On Purpose

Rick over at Brutally Honest hooked me with a post on, of all things, zombies:

I question consistently whether I’m living a worthy life. Hence the reference to that ending scene where Private Ryan, now an old man kneeling at the grave of the Captain who saved his life, turns to his wife and pleads “Tell me I have led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.” … Indeed, I find [the question of whether am a walking dead man] terrifying. Perhaps it’s my Catholic upbringing with its focus on guilt. Perhaps it’s my exposure later in life to evangelical Christianity and it’s focus on being saved. Or perhaps it’s simply something I focus on in case this whole notion of God’s mercy and grace, where I live and hope today, are in error.

Its funny how these things seem to drop in on you when you’re thrashing about mentally on the very same topic — one might almost think it was more than just coincidence.

At the heart of Rick’s post lies the question, “Does life — my life — have meaning?” This is one of those questions which never seems to go away, no matter how much we try to drown it out. We hear, day after day, about how we are cosmic accidents, amino acids and random chance tossed into the whirling blender of evolution to produce a highly sophisticated human Margarita. In such a world, ruled by the cruel logic of cosmic chance, questions of meaning and purpose would appear frivolous and irrational. But nevertheless, they just keep popping up, like moles in the movie Caddy Shack. Even the fundamentalist secularists, the Dawsons and Hawkins and Hitchens of the world, can’t seem to tear themselves away from the language of purpose and intent, as they speculate how random chance and natural selection “choose” to create us and “select” the “best” genetic mishaps to produce that animal which we call man.

Ask your average man on the street what his or her purpose in life is, and expect in response some snide comment, humorous retort, or — if they be halfway serious — something approaching a short-term goal. So their “purpose” might be to graduate from school, or pass their exams, or become an attorney, or get laid this weekend, or get a better job. But in fact, such responses reflect in their commonality a profound shallowness so typical of an age where we have everything but that for which our hollow hearts hunger.

For it seems we often confuse goals with the idea of purpose. For the concept of purpose or meaning in life presupposes something beyond ourselves. It implies that we are fitting into a larger picture, a grander scheme, some overarching game plan vaster than ourselves, yet capable of including us in the fullness of its accomplishment. The idea of purpose does not necessarily mandate believe in a deity — although it leads quite naturally in this direction.

Inherent in the idea of purpose is an innate sense that we are aligned in some way with a greater good, a larger existence than that which we may measure and perceive. It implies simply that we are not merely one small cog in a complex machine, but rather an integral part, even an indispensable one, without which the machine can not fully accomplish that for which it exists.

If we confuse our goals with our purpose, we will inevitably end up frustrated and unhappy. If your goal is to graduate from college, when you graduate, do you now have purpose? Hardly. Instead such accomplishments merely mark a signpost, an indicator pointing to yet another goal, larger and even farther out of reach. Having arrived at our destination, we immediately set out towards a new goal — be it becoming a professional, or a carpenter, or getting married, or making a boatload of money. By simply resetting our goals into the future we believe — or want to believe — that we are moving forward with purpose. But once these newer goals are reached — or equally so if we failed to reach them — there is an inevitable emptiness, a sense of, “Is this all there is to life?” When you are finally successful in that career you have been working toward for decades, why is it that you find yourself so unsatisfied with arriving at this long-sought destination? If your goal is raising children, what will you do when they grow up and leave the house? You have met your goals, but have yet to meet your purpose.

The result is too often seen: the divorce, the new marriage, the philandering, the drinking, the obsessive pursuit of money and prestige and power, and an unholy host of behaviors which are far more destructive than satisfying. Such may serve in the near term to fill the emptiness which comes when goals are substituted for purpose, but they do not fill that inner need for being part of the greater good and accomplishing something of lasting value in life.

In my own feeble experience, having made a myriad of such mistakes myself, I have, I believe, finally stumbled upon the paradox of purpose: I know that I have a purpose in life — and I don’t know exactly what that purpose is. Nor, I suspect, will I ever know it fully this side of the undertaker’s icy slab. This, I suspect, is life in the realm of faith: that mysterious, almost intangible sense that you are on the right road, while being able to see neither your feet on the ground nor the path along which you’re headed.

