PHILOSOPHICALLY SPEAKING | Life’s a Bitch: An Atheistic Theology of Grace

Franz von Stuck, Sisyphus/Wikimedia Commons

“Life’s a bitch, and then you die.” At least, that’s the gospel according to acclaimed rapper Nas. I can’t remember the circumstances that placed that song on a music roster generally made up of Elton John and Nine Inch Nails. Whatever the case, I believe Nas has a point. We hope for an awful lot in this world, but the only thing we can anticipate without a shred of doubt is that we will all suffer and eventually burn out. There is tremendous disparity in the state of our individual human experiences, but everybody ends up as about the same rotting mass of flesh.

And yet, sometimes, such as during the mornings while I am awaiting the arrival of a rambunctious group of students at my job as a substitute teacher, I have moments of pure contentment during which I start to believe that the pain of life might be worth it.

It’s so curiously bizarre to me—“being” that is. I didn’t ask to be born. Nobody gave me a choice in the matter. Honestly, I doubt either one of my parents stopped humping long enough to consider the consequences of creating a human as they carelessly groped me into existence. Life was imposed upon me without the benefit of a transcendental signifier to offer a clear sense of purpose, value, or direction. Personally, I’ve always been partial to Job’s insistence that he would have been better off if he had never been born. Such an argument, asserted in the face of God’s crippling desertion, is warranted and it resonated with me from a young age.

I often think about the implications of Job’s claim. Had I never been born, I wouldn’t struggle with the burden of making ethical decisions in a morally ambiguous world. I certainly wouldn’t routinely misunderstand how to appropriately relate to other humans during my social interactions or fail to predict when my actions might hurt the people I care about. More significantly, I would not be the type of person who’s haunted by her past; someone consistently remembering the devastating traumas I watched inflicted upon others as well as those that I personally suffered. I wouldn’t wake up violently from nightmares that leave me trembling, nor would I be able to rub my fingers over the delicate layers of my own flesh and feel the rough imprint of scars that each have a story more damaging than the physical mark left behind.

Without existence, I wouldn’t experience unrelenting shame in remembering my past or derive embarrassment from my cultural identity. There would be no more living with the nagging insecurity that I’ll never amount to anything more than white trash or the constant fear that my efforts to better myself have simply been a waste of time. I wouldn’t feel guilty for surviving the violent episodes I’ve encountered or contemplate whether I deserved being hit, mocked, and utterly humiliated by my classmates every day as an adolescent. Nobody can hold you down and take turns spitting in your face if you don’t exist. Neither can they convince you that society doesn’t need a person of such blistering peculiarity as yourself.

“Grace happens precisely and unmistakably at a moment when it is least expected, rendering the logical inadequacy of existence insignificant and fueling a bold disengagement from absurdity.”

Maybe the real issue is that nature is completely indifferent to our human predicaments. We are biologically hardwired to eat, breathe, and procreate. The rest is secondary, which is unfortunate for us since in between those instinctual processes lies a dormant existential meltdown waiting to rear its ugly head and drive a stake through the elaborate social constructions we erect as a distraction. In this regard, human consciousness can be reduced to a cosmically tragic mishap.  Some view it as a gift, but how many people can effectively argue that life would not be substantially easier if we only stumbled into creation a little less clever?

It probably seems as if I’m endorsing a watered-down form of nihilism. These thoughts do tend to rule my perception and, truthfully, such consuming ideations make it hard to perceive goodness or authentically appreciate the profound joy I have known. Most of the time I drift through my obligations by signaling the proper behavioral cues that allow me to appear “normal” to external observers. Occasionally, I summon the spirit of Sisyphus and exude a subtle defiance that allows me to imagine I’m fighting back against futility one meaningless task at a time. However, there are rare occasions when I wake up on an otherwise bland day and go about my routine without a single belief or expectation that anything exceptional is going to take place. It is only in an unanticipated moment of clarity that I find that the cumbersome veil that normally obfuscates the brightness of life has been lifted. At this instant, I feel genuine gratitude that I’m alive, as if I have a bubble of joy exploding inside me. Life as I know it fundamentally changes and it appears that I’ve found an elusive piece of the puzzle, ushering in a feeling as momentarily transformative as the innocent pleasure of catching a firefly as a kid. I want to hold the feeling in my hands and let it illuminate everything I’ve been missing.

Like all the best things we experience, and life itself, these moments are fleeting. However, they never fail to pierce my soul with unparalleled intensity and I’m temporarily seized by a sense of transcendental exuberance. Increasingly, I’ve decided these episodes are best characterized by the term “grace.”

