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HUMAN LIFE IS MEANINGLESS
It was a drawing of a man shooting himself in the head.
I wasn’t prepared for the amount of pain, suffering, and despair I was going to help people through as a pastor. I had great seminary training; they worked hard to get us ready. And for a while I felt ready. The first couple marriages falling apart, the first handful of times sitting at bedsides and watching people die, the first dozen or so addictions, . . . but at some point their trauma becomes your trauma.
And this one was traumatizing, not because of how unique it was but because of the realization of how un-unique it was, how endemic, how overwhelming the pain and suffering that people go through in our culture was becoming for me.
He was smart, polite, a hard worker, an “ideas” man. But he had no current job, no friends, no girlfriend, no reason to get up in the morning. In an e-mail, he shared with me a scanned page from his journal with that drawing subtitled, “No purpose = no reason to go on.”
I knew he wasn’t the only person in my church family who felt this way at times. We live in a time of tremendous loneliness. Surveys regularly find that in North America a high percentage of people have no close friends or confidants. The amount of people living alone is rising dramatically. (US stats: 5 percent of the population in the 1920s, up to 27 percent as of 2013.) Among other factors, social media technology is having the opposite effect from what we had anticipated: because of the growing lack of face-to-face social encounters, people are feeling more isolated. This culture obviously is creating a host of problems and negative effects, one of which we’re particularly interested in: Less social interaction means less apparent meaning in one’s life. Remember short-term meaning? It is derived from someone valuing something or someone else. And so the less people value you, the effect is feeling that you are less valuable.
That e-mail was the beginning of a long process. We would have to address the short-term meaning: time to get a job, friends, a reason to get up in the morning. But at some point we would have to address the picture he had drawn. If the caption he put under it was correct, then the deeper questions were: Do you not have a purpose? Is a person’s purpose in life contingent entirely on whether or not you feel like you have a purpose or on whether you’re valued by other people?
But the drawing. I can’t get it out of my head.
A recent Brigham Young University meta-analysis of research done on social isolation found that loneliness increases your risk of death by 30 percent. Some studies say 60 percent. This is for biological and practical reasons but also psychological ones. “It’s safe to say that while not all lonely people are suicidal, all suicidal people are lonely.”
And yet it isn’t only the socially isolated who muse about dying. At the heart of what it means to be human is the contemplation of death. And, to some extent, it comes naturally to us. The oldest records of humanity involve the contemplation of death, and our greatest works of art explore this human condition—exploring our ability to think about our own mortality in deep and pro- found ways and exploring the logical options that death poses for humans.
To be, or not to be—that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ’Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep—
To sleep—perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
In the West, one of our most memorable examples of this is Ham- let’s soliloquy on death (from the pen of William Shakespeare). Prince Hamlet knows he’s being watched. And so he’s keeping up a ruse he’s been working on for some time, pretending he’s out of his mind and on the brink of killing himself. He’s already convinced his mom, and now he’s trying to convince his enemies. He speaks these words as his enemies listen. And so, in Hamlet’s mind, these are the questions he thinks a suicidal person would wrestle with. He begins with the now-famous words: “To be, or not to be.” Hamlet is asking, “Should I live, or not?” Should he continue his struggle in life, or is it okay to die? Is life worth suffering “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” that is, is it worth suffering through the pain and torment of a life often filled with seemingly random justice and injustice? Or should he die? In death, the slings and arrows, the “sea of troubles,” and the “thousand natural shocks” all humans experience come to an end.
Or do they? “There’s the rub.” Because what waits for us after death? Is it simply an endless sleep, the end of all consciousness, self-awareness, and existence? Or is there more? “What dreams may come”? If death’s sleep is not the end to our experiences, does it bring good or bad “dreams”? If bad “dreams” await (at least, dreams worse than our experiences in this life), it’s worth struggling with every fiber to stay alive as long as possible. If good dreams await, then the journey does not have to be feared. How do we answer this question? It “must give us pause.” In other words, Hamlet suggests that how we answer this question matters. Not only does the answer inform us for how we are to live now (either in eager expectation or in dread for that coming moment), but it also has deep implications on the meaning of life and the value of human life.
If there’s even a slim chance that how we live in this life affects the next, this ought to “give us pause.” If there’s no chance that anything waits for us, so that our consciousness and all we have experienced is simply extinguished forever like any other conscious organism in this universe, then this too ought to “give us pause.”
Thousands of years before Hamlet, Solomon wrote his own poetry on how to understand the “slings and arrows of outrageous for- tune.” And at the heart of it, Solomon, like Shakespeare, brings in death. If, like the atheist suggests, both humans and animals go to the same place after death, Solomon declares that human life is meaningless. Is he right?
THE DEAD ARE HAPPIER THAN THE LIVING
I saw something else under the sun:
In the place of judgment—wickedness was there,
in the place of justice—wickedness was there.
