The Orientation of Philosophy
The philosophic life seems to engender a topsy-turvy outlook towards existence: one’s whole conception of life may be altered in one sentence of a thinker’s text… such is the volatility and force of the philosopher’s spell. Amidst this constant change, though, there must emerge a groundwork, unique to oneself, though wholly communicable, wherein one can orient one’s experience back to some unifying schema. Without this groundwork, thought loses its coherence, its unity, its possibility. The words of the great thinkers, when divorced from life and experience itself, become tombstones upon which we slowly and cravenly etch our own names. This is what the ‘existentialist’ philosophers uncovered amidst the Western tradition: how easily thinking can become entrapped in its own semantic snares; how the unbounded possibility of cognition and experience can become stifled by a limited conception, one that is not comprehensive enough to form and create its own freedom and its own liberty.
The existentialist impulse is really one that exists within the fold of all philosophic tradition: it is that impulse to ask, amidst the swarm of metaphysical premises and analytic expositions, Why? Wherefore? How does this relate to what matters, that is, how we live our lives, how we understand our own existence, and how we come to a knowledge of our ultimate end? How do tome upon tome that have come to us from down the ages impact us now? Martin Luther King, Jr., with respect to social conditions, asks us to consider “the fierce urgency of now.” With the philosopher, this demand is unavoidable, pressing, and essential — and, if the philosopher truly wishes to evaluate themselves and their existence, along with existence per se, they must string together the disparate webs of knowledge from all sources into something coherent, unified; something that can be lived, something that can be authentic, and if you can excuse the pragmatism, something with utility — and not just for the thinking individual, but for all individuals; for being itself.
Lofty as these aspirations are, I feel that they must be striven for, lest academic discourse — and with it, the relevance of philosophy — sink down into the unfathomable and blinding depths of self-reference and complacency. For if philosophy becomes a useless game amidst the institutions, the journals, and the publishers — if one is forced to censor one’s thought or curtail it in deference to these draconian and impersonal forces — is not philosophy lost? Is not the essence of philosophy — that is, the love of wisdom amidst the impassioned zeal for the present and the longing gaze towards eternity — stifled and drowned in the damning whirlpool of social approval and viability? If and when this occurs, we are no longer philosophers, but automatons staring down from the ivory tower with no reality beneath us, no being retained, no growth, formation, activity.
Ultimately, philosophy must confer with theology if it is to retain any meaning and force… divorced from the ultimate question, Is there a Deity, and how can we relate to that Deity?, philosophy descends into the stagnation and deadness of the mundane, the transient, and the ephemeral. This is not to say that we should not examine our experience, detect the subtleties within it, and reach inward to discover the root of our being — after all, the Kingdom of God is within man (Luke 17)— but this inward search is futile and meaningless unless it is related to finality, to ultimate concerns, to elaborating the essence of our existence, which inevitably must be yoked to the Other and the Absolute. If one wishes to squander one’s thought chasing one’s tail, bound and shackled to the earth, to temporality, to evanescence, one is welcome to — but know that true thought and pure reality exist on planes beyond oneself and the appearances of this world.
To come to a negative conclusion regarding the Deity seems fundamentally absurd. For certainty in this regard would require knowledge and understanding of all that is, which is far beyond our capability. But faith rests on no such knowledge, no such understanding — though it is of course bolstered and given context by this knowledge and understanding. Faith bridges the metaphysical divide between us and the Real to establish a unifying connection, one that slowly but surely begins to reveal the veracity of faith, its steadfastness, its undying fervor in the face of a world not totally comprehensible. Our fundamental epistemic limitation should serve as a guidepost towards our primordial origin and our final end, which lies and can only lie in the Deity and the possibility of the Deity. Through faith and in faith we discern the subtle intimations of divinity; the gentle carrying-on of our existence by the sustenance of the omnipotent; the revelation of the eternal by and amidst being itself.
Therefore philosophy and theology are in an eternal kinship, and one mustn’t be sacrificed for the other. An unphilosophic theology amounts to speculation and the rehearsal of dogma, wherein an anti-theological philosophy ends in confounding antinomy and pointless circularity. As Hegel said, “God is the only proper object of philosophy.” For the moment we stop reaching for the divine, we lose our own substance and direction. And the moment we ignore ourselves and try to grope in darkness for the transcendent, we end in mythology and dogmatism. A balance must be struck, and there must be common cause between them, reaching and coordinating in tandem towards two symbiotic goals: the advancement and development of our temporal life and the realization and understanding of our divine purpose.