Who presents a more correct answer, Sartre or St Augustine, to the question of whether or not we need a formal religious concept of God to lead a meaningful, moral and complete life?
Nothing like such a simple question to stir the imagination, to try to decipher a portrait of the human condition as seen through the eyes of such dissimilar intellectuals, one a formative leader of the Christian church in the 3d century, and the other a mid-20th century French survivor of the Nazi occupation. Both shared times of great change and both wrestled with their place in an unstable, insecure and violent world, one trying to find meaning and a new religious structure in the early church and the other trying to find a new structure out of a shattered world made senseless from the horrors and losses suffered during WWII.
From what I have read, Augustine focused on a realm characterized by an atemporal eternity, a world beyond that of the senses where we can be easily removed from the prospect of what and whom we love. In this realm, there is the promise of fulfilling our desire for the ultimate unity that we seek in friendship and love, a unity that can never really be achieved as long as we are immersed in the world of the senses. This upper realm, with God as its source, promises the only lasting relief from the anxiety prompted by the transitory nature of the world of the senses.
In this earthly world, we are prone to view things materialistically and hence can be unaware that our world is but a tiny portion of what is real. Thus, according to Augustine, we have a tendency to focus on our own individual and petty lives, thereby observing our existence as a self-contained arena within which all questions of moral concern can be resolved. If we fail to recognize that the world of the senses is only a part of our existence, our path can easily lead us into a realm of moral danger. Only by perceiving ourselves as beings embodied partly in the tangible world while still connected to a greater realm is there the possibility of reorienting our moral base, appreciating it not only for the goodness it manifests, but seeing it as an instrument for directing our attention to what is beyond it.
If I understand Augustine’s prayer to God that “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until we rest in Thee,” then the concept of the “God hole” or need for a god is essential for a meaningful life beyond that of the mere realm of the senses. We must “overflow” with the desire to be one with god in order to live a moral life.
On the other side of the spectrum, Sartre to my understanding contrasts Augustine’s divine viewpoint of the world and of human nature with a human viewpoint where there is no divine element. Sartre rejects the whole structure of a god who has conceived the world before he created it, all the while knowing what it was going to be and what human nature was going to be. To Sartre, it is absurd to think of the “essence” of humanity before there even was human existence. Existence had to come first. The “essence” came later. In fact, the “essence” is whatever we decide it is.
For Sartre, things are just the opposite of what they are for people who believe in an “overflowing” god theory.
In trying to answer for myself which is the correct approach, the simple response is that I have no idea. I am pulled toward Augustine for reasons other than simply religious ones. From my more than a few hours of reading about him and from some of his writings, I felt in the presence of a great man of learning and deep understanding, particularly in constructing an accessible and rhetorically compelling account of our relation to a higher realm. In the end, though, I am not especially called toward such a belief in our existence and an absolute higher presence.
For me, I buy more into Sartre’s ideas about our changing human nature and his avoidance of absolutes. Like most of us, I have had my share of “angst and dread” in a life filled with a full range of experience. And despite some conflicting regrets, I think my life continues to be one based in the sustaining belief in growth and renewal. Although Sartre’s emphasis on choice is a double-edged sword because we can never know with certitude what we should do with our lives or how they will turn out, the freedom to choose is the linch-pin that connects me to Sartre.
All this said, I would still choose to spend the day with Augustine, though, rather than Sartre. I suspect Augustine was a kinder and gentler man full of compassion, forgiveness, and a sense of humor. He was also probably a more complex man that unfolded in a number of multiple “layers” than we can fully appreciate. In addition, he was a poetic man who expressed himself lucidly if not lyrically. In contrast, reading Sartre–even with a lot of help–is at times torturous.
If you can find any humor in Sartre, Woody Allen has found some in this funny exchange from “Play It Again, Sam” when trying to pick up a young woman who supposedly reflects the essence of Sartre’s Existentialism:
WOODY ALLEN: That’s quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn’t it?
GIRL IN MUSEUM: Yes it is.
WOODY ALLEN: What does it say to you?
GIRL IN MUSEUM: It restates the negativeness of the universe, the hideous lonely emptiness of existence, nothingness, the predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity, like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void, with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation, forming a useless bleak straightjacket in a black absurd cosmos.
WOODY ALLEN: What are you doing Saturday night?
GIRL IN MUSEUM: Committing suicide.
WOODY ALLEN: What about Friday night?
GIRL IN MUSEUM: [leaves silently]
In conclusion, I have attached the poem “The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz, our former poet laureate, who captures for me so much of what I believe about our changing roles as played out over time and space and how we can help others if we see ourselves as “overflowing” beings rather than ones who just fill up our days:
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face,
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.