First published July 17
At the end of 1897, the artist Paul Gauguin was in despair. Mourning the tragic death of his favourite daughter earlier in the year, he was ill and dejected. His tropical paradise had failed. He decided to commit suicide but wanted to paint one last, grand, testamentary picture.
Summoning all his strength in a single burst of energy, Gauguin painted his final masterpiece — a cry of bewilderment at the riddle of existence. He slashed three dramatic exclamations at the top left hand corner of the painting: ‘Where do we come from — What are we — Where are we going’.
These are not so much a title as a signature, a testament to the quest that comes with our humanity. They are not just questions that had haunted Gauguin since childhood. They are perennial questions concerning the ultimate meaning of life which most of us encounter at various stages throughout our life.
When the first of these three big questions is asked innocently by a puzzled child or reflected upon in awe and amazement by parents at the birth of a baby, it is not a scientific but a religious/philosophical understanding that is being sought. It is a question about the ultimate source of our being.
The second is the question of most immediate concern to us in everyday life. What are we meant to do with our life? This question is an invitation to ethical and moral responsibility. How should we live? How should we relate to others and the world at large? The injunction is to ‘know thyself and know thy world.’ The urge is to discover what, if anything, is the purpose of our life and how to live in accordance with that purpose.
The final question has been asked from time immemorial whenever we are confronted by the recognition of our own mortality and the death of loved ones. What happens to our (and our loved one’s) precious being after death? Is this temporal, finite existence all there is? Does life matter ultimately? Or is it simply ‘a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing’?
Recently on ABC Radio National’s The Spirit of Things, Shabda Khan told a delightful parable of two twins discussing these very questions while still in the womb: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/spiritofthings/dances-of-universal-peace/8492320
I would invite readers to listen to this two minute audio clip of the tale, which he tells beautifully.
Listen … HERE
Depending on your temperament and your belief system, you may find this imaginary conversation either comforting, powerful, amusing or absurd. The dialogue between the two twins is repeated, with many variations, in pretty well every discourse one encounters whenever such questions are raised.
People tend to answer these questions along a very broad continuum of belief, depending on whether they are religious, agnostic, atheistic or nihilistic. The continuum is horseshoe shaped, with those at each end tending to be much more dogmatic and antagonistic than the vast majority of people in the middle.
At one end of the continuum are the religious fundamentalists of all denominations. Typically, they have a certain belief in the existence of a real, external, omnipotent God who created the universe, who determined its physical laws and moral rules, and who has issued clear, final answers to each of these big questions, which are to be interpreted by religious authorities and followed unquestionably by the faithful.
Less dogmatic are those who also believe God’s Word is true but who argue that discerning its truth requires caution and involves interpretation, which is ultimately a matter of individual judgment and conscience. They recognise a need to be more open to other interpretations as our knowledge of the world increases.
Somewhere near the middle of the continuum are the agnostics. They have difficulty believing in this God because science convinces them that the traditional religious beliefs about the nature of our world cannot be true. They also recoil from the many abuses which have been perpetrated in the name of religion. They prefer to keep an open mind and/or make no personal commitment one way or another.
For some people the above analysis of faith as a matter of belief or disbelief in certain fixed religious concepts is not at all adequate to their experience. They are aware of something ‘bigger’ but find it hard to talk about. John Robinson gave voice to this in his liberating book Honest to God in the 1960s.
‘There are depths of revelation, intimations of eternity, judgments of the holy and the sacred, awareness of the unconditional, the numinous and the ecstatic which cannot be explained in purely naturalistic categories without being reduced to something else.
The question of God is the question whether this depth of being is a reality or an illusion, not whether a being exists beyond the bright blue sky or anywhere else. Belief in God is a matter of what you take seriously without any reservation, of what for you is ultimate reality.’
With a changing cosmology, belief in a separate omnipotent being beyond the universe became impossible for many religious people. Radical theologian Paul Tillich in Dynamics of Faith emphasized the need to re-conceptualize God — not as a separate being out there but as the creative source and ground of all that is, which is ‘Being itself’.
God, for Tillich and many modern progressive religious people, is the name we give ‘to this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being.’ Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned with what it means to be. As Shakespeare recognised: ‘To be, or not to be. That is the question!’
For people who think about Being in this way — including ‘idealists’ and ‘mystics’ — the religious dimension of life is the experience of being attracted to and grasped by a power that continually transcends all human categories of knowledge and understanding.
