Cynicism has always been very alluring to me. There’s something about having low expectations that feels good. For one thing, a hardcore cynic doesn’t mind being proven wrong. Who would have a problem with a situation turning out better than expected? It is also helpful that when you have low standards, you find that the standards are frequently exceeded. Now I must emphasize here that I am not advocating for extreme cynicism. For its one positive aspect there are a multitude of burdens that cynicism creates. It is unappealing to people, fosters a lack of motivation towards progress, complains constantly, quells hope, etc. But for all of its faults, I am finding my cynicism to be a wonderful inoculation to one of the greatest threats our society currently faces – unfounded optimism.
The issue of purpose couldn't be more important than it is today. As much of the Western World shifts away from religion and towards atheism (particularly materialism), they are left with a gaping hole in their lives. Without moral commands or the divine direction that once guided individuals and nations, many irreligious are left searching for that which can infuse their lives with purpose. Most end up landing on some system of self-purpose because it's easy, convenient, and unobtrusive. This system of self-purposing generally means that each individual must figure out or fashion their own purpose in life. Once a purpose is identified, then life can meaningfully be lived.
While self-purposing sounds fantastic (who wouldn't want to just follow their own desires?), there's one problem for materialists. Self-purposing is incoherent on their system. It can't be done. It's absolutely unintelligible. To discover why materialism cannot provide purpose - and especially self-purpose - I'll explore deeper the concept of purpose.
John Lennon, singer and song writer for the Beatles, was one of the most popular musicians of all time. But Lennon didn't just write music. He was a lyricist who incorporated his philosophy into his music. On the topic before us today, love, one of Lennon's more popular songs entitled "All You Need Is Love" declared just that. All we need is love. Lennon wrote another very popular song entitled "Imagine," which was a vision of how we could build a world saturated with the love Lennon thought we needed. Lennon says, "Imagine there's no heaven. It's easy if you try. No Hell Below us. Above us, only sky... You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope some day you'll join us. And the world will live as one." In Lennon's mind, religion was an impediment to love, not a conduit. If we could just get rid of religion - if we could just get rid of the division religion causes, then the world could finally be free to love.
Unfortunately, Lennon was a far better musician than he was a philosopher. But despite his poor philosophy, his beliefs have been peddled to hundreds of millions of listeners throughout the decades, and his beliefs have unfortunately gained popularity. Like Lennon, many today believe that love would be in a much better condition if we could just rid it of the burden of religion. However, I am here to tell you that without religion - specifically without a religion like Christianity which has a relational God at its center - love is dead.
Catalina and I have a somewhat unconventional way of handling property issues with our children. We developed it after reading a parenting book which highlighted our often pharasaical approach to parenting. Whenever a property dispute used to arise between our children, our immediate question had always been, "Who had it first?" But this didn't teach our children anything except that power and dominance came by a speedy and selfish appropriation of property. While we had a clear method for resolving the issue, our parenting did not at all address the idolatry of control, selfishness, a lack of consideration of others, and other issues of the heart. After realizing this pitfall, reading articles and books, and talking with those who were much wiser than we were, we decided to institute "Toy Jail."
Daddy, I'm scared to go to the beach. What if there is lightning again?
I assured Elin that she could trust me and that I wouldn't purposefully take us into danger. As we continued our preparations to walk down to the beach, she didn't seem too reassured. She had honed in on the danger of lightning.
But daddy, if there was lightning, you would protect me, right?
While her faith in me was endearing, I had to break the news to her that I couldn't protect her from lightning if it struck. In fact, if I held her hand like she wanted, that would only allow the lightning to strike us both. I just wasn't powerful enough to stop lightning. Elin thought for a minute, then asked another question. She didn't ask it in a genuinely inquiring way. She already knew the answer to her question - but the answer she was coming up with didn't comport with what she had been taught.
wouldn't God protect me?
How will you be remembered after you die? Like most, I'm sure you won't be remembered by many people - and the few who do remember you probably won't dwell on your life for very long. Everyone eventually forgets you, or those who do remember you eventually die themselves. Unless you've made it into the history books, you have - at best - about 100 years of legacy. But, there are a few of us whose legacies will outlive our immediate descendants and carry our life stories for decades or centuries to come. Such is the case of the biblical characters Thomas and Martha.
Today, the notion of purpose grounded outside of oneself seems to be disappearing. Proclamations of “do whatever you want as long as it feels good to you,” “just believe in yourself,” and “whatever makes you happy,” abound. Purpose is no longer something one finds, but has become something one makes. But for as ignorant and superstitious as past cultures seem to our modern intellect, they understood much better than moderns that our purpose needs a grounding outside ourselves. In fact, it seems that we moderns, the ones who are embracing materialism in larger numbers, are the ones who are the fools. The notion that religion throws in an extra layer of complexity is an easy conclusion to make. But our predecessors recognized Occam's Razor before Occam did, and understood that the winner in a logical duel is not the one with the simplest answer, but rather the simplest adequate one. In this recognition, they understood that losing deity would mean losing explanation. To accept the answer of materialism was to accept a simple solution, but an inadequate one.
While the systems that were built to explain the external grounding in the past may seem very foolish to us today with their complex ideas, our society is more foolish in a number of ways since we defy philosophical grounding and logic altogether. While a Hebrew monotheist may have been fearfully superstitious, his fear that God would strike him dead made sense if that god existed. On materialism, while actions of nature may be explained through cause and effect without a direct link to God, philosophies of life as we intuitively know them end up being incoherent without a creator (e.g. free will, love, purpose, etc). Materialists laugh at ancients for believing in a god, but the ancients can laugh at the materialist for believing anything at all. The ancients may have been wrong, but they could live consistently. The materialists may be right, but find that in so being, they cannot live. For the sake of this discussion, I will be focusing on the incoherence of purpose on materialism.
"Braveheart" is another great example of this sort of tactic. Despite the tragic loss of the main protagonist, and with no victory scenes of the rebels who carry on his cause, the final ambiguity still implies all sorts of notions that lead to great finality (e.g. reconciliation, forgiveness, victory, unification, etc). If you find an amazing story that seems open-ended, I can almost guarantee you that there is some sense of finality woven in.
*The views and ideas on this site are in no way affiliated with any organization, business, or individuals we are a part of or work with. They're also not theological certainties. They're simply thinking out loud, on issues and difficulties as I process things.