Thirty years ago, men who coveted a reputation for deep thinking were wont to discuss Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being. I was such a man and I remember such a discussion, sitting on the roof of a Boston apartment building late one night, in the company of an unemployed actor, who was connected to the sister of a woman with whom I was connected. As is so often the case with rooftop conversations, I remember the circumstances better than the substance. I clearly remember the John Hancock Tower rising up before us, against a backdrop of phosphorescent clouds; I clearly remember people below us, spilling onto the sidewalk before the Berklee College of Music; I clearly remember the roar of traffic on the Mass Pike and the earnest and sonorous voice of the unemployed actor. My memory of what the actor said is not so clear, but I believe it was in an existentialist vein, and that he laid considerable weight on such things as the “authentic life,” the “deliberate act,” and “the deed.” My memory of what I said is no clearer, which is just as well, given the sorts of things I said thirty years ago.
A memory of that night in Boston was conjured up by some comments on my previous post on Unclean Food. Thomas Bertonneau, Bruce Charlton and Dr. Bill each noted the fundamental unseriousness of the menorah that was raised in the main plaza of my university, and how this was emblematic of the unseriousness that runs through so much postmodern religion, indeed so much of postmodern civilization. I think unseriousness is what Kundera meant by “the unbearable lightness of being,” although I haven’t confirmed this, perhaps because I am not altogether serious.
If it is what he meant, I know what he means. And I knew it thirty years ago, however vaguely, sitting on the roof of that Boston apartment building, listening to that unemployed actor and watching people spill out from the Berklee College of Music.
There is no gravity in a secular world, and there can be no gravity, because nothing ultimately matters in a world without eternity. Absent eternity, all that remains is what the old theologians called this “perishing world,” and it is in the very nature of a perishing world to perish. As Issac Watts put it: “what are all the treasures of this perishing world? How short is their duration, and how short is thy possession of them!” And on the other side of the ledger: “Our maladies and sorrows here on earth . . . they are not eternal . . . There is some period to finish them.” In the perishing world, everything comes to nothing in the end.
To see this is to feel the lightness of being. It is to live in the zero-gravity world. Nihilism is the fancy name for this perception that, at the end of everything, there is nothing at all. If this appalls you, lightness of being is unbearable. If it delights you, you will be born aloft (until, of course, you perish).
Gravity of being exists in the religious world. It exists here because here is eternity, and with eternity, some things ultimately do matter.
Gravity of being can also be unbearable, as when religion teaches that everything matters, and that hardly anyone is good at everything. The unbearable gravity of being arises when a pharisaical and precisian religion paints life as an unspeakably dire affair, with standards of judgment that are exacting, unsparing and minute. Latitudinarianism attempts to alleviate this burden by reducing the number of things that ultimately matter. It states that many practices and doctrines are “indifferent,” meaning they do not ultimately matter, one way or the other. Liberal religion takes the next step and says that all practices and doctrines are “indifferent,” every man wandering to heaven by his own way.
Liberal religion doesn’t take one all the way to the zero-gravity world, but one can see it from there.
Most men feel nausea when being is unbearably light; most feel terror when it is unbearably grave. The first man sickens because, at the end of all things, he sees nothing but Nothing. The second man sickens because, at the end of all things, he sees nothing but Hell.
Between these poles lies a Goldilocks world in which being is neither too light nor too grave, but instead just right. This Goldilocks world is awful. It is not awful in the vulgar sense of “atrocious,” but in the proper sense of “conducive to awe.” And what is awe? Edmund Burke defined it as “tranquility shadowed with horror,” which I take to mean lightness of being tethered to gravity of being. For Burke, awe is the afterclap of terror, the transient state of a man’s mind “upon escaping some imminent danger.” Awe is fear subsiding into peace, which is why Burke likened it to “the tossing of the sea . . . after a storm” (2).
A driver who has just narrowly avoided a fatal collision sits on the roadside in a state of awe. Likewise a hiker who has just clawed his way back from the shelving lip of a cliff, or a swimmer who is crawling onto the beach, having narrowly fought free of the undertow. Everyone knows the transient gravity of an awful brush with death. This is one reason there are so many daredevils in our zero-gravity world. Hanging from a cliff, jumping from an airplane, leaping through flames on a motorbike: these are attempts to tether being grown unbearably light. That unemployed actor in Boston—no daredevil—was attempting to do much the same thing with his “authentic life,” his “deliberate acts,” his “deeds.”
You have heard, no doubt, that “God is Awesome,” or at the very least read it on a bumper sticker. No doubt this is true; but it is also an unserious, zero-gravity way to think about God, because it suggests that God is not serious. If we wish to be serious, we should say, “God is Awful.” (We could print this on bumper stickers and get toots of approval from sub-literate atheists.) God is properly awful because, meditating on God, the Christian should feel “tranquility shadowed with horror.” True and lasting gravity of being comes, not from an awful brush with death, but from an awful brush with damnation.
Here is Issac Watts, again, on this sort of salutary terror. We should reflect from time to time, he writes, that in no time at all “we shall be swept off the stage of this visible state into an unseen and eternal world,” and then as the shock of this terrible thought subsides, we should “stand still here, and consider . . . what awful and important thoughts are contained in this sentence . . .” (3).
Sitting on that Boston rooftop thirty years ago, I was unacquainted with these awful and important thoughts. I knew what the zero-gravity world felt like, but I had no idea what these feelings meant, or how they might be cured. Perhaps the last remedy I would have imagined is the “fear and trembling” that St. Paul recommended to the Philippians, but this turned out to be the antidote.
The Christian should hope, even as he fears and trembles, but he should fear and tremble nonetheless. If his religion and its symbols do not give rise to “tranquility shadowed with horror,” it is not a religion and they are not religious symbols. They are just babbling and baubles in the zero-gravity world.
(1) Isaac Watts, The World to Come (Bungay: T. Kinnersley, 1813), p. 395
(2) Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, fifth edition (London” J. Dodsley, 1767), pp. 49-50.
(3) Watts, World to Come, p. 2