Such a person believes the Universe rightly evokes and calls for a sense of wonder and awe. During heightened experiences, they sense the presence of some kind of greater force at work, beyond our limited comprehension.
It is this experience of ‘the Numinous’ that we are responding to when we look up into the night sky ablaze with stars. It is this sense of ‘the Other’ that we are most aware of when we hold our child at the moment of birth, or the hand of a long-lived family member or friend as they die. It is this experience of ‘Grace’ that strikes us at those moments of profound forgiveness and reconciliation after deep hurt and estrangement.
Indeed, the mere presence of another person heralds something greater than the sum of all that person’s parts. And a quiet moment’s inner reflection on the infinite and inexhaustible depths within our own limited being points to the same conclusion.
At such precious moments, life is recognised intuitively as some kind of sacred mystery. It is a gift from above and beyond, the proper response to which is one of humility, reverence and gratitude.
Idealists believe that it is this transcendental power which grounds all our best endeavours to contribute to the highest Good. For them, such things as Beauty, Truth and Justice are ideals worth aspiring to. They believe that what we most love and value in people, nature, ethics, morality, science, literature, art, music etc. derives ultimately from this mysterious, inexplicable power from beyond. As Simone Weil says: ‘The spirit of justice and truth…endowed with the radiance of beauty…is the supreme mystery of this world.’
The faith of the idealists is the affirmation that their deepest experience is valid and that the power they are attracted to is not an illusion but something real, notwithstanding that they cannot adequately account for it.
Many people live with the intimation that this temporal, finite existence which we inhabit is but one dimension of an eternal, infinite ultimate reality — a reality which some believe is grounded in the mystery of Love. Like the twin in the story, they place their trust in this.
According to this view, we come from eternity and to eternity we shall return. How we live our unique precious individual lives has not only temporal but also eternal repercussions. We live simultaneously in two realms: in the temporal, finite existence which ends in death and in the infinite, eternal Being which does not.
Of course most people would never talk about their experiences and beliefs in such highfalutin terms. But they intuitively feel, at certain critical moments of their life, this sense of being part of a bigger mystery. They believe somehow that love is the key to a meaningful life and that how they live really does matter to the Universe, even if they cannot say how. They might eschew religious talk but they are nonetheless people of faith.
Further along this continuum of belief are those who, in a sense, come ‘after’ religion. These ‘wisdom seeking secularists’ are not opposed to religion. They regard it as a human construct, a rich source of man-made wisdom, providing valuable insights for anyone seriously concerned with these big questions.
They do not believe in the existence of a God out there. They do not regard the Scriptures as God-given revelation. But they do regard them as powerful historical narratives, which explain to us the nature of the human condition in all its glory and horror — like great works of art that reveal to us the depths and mysteries of our own existence. We ignore such wisdom at our peril. Like atheist philosopher Alain de Botton, they urge us not throw the precious baby out with the bathwater!
At the other end of the continuum are those people for whom religion is nonsense. For atheists, like Richard Dawkins, God is an illusion and religion needs to be consigned to the scrapheap. Its answers have become totally discredited by science. It is dangerously dysfunctional and antithetical to the moral good it once claimed to serve. The sooner we get rid of it the better.
For atheists, the big questions may still be worth trying to answer but religion has nothing to offer in response to them. While there is truth to be had, only science will lead us to it. We have nothing to learn from religion that is of any real value. They are quite certain that there is no ‘mystery’ that science cannot account for. There is nothing beyond this finite, material reality to encounter — they ridicule all religious or mystical experiences as fanciful.
Of course, not all scientists are as literal and antagonistic as Dawkins. It was Albert Einstein’s belief that some transcendental force permeates the universe:
‘To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms — this knowledge, this feeling, is at the centre of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.’
At the tip of the continuum of faith — or perhaps off the scale — are those people for whom these big questions have no meaning whatsoever in their lives. They feel no need to seriously engage with them. They do not believe that there is any point in the exercise, which they consider to be a complete waste of time and energy. There is no ‘truth’ to be had anywhere. For nihilists nothing matters, so why bother about anything other than having a good time?
It is difficult not to be affected by the current pervasive scepticism, relativism and cynicism, which treats such questions with either indifference or disdain. But for most people I know, these big questions do still matter. They become particularly aware of them at critical times in their life, when they cannot be denied, avoided or disavowed.
Consciously or subconsciously, we all live out some ‘answers’ to these questions in everything we do.
Just where we situate ourselves along this continuum of belief is more likely than not to depend on factors which are largely beyond our control — our temperament, our upbringing, the hand we have been dealt by Fate, our community of significant others etc.
