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Religious Response to Existentialism…Beyond Matter

Amir Suhail Wani

“The fool hath said in his heart. There is no God”. Psalms

The existential claim for absurdity and meaninglessness of the world and life draws its inspiration from the negation of metaphysical order and denial of higher epistemic and ontic realms. In an attempt to explain life and the universe in terms of physical denominations, existentialism brings in the worst form of reductionism. Not only this, the existentialist are adamant to interpret and encapsulate the higher in language of the lower, which is diametrically opposite to religious and traditional frame of reference. It is only in explaining lower in terms of the higher that things attain a proper context and not only life, but the entire universe appears imbued with meaning and telos. To divorce metaphysical from the physical, real from the apparent, infinite from the finite, one is by default left in an alien universe with a life culminating in absurdity. It is only when religious, spiritual and traditional insight is imported to our lives that we see the world not as “the theatre of the absurd” but rather as “cosmic theophany”.
The existential notions of dread, anxiety, nihilism, appear very trivial when seen in the light of traditional wisdom. Existentialists peeled the skin of life but failed to travel any further. The traditional saints, sages, hermits and seers not only peeled the artificiality and superficiality of life but rather succeeded in travelling and unravelling its greatest depths, and thus stood face to face with the ontic nothingness of life. Sheikh Ahmad Alawi says “Being in itself is God’s, not thine; if thou shouldst come to realise the truth and matter and to understand what is God’s through stripping thyself of all that is not thine, then wouldst you find thyself to be as the core of an onion. If thou wouldst peel it thou peelest off the first skin, and then the second, and then the third, and so on, until there is nothing left of the onion. Even so is the slave with regard to the being of the truth”. Traditionally this realisation has been universal and has manifested itself in the persona of Buddha and his likes who encountered Sunyata of human existence and this encounter brought them in terms with the reality of life, the reality that transcends both being as well as nothingness.
The prevalence of isolation, separstedness and emptiness arises because of axing all the vertical aspects of life and living in finite horizontal dimension. Only if man has the courage to embrace the vertical and Transcendental aspects of life, not only will he be able to confront the issues of dread and despair but he shall discover himself in the state of perpetual bliss. Modern mind including existentialism commits a category mistake when it places entire emphasis on the thinking and willing aspect of human beings and ignores their aesthetic faculty. The ignorance of art and aesthetic or in any way giving it a status of inferiority is bound to end up at man’s desolation and despair. Here I am talking of art not as an activity taking place outside human subjectivity but as something quite intrinsic and basic to human beings and in fact one of the ways of identifying ourselves with the species of human genre. As an illustration of this preeminence of music in human lives Marsilio Ficino’s quote is very apt when he says that “serious music preserves and restores the consonance of the parts of the soul, as Plato and Aristotle say and as we have experienced frequently” .
To say that individual confronts this absurd and irrational world alone displaces is a digression from the traditional and historic paradigm. The fact remains that With the arrival of “reign of Quantity” and submergence of qualitative approach to life, a host of existential issues have arrived floating in our lives. The scientific doctrine that “what can’t be measured can’t be known” was ruthlessly applied to all domains and dimensions of human life which led to chaos of unforeseen order. The failure to appreciate Transcendence and to contextualise everything in terms of immanence brought with it the ” courage to disbelieve” . The transition of epistemology and ontology from expansion of human understanding to its limitation has proved to be most grievous crime committed by pundits of Western philosophy. Philosophy, in the post renaissance era operated under the influence of science and this led philosophical methodology to be characterised by same shortcomings as were inherent to the science of the times.
In placing entire emphasis on the sensory faculties of man, the philosophers of renaissance era paid no attention to the rational and spiritual facilities of man. Hegel, Kant and others of their species metamorphosed the landscape of western philosophy which later had its repercussions of widest and worst possible nature in the form of later existential revolt. From what one can know the nature of question was now changed to what one cannot know. From what one can understand the emphasis was laid on what one can perceive by mere sense organs. Locke thought that the role of philosophy was not to extend the boundaries of knowledge but precisely to limit it. This limited epistemology and consequently bounded ontology constricted and constrained the trajectories of human imagination. Human mind, with its sensory, rational, imaginative, intellectual and spiritual possibilities of understanding is intrinsically infinite. The infinity of human imagination is not circumscribed by the finitude of human physicality. Man’s quest for infinity with all its possible implications finds its satisfaction in the perception of God, the institution of sacred and the concept of divine. Despite his physical finitude, man is infinite in terms of his rational and spiritual dimensions.
World today, with all its conundrums stands in a dire need to grasp and perceive things and the realities beyond the manifest. The journey to Transcendence is not only necessary but the only condition to ensure mitigation of human anxieties. Any failure in this direction will intellectually, morally and spiritually leave our world an ugly place to live in. Deepak Chopra, realising the same urge has put it eloquently by saying “Then God matters, more than anything else in the creation, because God is the word we apply to the source of creation. It isn’t necessary to worship the source, although reverence is certainly deserved if we want to give it. The necessary thing is to connect. Across the gap in the Transcendent world are some totally necessary things that can’t be created, not by hand, by imagination, or by thought”. World is crying for ideological and philosophical beautification and this restoration of beauty calls for look back at tradition, Transcendence and our glorious religious heritage. In these perennial treasures of wisdom we shall discover panacea to the posers of existence.(Continued from last Monday)

(Author can be reached at [email protected])