Tag Archives: meaning of life

Historian’s Almanac for July 12, 2014

Benjamin D. Maxham - Henry David Thoreau - Restored.jpg Today is the birthday of Henry David Thoreau, born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 12, 1817.  That would make him 197 years old, if he were still with us.  Being a figure in American history rather than biblical history, he died at age forty-five, two years shy of what a male born in 1817 could expect to live.   If he was born in1917, he might have lived a little longer, but only a little.  Life expectancy in 1910 was just 48.4 for a male, not much improvement since 1817.  By 1920, it rose to 53.6.  There was more gained between 1910 and 1920, just ten years, than the eighty-three years between 1817 and 1910.

I think my first introduction to Thoreau was as a college freshman when my English Lit professor put WALDEN, OR LIFE IN THE WOODS, on her required reading list.  She has long since gone on to that great library in heaven where I hope to go one day, so I can now confess that I did not actually read the book.  I suspect she knew that at the time.

When I was assigned such an exciting book in a high school English class, I was always able to find it in a Classic Comic Book edition.  Remember those?  They saved many a high school student of my time from the painful task of reading such great classics as SILAS MARNER.  I have checked the complete list of Classic Comics and found that Thoreau’s WALDEN was never published in that format.  Since the internet was more than 30 years in the future, I am not sure how I ever wrote the required paper on WALDEN.  But I did.

I do not recall how much of WALDEN I managed to read, but I have never forgotten the opening sentence and often find myself contemplating it.  “I went out to the woods,” Thoreau begins, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

It is that last bit, “and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” that has forever haunted me.  The individual’s ongoing search to find meaning and purpose in his or her life has always interested me.  My favorite books are those written in the first person, whether fiction or nonfiction, where the main character is trying to convince himself that at the end of life’s journey he will not discover that he missed it, that he wasted the brief time allotted to him in a meaningless quest for pleasure and for treasures that in the end will rot away like a fallen tree in the forest.

“Vanity of vanities,
says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities!
All is vanity” (Eccles. 1:1; ESV).

How many people have been born and died through all the ages? The multitude has come and gone without ever being noticed by anyone except God.  They spent their whole lives in daily toil trying to avoid confronting the question of whether or not it would have been best if they had never existed.  This, I believe, is what WALDEN is really about.

Thoreau separated himself from all the distractions around him in order to learn from nature what it had to teach about the real meaning and purpose of life.  He was a romantic who took seriously William Wordsworth’s admonition to find the answers in communion with nature.

“One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Thoreau spent much of his time observing and experiencing all the wonder and beauty of nature.  He did not find evidence of God’s handiwork in nature.  As a transcendentalist, he saw nature as divine.  And since man is a part of nature, he is divine.  In his retreat to Walden Pound Thoreau found what the hippies of the 1970s searched for but never found.

Strangely, Thoreau did not remain in his Garden of Eden around Walden Pound.  After two years, two months, and two days of meditation he returned to civilization, to Concord, Massachusetts, where he lived until his death in 1862.

In the conclusion to WALDEN, Thoreau wrote:  “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation and always walk under the mercy.


C. S. Lewis and the Meaning of Life

Whenever I pick up a book by Alister McGrath, I expect it to be interesting, informative, and a delight to read.  His most recent, If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis: Exploring the Ideas of C. S. Lewis on the Meaning of Life, meets all of my expectations.

Professor McGrath previously published a biography of C. S. Lewis, C. S. Lewis—A Life (2013), that added little more than another Lewis biography to the already long list of such.  We do not need any more biographies.

What McGrath provides for us in If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewisis an understanding of the role of a Christian worldview in answering those perennial questions of the meaning and purpose of the existence the universe and our role in it.  In brief, this is an apologetic for Christianity.  It is an argument for the relevance of Christian faith as discovered by C. S. Lewis and revealed in his writings.

As with many thinking Christians through the ages, Lewis confronted head on the limitations of using reason alone to find the meaning of life.  Reason alone must fail, because reason cannot alone prove its own reliability, or as Lewis put it in an essay titled, “The Poison of Subjectivism”:  “Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring.”

The answer to the dilemma, as Lewis discovered, is to find truth and meaning in “a world beyond the frontiers of reason.”  Clues to this insight are found in our interaction with the world around us, what some refer to as “general revelation.”  Meaning is found in understanding that the history of creation is a story, a metanarrative.  God’s self-revelation as found in the Bible is a story in three parts—creation, fall, and redemption.  It is not a make-believe story that begins with “Once upon a time.”  Rather it is the true myth that begins with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (ESV).

