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EVERYTHING IS MEANINGLESS
“That’s my life. Nothing stays together; things are just, well, falling apart.” A hush fell over the room as it started to sink in.
Then another student said, “I think the point is that all of our lives are somehow falling apart. That’s how life is.”
My Philosophy 101 class members and I had been watching a commercial together. A daughter away at university was using Google Hangouts with her father, who was a clear supporter and source of meaning and purpose in the life of this young woman. The commercial did its job. The viewer definitely wanted to begin using the product to stay connected to what really matters in life: people, relationships, bonds of support and strength. The commercial had a song playing in the background—absolutely gorgeous, velvet music—with the tones and texture of an indie-folk ballad. It was the perfect choice to support the commercial’s message of the importance of relationships. When the commercial had finished, the class emanated a gentle, “Aww. . . . ”—the reaction you have when you’ve just watched something beautiful that chokes you up a little. Almost every class for which I played this commercial had this reaction.
“Have you ever noticed that pop music today at times involves an interesting inversion between the sound and the lyrical content?” I asked. “The music expressed the perfect positive vibes the commercial needed to make you emotionally engaged, feeling like something epic and important and meaningful—something with a transcendent eternal quality—is taking place between the daughter and father. But here are the lyrics to the song.”
And I put the lyrics up on a slide:
You breathe, you learn, you lose.
You take, you break, you choose.
And as you laugh and cry,
You do your best and try.
And as the days go by,
It makes you wonder why
You try so hard, so hard
To mend what’s bound to fall apart.
Maybe it’s time to let it go.
Maybe it’s time for taking it slow.
Maybe it’s time, time, time for anything at all,
Time, time, time, to let it all fall where it may.
And we talked about how the song by Chris and Thomas is brilliantly titled “Broken Chair” and how it describes life as something polar opposite to what the commercial was using the song’s musical vibe to promote. Whereas the commercial’s visuals and music worked together to build a sense of dependence on relationships, the lyrics describe a world in which relationships rarely last and probably shouldn’t be depended on. Whereas the visuals and music painted a world where everything would be okay, the lyrics disclose a world where everything is “bound to fall apart” and so “it makes you wonder why you try so hard.” Whereas the dad-daughter dialogue and the mellow guitar strumming expressed a world in which stability could be achieved (especially with the help of communications software), the lyrics describe life as a broken chair: you can kind of sit in it, but it’s uncomfortable and you’re afraid of tipping at any moment; there’s a constant reminder something is off; the experience is never truly satisfying (regardless of the communications software we’ve developed!).
And so we find in our culture a conflicting message: on the one hand a voice telling us things can be stable and meaningful, and on the other hand a voice telling us things will never be stable or enduringly meaningful. And often the two voices come from the same mouth.
Which is true? Can stability and contentment be achieved? Is everything fleeting, and so meaning and purpose in life are fleeting? Or is there some way to find and to talk about meaning that lasts?
I didn’t even need to ask my class about this conflicting message. As soon as it dawned on them what the song was about, one hand went up: “That’s my life.”
And then another: “I think the point is that it’s all of our lives.”
And then murmurs of approval.
And not only with this class. Every class that I discussed this song with reached the same conclusion. Life is like sitting on a broken chair.
Music has the ability to do that, to draw out profound truths. But it is not only music that does this. Which is true: is everything fleeting, or is there something with lasting meaning we can be a part of? We might be tempted to think that there’s no way to answer this question, that people have been asking and not finding answers to this question for millennia and will continue to do so for many more millennia. But what if three thousand years ago the question was already answered and it was answered in a way that continues to flip our world upside down today, that continues to charge our lives with epic purpose and beauty, that continues to give meaning and purpose—transcending culture, trends, and current philosophies? Even though the smaller stories in our lives contain people who will leave, things that are bound to fall apart, and moments that feel off-kilter, awkward, and unsatisfying, is it possible there is a larger story that we are all a part of, a transcendent plot that promises to make sense of what we experience now, which seems meaningless? What if this larger story can make sense of most of what we experience today and promises to one day answer in full what still baffles us?
Almost three thousand years ago, a Middle Eastern philosopher sat down to write. He spread out his sheet of parchment, and in the first column his pen scratched out these words:
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?
For this philosopher, there is no time for subtlety. He starts off speaking to us brutally, but honestly. The Teacher (we’ll talk about who this Teacher is in a bit) tells us that “under the sun” everything is meaningless.
How could this be true?
Our friends and family members, regardless of their religions or philosophies of life, certainly seem to have meaningful lives. And they’ll tell you if you ask them. Ask the father hugging his 5-year-old son if there’s no meaning in life. Ask the humanitarian dedicating her life to feeding the poor if there’s no meaning in life. Ask the Olympian crossing the finish line if there’s no meaning in life. Ask the atheist professor if he finds no value in his work, the agnostic fine artist if she finds no purpose in her paintings, or the Zen Buddhist if he finds no end worth striving for in his dedication to the aesthetic pursuit of gardening, calligraphy, and balance. All will tell you they find deep meaning in what they do. And they’re right! To a point.
