Is An Insignificant Life Worth Living?

It has been a busy year so far for my family and I. At the beginning of the year I decided to begin studying my Master of Divinity degree at Christ College because I thought it was a better path to developing what abilities God had given me and how I would best help others. The semester was a hard one. Besides learning a completely new and dead language (Koine Greek) I also began a new role as clinical educator at work and the constant juggling between the 2 responsibilities meant that by June my body was worn out and my mind was absent. I needed a holiday. By July I was in Sabah, Malaysia enjoying the tropical weather and seeing my grandmother whom I had not seen in 13 years. But while the weather was sunny and the waves were calm, a storm in my heart still raged. I experienced a gnawing restlessness that grew each day and fully manifested itself only once I had returned to Sydney and prepared to return to ‘normal life’.

This restlessness of mine which I am prone to experiencing was crippling. Around the same time, I had struggled to know how I ought to rest and what to prioritize in the upcoming semester. Was I even studying the right course? Why was it so hard? How else should I be using my time? From the moment I entered my last clinical note, I think my mind had already begun to consider the alternatives I could be doing with my time and my life despite my constraints. Being open to new possibilities was exhausting, like never ending research for a product you want to buy. In the end, it came down to what I perceived as the absurdity of my life. What was the point of my labors if none of my work will be remembered? This is something that has become increasingly obvious to me. After all, Jean Calvin wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion at 26 while Nietzsche only became the youngest professor at the University of Basel at 24. As the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.’ Accompanying this feeling of insignificance is a feeling of missing out, that there is a life out there where I might be happy, leading everyday that I haven’t realized it to be filled with constant regret and envy at those to appear to have found it (though I haven’t actually met anyone who has yet). It wasn’t until the first day of returning to work at my clinic that I read this an article on restlessness in the Art of Manliness.1

One of the most valuable lessons for the young to learn is that it takes a great man to accomplish a great undertaking, and that both are necessarily few in one generation. If this lesson were learned and heeded half the heartache of our mature years might be avoided. Effort, and high resolve, and noble purpose are excellent qualities of character; but they can never enable a man to lift himself by the boot-straps nor accomplish the unattainable. It is at once the weakness and greatness of some to conceive what they attempt to do of so high a degree of excellence that no human power can reach it. The natural effect of this is a restless desire to accomplish something far beyond what is ordinarily attained even by surpassing talent. When such a desire has taken possession of the heart, the usual achievements of men seem poor indeed. With their broad views and far-sighted stretch of thought, it seems trivial to come down to the common affairs of every-day life. It is to them a small thing to do good and get good in the plain old common-sense way. J. Clinton Ransom, The Successful Man, 1886

Thanks to the technological developments of the last 2 centuries, the accumulation of wealth in the West and the emphasis on self autonomy, we are served a buffet of endless possibilities and enticed by endless temptations and expectations. How can one live in such a world? The solution I think seems to be by a good dose of humility. Just as the writer of Ecclesiastes concluded that there is nothing better for man than to fear God and keep his commandments, so Kierkegaard reminds us that there is little way of knowing if the life we have chosen for ourselves is the best. Often the responsibility of this immense choice can crush us from ever making a decision. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Humility and faith are the keys to enjoying the present and leaving the future to the One who sees all that is under the sun. Complement this with TGC’s article “How Do I Discern If My Ambition is Godly?” 2

Though we shouldn’t be overly introspective—exhaustively questioning the motives of everything we do—it’s helpful to keep a pulse on our ambition. I’ve found one basic principle helpful: Godly ambition requires both hustle and humility.

  1. ## How to Cure Neurasthenia (Restlessness) | The Art of Manliness
    Link
  2. Link

Understanding Millenials Through The Eyes of Kierkegaard

Photo by Peter Bucks on Unsplash
Photo by Peter Bucks on Unsplash

I write as one untimely born. I write as a millenial to millenials, whom by the end of this sentence may already be bored of the writing of this millenial. How wearisome it is to read something that doesn’t immediately capture one’s attention! Is it because one’s heart is searching for something else? Are you still reading this? Then I am surprised. And I trust you will then read on. This seems to be the paradox of the millenial — a person stuck hoping for an experience they remember and when such an experience finds them, they are remembering what they had hoped for. It is no wonder that the travel industry much profit from the wanderings of 20 year olds. Once a person has tasted the novelty of another country, they have engaged all their senses towards its sights and its sounds. The senses then dwell and eat away at the person while he or she works. Slowly but surely, its memories float to the surface and before they know it, they are off again in search of what they had remembered. But once there, what they had hoped for vanishes and is replaced by what they had remembered. And the chase goes on.

