Accusations of barren desolation, of promoting an arid and joyless message, are frequently flung at science in general … But such very proper purging of saccharine false purpose; such laudable tough-mindedness in the debunking of cosmic sentimentality must not be confused with a loss of personal hope. Presumably there is indeed no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, but do any of us really tie our life’s hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway? Of course we don’t; not if we’re sane. Our lives are ruled by all sorts of closer, warmer, human ambitions and perceptions. To accuse science of robbing life of the warmth that makes it worth living is so preposterously mistaken, so diametrically opposite to my own feelings and those of most working scientists, I am almost driven to the despair of which I am wrongly suspected. … The feeling of awed wonder that science can give is us one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that makes life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living it is finite.
From Old Testament times and ancient Greece until this century, the good life was widely understood to mean a life of intellectual and moral virtue. The good life is the life of ideal human functioning according to the nature that God Himself gave to us. According to this view, prior to creation God had in mind an ideal blueprint of human nature from which he created each and every human being. Happiness was understood as a life of virtue, and the successful person was one who knew how to live life well according to what we are by nature due to the creative design of God.
Consider this small sample of perennial human concerns. We are moral creatures with moral duties to one another, but we seem confused about the source of morality’s claim upon our lives, unsure of our judgements about what is right and wrong, and curiously impotent to consistently practice our morality. Though we are familiar with the brevity of life, and some of us even make a tolerably good show of accepting the finitude of our existence, we have an irresistible and uncanny hankering for permanence. We have no trouble relating to the ambivalence of Woody Allen’s confession, “It’s not that I’m afraid to die; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” We ponder inconclusively the personal and cosmic significance of the many evils of human experience. And we are shocked to find the worst of human impulses lurking in that most unwelcome of places — the deep recesses of our own hearts. Even if we are fortunate enough to be spared life’s greater tragedies (war, famine, plague, and the like), we fret about the monotony that accompanies a life of relative ease and comfort — and we come full circle to wonder again what life is about.
Ask yourself, “What is a hippie?” I mean, this is an old word that has a lot of connotations. Remember, the sixties happened in the early seventies. That’s sort of when I came of age. So I saw a lot of this. A lot of it happened right in our backyard here. To me, the spark of that was that there was something beyond what you see every day. There is something going on here in life beyond just a job and a family and two cars in the garage and a career. There is something more going on. There is another side of the coin, that we don’t talk about much. We experience it when there are gaps. When everything is not ordered and perfect, when there’s a gap, you experience this inrush of something. And a lot of people have set off throughout history to find out what that was. Whether it’s Thoreau, whether it’s some Indian mystics, or whoever it might be. The hippie movement got a little bit of that and wanted to find out what that was. And of course the pendulum swung too far the other way and it was crazy, but there was a germ of something there.
Other animals have instincts to guide them, but man has learned to ask questions. “Who am I?” man asks. “Why am I here? Where am I going?” Since the Enlightenment, when he threw off the shackles of religion, man has tried to answer these questions without reference to God. But the answers that came back were not exhilarating, but dark and terrible. “You are the accidental by-product of nature, a result of matter plus time plus chance. There is no reason for your existence. All you face is death.” Modern man thought that when he had gotten rid of God, he had freed himself from all that repressed and stifled him. Instead, he discovered that in killing God, he had also killed himself.
What, if anything, is it that makes the human uniquely human? This, in part, is the question that G.K. Chesterton starts with in this classic exploration of human history. Responding to the evolutionary materialism of his contemporary (and antagonist) H.G. Wells, Chesterton in this work affirms human uniqueness and the unique message of the Christian faith. He sees in Christianity a rare blending of philosophy and mythology, or reason and story, which satisfies both the mind and the heart. On both levels it rings true. As he puts it, "in answer to the historical query of why it was accepted, and is accepted, I answer for millions of others in my reply; because it fits the lock; because it is like life." Here, as so often in Chesterton, we sense a lived, awakened faith. All that he writes derives from a keen intellect guided by the heart’s own knowledge. ~ Doug Thorpe
It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more or less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning. As I write this I happen to be in an airplane at 30,000 feet, flying over Wyoming en route home from San Francisco to Boston. Below, the earth looks very soft and comfortable — fluffy clouds here and there, snow turning pink as the sun sets, roads stretching straight across the country from one town to another. It is very hard to realize that this all is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. … The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.