The first thing we need to do to understand the words of the Teacher correctly, to understand what he is and is not claiming about life, is to define our terms. What do we mean when we say life can or cannot have meaning? And is this what other people mean when they say they have meaningful lives?
The word meaning typically has to do with purpose. As you sit in class, a person bursts into the room, disturbing everyone, especially your professor, who responds, “What’s the meaning of this?” The professor is looking for the purpose behind the disruption to her class. The word meaning also has to do with signification, that is, defining things. Your professor uses a word you don’t understand, and you respond, “What’s the meaning of that word?” So when we ask, “What’s the meaning of life?” we’re asking if life has a purpose or if we can define it. And there are three ways we often talk about life being meaningful in this sense. Let’s briefly sketch out each way.
We can describe life as having short-term (or temporal) meaning. As autonomous humans, we can choose for certain things to be meaningful and to have value for as long as we value them. Before we valued it, it had no value, and when no one is around to value it, it will no longer be valuable. As an example, consider this news article I came across long ago:
NEW YORK (Reuters)—Bidders paid top dollar for Star Trek items on Thursday at the start of Christie’s auction of memorabilia from the television and movie franchise. A model of the Starship Enterprise E was bought by an online bidder for $132,000 including commission, more than 10 times its $8,000 to $12,000 presale estimate. The buyer said he had the leftover cash from 35 years of not dating.
We can talk about that spaceship model having meaning because someone found it meaningful, meaningful enough to spend $132,000 dollars on it. It’s as simple as that. If people value something, that thing is valuable, and so it has meaning to those people. But consider the reverse: If there hadn’t been someone willing to spend anything on that spaceship model, it wouldn’t have been worth anything. The value of the spaceship is entirely contingent on a person valuing it. The minute something is no longer valued by others—or the thing breaks down, disintegrates, and over time ceases to exist—the value and meaning once associated with the object cease to exist as well.
And this applies to far more than just collectibles. This is typically the kind of “meaning” we have in mind when we talk about our work and our labor in general being meaningful. If you find your own work meaningful, it’s because you value it for some reason or another. The most famous physicist of our time, Stephen Hawking, is attributed as saying, “Work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it.” Motivational speaker Les Brown says, “Life takes on meaning when you become motivated, set goals, and charge after them in an unstoppable manner.” But ultimately, if a person sets goals in life, to whom are those goals most meaningful? It’s possible that they’re only meaningful for the person who set them, and that person alone. Maybe striving for or achieving the goals ends up creating something worthwhile for others, and so the value of those goals spills into the lives of others. But once the person who set the goal and the people whom the goal benefited have died, the goal will ultimately cease to have meaning. After all, there’s no one left to think about it and give it meaning!
For a trivial but interesting example, consider this following story from a newspaper article on bucket lists (each person’s personal list of goals to meet in his or her lifetime):
Recently, a 99-year-old woman, identified as Annie, decided that she could not die without experiencing being locked up in prison. With the help of her niece and local police, Annie was picked up from her home, placed in a police car, and taken to prison. “We don’t usually do this, but we made an exception for Annie. It was just a couple of minutes in the cell. It was all about the experience. We don’t know why it was on her bucket list,” said a police spokesperson.
Annie’s family and friends helped her knock an interesting goal off her bucket list: being arrested. The article also included photos of Annie beaming with joy as she was handcuffed and processed at the police station. This was clearly a deeply meaningful experience for her. (And judging from the photos, it left quite an impression on the police officers too.) But as touching and humorous an event as this might have been, over time the meaningfulness of the event will diminish as it fades from the memories of those involved or as they pass away along with their memories. That’s why we call this short-term, or temporal, meaning. It’ll exist only for a time. (Philosophers call it “short” because this meaning will be relatively shorter in comparison to the length of time of this universe, whatever that length of time may be.)
The Teacher is talking exactly about this kind of meaning: “What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?” Obviously people gain something for some period of time. But that won’t last. “No one remembers the former generations.” A time will come when the work of our labors will be forgotten. And when it is forgotten, when it has run its course, it will become meaningless, that is, it will lose meaning.
And this doesn’t just apply to things or labors or goal-setting but also to relationships. The actor Rebecca Romijn says, “Being a mom makes me feel whole and like I understand the meaning of life.” The 20th-century monk Thomas Merton says, “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone—we find it with another.” In the song “Meaning Again,” country singer Brad Paisley sings:
Sittin’ on the interstate,
The end of another day—
Feeling tired, feeling beat up, feeling small.
Sick of running this rat race And coming last place,
Feeling like I don’t matter at all.
Then I walk through the door.
She says, “I missed you, where ya been?” And just like that
My life has meaning again.
I remember, like it was yesterday, arguing with a close friend of mine, an atheist, who was saying, “I do have meaning in life! I have a partner, kids, friends!” And he was right: When we say human life is valuable, we’re saying it ought to be valued. And so life is meaningful when people value one another. And so life is meaningful for the mother and father who now infuse the lives of their children with value. But what my friend didn’t want to hear was that a time will come when the mother and father stop valuing their children, if only at death. And the meaning they derived from their lives of valuing their children will die with them.
