Sunday, December 20, 2009

Why On Earth Are We Here For?

Presented a talk on "Faith And Love" at Uniten Christian Fellowship or TECHFLOW on Wednesday with the transcript here.

Below is my assignment on "The Search For Meaning in Life", teasing out the relevance of Ecclesiastes in Malaysian society

“What is the point of living if everything ends in death? Why on earth we are here for?” These perennial questions about the purpose of life are often raised by most sensitive and reflective people around the world. But our socio-cultural context, in different degrees, influences how we answer that question. Many Malaysians of Chinese origin like my friend (let’s call him “Meng”) are descendants of immigrants who had risked the sea, worked hard and lived frugally to strive for a better future. Like many Malaysian Chinese who live in urban centers, Meng inherited his ancestors’ spirit of diligence and resilience. Wealth accumulation and education for his children (so that they in turn could have better opportunities to make a living) become top priorities since these factors provide a measure of security when he can hardly depend on anyone else for support.

If religion is often a projection of human needs/fears as Freud suggested, then perhaps we can interpret the motivation behind his cultural beliefs like consulting feng shui consultants before setting up a business, the Ching Ming practice of burning paper money for the deceased or the Chinese New Year tradition of welcoming the god of prosperity. It may be observed that the functional god in his life is Money. The pursuit of wealth and the dream of striking a lottery jackpot provide his meaning for existing, sense of security and significance. “Seize the day (Carpe Diem)!” is his life slogan. He would say, “Since we will all ultimately end up in the grave, let’s live with gusto, work hard and play hard and squeeze all the fun and excitement out of the ride”.

The psychologist Viktor Frankl suggested that the will to fulfill a meaning in life is the primary motivational force in humanity. Those who lack a meaning worth living for and find an inner void within their hearts experience ‘existential vacuum’. This is a widespread phenomenon in a rampantly industrializing economy where traditional values are lost. Existential vacuum manifests itself in boredom, addiction (i.e. workaholic, alcoholic or substance abuse), despair, the will to money, apathy or unbridled sexual libido. That could be an apt description of many city dwellers like Meng. What relevance would Qoheleth, the writer of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, have for people like him?

I think Qoheleth would present an unpleasant challenge to those whose pursuits focus on earthly goals that we find ‘under the sun’. All these toils, projects and pleasure are ultimately transient, impermanent and ultimately profitless. Although wisdom, wealth and backpacking in exotic places have temporal benefits, we do not take any gain in life with us when we die. We come into this world alone and empty-handed, so shall we leave it. In the long run, there is no net gain. There is “a time to be born and a time to die” (3:2). “We all come to the end of our lives as naked and empty-handed as on the day we were born. We can’t take our riches with us” (5:15). It is like chasing after the wind. Vanity of vanities! Not only do we face the certainty of death, we also face the uncertainties of life. No one knows what would happen to his hard-earned wealth even in this lifetime since injustice (3:16) or bad investment (5:14) could overtake us anytime. The Chinese proverb “Wealth does not pass three generations” has often been proven correct with nepotism, poor management and power struggles occurring in Chinese family enterprises. Who can tell if his successor will not squander his wealth (2:18-23)? While all human needs (i.e. food, shelter, clothes) can be satisfied, human greed for money is inherently insatiable. When we try to fill up the vacuum in our hearts with material things, we end up consuming more with ever-decreasing joy with each additional purchase (5:10-11).

But Meng may wonder, “Why should my worldly ambitions be profitless if it gives me a sense of worth and security? And why must life be eternal in order for it to be meaningful?” Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel would probably agree that human life viewed as a whole is absurd apart from God but insist that we could still find life subjectively meaningful as long as we don’t wonder if it fits into some larger purpose. Entertaining such thoughts is a sign of taking ourselves too seriously. Existentialists like Sartre would probably urge us to create a self-customized meaning and define our own essence from our bare existence. Without God, there is no objective, cosmic meaning in life. But it also makes all sorts of subjective meanings possible.

Some may even argue that an infinite life would be meaningless because we will get tired of it eventually. Consider Karl Popper who said, “There are those who think that life is valueless because it comes to an end. They fail to see that the opposite argument might also be proposed: that if there were no end to life, life would have no value; that it is, in part, the ever-present danger of losing it which helps bring home to us the value of life.” Life is perceived to be worthwhile and significant only because mortality awaits us, bringing a sense of poignant urgency to our transitory lives. Albert Camus’ solution to the urgent question of “Why live and not commit suicide?” is basically a call to stoically face the tension of absurdity.

