When you believe in nothing
Recently a famed New Zealand author died. A marvellous obituary appeared about her. Part of the first page struck me with its dilemma about our age, and about why the majority of people think like they do. Here is the piece I refer to;
It was as if the whole of human existence was a joke – black one perpetrated by the gods. Here we were ‘on earth’ destined to live (good), but also to die (bad), and with nothing certain ‘beyond’ except extinction, and nothing that alleviated the darkness of this fact except our own inventions. That’s why the inventions – which we could make only because we had the gift of language – were the most important expressions of our humanity. There was truth and there was fiction, but in a way everything was a fiction, because it seemed we had no choice but to go on believing as if everything was for ever.
C.K. Stead NZ Listener February 2004
It’s well written, no doubt about that. And it speaks our cultures language. The words of ‘truthful despair.’ Almost a modern, nicer version of Nietzches madman who runs through the village crying about how we have killed God, and now there is nothing left.
Stand back and hear the piece as if you were from another planet and didn’t understand our angst or our culture or our emotions, say you were like Spock in Star Trek. Completely logical. You might say, ‘well here is a person who is plainly trying to find meaning on a grand or small scale, but somehow has ended up concluding there is no meaning. How did that happen?’
That is the key question. How have we come to take on the fact, generally speaking, that there is no meaning, that it is all a mad game leading nowhere? Why, or how, does our 21st century western culture reach such a self contradiction?
And here is my answer, really early in the article so you know where we are heading. The answer is ultimately because people choose to. Whether they acknowledge it or not, it is a choice. Don’t come at me and say ‘oh we have proved evolution is correct, we have proved there is no such thing as a spirit world, we have proved God never existed, we have proved there is no life beyond the grave’.. nobody has proved that any more than they have proved the inverse – that creation is true, that there is a spirit world, that God is alive and well, that there is life beyond the grave.
You can’t prove either. My point is that generally speaking, belief in God is just that – a belief. Whereas somehow belief in meaninglessness is true. It’s a fact. Even though belief in meaningless is self contradictory, a ‘black joke’, evidence that ‘everything was a fiction’ etc, western society has taken it on.
Now, in this famous authors case, she had a terrible upbringing mixed seriously with churches and ministers who screwed up the real message of Jesus Christ, the sort of thing the majority of this website is all about. Unsurprisingly she tossed all the beliefs out, baby with bathwater. Millions of people have shared her experience. Millions.
But these decisions of rejection were based on feelings, on a few human interactions. Possibly on things like smelling an aging priests cassock and being repulsed. Or seeing a hunched up old lady tending a church burial ground while you are driving to a sunny beach. Then later you read something written well, like the above, and it appeals to you emotionally. Before long, the belief structure has started to permeate through, buttressed in many small ways. Supported for example by adverts imploring you to ’seize the day.’ These little lines strengthen the significance of everyday life, building the subliminal case against a wasted life pulling weeds out of the paths beside the vestry. It all starts to make sense, and you don’t even know why.
And before long you have found enough intellectual capital to convince your cranium that, yes, God never existed. Unfortunately, now and again, lines like those in the yellow box will find you. Two reactions are possible;
- You wonder about the contradictions that led you to take meaninglessness as truth (unlikely)
- You enjoy how well written they are, and move onto the TV pages.
You see, Christians get accused of blindly following outmoded beliefs. That’s old hat. Anyone can point to some British sitcom on local ministers as though it is the tired reality us misled believers cling to. (Because most who criticise church have never been to one) Such critics like to appear as if from another world, being outside that old one, and easily pointing out its contradictions.
But that’s not the current pool we all swim in. No, our world is full of movies, enticements, photos, offhand comments, innuendo, and peer groups that convince most that meaninglessness or a belief in nothing, is true. We are not Spock, arriving from outer space, or another time zone, and seeing life from above, seeing the extent of our swimming pool, and observing the currents that none of the swimmers are aware of.
We are instead the swimmers, and the fact there are other swimmers alongside people is generally enough to convince them they are heading in the right direction. But it’s a pity, it’s almost like the pity you feel for people who are convinced wealth will being them the inner contentment they crave. They have taken on these core beliefs without questioning them, indeed without even knowing they are core beliefs.
So, if you are a follower of Jesus, rejoice in this – that you are conscious you have chosen your belief. Do not take this as license to scorn those who have taken on meaninglessness, for that would be pride disguised. They are not even aware they have taken it on, and are unlikely to discuss it, for that very act would reveal it as belief, not fact.
I’m merely trying to point out how interesting it is that the west has taken meaninglessness to heart. And I think it has something to do with the concept of heart, which has secrets the mind knows nothing of.