That’s short-term meaning. And, often enough, this is what we mean when we say our life has meaning. We have created relationships with things, jobs, and other people that make us get up in the morning, make us have purpose and goals to strive for, and make our lives feel meaningful. But this is short-term. It’s there only so long as the person infusing meaning into the situation is there and only so long as that person (or another) is actively valuing.
IS IT ALRIGHT TO STRIVE FOR SHORT-TERM MEANING?
My friend’s indignation is a natural reaction. For many of us, we immediately protest against the Teacher, “Life isn’t meaningless!” And we’re not talking about short-term meaning. We want more than that. We believe human life and happiness have intrinsic value apart from however people happen to feel. Yet, some of us might respond to the Teacher, “Well, what’s wrong with short-term meaning? Am I doing something wrong pursing things because I happen to value them?” Let’s ask these questions for a moment. If you think that you should be finding short-term meaning in life, the Teacher actually agrees with you.
In the midst of his descriptions of life “under the sun,” the Teacher implores us to find satisfaction in our work. He says, “There is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot.” “It is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun.” He even starts to sound like that impassioned friend of yours who’s telling you to leave that tiresome job and chase your dreams of being a musician or artist or interior decorator: “You who are young, be happy while you are young. . . . Follow the ways of your heart.” In other words, it’s a great thing in and of itself to find value and meaning and pleasure in something because you value it and you find meaning in it and you enjoy it.
There’s a certain feeling, a euphoria, that goes along with accomplishment. It feels good to get something done. In 2018, the Philadelphia Eagles won their first Super Bowl. During the presentation of the trophy, the team’s owner was asked, “What’s this moment mean for the city of Philadelphia?” And he responded, “If there’s a word, it’s everything.” You might be saying, “Everything? Really?” Obviously a city is more than the performance of its sports teams. A trophy, even a Super Bowl trophy, probably doesn’t mean everything, but we can say it means something. It represents countless hours of hard work. It represents a high level of athletic excellence. It represents immense sacrifice for a single goal. Winning that trophy is clearly meaningful, not only for the players but for the many fans of the team. And that’s a good part of life, says the Teacher: enjoying the accomplishments of hard work and finding satisfaction.
And we’re not even talking just about accomplishments. This goes for anything out of which we can derive short-term pleasure and value—from Star Trek memorabilia collections to relationships, from feeling the world whizz by you on that new motorcycle to stopping to smell the roses, from packed concerts to that quiet walk with your heart’s desire. These are all definitely meaningful experiences, and there’s something to be said for that—even if an experience is only meaningful to you.
So go ahead! Find short-term meaning in everything you can. After all, this goes for not only sports trophies but graduations, closing business deals, getting to the top of that mountain, finishing that Tough Mudder, getting all As on your report card, watching your daughter walk down the aisle—you name it. Take pleasure in the enjoyment and meaning, because it is meaningful.
But what if I want these things in life to be more than simply meaningful to me? How can I demonstrate that the people I love ought be loved whether or not I love them? Is it possible for things to have meaning and value that transcend personal desires and opinions? And to these questions we turn next.
As I was drinking a cup of tea with my wife, I noticed that the Yogi Tea Company had attached to the tea bag the phrase, “The purpose of life is to enjoy every moment.”
United States Army General Stanley McChrystal (former commander of international forces in Afghanistan), when once asked if he could put anything on a billboard, what would it be, responded, “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.”
XPRIZE founder Peter Diamandis’ morning meditation breathing ritual involves saying the words, “I see, hear, feel, and know that the purpose of my life is to inspire and guide the transformation of humanity on and off the earth.”
All three of these quotes have something in common: the speaker believes that one’s purpose in life is to do something. One’s purpose in life is to carry out some sort of action or achieve a certain result.
Yogi Tea believes people should be enjoying life, McChrystal believes people should be living life with goals, and Diamandis believes people (or at least he) should be inspiring and transforming people. Their analyses of the meaning of life involve imperative verbs. As opposed to describing the meaning of life with a simple declarative (the meaning of life is X), now we’re describing the meaning of life with an imperative snuck in (the meaning of life is do X). This grammar is of unimaginable importance.
Maybe without even thinking of it, when we describe the meaning of life in these terms, we are saying that life has some type of transcendentally or objectively good purpose. That is, there’s a right way and a wrong way to live. According to Yogi Tea, you are doing the right thing if you make the choices in life that give you the opportunity to enjoy life and you are doing the wrong thing if you don’t make those choices. According to McChrystal, you are doing the right thing if you strive for goals and you are doing the wrong thing if you don’t have any goals in life.