One of the ways reading Kierkegaard has helped me is to understand my own generation from the eyes of someone who lived 200 years ago. While we each have one life to live there are a few ways we can live. Kierkegaard captured this in his 3 stages: the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. The aesthete lives for their immediate pleasures, the ethical for their responsibility to others and the religious by their faith in God (which transcends responsibility). But these 3 ways of living are not equally valid, as Kierkegaard hints at in his use of stages. Instead each one builds on the other until the highest mode of living is found in the religious.

From my own reflection, it seems that the typical millenial is characterized most by their search for the aesthetic. This is unsurprising given that global youth culture is marked by secularism. In secularism the lost of the religious mode of being gives way to the mode of responsibility (the ethical) but what millenials are subconsciously realizing is that without the religious there is no ethical. After all, who are other people to tell you how to live? Instead one is left with the individual including their tastes and what strikes their conscience. Do what makes you happy – as long as it doesn’t harm anyone (that you care about). The reduction of life to the immediate are present in many ways: in the preoccupation with lifestyles, in boredom and in the anxiety that comes with having to make decisions that ultimately have little meaning. These are problems that haven’t gone unnoticed. But their solutions seem far from simple and I hope to be able to start to pry them out little by little as I read further.

Further Reading

https://www.iep.utm.edu/kierkega/#SH1c

https://www.amazon.com/Either-Fragment-Life-Penguin-Classics/dp/0140445773

https://www.amazon.com/Stages-Lifes-Way-Kierkegaards-Writings/dp/0691020493

https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2019-03/connecting-with-the-new-global-youth-culture?fbclid=IwAR0CFxrebbnK5LTGIu3K9_Ro4ovyBslQcE5V6QRGv2OjNgj6WIASgL1X414

Gillette’s Ad Reveals Our Cultural Confusion About Man’s 2 States

What is a man? Over the last 2 weeks, I’ve been challenged to think more about this. It wasn’t a challenge because the concept of masculinity was previously unknown but because such a clear idea was being undermined. Recently, Gillette released a type of ad that I’ve been seeing more and more of. Rather than featuring a product, the ads center around who the company is rather than what they do. As a men’s razor company, the ad was addressed to all males but it clearly expressed a narrative that Gillette wanted to identify with and would cause controversy — toxic masculinity. Within 2 minutes I was treated to ‘manly’ behaviors from cat calls and mansplaining (someone still has to explain what this is to me) to kids wrestling and dads barbecuing. The message was that this isn’t ‘the best men can get.’ Instead, Gillette called on men to hold one another accountable to behaviors that have long been justified as ‘boys being boys.’ This was obviously a good ad right?

While some applauded Gillette and saw it as an encouragement towards male accountability, many more could do little but roll their eyes. ‘There goes another attempt to demonize men.’ As for me, I had 2 initial impressions of the ad. I didn’t have any idea what the ad had to do with their actual product nor did I feel the urge to buy more of it. So it simply seemed a bad ad from a marketing standpoint. But I’m not a marketer nor a critic so writing about this aspect of the ad wasn’t going to help anyone. My second reaction is what I wanted to write about and it was directed towards a deeper problem — the message of the ad. I was concerned because it reflected the confusion around sex and identity that has engulfed so much of the society I live and breathe in. In life there are certain things that you just have to live and let live. Toothpaste squeezed from the top rather than the bottom? You just have to grin and bear it. But the confusion around sex isn’t one of them. Being confused about sex doesn’t just hurt women but the men Gillette claims to help. Not knowing how to relate one’s self as a man or a woman means not knowing how to relate to each other. It means people without differences, unity without diversity and existence without meaning. Categories are how we understand being and male and female have always been a part of it. As a Christian, being unable to understand my design means being unable to relate my self not just to others but to God. So gender confusion hurts people because it doesn’t just affect lifestyles but existence and meaning itself.

The 2 Natures

In the book of Genesis, the first two human beings are created by God in his image. As his image, their responsibility would be of mediating between God and being, ordering the chaos of creation into the paradisical garden of Eden. But the first two human beings disobeyed God by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The reward of having their eyes opened is for themselves a curse. One of the curses for Eve the first female, is ‘your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.’ One result of that curse was the splitting of humanity into 2 natures – good and evil. So while Adam the first male was designed to order creation, the goodness of that order would now be twisted and perverted. The loving order and stability of Adam would now become the iron fisted ruling of a tyrant and it has continued in this way. In me there exists the wise king. Yet behind him lays the dark tyrant. They both look similar and at times it can be hard to tell who’s who. The courage, strength and aggression of our fighting men have often been the turning tide of wars. Yet these very same traits have caused the rape, pillaging and destruction of whole cities.

