Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Marveling at the strangeness of our personal individuation

At the beginning of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's latest novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, the main character, popular atheist author and psychologist, Cass Seltzer, stands alone on Weeks Bridge in Cambridge, Massachusetts at 4 o'clock in the morning and proclaims out loud, "Here I am!" Peter Lopatin, who reviewed the book in last month's Commentary, observed that with this declaration, Seltzer "marvels at the strangeness that is the very fact of his own personal individuation." Lopatin also noted the parallel between Seltzer's exuberant exclamation and the word hinei (Hebrew for "Here I am"), which is the word Abraham says to God when he is told to sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22:1-2), a connection, Lopatin observed, that, while not in the book, is almost certainly not lost on Newberger Goldstein.

In the compelling first chapter, Newberger Goldstein goes on to write: "Here it is, then: the sense that existence is just such a tremendous thing, one comes into it, astonishingly, here one is . . . one doesn’t know how, one doesn’t know why . . . and all that one knows is that one is a part of it, a considered and conscious part of it, generated and sustained in existence in ways one can hardly comprehend . . . and one wants to live in a way that at least begins to do justice to it . . . and . . . to live one’s life in a way commensurate with the privilege of being a part of and conscious of the whole reeling glorious infinite sweep."

Indeed, the whyness of our existence is sensed insofar as we grasp that we exist for a purpose, a reason, which is indicated by our desire, our longing. The whyness of our existence is not a given, it does not come by way of intuition, but by an event that becomes an encounter: "How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching" (Rom. 10:14-15)?

Nonetheless, for me, like for the atheist Cass, it begins from experience. The beginning of my own experience is beautifully described by Fr. Carrón: "there is the affirmation of the surprise of not being made by yourself, the wonder of this objectivity that is you, this subject, the marvel of this thing called 'I.'" I remember being struck while driving with my Dad over Christmas vacation in 1974, when I was 9, by the objectivity that is me, by this strange realization. My life really began that day. Jack Benny died that year right after Christmas, which was big news. His death started me thinking about death: memento mori. This realization, which dawned on me unexpectedly, changed my reflection on death from one of existential terror, to sensing in the strangeness of the fact of my I that I longed for something more, sensed something more, what I sensed was not a desparate clinging to life. Ceasing to exist, being annihilated made no sense, it still makes no sense. Seltzer's insight at 4 o'clock in the morning overlooking the frozen Charles River is the religious sense, which is part and parcel of being human, an intuition that we are a relationship with the Mystery. It is also an expression of gratitude by this character.

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