“If I must say whether or not God exists, I am closer to His truth when saying that He does not exist, since God is something entirely different from that which I recognise as existence.”
14 Aug 2014 – Neos Kosmos
This month I wish to present an article by Christos Yannaras, one of Greece’s leading intellectuals and social critics. Born in Athens in 1935, Yannaras undertook doctoral studies in theology and philosophy in Thessaloniki and Paris, and taught for many years at the Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens. He is highly regarded for his creative and challenging contributions to Orthodox theology, and he writes a weekly column in the
Athenian newspaper, Kathimerini. What follows is my translation of an article Yannaras wrote for Kathimerini for Pascha 2003. I am grateful to Prof. Yannaras for granting permission to translate and publish this article. (The original Greek article can be found in Yannaras’ book, Η Λογική Αρχίζει με τον Έρωτα, 2nd edition, published by Ikaros, in Athens, 2007.)
“Let him damn me a hundred, a thousand times, it is enough that he exists.”
This sentence, placed in the mouth of a character in a theatrical work by Jean-Paul Sartre, is a mark and a measure (I dare to believe) of a revelatory metaphysical hunger.
Does he exist? The question lingers (and will always linger) unanswered. “If I must say whether or not God exists, I am closer to His truth when saying that
He does not exist, since God is something entirely different from that which I recognise as existence.” A confession of great boldness from Maximus the Confessor.
If God were a given in Newtonian physics, there would not have been any rational human person. And this for the same reason that an infant will never enter the world of language and symbols, the human world, if its mother holds it day and night in her arms and gives it her breast. We are ushered into language and understanding because within the context of the care of the infant the mother is both the joy of presence and the pain of absence – because the need for food is a desire for relation. A God who gives himself as a matter of necessity would abolish the presuppositions for the transformation of need into demand, of desire into language and symbols, into reason and rationality.
Humans are rational because their being is erotic (desiderio [I desire] is the Freudian cogito [I think], according to Lacan) and it is erotic because God is absence. But absence means vital lack, painful thirst, distressing darkness. “I walk in your night,” continues Sartre’s character. “Give me your hand, tell me, you are the darkness, right? The night – harrowing, complete absence. You are the one present in the all-embracing absence, the one we hear when everything falls silent, the one we see when nothing is visible. Immemorial night, great night that precedes all that there is…”
This Absence humanises us but we experience it as night and cannot bear it. The reasons for this are difficult to discern. In any case it is clear that instead of Absence we would rather have tangible fetishes, irrefutable evidence of existence and presence. We want to be in possession of certainties, private proofs, and from proofs to derive power. We are interested in ourselves only, God is simply an ‘accessory’ of our ego. We need Him so that He may lend us self-confidence, authority, social status; so that He may ease our difficulties in life, and be the psychological antidote to our phobias and panics; and finally so that He may ‘save’ us and guarantee our existence even after death, so that our ego will exist eternally, without end.
But consider now how the ‘atheist’ Sartre overturns our egocentric (supposedly ‘religious’) soteriology. “Let him damn me a hundred, a thousand times, it is enough that he exists.” The ‘atheist’, in an unexpected leap, reaches the heights of erotic selflessness. If he exists, that’s enough for me, even if I am damned. My foremost desire is Him. If He exists, everything has meaning: my existence and my damnation, the good and the bad, justice and injustice, the world and history. If He exists, everything begins from love and aims at love, everything is related to Him, everything is judged in accordance with the degree
to which His mad love for His creatures is reciprocated.
Existence has meaning when life becomes relation – relation is not something that can be destroyed by death. If “even the hairs of your head are all numbered” (Luke 12:7, Matthew 10:30), if there is a Love which composes the miracle of the world, if the wisdom and beauty of creatures call forth in the fullness of relation, then the thirst of the human person has a vital purpose and his hope is realistic. We thirst for life – that is, to be related to Him, not to survive forever as an individual unit, not the hell of the endless loneliness of the ego.
With the brain nothing is explained, countless ‘why’s’ remain unanswered. Why should death cut little children down, why the biological insanity of cancer, why injustice, and why do the unscrupulous come out victorious? Relentless, unbearable questions, without end, show up the human journey as a wild absurdity. And the ‘answers’ formulated by ideologically driven religions (the ‘scientific’ apologetics of their governing institutions) crudely offend against the intelligence and dignity of humanity. The blame, they say, lies with the ‘freedom’ of the human being, not that individual ‘freedom’ of ours which is ensnared by genetic and sociohistorical factors, but rather some dilemma of choice symbolically figured in the ‘first’ human being (was he a cave man? an ancestor of homo sapiens?) and as a result of his actions we are now faced with the absurdity and horror of human existence.
If we want to get serious, answers might be forthcoming after the leap recommended by Sartre – the leap involved in renouncing egocentric soteriology. In the enthralling pictorial language of so-called ‘Byzantine’ iconography, by which means was expressed that ecclesiastical experience that is impervious to the uses of power, Christ crucified on the cross is the reality of the Resurrection. This is because death is “trampled upon” only “by means of death”, only with the leap towards the height of erotic selflessness.
The ‘gospel’ of the church is not announced with the language of Apologetics, the language of ideology. It is proclaimed only with the language of the Feast, the language of colour and music, of poetry and drama – a language that can be accessed only from within the battle of ascetic self-renunciation.
Christos Yannaras (translated by Nick Trakakis). Dr Nick Trakakis is a senior lecturer in Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University.