It seems to me that men are capable of heroic displays of virtue but are at the same time, history’s most destructive force. But I don’t think such a design was accidental. I have often looked up at the night sky to observe the beauty of the stars. But it was only when the sky was darkest that their light shone the brightest. Augustine himself recognized this when he observed that God would often use prosperity to remind us of his goodness and great calamities to remind us of our need. What we needed was something stable and unchanging. It was a reminder that what we needed was God himself. What men need therefore is true masculinity and the very God who restores them to it. I do not think the present threat in our society is excessive masculinity but rather a lack of it. When men protect those under their care the world is a safer place. When men create meaning rather meaninglessness the world is a truer place. And when men live as men the world is a more beautiful place.

With further reflection, I’ve become more sympathetic towards Gillette’s attempt to address this social problem. Let me be clear – I don’t endorse it. But I think it was their way of saying that there were wrong behaviors that males had justified as being intrinsic to who they were. This was badly expressed through the phrase ‘boys will be boys’. When I think about the encouragement to ‘suck it up’ as though stoicism saved anyone, I can see Gillette’s point. But harmful behaviors that are usually expressed by males does not mean that males usually express these behaviors. And I think this is what confused people and caused the controversy. Sexual harassment is no more a product of masculinity than lying is to femininity. Unless Gillette and those under the sway of toxic masculinity understand man’s two natures, they will only be able to address it by eradicating maleness itself. When you realize that men die on the job more than females, that they are the most frequent victims of homicide and that they account for 97% of war casualties, that’s not a great idea.

The Biggest Reason Why Most Resolutions Fail

Why do most resolutions fail? These days it seems people hesitate to make any resolutions. Others do it half-heartedly expecting that they will fail past March. The good thing is that I think this betrays the reality that we know how impossible change is. Having seen the countless attempts we’ve tried to improve our lives and failed we are a little bit wiser. Change is hard because I think what we do isn’t separated from who we are. I think the reason they fail is because people for the most part remain themselves at the end of the year.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

To understand how resolutions connect with the change we want to see, it is helpful to ask what resolutions are. At its most basic level, I think resolutions for most people are expressions about what they would like to achieve. It is a show of will. By gritting one’s teeth, one attempts to stand up to one’s self to stop doing one thing and start doing another. And then we fail. And fail again. And make resolutions for the next year. While this is annoying, when you’ve lived long enough it can become just another fact of life and something you apathetically accept. But I think it does raise the question of whether there was something wrong with the original resolutions that people make. Is it because the will wasn’t strong enough or because it wasn’t genuine?

I don’t think that’s the case. I think when people make resolutions they genuinely desire, hope and believe that they can change. Resolutions are done when the will is most firm and the vision is most clear. With the destination in mind, the heart goes along and charts the route. But the problem may be the direction of one’s will. In life, few things are done well by aiming directly at the object as an end in itself. It seems that to operate a business well, one must seek to serve rather than to profit. To lead well, one must seek to embolden the people they lead. On the other hand, leading to obtain power leads to the manipulation and usage of people like tools in a shed. So in order to change what we do, we must first change who we are. Because a large part of our accomplishments proceed from our habits and then our character, changing who we are involves changing our virtues. We must have an image of who we ought to be and strive to embody it. Like Narcissus whose continual reflection of himself turned him into a flower of vanity, we become what we behold for long enough.

For me and countless others, change is something I’ve struggled with. From my childhood till now, I have often realized that I am not who I ought to be. And trying to figure out whom I ought to be has been like looking for fish through muddy waters. But what I discovered at 17 remains true even now — that there is none who so embodies what it means to live the good life and to be fully human as the man the Bible calls Jesus. Yet he was more than a man. He was the embodiment of the divine and because of that change hasn’t just been possible but it has occurred simply by beholding and believing him. For me, change has come from a change in spirit and the spirit through faith. While I’m sure 2019 will continue to challenge who I am and who I ought to be, I know like the apostle John that it isn’t in vain.

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. – 1 John 3:2

I hope that you too would see and experience true change in 2019 and that you would become the person you were called to be.

When Good Ends and Evil Begins

What makes evil, evil? Is it evil to hate a person in my mind? Or if I pretend to love them while secretly hating them? What if I openly hate them? What if I pretend to love them and then hate them by working against them without their knowledge? What if I murder them? You might say, ‘that’s enough. Of course you shouldn’t murder them!’ So abstractly labeling the latter as evil is easy. But if you’re required to retrace your steps backwards then it’s not so clear when good ends and evil begins. I think the default is to pass over every stage until the last one. In the age of the trite and trivial, it’s easy to pass over the early behaviors because they have less obvious consequences.