Lewis, himself, said it best:  “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth:  a myth working on us the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened:  and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths:  i.e., the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’.”

If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewisis not only a good introduction to C. S. Lewis and his Christian apologetic writings but also a good introduction to Christianity.  It would be an ideal gift for those nonbelievers who have read and enjoyed The Narnia Chronicles, and who might, just might, come to know the real Aslan.

I have only one criticism.  If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis is a poor title for a very fine book.  It leads the prospective reader to expect some sort of fictional dialog between Lewis and the author.  The subtitle, Exploring the Ideas of C. S. Lewis, would have been a better choice.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures, and always walk under the mercy.

Google and I in Search of the Meaning of Life

 the meaning of life

This afternoon I sat down at my laptop computer intending to write something really profound to post on my blog.  I thought about writing a book review.  I currently have four books awaiting my assessment.

That was my plan when I sat down, but it has changed.  Why?  I am not sure.  I thought I knew what I was going to say about the book, but I just couldn’t think of the right words to get started.  Perhaps my brain is numb, foggy, or tired.  Perhaps it is a lack of inspiration. 

I felt I must write something.  So, I asked my dear friend Google, “What is the meaning of life?”  Now if that doesn’t get the brain working, it is time to admit defeat and turn off the computer.

According to Google, there are 390,000,000 websites with something to say about the meaning of life.  I am not surprised.  I imagine that the first conscious thought of that first human-like creature was a question like, “Who am I, and what the heck am I doing here, wherever this is, or isn’t, or . . . ?”

The existentialists say that meaning is not something we can discover, but rather something we must create.  How?  By choosing to act, that is, by making a choice the individual can affirm and give meaning to his or her existence in a universe that is cold and indifferent.

In contrast to the existentialists, the structuralists assume a universal structure, or a kind of hidden harmony, or universal code, that exists independent of human beings and determines human behavior.  The self-conscious autonomous individual, who controls his or her environment and is master of his or her fate, gives way to the individual as a social creature controlled by his or her  environment.

Failure to uncover the hidden universal structures led some to embrace poststructuralism, commonly referred to as deconstruction.  The deconstructionists deny that the individual can arrive at a true understanding of reality through the application of reason.  There is no one hidden meaning to be discovered.  Instead, there are an infinite number of possible meanings.  Each deconstruction can itself be deconstructed.

The contemporary quest for meaning has run into a dead end with postmodernism, sometimes referred to as posthumanism.  Beginning with the conviction that all is meaningless, postmodernism sees no value in pretending otherwise.  Rather it revels in the chaos and absurdity of everything.  For the postmodernist, reality is a universe of random chaos, without meaning for either the individual or for history. 

Contemporary intellectuals have concluded that the individual is only a cosmic cipher in a cold, dark, and ultimately meaningless universe.  But such a conclusion is no conclusion at all.  There is ample evidence in popular culture that the masses of people are not willing to accept the pessimistic conclusion of the intellectual dream spinners who find themselves adrift in a fog.  The average man or woman today, as has every human being since the dawn of time, lives in a universe filled with hope, a universe in which the future is brighter than the past.

Perhaps the intellectuals are asking the wrong question, when they ask, “Who am I?”  By asking the wrong question, they place the burden of finding meaning on finite human reason.  The end can never be anything more than despair, the answer to which is an escape into nihilism.

In the fifteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, the reader is told of an incident during which Jesus of Nazareth asks his disciples who the people think he is.  They say that the people have concluded, having applied reason, that Jesus must be one of the Old Testament prophets back from the dead. 

Jesus then asks the disciples, “Who do you say I am?”  It is Simon Peter who answers the question:  “You are the Christ [i.e., Messiah], the Son of the living God.”

Peter has spoken the truth, but how does he know it?  Did he discover it on his own by reason?  Did he learn it from reading the great books?  No!  Jesus tells Peter that what he knows has been revealed to him by God. 

Reason can make us aware of the problem of finding meaning and purpose for life.  Reason can propose answers to the problem.  On the basis of reason, one might even conclude that the Gospel makes more sense than any other answer, and therefore must be true.  But, as Simon Peter discovered, knowing who Jesus Christ is, and by implication finding the answer to the problem of meaning, can only be known through revelation, not reason alone.

Perhaps before asking the question, “What is the meaning of life?” one must first answer the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?”  The answer that question will determine whether one lives with hope or despair.

Enough thinking for today.  It is time for me to get to work on that book review.

Until next time, be good to all of God’s creation, and always live under the mercy.