Monthly Archives: October 2015

Huston Smith: “The Meaning of Life in the World’s Religions”

Huston Smith (1919 – ) is one of the world’s foremost scholars on world religions and his book The World’s Religions is the best-selling book in its field, having sold over 2 million copies! He has served on the faculties of Washington University in St. Louis, MIT, Syracuse, and the University of California-Berkeley.

In his article, “The Meaning of Life in the World’s Religions,” (2000) Smith specifically addresses the question of how the generic religious standpoint supplies an answer to the question of meaning. He begins by asserting: “That life is meaningful is religion’s basic posit, and the claim can be elucidated both subjectively and objectively, the difference being whether we are thinking primarily of life’s meaning for us or, alternatively, trying to determine its meaning in the total scheme of things.”[i] Human life is objectively meaningful because it expresses god’s infinity; that is, without us god would not be god.

Smith explains this cryptic notion by saying that we are part of a great chain of being which extends down from the heavenly world to the physical world. The distinction between these two worlds is an essential element of the world’s religions. We encounter the physical world with our senses aided by our technological instruments while we encounter the heavenly world with our intuition, thoughts and feelings. We begin with our human traits and elevate and extend them far enough and we encounter gods. This archetype of human beings is more real than actual humans, ultimately being transpersonal and ineffable. Our purpose from god’s perspective is to complete god’s infinity by including us, creatures who can flesh out that infinity. And what could be more meaningful than making god, god? And if such an answer is too esoteric, one can meditate or serve god to experience meaning.

Smith asks whether the basic posit of religion is true, but he grants that there is no way to decisively know. Life and the world come to us ambiguously, so we have no conclusive ground on which to assert its meaning. Nonetheless, there are some considerations that weigh in favor of religions’ basic posit. They are that the phenomena of life typically present themselves as problems in hope of solutions which call for human effort and the support of others. Religion corresponds well to this with the concepts of suffering, hope, effort, and grace. Thus, while the religious view cannot be shown to be true, its vision describes the phenomena of life quite well. It maps categories of reality that appear imbedded in our experience of that reality.

Summary – Religion posits that there is a meaning to life and there are good reasons to think that the religious posit is true.

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[i] Huston Smith, “The Meaning of Life in the World’s Religions,” in The Meaning of Life in the World Religions, eds. Joseph Runzo and Nancy Martin (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2000), 255.

William James: “Is Life Worth Living?”

William James (1842 – 1910) was trained as a medical doctor, was one of the most important figures in the history of American philosophy, and was a pioneering psychologist. He is the brother of the novelist Henry James, and friend of numerous intellectuals including: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sanders Peirce, Bertrand Russell, Josiah Royce, Ernst Mach, John Dewey, Mark Twain, Henri Bergson and Sigmund Freud.  He spent his entire academic career at Harvard. The following is a summary of an address James gave to the Harvard YMCA in 1895 entitled: “Is Life Worth Living?”

James began by noting that some answer this question with a temperamental optimism that denies the existence of evil—for example the poet Walt Whitman and philosopher Rousseau. For both of them to breathe, to walk, or to sleep is joy or felicity itself. According to James, the problem with this approach is that such moods are impermanent, and the personalities that experience them are not universal; if they were, the question of whether life is worth living would not arise. Instead most of us oscillate between joy and sadness, between ecstasy and despair, and therefore for most of us the thought that life is not worth living occasionally arises. Almost anyone in the midst of some merriment and suddenly confronted with death, disease, and suffering, would find that their unabated exuberance about life quickly dispelled.

Suicide is evidence that not all individuals are temperamentally optimistic, and many more experience despondency after philosophical reflection. If such reflection about the ultimate nature of things breeds despair, how can reflection combat that gloom? James provides a preview to his answer: “Let me say, immediately, that my final appeal is to nothing more recondite than religious faith.”[i] The reason for this is that pessimism results from a religious demand that has not been satisfied. The chief source of this pessimism is our reflective grasp of the contradiction between the facts of nature and our desire to believe there is something good behind those facts. For the credulous such reflective pessimism does not surface, but for more scientific minded there are only two possible solutions to the apparent discord: 1) forgo a religious or poetic reading of reality and accept the bare facts of nature; or 2) adopt new beliefs or discover new facts to reconcile a religious reading of reality with the hard facts of science.

