Is there any meaning?
Is there any meaning to my life? Does my existence have any significance? Or am I no more than a means of passing on my genes? Do I have a destiny of consequence, or am I no more than fertiliser in preparation?
We might cite the modern thinkers, who insist that life is no more than a meaningless fluke, a chance, and a freak accident. The physicist Stephen Weinberg writes; “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.”
In the words of another modern thinker and writer:
“No one knows what time, though it will be soon enough by astronomical clocks, the lonely planet will cool, all life will die, all mind will cease, and it will all be as if it had never happened. That, to be honest, is the goal to which evolution is travelling, that is the benevolent end of the furious living and furious dying.... All life is no more than a match struck in the dark and blown out again. The final result... is to deprive it completely of meaning.”
How should Christians respond to such bleak assessments of the senseless inanity of life?
Perhaps surprisingly, the Book of Psalms provides a good illustration of the Bible’s antidote to this philosophy of despair. It is often said that whilst the rest of the Bible speaks to us, the Psalms speak for us. They certainly speak for us as we seek to navigate a path out of the quagmire of post-modern nihilism.
We often overlook the fact that the Book of Psalms is made up of five distinct collections. If you glance at your Bible you will see that Psalm 1 is headed ‘Book 1’ and Psalm 42 is headed ‘Book 2’ and so on. There are some scholars who think that this five-fold division of the Psalms reflects the fivefold division of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), called the Pentateuch. These early Old Testament books were the revelation of God for the life of His people.
Whether this is the case or not, it is certainly true that those who wrote the Psalms are encouraging us to sing back to God, what God has first revealed of Himself, and in doing so making sense of the experiences of life in the light of how God has revealed His character and purposes. Issues of suffering and injustice and opposition are all embedded in the wider revelation of God’s plans and purposes for His people. It is as if the Psalmist is armed with what God has said in the first five books of the Bible, then tries to make sense of the experience of life, amidst all its ups and downs, in the light of what is found there.
The Psalms are a glorious exploration of, and celebration of, the life to which God calls His people. In the Psalms we find the people of God placing the story of their lives in the bigger story God has told about Himself. Therein is found meaning and purpose and significance. What the Psalms do is teach us that there is a big picture of God’s purposes and they encourage us to see ourselves in the context of that big picture. ‘This is what God’s great plans and purposes are…. and this is how my problems and joys must therefore fit into those plans and purposes. There IS a plan, and there can be meaning…’
Let me put that another way: what we are encouraged to do in the Psalms is to place the story of our little lives in the context of the glorious story God has told in Scripture. The post-modern mind-set rebels against that, suggesting that every other story must be placed in the context of our story, and that there is no big story after all. But a consequence of that view is that we struggle to find genuine meaning and purpose to life. By contrast, the Psalms help us to see how the people of God can bring their struggles and their joys and place them in the context of the grand purpose of God. Only by doing so does life make sense.
I believe that the inability of atheism to provide any coherent framework of meaning to life is a huge weakness. Typically, proponents of the atheist faith make a virtue out of necessity and boldly declare what they see as the courage of their faith in the face of the implacable pointlessness of life. But our humanity protests, for we are ‘hard-wired’ to pursue meaning and we yearn for purpose; we celebrate beauty and dream of a destiny beyond our three score years and ten.
I was interested to discover, whilst reading Alister McGrath’s excellent biography of C.S. Lewis, that during the 1920’s a whole series of literary figures professed the Christian faith. Many of them turned from dissolute and aimless lives to more productive and wholesome lifestyles as a result. Among them the writer Evelyn Waugh (probably best known now for ‘Brideshead Revisited’) came to regard life as being unendurable and incomprehensible without God. He embraced the Roman Catholic Church in 1930. Before him G.K. Chesterton (‘Father Brown’ stories amongst other things) and Grahame Greene (‘The Third Man’ ‘Our Man in Havana’ etc). The poet T.S. Eliot converted and joined the Anglican Church arguing that only in Christianity was there order and stability to make sense of life.
All these eminent literary figures professed their conversion to Christianity. Many of them found that, as literary figures, they could not give their literary characters depth without Christianity. C.S. Lewis abandoned atheism, disillusioned with its inability to provide any spiritual depth to life, and with his encyclopaedic knowledge of mediaeval literature, he realised that the Christian world view found in the older writers made sense of existence in a way nothing else could.
It occurs to me that I have perhaps underplayed the tremendous evangelistic tool we have in seeking to share a faith that will help people make sense of their lives. Many of our friends and neighbours will be much more haunted by the spectre of meaninglessness than we realise. We have the perfect antidote in the Gospel.