In truth, they’re all evil though varying in degrees. That seems overblown until you realize these behaviors or thoughts aren’t isolated incidences but states of being lived in the presence of an infinite person. Like my mother used to say, ‘it’s your attitude.’ When we pass over these small ‘bad’ actions without recognizing its evil, it’s akin to severing our vessels from our heart. These little behaviors are symptoms of our inner condition and who we are. Imagine the physician who points out to the patient that he has peripheral vascular disease. The patient retorts, ‘nice try doctor but these aren’t my vessels.’ Yet the madness of severing our behaviors from our self is seen everywhere. The malady becomes terminal when blinded by our spiritual sickness we can no longer recognize the good and evil we attempt to define. The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not to know good and evil. No, the food poisoning sets in before that.

In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard described the severity of sin (the Christian conception of evil) as terrible precisely because it occurred before God –

”…there was much truth in the idea, even though it has occasionally been misused, that what made sin so terrible was its being before God. From this people proved the eternity of hell’s punishment and then later became cleverer and said: ‘sin is sin; it is none the worse for being against or before God.’ Strange! Even lawyers talk of aggravated crimes; even lawyers distinguish between crimes committed against public officials and private citizens, prescribe different punishments for patricide and ordinary murder.

Wronging God infinitely heightens the severity of sin because God is not someone external, who exists outside ourselves like a police constable. Instead, he is a constant relation relating to our self. And the magnitude of our crime is judged based on the self’s standard and the person its been committed against. And it has always been this way. What would one think if a child murdered his father? Would such a child have committed the same crime by murdering his dog?

Kierkegaard wrote that the self has a conception of God yet does not do what God wants and is disobedient. Thus God is never sinned against occasionally but always as long as one was in such a state. Now the higher the consciousness of one’s self, the more intensely the awareness of the self’s standard of measurement – God. The more conception of self, the more God and the more conception of God, the more self.

Calvin, the Swiss theologian recognized the link between the knowledge of one’s self and of God:

“For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain. Here, again, the infinitude of good which resides in God becomes more apparent from our poverty”

The state of evil therefore lies in the will. And its severity lies in its relating of the self to its foundation, God. Evil is evil because it says “this is good for me!” and defies God for good is not ‘for you’ but rather ‘for God’. He is the person of infinite goodness. After all, Nietzsche remarked that good and evil were simply expressions of the will to power. A person who sins is a daughter who slaps her father whilst sitting on his lap. “I would rather sit on my own lap than yours, thank you very much!” Her crime lay in slapping not an inconsequential person but her father who gave her life and of using the elevation of his lap to do the very deed. Little girl, don’t you realize that you can’t slap your father without sitting on his lap?

Complement this article with:

  1. The Sickness Unto Death, Soren Kierkegaard.
  2. Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche
  3. Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin.

How to Live: Should We Pursue Happiness or Meaning?

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

Our hearts intuitively seek happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. – Thomas Jefferson

The founding fathers of the United States of America were one of the few to formally recognize something all humans intuitively strive for: happiness. Though it is seldom spoken of, it is indubitably behind our thoughts and actions like a hidden judge through whom each of life’s problems are presented. Choices like what to wear, what to say, whom to be friends with, what job we should choose are critiqued on what we believe will give us the maximum happiness. But there are numerous problems with living for makes you happy. Here are what I believe are the 3 biggest.

3 problems with living for happiness

  1. Happiness is a superficial high of the moment. We pursue what we believe will bring us the greatest pleasure but it is over as soon as it achieved, a greater let down than a Disney movie ever could be. To deal with that, we become perpetual children, hopping from one pleasure to another, unsure of when the next big hit is.
  2. The birds of happiness leave their nests quickly, for their wings sprout as soon as one attempts to grasp them, leaving us on an endless chase. Happiness is a goal that never quite seems attainable. It is like a hike up a mountain only to realize you’re in the valley of an even greater one.
  3. I believe however, that the biggest problem to living for one’s own happiness is suffering. While it might seem like a viable option to pursue while the grass is green, what will one do when it is scorched by the heat? By nature, happiness cannot flourish in suffering. That means it is dependent on one’s fluctuating and chaotic environment. Happiness then is out of the question for those living in extreme circumstances and restricted only to the fortunate few of mankind. Worse, it leaves us unable to choose it.

