The meaning of life

The meaning of life

What would you, a minister, have said to someone who expressed the dreadful conclusion that “life was meaningless,” so why should they hassle with all the pain and angst of living it?

Clifford Goldstein, MA, is director of the Adult Bible Study Guide, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States

“I feel everything that ever happened to me, and I memorize it, but it’s all in vain.”

—Osip Mandelstam1

“We’ve been the Beatles, which was marvelous . . . but I think generally there was this feeling of ‘Yeah, well, it’s great to be famous, it’s great to be rich—but what’s it all for?’ ”

—Paul McCartney 2

In an oft-quoted sentence from his book, The First Three Minutes, Nobel Prize–winning physicist, Steven Weinberg wrote, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”3 Responding to the harsh blowback from the line, Weinberg, in another book, Dreams of a Final Theory, explained that his “rash” statement did not mean that science thought the universe was pointless but simply that “the universe itself suggests no point.”4

To begin with, others wondered what all the fuss was about. Harvard astronomer Margaret Geller, for instance, responded, “Why should it [the universe] have a point? What point? It’s just a physical system, what point is there? I’ve always been puzzled by that statement.”5

Enlightenment heirs

However uncomfortable Weinberg might have made people, he was simply taking the premises of an a priori materialism to their logical conclusion. We, in the West, are inheritors of the Enlightenment, which over time (with a strong dose of French influence) morphed into promoting a system that reduced all reality, all existence, to the natural world alone. As ministers, we must realize, too, that in this worldview, no place exists for any transcen­dence, much less a personal God like Yahweh. Though postmodern­ism, in its various incantations, has been a dialectical reaction to the cold harshness of a worldview that has turned everything into “just a physical system,” the twenty-first century West remains in the grip of the modernist mentality in which science and the scientific method remain, for many, the most reliable, if not the ultimate or even only, source of truth.

Cosmology, however, is not quite a zero-sum game—and whatever we have gained, or think we have gained through the modernist world, has been offset elsewhere, especially regarding what is most personal and important—the meaning of human life itself. Friederich Nietzsche, with his harsh atheism, because of his harsh atheism, could see what modernism would do to humanity’s sense of purpose and meaning. His famous (or infamous) “God is dead” quote was a warning about the void that the modern antimetaphysical worldview would leave inside the souls of humans. And that could easily include some of your own parishioners.

The Heisman factor

The point includes the fact that these philosophy and metaphysical issues have down-to-earth conse­quences. After all, life is hard enough, even as Christians who have expe­rienced the love of God, and who, even if through a “glass darkly,” know something of the wonderful richness of beings made in the image of a God who not only created but redeemed us. And yet still, what believer, even preacher, at the lowest moments, has not wondered if it is all worth it? (See Ecclesiastes 1:14.) Imagine, then, the life of those who do not know the Lord, who have not experienced the purposeful hopefulness found in the plan of salvation but believe, instead, that this existence is it, period—with nothing beyond?

Take 35-year-old Mitchell Heisman. Having lost faith in God, in anything transcendent, and delving into nihilism (the view that life itself is without meaning and—like Weinberg and Geller’s universe—pointless), Mitchell Heisman committed sui­cide. He shot himself in front of a church in Harvard Yard, but not before writing a 1,905-page suicide note in which he expressed where his nihilism had taken him:

“Every word, every thought, and every emotion,” he wrote, “come back to one core problem: life is meaningless. The experiment in nihil­ism is to seek out and expose every illusion and every myth, wherever it may lead, no matter what, even if it kills us.”

What, though, would have hap­pened had, on his way to Harvard Yard, Mitchell Heisman first walked into a Christian church in one last desperate attempt at answers? What would you, a minister, have said to Mitchell after he expressed his dreadful conclusion that “life was meaningless,” and so why should he hassle with all the pain and angst of living it?

What answer would you give him, or anyone, asking what many would argue consists of the most important question: What is the meaning of our lives, especially when these lives are so flawed, so damaged, so full of pain, lives that not only will surely die but surely know it, too?

The will to meaning

Victor Frankl was a 37-year-old Viennese neurologist and psychia­trist when he, along with his wife and parents, were deported to a Nazi concentration camp. Out of those horrific experiences (in which he alone survived), Frankl wrote the best-selling Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he proposed that our most basic need was to find meaning and purpose to our existence. Quoting Nietzsche, he wrote, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”6 In fact, playing off of Nietzsche’s misunderstood phrase “the will to power,” Frankl wrote about “the will to meaning,” the idea that, at our core, we seek purpose for our lives.

