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TY 170

06 April 2009

In David Walsh’s Guarded by Mystery, the author tries to present meaning to a postmodern age.  To an age of relativism and hopelessness, Walsh presents a sense of hope.  He says this is not all there is to life.  There is something beyond this life, something toward which humans look.  Walsh provides a nice overview of the postmodern thought by pointing out that there is so much more than what is seen in the world.

I enjoyed reading this book.  I would recommend it to anyone.  It seems to be written for postmodern thinkers, but it applies to all.  I would especially recommend this book to those who are searching for meaning in life.  This is a very well written book.  I like how Walsh puts things into perspective and makes what he says applicable to everyday life.  In Guarded by Mystery he is necessarily repetitive.  In every repetition, he approaches the idea from a different angle, so as to make his point clear.

The underlying topic throughout this book is transcendence.  Whether realized or not, whether admitted or not, humans are directed toward something much greater than themselves, something beyond this life.  This is what sets human beings apart from mere animals.  This difference, among others, causes one to question not only what the differences are, but also, what these differences mean.

Walsh states that there is something that causes us to live not just in the “here-and-now” (1).  There is something that causes us to look forward to the future.  It is noticeable that every creature humans are able to view has a beginning as well as an end.  If there was only death to look forward to, there would not be much incentive to go on living.  Yet, for some reason, we do go on living.  Walsh, as well as other Christians, believes this incentive to be the hope in the life after this life.  This is what inspires one to continue through this life, despite good or bad circumstances. (1)

“In many respects our whole lives seem to be one long preparation for something else” (1).  This thing for which we are preparing must be greater than anything humanly known or experienced, though.  If this were not the case, again, there would not be much incentive to life.  There may be great things and great experiences in this life, but all of them must come to an end.  Therefore, there must be something else, something greater, to which humans look forward. (2)

People are constantly in search for meaning.  “The difficulty is that the meaning is always beyond us; otherwise we find that it is beneath our real aspirations as human beings” (19).  If this meaning was not beyond us, there would be no search.  This search for meaning gives our lives meaning; it gives us a reason to be alive here and now; and it “keeps us going” (21).

The things in this life ultimately cause one to contemplate who he is and why he is here (1).  This causes him to look at himself as well as beyond himself, toward both others and the transcendent.  As long as he remains here on Earth, he is neither complete nor finished (10).  In this life, there will always be a search; there will always be change; and there will always be room for improvement.  “What we are to be and how we are to achieve it becomes clear only to the extent that we seek to follow the most real promptings within us” (10).

One is constantly changing.  The change that makes the biggest difference, however, is not that of intelligence, power, or the like.  The change that makes the greatest difference is a change of perspective.  This causes one to see the world in a different light, from a different point of view.  It helps one to look beyond himself.  Humans are all part of something beyond themselves.  “Whether we like it or not, whether we cooperate with or resist it, we are part of an order that transcends our finite selves and we suspect that that is the most important part of ourselves” (3).  Sensing its importance, one strives for this transcendence.  Along the journey, one’s perspective on life is likely to change. (3)

“We ‘lose ourselves,’ as people say, but in another sense we ‘find ourselves’ in a deeper level of reality.  We are most truly ourselves when we live most fully beyond ourselves” (4).  This is what humans are called to: to live beyond themselves, to live with a hope for something beyond this life.  It is not until one lives as he was called to live that he most fully becomes who he is meant to be.  It is not until then that he become most fully himself and most fully human.

Humans are ordered toward the truth and, they therefore seek the truth.  In this search for the truth, one is faced with some difficulties.  One is free to choose his principles but once he chooses them he is not free to think.  He is free, however, to change his principles at a later time.  The choices one makes are determined by the principles one chooses.  If these principles are later found to be contradictory to what one has experienced, his principles will change. (Marshall)

Human beings are not just individuals in the quest for truth, meaning, and something beyond this life.  They are part of a community.  They share something in common with all other human beings.  They are not just similar in appearance.  They all originate from the same source and are directed toward that same source.  This source is one not fully comprehendible to humans, and yet they continually seek it, either knowingly or unknowingly.  This source is God. (8)

Because we all originate from one source, which is not ourselves, this origin must be greater than us.  This origin, God, is truth.  This origin is the source of moral order, while humans are not.  This means there are not multiple truths or multiple morals, rather there is one absolute.  We sense this says Walsh.  “We sense that the moral direction is not merely one option among others…” (9). Walsh also says that if we miss this truth, we miss the point.  Missing the truth makes everything else we do in life less than what it could be, and less than what it should be.  This truth gives our lives meaning and purpose.  To recognize this truth helps us to become more fully human. (9)

“Even before we reach it, we know the destination we seek because in some sense we are already there.  Otherwise how would it be possible to reach any goal?  We would not know when we had attained it if we did not begin with some sense of it” (45).  However, one cannot be forced to accept the truth.  One must accept the truth on his own, using his own will.  He will be guided by others but it is ultimately his decision. 