Why living for meaning is better

While defining meaning is less easier than happiness, we can understand it better when we see how it is used. We can all think of things that we would or should live for. Things that give our lives a sense of purpose and usefulness tend to be ones that transcend us, where its ends go beyond our own happiness. The propagation of families and nations were historic sources of meaning for most of human history. Meaning then seems to imply an overarching purpose like a story for your life. The benefits of striving to live a meaningful life include being able to rejoice in suffering. The apostle Paul from the Bible captures it when he says, “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” (Heb. 10:34). It may seem so distant to us, like the lifestyles portrayed on Instagram, but being able to rejoice in suffering really is possible when we know it is headed towards an even better ending. After all, the biggest question one has when suffering rears its ugly head is “why?” Why. Why. Why. Being able to answer why doesn’t change the reality of our suffering but it allows us the faith to believe that the outcome is worth it, the tongue to taste it, and the strength to endure till we receive it. Aristotle said, “the sum is greater than the parts”, and so it is with happiness. The outcome of living meaningfully produces a joy that is greater and more enduring that any short lived pleasure can be. It even has the possibly to make our suffering seem small (if only we could see it). Living meaningfully is something any person can do in any situation. We are all physically capable of making choices that help us to find meaning in whatever we experience. Meaning after all, is a matter of perspective. But attempting to live a meaningful life isn’t enough so in my next article I’ll be writing about why not all meanings are equal.

The Tyranny of Freedom

In the beginning, God existed absolutely free. He was free to do as he desired, and constrained only by his own character. He made Adam and Eve male and female, giving them their very own radical freedom to live as his image. This meant that they too were constrained only by his character – goodness. They had the freedom to choose where and what they did except for one thing – to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Attempting to eat from such a tree however meant attempting to transcend God’s own character and know good and evil for themselves. They would use their very own freedom to determine good and evil outside of God, wrecking reality in the process. Sadly, the story has continued till today.

Today, we feel free to decide what makes us happy whether that’s the choice of our career or spouse. Yet these choices often makes us just as miserable, with a common outcome of anxiety over our decisions, discontentment with our current situation and a sense of meaninglessness. Our freedom to choose what makes us happy often seems more like slavery to whatever our current impulses are. Freedom is slavery and slavery is freedom.

Yet the key reason why is because freedom was not given in order to determine what makes us happy. Instead, true freedom is choosing what will ultimately make us happy. But how can we know what makes truly makes happy without it being revealed to us? Humans were made free, in order that we might use our freedom to transcend ourselves and live for another. But we were never made free to transcend God himself and live as though we were him. God’s freedom is to determine what is, while the freedom of man is simply to choose. The hope of the Christian is that in the dimly lit cave of humanity, God shone the light of his Son and entered it himself to lead us out, by pointing us back to where we belong – in the freedom of living for him. And he is continuing to do so today.

Why Does It Seem Like No One Can Be Sure About Anything?

Certainty is a lack of doubt about something. This exists on a spectrum from relative to absolute. Although philosophers often attempt to differentiate psychological certainty (which is the strength of one’s belief) and epistemic certainty, I believe that reality shows the two to be mutually dependent. What one knows with absolute certainty entails that one believes it wholeheartedly as well. We must have psychological confidence that the certainty we know is accurately represented. For example if I know for certain that my car is parked outside then it I’m able to believe with full confidence.

But can we know anything with absolute certainty? The postmodern zeitgeist (the spirit of the age) would say no. You can see that whenever anything claims to be certain or universal, a general skepticism tends to follow along. Things like grand historical narratives or universal principles are looked at with suspicion by society. This is because we refuse to allow any authority to interpret our lives and give it meaning outside of our self. As humans we like to think we generate our own meaning. It’s not just postmodern or deconstructionist philosophy though, that articulate such ideas. While the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said as humans, we are ‘radically free’, Disney says ‘it’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through, no right, no wrong, no rules for me, I’m free.’ But if we ourselves are uncertain people, then so too will our knowledge be. And if doubt has become the default attitude of society then it has also become its virtue. And certainty in the modern world is now the bad guy, the sign of arrogance.

