Unamuno was a man 'burdened with wisdom rather than with knowledge'

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One hundred fifty years ago today, a child was born in Bilbao, Spain. He nearly died when a bomb destroyed his neighbor's house during one of the 19th century's many violent preludes to the Spanish Civil War. The bombing formed his earliest memory, and from that point on, he would become a man "burdened with wisdom rather than with knowledge," gazing persistently into the void that underlies reality.

As a boy, Miguel de Unamuno was intensely religious and wanted to become a saint. No doubt disgusted by the church's cultural alliance with arch-conservative forces in his native land, he gradually abandoned his childhood faith and rose to prominence as a poet, philosopher and public intellectual.

When an attack of meningitis crippled then killed his young son, Raimundo, Unamuno sank into depression, convinced that God was punishing him -- and his child -- because he had abandoned his Catholic faith. He awoke one night, sobbing violently, having dreamt that "the Angel of Nothingness" was dragging him into an endlessly spiraling abyss.

His wife, Concha, embraced him that night and cried out, "My child" -- prompting him to discover "all that God had done for [him] in this woman, the mother of [his] children ... mirror of holy, divine unconsciousness and eternity." His depression did not abate, but from that moment, Unamuno was irrevocably changed.

He resolved to write an existentialist account of "the tragic sense of life." The tragedy is more than that we must suffer and die. It refers to the fact that our greatest aspiration -- eternal life -- and our most poignant desires -- the desire, for instance, to see our children again after they have predeceased us -- are so unscientific that they seem ridiculous to the educated person.

Unamuno became obsessed with carrying forth what he saw as the destiny of Spain begun by Cervantes and John of the Cross: to assert faith in immortality against the claims of Enlightenment reason advanced by intellectuals in other European countries.

This is not to say that Unamuno became a believer, because the point of the tragic sense is that there is so much evidence contrary to the tenets of faith. For him, faith only makes sense as the desperate desire for God to exist.

"It is not our ideas which make us optimists or pessimists," he wrote, "but our optimism and pessimism, derived as much from physiological or perhaps pathological origins, which makes our ideas."

This is actually not a bad theological hermeneutic: It recalls Blaise Pascal's proposal that whereas people must be known in order to be loved, God must be loved in order to be known. Love and desire are absolutely primary in the experience of faith; that is why there is no use arguing with a gleefully positivist atheist whose heart does not already long for the divine.

Unamuno takes the idea of the generativity of love to fanciful extremes, proposing hypotheses about how God could exist -- or come to exist -- in such a horrific world: Perhaps, if God is love, then we can create and sustain God in existence by loving, just as God's love creates and sustains us.

Systematic theologians may scoff, but there is a profound spirituality here beneath any metaphysical imprecision. When I was a hospital chaplain, I visited six deathbeds in one awful night and came close to understanding the linkage pity makes between God's absence and God's being.

"If you look at the universe as closely and as inwardly as you are able to look," Unamuno wrote, "that is to say, if you look within yourself; if you not only contemplate but feel all things in your own consciousness, upon which all things have traced their painful impression -- you will arrive at the abyss of the tedium, not merely of life, but of something more: at the tedium of existence, at the bottomless pit of the vanity of vanities. And thus you will come to pity all things; you will arrive at universal love."

Unamuno suffered for his refusal to commit either to the secular intelligentsia or to the conservative Catholic forces of his time. Three times, he was relieved of his rectorship of the University of Salamanca because of his political convictions.

The third time came near the end of his life, after a Columbus Day celebration at the university. That evening, a contingent of Falangists saluted a portrait of Francisco Franco, made dramatic speeches extolling totalitarianism, and incited the crowd to chant a contemporary fascist motto: "Long live death!"

When Unamuno rose to speak, he began with the words by which many remember him: "Sometimes, to remain silent is a lie." He then pointed at the imposing leader of the Falangists and continued, "General [José] Millán-Astray is a cripple. There is no need for us to say this with whispered tones. He is a war cripple. So was Cervantes.

"But unfortunately, Spain today has too many cripples. And, if God does not help us, soon it will have very many more. It torments me to think that General Millán-Astray could dictate the norms of the psychology of the masses. A cripple, who lacks the spiritual greatness of Cervantes, hopes to find relief by adding to the number of cripples around him" (Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War).

The general was outraged. He ordered the elderly Unamuno out of the auditorium at gunpoint and placed him under house arrest. Ten weeks later, Unamuno -- already in poor health -- was dead.

May he rest in peace.

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