But what new religious beliefs might hasten this reconciliation? James claims that the essence of religious supernaturalism is the view that the natural order is part of a larger reality which in turn gives significance to our mundane existence and explains the world’s riddles. These are the kinds of belief that might aid us in our search for meaning. James now presents a preview of his conclusion: “that we have a right to believe the physical order to be only a partial order; that we have a right to supplement it by an unseen spiritual order which we assume on trust …”[ii]

To those who claim that his approach is mystical or unscientific, James responds that science and the scientifically minded should not be arrogant. Science gives us a glimpse of what is real, but its knowledge is miniscule compared to the vastness of our ignorance. Agnostics admit as much but will not use their ignorance to say anything positive about the unknown, counseling us to withhold assent in matters where the evidence is inconclusive. James accepts such a view in the abstract, but neutrality cannot be maintained practically. If I refrain from believing in the supernatural, I express my refrain by acting as if the supernatural is not real; by not acting as if religion were true, one effectively acts as if it were not true. But science has no authority to deny the existence of an invisible world that gives us what the visible world does not. Science can only say what is, it cannot speak of what is not; and the agnostic prescription to proportion assent to evidence is merely a matter of taste.

The benefits of believing in an unseen spiritual world are practical and if we remove this comfort from human beings, suicidal despair may result. As for the claim that such belief is just wishful thinking, James reminds us how little we know of reality relative to omniscience. While such belief is based on the possibility of something rather than its confirmed reality, human lives and actions are always undertaken with uncertainty. If the only way off a mountain is to leap, then you must trust yourself and leap—if you hesitate too long the outcome is certain death. Although we cannot be sure of much, it is best to believe in the practical, in that which helps us live.

For James the issue of whether life is worth living is similar. You can accept a pessimistic view of life and even commit suicide—you can make something true for yourself by believing it. But suppose instead you cling to the view that there is something good beyond this world? Suppose further that your subjectivity will not yield to gloom, that you find joy in life. Have you not then made life worth living? Yes, we can make our lives worth living with our optimism. So it is our faith in an unseen world, in a religious or spiritual world, that grounds our belief in this world’s worthiness. Courage means risking one’s life on mere possibility, and the faithful believe in that possibility. James concludes with the following exhortation:

These, then, are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact. The ‘scientific proof’ that you are right may not be clear before the day of judgment … is reached. But the faithful fighters of this hour, or the beings that then and there will represent them, may then turn to the faint-hearted, who here decline to go on, with words like those with which Henry IV greeted the tardy Crillon after a great victory had been gained: “Hang yourself, brave Crillon! We fought at Arques, and you were not there.[iii] 

Summary – We need to be optimistic and have faith in an unseen spiritual world for life to be meaningful.

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[i] William James, “Is Life Worth Living? in The Search For Meaning In Life, ed. Robert F. Davidson (New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1962), 240.
[ii] William James, “Is Life Worth Living? 241.
[iii] William James, “Is Life Worth Living? 245.

Tom V. Morris: Blaise Pascal and the Meaning of Life

Tom Morris (1952 – ) is a former Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and founder of the Morris Institute of Human Values.  His 1992 book, Making Sense of it all: Pascal and the Meaning of Life, puts forth the case for a Christian answer to the question of life’s meaning based on the philosophy of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662).[i]

Morris begins by summarizing Tolstoy’s argument, which he also finds mouthed by many of the characters in Woody Allen films: 1) Everything in the world, including my life, will end; so 2) All the consequences of my life will end; thus 3) my life and everything else is meaningless. Morris immediately wonders about the connection drawn here between finitude and meaninglessness. Immortality does not render the question of meaning irrelevant, as we can still ask the meaning of immortal lives. Thus no necessary connection between finitude and meaning should be drawn.

To understand the connection between death and meaning we need not then suppose that the absence of death implies the existence of meaning. To better understand this connection between death and meaning, Morris proposes a general thesis of meaning he calls “the endowment thesis.” It states that: “something has meaning if and only if it is endowed with meaning or significance by a purposive agent or group of agents.”[ii] For example, consider human language. Words do not have intrinsic or essential meaning; the word water does not intrinsically mean liquid H20 anymore than the words “aqua” or “wasser” do. Rather, words are endowed with meaning by linguistic convention, they get their meaning extrinsically. Thus meaning is derivative, it is never intrinsic.

At this point many philosophers conclude that life has subjective meaning—the subjective endowment thesis if you will—meaning that derives from activities we value and enjoy. Morris grants this argument may block one from committing suicide, but it does little else. One problem, if meaning is entirely subjective, is that we can find meaning from compulsive stamp collecting or by being the world’s best torturer of innocent children. But don’t the goals or purposes around which we center our lives matter? Doesn’t it make some difference what activities we orient our lives around? Surely the answer to both questions is yes, and yet a subjective theory of meaning seems to have to answer no to both questions.