Along this line, Frankl developed what he called “logotherapy,” based on the Greek word logos (interesting in light of John 1:1), which he said denotes “meaning.” Frankl wrote, “According to logotherapy, this striv­ing to find meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man. That is why I speak of a will to meaning.”7

Frankl might have accurately diagnosed the problem, but his solu­tion was lame, a kind of humanistic existentialism in which we each find our own meaning and purpose in and of ourselves. For Frankl, there is no overarching purpose, as in deity (though he probably would find it fine if someone thought they could carve meaning for themselves that way). He used the analogy of chess: there is no one best move at any given time. You have to con­sider circumstance, context, and individuality, and from there, and from the immediacy of your own life, construe for yourself meaning.

One can see in Frankl the looming shadow of Nietzsche, who fulminated against any grand overarching view of the world from which we could derive meaning and purpose. Each of us, individu­ally—we have to create our own meaning based on conscience and being authentic and true to self. Each life needs, Nietzsche argued, to become a work of art devoted to self-overcoming and creativity. We must not be trapped or limited by, he said, a meta-scheme of supposed truth that tells us what to believe and how we should live.

Of course (if one wanted to be cynical), one could humbly ask, How did his philosophy work for Nietzsche himself? Nietzsche, who never mar­ried (and never, apparently, had a long-lasting romantic relationship), collapsed on a street in Italy at 44 years old and spent his final years in semicatatonic insanity.

Tough luck, Charley

Though Nietzsche’s sad life does not disprove his philosophy, it does lead to the question, How does one build a meaning for life when the very fabric of life and all that it has to work with is “just a system,” a “pointless” one at that?

Weinberg was not, in fact, the only scientist to express this senti­ment, again the logical conclusion of his premises. In 1958, a pioneer of quantum mechanics, Erwin Schrodinger, wrote, “Most painful is the absolute silence of all our scientific investigations toward our questions concerning the meaning and scope of the whole display. The more atten­tively we watch it, the more aimless and foolish it appears to be.”8

Or, as physical chemist Michael Polyani said, “Unfortunately, the ideal goals of science are nonsensi­cal. Current biology is based on the assumption that you can explain the processes of life in terms of phys­ics and chemistry; and, of course, physics and chemistry are both represented ultimately in terms of the forces acting between atom­ics particles. So all life, all human beings, all works of man, including Shakespeare’s sonnets and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, are also to be thus represented.”9

What, then, can arise from nothing but forces between atomic particles but more forces between atomic particles? What can be made out of only aimlessness and foolish­ness other than more aimlessness and foolishness? Hence, the tough slough for human beings, whose every cell cries out for more than foolishness and atomic forces.

The message of modernism is Tough luck, Charley. This is just the way it is, and we have the science­ i.e., lab experiments, mathematical formulas, and verifiable theories—to prove it. You want more? Then revert to what seventeenth-century politi­cal philosopher Thomas Hobbes dubbed “the kingdom of the fair­ies.” The modern world has moved beyond that.

“You live in a deranged age,” wrote American author Walter Percy, “more deranged than usual, because in spite of great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.”10

You do not need, however, to have lived in Percy’s “deranged age” to see the problem. Long before Christ, Solomon suffered from his own existential dread. Despite hav­ing all that the world could offer, he saw it all, in and of itself, as pointless. “Vanity of vanities,” he wrote, “all is vanity” (Eccles. 1:2). The word vanity (from the Hebrew hbl) means “vapor,” or “breath,” and is sometimes translated as “meaningless.” In Jeremiah 2:5, the noun is turned into a verb, and describes what happened to those who turned away from the Lord. “ ‘What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness [from hbl], and became worthless [from hbl]?’ ” (ESV; emphasis supplied).

Building on worthlessness, meaninglessness, their lives became worthless, meaningless. What else could they become? If you add nega­tive numbers to negative numbers, you get only negative numbers. The sum is always less than zero. A  worldview that teaches that reality has no purpose but to infuse reason­ing in creatures who are part of that reality with anything but purpose­lessness, is a miserable conclusion for beings, who at their core, as Frankl rightly said, seek purpose. Thus, Shakespeare’s line that life “is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”

Eternity in our hearts

Contrast this, however, with Christianity, with the worldview it represents, which would have given Mitchell Heisman the meaning he so desperately sought but could not find in a godless cosmos filled with just “atoms and the void.”