Sometimes we share in this thinking. I was counseling a young man named Luc who was between things. He had finished college but hadn’t landed a job. He kept saying, “My life has no meaning.” What he meant was clear: “There’s something I ought to be doing.” Or think of a related situation. I had a father in my office seeking advice on how to counsel his son, Mark. Mark, like Luc, had finished college and didn’t yet have a job. The difference, though, was that Mark wasn’t looking for a job. He was content to sit at home, play video games, and watch shows. His dad kept saying, “How can Mark live such a meaningless life? We didn’t teach him that way.” What the father meant was clear: “There’s something Mark ought to be doing.” In both cases, the language of meaning was being used to express a sort of ethical principle: The right way to live is to do something productive with your life, and the wrong way to live is to not be pursuing a productive life. In some sense, Mark was doing something wrong. Mark’s dad and Luc both seemed to believe, to some degree, that the purpose of life is a life of purpose. Did you catch this subtle slide into ethical language, the language of directives and intentions? As soon as you say, “There’s something I ought to be doing,” you have stepped into the realm of ethics. Now you are asking an ethical or moral question, because if you are trying to define your purpose in life and you say there are things you ought to be doing, then there are things you ought not to be doing (just like Mark’s dad thought). That’s why we’ll call this expressing belief in a moral meaning of life.
Now, all things being equal, there’s nothing inherently wrong with talking like this. It’s natural to begin describing meaning in life in these moral, ethical, actionable terms. What’s interesting, though, is asking the questions, Why do I need to live like that? Who says life is given to me to enjoy or create goals? Mark could easily say to his dad, “Where did this ethical principle of yours come from, that I need to be doing something productive with my life?” Who gives you the right to say that I’m not living the correct way if I don’t do these things? And so, logically, in order to talk about life having moral meaning, the universe also has to have what we call cosmic meaning, that is, a framework or overarching reason from which this ethic flows. And it’s this final definition of meaning that we turn to last.
COSMIC MEANING AND METANARRATIVE
To say the world has cosmic meaning is to say there’s an overall meaning or purpose to the universe. We aren’t talking about how the universe got here but what the universe is here for. The former is simply describing a chain of events (a Big Bang, a six-day creation, etc.); the latter is describing the motivation or purposeful will behind whatever chain of events brought about this universe.
To say that the universe has cosmic meaning is to say that it has what we’ll call a metanarrative. A metanarrative is simply an overarching or transcendent story or idea within which all other stories or ideas fit and are legitimized or explained. As many chapters make up a book, think of your life as a chapter in the book of this universe. The plot of the book is the metanarrative. An understanding of the plot of a book helps you come to grips with why what’s happening to the characters in a specific chapter is significant.
Analogously, understanding the metanarrative of the universe (if it, indeed, has one) helps you come to grips with why what’s happening to you and everyone else in this universe is significant.
Of course, some people believe the universe doesn’t have a metanarrative, that there’s no “plot” to speak of that runs through this universe. Some believe the universe just is, and whatever happens before or after your “chapter” isn’t planned, arranged, or written in any intelligent way. (Some philosophers would say the world still has a metanarrative; it’s just one void of narrative!) Let’s look at these differing views of the universe in detail.
GAME OF THRONES
Many works of literature presuppose a philosophy of the meaning of life and have their own understandings of the metanarrative of this universe built into them. Let’s compare two bits of narrative from two very different stories and notice two very different metanarratives. Consider what these excerpts tell us about the overall world within each story, the overall principles and guiding philosophies. The first is an excerpt from George R. R. Martin’s book A Game of Thrones.
Frog-faced Lord Slynt sat at the end of the council table wearing a black velvet doublet and a shiny cloth-of-gold cape, nodding with approval every time the king pronounced a sentence. Sansa stared hard at his ugly face, remembering how he had thrown down her father for Ser Ilyn to behead, wishing she could hurt him, wishing that some hero would throw him down and cut off his head. But a voice inside her whispered, There are no heroes, and she remembered what Lord Petyr had said to her, here in this very hall. “Life is not a song, sweetling,” he’d told her. “You may learn that one day to your sorrow.” In life, the monsters win.
Martin is famous for giving us a world in A Game of Thrones in which there is little hope or transcendent purpose or meaning. The sections I’ve italicized help shed light on this story’s metanarrative: “There are no heroes” and “the monsters win,” which mean the characters cannot assume they will be rescued and live happily ever after. “Life is not a song,” that is, life is not beautiful or poetic but rather crass and ugly, and so we shouldn’t be surprised or let down when we experience its crass nature or ugliness—as Sansa experiences in her present and future sufferings. Although the series is not complete, we experience the metanarrative for A Game of Thrones in what’s written so far: the universe does not have any real purpose or direction, there’s a good deal of evil that simply flourishes and will never be accounted for, and there’s no real moral purpose to speak of other than simply trying to survive.
And Martin himself basically believes this is what the real world (outside of A Game of Thrones) is like. Given the amount of suffering and the lack of upbeat endings to his story arcs, Martin was asked whether his books are cynical about human nature. He responded, “I think the books are realistic.”8 Citing examples of real life “red weddings” and the like, he has given the impression often enough that he believes the world you and I live in is a world where there is no overarching good story on a trajectory toward a happy ending.
Now compare Martin’s world with that of another popular fantasy book series:
LORD OF THE RINGS
J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is the story of Frodo and Sam, two hobbits (little, humanlike creatures) who are on a quest to destroy a powerful evil artifact, a magical ring. Although small and rather harmless compared to the epic forces in the rest of the story, against all odds (spoiler alert!) the hobbits are successful. But there are many moments of weakness and doubting within the story, when the two friends consider whether they can make it. Here’s one of these moments (captured in the film The Two Towers):
Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.
Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding on to, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.
First, notice the similarities between Martin’s story and Tolkien’s. Both involve the existence of evil and moments when evil seems to have the upper hand. Both involve comparatively weak characters (the young girl Sansa and two small hobbits) facing enormous evil and experiencing enormous suffering.
But also note the differences. In Martin’s world, our hopes are dashed over and over again, and we are left more often than not with the impression that the forces of good will fail, the monsters will win, and there are no heroes that will deliver a good ending. In Tolkien’s world, Sam encourages his friend, “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.” Tolkien’s metanarrative is radically different from Martin’s. In Tolkien’s world, there is a grand war being fought between the forces of good and evil, and good wins. Although evil has its moments, it will be accounted for.
And the reason good ultimately wins is because the universe of The Lord of the Rings was created by a powerful godlike entity for a good purpose. Whereas Martin declares life is not a song, Tolkien’s universe portrays literally the exact opposite. In The Silmarillion (Tolkien’s book that gives the account of the creation of his fantastical world of Middle Earth), Illuvatar, the creator, actually declares as he makes the universe, “I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music.” Evil, then, is compared to dissonant sounds meant to destroy the song, but the creator weaves the dissonance into the song to make minor chords and musical accents that actually make the music more beautiful.
Whether or not you think Tolkien’s metanarrative in any way reflects the universe you live in, the point is that his world has a metanarrative involving a universe created for a good purpose to have a good ending. And the characters within his universe discover cosmic meaning in life insofar as they discover their roles in helping to bring about that good ending. Martin’s world is the opposite. His universe was not created for a good purpose to have a good ending. And so the characters within the universe cannot discover cosmic meaning in life because they cannot be sure they will contribute toward any good ending. They’re simply trying to survive.
NATURE AND METANARRATIVE
We have now covered enough ground that we can return to the words of the Teacher. At first blush, the Teacher seems to fall more 16 on Martin’s side than Tolkien’s. (We’ll have to see if that’s where he stays.) After his striking opening statement that everything is utterly meaningless, the Teacher shares a poem about the ebb and flow of the natural world. He uses nature as proof that life can easily appear to be something like the world of Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Try to pick up the emotion the Teacher wants to convey in these opening lines of his treatise:
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from, there they return again.
All things are wearisome, more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.
How is the Teacher describing nature? Is this poetry meant to praise nature’s beauty, complexity, and awe-inspiring qualities? Actually, quite the opposite seems to be happening. Nature is described in terms of an eternal weariness and monotony, void of any real progress or goal or end. Rivers eternally empty into the sea, and yet the sea never fills up. The wind blows on and on and never seems to end. Our senses go on seeing and hearing and smelling and never stop. And so the Teacher complains, “All things are wearisome, more than one can say.”
Maybe you’ve experienced the weary monotony of the forces of life, maybe not. But I think you will one day. You will wake up in the morning just as you always have, and the daily grind will begin. And even if you decide to take the day off, the world will continue to grind on without you, never stopping, your inbox continually filling whether or not you empty it. You will end one day finishing one to-do list, just to wake up the next morning with a new to-do list, and the next day a new one, and the next day a new one.
Do you feel it? Life can seem a weary, pointless place, with the monotony of the entire planet seeming to write large that the metanarrative of our lives is something like that of Martin’s world—a universe with little direction or purpose. Things just go on, keep happening, with no real goal, no end in sight. Our world doesn’t look like a story with an ending, with a final chapter, with the good conclusion it’s striving for.
The Teacher deepens this idea with an observation he will make several more times in his book: “No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.”10 Because of the weary march of time toward nothing in particular, what we do as humans in this weary world lacks any real meaning or long-term value. Recall our discussions on short-term value. A time will come, the Teacher is saying, when whatever it is you do today will be forgotten. It doesn’t matter how big or important it seems, the march of time will inevitably leave you and your accomplishments behind forever, never to be considered again.
In short, the Teacher asks us to imagine a world in which a purposeful, overarching metanarrative does not exist. What’s that world like? There is no cosmic meaning, and so there is no moral meaning: There is no way one should live life, because nothing we do really matters if it will all be forgotten. Nothing really matters if the world goes on regardless of what I do or say today. Nothing really matters if “generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.” And so the Teacher declares it all meaningless. The old Hebrew word we translate here as meaningless in other contexts is translated breath or vapor. Just as an exhaled breath is fleeting, intangible, quickly forgotten, so are the days of our lives “under the sun.”
And we don’t want to hear this, obviously. But we need to.
And if we don’t hear it from the Teacher, we’ll hear it from songs like “Broken Chair.” Or Peggy Lee asking, “Is That All There Is?” (a song President Donald Trump once mentioned was his favorite). Or Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” crooning, “Nothing really matters.” Or Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” declaring, “The world is a vampire, sent to drain.” Or Foo Fighters’ “Saint Cecilia” chiming in, “I know no matter what I say days will come and go.” So don’t be surprised if you catch yourself humming a rather catchy nihilistic tune, because our art is on to it.
Even more explicitly, we can hear the Teacher’s message from some of the more notable thinkers of our modern age. And to the most infamous of these thinkers we turn next.
