We Asked a Minister How to Deal with the Pointlessness of Life
"People have been yelling at God for a long time. There's some solace to be had in that."
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
"How to Exist OK" is a column that attempts to figure out how to exist OK. In it, writer, artist, and existential Humpty Dumpty Gideon Jacobs sits down with a sage of some sort—monks, ministers, theologians, psychologists, philosophers, bartenders, centenarians, and more—and asks them how to survive being human, how to navigate the world while lugging around three squishy pounds of consciousness in a rapidly decaying bag of skin.
Paul Brandeis Raushenbush is a Baptist minister and activist who is a prominent voice in American Christendom, preaching a modern social gospel in the lineage of his great-grandfather, and championing for gay rights within the church. (Raushenbush is married to his longtime partner, Brad Gooch.) Whenever I’ve read his writing or listened to him speak, Raushenbush has struck me as the rare sort of religious thinker who seems totally fluent in tradition and orthodoxy, yet somehow remains totally unbound by both. We spoke not long ago in his office at the Auburn Seminary in New York about how life can, at times, seem pointless.
VICE: I was getting coffee the other day, and I overheard three different people say they were having an “existential crisis.” Why do you think people often describe their suffering as existential these days?
Paul Raushenbush: Well, we are in a moment when prescribed methods of meaning have fallen aside a bit. It's not obvious that you're going to go to church or synagogue or wherever. There's a little bit more of a feeling of, “Well, no one is going to do this for me, so I have to figure it out.” By “this” I mean figure out what makes life meaningful and worth living. How do I engage with other people and this world in a way that's thoughtful and imbues every action and interaction with some sort of purpose?
If you were from my generation and before, you might have had more mechanisms, more of a built-in framework. I often question younger people: What's the architecture upon which you're building your world? You have to raise it out of its submerged position and elevate it so you can examine it. It’s not just about what gives your life meaning, but what are the moral imperatives that make you the person you are?
I had a real “aha moment” in college when I was reading the Bible for the first time and I encountered Ecclesiastes. I read lines like, “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” And I was like, "Holy shit, people have been feeling this way forever."
Well, if you read the Psalms, people have been yelling at God for a long time. There's some solace to be had in that. But I think the question is, how can it not be totally individualistic and self-gratifying, somehow connect deeper with other human beings in a way that allows for a solidarity, especially with other people's pain?
Yeah, I think the pain of being alive is, in a way, the most universal thing we have.
Is it any more universal than the ecstasy of being alive? Or do you think that's reserved for a select few?
Well, to me, the human condition is an inherently difficult one. This fact doesn’t bum me out though, because as we are all suffering the human condition, we share a common enemy, and a common enemy tends to unite.
Everyone experiences death and sickness, and I think that's an important place to find connection, but everyone has a sense of the beautiful as well. Everyone senses some sort of joy—if they're given long enough to live—and ecstasy and mystical union.
You think everyone in their life experiences those sort of transcendent moments, or even what William James called “religious experiences"?
I'd be curious to see if there's really anyone who hasn't felt a moment like that, of just like, “Oh my God. I can't believe I'm alive for this moment.”
It would depend on your expectations, right? I think some people are expecting too much: to meet God, see a bright light, hear some sort of voice, or whatever. I go on long silent meditation retreats once a year, and when they are over I sometimes hear people say stuff like, “It didn't really happen for me.” And I always think, “What didn’t happen for you? What were you expecting?”
Well, as you know, I'm a Christian minister, and I like to make sure that people understand that I, personally, have had, in my entire life, like three moments of real clarity. It's not like I experience this stuff daily. The idea that we just skip from transcendence to transcendence is… it would make transcendence mundane.
With the surge of commercialization of spirituality, I’ve noticed a lot of people hoping for the quick spiritual fix. Whether it’s buying the self-help book that will change everything, or drinking the ayahuasca that will exercise all your demons in a single session, people want a panacea, the come-to-Jesus, born again moment. They want fireworks.
I get it. I would like that, too. I mean, who wouldn’t? But I think it was Maya Angelou who said that when people tell her they are a Christian, she responds, “Already?” This stuff is a lifetime’s work. The idea that it’s somewhere to get means that at some point you arrive. Then what? You have to go to the grocery store. It's gonna suck.
How do you exist OK?
For me, existing OK involves recognizing that I am part of a world, much of which is suffering, and thinking, how can I contribute in a positive way to the wellbeing of others—to them existing OK? I think, somehow, you have to find a way to ingrain yourself or embed yourself in a world where you feel deeply connected. And it’s a little bit more of a “we” than an “I.” We come from a long line of people trying to exist OK, and more will come after us. I really don’t believe you can exist OK in isolation, because humans are not meant to be isolated, and they're not meant to be self-centered. Expand out, be a part of something greater, recognize that you are essential to a community, the whole of humanity.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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