During my years of training, a string of contemporary thinkers (both secular and religious) began promoting views of humanity that downplayed human depravity and offered more utopian ideas about human progress — ideas previously crushed by two world wars.
The contrast offered a new outlook in contrast with the philosophy of despair that spread to the US from Europe.
This philosophy of despair is also called “nihilism” – a label made popular by Nietzsche.
Nihilism logically rests on the proposition that ultimately the world is meaningless. Nihilism also necessitates belief in atheism.
Nihilism (as atheism) logically flows from faith in blind evolutionary development and the necessary conclusions that history is random, life is absurd and everything is meaningless.
Advances in science and technology can lure people to believe that we can close the windows to everything beyond the visible and tangible universe.
But do we really believe it?
So many today operate as naive recipients of the reigning viewpoint of the academy. This is the notion that the physical, material universe is all there is, was, or ever will be. The only real world (we’ve been told) is the world of the five senses.
This is a worldview with different labels (physicalism, philosophical naturalism, scientism, and secularism). In this kind of world, the ceiling is in place (sealed and secured); the windows are shut and the blinds have been pulled. We’re locked into a world without transcendence, mystery, and especially, without God.
Yet those who hold to this notion battle intuitive recognitions and intrinsic yearnings they cannot explain nor escape.
Why is there something rather than nothing? Why should I care to find meaning outside of survival? Is morality nothing more than alternative choices based on personal preferences? If he says peace is better than war or love better than hate; is it like saying chocolate is better than vanilla? Are there no real evils, just violations of human customs or conventions? How hard it would be to think of murderers as merely having bad manners. But why should he think of it differently?
Are we humans simply products of blind chance operating on the primordial ooze and differing from animals by only a few genes? If so, the wonders of human achievement and the moral dignity we ascribe to human beings just doesn’t fit the claim that we are no different from the animals. The realities of human creativity, love, reason, and moral value seem to indicate that humans are creatures of unique distinction. What accounts for this?
Does our awareness of how things are not the way they ought to be and our longing for something better testify to our nature as beings of dignity? If evil is a metaphysical necessity for finite creatures, why do we so strongly oppose it and long for a world without it? Why do we cry foul? Why do we long for a restoration of Paradise Lost? Why do we even think in terms of good and evil?
These universally intuitive human thoughts, desires and capacities cannot be adequately explained by an impersonal evolutionary development because they reach beyond the physical to the metaphysical in unexpected ways. We are beings who think, feel, and choose in profoundly deep and relational ways. As helpful and insightful as scientific inquiry has been, universal longings for love and meaning are unexplainable on scientific grounds. This is where we find a significant discontinuity between humans and animals.
Dust and glory?
Struggling honestly with this exasperating enigma, Scottish writer, Richard Holloway, groaned,
“This is my dilemma. I am dust and ashes, frail and wayward, a set of predetermined behavioral responses, … riddled with fear, beset with needs…the quintessence of dust and unto dust I shall return…. But there is something else in me…. Dust I may be, but troubled dust, dust that dreams, dust that has strong premonitions of transfiguration, of a glory in store, a destiny prepared, an inheritance that will one day be my own…so my life is spread out in a painful dialectic between ashes and glory, between weakness and transfiguration. I am a riddle to myself, an exasperating enigma…the strange duality of dust and glory.”
We are paradoxical beings, Jekylls and Hydes; combinations of dust and glory. We have plenty of empirical evidence for these universal realities but what is there to account for this narrative?
The same mind that can be used to invent life-saving machines and medicines and invents instruments of war and torture. We do we possess moral sensibilities to recognize right and wrong and participate in benevolent activities? We are capable of distinguishing justice from injustice, love from hate and freedom from oppression, but so often our vision of these things is twisted in self-serving ways.
The apostle summarized the cause of our searching well:
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” (Acts 17:24-28).
When I look at the world, I cannot endorse the overuse of the science of biological evolution to explain realities outside of the reach of science. I reject the myopic optimism of humanism and the dark pessimism of cynicism — in exchange for — the grounded realism of a Christian worldview revealed in Scripture.
Yet please understand that although I believe that the Bible offers the most realistic and hopeful perspective for history and the world, I am not interested in using it as an imperialistic or oppressive tool to impose on moral creatures a belief system they have not chosen.
God made humans as morally culpable beings who will ultimately answer to Him as Maker and Savior. While I believe in the need for law and order and I practice Christian influence by bearing witness to God’s love and grace, I don’t believe in the human use of coercion to force beliefs on anyone.
There are surprisingly few places to turn for thoughtful answers to deeper questions about good and evil; human suffering, and life and death. I always welcome opportunities to explore the plausibility of competing world views on these important matters. Without suggesting that I have all the answers, I have only found one source to be wide enough to explain the complex dimensions of the human story and large enough to address the innate longings of the human heart.