Psychologists are now warning parents not to allow their young children to watch the news. Studies seem to be demonstrating that the violence children see on the news has more lasting effects than the violence seen in fictional shows and movies. I remember when my own five-year-old son became obsessed with “bad” people in the world, especially possible criminals in our neighborhood. The sense of injustice in the world is overwhelming— the fact that crime pays, that “in the place of justice—wickedness [is] there.” Solomon is telling us nothing novel here—bad things happen to people trying to do good and good things happen to people trying to do evil, people become rich and powerful off the exploitation of others, and so often honesty doesn’t seem to get us far in life. And this injustice has lasting effects on how we develop as humans and on how we experience the world. This is a major theme in Ecclesiastes.
And it’s a theme made even more poignant because it claims to have been written by a man renowned for dispensing justice in his court. Recall Solomon’s reputation and how the Teacher has him speak: One of antiquity’s most legendary magnates calls riches meaningless. One of antiquity’s most legendary intellectuals calls wisdom meaningless. Now one of antiquity’s most legendary judges calls the world ultimately unjust.
In ancient Israel, the king was also the nation’s supreme court and chief justice. Solomon’s verdicts, sifting through even the most baffling criminal trials, are said to have put the whole country “in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice” (1 Kings 3:28). And now this judge says wickedness reigns. He even goes so far as to say that the world is so wicked and unjust, you’re better off dead.
Again I looked and saw all the oppression
that was taking place under the sun:
I saw the tears of the oppressed—
and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
and they have no comforter.
And I declared that the dead,
who had already died,
are happier than the living,
who are still alive.
But better than both
is the one who has never been born,
who has not seen the evil
that is done under the sun.
Again, visceral words from Solomon: The dead are better off than the living. Why? Because the dead no longer experience the injustice of this world. And Solomon goes even one step further: Better than both the dead and the living is “the one who has never been born,” that is, the person who hasn’t yet even been alive. Why? Because the living are experiencing injustice, and the dead have already experienced a life full of injustice. It is only the unborn who have been truly free from injustice, who have not “seen the evil that is done under the sun,” who have not been jaded by life like our children watching the news, seeing bullies get away without discipline, and feeling the unprovoked or unjustified wrath of a parent.
Too much oppression. Too many tears. Yet Solomon admits that he personally believes a time is coming when things will be set right, when justice will have its way:
I said to myself,
“God will bring into judgment
both the righteous and the wicked,
for there will be a time for every activity,
a time to judge every deed.”
There is a judgment day in the Teacher’s metanarrative. But it is as if he would not be in a hurry to find any comfort in that knowledge.It is as if he says, I understand that this doesn’t do you a lot of good right now. That this doesn’t make life any better. Someday-justice doesn’t make this present world any less cruel or less bitter. Because in almost the very next sentence, Solomon writes this:
DUST, ANIMALS, INDIFFERENCE
Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?
So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them? (Ecclesiastes 3:19-22)
We can see clearly that we are like the animals. How? “The same fate awaits them both.” In other words, the experiences of humans are not all that different from the experiences of animals in that we both live, then die, and then “all go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” Sometimes a pet and its owner even share the same coffin.
And remember that Solomon brings this all up as part of his discussion on how our lives reek with injustice. It is as if Solomon would say, Observation of the animal world goes a long way to show us that transcendent justice and injustice don’t even really exist. For the animals, there’s no cry of “Injustice!” when the lion kills the lamb. That’s just the way it goes. Animals and their experiences just are. And if that’s the case, can we attribute to animals any transcendent meaning or value? And if we take life as it simply appears, again without considering any overarching metanarrative beyond the sun, do we have any reason to believe that the meaninglessness we see in animal life doesn’t apply to human life as well?
The atheist biologist Richard Dawkins describes life this way in a now often-quoted passage. See if you can identify how he resonates with Solomon’s “under the sun” observations:
During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering in fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. . . . In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.
Dawkins is an atheist, believing that the universe was caused by unknown purposeless forces in the big bang and that life then arose to the complexity we see today through the blind, physics-bound forces of evolution. So there’s no God and certainly no overarching story that we’re a part of, no divine plan working itself out, no transcendent values like good and evil. Dawkins often points out that he can’t prove there’s no God and thus no divine plan. But he thinks his observations of the world clearly line up with this belief: “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
What are these observations? A universe marked by immense, immeasurable amounts of death. As a biologist, he’s well in tune with the amounts of death within the biological world. In fact, atheistic evolution has death as its bedrock and heart: Survival of the fittest is nothing but species fighting tooth and nail to escape premature death and pass their genes on to the next generation. Couple this with random genetic mutation and you have neo-Darwinian evolution. And after making these observations within his study of animal biology, Dawkins finds no trouble in making the same observations in human life: “Some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice.”