NIETZSCHE AND THE MADMAN
Near the end of the 19th century, as the Statue of Liberty was being built, as pogroms began to sweep through Russia, and as Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde were penning their works, a German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, infamously wrote the phrase “God is dead.” But what he meant by that is often deeply misunderstood. Nietzsche was an atheist, but he was not an atheist evangelist. When he wrote, “God is dead,” he wasn’t trying to convince anyone that they should stop believing in God. (He did that in other writings, just not the one in which this phrase first occurred.) It was his dramatic way of saying that life had no meaning, no metanarrative, now that the usefulness of God as a concept was past. The idea of God among intellectuals was dead. Academia had left God behind. And Nietzsche was terrified at the implications of this.
How had God been left behind by academia?
During this time period, Darwinist evolution was becoming all the rage as it attempted to explain the origin of human life apart from the need of a Creator-God. In philosophy, thinkers like Immanuel Kant had declared that ethics could be given a foundation apart from God. In art, English and German romantic poets and musicians and visual artists had largely left religious concerns behind and now created art apart from the context of the Christian God. In a nutshell, there was really no need for God in academic life anymore.
But was this okay?
Nietzsche didn’t think so. He believed we had no clue what implications leaving God behind would have. And so, to try to impress on our minds how we ought to prepare ourselves for the fallout of a now-godless world, he wrote a famous parable:
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. . . .
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? . . . There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time.”
Notice a few things: First, as mentioned, Nietzsche is not trying here to convince anyone that God is dead. The madman in the parable has burst into a scene where everyone already does not believe in God. Nietzsche’s parable shocks, not with the revelation that God is dead but rather the revelation that only one person, a madman, thinks it’s important! Everyone else believes that life without God is fine. But the madman doesn’t think so. By thinking we can get on without God, he tells us, we have somehow wiped away the horizon and unchained the earth from its sun. In other words, we have lost a frame of reference: We can no longer tell if we’re moving in any direction; we can no longer tell up from down.
Nietzsche is speaking metaphorically, of course. What he means (using some of the language we’ve established earlier) is that without God to provide a metanarrative, we now find ourselves in a world with no cosmic meaning and no moral meaning. We are adrift in the universe. If God did not create us (if we are only the products of genetic mutations and natural selection), we were not created for a reason; we are just here. If God did not create us to live a certain way, no one can talk about what you should or should not do with your life. If something has come about by mindless processes, it cannot by definition have any purpose. Purpose arises only from a mind, like the mind of God. If there is no God, literally, “Meaningless! Meaningless! . . . Everything is meaningless.”
Again, this parable was meant to be a commentary on the implications of the death of God. Philosophers and theologians in the 1800s believed that life could continue along pretty much as it always had in the wake of the disposal of God, but Nietzsche was arguing that the implications would be enormous and would require drastic changes to the way we live. Nietzsche’s world had not felt the shock waves of God’s death yet. But when they finally would feel them, Nietzsche wrote elsewhere that night would then close in and “an age of barbarism begins” and “there will be wars such as have never happened on earth.”
If it sounds like Nietzsche was predicting the world wars of the 20th century, you could very well be right. In this sense, Nietzsche strove to be a prophet, predicting a world unable to cope with the loss of our foundation for cosmic meaning, purpose, and ethics. Life without a metanarrative, life considered apart from a Creator-God, is like “straying, as through an infinite nothing,” a darkness void of anything transcendent to give lasting meaning and purpose to our lives.
Nietzsche’s madman declares, “I have come too early.” Today, though, we are in a perfect position to experience and discuss the repercussions (as my students constantly demonstrate).
INCREDULITY TOWARD A METANARRATIVE
Today we feel the breath of empty space. Today many have embraced Nietzsche’s (and so also the Teacher’s) view of the world becoming philosophically and morally colder.
Stephen Sondheim brilliantly captured this in his musical Into the Woods. In fact, this musical eerily seems to follow our discussions too closely. The musical is separated into two acts.
The first tells the story of several familiar fairy-tale characters, like Jack and his beanstalk, princes saving princesses, and Little Red Riding Hood. There is a narrator who tells how each one sets out on his or her own quest—these individual quests all weaving into one overarching story. Near the end of the act, the narrator describes how everything has more or less come to a good ending.
But then, during the second act, something incredible happens: The narrator is sacrificed to a giant. Now there is no more narrator’s voice, and things end very differently in the second act. The princes turn out to be misogynistic, womanizing jerks. Characters, like a witch, who had been clearly bad in the first act now become more morally ambiguous. And people die. Lots of people. All in the silence of an un-narrated story. At one point, a character breaks out into song:
Mother cannot guide you.
Now you’re on your own,
Only me beside you.
Still, you’re not alone. . . .
One another’s terrible mistakes.
Witches can be right.
Giants can be good.
You decide what’s right.
You decide what’s good.
