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Tradition, Hope, and Despair

Because we are spiritual, we are subject to spiritual crises just as we all must cope with mortality. All humans experience spiritual crises, whether they are acknowledged or not. Just as puberty throws the body into upheaval, some experiences throw the spirit into turmoil.

I’m pointing to those moments in life that permanently alter the way one looks at the world, for better or for worse. The most common spiritual crisis, ironically, has to do with the body. Adolescence, for example, not only throws the body into crisis but the spirit as well.

The death of a loved one or the birth of a new family member also provokes a spiritual response. Being diagnosed with a fatal disease can spur spiritual renewal or ruin.

The Human Way

When I was in my early twenties, a close friend shot two of my other friends with a .44 magnum. He then turned the gun on himself. The murder-suicide took place in a suburb of Seattle. It took place in my living room.

I’ll never know exactly what happened that night. When I went to bed—I had to work in the morning—someone was playing the guitar in the living room. Others were laughing and singing. It was raining outside.

People, of course, react differently when an unexpected tragedy occurs. It is a testament to our uniqueness as individuals. And yet we all act in a human way. This is a testament to the universality of human nature.

I remember walking around the hospital as we waited for news on the sole survivor of the shooting. He’d been shot through the ass. The bullet had lodged in his guts. The doctors said he was lucky to be alive. When he did finally recover—a couple of surgeries later—he couldn’t remember what had happened to cause such violence.

It was drizzling outside the hospital that morning, the sky the color of wet cement. In the few months I’d been living in Seattle, I’d only seen Mt. Rainer once. The landmark was usually shrouded by clouds. I was homesick for Wyoming. I had been reading the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to pass the time.

I was thinking about Nietzsche as I walked around the hospital in the drizzle. Instead of praying to God for solace, I repeated, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger,” as if it was some kind of magical mantra. It wasn’t.

If the reaction sounds sophomoric, it was. I was young. But the ramifications of those moments of immaturity proved to be a heavy burden in the long haul. It haunted me for many years. You might say the grey skies of Seattle never really left my mind.

I had discovered Nietzsche when I was around sixteen by stumbling across a copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra at the local public library. I picked up the book out of curiosity and read it. I used to think it all happened by chance. Today I believe otherwise.

I did not realize it at the time, but the murder-suicide provoked a spiritual crisis that in a very real way would color my life for decades to come. Invoking Nietzsche in that time of crisis put into motion a series of events that plunged me into the depths of nihilism. Looking back, it’s a miracle I was able to cross to the far side of the abyss.

I suffered and caused others to suffer. That heat of that suffering, in the end, served to germinate the seed of faith that had been planted when I was baptized in the Catholic Church at the age of ten. That's another story.

Empathy vs Antipathy

Most of us have or will experience deep dives into the dark waters of despair. Maybe you are still in them. Whatever the case, you need to realize you are not alone. Being an individual doesn’t mean you are cut off from others. We are all humans. Because of this, we can empathize with one another, even when our experiences in the abyss are be radically different.

Right now, the whole world is suffering. It is in the throes of a profound spiritual crisis, a kind of collective consciousness reaction to countless individual cases of despair. The wounds of this crisis have been festering for centuries.

From the Judeo-Christian perspective, the despair began in the Garden when the serpent whispered to Eve.

Things went downhill from there. Humans yearned for what was lost—call it innocence or transcendence—as they still do. Some fell to their knees and prayed for deliverance. Others vowed to get back what was taken away by an act of will. Many, maybe most, floated on whatever current happened to catch them and life became but a dream—or a nightmare.

Now, as then, two ways are open: the way humility or the way of the proud.

Jesus Christ provided reprieve -- a way out -- but fewer and fewer are aware of it. Fewer still are willing to accept the divine gift and bear its load.

Keeping It Simple

It’s best to keep things simple. Occam’s Razor sharpens the intellect. A sharpened intellect cuts away the fat that can clog the arteries of intuition.

I illustrate this point with what I call “The God Question”.

The God Question is fundamental to human being: Do you believe in a transcendent God? We all must answer the question. It's what makes us human. The only alternatives are to try to avoid it or ignore it.

