John Newton, who wrote the lyrics for “Amazing Grace” in 1772, was the captain of a slave ship prior to entering the clergy. In other words, the man to whom the words “a wretch like me” originally referred – was actually a thoroughgoing wretch, a man who bought and sold human beings for profit. The grace that saved him, meanwhile, first appeared over the course of an extended brush with death: the ship he was on almost sank in a violent North Atlantic gale, then floated at the mercy of the winds and currents for nearly a month before drifting fortuitously onto the coast of Northern Ireland.
We live most of our lives in a state of relative equilibrium, calmly passing through more-or-less predictable sequences of habit and custom, work and play, activity and rest. This course will explore what happens when these predictable sequences vanish, when we no longer know where we are or where we are going, what we should do, who we should strive to become. We will focus in particular on how religion and philosophy operate, both experientially and discursively, when the normal equilibrium of our lives has been shattered. This will involve a comparison between two opposing approaches to theses edges: in short, the very suffering that often seems necessary to open the soul out unto God is often cited as evidence that God cannot possibly exist, that religion is nothing more than a retreat into illusion spurred by the fear of death. Thus, beginning with a comparison between Victor Frankl’s account of his experiences in the Nazi death camps, Man’s Search for Meaning, and Freud’s classic denunciation of religion in The Future of an Illusion, this course explores how the tension between devastation, hope, and despair has played out in various other extremes of human experience.
Instructor: Joe Kirby