However, there remains a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction for most people in conceding that our lives are not connected to something bigger than ourselves. The significance of a movie snapshot depends on how it contributed to the conclusion of the whole story (of which the captured moment is a part). Only when we see that connection would we conclude the meaning of that picture as part of a comedy or a tragedy. Unless we know how the story ends, we do not know its significance or meaning. This existential vacuum becomes more acute when we consider the gross injustices that were committed and appeared unpunished in the lifetime of their perpetrators. Qoheleth rightly observed that “even in the courts of law, the very place where righteousness and justice are supposed to be guaranteed, wickedness may be present” (3:16). In this moral context, the demand for a cosmic meaning in life is not motivated not so much by hubris but by justice. The philosopher Immanuel Kant saw that ethics are practically meaningless without God and the afterlife. If death is an abyss of nothingness, then the victims who suffered for a righteous cause under oppressive regimes have ultimately faced a meaningless death. In contrast, Qoheleth offers the alternative of a solid confidence that God will “judge every deed under the sun, whether good or bad, hidden or not” (12:14).

Ethics and significance in life make sense only when we presuppose God.

For most people, there is an existential dissatisfaction with accepting that at the bottom of our lives, there is no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference. But the moment we look up and see if life as a whole makes sense, the question of ultimate meaning comes back to haunt us. No wonder we desperately seek escapism from confronting this horrible abyss of nothingness by drowning ourselves with subjective meanings like work, relationships, leisure and power. This ‘coping mechanism’ needs to be maintained diligently because God had “put eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out what God does from beginning to the end” (3:12). There is an internal God-given preoccupation (3:10) whereby human beings are able to transcend the present moment and survey the past and think of the future. Yet they were not able to find out or change what God had determined, and so, their sense of vanity is aggravated. For God so works that men should fear Him (3:14).

William Lane Craig put it like this: “If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life? Does it really matter whether he ever existed at all? It might be said that his life was important because it influenced others or affected the course of history. But this only shows a relative significance to his life, not an ultimate significance. His life may be important relative to certain other events, but what is the ultimate significance of any of those events? If all the events are meaningless, then what can be the ultimate meaning of influencing any of them? Ultimately, it makes no difference”. For Qoheleth, a transitory life is meaningful as we choose responsibly to live in the fear of God and to keep his commandments (12:13). This is a perspective on death that is not mere passive acceptance, but one which urges us to enjoy life each day that God has given as a gift (3:12-13, 22).

In 2:24-26 Qoheleth affirmed that the ability to have carefree enjoyment is “from the hand of God.” Only when we embrace the reality that life is transient would we be liberated from greed, lust and despair and turn to God as the source of our significance. Ironically, by fearing God and keeping His commandments on marital faithfulness, honest labor and wise living, we are empowered to enjoy these temporal blessings to the full while we live. Leong Tien Fock wrote, “Since we have no say over whether we could take with us what we have when we die, which can happen at any time and without prior notice, how can we say that we own the things we work for? We do not even own our very life! They are not allotted to us as such. What is allotted is only the enjoyment these things can give us while we still “own” them. To appreciate this reality we need to view this world the way a child views a child-care center full of toys. What is “allotted” to him is the enjoyment of whatever toys he gets to “own” while he is there, but he cannot take any of them with him when he leaves. It would be foolish of the child to spend the few hours he has at the center busy looking out for and gathering his favorite toys, and then guarding them, as if he could bring them home, and in the process miss the opportunity to enjoy any of them.” Instead of making temporal wealth, pleasure and wisdom our idols, we can worship the Giver and thereby, enjoy these gifts truly as we put them in the proper perspective.

Last but not least, it is true that a transient life evokes a certain poignant urgency as Popper says. For example, we appreciate our loved ones more if we know we will lose them for good one day. However, Christian theism goes beyond that to claim that such relationships and significant endeavors may not terminate in death. Would that really diminish the meaning of life? The notion that eternal life would be boring and meaningless is based on the unproven assumption that the joys of heaven would be exhaustible. But why should we assume that in order to advance a strawman argument? Christian theism actually affirms that apart from the joys of reunion with loved ones and fulfilling work that awaits us in the renewed creation, we will spend eternity in relationship with the inexhaustible God Himself.


Theologian John Piper put it this way: “God is infinite and wills to reveal himself to us for our enjoyment of his fullness forever. Yet we are finite and cannot at any time, or in any finite duration of time, comprehend the limitless, infinite fullness of God’s glory… Therefore the implication is that our union with God, in the all-satisfying experience of his glory, can never be complete, but must be increasing with intimacy and intensity forever and ever.” There will always be more of God to discover, learn and savor since finite creatures will never exhaustively know Him. Therefore, glorifying and enjoying God forever remains the meaningful purpose for humanity. From his grace, we can accept and enjoy the good gifts of His creation – be it challenging achievements, authentic relationships and beauty.

Pictures courtesy of Animal World and Stu's View and Philosophy @ Fort Hare and Ginside

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