Another problem with the endowment thesis is that we must have control over things to endow them with meaning. Morris calls this the control thesis: “we can endow with meaning only those things over which we have the requisite control.”[iii] The problem is that we have little or no control over those things most significant to meaning like our birth, life, suffering, or death. And without this control we cannot, at least to a large extent, make our lives meaningful.

Morris concludes that if meaning is a matter of endowment, then either there is no objective meaning or some purposive agent, power, or plan gives our lives meaning. The failure of subjective endowment combined with the endowment thesis of meaning leads to objective endowment as the only answer. And that is why Morris says that Tolstoy turned to faith in god, and why so many characters in Woody Allen’s films talk about god. Death then does not eliminate meaning, rather it is a sign of our ultimate lack of control over our lives. Thus questions about meaning lead to the search for some ultimate, objective reality to make sense out of them.

The remainder of Morris’ book attempts to repudiate skepticism, explain the hiddenness of god, defend Pascal’s wager, and shield Christian belief against the skeptics. In the end Morris’ analysis relies on the notion of grace, that we have freely received the favor of god. “It is only by the grace of God that faith, reason, and the meaning of life can finally come together in mutual fulfillment.”[iv] (I disagree wholeheartedly.) As for the relationship between reason and faith, perhaps Pascal said it best: “the heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”

Summary – Meaning must be endowed. But we cannot endow our own lives with meaning because we do not have control over our lives and deaths. Meaning must therefore be endowed by an external purposive agent like a god.

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[i] Thomas V. Morris, Making Sense of it All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life (Grand Rapids: William E. Eardman’s Publishing Company, 1992).
[ii] Morris, Making Sense of it all: Pascal and the Meaning of Life, 56.
[iii] Morris, Making Sense of it all: Pascal and the Meaning of Life, 59.
[iv] Morris, Making Sense of it all: Pascal and the Meaning of Life, 212.

Wilfred Owen: “Dulce Et Decorum Est”

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen MC (18 March 1893 – 4 November 1918) was an English poet and soldier, one of the leading poets of the First World War. His shocking, realistic war poetry on the horrors of trenches stood in stark contrast to both the public perception of war at the time and to the patriotic verse written by earlier war poets such as Rupert Brooke. Among his best-known works – most of which were published posthumously – are “Dulce et Decorum est“, “Insensibility“, “Anthem for Doomed Youth“, “Futility” and “Strange Meeting“.

He was wounded in combat in 1917 and wrote many of his most important poems while recovering in the hospital near Edinburgh. He rejoined his regiment in June 1918, and in August, he returned to France. He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery at Amiens. He was killed on November 4 of that year while attempting to lead his men across the Sambre-Oise canal at Ors. He was 25 years old. The news of his death reached his parents one week later on November 11,  Armistice Day, which marked the end of the war. He is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery.

Of his many great war poems, this is one of the very best. (“Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori,” are the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The words, widely quoted at the start of the First World War, mean “It is sweet and right to die for your country.”) Two readings are found below one with actual footage of the Battle of Somme.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

And a newer reading:

 

50th Wedding Anniversary

My parents on their wedding day in St. Louis, October 27, 1938

Yesterday is but today’s memory, and tomorrow is today’s dream. ~ Kahil Gibran

The last wedding anniversary my parents celebrated was their fiftieth, in 1988. I remember all my siblings and I pitched in to send them on a vacation. They never made it; my dad died just two months later. But they had a good marriage; their love satisfied and comforted them—it was sufficient in its own time.

As for marriage in general, it is hard to talk sensibly for, as George Bernard Shaw noted, “There is no subject on which more dangerous nonsense is talked and thought than marriage.” Will Durant wrote somewhere that no institution was so designed for unhappiness as marriage—and this from a man happily married for 68 years.  All I can say is that anyone happily married for 50 years has succeeded in one of the hardest jobs in the world: living and loving a single person for a half a century. That is no small feat. They have instantiated in their microscopic world what is so desperately needed everywhere.

So if your parents or friends are celebrating 50 or more years of a happy marriage, think to yourself “in at least one respect, they are worthy of respect.” Remember too, as Will Durant said, “The love we have in our youth is superficial compared to the love that an old man has for his old wife.”

As for how to have a good marriage, the most poetic advice I’ve ever heard was from Kahlil Gibran, an almost embarrassingly sentimental (some would say mawkish) poet whose work I encountered as a teenage. In his most famous work, The Prophet, Gibran says:

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.