So for now, my purpose is to serve those who have been put into my life as family, friends, and patients. I fulfill my purpose by being the best physician possible for my patients; by being a good husband and father; by being a loyal friend. It should go without saying that I meet these lofty ideals imperfectly and often poorly. But this is the standard against which I measure my conformity to purpose, a small shaft of light which casts just enough illumination to see where my next step should be.

Yet it is also apparent that my current striving to achieve such high ideals does not encompass a life purpose in its entirety. If I am a good physician, a good father, a loving husband, a loyal friend, I am following my life’s purpose as best I can discern. Yet if my purpose is comprised solely of being, say, a good physician, what then will my purpose be tomorrow should I be injured or incapacitated such that I can no longer practice my profession? My life may change enormously — yet my purpose will not. I will still have an ultimate purpose in life, but the vehicle through which I fulfill that purpose may change radically and wrenchingly, with agonizing violence.

It is here that I must rest almost entirely on the idea of grace — that there is a hand guiding me which does know the path and the purpose, and may in an instant radically change the rules of the game in order to more fully implement that larger purpose. To live in such a mindset requires a confidence in the existence and unfailing goodness of God — even while doubting that very existence and goodness more often than I care to share. Without grace, I am left to the ruthless serendipity of slavery: I am constantly wondering whether I am living up to a standard, or whether God is punishing me because of this change in course, or perhaps simply being capricious or vindictive for some past behavior. If my God is immutably good and gracious, my life’s purpose is will thereby be good by design — and will be — hard as it is to swallow — nearly invisible to my blinkered eyes.

To have purpose in life is to have confidence in the goodness of God, and a willingness to follow and trust in places I do not wish to go. To salve the fear inherent in such an unknown trust there comes a measure of inner peace that arises not from understanding, but from trusting. For is only when we walk by faith, not by sight, that our lives can truly begin to have that transcendent purpose which is the only worthwhile goal.

On Miracles: Jesus of the Pagans

Third part of an ongoing series on the problem of miracles, and evidence for the Resurrection:

  1. The Problem of Miracles
  2. On Miracles: The Historical Jesus

It has been said that Christianity is the only religion which traces its origins to the humiliation of its God. As followers of its crucified leader dispersed widely after its germinal events, traveling great distances from a remote corner of the Empire over dusty Roman roads, they indeed told a tale bizarre in every respect. How ludicrous the story of a God made man; who worked miracles among men; who suffered the most heinous execution the Romans could devise. A man who, if these fables be factual, arose from the dead, utterly transforming the lives of all who saw Him — these same men who audaciously claimed to be eyewitnesses to this mysterious manifestation.

The people of the ancient world were no strangers to quixotic stories, to endless tales of gods and goddesses, myths and magic. Rome in its pragmatic wisdom absorbed them all, with their blood rites and orgies, their asceticism and temple prostitutes. Such tolerance kept the Empire unified and the conquered content; no sense risking unrest and rebellion over senseless fantasies.

Such legends amused and titillated, and their rituals provided feeble comfort in a brutal world ruled by heartless Fate. Yet Christianity was not merely another imagined tale of jealous gods and devious deities, but carried in its implausible story a spark fully absent from pagan fables: the flicker of hope in hopeless darkness, of purpose in a world chained and weighted to emptiness and futility. This spark fell upon the dry straw of a desperate world, and started a conflagration which reshaped that world in ways unimaginable.
Continue reading “On Miracles: Jesus of the Pagans”

A Fascinating Futility

I love this article, from the Seattle PI, in July 1940, on some “unusual” behavior on the just-completed Tacoma Narrows bridge — the same bridge which collapsed spectacularly 4 months later. I especially love this part:

Although the bridge is said to be utterly safe from an engineering standpoint, vertical movements along the center suspension span are proving “psychologically disturbing” to some users, the engineers admitted.

Of course the engineers and scientists were wrong — catastrophically wrong — and assurances based on the absolute certainty of their science and dismissal of terrified drivers as psychologically disturbed proved wildly and humorously foolish in retrospect.

Some things, it seems, never change: scientists never have doubts — and those who doubt their infallible wisdom must be psychologically disturbed.

In a recent post, I took to task an astronomer who, while presenting a most interesting but somewhat far-fetched explanation of the origin of the universe, also took that opportunity to ridicule those foolish enough to believe in the possibility of a divine creation. In the comments, a skeptic by the name of Mark took me to task for needing to rely on “religious stories” to make myself feel better. A short but interesting interchange took place thereafter, including this, his most recent comment:

“I have instead been transformed by a personal encounter and relationship with a Being far vaster than our paltry imagination and feeble intellects can begin to grasp.”