Besides everyday life, this issue can also be applied to a religious context: can we know God with certainty? For Christians, the answer is yes because the Christian belief is that God’s special revelation is certain and therefore we should be certain about it too. While there are things we ‘figure out’ such as science, there are deeper, more fundamental truths (which are articulated in Scripture) that are revealed to us from birth, truths that are unchanging and certain, regardless of who we are. They govern the world and are revealed to us rather than worked out. In such a context, doubt then is more vice than virtue because it is wrong to doubt what God has clearly revealed to us. So the reason the postmodern mind thinks that there is nothing that can be absolutely known is because there is no knowledge that exists outside of the self. Here is why I think this doesn’t work (and certainty is possible):

It is impossible to exclude certainty in all cases

The inescapable fact of life is that even denying certainty requires certainty about it – ‘that nothing is certain.’ But of course, how can we know that? So the argument against certainty itself must be uncertain. Further, any argument against certainty must assume that argument can be a means of finding truth. Someone using an argument to test the certainty of propositions claims certainty at least for that argument. In this case, he claims that he can test whether we can legimiately know things with certainty. But a test of certainty must be certain itself because it would become the criterion of certainty. As the theologian Frame says, an argument that would test absolute certainty must itself be absolutely certain.

Certainty is supernatural

At the same time, we know that we do not have certain knowledge of everything, which is proven to us everyday. We’re frequently contradicted by our own words and actions. Each day little discoveries are made, showing us that the world we knew before wasn’t quite what we had thought. Before space, time and relativity, there was simply an apple falling to the ground. And there is a humility that comes with acknowledging what we do and what we don’t know. After all, no one likes a smart ass. Certainty cannot come from an uncertain source and therefore cannot come from us.

For Christians, God’s word (special revelation) is the ultimate criterion of certainty. What God says must necessarily be true because it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore we have a moral responsibility to regard God’s word with absolute certainty and make it our test for all other knowledge. However, our psychological certainty about the truth of God doesn’t ultimately come from our logical reasoning or empirical or even historical evidence (which is useful) but from God’s own authority. As humans we are made with the capability to understand truth and it is to this aspect God’s word is self-authenticating, speaking on its own authority. At the same time, God is a person and therefore he can choose whom to reveal himself to. Certainty is an act of God by his Spirit, often accompanying human reasoning to give us certainty. Yet Christian Scripture never turns away those whom honestly seek to find the answer to such questions.

Conclusion

Secularism ultimately rejects certainty because absolute certainty is supernatural and the secularist is unwilling to accept a supernatural foundation for knowledge. For the Christian, God’s revelation is a wonderful treasure and one that “saves the soul from sin and the mind from skepticism”1. Questioning whether anything is certain is a sign that one hasn’t yet found any sturdy ground to stand on outside of themselves. It is like a blind man, who isn’t sure of the road he is walking on. He feels it in terms of a series of physical sensations, separated by the rhythm of time. A bump here followed by a bump seconds later indicates an uneven road. But it isn’t until that his eyes are opened that he can know that with certainty that it was a road he was walking on all along. So too with God.

  1. Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, 582-587

Religions Can Neither All Be Right or Wrong

When I first heard the phrase “all religions are the same”, even as a fairly nominal and agnostic Christian, I thought it was a ridiculous statement to make. The fact that even the most similar religions (such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam) had such contradictory claims made it a stupid question to consider. One day, I was shown this story by John Saxe (based on a traditional Indian tale) which made me hesitate:

“It was six men of Indostan,

To learning much inclined, 

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind), 

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind. 


The First approach’d the Elephant,

And happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side, 

At once began to bawl:

“God bless me! but the Elephant

Is very like a wall!” 

The Second, feeling of the tusk, 

Cried, -“Ho! what have we here

So very round and smooth and sharp? 

To me ’tis mighty clear, 

This wonder of an Elephant

Is very like a spear!” 


The Third approach’d the animal,

And happening to take

The squirming trunk within his hands,

Thus boldly up and spake:

“I see,” -quoth he- “the Elephant

Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand, 

And felt about the knee: 

“What most this wondrous beast is like

Is mighty plain,” -quoth he,- 

“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant 

Is very like a tree!” 


The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,

Said- “E’en the blindest man

Can tell what this resembles most;

Deny the fact who can,

This marvel of an Elephant

Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun

About the beast to grope, 

Then, seizing on the swinging tail

That fell within his scope, 

“I see,” -quoth he,- “the Elephant

Is very like a rope!” 

And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long, 

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong, 

Though each was partly in the right, 

And all were in the wrong! 


MORAL,

So, oft in theologic wars 

The disputants, I ween, 

Rail on in utter ignorance 

Of what each other mean; 

And prate about an Elephant 

Not one of them has seen!

The story about the 6 blind men was written in the 19th century and has since been used as a poster boy for religious relativism. Granted, it consists of pretty powerful rhetoric but adds little to the actual argument. Similar to the analogy that religions are multiple journeys towards the same destination, the point of the poem are that religions are partial perspectives of the same object. The religious believer is like one of the blind men who see the truth only partially but insists that they have the totality of it. God is present but has left them to their own devices. Like them, we are blindly groping in the dark, attempting to break free of our chains to escape the cave and see the world for what it really is. It isn’t until the king who requested the elephant makes known to them what it really is, that they can truly know what an elephant is. The implication for modern religions is that believers claiming to have the truth are merely expressing their arrogance and ignorance.

