Atheistic philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, once commented on why he did not believe in God. The reason, he stated, is because ambiguity is the fundamental phenomenological fact within our existence and a belief in God is not consistent with that experience. That phrase, in an abstract way, expresses something we all experience, namely, life is utterly messy; so messy in fact that it can leave one wondering whether indeed there exists an all-powerful and caring God. Nobody goes through life antiseptically, without dirt, pain, mess and death. But, unlike Merleau-Ponty, I believe in God precisely for that reason. Life may be messy, but it is real, not plastic. We aren’t Swiss clocks, infallibly ordered, made to tick meticulously, precise and antiseptic. Rather our lives are anything but ordered and clocklike. We cannot live without messiness, complications, and much emotional and physical pain.
It begins when we are born. Birth is a messy process which causes pain, dictates involvement, and complicates peoples’ lives irrevocably. Living does too! Work, interrelations, love, sex, friendship, aging, all of these are complex, earthy, messy businesses which are always at least partially full of pain, pettiness, limit, compromise, and death. They are full of joy and meaning too, but these are seldom given purely. Moreover, no one goes through life without having his or her dignity, freedom, and dreams frustrated and stepped on. There is no antiseptic route through life. The whiteness of our baptismal robes, the purity of our hearts, minds and bodies, and the freshness of our youth, sully and dirty and bear the stain of living. As we grow older, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ words ring ever more true:
“And all is smeared with trade, bleared,
smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell;
Often this leaves us discouraged and questioning. More seriously, this often leads to a subtle despair. Stated simply, the algebra of this despair, and ultimately of all despair, reads like this: If all is muddled, then all is permitted. That attitude is viral and deadly. It is perhaps the worst temptation faced by an adult. Because of it we sell ourselves out, give up, throw dignity and dreams to the wind, and settle for second best. The single factor is perhaps at the root of most of the infidelity, sexual irresponsibility, and unbelief within our culture. When we sell out our dignity and dreams, then, like Merleau-Ponty, we will have trouble experiencing God. The Highest is more clearly experienced when we are giving ourselves over to what is highest. The messiness of life also leaves us tempted in another way, namely, we are tempted to try to live anitseptically.
Since we cannot live and love deeply without hurting, without pettiness, without enslaving and humiliating entanglements, without smear, we opt not to live and love deeply at all. So we hang loose, refusing depth. We stay away from all that might hurt – or heal – us deeply. In doing this we make life plastic – antiseptic, clean, without dirt and smell, but totally lifeless and without meaning, like a plastic rose. We need to accept the contours of our existence. We are not angels, free, soaring spirits, unencumbered by the limits of time and flesh. Our souls are born enfleshed in soil, pain, blood, and smell. We were never intended to be angels. But with that comes a special dignity, the dignity that a real rose possesses over a plastic one. Peter Meinke once wrote a sonnet honoring the death of the man who invented the plastic rose:
“The Man who invented the plastic rose is dead,
behold his mark.
His undying flawless blossoms never close
But guard his grave unbending through the
He understood nether beauty nor flowers,
Which catch our hearts in nets as soft as sky
And bind us with a thread of fragile hours;
Flowers are beautiful because they die.
Beauty without the perishable pulse
Is dry and sterile, an abandoned stage
With false forests. But the results
Support this man’s invention; He knew his age;
A vision of our tearless time discloses
Artificial men sniffing plastic roses.”
(Ladies Home Journal, 1964)