Christians predominately believe that grace is predicated on undeserved forgiveness in light of human culpability. I disagree. I think grace exists outside of divine judgement and human fallacy. To me, the more precise way to understand grace appears to be with regard to what it extends to us. It is, at its most elementary level, a reprieve from our unruly, contingent realities; a time of total liberation from the fetters of the human condition. In my case, something exceptional occurs as grace delivers the very exception I desperately needed to reorient my perspective. It happens precisely and unmistakably at a moment when it is least expected, rendering the logical inadequacy of existence insignificant and fueling a bold disengagement from absurdity. Furthermore, it serves as an ecstatic affirmation of life and beauty. The traditional Christian understanding of grace is flawed for many reasons, but the most cringeworthy is the assumption that, by definition, grace occurs despite our inherent unworthiness to receive it.

Religious leaders like John Calvin adhered to a doctrine through which grace was offered to a predetermined elect. This deterministic understanding of individual salvation is prominent in popular Christianity today, although few identify their spiritual leanings as officially rooted in Calvinism. However, that type of theology is both inconsistent with reality and impossible for an authentically empathetic human to take seriously since it too narrowly defines the scope of how grace can operate. For all that we go through and everything we endure, we deserve the euphoric gift of grace for no other reason than by default of existing. We need such in our lives, regardless of how miniscule or fleeting it may prove to be, simply because we are here.

In the Gospels, Jesus tells the people he encounters that they have eyes to see, but they are blind. I think about this periodically and I’m curious as to how he did it. Sure, the narrative assures us that he experienced moments of doubt and despair, one agonizing alone in a garden as he awaited his execution and the other feeling alone and forsaken while nailed to a block of wood in the scorching Jerusalem sun. But I wonder if he understood it the way I understand it: as an exception. Maybe he knew how to maintain a single perspective and thrive in that very state of exception all the time. There is no way to know for certain, and like every other wannabe theologian I am projecting my own desires onto a text that was not written with my individual needs in mind. Christ may not have had an opinion on the subject since, for all we know, he was a sophisticated hoax. However, if that’s the case then his story could be the most beautiful truth ever fabricated.

Although I don’t practice religion in the traditional sense, I respect the salvific power of Christ’s instrumental story. I will always insist that the most profound elements of this narrative are the demand for serious introspection and the uncompromising push towards spiritual reflection. Christianity does a unique job of emphasizing the necessity of seeing our lives beyond the generic lens we were given to view it through. In a way, the symbolic transcendence of Christ offers us the tools necessary to deconstruct reality and examine our lives with a fresh gaze.

Ultimately, Nas was correct. Life can be cold, and everybody’s going to die one day. But I’ve decided that it does little good to spit in the face of cosmic happenstance and curse mysterious forces that, if they even had the capacity to listen, probably wouldn’t care about me or my existential anxieties anyway. It’s a bit like pissing into the wind, to use a popular mountain expression. Despite how capricious, indifferent, and unfair existence may be, it only seems like a vast disservice to my own dignity to let it undermine the exceptional grace I know is waiting to engulf me at any given second. In all honesty, I don’t adhere to the false hope that we can attain objective meaning or have such meaning imposed upon us from a mystical great beyond. Everything we perceive as emanating from a divine sphere is generally a glorified reflection of ourselves, not an empirical description of something real. Considering my own glaring disbelief in the supernatural, I must admit to the possibility that my notion of grace is simply an elaborate coping mechanism I’ve constructed to convince myself that life is worth living. I’m clearly not the only one to ever ponder these things and yearn for a solution. Albert Camus had similar concerns about human existence and asserted that the toughest questions we must contend with is whether or not to kill ourselves.

“There is only one really serious philosophical problem,” Camus writes in The Myth of Sisyphus, “and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.” As someone who once foolishly tried to answer that charge with a razor blade, I no longer regard suicide as a legitimate response to emotional suffering. However, I have never lost sight of Camus’ question or its relevance to my own struggle.

Over the last several years, I’ve read too many books to count and remained perpetually engaged with ideas few individuals devote serious effort towards studying. In that time I have also traveled to monasteries, lived out of my car, meditated in the wilderness butt naked, realized the life-changing magic of ingesting edible cannabis on Thanksgiving, prayed what I believed would be my final farewell to the world from the seventh floor of a Parisian hotel, slept in European airports, boldly admitted to being relentlessly queer, and come to know the irreplaceable value of having people around who you can call your friends. I’ve wrestled with the uniquely human question of how to give life meaning and concluded that grace is my answer to that insidious problem. It’s not much, but for the moment it is exceptional enough to keep me moving forward.