Although the poem gave me pause, at the same time there was something intuitively puzzling about it. Upon further reflection and research, here are 2 biggest reasons why I think the argument doesn’t hold water:

1. The truly arrogant claim is the one that all religions are true

The only reason the blind men can know it’s an elephant is that the king reveals it to them. Without the king’s revelation, they will forever be stuck with their impression of the elephant, “its very like a rope!” But if one argues that all religions are partial perspectives of God, then they must assume the position of the king, the perceiver who has access to the complete picture of God. For such a person, he must have intimate knowledge of God and each religion, knowing the conditions that would make each claim true or false, in order to make such a universal statement. It is, as Newbiggen says, to claim knowledge superior to even those of religion. This applies also to the claim of God’s non-existence, which no one is able to know unless it’s revealed to them. The atheist finds himself in a quandary, because in order to deny the existence of God, he must have 1) sufficient knowledge of every religion to decide which religion’s God to deny and 2)transcendent knowledge of what does and doesn’t exist to deny all of them. If we’re honest, we know such kingly knowledge has not been given to us.

So epistemic humility forces us to choose to admit we either don’t know or we do. We cannot escape such a choice. What then do we do in the face of such a diverse range of beliefs? Either one religion is right or everyone is wrong (join the atheist club), in which they can never know that they are. But they cannot all be true (or be mere perspectives) because the very claims of religion are contradictory. It is not as though the elephant felt ropey and like a fan at the same time, whose qualities could belong to the same object, but an elephant who could fit into one man’s hand but not the other’s. Of course the two blind men would disagree because the claims were deductively incoherent!

One of the reasons Christians reject religions is not because they lack knowledge of other beliefs but because the defining elements of every other religion contradict one another, rendering them incoherent with reality. The other is that Christians have had such knowledge revealed to them. Rather than climbing up over one another on our ladders to reach God, he himself has lowered the rope into our pit of darkness, allowing us to reach him, if only we might grasp it. Which brings me to my next point.

“To say, I don’t know which religion is true is an act of humility.  To say, none of the religions have truth, no one can be sure there’s a god is actually to assume you have the kind of knowledge, you just said no other person, no other religion has.  How dare you?  See, it’s a kind of arrogant thing to say nobody can know the truth because it’s a universal truth claim.  To say, ‘Nobody can make universal truth claims.’  That is a universal truth claim.  ‘Nobody can see the whole truth.’  You couldn’t know that unless you think you see the whole truth.  And, therefore, you’re doing the very thing you say religious people shouldn’t do.” – Timothy Keller

2. It assumes that God has not revealed himself

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Acts 17:24-28

Imagine that the elephant opened his mouth. “I’m – !” he said. That would change everything. The blind men would no longer be dependent on their senses as the elephant would be able to give them information as to who he was. This is the unspoken assumption the poem makes. Yet the claim of Christianity isn’t that men are left to their own devices, groping in the dark for some fragment of the truth. Nor are we enslaved individuals capable of using reason to break our chains and escape the cave (like Plato) to grasp God. We are like the blind men, helpless until the elephant invades their world, speaking and revealing himself. This is what Christians believe – that God out of his kindness, reached down by becoming one of us, a man named Jesus, and spoke. And this speaking is what changed everything.

Conclusion

The poem does help us to understand something, namely that without God revealing himself, knowledge about him really is just the speculation of 6 blind men groping in the dark, waiting for the light of the king to enter their darkness. Reason, empirical data, intuition – none of these are capable of reaching up into the noumenal (transcendent) world no more than a baby’s hand can reach up and touch the sun. It is a great tragedy that like the baby, humans too believe they can when in comes to the knowledge of God. Christians can be thankful that the king who reveals what the elephant is like is Jesus, God himself become man.

Further Reading:

https://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/blind-men-and-the-elephant.htm

https://www.str.org/articles/the-trouble-with-the-elephant#.WqDazJNuaRs

https://larrycheng.com/2010/01/23/on-the-blind-men-and-an-elephant/

Disordered Loves

Unlikely Loves

Everyone loves love. Everyone desires love. The anticipation of its fulfillment in its object, the intense longing, the momentary feeling that all is right in the world in its presence, the sharp stabbing feeling of having and of losing, the intimacy of being known and knowing another, like there was no other person who were privy to the knowledge that you had received, the assurance of one’s commitment, the certainty of its endurance and the safety of its acceptance. Yes, all of it. But the object of our love is found in all sorts of strange things. A man ‘marries’ his phone. Narcissus falls in love with his reflection. We also find in our hearts, competing loves. That is, competing desires. The moment I wake up I face the desire to write competing with my love of sleep at 6 am.

