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Life, Dreams, and Everything

When I was eighteen years old I purchased the film Waking Life, by director Richard Linklater. Its premise, plot, and production epitomize our postmodern moment. Linklater develops a story about dreams within dreams, in which a character travels seamlessly through surreal worlds while witnessing a plethora of philosophical conversations about life and death. The tagline reads, “Are we sleepwalking through our waking state, or wake-walking through our dreams?” Utilizing stunning visual effects,1 a haunting score, and unpredictable pacing, Linklater creates an atmosphere unlike any I have ever experienced. If you watch attentively and without distraction, you may find yourself slipping away from the known world, toward a reality that is constantly shifting. While this reality is fragmentary and unstable, participation is encouraged. The film invites viewers to find joy and wonder in mental flux, in exposure to new ideas.

As a teenager, I was fascinated by the notion that life is a journey of ideas manifesting themselves in time and space. I remember sitting bolt upright on my friend’s basement futon (everyone else had long faded into sleep) and devouring every ounce of insight this film had to offer. After the curtain fell, I simply couldn’t go on living the same way. Everything was different. The film became, in a very tangible sense, a manifesto for my life. Our experience as human beings in this vast universe can be completely overwhelming. In response, I began to think of life as if it were a kind of dream, or an engrossing and unpredictable journey. Meaning was “out there”—all I had to do was reach out and grab it! In the words of the poet Speed Levitch:

This entire thing we’re involved with called the world is an opportunity to exhibit how exciting alienation can be. Life is the matter of a miracle that is collected, over time, by moments flabbergasted to be in each other’s presence.2

To encounter and engage the illusive other: this was meaning-making in a nutshell. Throughout each day I repeated the mantra, “the ongoing ‘wow’ is happening now!” At age 18, I described this postmodern ideology in a creative piece (see footnote for an excerpt).3 Looking back, it all sounds gleefully optimistic—and more than a bit naive!

Philosophical Convergence

A few years back, I began to relate the thoughts of my later teenage years to Heidegger’s critique of substance ontology (see footnote for details on this philosophy).4 Although I was not reading Heidegger at that time, I was butting my head against the same wall he attempted to knock down. Like the German intellectual, I cultivated an urge to move beyond totalitizing systems that neatly define reality.5 On the one hand, I was reacting to my inherited understanding of religion. On the other, I was crying out against a culture of rampant commodification, a culture that eschews the spiritual component in interpersonal interaction. Allowing “the ongoing wow to happen now” was my attempt at practicing what Heidegger would call unconcealment.6

When I was first exposed to Christian philosophy (see Journey to Catholicism, Part II), it took some time for previous ideals to change.  What’s interesting is that this process of change wasn’t a “clean break” from the past; rather, it was more of a recontextualization and renewal. For example, in my first copy of Bonaventure’s Itinerarium (I’ve worn out a few copies by now!), I wrote “the ongoing wow is happening now!” next to the following:

Just as the eye, intent on the various differences of color, does not see the light by which it sees other things (or if it does see, does not notice), so our mind’s eye, intent on particular and universal beings, does not notice that Being which is beyond all categories, even though it comes first to the mind, and through it all other things. (Itin. 5.4)8

I was beginning to see the entire universe in a new light,9 realizing that God himself might be even more mysterious—and even more Real—than an “ongoing wow.” But was I simply falling back into the “trap” of metaphysical speculation?

A New and Lasting Perspective

Allow me to answer that last question in narrative form. During my final years as a teenager, I had some desire to believe in an Absolute God, but this belief did not have much impact on my choices. I tried to be content in each moment—finding the radical presence of the divine here and now—but was often unaware that my actions in these moments caused others serious harm. Perhaps I considered myself a disciple of “the unknown God,” the Absolute God-beyond-all-gods that Paul speaks of in Acts 17. If this were the case, it was Saint Bonaventure who helped me realize is that this unknown God, who is indeed the true God, does not lose His mysterious nature because of what He has chosen to reveal to us.10

Bonaventure taught me that the age-old search for Truth cannot be reduced to neat compartments.11 In my encounter with Christ through his work, daily gain new understanding that Jesus entered human time, human moments, “at the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4) . The God that is Being itself is the same God radically available on our behalf in each and every moment through Christ. And every moment is sacred because of the one in whom we “live, move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

On this feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I suggest with Pope Benedict that, like the millions of indigenous people who converted to Catholicism and yet were not forced to destroy their previous religions, I too have been captivated by the Truth that gathers together and recontextualizes the truths scattered about this postmodern world. This process of changing, updating, questioning, and reaffirming is one that I hope will continue throughout the rest of my existence. We must wrestle daily with the religious and philosophical choices we have made, or else they become stale and lifeless. Pope Francis has called attention to the “Joy of the Gospel,” stating that “whenever we make the effort to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world.”12 I am attempting to imitate this sort of attitude in the activity of reinterpreting and re-membering my past.

At the end of the film Waking Life, the main character realizes that he is dead. Letting go of the dream-world that has occupied his consciousness throughout the film, he floats upwards into an empty sky. This sort of death is a moment of peace and silence, a moment when the ego rescinds its claims upon Reality. What I have come to realize is that Christianity requires a similar death to the self. Paradoxically, it is a death that brings life and richness to the here and now—not confusion or dispersal.13

After years of living the postmodern ideal, I slowly became convinced that its end was untenable. Making my own meaning out of meaninglessness was, in effect, a religion of my own creation. It took some serious and challenging events to show me that the God revealed in Scripture, through Tradition, is a much bigger God than anything I had previously or could ever conceive.

Watch the film, read the book, and keep asking questions!

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Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is assistant professor of theology at Divine Word College. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. His interests outside the academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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