And so the conclusion is obvious: If there’s no God and if we see general animal life as really not all that different from human life, there’s no difference in value between the two. To the forces of the universe, humans are simply a subset of animals, existing in a universe of “no design, no purpose, . . . nothing but pitiless indifference.” In a way, this echoes what Solomon says considering life “under the sun”: Our experience is that humans are “like . . . the animals.” Just as Dawkins says this is “a universe of electrons and selfish genes,” Solomon says this is a universe of dust and injustice.
“Under the sun,” we seem to be left completely in the dark with whether or not there is anything more to death than this. Solomon even says, “Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” Remember that he is making the observations of one “under the sun.” There are some questions about the original Hebrew wording here, and translators have offered several different meanings. But the general idea is clear: “under the sun,” that is, just from empirical observation, we can’t know anything about what awaits us after death. (Remember Hamlet’s question?) We are left simply with a world marked by the finality of death, and so by the meaninglessness and valuelessness of human life.
Solomon’s response, again “under the sun,” is rather tepid: “There is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?” In other words, if this is all there is, try to enjoy it as much as possible, because, as Hamlet says, who knows “what dreams may come”? But this is the enjoyment of escapism, of trying to get in as much as possible before the big sleep. This is not a fulfilled life, a life looking hopefully to the future and already seeing on the horizon the triumph of justice and love. (“For who can bring them to see” that?) This is not the truly transcendentally meaningful life people are looking for.
“All come from dust, and to dust all return.” But what’s so bad about dust? Maybe the dust could be from somewhere really special. In a documentary titled Planetary, the Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell describes his experience of seeing from space the Earth alongside the moon and sun, with the black veil of infinity behind them:
I had studied astronomy, and I had studied cosmology, and fully understood that the molecules in my body and the molecules in my partner’s body and in the spacecraft had been prototyped in some ancient generation of stars. In other words, it was pretty obvious from those descriptions we’re stardust.
As Mitchell experienced this radical perspective shift of seeing everything from space, he couldn’t help but see himself, his fellow astronauts, and the Earth in a different way. When you talk to your friend, you’re not typically thinking about their molecular biology, but rather you see your friend as a person, as a self-aware being like yourself. As you go through the daily grind, you experience and view your house in an anthropocentric (or human-centered) way, that is, as your home. Your dog is a companion (albeit a different kind than your human friends). But all of this faded into the background for Mitchell. It was probably still there in his mind, but instead what Mitchell saw first was that these things—all these things we experience as person, home, companion—given an evolutionary big bang cosmology, are all stardust. That is, presumably billions of years ago when the stars formed, all the matter that would become us also formed, starting with hydrogen and helium atoms being created by the actual big bang, and then the heavier elements formed after a few generations of stars died. And after billions of years, through the forces of physics, we were produced. So regardless of what we look like right now, we’re essentially, at the root of it, dust from stars.
This observation is meant, for the purposes of the documentary, to have the effect on us of driving home the interconnectedness between us and our planet—all sharing the same majestic origin. It’s meant to make us care more for the planet and the environment.
But it may, unfortunately, have the reverse effect. Think for a moment: if everything is essentially stardust, what implications does this have for their value? If a star explodes millions of light years away, and in its explosion destroys a few planets around it, what would it matter to you? What are the odds that you, or anyone on earth, would ever even find out about it? It’s essentially a star destroying other things around it made from stardust. It’s simply a physical event taking place. It’s neither good nor bad. It just is. It’s just stardust. At most, it might be an excuse to find someplace where the glow from the streetlights won’t get in the way of trying to see the nova for yourself (and maybe a few shooting stars with it, if you’re lucky). All right then, what if our own star were to explode? How would it be different, really? It would destroy us and the other planets around us, but is there some objective reason it should matter more? In a million years, some stargazers on another planet will enjoy the show. End of story. From the perspective of the cosmos, if our own star, the sun, exploded and destroyed us along with it, all that would change is the location of that explosion. Nothing else. Just as stardust on the other side of the universe is rearranged, so it’s rearranged here.
I don’t think Mitchell believed that we’re nothing but stardust, that there’s nothing more in way of explanation to describe humanity. He might very well have said that’s only the starting point, that there’s far more to talk about. But given atheism, if stardust is the starting point, if the metanarrative for our universe begins with a natural, albeit timeless, spaceless, “causeless” event (according to the theory, time and space and therefore causation as we know it didn’t exist in the first moments of the big bang), then the end point is also stardust. Or maybe mere dust, floating in a vast nowhere, never to be part of a new star or any other being ever again. There’s no way to bring into the story transcendent, cosmic value.