The War of Loves

In the light of eternity, our whole lives is a war between loves. In our pursuit of happiness, fulfillment and transcendence, succumbing to some of these loves lead to fatal consequences while others to benefit. Will one choose their long term health or their appetite, and succumb to fatal heart disease? The struggles lies in the painstaking difficulty of giving up a good desire to one that is better. It is an inescapable reality of our lives. Every moment demands a choice. Every choice fulfills one desire and rejects another. Every desire fulfilled is the loss of another and what could have been. To be human is to love and to lose.

But if life is a war of our loves then we are losing it. How do we know the better loves then? Do we accept what society deems lovable or decide for ourselves? Caught in the midst of an affair, the bewildered husband utters “it just happened.” The high school girl, infatuated with the longing for one particular boy is encouraged to do what makes her happy. After all, love is love. Underneath the pining of our culture is an assumption that almost any love is a good one to be pursued. The news is filled with story after story of people giving in to their love all day long. Love is portrayed like cupid’s arrow, an enslaving, all consuming fiery passion that leaves no one outside its grasp. “It just happened.”

Though we know intuitively that love is only good through its appropriate expression and proportions, we are unable to tear ourselves away from certain desires. The love between a man and his wife can never be expressed in the same way to his daughter. Nor any other woman for that matter. Yet “it just happened”. These desires enslave us. they are our masters. At other times, we do not know which desires to follow and which to suppress if at all possible. Do I listen to my heart and break up with my girlfriend to pursue this girl? Is she the one? Blind to reality, we just have to “follow our hearts” and hope for the best.

Why We Don’t Love What We Should and Love What We Shouldn’t

Why do we do such things? Because the end of love’s pursuit is to deny what it knows is coming. The final defeat of death. Death envelops it all. There is no love that endures, no song that remains to be sung through the ages. If we live long enough the love we feel for another becomes bitter like wormwood. if we live short enough, we see death cruelly taking love before it has blossomed, leaving only broken hearts to ask what could have been. The good die young and the bad live long. Love is torn apart by untimely deaths, by broken hearts, by grief, tragedy and despair itself. Death destroys all knowledge of love and love itself. Love is subsumed into the void never to be remembered or lived again.

Deep down we know it to be true. And because we dread this, our “existential angst” leads us to spend our lives giving in to the wrong loves, indulging in our natural desires. Because the wrong loves are also the easiest loves. And if the right loves cease to matter then why waste precious labor to pursue what you will never have.

“What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor. 15:32)

What we call love is used to fill the chasm of our hearts caused by facing the reality that we will never find fulfillment in our lifetime. It is a fleeting glimpse, a momentary ecstasy. Like a flower it rises up today only to be gone tomorrow. Try as we might the desire for our transcendence never dies even in the face of the absurd. Even death laughs at our futile attempts to enjoy what we can never have.

The Message of Despair

In the midst of our struggle with our existence, we miss the message it sends. Whispering in our empty success, shouting in our pain. It says, “you were never made for this world”. No, the love in this world is merely a signpost to a greater one. One that is enduring and eternal. One that overcomes death. To love love is to completely miss the point. Love is love? Who strives to be happy for happiness’ sake?

We ought to strive to be happy in the object that it is found. But we do not think the same with love. We seek love on its own, without its object, in what we believe will bring it to us. Follow it however and you end up more disappointed than when you started. The love we glimpse in our life amidst our relationships were designed as images of a better one. To seek to find love outside off its narrow road is to be lost, never to find the way again unless by some miracle you stumble upon it.

We will never find love until we give up trying to find it in this life and find it in God. To face the absurd we must give up what we hope will deliver us and seek what we can have no hope of in this life. Yet this seems more absurd). If you consider this too difficult, ask: “is it worth it if it is true?”. We must face facts. We only have two choices. We must choose which loves to pursue. To decide to follow our heart desires death. To desire God is to desire life.

A Call to Trust

The war of loves then is a call to trust. Our hearts were never meant to lead but be led. Do we know which loves will make us happy or does the one who made us? The only reason why giving up our loves is unbearable is if we like children are so preoccupied playing with our mud pies that we have become blind to the sandcastle right next to us. Consider therefore whether you’re seeking love for its own sake or the God who is love.