It is also clear that these positions are fluid: at different times, or at any one time, a person might occupy several positions. For example, Phillip Adams is a lifelong atheist, yet believes passionately in ‘the Numinous’ and is fond of asking questions about ‘life after death’. Tillich would regard these as hallmarks of faith. The atheist’s rejection of the traditional concept of a distinct Deity does not preclude faith in God experienced as ‘the Numinous’, which is the manifestation of the divine depth of existence.
Most people live by some faith, though not necessarily ‘religious’ faith, as that term is generally understood. They concentrate on the second question and are content to leave the first and the third in the ‘too hard basket’. Nearly everybody, whether overtly religious or not, believes that it is important to live a good life, to be kind to (at least some) others, to work towards the common good (at least some of the time) etc.
Writer, philosopher and ‘atheist’ Iris Murdoch wrote a wonderful little book called The Sovereignty of Good, with a chapter entitled On ‘God’ and ‘Good’. She argues that we should save what is best and of enduring value from the now largely discredited concept of a Deity. As Simone Weil reminds us: ‘The good is the only source of the sacred. There is nothing sacred except the good and what pertains to it.’
Moral philosopher Ronald Dworkin, in Religion Without God, which was written shortly before he died, also affirmed a faith in the primacy and ultimacy of the good. He believed ‘that moral truth and natural wonder do not simply evoke awe but call for it.’
For most people it is enough to try to do good, without worrying too much about God.
But even those committed to living a good life sometimes wonder: what if our faith in and commitment to such ‘Goodness’ is ultimately just as meaningless to the universe as belief in the traditional God?
The author and teacher CS Lewis recalls an encounter late in his life with an American doctoral student who asked him about his faith: ‘What if it was proved to be wrong? What if there wasn’t anything to which it corresponded.’ And Lewis replied: ‘Why then, you would have paid the universe a compliment it doesn’t deserve! Your error, even so, would be more interesting and important than the reality. And yet, how could that be? How could an idiotic universe have produced creatures whose mere dreams are so much stronger, better, subtler than itself?’
The person who best sums up this quest for me is Richard Holloway — an intelligent, generous spirited, religious person who has thought more about these big questions than most. I have borrowed much from him in this article. His attitude is one of respectful engagement. He eschews dogmatism and certainty: ‘It is our uncertainties that give us compassion; it is our doubts that make us tolerant of others.’ He pleads for ‘a bit more modesty in the way we debate these issues, a bit more magnanimity towards the people with whom we disagree.’
I am reminded of the moving plea in The Ascent of Man by scientist Jacob Bronowski—kneeling in the mud ponds of Auschwitz — quoted in my earlier article In Search of Wisdom: http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php/article/in-search-of-wisdom1 :
‘There is no absolute knowledge and those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy. All information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility. That is the human condition …
All knowledge, all information between human beings can only be exchanged within a play of tolerance. And that is true whether the exchange is in science, or in literature, or in religion, or in politics ...
We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science [and religion] stands on the edge of error, and is personal ...’
It is possible to disagree strongly with people’s religious beliefs without being disrespectful—something we would all do well to reflect upon before commenting.
At the 2009 Sydney Writers’ Festival, Richard Holloway traced his own personal history of engagement with these big questions, which had haunted him — as they had Gauguin — since childhood: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/encounter/richard-holloway-shaking-the-kaleidoscope/3152682 .
Holloway – a former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh — started from a position of strong religious faith, went through a dark night of the soul and came out an agnostic/atheist. He finally arrived at this last ditch of faith: faith as passionate defiance.
‘If it is only abyss — if we come from the abyss, if we go to the abyss, if the abyss is all we have — then let us so live that we will put meaning into that abyss … I like the idea of living as though the universe did mean something. And if it doesn’t, we’ll show it that we are better than it!’
He finds inspiration in this, his favourite, quote from existentialist philosopher Castilian Miguel de Unamuno:
‘Man is perishing — that may be. But if it is nothingness that awaits us, then let us so live that it will be an unjust fate!’
There is something great and indomitable about the human spirit, whether it is expressed through noble defiance against nihilism or quiet humility and reverence towards Being.
But does living by such a faith have any ultimate meaning or value beyond our finite existence?
Like the twins, we will all find out soon enough.
Listen to an excerpt from Richard Holloway …
*Scott MacInnes has a background in teaching, law and conflict resolution. He is now retired and lives in Tasmania.