The moral order directs us “beyond any finite achievements in this life” (22).  Because of this moral order, humans are free.  The freedom we have is not as the world views freedom, though.  This freedom is not a “freedom” to do whatever we want.  We are all directed toward what is beyond us and beyond what is in this life.  This truth is what pulls us or tugs at our heart, because we knowingly or unknowingly sense this as being the most important thing. (9)

Humans are not, however, free from making decisions.  Freedom from such may seem nice at times, but this would be a forfeit of our freedom.  In giving up responsibility, freedom is given up as well.  If we were free from making decisions, free from responsibility, our life would not have any purpose and humanity would cease to exist, says Walsh. (11)

In the same way, if we know everything about humans and life, we cease to have true freedom.  Our search ends once we know, and the freedom attached to searching ends with it.  Humans are directed toward something they do not fully know or understand.  If we were to discover this in its entirety, we would no longer have something beyond us toward which to live.  Humanity would, again, cease to exist, according to Walsh. (12)

I really like Walsh’s analogy of human freedom.  He compares our freedom in life to time.  He says, “Just as the clock, a means of measuring and dividing and using time, gave us control over time, so it in turn became a power standing over and determining the way we must live.  In order to use time, we must conform to time” (14).  Walsh relates this to moral order.  Moral order is created by God, and God gives us the freedom to choose right from wrong.  “So, [this, too,] in turn bec[omes] a power standing over and determining the way we must live” (14).  For us to truly be free, for us to use the moral order, “we must conform to” it (14).  However, this differs in that God creates moral order, while humans create time.

We are living in a world of an increasing amount of technology.  It seems like a lot of people have become very preoccupied with some form of technology.  This creates a lot of noise in the world, and it creates a false sense of meaning.  Having this false sense of meaning gives us no reason to continue to search for meaning.  Once this search ceases, one practically becomes “closed to the only source of meaning that can sustain it” (123).  Once one becomes closed to it, this meaning can no longer “penetrate” his heart (123).  One must open his heart to this meaning in order for it to become present in his life. (123)

Although people place such an emphasis on technology, it must be remembered that humans are the makers of this technology.  “To the extent that we are the source of all technology, then there is always a distance between us and what we create” (17).  There is an attempt to create more high-tech gadgets, and many machines people have created have made jobs easier.  However, humans are greater than this technology.  No machine can be created to fully replace a human, because we are much more than a material object. (15, 17)

It is good that our goal to create a human-like machine cannot and will not be accomplished.  If this were obtainable, it would diminish the meaning of human existence, because we would become no more than that which we have created.  There will always be a distance between humans and that which they create.  “In that disappointment lies our salvation” (15).  This gap is a good thing.  It gives man dignity.  It ensures that man will always be greater than that which he creates; man will always be superior to technology.

Humans are much more than material objects.  There is more to every person than meets the eye.  Even if one made a list of characteristics and qualities of another, this list would be lacking.  This list would not fully capture the other in his entirety.  “We all hate to be labeled.…  We are repelled by the idea that we might be reducible to such a simplistic classification, because we know we are so much more” (25).

Not only are we not fully describable, but we are also constantly changing.  We are able to move beyond what we are now; we are able to make improvements.  In a situation, one makes a choice; one is able to choose good or evil.  Once one becomes aware of what he is doing, he is then able to “move beyond doing it” (30).  We are greater than what we do.  We are greater than merely our actions.  Walsh says this is true because we “can always look back at” these actions (29).

We somehow recognize that there is more than this life.  We recognize this because we have already known this, says Walsh; it has been written on our hearts.  Nothing on Earth, by itself, directs us to what is beyond this life.  Walsh says, “There would be no openness toward transcendent revelation if there was not already a hunger to know it” (76).  This desire for something beyond ourselves, in this life, is what draws us toward the transcendent. (76)

“Only if we understand how much this world and its pleasures fall short of our true fulfillment can we really enjoy them on their own terms” (46).  Walsh presents his book Guarded by Mystery to an age when many have lost hope in humanity.  This book provides hope through the transcendent, through God, and through Christianity.

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