The Meaning of Life and Other Enigmas
What is life all about? Does it possess any intrinsic meaning? Or is this "meaning" just something we impose upon a meaningless void? These are sincere and important questions, and there has been no shortage of answers. In his comic masterpiece Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams tells how a race of superintelligent beings from a very advanced civilization constructed a supercomputer called Deep Thought to answer the question "What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?" Deep Thought's circuit boards pulsed with activity for seven and a half million years and finally produced a result: 42--an enigmatic answer, to say the very least. Perhaps an even more puzzling answer is offered in Alan Dean Foster's Glory Lane, which tells of a group of people who visit another advanced civilization and ask its similarly advanced supercomputer more or less the same question. This time, the meaning of life is defined in less numerical, but still slightly baffling, terms: shopping.
Perhaps these answers are meant to caution us concerning the reliability of some of the more serious answers to this question. Precisely because these answers are of such importance, people tend to treat them with suspicion, even cynicism. And they are right to do so. How many people have been deluded, hoodwinked, or pressured into accepting less than adequate, and even dangerous, answers? Yet this understandable degree of cynicism must not force us to draw the conclusion that there is no meaning to life; or that, if there is indeed a meaning, it is so hidden and obscure that none can hope to find it.
Many of the answers given to these questions are religious, and for that reason they automatically attract ridicule from the "let's get rid of religion" school. Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins, who is a particularly luminous representative of this group, is quite clear why so many people find religion attractive. It offers them--to use his terms--"explanation," "consolation," and "uplift." In every case, of course, Dawkins argues that what religion offers is completely false and that the truthfulness of the sciences is to be preferred. Science may not always be able to offer the equal of religion, but at least what it offers is absolutely true. As Dawkins puts these points in an article in Humanist magazine, following his election as Humanist of the Year:
Humans have a great hunger for explanation. It may be one of the main reasons why humanity so universally has religion, since religions do aspire to provide explanations. We come to our individual consciousness in a mysterious universe and long to understand it. Most religions offer . . . a cosmology and a biology; however, in both cases it is false.
Consolation is harder for science to provide. Unlike religion, science cannot offer the bereaved a glorious reunion with their loved ones in the hereafter . . .
Uplift, however, is where science really comes into its own. All the great religions have a place for awe, for ecstatic transport at the wonder and beauty of creation. And it's exactly this feeling of spine-shivering, breath-catching awe--almost worship--this flooding of the chest with ecstatic wonder, that modern science can provide.
One cannot help but feel that Dawkins here proceeds from preconceived ideas to predetermined conclusions with almost indecent haste. Religion is "false"--just like that, totally and completely. No room for doubt, discussion, or debate. The possibility of even a hint of the truth in any religion is excluded as a matter of principle. Nothing that religion says can possibly be right. Dawkins seems to live in a chiaroscuro world, in which everything is black and white, true or false. Science is true, religion is false--a neat little slogan, with about as much plausibility as George Orwell's creed from Animal Farm: "two legs bad, four legs good."
One of the reasons that religion is enjoying new public interest is a new awareness in its ability to address questions about what gives life its meaning, what consoles us in moments of darkness and despair, and what gives us a sense of hope, vision, and wonder. It is almost as if we are preprogrammed to ask these questions and deem them important. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell famously remarked in his History of Western Philosophy, once humanity has managed to work out how to feed itself, it naturally turns its attention to the great questions of meaning and significance. How do we fit into the greater scheme of things? These questions underlie the new interest in spirituality that has swept through much of the Western world in recent years.
The Recovery of Religion
One of the most distinctive features of the last few decades has been a rediscovery of the spiritual dimension to human existence. In every continent of the world--with the conspicuous exception of western Europe--there has been a surge of interest in the concept of the transcendent, with a growing reaction against what are seen as the unsatisfactory reductionisms of various materialist philosophies and worldviews. Why has there been this cascade in interest in spirituality and religion? Social theorists offer us explanations that sometimes sound rather like academic sour grapes--religion is just what infantile minds hang on to in times of crisis, or what people turn to in an attempt to resist modernization. Sure. Yet there are other more compelling reasons, which help us understand why religion will continue to play such a major role in human life and culture.