Simply put, one either believes in God or one does not. A third way, the agnostic option, is a copout. Claiming to be agnostic about God is a tacit admission of unbelief. It’s like saying, “I’ll change my mind if God proves to be true.” Such a demand brings a simple response: “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” Claiming to be agnostic exposes a lack of faith.

Both options, “I believe,” or “There is no God,” are humble and proud at once.

“I believe” humbles the believer before He who is transcendent. The believer is at the same time proud to serve God and to continually praises him.

The unbeliever is humbled by the weight of an existence void of objective meaning. If there is no God, the universe is stripped of significance. The “All” is reduced to chance and brute fact. But the unbeliever is proud because if there is no God, he or she must become a god to create meaning in their life, even if that means clinging to a meaning invented by another.

Where there is no God, there are no rules but those imposed by humans. Truth and value are rendered relative. In this scenario, the truth is that there is no truth.

Today, relativism has leaked into everything, even into so-called "objective" science. It was formally ushered in on the back of Schrodinger’s Cat where the observer changes that which is observed.

Not only that, both science and religion have been politicized. Just take a look at the COVID confusion perpetrated by leading scientists. The same goes for so-called Christians condoning same-sex marriages.

Everything is now relative, including good and evil. The forbidden fruit is no longer forbidden, rather it is served to each individual’s taste.

For those who say yes to God, the meaning of life is a mysterious gift. For those who deny God, meaning is imposed on life and the unbeliever becomes an oxymoron, a mortal god who imposes meaning for the brief span of his or her life in a meaningless world.

The Human Burden

Each must choose how to answer the God Question. That is the human burden. And each answer will be unique, just as each human is distinctive (even identical twins experience life differently).

Individual answers will also be universal. On planet Earth, only humans are able to understand The God Question. Decoupled from understanding, the question ceases to exist. If someone can understand the question, they must answer it. This is a universal human trait.

The God Question, then, is basic to human nature.

All the answers taken together might allow us some insight into the worldwide spiritual crisis now upon us. It may also help you, as an individual, get through a personal crisis now or in the future.

This is the aim of The God Question: to plumb the depths of the human experience predicated on one’s belief or disbelief in God.

As individuals, we’re all in this together. Transhumanism, Artificial Intelligence, and the continued impact of new technologies will impact each of us more and more as time goes on.

The world has never been faced with problems like these. Our responses to these challenges and others must be as novel as the problems themselves. But novel does not mean uncoupled from the guiding principles of tradition without which the ship would be lost on a stormy sea.

Catholic Tradition is a storehouse of wisdom. It is this wisdom, imparted to humans through revelation and the Holy Spirit, that infuses the present with hope.

Turning away from Tradition would be like turning toward the Gates of Dante's Hell and reading the words above it, "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here."

Pope Francis has described tradition as “the living memory of believers,” and “traditionalism” as “the dead life of our believers.” I'm not sure, exactly, what this means. But I'm not sure about the meaning of many of Francis' cryptic phrases.

What I do know is that if tradition is to remain "living", it has to be maintained just as a body must be nourished. Traditionalists maintain tradition. That's pretty straightforward, even self-evident. If they didn't, tradition would die.

Where one answers "Yes" to the God Question, hope is born. Tradition keeps hope alive. Remember this the next time you are having a spiritual crisis. If you do, you'll know where to turn for a lifebuoy.

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Oct 02, 2022

I was really enjoying your post until I read the referenced article on Pope Francis. Then things got disconcerting over my confusion of what he meant, as well. But even a dour, critical and sometimes baffling pope can be a blessing, moving me to reassess my faith in the tradition of Catholicism and finding therein good reasons for believing and hoping.

On another note, I marveled at the life-changing crisis you experienced early on. Until we get to know a person, we don't really know who we're dealing with. The more we learn, the more appreciation and respect can develop.

Oct 03, 2022
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Then again, regarding the pope, there can be too much of a good thing. LOL


Sean Murray
Sean Murray
Sep 27, 2022

Wow! Very good article Jack. We all have our crosses to bear, and even when we experience that dark abyss and come out the other side, very often we are never fully healed, it always leaves a scar. A weak spot, that is with us until this life is over.

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