The Irrationality of Existence or, How to Find the Meaning of Life, much to Nietzsche’s Chagrin

DSC01524We’re too busy to ask the big questions anymore, but they linger over our heads like an ominous shadow lurking in our rooms while we sleep. We keep ourselves occupied with jobs, television, movies, video games, the internet, and a host of other things. Companies make billions of dollars a year off the fact that we will buy anything, any amount of money, and do anything we can in order to keep ourselves busy and thoughtless. The more thoughtless the entertainment, the less it demands of us, the more likely we are to consume it. Why is it that reality television shows have become so popular? Is it because we are that dumb, or are we that desperate to silence the big questions of life? At least the alcoholic is honest with himself and admits to drinking in order to avoid and suppress life’s difficulties; the TV junkie or video game addict hardly realizes he has a problem.

Yet, we must all face the big questions. At a funeral, they sneak up on us without our permission and infect our minds. What if I’m next? What has the purpose of my life been? What if this is all it’s worth? We hate funerals because it reminds us of our own inevitability; certainly we will miss the person who has died, but even for strange acquaintances whose funerals we attend out of social obligation we still feel our stomachs turn.  We realize that one day we will be the person in the casket and it is in that moment that life’s big questions engulf us, it is then we all become Jonahs in the belly of a great fish, trapped in a darkness we’ve fought so hard to avoid.

We quickly push such thoughts away by looking at our phones for the latest news, looking at what Jane is wearing, thinking about what the kids have to do tomorrow, putting together a grocery list, and the line of distractions grow. We distance ourselves from the big questions, yet they remain. When forced to confront our own mortality, we are faced with the meaninglessness of our existence. To the ancient Greeks, life wasn’t meaningless because one was supposed to pursue the good. Of course, they then spent countless hours defining and attempting to understand exactly what “the good” was. For Plato, the good was some abstract form, something to which we could only achieve within the form world. To Aristotle, the good was found mostly in this life, through living a virtuous life. Yet, both seem meaningless; if the good is abstracted and unobtainable in this life, then what is the purpose in trying to pursue it? If the good is found in a virtuous life, how much virtue and how long do I have to live before I obtain it? For the Romans, specifically Cicero, the good was best manifested in being a good citizen. But oh that Cicero could have seen his Republic fail (he did see its twilight), for then he would realize that being a good citizen cannot be our ultimate end since the State is mutable. Turn East and one could seek the Tao, but the Tao is immutable and therefore one cannot know if it is obtained or not. Or one could seek Nirvana, which is ultimately nothingness; if the purpose of life is to obtain nothingness, then there is no purpose.

Before we ridicule the ancients in the East and the West, we should better understand that us moderns are infantile in our quest compared to the ancients. At least they dared to stand their ground against the big questions of life. Rather than fleeing as we do, they turned and like a brave soldier fought against these questions. They did battle with the struggles of life and even if they did not emerge victoriously, at least they fought. We moderns are far too quick to run away. We tend to take the meaning of life for granted, hiding behind beautifully written platitudes that when exposed to scrutiny, dissolve like paper in acid. Think of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which while a great film, provides a cleverly written, but stupidly simple meaning of life: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.” Like modern music, such a saying might sound great to the masses, but there’s really nothing behind it. If the meaning of life is to see the world, then already those who are poor are now excluded from enjoying the meaning of life. Only those who can afford trips need apply to having meaning in life. To see dangerous things to come, to see behind walls (that is, to see the truth of the world), to draw closer and find each other, and to feel; none of these, however, indicate positive things. By all accounts, both Gandhi and Hitler obtained the meaning of life, both Mother Theresa and Josef Stalin stood on equal footing when it came to finding meaning in this life. All involved saw the world, they saw the dangerous things, they saw behind the lies of the world, they drew closer to some and even found love, and they did feel. Such a meaning of life is amoral, which means there is no meaning at all.  Continue reading


Rethinking Acts 17 and Apologetics

Let me go ahead and beat any commenters to the punch: This post is full of hypocrisy. Hence the ‘rethinking’ part of the title. I’m rethinking how I approach issues and deal with them. So, let me get to the hypocritical part of what I want to say.

Much of modern Christian apologetics is full of pointing out how every other belief in the world is wrong. Much time and effort is spent pointing out how Islam is actually violent by nature, arguing with Muslims over how to interpret their own holy writings. We point out how illogical Eastern thinking is. We do everything can to show why other beliefs are wrong and why our beliefs are right. From a Western mindset, this is simply the logical way of handling things, but I’m not sure it fits with what we see in Scripture.

The favorite go-to verse in Scripture dealing with Apologetics is Acts 17 where Paul confronts the intellects of Athens. It’s the famous passage dealing with the statue to the “Unknown god.” Paul points out who the unknown God is to them, stating that He is Christ and the Creator of everything. By stating exactly who God is, he is automatically implying that the pagan philosophies he’s dealing with (stoicism and epicureanism) are wrong in some regard, but he doesn’t come right out and say that. Instead, he points out where they’re right, but then moves on to complete their beliefs by removing the incompleteness from them.

And that’s where I think we’ve gone wrong. We’re so quick to point out where other religions are wrong that we’re missing the point; they’re not wrong, they’re just incomplete, and in being incomplete they’ve tacked on these certain beliefs in the hopes of completing their religions. A heresy is wrong – being a Jehovah’s Witness or a Mormon is wrong because it denies an essential aspect of Christ’s nature. But it’s wrong because it’s incomplete and a falsehood has been used to make up for the incompleteness of the religion.

Think of how Paul would address Taoism. In modern apologetics one would simply show how Taoism is illogical and point out the problems with it. But I’m not sure this is the best approach. Take part of the Tao teh Ching, where we read:

There exists a Being undifferentiated and complete, born before heaven and earth. Tranquil, boundless, abiding alone and changing not, encircling everything without exhaustion. Fathomless, it seems to be the Source of all things. I do not know its name, but characterize it as the Tao. Arbitrarily forcing a name upon it, I call it Great.

Now, “tao” in Chinese mens “way” or “path.” In other words, the way is fathomless, the source of all things, is Great, and is eternal. Who does that sound like (hint: John 14:6)? Perhaps the best approach here isn’t to say, “Wrong, Jesus is the way, not the tao!” we should instead say, “Yes, you’re right, let me explain more of this Tao.”

I’m certainly not advocating pluralism or universalism. I’m not saying these other religions are true, merely that they contain truth. One is not “saved” by holding onto aspects of the truth, just as one is not in a relationship with a person by only knowing a few things about the person and never having contact with the person. But knowing a few things about that person sure helps in getting to know him.

Perhaps we should do what Paul did, which is find what we have in common first. Let us find the truth in each religion first and then point this truth out to the adherent. In coming into contact with the truth, they will begin to see how the falsehoods surrounding the truth do not coincide with the truth, they’ll begin to see the contradictions; just as oil cannot mix with water, lies cannot mix with what is true. By allowing the truth to come to the surface, the lies will inevitably be pointed out, opening the door to point them to the Truth.

After all, how effective have Christians been at protesting Islam or holding debates against Rabbis? How much is really gained when people are put on the defensive? It would seem that instead of pointing out what’s wrong, we should first point out what’s right and then go from there. After all, if it’s the Truth we’re after, why not begin with truth?