“Our being is to be in relation to ultimacy, even when we deny ultimacy”

“The urgency of ultimacy”: elsewhere I have spoken of religion as marked by this. Different possibilities are suggested, none devoid of ambiguity, and as I will shortly indicate I would now modify this language. We can name the ultimate in different ways, and some names will name what is less than ultimate, and so the name will tag an idol. One of our names is: nothing. Nihilism too sings its Te Deum: nothing is ultimate. We cannot, it seems, escape some relation to what we take as ultimate. Is it not very significant that we humans are capable of idolatry at all? Is this not indirect confirmation that our being is religious? Our being is to be in relation to ultimacy, even when we deny ultimacy, as in nihilism. Of course, what the relation is, what the ultimate is, what the idols are, remain to be understood more.

Why the urgency? We do not create the relation to ultimacy; we are in the relation, are what we are in it. An urgent happening is not first the result of some deliberate choice. It may communicate from within or from without, or both; its source may be immanent or transcendent, or both. An obscure passion is precipitated and we are importuned. This importunity may be our opportunity. More settled forms of domesticated life are disturbed: something more absolute importunes us, as does a gap of difference, through which we are coaxed closer to a deeper rapport with that something more. Such urgency can be ecstatic, in that it catapults us beyond ourselves. Often it can communicate—from within out—secret intensities of being, for it surges from abysmal sources beyond secure self-consciousness. At the same time, this urgency can open inward: its outbreak startles us with dawnings of obscure intimation. Urgency has the bite of the unbidden that breaks up our more standard self-satisfactions. Even if it does not shatter us, it makes our claimed autonomy unquiet, or puts it under stress.

What of the reference to ultimacy? The word seems to have an indeterminacy, even as it also seems to name a finality. Urgency of ultimacy: the ”of” is ambiguous. Is the ultimacy of our urgency, thus revealing only our desire or transcending? Or is it of us only because more fundamentally the urgency is of ultimacy? I think the latter first of all, and only the first because of the latter. ”Ultimacy” seems to refer us to an end, but here in fact it is a beginning: it is at the start, though also at the end, if in a different sense. Ultimacy makes our being urgent, but could we be urgent about ultimacy at all, were not the urging of ultimacy somehow already leavening our being? The urgency brings the urging of the ultimate to desire, to mindfulness. Urging points us toward a goal because urging itself is a source in us that disquiets, rouses, moves, and quickens. We are moved by, we strive toward, the ultimate out of the urgency of ultimacy. Our seeking for God is our struggle to find the right words for what is ultimate.

Admittedly again, we frequently try to determine the ultimate, wrongly reduce it to this or that thing, and then, once again, we secrete idols. We are caught up in an equivocal process through which we have to pass. The equivocity is not just due to us, but to our ontological situation in the middle. Its character is constrained by necessities conducive to multiple ambivalences, obfuscations, impertinences, refusals. We always risk vainly reading our own face into any initial intimation of the ultimate. We have to undergo a transformation of mindfulness to release us to understand the otherness of the ultimate. This allowing other is not to be mistaken for the mirror of our self-reflection, or merely the medium of autonomous self-determining. Poverty here may mean the stripping of false selves. It may be extremely difficult for us to come again to this nakedness. A life of certain counterfeits of being may cling to us like a false skin. One is that false skin, and to strip it away may seem like being flayed. The discipline of an asceticism may be needed: an askēsis that is a ”no” seeking to waken again a ”yes,” like the blessing of Job in his exposure. Any violence here, of course, is very dangerous, fraught with ambiguity. The stripping that seems to purify may actually flow from an indeterminate negation rather than the elemental ”yes.” Great discernment is needed to sift the mingled opposites. There is an asceticism of hatred; there is a purging of love; and hatred may speak the language of love. We need love to see the difference, but love may be what now we most lack.

William Desmond

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