There \'s no evidence for this encounter at all.

Also, to consider the imagination paltry is to have little understanding of how YOUR imagined “relationship”, unproven as it is, is different from a perceived real. This difference, if not fully considered, may well be so imperceptible to the believer, that a psychologist may consider this experience a form of psychosis.

To say that my one who does not believe as you do has a heart filled with emptiness and futility merely offers the reader your experience of what it is like for you to live a life without these. You should have written “my human heart”, not “the human heart.” I think you have little understanding of individuals who are curious, who love, who contribute, without the need for the great lost and found department.

Your understanding of transcendent apart from your “spiritual and supernatural” is an uneducated one apart from your own experience as indicated in your declaration that this is a “futile feeling” and I think you need to spend time with real scientists who gaze at wondrous things every day.

I had planned to respond with another comment, but as my thoughts evolved, decided the topic would be better served by another post.

In response to my personal transformative experience of faith, which I have discussed frequently on this blog (see here and here), Mark responded as follows:

There \'s no evidence for this encounter at all.

This is an an extraordinary statement, yet not a terribly surprising one. Mark knows nothing of my genetics; nothing of the blessings and banes of my family of origin; nothing of my life experiences in childhood or adulthood. He knows nothing of my thoughts, my experiences, my successes or failures, nor the irrefutable, transformative effect of the power of spiritual relationship in my life. Yet he, presumably a secular scientist steeped in evidence-based knowledge, blithely dismisses all such experiences and evidence, and without even a hint of irony, assures me that there is “no evidence for this encounter at all.”

What is evident, however, is that evidence has nothing whatsoever to do with his statement: it is, pure and simple, a declaration of worldview.

In Mark’s world, there is no God, nor any possibility of God. This is his a priori position, and any and all evidence or suggestion to the contrary, must simply be dismissed, ridiculed, or ignored. The scientific method has nothing to do with this conclusion; there is no postulate to test, no experiments to evaluate, no revision of theory based on experimental outcome, no possibility of an answer other than that already predetermined. This is not science — it is religion — and religion in its worst form: blind faith untouched by reason, unshaken by evidence. The very thing he has accused me of — addiction to absolute certainty — is in fact his own largest blind spot: he is absolutely certain that there is no God, and all other facts, experiences, and contrary evidence in my life, or anyone else’s with similar experience, must be bent, folded, and mutilated into this materialistic worldview. As Chesterton once observed, “Only madmen and materialists have no doubts.”

“Also, to consider the imagination paltry is to have little understanding of how YOUR imagined “relationship”, unproven as it is, is different from a perceived real. This difference, if not fully considered, may well be so imperceptible to the believer , that a psychologist may consider this experience a form of psychosis.

Aaah, psychosis — that’s the answer. I’m nuts! Well, I can assure you I am quite sane — even my psychiatrist friends agree. And as a physician, I know something of psychosis: its clinical manifestation and symptoms are well-understood, having seen many patients suffering with this mental health disorder. But for the secular materialist, such standards of diagnosis are moot; psychology and psychiatry are for them both savior and sword. When your secular scientific theories fail to explain human behavior, or evil, or religious experience, it’s time to send in the clowns, wrapping your befuddlement and disdain in psychological terms like “psychosis.” That which scientists are unable to explain in human behavior, they delegate to the psychologists. But psychology and psychiatry have another significant benefit for the atheist: as a weapon to attack and neutralize those who reject their orthodoxy. It is no accident that psychiatry became a potent weapon in the hands of secular totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union. If you are not loyal and enthusiastic about the state and the party, you may well find yourself in a mental hospital, where you will be “treated” until you see the light. A similar fate awaits you for religious impulses as well. What you cannot explain, you must explain away; what you cannot explain away, you must persecute. Mental health services in the gulags were freely available, for all who disagreed.

I have great respect for mental health professionals. But they make far better physicians than metaphysicians. When they are ordained to postmodern priesthood, tasked with diagnosing and healing the soul and spirit of man while denying the existence of both, they begin looking quite as foolish as engineers dismissing bridge ripples.