Meanwhile we want to say so much more. In the 1970s, another Mitchell, the songwriter Joni Mitchell, wrote an anti-war song about traveling to 1969’s pivotal outdoor music festival Woodstock. In that song titled after the festival, she wove in some heavy theological themes. She says we are all stardust, but somehow, she pines, we need to see ourselves as more than that. Somehow we “got to get ourselves back to the garden.” Mitchell was comparing the Garden of Eden with Woodstock and the values of Woodstock, envisioning free love, pacifism, and good music bringing about a restoration, a return to an idyllic state of perfection, and turning bombers into butterflies (like how the Bible describes swords being turned into plowshares in its visions of an Eden-like heaven).
Joni Mitchell is not alone in her longing. Many today are crying out that we need to somehow see ourselves and all humanity as more than dust, as beings of value, beauty, purpose, and transcendent meaning, beings who regardless of skin color or status shouldn’t have bombs and napalm dropped onto them or be attacked with dogs and fire hoses. We need to find a different metanarrative, perhaps even something like a biblical one that sees us as coming from the hands of a Creator-God who loves us, brought us into being, and desires to be with us, just as Adam and Eve were with God in the garden. According to the biblical metanarrative, Adam, the first human, was made from dust. But he was not essentially dust alone. That was only the outward form. He was also a soul, that is, a person or ego with an eternal quality to him, because God wanted to spend eternity with Adam. That is how the Bible’s Story starts; that is where the Bible says our dust starts—in the garden. But how do we get back to the garden?
We’ll get there. But we are not done with those who say there never was a garden. Some say the goal is not to get back to a good God and his gift of a garden; rather, the key to the truly good life is liberating oneself once and for all from the notion of any God or garden. True joy comes from dependence on yourself, not a cosmic Gardener. The goal is to rejoice in your cosmic independence and aloneness. What is this joy they claim to have found? Is there joy in being only dust?
SARTRE AND AUGUSTINE, ESSENCE AND EXISTENCE
Different philosophers have struggled with how to cope with the implications of an atheistic understanding of death. If from stardust we come and to stardust we return, how ought this shape the way we live? How can we talk of life and the choices we make during our lives as having value? Some believed the proper way forward was to focus on orienting the discussion and oneself toward death. For example, Martin Heidegger (often called an existentialist, although like Camus he rejected the title) believed that the key to finding a meaningful life lay in this orientation toward death, what he called being-towards-death.
Other philosophers, though, notably our French existentialists, believed the finality of death ought to turn our focus away from a death we can’t control and more toward this life and the things we can control. If there’s nothing to come, then what we do now is of the greatest significance. In fact, it’s of the only significance, since there’s literally nothing once one dies. And in the significance of what we do now, the choices we make before we die, perhaps we can talk of value to our lives. The existentialists’ most popular philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, attempted to find this value by meditating on our ability to make choices. Sartre suggested that humans could define themselves through their choices. He argues:
What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of him- self. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. . . . Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. . . . To say that we invent values means neither more nor less than this; that there is no sense in life a priori. Life is nothing until it is lived; but it is yours to make sense of, and the value of it is nothing else but the sense that you choose.
What was he getting at with those terms, existence and essence? How could a person exist before he had an essence? These are old concepts. And Sartre was trying to say that Western thinkers had had them backwards for centuries.
Around 1,600 years ago, a Christian thinker named Augustine of Hippo (the present-day city of Annaba, Algeria) said that when it comes to the essence of each human, “The essence that is established as a created thing antecedes in the word of God the creature that is established.” That is, the essence of a particular human is present before that human physically begins to exist in the world. How? She exists in the mind of God first. Think of it this way: A master woodworker sets out to create a chair. Before the wood is fitted together or even cut, the chair already is known somewhere else first: in the mind of the woodworker. The woodworker pictures the chair in his mind or creates blueprints for the chair, and then he brings the chair into physical existence by crafting and carving it out of the wood. The essence of the chair first was in the woodworker’s mind, and then the woodworker brought the chair into existence. Similarly, the biblical metanarrative says that before the world was created, even before time and space, every human being who would ever exist was fully known in the mind of God. He knew exactly who they would be, what they would become, where they would live, what role they were to play in his providence—his work of caring for, protecting, and satisfying all life—and in his Story of unfailing love.
This is also the Teacher’s metanarrative, the Story he believes truly runs through everything. Despite the appearance “under the sun,” every day of it is “life God has given” (Ecclesiastes 5:18; 8:15; 9:9)—it is good times and bad “God has made” (7:14), first envisioned in the mind of God before they ever came into being. Speaking to you and me, the readers, the Teacher says, “Remember your Creator” (12:1, emphasis mine). He knew each one of us as his creation, before he assembled us in our mothers’ wombs (11:5). And each person’s very soul he personally placed inside of them: “The spirit returns to God who gave it” (12:7). Every individual’s essence—every ridge of their fingerprints, every contour of their soul—was first fully known by God. Then God brought them into existence. Essence precedes existence.