Religion offers explanation, consolation, and inspiration in about equal measure. Each of these resonates with a fundamental aspect of human life and thought. For the Christian, this is entirely predictable. If the world and humanity are created by God, such resonance is to be expected, as we shall see in a later chapter. Everyone wants to find something that is really worth pursuing and possessing rather than the chimeras whose luster vanishes once they are secured. The greatest questions life has to offer can be summed up in just a few words. What is really worth possessing? And where is it to be found?
These questions dominate the "wisdom literature" of the ancient Near East and far beyond. In one of the Gospel parables, Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a pearl of great price. "The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it" (Matthew 13:45-46). On finding a beautiful and precious pearl for sale, the merchant realizes that he must sell everything else in order to possess it. Why? Because here is something of supreme value, something really worth possessing. Everything else seems of little value in comparison.
The merchant searching for that pearl is himself a parable of the long human quest for meaning and significance. It is clear from the parable that he already possesses many small pearls. Perhaps he bought them in the hope that they would provide him with the satisfaction that he longed for. Yet what he had thought would satisfy him proved only to disclose his dissatisfaction and make him long for something that was, for the moment, beyond his grasp. Just as the brilliance of the sun drowns that of the stars, so that their faint light can only be seen at night, so this great pearl allowed the merchant to see what he already owned in a different perspective.
For C. S. Lewis, the discovery of Christianity was like taking hold of and possessing something intrinsically precious and beautiful, which allowed the rest of the world to be seen in its reflected radiance. He put the significance of his discovery like this: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen--not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." Christianity offers a spine-tingling vision of the transcendent and a framework that helps make sense of life's joys, cruelties, ironies, and pain. For Lewis, Christianity is more than a theory in which one can take intellectual delight, offering a new appreciation of the beauty of the world--to be compared to Newton's optics or laws of motion or Maxwell's electrodynamic equations. It points to something that transcends these, which can be intuitively grasped in the present and which will be fully possessed in the future. The beauty of the world is affirmed, and declared to be a foreshadowing of the greater glory to come. As the great English religious poet George Herbert (1593-1633) put it, we are enabled to catch a glimpse of "heaven in ordinary."
Lewis attempted to put this into words by using an image from his childhood, when building sand castles on a trip to the seaside was seen as heaven itself:
Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite glory is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
For Lewis, the sense of wonder we experience at nature is not meant to satisfy us; it is meant to make us yearn for the greater wonder that it silently signposts and whispers will one day be ours.
All this seemed a little unrealistic in the light of the wave of secularism that swept through Western culture after Lewis's death in 1963. Secularizing social theorists predicted the coming of a future secular global culture with much the same confidence as an earlier generation of Soviet theorists proclaimed the historical inevitability of Marxism-Leninism. Religion was on its way out. Yet as William S. Bainbridge and Rodney Stark point out in their excellent critical study The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation, "the most illustrious figures in sociology, anthropology and psychology have unanimously expressed confidence that their children--or surely their grandchildren--would live to see the dawn of a new era in which, to paraphrase Freud, the infantile illusions of religion would be outgrown." The inability of Marxism--or anything else, for that matter--to wipe out religion, by force of argument or force of arms, was one of the most significant landmarks of the twentieth century. The simplistic predictions of 1960s ivory-tower sociologists that the twentieth century would end in a tidal wave of secularism surging relentlessly around the globe has been shown to be hopelessly wide of the mark.
