A spirituality rooted in absurdity
By PATRICK MARRIN
When Dominican Fr. Raymond Nogar died in 1967 at age 51, he was just entering that most productive stage in an academics life, when decades of research, teaching and professional dialogue normally begin to overflow into published works. In fact, Nogar had already crossed that threshold three years earlier with his highly acclaimed The Wisdom of Evolution, a tightly argued dialogical bridge linking science, philosophy and theology on the question of human origins. He received praise from scholars in all three disciplines at a time when distrust was high and dialogue rare.
But it was his last book, The Lord of the Absurd, published in 1966 -- the year before he died -- that would most reveal and endear Jude Nogar (his religious name) to his colleagues, his religious community and his readers. Now reissued by Notre Dame Press, the book is Nogars final testament before a death that seemed shocking in its absurdity.
I was at the periphery of those strange and desolate nighttime hours, of Nov. 17, 1967. A thunderstorm had moved through the Chicago area, knocking out power to the West Side. When the lights came back on, Nogars body was discovered in a central stairwell at the Dominican House of Studies in River Forest, Ill. He had suffered a fatal heart attack.
I was a seminary student in the house at the time and, like most others who awoke next morning to the news, Nogars death sent a shock wave through our world and deeply affected the shape of our questions about God and the mystery of human existence.
The Lord of the Absurd was, in contrast to Nogars earlier work, a joyous, almost lyrical journal of reflections while on a national tour to lecture on evolution and its impact on Christian thought. The book is really about two themes; the absolute necessity of open dialogue for human growth and survival, and, in reference to the books title, about Nogars personal encounter with a God who demanded absolute faith.
The lecture tour took Nogar to major U.S. campuses, including Harvard, Stanford, Notre Dame and the University of Michigan. He found student scholars eager to engage and question his views on science and theology. Nogar discovered that both he and his audiences came alive in the drama of an open-ended, freewheeling exchange of ideas during his lectures:
To the experienced lecturer, the difference between giving a talk and lecturing is great. I used to carry around talks in my brief case, as though lecturing were a matter of plucking out a manuscript and reading it aloud. Indeed this can be done, just as a play can be put on. But the transforming effect of speaking, in its most creative phases, calls forth much more interpersonal existence, one in which the speaker, the listener and the words are caught up in a drama of human experience which reinterprets the world and gives direction to an existence which would otherwise remain utterly senseless.
The vitality of these exchanges was in sharp contrast to the scripted and lifeless debates Nogar had found within closed traditions where everyone shares the same assumptions, the same methods and, thus, arrives at the same conclusions. He describes the folly of the Packaged Deal, where one is required to accept a whole system in order to appropriate any part of it. He warned of the dangers of tribal mentality, where ideological loyalty precludes any real inquiry, or of flying the family flag and using the falling inflection to bring a conversation to a dogmatic halt.
Scientists, philosophers and theologians had all used these devices to avoid real dialogue on the hot topic of evolution. Yet the scientist cannot ask questions of meaning without the philosopher; the theologian should welcome the touch of atheism that clears away ideological clutter and forces the question. All the voices are needed to address the questions thoroughly, honestly.
For Nogar, dialogue was the essential means by which human evolution occurs. Just as the rest of the cosmos has evolved through natural selection in order to adapt to changing conditions, so human culture develops through creative problem-solving and cooperation. The refusal to listen to and consider new solutions leads to extinction, a fact well attested by the collapse of rigid ideologies and institutions throughout history. Human diversity provides a broad range of experience and new ideas toward fresh synthesis. To exclude any voice is to risk excluding the key to that synthesis.
Nogars search for God was both professional and deeply personal. As a philosopher of science, he had carefully examined the powerful but untested vision of Jesuit Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that an entire unified cosmos was converging toward Christ as omega point, where human consciousness would also achieve a new unity. For Nogar, the data simply did not support the dream. The more science probed subatomic reality, the more it surrendered predictable order and harmony to chance, indeterminism and waste.
While acknowledging the beauty of the vision and praising his steadfast faith through a long, tragic martyrdom of censorship, Nogar contrasted Teilhards view of God with his own:
The God of the strange world of Fr. Teilhard is not the one I have come to believe in. His is the God of the neat; mine is the God of the messy. His God governs with unerring efficiency; mine provides with inexcusable waste. His God is impeccably regular; mine is irresponsible. His God is the Lord of order; my God is the Lord of the Absurd.
At heart, Nogar was looking for a God who could account for the vast suffering he witnessed in the human community, from nature itself and from human failure and sin. His search was in prayer and study but also drew on a personal encounter with inexplicable suffering.
Despite his robust outward appearance, Nogar suffered blackouts and debilitating anxiety attacks. Attempts at controlling the attacks with medication sometimes helped but also intensified the problem. In the midst of a successful teaching career, he was regularly hospitalized.
Portions of his book were written during convalescences in Boca Raton, Fla., and in New Mexico., where it seems clear that Nogars soaring prose was the song of a survivor. Whatever God he offered to others, whatever gospel he proclaimed, had to be rooted in ordinary reality, especially the mystery of human loss and suffering.
It is worth comparing Nogars experience with two other figures within the same parenthesis of time and culture represented by the 1960s. If the optimism flowing from the Second Vatican Council rode on the vision of Teilhard de Chardin, there were other prophetic voices who sounded the stranger vision Nogar was seeing.
One was Thomas Merton, whose search for holiness wounded our consciences and whose desire to reconnect East and West drew him from his Trappist abbey in Kentucky into the absurd parable of accidental electrocution in Bangkok, Thailand, and a plane ride home among the bodies of young Americans killed in Vietnam. Merton died in 1968 at age 52.
The other was Flannery OConnor, whose stories were often about good people shocked into awareness of God by some violent act. She once remarked that we want grace to come to us warm and binding but instead find it dark and disturbing. OConnor died in 1964 at age 39. Her God, like Nogars, loves us so totally that nothing we are can escape transfiguration.
Jude Nogar had his own final encounter with the Lord of the Absurd on a stairway in the middle of the night. His final ascent, a last step in his personal evolution toward God, took him beyond us into silence.
Why publish his book again 30 years later? Perhaps because the call to dialogue is urgent, a matter of survival. We will enter the future on common ground or not at all. If Nogar were here, he would again find his identity among young seekers, eager to create the future with dialogue.
For those of us who lived the 1960s, perhaps it is the strange appeal of the title itself, as though after years of optimism, many in the church and its ministries are learning to hope instead. Hope is much harder than optimism and has to be acted on constantly.
The Lord of the Absurd is worth reading as a testament to hope in an age when everything that rises seems stuck between breakdown and breakthrough. Keeping faith is everyones prophetic calling.
Dominican funerals all seemed to end in those days with the rousing hymn, For All The Saints. Two lines from that great hymn captured Nogars witness to faith in the Lord of the Absurd.
You, Lord, their captain, in the well-fought fight. You, in the darkness drear, their one true light. ... Alleluia, Alleluia.
Here is a song for survivors.
Patrick Marrin is editor of Celebration, a liturgical journal and NCRs sister publication.
National Catholic Reporter, December 4, 1998