And this is breathtaking! If your essence preceded your existence, if you were first thought up in the mind of a perfectly loving God, then that means you have tremendous value. Think of this for a moment: God decided to create you. He thought you up and said, “That would be a wonderful person to spend eternity with,” and then he brought you into existence. You are his precious creation, far more valuable to him than a masterpiece to its artist. From an ancient Hebrew song: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). If God made you, you are a masterpiece.
Each person’s value as a human being comes directly from the fact that God values them, that he loved their essence enough to bring it into existence. To know that God created you just so he could be with you is truly amazing. As the writer George MacDonald puts it:
I would rather be what God chose to make me than the most glorious creature that I could think of; for to have been thought about, born in God’s thought, and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest and most precious thing in all thinking.
It also means that God writes his metanarrative with you in mind. Just as a playwright creates characters for the story and the story for the characters, you have been brought into being for the metanarrative and the metanarrative brought into being for you. The whole story of God’s salvation of humankind was planned and executed for you. Further, God places you exactly where you need to be in life. Even though all the choices we make are absolutely free, God planned the story of our world ahead of time, knowing the choices you would make and working it out all for your good. If essence precedes existence, and if essence has its source in the God described by the Bible, then your life is of infinite value (because you are loved by a God of infinite value) and your life has more purpose that you’ll ever be able to imagine (because God created it with a role in his Story of this universe).
But Sartre, who is an atheist, says that since God does not exist, this starting point is reversed. He writes in direct response to Augustine: Since there is no God, then existence precedes essence. And that is a horrible thought. And Sartre knew it. He called this a great burden, a slavery, a condemnation, an abandonment. He fully embraced the notion that there is no cosmic meaning in life. And so he made it his life goal to find a way for people to see their lives as valuable and purposeful while still believing that there is no cosmic meaning to life, that their existence precedes their essence. Does he think he succeeds, and if so, how?
He states clearly that if a person’s essence does not precede their existence, “to begin with he is nothing.” In other words, a person starts in this world as a blank slate: no personal identity, no goals, no purpose, certainly no value. He just is, an ego that has come into the world—nothing more. But he doesn’t stay that way: he begins to make choices. As a child, he begins to decide his favorite colors, his role models. As a young boy, he decides to either work hard or not work hard at school. As a young man, he decides his political leanings, his first career, maybe even who he’ll marry. And over time, as these choices are made, he begins to shape who he is and to make himself—his own essence.
Sartre believes this is your story, the way you have constructed your own essence over time. “But,” you might ask, “is it a good essence? How can I assess the person I’ve become? Did I make good choices?” This is tricky because, as Sartre writes, there are no values a priori. That is, since there’s no God to first think up your essence, then there’s certainly no God to first think up values, that is, things like what ought to be right or wrong, whether this or that person’s life is inherently important, etc. In other words, there’s no transcendent morality or transcendent value of things. These values are all created as we make our way through life. As in Sondheim’s play Into the Woods, “You decide what’s right; you decide what’s good.” And so the choices you make in life construct for yourself your own system of values.
Throughout life, then, you make choices. And you react to those choices. And you choose to value some things and not others. Who you are, your essence and values, then, are “nothing else but the sense that you choose.” “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.”
If we follow Sartre’s reasoning, this means no one else can decide who or what you are. This is an important aspect of Sartre’s philosophy given the climate in which he lived. Some of Sartre’s most influential ideas were written down while he was a prisoner of the Nazis in World War II. Also active in the French Resistance and a strong voice against anti-Semitism, Sartre’s work was found to be deeply insightful and encouraging to those dehumanized by the war. Imagine your enemy is attempting to label you, to decide what your value is, to degrade you to the status of a lesser human. What Sartre’s philosophy gives us is the ability to say, “No, you don’t get to decide my essence; only I do through the choices I make.” And so, many have found considerable strength in Sartre’s approach to human identity.
To be fair to him, we should also note Sartre’s teaching that our absolute freedom as individuals makes us responsible for all humankind. What you choose—what you pursue, what you make your life project—determines your values. That is what you deem to be “good.” But then you would only be fooling yourself if you did not admit that it would also be good for everyone else to possess that same good thing: “In fashioning myself, I fashion humanity.”
To some extent, Sartre tried to live up to this high ideal. He was tremendously active in the social movements of his day. He participated in war crime tribunals and spoke up for political prisoners. The newspaper he helped to found, Modern Times, consistently denounced torture and repression, despite severe political repercussions. And finding value in our accomplishments that benefit society, as we explored at length in the previous chapter, is a very tempting way to try to make up for an utter lack of cosmic value.
In the end, when it comes to finding meaning, what Sartre gives with one hand, he takes with the other. Toward the end of his life, he gave a lengthy interview, published as “Self-Portrait at Seventy.” Here is the final question of the interview:
In short, so far life has been good to you?