The new interest in spirituality in the West--which is not limited to traditional religious beliefs or practices--has led to a growing impatience with what is seen as the reductionism of some natural scientists, who improperly move from science as the investigation of reality to science as the determinant of what reality is in the first place. One can have nothing but respect for the natural scientist who urges us to understand, appreciate, and explore the intricacies of the natural order. But when some--let us be clear, a tiny yet loud minority--insist that what the sciences uncover is all that there is to life, we have every right to insist that they have strayed out of their field of competency. The growing interest in religion has had a significant impact on the popular estimation of the sciences and their capacity to serve humanity.
Perhaps one of the more interesting indicators of this shift is the change in direction of the long-running television series Star Trek and its wide-screen spin-offs. Classic Trek episodes from around 1966-69 were strongly influenced by the humanist philosophy of their creator, Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry was basically an old-fashioned rationalist, who would have got on well with Thomas Jefferson and his circle of intimes. These early Trek episodes were notable for their uncritical affirmation of the excellence of science, the triumph of logic, and the inevitability of progress. One can easily imagine Richard Dawkins lending a little intellectual muscle to the crew of the Enterprise, not least in their fearless criticism of the greatest evil that the galaxy faced--religion. It was just a matter of time, these early episodes hinted, before the great cosmic scourges of religion, disease, and poverty were all eliminated and the galaxy would exude sweetness and light at every point.
The Enterprise was thus the flagship of scientific rationalism, adrift in a mad universe whose inhabitants persisted in believing the strangest things. In the heyday of 1960s rationalism, religion was viewed as one of the evils--along with poverty, prejudice, and war--that progress would leave behind. Religious beliefs were to be expected among the primitive alien societies favored by a visit from the crew of the starship Enterprise. But there could be no question of these enlightened and thoroughly modern progressives themselves having religious beliefs. Religion was best left to the savages of the most backward parts of the galaxy. While America rediscovered religion in the 1970s and 1980s, the Enterprise was still busy spreading its 1960s "no religion" message. This may have gone down well with the Klingons, but it was looking increasingly outdated back on planet earth.
It was not until Roddenberry's death in 1991 that this somewhat quirky outdated rationalism lost its hold over the program. The series now aligned itself with what was happening in American culture of the 1990s rather than the time warp of the 1960s. Science and progress were toppled from their throne, as a new interest in spirituality flourished within America. While Trek deliberately avoided the question of what religious beliefs were true, the message was clear: spirituality was a good thing, which cultured human beings needed, and should not hastily discard. Where Dr. Spock relied upon logic, Commander Chakotay of the USS Voyager preferred to trust in spirit guides.
This new interest in things spiritual has swept through all aspects of Western culture--not just TV--in the past decade. The burgeoning bookstore sections dealing with "Body, Mind, and Spirit" are a telling indicator of a shift in Western thought away from the world of the Enlightenment. This has not exactly been welcomed by old-fashioned rationalists, who have seen their cherished deities of reason and logic dethroned, to be replaced with angels, spirits, spiritual forces--not to mention Christianity.
This can perhaps be lazily dismissed as simply an irrational phase in Western culture, which will give way to something more coherent and realistic in the longer term. But it is not quite as simple as that. There may well be a significant degree of confusion within the new concern for spirituality that has swept through Western culture. Yet at its heart, this trend reflects a growing disenchantment with the overstatements of some natural scientists, which have increasingly caused disquiet within the culture at large.
One might be tempted to write off this growing concern as crude and uninformed antiscientific polemic. It is not. It is a deadly serious expression of concern over the way the natural sciences are being used, often with the collusion of some scientists who ought to know better. The natural sciences are to be respected and honored for their commitment to advancing knowledge, understanding, and insight concerning the structures of the universe in which we live. I continue to regard my time spent as an active research scientist to be among the most fulfilling and exciting periods of my life. The problems begin when the sciences--or any discipline, for that matter--start to see themselves as the unacknowledged rulers of intellectual empires, and others (especially those who presume to criticize them) as social and intellectual inferiors who still live back in the Stone Age.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Reenchantment of Nature by Alister McGrath. Copyright © 2002 by Alister McGrath. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.