My pursuit of meaning

Are human beings primarily on a quest for power? Or do we mainly search for pleasure? If you look around at people, it looks a lot like we are power or pleasure-seeking beings. But what if these pursuits are misguided ditches? What if they are broken cisterns that can hold no water? I would argue that these are misguided quests that people fall into when they get disconnected from their sense of purpose in life. The sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve are essentially wired to seek meaning; everything else is just playing in the muck.

The sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve are essentially wired to seek meaning; everything else is just playing in the muck.

I’m not the first person to claim this.  Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl devoted much of his life to arguing this idea, making the case that a good deal of  mental illness today stems from a spiritual condition, a void of meaning in our lives.  This happens when we have grown disconnected from our spiritual and religious roots.  It is cliche for people to go off to secular college and abandon religious teaching.  They are taught in science class that human beings are mere oxidation machines or as Richard Dawkins puts it “DNA propagation machines.” But Frankl thinks the spiritual side of man can never be reduced to the physical.  If we do, it’s like the famous bed of Procrustes.  Procrustes was a giant in Greek mythology who would take you into his house and put you on his bed.  If you were too short, he would stretch you out to fit the bed. If you were too long, he would cut off your legs. The materialist view of the world does this to all of us, mainly by chopping out our souls.  But if you think about it, even the concept of meaning cannot be explained on materialistic grounds.  How can one bit of matter give meaning to another?  It takes a mind to have meaning, and mind like meaning cannot be reduced to the physical.

According to Frankl, the spiritual side of man can never be reduced to the physical.

Frankl believes that meaning has to come from outside of us.  Therefore, we aren’t meant to seek happiness within ourselves.  Happiness is more of a bi-product of finding meaning.  The popular psychologist, Jordan Peterson, a disciple of Frankl, argues the same.  Frankl points out that a personal source of meaning, such as the God of Judeo-Christianity, appears to be the best source of ultimate meaning.  But in his form of therapy (logotherapy), he doesn’t insist that his patients accept theism (belief in God).  Studies find that if people find any meaning outside themselves, it helps them.  But as proponent of Christianity and a thinker, I would point out that if a view lacks intellectual integrity, it will be like the famous parable of Jesus about building one’s house on the sand.  When the rain and the wind comes, if there is no solid foundation, the house will get blown down and wash away.

Studies find that if people find any kind of meaning outside themselves, it helps them.

I’ve always been sensitive to this quest for meaning for some reason.  When I was a teenager, my parents tried to get me to read the gospels and take interest in religion, but I had little interest.  I did, however, begin to develop this sense that life was meaningless apart from God.  This struggle peeked with a spiritual experience with Jesus that reversed my course.  It also gave me an instant understanding of where meaning comes from.  It comes from a transcendent, personal God.

You see, if meaning only comes from our minds and has no transcendent reference point, then there actually is no meaning.  We are stuck trying to scrawl our faint fairytales on the dry erase board of the universe, and each stroke disappears as soon as we write it. But if we can discover meaning that is really there, it can transform us.  If you have ever struggled to find meaning in life, it may be because you have squelched the voice of meaning deep within you.  Perhaps you have let other people convince you that life itself or many parts of life are meaningless.  The only way out of the darkness is to expose yourself again to real meaning, even if that risks discovery by a meaning-maker. Just like many of the subjects in Frankl’s book, you may find that while you thought you were chasing meaning, meaning was really chasing you all along.  “But with unhurried chase, and unperturbed pace” like Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven. Meaning comes on with “deliberate speed and majestic instancy.”  Hold tight. Meaning is coming.

 

A note on conspiracy theories

The internet has added much richness to our lives. We have access to excellent information at the click of a button. At the same time, we have access to bogus information at the click of a button. Sometimes our information gathering online devolves into an attempt to connect all the dots.  And this can lead to an obsession with conspiracy theories and a barrage of reckless accusations.

I wrote an article on this a while ago here.  This is a little followup.  I only have three points in this article.  1) Make sure your information is accurate; 2) make sure you have sufficient information; and 3) make sure you reason correctly about your information.