On the whole, yes. I don’t see what I could reproach it with. It has given me what I wanted and at the same time it has shown that this wasn’t much. But what can you do?
(The interview ends in wild laughter brought on by the last statement.)
The laughter must be kept. You should put: “Accompanied by laughter.”
For all his sincere and noble talk of being responsible for the whole of humankind, he says there wasn’t really much to life. And he finds this wildly hilarious. Many would admire this about Sartre too. There’s something carefree about him. . . . Make what essence you can out of your life. Do not let others define you. Do not wait for some god to come and define you. But at the same time, don’t take yourself or your life too seriously. “The laughter must be kept.”
MY CHOICES, MY VALUE
Is it something to laugh about? To be carefree about?
Sartre says we shape our own essences through the choices we make. But do I really want to be simply the sum of the choices I’ve made? Should I find this thought liberating?
What kind of choices do we make in life? Many of us have made terrible choices. In fact, a good deal of the pain and suffering in this world is the result of human choice: from warfare to a good deal of famine, from broken homes to workplaces plagued with sexual misconduct, from religious radicalism to ethical apathy. Even in our own personal lives, would we be comfortable placing in the newspaper headlines all the choices we make in secret when no one is looking, all the things we do behind others’ backs or while cutting corners or while conspiring together against whoever’s least popular?
Sartre is right. Our choices certainly do tell us something about who we are. And what do they tell us? In his book of Proverbs, Solomon writes, “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’?” (Proverbs 20:9). Who we are begins with the heart, with the thoughts that flow from inside, with the choices of what to think about, what to fantasize about, what to play out in our minds. Whether or not the anger, hatred, or pettiness I think about make themselves evident in a public action, even just harboring those thoughts and emotions inside myself surely tells me something about who I am. This honesty about who we are is part of Solomon’s assessment of things in Ecclesiastes:
Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous,
no one who does what is right and never sins.
Do not pay attention to every word people say,
or you may hear your servant cursing you—
for you know in your heart
that many times you yourself have cursed others.
Solomon encourages us to be careful about how we judge the actions of other people, because the evil we find in the world around us we also often find within ourselves.
And what if we think we’re making the right choice, but we’re not? Solomon also wrote in Proverbs, “A person may think their own ways are right, but the Lord weighs the heart” (Proverbs 21:2). We deceive ourselves, we wear away our consciences over the course of a life of bad choices, and we often become ethically jaded because of a society that embraces evil. How many Germans during the Holocaust justified to themselves their own racism and dehumanizing acts because their government publicly embraced those evils in parades and speeches? How many Americans thought nothing of the evils of slavery or of the brutal displacement of Native communities because the society publicly embraced those evils in parades and speeches? What evils today have we become comfortable with because of a society that publicly embraces those evils in parades and speeches? Remember Joni Mitchell calling us to go back to the garden by revolting against the injustice we find in this world? How do we even know what to try to replace that injustice with?
What is the good of begetting a man until we have settled what is the good of being a man? . . . It is as if a man were asked, “What is the use of a hammer?” and answered, “To make hammers,” and when asked, “And of those hammers, what is the use?” answered, “To make more hammers again.”
We noted earlier how G. K. Chesterton warned us to be very careful when we talk about progress. He noted that, given a godless universe, it was very difficult to speak of society progressing toward some goal, whether scientific, technological, or political. A metanarrative, a plotline for society, is needed if we’re going to judge whether things are moving in the right direction.
This desire for progress is often applied not only to politics and society but to the entirety of humanity itself—as a species (or at least as individual members of our species) we’re working at becoming a better version of ourselves than past versions. Do you think that with the right cocktail of conditioning, counseling, and education it’s possible for you to truthfully speak the famous autosuggestion phrase of psychotherapist Émile Coué: “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”?
There’s a major problem with this thinking, Chesterton points out. If you don’t know what the purpose of being human is, how can you tell whether you’ve made any progress in the right direction? As we’ve seen, contemporary atheist theories tell us there is no inherent purpose to being human, since humans just happened, since humans are just another type of thing that’s formed from stardust and produced by mindless processes like natural selection. And so if there’s no inherent purpose, you decide for yourself or, in Sartre’s terminology, you create your essence through the choices you make. But Chesterton reminds us, given Sartre’s worldview, there’s no way of proving whether what you’ve chosen to be is any better than anyone else’s choice. Our consciences might make us feel as if we’re moving in the right direction, but without a metanarrative, we cannot explain those feelings.
