To any who read my blog and maybe even get something out of it, I ask your pardon for my lengthy absence. I have, as it were, taken a prolonged and most unwanted plunge into the dark, icy waters of despondency and existential nihilism. What began as a run of the mill bout of depression morphed into a dark exploration of my own deep-seated doubts about God, religion, and the nature of reality. My depression and existential darkness became inexorably entangled with one another, and this shit storm of anomie dragged on from the middle of December until 5 days ago. During all this, the insoluble problem of suffering and evil ceased to be an abstract puzzle and became for me a personalized struggle which forced me to painfully confront the fact that I don’t really believe God is good and just in creating the world in which we live.
I hate depression, but I’ve come to see it as an asset because it can act as a sort of purgatory wherein self-deceptions, blithely held beliefs, and poorly thought-out ideas are burned away. That is, when I reach a certain point where my faith seems to evaporate, and certain of my views that stem from a sense of concern for the well-being of society take leave, I’m prone to nihilistic revaluations wherein I torch my interior world and let the flames consume what they may. That’s not to say I don’t still battle with inner resistance that screams out in pain at the thought of losing cherished beliefs, but the effects of depression leave me entirely devoid of a sense of God’s presence and enable me to better gaze into what I think Nietzsche might have meant when he spoke of “the abyss.”
Without depression, I’m unable to grapple with the problem of suffering and evil apart from the cushion of a comfortable piety which enables me to trust God even when I don’t understand something. Depression robs me of that cushion, and this last time around it forced me to face with frightening clarity my underlying doubts and anger directed toward God for all the wrongs created by men and sufferings inflicted by Nature. I reject the over-simple explanation that God gives us free will and therefore is not responsible for all that went wrong with creation, as if it were a simple misunderstanding on the part of humanity and only needed a quick explanation to set things straight.
If God is the wellspring and grounding of all existence, the source from which all that is and could be continually draws its being and substance, then I cannot conceive of how God can be let off the hook for anything that happens. Simply put, if in God we all “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), then I fail to see how everything that happens is not within the purview of God’s responsibility, even granting that God gives independent agency to the sentient creatures which proceed forth from his mind. The medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich boldly faced this question in her Showings, admitting her great struggle and ultimate inability to resolve this quandary. Her mystical showings were a result of a lifetime of reflections and dialogue with God on the existential conflict between evil and God’s love.
Depression by itself does not bring clarity, but rather it sets the stage for clarity after the storm clouds have passed and ideas have been purified or reduced to rubble. The icy interior darkness which passes through my soul a few times a year brings with it a madness of its own, a madness which threatens to be a sickness unto death if it’s acute or lengthy enough. But when the darkness finally gives way to light, when my interior world reaches equilibrium with the surrounding environment such that I no longer feel painfully discordant with the pace and mood of everything else around me, the presence of God is renewed in me and the interior winter gives way to a new springtime. It’s probably not coincidental that this last bout of depression seems to have coincided so closely with the shortening and lengthening of the days.
I’m still wrestling with the problem of suffering and evil in the world, and of the goodness of God. But if I’m honest, I frequently do even if I don’t feel alienated from God. Perhaps in my recent darkest hours, I’ve been wrestling with God like Jacob. Today I thought back to the experience I had in the mountains last year that I think of as a mystical experience. It was where the problem of suffering and evil seemed incomprehensibly resolved in the light of God’s perspective. In that experience I somehow felt that the world as currently stands, somehow exists in harmony with God’s love. But I felt this could only be understood from the inaccessible Divine vantage point, which I felt I had been privileged for a brief moment to glimpse within my soul. On the ground level, this could not be understood, though the resolution was very real and even in the midst of everybody on ground level.
This is most difficult to accept because it means we have to become childlike, as Jesus says we must if we are to enter the Kingdom. I think I now have a better understanding of how or why people could consciously choose to walk away from the Kingdom in favor of their own so-called wisdom. Psalm 97 describes God’s throne as being surrounded by clouds and thick darkness, and I think that in my despondent moods, trying hard to peer into the mind of God hidden behind this impenetrable cloud, I lose myself in existential despair. Attempting to gaze into the very secrets of God which are not permitted to me or anyone else, I instead gaze into the abyss of my own ignorance and finitude, running the risk of self-destruction in the process.
Therefore, I see the mystical route as the only viable road on which I can travel. Not that I’m a mystic, if by ‘mystic’ we mean someone for whom religious ecstasies and visions are somewhat the norm for their journey. But in the sense that Karl Rahner spoke of in his Concern for the Church, where he speculated that if Christianity is to survive the modern/postmodern era, ordinary Christians must become mystics if by ‘mysticism’ we mean “a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence.” Only from the real experience of God encountered within our heart of hearts, can we face the problem of evil without settling for facile soundbite answers. And I think existential struggle, where we feel that God has abandoned us—if God is anything more than a figment of our imaginations—provides the fertile ground wherein we can have authentic encounter with God. That leads me to the final lesson I’ve taken away from this recent experience: drawing close to God means we simultaneously draw perilously close to atheism.