How many of us, I wonder, have been reminded in the last weeks in commencement speeches about happiness and success and realizing your dreams and…other “two-dimensional” reflections on humanness? I got my fix Friday night. The speeches seem never to change from the ones I took part in over 30 years ago.
Much as I love the people I know who are graduating, in fact, because I love them, I humbly ponder the other two dimensions of humanness that they have yet to discover, the one I know all too well, and the one I want to know better.
James Loder, in his book, The Transforming Moment, describes Kierkegaard’s analysis of the four dimensions of humanness. The first and second dimensions are the self and the world. If “who I am” is preoccupied with me and the world, I am two-dimensional. High school commencement speeches exhibit two-dimensionality. So does the American Dream, personal fitness training, and running for Mayor. Don’t get me wrong—these are two legitimate dimensions of humanness.
The third dimension is The Void. As I and my students read Loder together last year, we found that The Void proved to be a pretty useful concept! You are facing a math exam and you think you are going to die? That’s The Void. You lose control of your car on a wet highway and spin to a stop one foot from a precipice. The Void. You shiver with dread as your rollercoaster car inches its way to the top of its death-defying first descent. Your parents announce that they are getting a divorce. You have to face the daunting blackness of your future beyond graduation. Your best friend is diagnosed with terminal cancer. In these experiences we experience The Void.
The Hebrews, following Moses, escaped Egypt Red Sea
The Void is any experience of having your nose rubbed in your contingency—the fact that you might not be here, and the fact that you are depends on a plethora of factors far outside your control. Paying bills is for me a regular experience of The Void. Mid- and quarter-life crises. Fears and doubts. Affliction. There can for some of us be a myriad of times in which we feel as if we look down at our feet and find we are standing on thin air. Some of us, of the commencement speech frame of mind, could use to experience The Void more often.
Sadly, the young are not spared either. Success wasn’t the only topic at this year’s high school commencement; commemorating the death of a loved classmate on a slick highway in January, and the continued comatose state of a second one, mashed the faces of these 18-year-olds into the third-dimension of humanness, The Void.
How could such a grim experience be a necessary dimension of being human? At first it sounds as if humanness requires evil, a dubious theological claim. But rereading Cornelius Van Til’s Defense of the Faith reminded me of that all-decisive feature of reality, the Creature-Creator distinction.
Cutting to the chase: one only begins to know God truly if one truthfully acknowledges one’s own creatureliness, one’s own contingency, the fact that we are, in the metaphor of the Psalmist, a vapor. In our brokenness, we’d rather delude ourselves concerning our invincibility. An experience of The Void powerfully exposes our contingency, leaving us no corner of presumption in which we may continue to hide. In it I know truthfully, authentically, that if I am not sovereignly, graciously, held on to by Someone Who is not contingent, I am dead meat. “Out of the depths I cry…”! (Psalm 31)
Although The Void in no way entitles me to the opening of humanness’s fourth dimension, the fact is that the transcendent personal God sovereignly stretches his mighty arm into the abyss to drag me out. God parted the Red Sea
God is near to those with broken and contrite hearts. It is in the hours, days, years of parching loss and paralyzed fear that we know this third dimension truly and may experience the grace of finding ourselves undergirded by the everlasting arms.
What Loder says is that when God intervenes sovereignly to deliver, he actually makes it possible for the delivered person freely to choose him in responsive love. And that is the fourth and formative dimension of being human. “I am the LORD who redeemed you out of the house of Egypt
Trust, I think, is the reach from fear to faith, the lifting up of our souls (did you ever wonder about that phrase?) from The Void to search for the face of God. The cry of personal contingency never necessitates but always seems to invite the gracious face and arm of God. We may thus employ the vortex of The Void to propel us upward (Pirates III, anyone? Star Trek?). I do not at all mean to sound mercenary or merely tactical. But the alternative, stubbornly letting it suck us in, remains both an act of idolatry and—well—subhuman.
“Why are you so cast down, O my soul? Hope in God, for I will yet praise Him.” (Psalm 42, 43)