Sunday, April 09, 2006

Life in the face of death

Unbelievers come in more than one variety. As far as the Bible is concerned, an idolater is an unbeliever. Unless you believe in the true God, it matters not what false god is your surrogate. You might as well be an atheist or agnostic.

An atheist is a disbeliever. An atheist says he knows there is no God. An agnostic is an unbeliever in the weaker sense that he says he knows not if there is a God.

There is also a mediating position: those who say they cannot know if there is or is not a God.

The atheist tries very hard to make his atheism sound brave and noble. He touches up the corpse of mortalism with lipstick and eyeliner. Pretty to look at, clammy to the touch, wormy underneath.

The atheist yells and shouts and raises his voice to convince himself and everyone else that atheism is a liberating creed. He holds a rock concert in the graveyard to scare away the ghosts haunting his own morality.

By contrast, the agnostic isn’t so quick perfume the corpse or add lip-gloss and gaudy mascara to prettify oblivion; to convert the cemetery into an amusement park; to shake his fist at death, as if the Grim Riper were the least bit impressed by his histrionics. He knows that atheism is a blind alley.

The agnostic is often easier to reach than the atheist. He isn’t putting on an act. You don’t have to peel back so many layers of make up to reach a real person.

Atheism can be fun when you’re young, like a farm boy or small town kid who hits the big city: free from parental supervision or rural values.

But atheism grows old as you grow old, which is why so many unbelievers begin on a very grandiloquent note, only to end on a very asphyxiant note.

Bill Vallicella has expressed the conundrum nicely on his own blog:


Can Life Have Meaning in the Face of Death?

I'll build this post around a passage from Gilson, Tom Gilson, that is, who writes:

“If you and I are destined to die, and we are. . . our hope must be in something that will outlast death. Naturalistic philosophy doesn't do it. It's an inadequate explanation for meaning and hope in life, but beyond that, in death, it's way past its capacity. It's not just weak or anemic, it's positively hopeless.”

If death is the utter annihilation of the individual person, then life is ultimately senseless and ultimately hopeless. This cannot be evaded by saying that one's life can acquire meaning if it is placed in the service of the lives of others. For their lives too (and the lives of their progeny and their progeny's progeny ad indefinitum) are, on the annihilationist assumption, ultimately senseless and hopeless. Human life is in every case the life of an individual; so even if human beings existed at all times, that would do nothing to insure ultimate meaningfulness.

Of course, there are proximate meanings, hopes, and purposes even if ultimately it is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." One can lose oneself in them. But to do so involves self-deception: one has to mistake the proximate for the ultimate. One has to burden fleeting concerns with a meaning they cannot bear. One has to fool oneself.

For example, one has to fool oneself that writing a book, starting a company, founding a family are all ultimately meaningful when the only way they could have any ultimate meaning is if they were part of a life that had a direction that wasn't about to be cut short in a few years.

To put it bluntly, we have no future if naturalism is true. But we cannot live without meaning. An existential trilemma looms. Either we cultivate self-deception by ascribing to fleeting concerns ultimate meaning, or we recognize their transiency and ultimate meaninglessness when considered in and of themselves and put our faith and hope in a transcendent meaning, or, avoiding both self-deception and the life of faith, we embrace nihilism.

Now I don't expect any naturalist to accept what I just said. I will be told that it is a false trilemma. There is a fourth way: one can live in and for the finite without self-deception. That will perhaps be followed by the claim that one who looks to the infinite is more justly accused of self-deception.

The four paths can be given names: the way of Nietzsche's Last Man; the way of Faith; the way of Nihilism; the way of Nietzsche's Zarathustra.

It is no easy task to decide among them. But decide we must.


As I write, we embark on Holy Week, wherein a singular death holds out the hope of life for all who die in him. Let us look to that better death, and the better life to come.

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