The other month I came across this pithy animated video, titled Optimistic Nihilism. I have thought about it frequently ever since. Having been raised Catholic, with the prospect of a heavenly eternity a completely normal thing to think about and sainthood a driving force in my day-to-day decisions, it deeply disturbed me to realize that there are people who not only reject the idea of our immortal souls (I knew that already) but who willingly reject even the idea of a life with purpose.
But I guess it makes sense. We really are tiny and frankly insignificant in the vastness of the material universe. Billions have died before us, their memories lost to history. All of us living will die eventually, and even the earth and the sun will someday pass away. If that is all we are, and all we will ever be... Then there really is no purpose to it all in the long run.
All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.
Recently I've been turning this over in my mind and comparing it to something most people probably wouldn't think of when confronted with the possibility of a meaningless life: humility.
One definition of humility I've heard is that it is simply the awareness of one’s own limitation. I mean, it is perhaps one of the most profound realizations you will ever make: that for all that you are and all that you know, there is infinitely more that you are not and that you will never know.
In some ways, Atheism and its more extreme cousin Nihilism have the appearance of being humble, in that they acknowledge that humans are trivial in the face of the infinite. They are an attempt to see the world as it is and accept the harsh reality of it all. But it is, if I may dare say, a false humility.
True humility is a strange thing. As Christians, it is to be vulnerable before the power of God and realize just how weak and insignificant we are... and yet not despair. It is to accept both our littleness and how much we are loved. True humility is saying "Lord, have mercy on me a sinner," with one breath, and "I praise You, O Lord, for the wonder of my being," with the next.
A world without God does not allow this. Atheism digs a valley within the boundaries of our physical reality, so as to be a tyrant over all that is contained within it. Inside those walls, we are master. We can prod and cut and examine the tangible world until she exposes all her secrets. By restricting ourselves to that which can be empirically proven and rejecting any possibility of the transcendent, we get to decide what gives our lives meaning, if it has any at all.
I watched a long debate between Christopher Hitchens and William Lane Craig the other night1 Watch it here. and I saw this clearly on display. Hitchens insisted, over and over, that he had yet to be given any extraordinary evidence of God, even as Craig consistently laid out logical reasons to conclude that there is a God—and that he is the God that Christians claim him to be. But Hitchens had dug beneath himself a trench where he could sit comfortably within the confines of an exclusively material existence. In this valley, he could not fathom a God who would orchestrate an entire universe—one which would take billions of years to unfold—simply so he could know and love a bunch of humans clinging to a tiny planet in a minor solar system of a small galaxy.
But that is the bizarre boldness of Christianity. Rather than projecting what an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient being would be willing (or not willing) to do, we follow the evidence where it leads. Faith, after all, is believing what God has said about himself through divine revelation. It is embracing the full human experience, which transcends the realm of animals and points to a reality greater than that which is immediately perceived.
Life indeed has great meaning, a purpose that stretches out beyond ourselves into eternity. That is a deep enough topic to leave for another post, but I will say this: Life's meaning lies in an authentic humility, one which rests in the steady heartbeat of our God, who calls us out past our limitation to take part in his redemptive plan for mankind.
About this painting
You could think of the carvings as great monuments erected by the people who walked this valley in ages past. A life without purpose is a haunting path to walk.