Unamuno’s mind full of doubts in the soul of a believer

It has always been difficult for me to understand the mind of the believer. (I limit the thoughts here to those who believe in god, although, I suppose, much the same can be said of other True Believers—in the market, in racial superiority, in American Exceptionalism, in the existing social organization, and so forth). On the face of it, an all-powerful god, who lived forever before us and will live forever into the future, and, to top it off, knows everything, causes the mind to pose imponderable questions. How can we have free will if god made us (and all the causes that act on us) and knows everything we will do? Can god create a rock too big for him (for lack of a better pronoun) to move? How can god be just if he allows (or causes) others to act unjustly? (The last question is one of the almost solved problems addressed in The Karamazov Brothers. Dostoevsky tries to rig the answer by giving the question to Alyosha, the Orthodox novice, and by allowing Alyosha to be involved in the only (somewhat) happy resolution to the novel.)  These are some of the less profound conundrums posed by a theistic (as opposed to a deistic) god. It is not possible to follow out trains of thought for very long before running into a logical road block. Plus, the problem of why an infinitely knowledgeable being would be interested for very long in us individually rears up before long. Believers cover over these problems by explaining that divine ways are “mysterious,” and so they can carry contradictory or nonsensical notions without bothering themselves over them. This always made it easy for me not to pay any attention to the problem of belief, even though many serious and intelligent people for thousands of years have regarded this as the central existential question.

This fact still would not have caused me to think much about the problem (as believers conceive it). You see, the most practical form of atheism is simply ignoring the matter. But then the New Atheists appeared. At first it seems that there was a coincidence of a number of people making snide comments about god and believers. At a time when stridency was (and continues to be) the currency of all public discourse, the nature of the attacks did not seem particularly noteworthy. But as people like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne seemed to be neglecting their more useful work to champion a form of aggressive atheism (which predictably drew in followers who raised the temperature of the “debate”), I noticed that they didn’t attempt to address some of the seeming problems that their own position produces. For, the underlying assumption (and it is an assumption, however frequently it proves an outcome), that the world (and by that I mean everything) is subject to universal laws which can be described or understood by human consciousness, required a practice of reductionism that really doesn’t permit for many of the things human’s cherish (freedom, responsibility, individuality) if taken to the logical conclusion. I won’t expand on that here, mainly because it’s beyond the scope of the introduction to this poem. But I will note that I fall on the line of this approach to “reality” when it comes down to it. As for the unpleasant intellectual consequences of relentless reduction, I (as well as the more virulent atheists) follow a mirror course as the believers—I ignore them; just like them I ascribe it to the “mysteries” we don’t understand. I am sure, as a result, that the true believer also finds it difficult to understand the mind of the materialist. As Berio said (possibly quoting someone else): You pay your money and take your seat.

I bring this up not to begin another internet “discussion” of theism/atheism, but rather to point out that Miguel de Unamuno was perfectly aware of the problems of at least his side of the metaphysical dividing line. He fell on the theistic side. But he was one of those believers who could not believe with his head. He reminds one of the man who brought his son to Jesus and explained that since a child he had been “possessed” and had seizures which caused him to fall and foam at the mouth. Jesus said that if he could believe, all things were possible. The man begged Jesus “and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

The need to believe comes before the belief. (Whether there is need or not, or maybe how much, is what divides believers from the materialists.) And even when the need is great, belief never reaches the corresponding level of need. Unamano needed to believe, his need was greater than his ability, but he was aware of that fact and intellectually honest enough to admit it. But it nonetheless tormented him. In his large work on the limits of philosophy, The Tragic Sense of Life, he tells the story of an encounter with a peasant:

Talking to a peasant one day, I proposed to him the hypothesis that there might indeed be a God who governs heaven and earth, a Consciousness of the Universe, but that for all that the soul of every man may not be immortal in the traditional and concrete sense. He replied: “Then wherefore God?”

Unamuno knew how belief sprung up in man. Men have the need to live—to have their individual consciousness endure. They want to keep their memories and perceptions alive despite the knowledge of death. So they need to believe in eternal life of the soul separate from the body. And it is this, and only this, that creates the need to believe in a god. Paul himself concurred—eternal life is essential for there to be a meaning for belief: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” (I Corinthians 15:19)

But that is where the problem lies. All of those questions about a god that creates us for later eternal life after death creep up and corrode belief. Belief itself is problematic because, after all, why would a god require it while hiding the evidence for it? Is it a game? And so the very need for believing also brings with it the seeds of doubt.

Unamuno wrote a little poem about the problem and the doubts. It comes from his Cancionero, the poetic diary he kept. He is supposed to have written the poems in the morning after a period of New Testament reading and prayer. So the poems are a meditation on his reading and the state of his belief. He dated his poems and often listed the reading associated with it. This one was written on March 16, 1928, and bears the reference to Ephesians 2:9, which reads in full: “Not of works, lest any man should boast.” Ephesians is another letter by Paul (or more likely someone steeped in Pauline theology) in which faith is ascribed as a gift of god. No one can obtain by himself. Unamuno in this poem beseeches god to grant him belief. It also artfully reminds god of some of the reasons for unbelief.

Concionero No. 41

(March 16, 1928; published posthumously in 1953)

by Miguel de Unamuno

Señor, que te arrepentiste
de habernos hecho, recuerda
—y eso que estando presente
todo en Ti, ya no te queda
ni consuelo de memoria—

Señor, si puedes, recuerda
que un día de los que pasan
—no por Ti, sino que quedan—
con mano de luz me hiciste
y en esta tu pobre tierra
me dejaste al albedrío
del ángel y de la bestia.

Desde entonces busco loco
tu mano de luz que espera
y que ante mí como sombra
tiende la esperanza incierta.
Señor, que te arrepentiste
de habernos hecho, recuerda
que en un rinconcito oscuro
me dejaste, tu poema.

No. 41  of the Lyric Collection

[translated by DK Fennell]

Lord, who have repented
having made us, remember
—even though, everything being
present in You, there is for You
no consolation of memory—

Lord, if You can, remember
that one of the days that pass
—not by You, instead they stay—
with hand of light You made me
and in this Your poor earth
You left me to the whim
of the angel and the beast.

Since then frantic I seek
Your hand of light which waits
and which before me like a shadow
extends indefinite promise.
Lord, who have repented
having made us, remember
that in a dark little corner
You left me, Your poem.

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