Is That All There Is? Secularism and its Discontents

110815_r21170_p465 James Wood in The New Yorker:

I have a friend, an analytic philosopher and convinced atheist, who told me that she sometimes wakes in the middle of the night, anxiously turning over a series of ultimate questions: “How can it be that this world is the result of an accidental big bang? How could there be no design, no metaphysical purpose? Can it be that every life—beginning with my own, my husband’s, my child’s, and spreading outward—is cosmically irrelevant?” In the current intellectual climate, atheists are not supposed to have such thoughts. We are locked into our rival certainties—religiosity on one side, secularism on the other—and to confess to weakness on this order is like a registered Democrat wondering if she is really a Republican, or vice versa.

These are theological questions without theological answers, and, if the atheist is not supposed to entertain them, then, for slightly different reasons, neither is the religious believer. Religion assumes that they are not valid questions because it has already answered them; atheism assumes that they are not valid questions because it cannot answer them. But as one gets older, and parents and peers begin to die, and the obituaries in the newspaper are no longer missives from a faraway place but local letters, and one’s own projects seem ever more pointless and ephemeral, such moments of terror and incomprehension seem more frequent and more piercing, and, I find, as likely to arise in the middle of the day as the night. I think of these anxieties as the Virginia Woolf Question, after a passage in that most metaphysical of novels “To the Lighthouse,” when the painter Lily Briscoe is at her easel, mourning her late friend Mrs. Ramsay. Next to her sits the poet, Augustus Carmichael, and suddenly Lily imagines that she and Mr. Carmichael might stand up and demand “an explanation” of life:

For one moment she felt that if they both got up, here, now on the lawn, and demanded an explanation, why was it so short, why was it so inexplicable, said it with violence, as two fully equipped human beings from whom nothing should be hid might speak, then, beauty would roll itself up; the space would fill; those empty flourishes would form into shape; if they shouted loud enough Mrs. Ramsay would return. “Mrs. Ramsay!” she said aloud, “Mrs. Ramsay!” The tears ran down her face.

Why is life so short, why so inexplicable? These are the questions Lily wants answered. More precisely, these are the questions she needs to ask, ironically aware that an answer cannot be had if there is no one to demand it from. We may hope that “nothing should be hid” from us, but certain explanations can only ever be hidden. Just as Mrs. Ramsay has died, and cannot be shouted back to life, so God is dead, and cannot be reimplored into existence. And, as Terrence Malick’s oddly beautiful film “The Tree of Life” reminds us, the answers are still hidden even if we believe in God. Lily Briscoe’s “Why?” is not very different from Job’s “Why, Lord?”