The Tragic Sense of Life

imagesI remember when I first heard the Spaniard’s name – Miguel de Unamuno. I was driving my car to speak in Iowa in the summer of about 1998 and the esteemed founding president of Regent College (Vancouver), James Houston, mentioned the importance of this Spanish philosopher for deeper insight into the faith. The course was one on spiritual formation. It seemed odd to me that Houston would mention a philosopher who more than dabbled in some ideologies that would trouble most American conservatives. (They trouble me too.) Little did I know what treasures awaited me in discovering the work of this early twentieth century thinker. But I am ahead of myself. Who was Miguel de Unamuno?

Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo (1864 – 1936) was a Spanish essayist, novelist, poet, playwright and philosopher. His best known, and most important,  philosophical essay was The Tragic Sense of Life (1913). His most famous novel was Abel Sanchez: The History of a Passion (1917), a modern exploration of the Cain and Abel story. For Unamuno, art was a way of expressing spiritual problems. His themes were the same in his poetry as in his other fiction: spiritual anguish, the pain provoked by the silence of God, time and death. He summed up his personal creed this way: “My religion is to seek for truth in life and for life in truth, even knowing that I shall not find them while I live.”

booksThe aforementioned book, The Tragic Sense of Life, contains the idea that has become for me a major theme to be pondered out of the written work of de Unamuno. He popularized the phrase when he told the European world that they had distorted the meaning of faith by aligning it with the Western philosophical idea of “progress.” What he saw in Scripture, and the life of Jesus Christ, was that life had a “tragic sense” that shaped reality differently than progress.

Richard Rohr, writing in his most excellent book, Falling Upward (Jossey-Bass, 2011), says “By this clear and honest phrase, I understand Unamuno to mean that life is not, nor ever has been, a straight line forward. According to him, life is characterized much more by exception and disorder that by total or perfect order” (54). Rohr then devotes an entire chapter to this idea about “The Tragic Sense of Life.”

67982_465995670123030_1339242823_nWhat is this “tragic sense” that he speaks about? It is a way of expressing the biblical story line as one that includes both loss and renewal, death and resurrection, chaos and healing at the same time. “Life seems to be a collision of opposites” (54). Unamuno equates faith with trust in an underlying life force (God) that “it even includes death” (54). Truth is not about problem solving and pragmatic solutions to our most fundamental questions. Because something seems paradoxical, and not very workable, does not mean it is not true. “Life is inherently tragic, and that is the truth that only faith (not our logic) . . . can solve” (54).

Rohr suggests that quantum physics shows the truth of Unamuno’s view in our time. Most of us, at least in the West, were shaped by a cause and effect way of thinking – an “if-then” worldview. But the truth that we are just now beginning to understand is that “the universe seems to proceed through a web of causes, just as human motivation does, producing ever-increasing diversity, multiplicity, dark holes, dark matter, death and rebirth, loss and renewal in different forms, and yes even violence, the continual breaking of the rules of ‘reason’ that make wise people look for more all-embracing rules and a larger ‘logic’” (54-55).

Over the course of my life of six-plus decades I am learning that my life is much better understood in terms of “exceptions” than “rules of logic.” Everything does not fit, at least from anything I see or understand. Some things seem “right” while others seems wasteful, even out of place. Rohr has prompted me to see this disorder in a new way, a way that honors providence but not as some kind of logical, mathematical formula, which is the way most Calvinists have understood it in the West. When Jesus and Paul tell us to honor “the least of the brothers and sisters” they had in view those people who were on the edges who “tend to reveal the shadow and mysterious side of things” (55). This prompts us to revisit what we’ve called “normal” and “recalibrate” our lives. These “exceptions” keep us humble and searching.

What this means for me is quite simple. Somewhere in my late 50s I stopped trying to find resolution for things in my life that made me anxious or that deeply troubled my logical view of things. There were no universal forms that made everything fit nicely together. Divine providence was not fundamentally about decrees and pre-creational decisions that made my life “make sense.” There was the loving creator and then there was his needy, fallen creature, me. I did not need to resolve everything in my life. I could accept the questions and live more deeply in the grace and mercy of God. But in the end I came to see that this is a high view of God’s providence. Some will say, “How so John?” Because as Richard Rohr rightly concludes, “Jesus did not seem to teach that one size fits all, but instead that his God adjusts to the vagaries and failures of the moment. This ability to adjust to human disorder and failure is named God’s providence or compassion. Every time God forgives us, God is saying that God’s own rules do not matter as much as the relationship that God wants to create with us” (56-57).

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