The message ought to be clear to us. In a world with no “narrator,” no metanarrative accessible to us, no godlike omniscient perspective that gives perspective to everything else, we find ourselves alone, suffering, and directionless. There is no discoverable right or wrong; you just have to decide it for yourself. There’s no good or bad; we’re all just grey. We can’t look to the wisdom of the past or to others (like our parents) to ultimately help us; we’re all just as lost. This musical ends rather darkly, with no one really knowing quite how to go on and everyone finding themselves in, as Nietzsche describes, a cold and continual night devoid of direction and purpose. The Disney adaptation tried to wrap things up on a positive note with a beautiful major key song underlying the final moments, but the sweet music was jarringly juxtaposed with the camera panning out on a widowed baker holding a child with no mother surrounded by what only could be described as a war-torn battlefield.
I often use Into the Woods as my students’ introduction to 20th-century continental (European) philosophy. As the angst of the musical begins to sink in, my students begin asking questions like, “If you’re on your own, how do you know if you’re going the right way?”
“If two people disagree on what’s good, which one is right?”
“How can I tell whether what the witch is saying is wrong or right?”
And then I know we’re exactly where we need to be. Because the truth is that the main themes of Sondheim’s play are the main themes with which many contemporary thinkers have been wrestling.
Step into any philosophy classroom to discuss what happened in 20th-century continental (European) philosophy and you will find a world of thinkers surrounded by a vacuum, an emptiness of values and objectivity. Philosophers will carefully label many continental movements and schools of thought (maybe you’ve heard of atheistic existentialism, ethical relativism, structuralism, deconstructionism, or other related movements), but we can understand most of them as variations of the same tune we’ll call postmodernism. And Jean-Francois Lyotard, one of the key figures in French postmodern thought, labels postmodernism best for our purposes with the famous (at least to philosophers) phrase, “I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.” Postmodernism is, in effect, the belief that there is no overarching story that applies to all people in all places. Endnote: Lyotard originally was not critiquing religious metanarratives but instead overarching philosophical interpretive schema, such as reductionism, Marxism, and Enlightenment metanarratives. Today his critique is applied just as much to religious interpretive schema, or what we will call metanarratives. The idea of interpreting the whole world through, for example, a religious framework of a God or gods creating the world is to be rejected completely. If there is no God, there is no overarching story of which we’re all a part. There are only our individual stories and perspectives and opinions or, at best, the stories, perspectives, and opinions of communities.
The implication, then, is that there is no overarching ethic to guide all humans. A whole generation of philosophers has thus embraced Nietzsche’s claim that there is no metanarrative and that we need to learn how to get on without it. Yet, this death of God produces tremendous difficulties for knowing morally in which direction we’re moving. As Sondheim sings “You decide,” without a metanarrative, our traditional guides are gone, our traditional understanding of good and evil needs to be rethought, and, whatever conclusions we come to, it’s hard to see how they are anything more than our own opinions. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre puts his finger on the issue this way:
I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”
It could be argued that Sondheim’s musical is meant to be liberating, to show us what life is really like, and to inspire us to dive bravely into the ambiguity and grey spectrum of morality and meaning. But that’s not how I feel every time I watch the musical. And that’s not how my students generally feel after they slow down to think through what’s happening. We feel sad, knowing that so many are drifting through life feeling just as lost as these characters—lost in the postmodern woods of this world. Sondheim describes life “under the sun,” as the Teacher calls it, apart from a purpose-driven metanarrative, and it can be a cold and lonely life to live. All I want to do is stand up and call out to my fellow theatergoers, “We are in a good story! There is direction and purpose and meaning to it all. And I know this because I have heard the voice of the Narrator. He’s not dead. You’re just not listening.”
OVER THE SUN?
Now I have shown my hand, so to speak. I personally believe God is not dead. The Narrator is not dead. His name is Jesus. He is very much a part of my life right now. He loves me. And I love him.
And yet I still agree with the Teacher, one hundred percent.
Although the Teacher’s message of meaninglessness sounds so much like Nietzsche’s, Martin’s, and Sondheim’s, what sets the Teacher apart from them is that somehow he got his book included in the Bible. His masterpiece Ecclesiastes (from a Greek word for Teacher, or Qohelet in the Hebrew) is included as one of the holiest writings of the Jewish and Christian traditions. It was most certainly in the Bible that Jesus read.
But not everyone has wanted it in the Bible. For example, the Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, a collection of Jewish midrash, or homilies, originating in early medieval times, famously says, “The sages sought to store away the Book of Ecclesiastes, because they found words in it which tended to heresy.” On the Christian side, we might consider the words of the prominent 19th-century Hebraist Dr. Franz Delitzsch, who wrote concerning Ecclesiastes that a Christian “would not be able to write such a book.” He went so far as to call it “the darkness of earth” written down amid “heaps of ruins.”
While many Christians read the book “with the distinct feeling that [it] does not belong in the Bible,” atheists have welcomed its presence in the biblical canon. In a 2016 post entitled “A Book of the Bible Even an Atheist Can Love,” Jeffrey Tayler writes for the blog of the Los Angeles Review of Books that Ecclesiastes is
a book of the Old Testament that I, an atheist with an ardent distaste for religion, find consoling, calming, and wise. As the years pass and cares mount, as pleasures fade with repetition, and as the senescence and deaths of family members bear down relentlessly, I find myself turning to Ecclesiastes for comfort, inspiration, and, despite its melancholy tidings, cheer. . . . Luckily, Ecclesiastes barely mentions God. When it does, the words seem almost pro forma, as though the author had suddenly thought, “Hey, I better at least nod to the Lord or they won’t put my book in the Bible!”