To make sure our information is accurate, we’ve got to do a little digging.  If you are looking at statistics, make sure the study is not a univariate analysis.  What in the world is that?  A univariate analysis is a study that tries to show that only one thing caused other things to happen while neglecting other factors.  If you suspect that one thing (such as racism) causes a lot of other things, you should dig through the social science until you have an accurate sense of what is what.  There are many studies available on the internet now, but you must search through them.  Also, you should look at the samples from various studies. Did they only use people of a particularly high socio-economic bracket?  Did they only phone people who live in Washington D.C. or San Francisco?  That can lead to faulty information.

We also have to have sufficient information to make a judgment.  The more accurate information we have, the more certain we can be.  If we have just a little information, we should only hold tentative conclusions.  Or we can be completely agnostic. A friend of mine was explaining that cell-phone towers are destroying our testosterone counts. But he didn’t know why that was true on a scientific level. I’ve seen many clips of celebrities and other commentators saying that half of America is racist for voting for Trump. How do they know that? Do they have enough information and does that information logically lead to their conclusions?  Are there alternative explanations that are more plausible?

We should make sure we are reasoning correctly. To continue to examine the racist issue, people seem to reason that racism has been a huge problem in America.  There are many historical cases, and it still occurs today. Black males get stopped more by the police.  Therefore, the American capitalist system is rampant with racism.  Wait a second.  That conclusion does not follow from the premises and neglects lots of other information. Let’s take another example.  1/5 of journalists are politically liberal.  Much of the mainstream media continually tip their hands as to their liberal bias.  Therefore, journalists are controlled by globalist-leftist leaders like George Soros.  You can see that the conclusion does not follow from the premises.

Apply this to hysteria over Trump the Russian pawn, chemtrails, vaccines, 9/11, Jews ruling the world, racist border security, liberals wanting to destroy America, that _____________ is a fascist.  What am I getting at here?  We all can do a better job of fact-finding and reasoning patiently to solid conclusions. Now it may be true that most human beings tend to interpret facts based on their pre-conceived narratives (See Jonathan Haidt’s, The Righteous Mind). But we can at least reject completely unsubstantiated ideas. This is a call to intellectual virtue, something we desperately need. And what is more, let’s not be afraid to utter those most frustrating words of all: I don’t know.

What the hell?

Recently a friend of mine asked me about hell. I can’t remember his specific question, but he was curious how hell “worked” in Christian teaching. I explained to him that the Bible speaks of hell as separation from God who is our ultimate good (2 Thess. 1:9). The Scriptures speak of hell as a literal place, but they speak of it metaphorically as hot, cold, destruction, decay and so on.  I also explained that the doors of hell are locked from the inside. It’s a place where people can evade a relationship with God for all time. It’s a chosen place of privation, of lack of good.  But it’s also a place of righteous judgment too where wrongs are put right.

The doors of hell are locked from the inside.

This understanding of hell relies on a little deeper reading of the Bible and a consciousness of literary conventions.  For example, the word Jesus uses for hell is gehenna, which was a well-known garbage dump.  He obviously didn’t mean that hell really was gehenna (Matt. 25:30).  Rather hell has rottenness and decay like gehenna. Jesus also speaks of it as outer darkness which sounds like a place that is cold.  In other places he talks of eternal fire (Matt 25:41).  Fire speaks of dissolution or destruction. Biblical scholars usually recognize the metaphorical way that Jesus speaks of hell.

But it this way of looking at hell shuts down the notion that Christianity is exclusive to a small club. Though God offers himself to all in the good news of Jesus, hell is a place where people can choose to live apart from him; it shows how the loving God even allows his image-bearers to choose to reject him in the end.  Instead of God keeping people out, people are keeping God out.

Instead of God keeping people out, people are keeping God out.

Johnny Cash once said something intriguing about hell. He said something like, “we’re not going to hell; we’re already in hell.” Now that may sound like some hipster idea that contradicts the Christian teaching while enjoying every minute of it, but it’s not completely wrong. Because life without God is one of privation (a lack of good).  It’s one where his presence to bless is missing; peace is missing; goodness is missing; wholeness is missing.  It’s one where we are bound in the slavery of many impulses, even good ones, that easily become self-destructive. We see a powerful image of this self-destruction in the drug addict; but we all can so easily become addicted to our own personal drugs. Addictions destroy relationships and all that is good in our lives. So in this sense we already experience a taste of hell right here.  After death, these processes of privation just continue.  All of this is described as a process of God’s wrath, his anger towards that which separates us from him.  Romans 1 describes this exact process as God handing people over to do what they desire to do.

