A Pang for Eternity

Does life have meaning? It depends upon where you look for an answer.

gustave_dore_-_dante_alighieri_-_inferno_-_plate_18_canto_v_-_dante_has_a_touch_of_the_vapours

Gustave Doré’s rendition (19th century) of Dante’s vision of Paola and Francesca in Hell.

I was reading Ecclesiastes when I stumbled upon this sentence: He [God] has made everything beautiful in its times; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end (Ecclesiastes 3:11 RSV).

The sentence is evocative like good poetry. I had to pause and take in what the author was saying. It struck me as something very perceptive.

Odd Book in the Canon

Ecclesiastes is an odd book in the Hebrew canon. The author is called the Preacher and linked to Solomon, proverbially the wisest of the Hebrew sages. But he does not speak like a Hebrew sage. More like a Greek philosopher or moralist.

He is decidedly rationalistic in approaching the meaning of life. He travels widely, observing carefully all around him. Though he believes in God, he does not rely much on the precepts of Hebrew religion for his analysis. Rather he is skeptical of much of what the Hebrew faith teaches.

What does he concludes from his observations? Everywhere he looks, he sees impermanence. Seasons come and go, so do human beings. All–king or peasant, rich or poor, wise or foolish, noble lady or maid–all face the same fate: the grave.

So his final conclusion is: all is vanity. All is but a puff of wind. What is here today is gone tomorrow. Human beings therefore should just enjoy the pleasures of today nor work too obsessively, for they do not know what tomorrow brings. It’s a distinctly morose view of life.

The Longing for Meaning

That’s why the sentence I quoted at the beginning so struck me. The author seems to believe that a longing for something permanent, something forever meaningful, lies within the mind and heart of human beings, but we can never find it.

The longing lies deep in the human psyche. The question is: Is there any way to satisfy it? The Preacher is skeptical. Human beings, despite all their longing, cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

This would suggest that human life is always restless, never able to find contentment. This brings to mind the image in Dante’s Divine Comedy of the lovers Paolo and Francesca whirling around their circle of Hell passionately pursuing each other but never able to find a moment to rest and connect.

Rationalism’s Dead End

I wonder if the Preacher’s dismal vision may not represent where a totally rationalistic approach to life ultimately ends. Can reason alone, whether inductive or empirical, finally penetrate into the inner secrets of life and the universe? Can we ever really understand to our full contentment? I think the Preacher would say No.

I find this a provocative question because a couple of years ago I read Jim Holt’s book Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story. In it he traces the way modern human beings try to answer the vexing question: What is the mystery of existence? Why should there be a universe at all, and why are we a part of it?

He seeks answers by interviewing some of today’s top philosophers, physicists, and cosmologists. Many of them are working on the far reaches of current scientific exploration. It is amazing how much modern science has uncovered secret after secret about the universe.

And yet, despite their amazing knowledge, Holt quotes a number of scientists who have concluded at the end of all their study that the universe is meaningless. It has no purpose. It just is, period. Now, I think the Preacher would be right at home within their circle. All is but a breath of wind.

Moving Beyond Reason

If this is the ultimate end point for a purely rationalistic approach to understanding life and the world, then human beings have to turn elsewhere for an answer. Some, I think, turn to the world of imagination. Others to the world of religion. Human beings have eternity in their minds. If science cannot satisfy their longing, then they will search in alternative fields.

In the world of imagination, they can explore a world which has meaning. That’s one reason, I suspect, we are constantly attracted to stories–whether in print or cinema–where good ultimately triumphs over evil. We encounter them in fairy tales, TV police dramas, compelling novels, and cinema (the Star Wars series is a great example).

Imagination may not be able to prove its case by rational argument, but imagination may intuitively perceive a truth that is not available to reason. Or alternatively there is always the possibility that imagination may be dead wrong. Yet we are drawn back over and over again to stories that posit some kind of meaning to the lives we live. Our fascination with these stories bears witness to the depth of our longings.

The other alternative is religion, especially if the religion is based upon some belief in divine revelation as do Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Historically religion has been probably the most prevalent way for most of humanity to find the contentment to the longing for eternity that the Preacher detects in the human mind.

One Christian Answer

Certainly the Christian faith does that for me. And no one provides it better for me than something out of my spiritual heritage as a Presbyterian. In the 17th century English Presbyterians adopted what are known as the Westminster Standards. They include a catechism for instruction in the faith.

The opening question of the catechism with its answer is probably the best known statement in all of the Westminster Standards. It reads:

Q. What is the chief end of man? 

A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

 There, at the very start of its exposition of the fundamental teachings of the Christian faith, the catechism tackles the question of meaning right on. Life has meaning, and it’s tied up with our relationship to God.

It is easy to write this off as pious frou-frou. But I find it strangely profound. The universe, human beings, find their purpose in being in relationship, a relationship with their Maker. That relationship has two dimensions. One is the glorification of God; the other, however, is the enjoyment of God. Ultimately we are to bring pleasure to God and to enjoy pleasure ourselves through our relationship to the same loving God.

God creates out of a loving delight. We find our meaning as we respond to this same God in loving delight. Maybe that is the answer to that glimmer of eternity that the Preacher finds in human minds. But it is not an answer that reason alone could deliver. Only divine grace does.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s