Your understanding of transcendent apart from your “spiritual and supernatural” is an uneducated one apart from your own experience as indicated in your declaration that this is a “futile feeling” and I think you need to spend time with real scientists who gaze at wondrous things every day.

Our modern Gnostics do love to “educate” us until we see things their way, don’t they? I don’t recall saying anything about “futile feelings” — but I do plead guilty to the charge of ignorance: there are vast swaths of knowledge which I do not possess, vast expanses of information and experience of which I know little. I have far more questions than answers about this life, its origins and its meaning. And I find myself entirely comfortable — excited even — in this very uncertainty.

But as far as “gazing at wondrous things,” well, let’s see: in the past few weeks alone, I have viewed images generated by flipping nuclear protons in high-power magnetic fields, revealing extraordinary detail of human anatomy and pathology. I have marveled at the complex interaction of pharmacological chemicals with cellular physiology, as medications interact with human illness to provide relief and cure. I have sat and listened to the agony of a wife whose husband has Alzheimer’s, who has shared her agony of losing her partner of 60 years, her exhaustion at his care, her frustration with his bizarre behavior, yet heard her irrational but inspirational love and devotion to the man whose life she has shared. I have restored a man’s lost fertility, whose youngest child died at 3 months of age from SIDS — one month after his vasectomy — operating on structures the size of the human hair, using sutures invisible to the eye. I have sat in utter frustration, as every treatment and medication, the very best science has to offer, has failed to stem the progression of an aggressive bladder cancer, as I watch, helplessly, the agonizing hourglass of imminent cancer spread and ultimate death. I have marveled at the irreducible complexity of the human cell; at the infinite number of variables which influence medical treatment, response to surgery or therapy, and clinical outcomes; I have carefully dissected, removed, and cured an aggressive cancer of the prostate, while watching another whose treatment failed die slowly and painfully from the same disease. I have seen men die both with and without God — seen the peace and serenity in the eyes of one, despite almost unbearable agony, and the hopelessness and terror in the eyes of others with no such hope. I get to watch and participate daily in the complexity of life and death, health and disease, the richness of human experience, and the miracles of science applied to making lives better. I live daily with body, with soul, and with spirit — and engage each in its place. I happen to find all these things rather wondrous, and humbling, and yes, transcendent — silly me.

But perhaps Mark is right: maybe I should hang out with a “real scientists” who look through telescopes, and with their tunnel vision, star-gaze their way to meaning and purpose in cosmic clouds and compact dimensions, caressing their theoretical physics in orgasmic intellectual onanism. Perhaps then I will learn the real meaning of life, discovering thereby their secret to transcendence without God, with mysteries hidden deep within their superstrings or dark matter or tachyons. That such things are fascinating is doubtless true; that they may be true is doubtless fascinating; that they seek to explain why we love, or are curious, or contribute — or to what purpose we exist in space and time — is fascinatingly futile.

Or perhaps instead I will remain at the vortex of a unified field of truth, with God both sovereign and merciful at its center, immense as the universe and intimate as the heart. For from where I stand, the universe really does look quite wondrous indeed.

Moving the Ancient Boundaries – IV

This is a series on the erosion of moral, cultural, and ethical boundaries in modern society:
 ♦ Part 1 — Moving the Ancient Boundaries

 ♦ Part 2 — The Rebel & the Victim
 ♦ Part 3 — Undermining Civil Authority

stone walls

Do not move the ancient boundary stone
   set up by your forefathers.

        — Proverbs 22:28 —


 ♦ The Assault on Religious Authority

Undermining the legitimacy of civil authority and mutating the role of government into an instrument for protecting personal licentiousness — while endlessly chasing solutions to the incorrigible problems thus generated — is a key element in the secular postmodern pursuit of a utopian dream of unbridled freedom without consequences. But it is not sufficient; other centers of authority must likewise be transformed to serve the individual over the common good, or neutralized to overcome their resistance to such trends.

Religion, which promotes transcendent values, and strives to restrain destructive individualism and promote the common good through the development of character strengths such as service, charity, self-restraint, and accountability, is a prime alternative source of authority to government — and serves to restrain its excesses and aberrant tendencies as well. As such it is a prime target for the individualist committed to promoting an unrestrained and unaccountable utopia, enforced by the levers of government power.
Continue reading “Moving the Ancient Boundaries – IV”