Addictions destroy relationships and all that is good in our lives. So in this sense we already experience a taste of hell right here.

C.S. Lewis wrote about this in his book the Great Divorce.  He pictures hell as a shanty town where people are obsessed with their own twisted desires, living their lives hostile to others and the Creator.  His book is full of tortured souls who want their own way.  One character cannot accept that God would forgive murderers. Another wants to continue his own moral crusade to make hell a better place. Another wants the manipulative control over her son that she had in life. None of them want to go to heaven when given the chance.  Why not?  Because this means surrendering control of their own lives to a God whom they just don’t trust.

A related insight comes from philosopher Peter Kreeft.  “The fires of hell may be made of the very love of God, experienced as torture by those who hate him: the very light of God’s truth, hated and fled from in vain by those who love darkness.”  The Scripture says that God is love and my experience of life confirms that many people hate his love and truth with venom.  Kreeft points out that the very light of God’s love and truth are themselves a torment of those living apart from him in the sub-compartment of the afterlife.

“The fires of hell may be made of the very love of God, experienced as torture by those who hate him” – Peter Kreeft

Much of this raises the question of the possibility of salvation after death.  If you’re curious about this topic, I’ll have to write on it in another post.  Suffice it to say, that I am more committed to Jesus as the way of salvation than I am to the time period that people must receive it.

Additionally this topic raises to mind the question, why bother believing in hell?  Well, first of all, hell as described in this article mirrors the kind of self-destruction that we observe on this side of the afterlife.  That should raise an eyebrow.  But also, hell reminds us that God is a God of justice who will punish sin in the end.  If there is no ultimate judgement, then that leads us to seek vengeance for the wrongs we experience on this side.

This is a mysterious topic. It confronts us with the reality that we are all mortal. We all must die. If it’s true that we must acquiesce to God or remain apart from him, then every moment we remain apart from him is like hell, though we may not know it. There is a deep restlessness in living apart from loving relationship with God. God is the ultimate source of all life, goodness, joy and meaning. Pascal once said that our infinite desires can only be satisfied by an infinite object, namely God himself. Perhaps that’s why Jesus talked more about hell than any other person in the Bible. He wants to warn us about infinite misery of being apart from him and the infinite joy of being with him.  All the while we are content with the next release on Netflix. Our pursuit of distraction is often our own blind effort to not think about death nor the eternal love and justice of God.

For those who want to read more on this topic, here are several books you can pick up:

  1. C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
  2. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
  3. C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (for children and those who love YA lit)
  4. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
  5. Peter Kreeft, Heaven, the Heart’s Deepest Longing
  6. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God
  7. Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics

Photo by Hoach Le Dinh on Unsplash

 

Dystopian Scenarios: 451, Brave New World, 1984, and Lost in the Cosmos.

Remember Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451? In that story, the government banned books out of a desire to keep people from feeling offended and stupid.  It wasn’t so much a government plot.  Nobody cared anymore about knowing the history or the stories that shaped Western society.  Books became a nuisance to societal order.  So why not get rid of them? And they got rid of them by making firemen into book burners. This science fiction is a little too close to present day fact.  Ignorance and apathy can lead to censorship of ideas we don’t like. Additionally, we have this notion of political correctness today that, while not outright banning books (yet), still tries to revise the history and stories.  Fahrenheit 451 sometimes seems right around the corner.  The true humanists today are already hiding out on the fringes just like in the novels.

