No larger frame of meaning?

Creation presents us with a larger frame of meaning

Reacting against the shortcomings of traditional religion, some thinkers in our own time have formulated a radical alternative. They profess themselves atheists or agnostics: atheists are people who state unequivocally that no God exists; agnostics declare that they have insufficient evidence for either the existence or non-existence of divinity. Many of them adhere to a philosophy of life which is usually referred to as humanism.

Humanists start from the assumption that human beings are on their own. God does not exist. Also, there is no sequel to life on earth. “The life we live now is all there is.” We have to take responsibility for our own life and for that of other people. Human values stand central. That is all we live for (see: V.GORDON CHILDE, Man Makes Himself, New York 1951; H.J.BLACKMAN, Humanism, Harmondsworth 1968).

Humanists are willing to accept that life is meaningless, futile and absurd when seen on a wider level. We are told to accept this fact manfully, to acknowledge it rather than lapse again into the childish comforts of religion. Bertrand Russell, a great mathematician and philosopher, as well as an avowed atheist, urges us to disown the gods of savages; to reject the slavery of those who are doomed to worship Time, Fate, Death and the other forces of nature; to shake off all cowardice and face our final destruction with courage.

Here are some extracts from his famous essay A Free Man’s Worship:

“The world which science presents to us is purposeless and void of meaning.”

“Man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving; his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction.”

“Brief and powerless is man’s life; on him and on his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way.”

B.RUSSELL, `A Free Man’s Worship’ in Mysticism and Logic, New York 1951, pp.44-54.>

Large meaning versus small meaning

Another atheist, Edward Klemke, also advocates that “we make the best of a bad job”. He sees his experience of life reflected in the story of a Syrian merchant. The man led his camel through the desert dreaming of water, date palms and shade. The man and his animal arrived at a dark abyss. The man leant over to look into the gaping ravine. Suddenly the camel lurched forward, with teeth showing and protruding eyes, and pushed him over the edge.

Fortunately for the Syrian, his clothes were caught in a rosebush. He hung suspended over the ravine. When he looked down he saw at the bottom a panther waiting to devour him. Over his head he heard two mice chewing away at the roots of the bush so that it began to sag more and more. “In spite of this desperate situation, the Syrian was thralled to the point of utmost contentment by a rose which adorned the bush and wafted its fragrance into his face.” (see: R.HERTZ, Chance and Symbol, Chicago 1948, pp.142-143.)

Edward Klemke finds that this story expresses both the agony and thrill of human existence. All of us hang by the thread of a few vanishing years over the bottomless pit of death, destruction and nothingness, he says. We cannot deny those stark facts. What we can do is to make the best of the fleeting moments of enjoyment that come our way:

“What your situation is, I cannot say. But I know that I am that Syrian, and that I am hanging over the pit. My doom is inevitable and swiftly approaching. If, in these few moments that are yet mine, I can find no rose to respond to, or rather, if I have lost the ability to respond, then I shall moan and curse my fate with a howl of bitter agony.

But if I can, in these last moments, respond to a rose – or to a philosophical argument or theory of physics, or to a Scarlatti sonata, or to the touch of a human hand – I say, if I can so respond and can thereby transform an external and fatal event into a moment of conscious insight and significance, then I shall go down without hope or appeal yet passionately triumphant and with joy.”

E.D.KLEMKE, `Living without appeal’, in E.D.KLEMKE, Reflections and Perspectives, The Hague 1974, p. 109; see also E.D.KLEMKE (ed), The Meaning of Life, Oxford 1981.>


This may sound like the brave talk of a man condemned to death, but it does offer meaning. It substitutes the ultimate meaning proposed by religion, with immediate meaning here and now. The large meaning is denied; a small meaning retained: the joy of a significant fleeting moment.

carpe

There is nothing `small’ about immediate meaning in itself. It makes good sense. The ancient Romans coined the expression Carpe Diem, “make the most of every day”, to instil a positive attitude in people facing personal loss or financial disaster (“Pluck the day. Rely on tomorrow as little as you can”; HORACE (65-8 BC), Odes I,2,8). But then as now it may hide a deep pessimism. And the question remains: are we really hanging over a bottomless pit? Could it be that Klemke’s `rose’ reveals the wider dimensions of ultimate reality uncovered by religion?

Let us listen carefully to what Klemke says. “If I can respond to a rose – or to a philosophical argument or theory of physics, or to a Scarlatti sonata, or to the touch of a human hand . . . . “

Is it not striking that Klemke mentions precisely those human experiences that disclose deeper realities?

A philosophical argument or theory of physics can, indeed, thrill us precisely because they concern factual truth. Truth is fascinating. Truth draws its power from the nature of creation and compels us to assent. The unchangeability of Truth derives from God.

The same applies to the other examples mentioned by Klemke. He is transported by a Scarlatti sonata, or the intimacy of love. Again, these are experiences which carry meaning because they take us outside ourselves to the level of transcendence and timelessness. What else are people saying when they tell us that music lifts them to the highest heaven, that music opens a vista on the universe, that music is the human incarnation of the divine force of creation? The same, and more, can be said about genuine human intimacy.

In other words, Klemke’s `rose’ is either just a drug, a momentary escape, a pain killer – and then it demeans rather than ennobles. Or it puts him in contact with `ultimate meaning’ and that would explain why it makes him come out triumphant in spite of suffering and death.

On what grounds do I exclude a universal, ultimate context of meaning? Am I sure that all that exists is the physical world I see? Do I do justice to myself by reducing my self worth to success in coping with day-to-day events? Will death put an irrevocable end to all I am? Precisely because human life is so precious, we should explore the fundamental questions carefully. 

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CREDITS

The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

View the following film on the meaning of creation