The sources to which Taylor refers are the moral ideals, ideas, and understandings that have dominated in various historical eras. Taylor’s basic premise is rather simple, “we are only our selves insofar as we move in a certain space of questions, as we seek and find an orientation to the good (p. 34).” His purpose is not to specify the good, that is, he does not seek to set normative definitions or qualifications. His purpose is to show that self-definition requires a framework in which to be understood. The historical course of his narrative begins with the classical perspective. In this view, self was dependent on a vision of the True or the Ideal. The hierarchical nature of reality presupposed in classical thought meant that self-definition was subservient to the whole. Traditional Christian thought embraced the classical perspective and the preference for self-definition by externals. Obviously, this short sketch of classical thought seems to be absurdly irrelevant in our contemporary world. Self is definitely not defined in relation to externals, but by an extreme interiority, complete rejection of hierarchical schemes, and the assumption that reality is defined empirically rather than conceptually. This book traces the transformation of the classical perspective through history in each of these areas: the movement toward inwardness, the affirmation of ordinary life, and the voice of nature. ~ Peter A. Kindle at Amazon.com
Our law affords constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education. Our cases recognize “the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.” Our precedents “have respected the private realm of family life which the state cannot enter.” These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion by the State.
I looked at the Gita and was deeply moved, as who could fail to be, but I was not convinced. When it came to the point I found myself quite unable to believe that what happened in the world as the result of my actions was not of ultimate importance. To be sure it mattered little what I, as a single individual, did as the German tanks rolled into France, but what thousands like me did might make a crucial difference to the course of human history. At that moment I discovered myself to be profoundly occidental. ¶ I do not suppose that even now I can render fully explicit what lay behind that conviction, but it had, I believe, something to do with the Christian pattern of Creation and Redemption and a consequent vision of the world as the theatre of irrevocable choices.
[This world] exists nonnecessarily, improbably, and causelessly. It exists for absolutely no reason at all. It is inexplicably and stunningly actual … The impact of this captivated realization upon me is overwhelming. I am completely stunned. I take a few dazed steps in the dark meadow, and fall among the flowers. I lie stupefied, whirling without comprehension in this world through numberless worlds other than this one.
In a sense, and as in melodrama, killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it. Let’s not go too far in such analogies, however, but rather return to everyday words. It is merely confessing that that “is not worth the trouble.” Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering. ¶ What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.
For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command or faith a dictum. I am my own God. ¶ We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our educational system. ¶ We are here to drink beer. ¶ We are here to kill war. ¶ We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us. ¶ We are here to read these words from all these wise men and women who will tell us that we are here for different reasons and the same reason.
We are here to witness the creation and abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house. ¶ According to the second law of thermodynamics, things fall apart. Structures disintegrate. Buckminster Fuller hinted at a reason we are here: By creating things, by thinking up new combinations, we counteract this flow of entropy. We make new structures, new wholeness, so the universe comes out even. A shepherd on a hilltop who looks at a mess of stars and thinks, ‘There’s a hunter, a plow, a fish,’ is making mental connections that have as much real force in the universe as the very fires in those stars themselves.
Ancient religion and modern science agree: we are here to give praise. Or, to slightly tip the expression, to pay attention. Without us, the physicists who have espoused the anthropic principle tell us, the universe would be unwitnessed, and in a real sense not there at all. It exists, incredibly, for us. This formulation (knowing what we know of the universe’s ghastly extent) is more incredible, to our sense of things, than the Old Testament hypothesis of a God willing to suffer, coddle, instruct, and even (in the Book of Job) to debate with men, in order to realize the meager benefit of worship, of praise for His Creation. What we beyond doubt do have is our instinctive intellectual curiosity about the universe from the quasars down to the quarks, our wonder at existence itself, and an occasional surge of sheer blind gratitude for being here.
If a thing makes no difference, it is a waste of time to think about it. We should begin, then, with the question, What difference does Heaven make to earth, to now, to our lives? Only the difference between hope and despair in the end, between two totally different visions of life, between “chance or the dance.” At death we find out which vision is true: does it all go down the drain in the end, or are all the loose threads finally tied together into a gloriously perfect tapestry? Do the tangled paths through the forest of life lead to the golden castle or over the cliff and into the abyss? Is death a door or a hole?