I think Tayler rightly praises Ecclesiastes. I’m happy it’s in the Bible too, and I also find it encouraging. And for ten years, many of the students I’ve worked with as a philosophy professor and Christian pastor have also found the book encouraging. But I also think, far from pro forma, it fits perfectly in the biblical canon, and I think the Teacher and Jesus would have gotten along brilliantly.
Let me share with you the main insight that has most helped my students and me to see where the Teacher very intentionally left a place for hope in a writing that could easily be mistaken as skeptical and nihilistic. Up to this point, we have been entertaining what life is like “under the sun,” because this is where the Teacher wants us to begin. He wants us to struggle with what life looks like if we have no larger-than-life metanarrative. He wants the first words ringing in our ears to be that life is meaningless “under the sun.” And as we will see, his masterpiece Ecclesiastes is a study of this truth from most every angle possible. The Teacher (with help from Nietzsche) has so far laid out for us the general truth that without God everything loses its cosmic meaning. Through the following chapters of Ecclesiastes (and so in the following chapters of this book), we’ll look more closely at specific things that lose their cosmic meaning: the accumulation of knowledge, the pursuit of a pleasurable life, work and labor, and, ultimately, the value of human life itself.
The Teacher uses the phrase “under the sun” 27 times in his relatively brief work. He means to constantly draw our gaze downward to the world around us, the world as it appears, as we experience it empirically. But I am convinced that he doesn’t mean to keep us looking down here. He dins that refrain “under the sun” into our ears so that we might ask, “What if there’s a place over the sun, beyond this world’s light?” The Teacher draws our gaze downward because he eventually wants to draw our gaze upward to compare what life is like with and without the overarching story of which he believes we’re a part.
And within what metanarrative does the Teacher want us to picture our world? What grand story can renew our hope? The Teacher believed it was the grand Story of the rest of the Bible, the Story that the Teacher learned as a toddler on his mother’s knee. The most precious characteristic of the Teacher’s book, I would say, is the way that he looks all the world’s bleakness square in the face and yet still holds on to that Story. And that Story might go something like this:
This world was created for a good purpose, by a good God. He is goodness and love. He created humankind so that he could spend all the eons to come loving them. And he created a perfect world designed just for them: a world perfect for scientists, artists, explorers; a world perfect for socializing communities and more personal meditation and reflection.
But all too soon, forces of evil arose. A great enemy arose, a liar and murderer. Out of hatred for God and God’s love, he convinced humankind it was better to play God than be loved by God. This rebellion against their Creator brought into the world strife, ruin, depravity, and estrangement from God.
The great Story of our universe, then, is the unfolding of God’s plan to both defeat the enemy and his forces of evil and rescue as many as possible. God promised humankind since the beginning that he would rescue them (promises that the Teacher would have been raised on). The climax of this Story is God’s rescue, his entering his own creation, entering our history, in the person of Jesus. Jesus broke the enemy’s power over humanity’s estrangement from God. Through this great act of love, God made loving him possible again.
This infuses life with epic meaning, as God lets us share in his work of undoing the world’s strife, ruin, and depravity. He calls those who have found freedom in this rescue to love those around them as he has loved them.
Set aside for a moment any philosophical questions of working out how all of this Story can make sense (questions like, “If God created a perfect world, where did evil come from?” or “How can God both be merciful toward those rebelling against him and vanquish evil?” or “The Bible has too many contradictions to say it’s one big Story, doesn’t it?”). Working out the logic or coherence of God’s plan of salvation is important, but it is a different task entirely.
What we’re interested in is how this metanarrative shapes who you are and what you do daily, and how its cosmic meaning and purpose infuses what you are doing right now with meaning and purpose. Compare how radically different the implications are compared with Nietzsche’s madman’s world. When you consider your life not “under the sun” but rather over the sun or in light of God’s transcendent plan, you will discover that you were created by a loving God who wants you to be in communion with him. And so your life has eternal value because an eternal God values you, despite how anyone else might treat you. Despite how dim things might seem at times (like in Frodo and Sam’s story), you know that there is a God in control of all things, working out the hardships in your life for a grand, good ending. Despite how mundane life may seem at times, you can remind yourself you are really part of something far more grand, a Story involving colossal forces of good and evil. See how this metanarrative, this overarching Story, changes everything? If you’re not convinced yet, I think in the following chapters the Teacher will help me convince you how valuable this Story is.
Under the sun, apart from God in a cosmic sense, life is most certainly meaningless. Without him, this world is a jumbled collection of words gathered together into random heaps of meaningless pages and chapters.
But this focus on life “under the sun” is really an invitation to view the world from God’s side of it, from over and beyond the sun. You will find an epic Story of love, warfare, salvation, and heroism; you will find a beginning, a tragic fall, a climax, and a good ending waiting for us; and you will find your own name on those pages, playing out your part.
End Chapter 1