosthal, R. 1964. The Noonday Press: New York. Pg. 145. Print.

[9] Marcel, G. Creative Fidelity: Creative Fidelity. Trans. Rosthal, R. 1964. The Noonday Press: New York. Pg. 152. Print.

[10] Marcel’s practice of primary to secondary reflection resembles Aristotelian Virtue Theory, in that one may become more of a creative participant in the lives of others through thoughtful habit.

[11] Marcel, G. Creative Fidelity: Creative Fidelity. Trans. Rosthal, R. 1964. The Noonday Press: New York. Pg. 164. Print.

[12] The use of the term “Problematic” is still being used to describe the abstract fashion in which we approach concepts.

[13] “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities- his eternal power and divine nature- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” Rm. 1:18-19 ESV

[14] “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for his sake… For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Philippians 1:21, 29 ESV

“For to this you have been called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you may follow in his footsteps.” 1 Pt. 2:21 ESV

“And calling to the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Mk. 8:34-35 ESV

“The LORD is near to the broken-hearted and saves those crushed in spirit.” Ps. 34:18 ESV

“For with much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases in knowledge increases in sorrow.” Ecc.1:18 ESV

[15] Or as my agnostic professor Dr. Kenneth Williford recently asked, “Why don’t you Christians just help Sisyphus push the rock together?” I believe his rhetorical question made a sharp and valid point.

[16] “I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Jesus Christ our Lord, I die every day!” 1 Cor. 15:13 ESV

[17] “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and give you something to eat… And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to the least of these, my brothers, you did for me.” Mt. 25:35,40 ESV

[18] Research upon this topic has constantly reminded me of Soren Kierkegaard’s famous quote from Provocations, “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.” It is from this standpoint that I use the term “matches the absurdity of life”. A theology of suffering is so counter-intuitive that it might actually be effective if we were to ever attempt it.

[19] Marcel, G. “Creative Fidelity: The Transcendent as Metaproblematic”. Trans. Rosthal, R. 1964. The Noonday Press: New York. Pg. 146. Print.

[20] “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2 ESV


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