Friday, September 28, 2012

Death, Life, Afterlife, Atheism and the Meaning of Life


Often the best way to disagree with our opponents is to agree with them – to build bridges of communication by first sharing common perspectives. Philip Appleman, an atheist, wrote:

  • Most of us need to be much tougher-minded than we are, more resolute in rejecting the bribes of the afterlife. Once definitely done with our adolescent longing for the Absolute, we would find this world valuable after all, and poignantly valuable precisely because it is not eternal. Doomed to extinction, our loves, our work, our friendships, our tastes are all painfully precious. We look about us…and discover that we are beautiful because we are mortal, priceless because we are so rare in the universe and so fleeting. Whatever we are, whatever we make of ourselves: that is all we will ever have –and that, in its profound simplicity, is the meaning of life. (Pique, Sept. 2012)
Of course, we can find much to disagree with in this statement. However, we can find areas of agreement, especially in the thoughts I’ve italicized.

This might sound strange to you, but death is a gift. It may be a painful reality, but we need it, at least for now. For one thing, an appreciation of the temporary nature of our lives provides an incentive to gain wisdom, as the Psalmist claims:

  • Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12)
If instead, our lives were indestructible, we would have little reason to gain wisdom. Who would need wisdom about health matters? However, our lives are very limited, and therefore, we can’t take them for granted.

I like to remind myself of this fact. I do this by walking in cemeteries and reading the inscriptions on the stones. They remind me that my own life is very temporary, and even more, that my relationships are merely a temporary gift. This fact urges me to cherish my dear wife for the short time she has been entrusted to me and to keep the brief irritations in their proper, insignificant context.

We’ve all seen the tears, relief and joy when a loved one is miraculously pulled alive out of the rubble of a killer-earthquake. Nothing is more precious than their reunion with the loved one! All hurts and resentments are forgiven and forgotten.

It is therefore no wonder that the Psalmist prays:

  • Show me, O Lord, my life's end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man's life is but a breath. Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro: He bustles about, but only in vain; he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it. But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you. (Psalm 39:4-7)
Death and the prospect of death not only restore us to sanity – a proper appreciation of our lives and relationships - it also restores our primary relationship. If we are indestructible, there is little to hope for. Drought, disease and thirst can’t touch us. However, as the Psalmist is reminded that he is a mere “breath,” he is forced to look hopefully towards God. Only God is an adequate source of hope. Even if a man “heaps up wealth” during his short sojourn, it is utterly meaningless.

Once we build our bridge of communication through sharing areas of agreement, we can begin to use it to probe the disagreements. In contrast to our Biblical perspective, Appleman asserts:

  • Whatever we are, whatever we make of ourselves: that is all we will ever have –and that, in its profound simplicity, is the meaning of life.
However, how can we can we find hope and consolation in such a “meaning” – “Whatever we are, whatever we make of ourselves? Instead of producing hope, it lays an extra burden on our backs to produce and accomplish - but for what? We can even argue that an accomplishment-based identity is socially counterproductive. Emphasis on our differing levels of accomplishment separates people into classes, breeding arrogance, isolation and stratification rather than community.

This of course brings additional problems. If we derive our ultimate value from our job or our children, what happens to us when they depart? Won’t this create an unhealthy dependency?

Appleman also insists that we are “priceless because we are so rare in the universe.” Although rareness can drive up the price of oil, what makes us a priceless commodity? Rarity can’t do it! The bubonic plague is rare, but this does not make it priceless.

Besides, if we are just another animal on the evolutionary gradient, we might be priceless to our children, but so is the cockroach to its children, at least until the children leave home and we become an elderly burden. What then makes us priceless in an unchanging, objective sense?

Our Declaration of Independence identified the source of our pricelessness:

  • We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Our Founding Fathers understood that our value and rights couldn’t depend upon others, least of all government or society to bestow them. Our rights and value had to rest upon sturdier stuff – our unchanging and all-wise Creator. Only He could make our rights unalienable rights. If instead our rights and value were granted by government, they could just as easily be retracted by government.

Appleman needs to understand that our pricelessness can only be grounded in a priceless God. Lord, grant us the wisdom to be the light!

No comments:

Post a Comment