Like hikers lost in a forest, we often can’t tell if we’re moving in the right direction, often times circling back to the same spot and finding out that after so much work we’re no farther than before. Are we surprised, then, when one of our companions says, “It’s pointless; we’ll never get out; this is meaningless!” Another of Solomon’s Proverbs is, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death” (14:12). We simply cannot trust our own assessments of ourselves; experience has clearly demonstrated it’s far too dangerous. We need someone truly good who transcends the mess of humanity if we’re to get a truly objective view of who we are and what our true essence is and how good it is.
And so the problem is that we must agree with Sartre. Our choices do tell us something about who we are. But Sartre’s phrase, “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself,” is a truly terrifying thought. What have you made of yourself? And we’re not even capable of knowing all the evil we choose to commit: we’re so lost in the woods of our contexts and cultures. The Bible calls for complete honesty about who we are, about the pervasiveness of evil in our hearts that flows daily into our thoughts and actions. And we’re playing right into our weaknesses if we believe we can create something good simply out of the choices we make. We might be able to create something our neighbors can live with, something bearable and even enjoyable at times for our children to live with, but we can’t believe we’ll be able to end the injustice of this world and get back to Joni Mitchell’s garden; we’re part of the problem! The simple and sobering truth is that there’s no way we can get back to the garden on our own. What we need is someone like us, but not like us, who can pick us up and carry us through the woods, who can carry us back to the garden.
COULD SOLOMON GET BACK TO THE GARDEN?
Ecclesiastes purports to have been written at a point in Solomon’s life when he realized he couldn’t undo his mistakes. He couldn’t fix it. He had ruled over Israel’s golden age and then had poisoned the well. Remember the legacy we outlined in chapter 2? Solomon had literally written the handbook for living a just and good life, and then he turned to a life of idolatry, even worshiping gods demanding child-sacrifice. Solomon had literally written the handbook on romantic exclusivity, and then he gathered around himself hundreds of wives and concubines. In response, God told Solomon that he had forfeited the kingship. He warned him that during the reign of Solomon’s son—and from then on for generations—Israel would be torn apart and fought over by warring dynasties.
What was left for Solomon to do? He could write one last scroll. He could plead: Learn from my mistakes. He knew Israel’s golden age was over and his reign would eventually be romanticized as the ideal past. But he wanted his reign, his fall, his chasing after the wind, to instead be a warning. And God let him do this meaningful thing.
He could have written a work on the meaningfulness of life when viewed over the sun. He could have waxed poetic about a future afterlife. He could have painted a clear picture of history heading toward hope. But instead he writes on life “under the sun.” Why? Perhaps Solomon felt too guilty to be a spokesperson for the gospel. Perhaps he felt too hypocritical. And so instead of instilling hope, he made his mission instead to show as clearly as possible that under the sun, apart from the biblical God, there is no hope. All this flowing from the pen of a man acutely aware of where he ought to stand before God, given the life he led. Do not mistake the shadow over this scroll as skepticism. It is the shadow of guilt.
Follow the ways of your heart
and whatever your eyes see,
but know that for all these things
God will bring you into judgment. . . .
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
(Ecclesiastes 11:9; 12:13,14)
Solomon brings up a future judgment not only to let us know that the evil out there in the world will be set right. He brings up a future judgment to remind you that you too need to be set right, as he was. The evil we find within us needs to be set right. Now that he sees his own life clearly, he bids you to see yours a bit more clearly too. We feel the undertones of his penitence, because he desires that we have the same undertones in our lives.
Yes, your choices have meaning, infinite meaning. Make all of them with an awareness that God sees them. Make all of them with his judgment in view.
CAN WE GET BACK TO THE GARDEN?
This is where we stand so far: Solomon makes a big deal about how death makes life for us humans just as meaningless as the life of animals. Dawkins agrees that this is a good comparison. “Under the sun” there is no qualitative difference between humans and animals (there is nothing uniquely or essentially different between humans and animals), only quantitative differences (humans have aspects that are simply more or less developed than other animals but are essentially of the same stuff, nothing more). And so just as the universe is rather indifferent to other animal life coming and going, so it’s indifferent to human life coming and going. It is indifferent to all life being engulfed in the explosions of stars. It just is, free of value and free of cosmic meaning.
Sartre agrees with this assessment. No God means no cosmic meaning. “But,” he adds, “we can choose.” At least while we’re alive, we’re able to construct for ourselves a meaningful life through those choices. He does not claim that our choices give us cosmic meaning, but it’s a start. And we agree that we do, to a degree, learn something about ourselves from our choices. But what do we learn? What kinds of essences do we discover? Solomon bids us to be absolutely honest: “There is no one on earth who is righteous” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). If we are only our choices, we might be troubled by what we find. In fact, if we’re honest, we find we contribute to a good deal of the injustice that Joni Mitchell hopes we can overcome.
