It’s near the end of the Coen brother’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? that the bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley sings the brooding ‘O Death’. It is a haunting song echoing a common plea: “O death, won’t you spare me over ’til another year…”
That plea, or at least that desire, is the driving force behind all philosophy, according to Luc Ferry in his well-regarded and often recommended book A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living. Both religion and philosophy, Ferry suggests, are driven by the same engine, the passion to find a way around, through, or beyond the anxiety caused by the reality of death. Both are, that is, seeking a path to salvation.
Unable to bring himself to believe in a God who offers salvation, the philosopher is above all one who believes that by understanding the world, by understanding ourselves and others as far our intelligence permits, we shall succeed in overcoming fear, through clear-sightedness rather than blind faith. (page 6)
Perhaps, of course, blind faith in the promise of philosophy is all that the philosopher has left once he has jettisoned God. But that he has identified this basic fear of the unknown (the ‘darkest of all things’ noted my then 11 year old son) as the primal human concern is fascinating. Ferry notes that:
All philosophies, however divergent they may sometimes be in the answers they bring, promise us an escape from primitive fears. They possess in common with religions the conviction that anguish prevents us from leading good lives; it stops us not only from being happy, but also from being free. (page 10)
If philosophy and religion are heading the same direction, then, why jettison religion in general and Christianity in particular? Ferry is honest in his answer. He rejects Christianity for two reasons.
First and foremost, because the promise… – that we are immortal and will encounter our loved ones after our own biological demise – is too good to be true. (11)
That calls for its own response, but I want to set that aside to look at his second reason.
Similarly hard to believe is the image of a God who acts as a father to his children. How can one reconcile this with the appalling massacres and misfortunes which overwhelm humanity…. (11)
With this Ferry dismisses Christianity as being insufficiently satisfying. But what, one might ask, do we put in its place? Whatever philosophical salvation is proposed as an alternative must still deal with the “appalling massacres and misfortunes which overwhelm humanity”. How do these philosophies deal with such realities?
I’m no philosopher (which is why I’m reading this book). But it seems to me that that which appalls us is either purposeful and therefore meaningful, or random and therefore meaningless. One either faces a universe that has no concern for him and in fact is tilted toward his destruction, or one faces a universe in which there is a God who, however mysteriously, guides events toward an end which is good. One does not escape the misfortunes by eliminating God from the answer.
I’m well aware that bringing God into the picture creates hard, hard questions. I can’t explain a God, a Father as Ferry correctly notes, who would permit the atrocities and horrors common in this world. But neither can I adequately explain why those horrors are not more common, why life itself exists at all, or why philosophers have the space and time and breath to contemplate death and the rejection of God. I don’t know God’s reasons for permitting evil or for raining good down upon us.
But, it seems to me, that it is not blind faith that convinces the Christian that Christianity is right. Ferry cannot see it, but it may be that the most satisfying explanation for the good and bad in the world is found in a purposeful God who is bringing redemption to a broken world. A God who has not remained distant from that world, but who himself entered into its suffering.
So, if death spares me over ’til another year I intend to try to understand the answers others posit. But I remain convinced that that philosophy which allows us both happiness and freedom is in fact NOT too good to be true.