Another telling dystopian novel, Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, pictures the world as a mixture of genetic and social programming.  People are genetically programmed to be either Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, or Epsilons.  Alphas are the leaders, given extra genetic strength in intellect and physique; Epsilons get the reverse and are reserved for manual labor.  Also, in Brave New World people are controlled by feel-good psychotropic drugs. People are moreover encouraged to live with complete sexual freedom, since the family is no longer necessary to procreate. The West today also is following some of these trends in its use of psychotropic and other kinds of drugs (I’m not condemning the use of all drugs here by the way) and freedom from traditional sexual mores.  The main character in Brave New World rebels from all of this because he realizes his life is artificial and even anti-human.  Eliminate risk and intimacy with others, and you eliminate something essential to humanity.

George Orwell’s 1984 is probably the most well-known dystopian novel.  In this hellish society the government controls all things through constant surveillance, propaganda, disincentivizing of sex and individuality, constant artificial warfare, and the revision of language.  The ultimate goal of the government in 1984 is the elimination of free-thought.  The highest version of controlled thought is “double-think,” accepting contradictions without even noticing them.  1984 makes us think of the modern surveillance state as it has extended into the internet.  There is also a lot of biased media propaganda today and an educational system that pushes relativism.  This rejection of logic today pushes us seriously close to the “double-think” of 1984.

The opposite of dystopia is not really utopia.  It is normal and messy freedom.  Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos asks us what we would choose, a controlled scenario like one of the above or a freer society like what we have now?  In Fahrenheit 451Brave New World, and 1984 we can supposedly get rid of racist people and the “oppressive” Western norms of sex. We can get rid of all the dead, White males who wrote so much of history and literature.  We can reprogram society.  We can find “better living through science.”  In the freedom scenario, we still have to deal with much of the stupidity and ignorance of human nature; we still have differing philosophical and religious views; we still have freedom to live in traditional or nontraditional ways; science has to operate more on the sheer persuasiveness of its ideas.

All these famous dystopias involve social control, the remaking of society via government means into our image instead of what it currently is in all its mess. But perhaps these authors were shock jocks.  Perhaps I am too.  Perhaps you can have social control and freedom too. I myself heed the warnings of the dystopian novelists. What do you think? The future of the human race depends on you.

Photo by C Chapman on Unsplash

Why God intervenes in the world: a short refutation of deism

Deism is the notion that an all-powerful, perfect God exists, but he merely started the process of creation; he never intervenes within it.  Deists hold that this is part of God’s perfection.  He is so great at his job, so to speak, that he never needs to break his laws of physics.  They allege that only a deficient deity would need to so intervene.  This also helps get God off the hook for the existence of evil.  If God intervenes all the time, why doesn’t he do so more often so as to stop evil?

I sympathize with the desire to see God as the most perfect being. I too think he must be perfect.  I also sympathize with those who are grappling with the problem of evil.  But I see some problems with the deist’s reasoning.

First of all, it is a bit presumptuous to suppose that for God to be perfect he would never intervene in his creation.  In fact, many have pointed out that God would be less perfect if he never intervened.  For example, a non-interventionist God would be supremely unconcerned to relate closely to his creation.  That strikes me as an imperfection.  God is essentially a dead-beat dad on deism, an apathetic father. A desire for relationship is one reason that an all-good God would have for intervening in his creation.

Second, if deism is true, it is hard to see how human beings could be created in God’s image.  The image of God is essentially what makes human being distinct from the other animals.  As image bearers, we have a unique responsibility to represent God on this earth.  If we take away this attribute, we may be tempted to exploit the world rather than steward it.   Stewardship requires humility.  Humility was seen as a flaw by Aristotle, one of the earliest deists.  And his view seems consistent with deism.  On deism, why should we seek to care for those who are lower than us on the social strata?  Why should we humble ourselves when we’ve sinned?  God doesn’t give a rip much about it one way or another.  He’s the dead-beat dad, right?  He doesn’t humble himself.

Third, deists often refer to the laws of nature as unalterable.  It would thus make God imperfect to violate his own unchangeable laws.  But why refer to the laws of nature as unalterable? Why not think of them as patterns of God’s sustaining activity?  Then an intervention is not a violation, but it is simply an addition or subtraction of something God is already causing to happen.  Imagine for example, that you are sitting in the famous tree above Sir Isaac Newton.  You are getting ready to drop the famous apple on his famous head.  What stops the apple from descending to the selected target?  It’s the strength of your arm.  You are holding the apple from falling.  Your arm muscles are keeping the apple aloft over Sir Isaac’s head by an addition of power.  This seems to me to be a better analogy about how God could intervene in such a way as that it is not viewed as a violation.