Instead, Scripture posits the uni­verse as the purposeful creation of a loving God (John 1:1–3; Heb. 1:2; 11:3), and humanity as thoughtfully created in His image (Gen. 1:26, 27), a radically different approach than the mindless massacre of Darwinian evolution. According to the Bible, this God created us, sustains us (Dan. 5:23; Heb. 1:3; Acts 17:28), and, most importantly, redeemed us through His own self-sacrifice in the Person of Jesus on the cross (Gal. 1:4; 1 Tim. 2:6).

Redemption is crucial because to be merely created by God, in and of  itself, is not enough to give us mean­ing—not when we all face death, the insidious acid that eats away at every ultimate purpose. What can life mean when it—and everyone we know in it, everyone we have ever impacted, when every influence we ever had—will all vanish into oblivion, with no consciousness of any kind to remember that we ever existed?

Scripture says that God “set eternity in the man’s heart” (Eccles. 3:11); we, then, are not only capable of contemplating eternity but have been wired for it. Yet here is pre­cisely where we painfully, even infinitely, fall short.

That is why, central to the Christian worldview, the teaching that the Lord, the Creator of all that was made (John 1:3), died for us so that we could have the promise of the eternity that He had set in our hearts. “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life” (John 6:54). “And I give unto them eternal life” (John 10:28). “Who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting” (Luke 18:30). “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life(1 John 5:13).

Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life ever­lasting” (1 Tim. 1:16).

The answer

What, then, could you, as a minister, say to Mitchell Heisman or anyone who asked, What is the purpose and meaning of life?

The purpose of our lives is to love God first and foremost, and then our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:37, 38), revealing to others and to the onlooking universe (1 Cor. 4:9; Eph. 3:10) the power and grace of a God who loved us so much that He bore in Himself the penalty for our sins (John 3:16; Isa. 53:4–6; 1 John 2:2) so we do not have to bear it ourselves. Thus, our lives are dedicated to His glory (1 Pet. 4:16; Rom. 15:6), which is made manifest by our willingness to serve oth­ers (1 John 3:16; Matt. 25:31–40), knowing that no good deed will go unrewarded (Matt. 10:42; Luke 6:35), that this existence is a “vapor” (James 4:14), and that through what Jesus has done for us we will live forever (John 17:3; Rom. 6:22; Matt. 19:29) in a new heaven and a new earth, one without any of the things that make us miserable here (Isa. 65:17; Rev. 21:1–4). And because we know the gospel as such good news (Isa. 52:7; Acts 20:24), the deepest purpose and meaning in life is found in bearing witness (Isa. 43:10; Heb. 12:1) to the infinite value of every human being, revealed in the infinite sacrifice made in their behalf (Rom. 5:8; 1 Pet. 1:19); and, therefore, through our testimony of our lives others can come to know the hope and promise of eternal life offered every human being (John 3:16; Rom. 10:11–13) in Jesus Christ.

That is what you could tell Mitchell Heisman (or anyone who asks) about the meaning of life.

Or, instead, there is always Steven Weinberg’s option. Though he argued that the universe itself is pointless, we can still, he said, “invent a point for our lives, including trying to understand the universe.” If, though, the universe is pointless—what is to understand? Why bother trying? One might even humbly ask, too, Is not seeking to “invent” a point for our lives by studying a pointless universe the kind of self-contradictory and, ultimately, futile endeavor that is so often at the root of human meaning­lessness to begin with?

Pointedly so.


Notes:

1 Osip Mandelstam, “Eyesight of Wasps,” in Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, Neil Astely, ed. (New York, Hyperion, 2003), 45.

Rolling Stone, September 3, 2009, 49.

3 Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 255.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 76.

7 Ibid., 98, 99.

8 Erwin Schrodinger, What Is Life? (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1959), 138.

9 Harry Polyani and Harry Prosch, Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 25.

10 http://lifeondoverbeach.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/walker -percy-on-the-deranged-age-we-live-in/.


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Clifford Goldstein, MA, is director of the Adult Bible Study Guide, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States

November 2011

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