Persons are thinking and reflective as well as merely existing beings. They have unanswered puzzles in their minds as well as unrelieved estrangement in their souls. They have skeptical doubts about the truth they possess as well as despair about the meaning of life that is theirs. They are curious about intellectual answers as well as hungry for a new mode of being or existing. And clearly these two levels, the existential and the intellectual-reflective, are interacting and interrelated all the time.
The mystical conception, fundamental in the great religions of the East, of the soul as imprisoned in matter, and of redemption as salvation and escape from the world of time and the flesh, is incompatible with the sense that all our experience in this world has value and meaning which would seem to inspire the tragic poet… Religions which preach withdrawal from the world of human action, and train the human spirit in detachment from its fellows, teaching it to aspire towards ‘the flight of the Alone to the Alone’, or to the bliss of Nirvana, put aside the tragic question, and will not inspire artists to find meaning in human life in its short course in this world of illusions.
I am one of the searchers. There are, I believe, millions of us. We are not unhappy, but neither are we really content. We continue to explore life, hoping to uncover its ultimate secret. We continue to explore ourselves, hoping to understand. We like to walk along the beach, we are drawn by the ocean, taken by its power, its unceasing motion, its mystery and unspeakable beauty. We like forests and mountains, deserts and hidden rivers, and the lonely cities as well. Our sadness is as much a part of our lives as is our laughter. To share our sadness with one we love is perhaps as great a joy as we can know — unless it be to share our laughter. ¶ We searchers are ambitious only for life itself, for everything beautiful it can provide. Most of all we love and want to be loved. We want to live in a relationship that will not impede our wandering, nor prevent our search, nor lock us in prison walls; that will take us for what little we have to give. We do not want to prove ourselves to another or compete for love. ¶ For wanderers, dreamers, and lovers, for lonely men and women who dare to ask of life everything good and beautiful. It is for those who are too gentle to live among wolves.
The historic Christian position is that man’s dilemma has a moral cause. God, being nondetermined, created man as a nondetermined person. This is a difficult idea for anyone thinking in twentieth-century terms because most twentieth-century thinking sees man as determined. He is determined either by chemical factors, as the Marquis de Sade held and Francis Crick is trying to prove, or by psychological factors, as Freud and others have suggested, or by sociological factors, such as B.F. Skinner holds. In these cases, or as a result of a fusion of them, man is considered to be programmed. If this is the case, then man is not the tremendous thing the Bible says he is, made in the image of God as a personality who can make a free first choice. Because God created a true universe outside of himself (or as an extension of his essence), there is a true history which exists, man as created in God’s image is therefore a significant man in a significant history, who can choose to obey the commandments of God and love him, or revolt against him.
Although many details remain to be worked out, it is already evident that all the objective phenomena of the history of life can be explained by purely naturalistic or, in a proper sense of the sometimes abused word, materialistic factors. They are readily explicable on the basis of differential reproduction in populations (the main factor in the modern conception of natural selection) and of the mainly random interplay of the known processes of heredity. … Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned. He is a state of matter, a form of life, a sort of animal, and a species of the Order Primates, akin nearly or remotely to all of life and indeed to all that is material. It is, however, a gross representation to say that he is just an accident or nothing but an animal. Among all the myriad forms of matter and of life on the earth, or as far as we know in the universe, man is unique. He happens to present the highest form of organization of matter and energy that has ever appeared. Recognition of this kinship with the rest of the universe is necessary for understanding him, but his essential nature is defined by qualities found nowhere else, not by those he has in common with apes, fishes, trees, fire, or anything other than himself.
Man inhabits, for his own convenience, a homemade universe within the greater alien world of external matter and his own irrationality. Out of the illimitable blackness of the world the light of his customary thinking scoops, as it were, a little illuminated cave — a tunnel of brightness, in which, from the brink of consciousness to its death, he lives, moves, and has his being. …. We ignore the outer darkness; or if we cannot ignore it, if it presses too insistently upon us, we disapprove of being afraid.
Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.