Think back now to Chesterton’s illustration about the hammers. What if there was a way of justifying “what is the good of being a man?” The biblical metanarrative supplies just this. It tells us we were created by a good God for good reasons. We earlier noted how the biblical metanarrative teaches that humans were created to explore and settle this world of ours, to be scientists, artists, and creators—all as mini versions of the Great Scientist, the Great Artist, the Great Creator: God. And after humanity brought pain and suffering into this world through our own choices, choices that separated us from our Creator-God, he promised to fix this relationship through his own choice of love, giving himself through his sacrificial death on the cross. Now he calls us back to him. And as he calls us back, he calls us into new and exciting ways to be humans, created in a new way through faith. We saw at the end of the last chapter how the apostle Paul, one of the most important writers in the Bible, describes it this way: “We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).
In the last chapter, we focused on the work. Let’s now for a moment focus on the created part, what Augustine said: Before you ever came into this world, you already were. Right there, in the mind of God. And then he created you. You are not the product of blind forces.
When we look at a newborn child and have that deep, in-your-gut, emotions-washing-over-you response, we know that it’s not simply because evolutionary processes have conditioned us to do that. We know that the child is actually worth that sort of response. It’s the proper way to react to human life. In biblical words the Teacher would have been very familiar with, humans are “fearfully and wonderfully made; your [God’s] works are wonderful, I know that full well” (Psalm 139:14).
The ancient Greeks carved the human form over and over again. The Renaissance artists did the same, declaring the human body an exquisite work of art. The Christian says, “You’re right!” The human body, along with the human mind, is unparalleled in showing the masterful hand of its Creator. I can call you beautiful because you are beautiful, not simply because our biology conditions us to respond that way. Whether or not there are any humans around to call you beautiful, you are still beautiful. It’s objective, rooted in the reality that you were created by a Master Craftsman, God himself.
But we can go one more step, because that’s not the creation Paul is talking about. Yes, you were created by God at your physical birth. And yes, part of you knows (or at least should know) there’s something beautiful about you. Yet we recognize a deep ugliness within us, flowing from what we’ve called the sinful nature. There’s a part of us corrupted, not functioning as it ought to. In the television show Dexter, the title character is a serial killer struggling with what he calls the Dark Passenger within him:
I just know there’s something dark in me, and I hide it. I certainly don’t talk about it, but it’s there—always, this Dark Passenger. And when he’s driving, I feel alive, half sick with the thrill of complete wrongness. I don’t fight him, I don’t want to. He’s all I’ve got. Nothing else could love me, not even . . . especially not me. Or is that just a lie the Dark Passenger tells me?
Although Dexter is meditating on some very specific urges, it’s terrifying how much we can relate to this thought of his, isn’t it? How many of us, when we take an honest look within ourselves, find this Dark Passenger, these evil urges—an ugly juxtaposition with our sense that there’s something beautiful about human life? If we’re a beautiful creation by a master Creator, we also know that something has gone very wrong.
And so Paul, when he writes “we are . . . created,” is not speaking about that first creation when each of us is born. He’s talking about when you’ve gone through another creation process, a new birth. When you find out about God’s metanarrative, you are born again through that knowledge. A new life within you dethrones that Dark Passenger, a new life that now knows why you exist (because God loves you and wants to be with you) and how you’ve been called to exist (to mirror the love of Jesus through your life by being his hands and feet). But the point is you are created. God chose to make and remake you. The Dark Passenger remains, struggling with the new life within you. But make no mistake: you are not the Dark Passenger; you are the new creation, the new life, the new identity created in Jesus. You are remade.
Your time here on earth, then, becomes a time of grace, a gift given to you, a time for God to find you and remake you, a time for you to be his agent for change before the Story this side of heaven ends. You want to do as much as you can before you die not because you fear this is it but because you know this isn’t it. You want to do as much as you can because the love Jesus has shown you has somehow taken hold of you, and you can’t help showing it to others. And you know that the times when you give way to the evil that still remains in you, your Savior is right there with you, telling you, “I forgive you; we’re good; now get back to it because there’s still work to do.”
The bottom line is that the Christian knows she is not stardust. Nor are her neighbors. She knows she does not need to get back to the gar- den. Its seeds are already in her hand, its fruits in her heart, her life.
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis created a world in which it is always winter but never Christmas . . . that is, until Aslan, the savior-lion, comes. And with him, the cold hopelessness, darkness, and bitterness of our evil-riddled world begin to thaw, and new life appears. Aslan, of course, is Lewis’ analogy for Jesus. Because when Jesus comes to us, the cold of our evil-riddled world begins to thaw: The guilt of our wrong choices, the fear of death, the feeling that we’re nothing special in this world—it all begins to melt away. And the grass begins to push its way through the slowly warming dirt, the wildflowers bloom, the air begins to smell earthy and full of life, and suddenly we realize we’re standing in a garden. We didn’t need to go anywhere. He only needed to come to us.
End Chapter five.