Fourth, the problem of evil is actually worse on deism than on theism.  As I mentioned, you have the dead-beat dad problem on deism.  On theism, you can see that God is working for a greater good.  The allowance of evil can be seen as a greater good because freedom of the will is greater than its lack. The deist could presumably agree with that sentiment.  But without God’s interventions and general oversight of the world, it is hard to see how evil will be defeated in the end.  Perhaps it could become some kind of optimal balance, but could it every really be defeated without God?  Look at human nature for a millisecond and your hopes of that will wither.  But maybe the most important issue here is that without interventions there would be no chance of God incarnate.  God could never suffer along with his children.  This is perhaps the greatest strength of Christianity among the theistic religions of the world.  Not only has God not been silent, but he has made his voice deafeningly clear through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  And the irony is that while most deists would be skeptical of the resurrection, it is the part of the Christian creed with the greatest amount of evidence.

While deism is a welcome half-way house between atheism and theism, it is a difficult place to remain.  Theism is a welcoming respite to the lonely deist.  It is calling.  Come back into the hospitality of God.

The Debunkers vs. John Oliver on abortion

One of my all time favorite youtube channels is Freedomtoons, a channel devoted to informing about and satirizing many bizarre notions in our society.  The author has several recurring characters, two of which are the Debunkers, two hoity toity sounding intellectuals who spend their days debunking youtube videos in a bunker.  The channel recently released a very good video debunking the comedian John Oliver who was attempting to cover (or rather mock) crisis pregnancy centers (CPC’s).  These are organizations devoted to giving people information about pregnancy, preserving human life, and averting abortion.

At any rate, the video is hilarious and very spot on.  Now, if you are pro-choice, rather than clicking the X above, why not watch the video and expose yourself to some counter arguments to your position?  What strikes me about this video is the overall level of propaganda and undefended assumptions that John Oliver has about abortion.  For example, why do so many pro-choice advocates equate choice with abortion?  Why do they assume that anyone who is trying to avert abortion is somehow disingenuous or stupid?  Why does anti-abortion always mean anti-woman or anti-choice to pro-choicers? Actually most crisis pregnancy centers want women to have all the information and options available to make a more informed choice.  Statistically, women who have a sonogram, tend to overwhelmingly choose to have the baby.  Thus these CPC’s that offer free sonograms end up averting quite a few abortions.  And while these organizations are crafty in how they market themselves, they are no less crafty than Planned Parenthood, an organization that actually profits from people not planning and not being parents.

 

What kind of mind do you have?

I was surprised recently when my friend parroted back to me something I had told him about the mind.  This concept helped him understand how his own mind worked better.  It’s an idea from one of my favorite philosophers, Blaise Pascal. He says that some people are intuitive reasoners and others are mathematical reasoners. Intuitive reasoners often know things by sheer insight.  Mathematical reasoners reason from principles. Intuitors are more poetic. Mathematicians are more linear. It’s essentially the difference between poets and scientists.

What’s interesting is that intuitors often cannot understand mathematicians and vice-versa. The intuitors leap to ethical conclusions, for example, without thinking through many of their conclusions. Mathematicians need to see the steps of how we got there.  The refusal to see things from the other point of view often causes us to miss common ground. Perhaps an intuitor has gotten to the same place that the reasoner did only by different means. For example, perhaps one person believes abortion is wrong by intuitive means and another has gotten there by reasoning from the full humanity and independent DNA of those in utero.

One way for us to overcome this divide is for the mathematical people to read literature and poetry and the poetic people to read up on philosophy, logic, and science. But barring that, let’s at least remember that conclusions can be reached by different means. Then we begin to learn to appreciate the gifts of those who are wired differently than us. It occurs to me that some of the greatest minds in history, such as Plato, Aristotle, Einstein, and C.S. Lewis have been gifted with both ways of seeing the world. Appreciating both can open the way to astounding new discoveries, overcoming life-challenges, and even defeating some of humanity’s most difficult problems.