Thoughts on Evil 2
These thoughts in today’s post are a direct continuation of those of yesterday. As a 21 year old student, doing a thesis on The Mystery 0f Evil as opposed to the title The Problem of Evil, an important distinction which I explained in the previous instalment, I was faced, along with my fellow students, with the tragedy of the suicide of one of our classmates called Pauline. We as students went through a searing existential trauma. Why wouldn’t we? After all we were only human weren’t we? And added to that we were studying questions of ultimate meaning according to our philosophy, theology and scripture professors. Then to get this stark denial of life and its so-called meaningfulness right in the midst of our “intellectual studies” brought even the most cerebral among us to question what we were at studying theology and religious education which sought to give answers, to attempt to paint life as meaningful and good in the round. Instead we were scalded to the very core of our being. An intellectual girl, as Pauline was, a good theology and philosophy student taking her own life seemed on the surface to be a contradiction in terms.
Then, irony of ironies, we found out that Pauline was working on a thesis entitled The Place of Suffering in Our Lives or a similar title. Poor Pauline had indeed suffered much in her life according to her best friends. No need to go further into the circumstances of Pauline’s death as I really am not too clear about the basic facts almost 30 years later, and also I was not privileged to be a close friend, rather a relatively good acquaintance who shared tutorials and lectures with her.
However, it was a great lesson to me and convinced me of the overall daunting mystery that life is in itself and that all our argumentations, theorizing, philosophizing, theologizing and speculations count as nothing – they are mere chaff in the wind. It’s life in the round, with its entire vicissitudes, all its ups and downs, life in its totality or indeed life in its mystery that counts. It was at this juncture in my life that the great Christian existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel came to my aid, and I have been a fan and a follower long since.
Alex Scott puts it wonderfully on his site: “According to Marcel, we are part of, and thus cannot be objective about, our own existence. Existence transcends objective enquiry, and is thus a mystery. Scientific questions may be objectively answerable, and may be considered as problems for which there may be solutions. However, philosophic questions may not be objectively answerable, and may involve mysteries which are part of our own existence. Science may be concerned with problems which we can stand apart from and be objective about, but philosophy may be concerned with mysteries which we cannot stand apart from or be objective about.” (cf. this link Marcel )
In short, I became hooked on Marcel’s important distinction. Then I remember finding a definition of mystery given by a theologian called Eugene Joly, which supported Marcel’s marvellous and important distinction, a definition which went: “A mystery is not a wall off which you bang your head. Rather, it is an ocean into which you dive.” I began to re-work my thesis in earnest. I began by stating in my introduction that evil was not a problem to be solved, but rather a mystery to be lived, experienced and then reflected upon. Pauline’s tragic death and the discovery of the deep thought of Gabriel Marcel taught me to be humble, to love the big questions, never to be so conceited as to think one had any of the answers never mind all of them, to be humble before the very mystery of being in this world, to be indeed humbled by the fact that I am conscious of my being in this world in the first place. In short, I fell in love with life and with its very fragility and transience - I had become a philosopher, a true philosopher, thanks to Pauline and to Gabriel Marcel.
Marcel was born in Paris in 1889 and died there in 1973. He is probably the greatest Christian existential philosopher of the twentieth century, though he distinctly disliked that description of his method in philosophy. He liked to call himself a “neo-Socratic.” It is interesting, though not surprising, to find that Gabriel was the son of an atheist and was indeed himself among their number until his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1929 at the age of 40. Some people say that it was Marcel himself who coined the very term “existentialism.”
And so, friends, Marcel went on to enthrall me – not I hasten to add that I fully or even half understood him, rather I sensed in him a fellow spirit, a kindred soul and a seeker or searcher. For him a mystery is not an 'object' of perception in my mind, but rather it is felt as a 'presence' which is capable of being recognized. We know when we are in the presence of mystery, because it pulls us up and stops us in our tracks to use a cliché. It is rather akin to Rudolf Otto’s experience of the “Divine” as “Mysterium tremendum et fascinans. “ Marcel’s thoughts on mystery are outlined in his wonderful book, through which I only scanned to find the references I needed as a young man of 21, called The Mystery of Being, which as many scholars have pointed out, is more concerned with exploring what is meant by Mystery rather than what is indeed the nature of our “being” in this mysterious, wonderful, and at times very painful world.
The picture I have uploaded above is that of the sunset at Malahide Estuary late Summer 2006.
To be continued,