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Meaning of Existence, Personal Direction, Values
Is there meaning or purpose in life? What direction remains for us?
An Analysis and Attempt at Unifying the Perspectives of
Religion, Science, Rationality, and Personal Observation
tempered by the Experience of Practical Life and Human Sensitivity
1. INTRODUCTION: A NEW AWARENESS OF EXISTENCE
During the late years of a long journey through life, one would like to offer a parting, supportive message to following travelers in their struggle – if not some useful advice, then at least some encouragement or comfort. How does one dare do that when a vision of life is not just a rosy one and some basic observations do not bring comfort? How can one dare present a modern, critical view of the foundation of existence, and thereby take comfort away from burdened fellow travelers supported by traditional religions? After all, not only facts, but also emotions, are significant in life. All valuations of our experience of living come from our emotions, diverse as they are, extending from materialistic satisfaction to the most noble sentiments.
Many people have a fairly clear concept of the world they live in, as well as of their personal lives. I envy them – if they have really thought about it and are sincere. However, wealth, power, and entertainment – ever more of them – cannot be everything one should want to live for, especially not when to the disadvantage of other people! Shall we retreat to the basic joys of enough food, shelter, harmony in marriage and family life, an occasional walk through nature and some pictures on the wall? Is that enough to fulfill our lives? Is the objective to get safely into heaven (of what kind?) or nirvana (a form of not-being) upon death enough to give meaning to all the years of our life on this Earth, where there is still so much that could be improved? There should be some goals to activate the young ones and to fulfill our own lives! What is the meaning or purpose of life, what direction should we actually pursue? Wake up from your routines in life and think about it!
For some of us, the concepts of the world and of life are not clear. We cannot grasp the ultimate forces behind destiny, nature, and the origin of the universe. There are too many contradictions between the various philosophical, religious, and political tenets we are expected to accept in our diverse cultures and from our own observations. Consequently, we cannot be at all sure about the meaning of our lives or the right course to pursue. As we grow older, neither our childhood faith nor our adolescent philosophy of life is as clear or solid as it used to be. As our lives progress, we experience and observe the reality of practical life and participate in a wider spectrum of human experiences. Even then – or even more so – the results of our intellectually trained thoughts or the (hopefully) matured emotions of our hearts do not easily answer our fundamental questions regarding the ultimate essence of existence, of meaning, purpose, or direction in life, of finding support and answers to urgent prayers from a divine essence of our universe – nor are our own thoughts, questions, and observations clear and unequivocal.
Our own perceptions of existence and life were formed largely by our upbringing – the books we read, the people we associate with, our environment, and the communities and countries we lived in. Are these subjective perceptions objectively tenable and sufficient? What other concepts would we have arrived at or chosen if we lived somewhere else or if we were totally on our own in this world?
Here is an interesting thought: What if we had just come into existence on this day, at this age, totally on our own? What if we had no knowledge of any family, any religion, any nationality, any prior cultural influences, any prior perceptions, commitments, or habits of thought? What if we were not settled in deep respect for Christian values and in Western urban life – or in a Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or other environment?
Wouldn’t we, at first, be amazed that we exist?
Wouldn’t we ask many questions? This new attitude of looking at existence in a new light, in an attitude of new, unencumbered exploration, one can call the “Awareness of the Phenomenon of Existence”. The resulting attitude of mental freedom is the thread that runs through the entire thought process in the presentation that follows.
What thoughts would come to our mind when this new awareness of existence occurred? At first, we would be startled by suddenly existing! We would be startled by having been given a body, a mind, a personality, and the chance to be where we are, but only for a very limited period of time called “our life”. We would accept the factual knowledge that we, together with billions of other individuals, were on a rather small planet of one among billions of stars in a galaxy, at a point about 30,000 light years off its center. We would accept as fact that there are billions of other galaxies in the universe, each composed of billions of stars, all having already existed for billions of years. This sets an interesting scale for the small significance of our own limited existence – which lasts only for a few decades, a mere spark in cosmic time.
Here we are now. How do we proceed from here? As is typical of the modern human mind, we have questions about causation, origin, meaning, purpose, and, mainly, direction to pursue during our existence. After some reflection, we arrive at our main question: Is there a creative and controlling force in the universe, a “God” as we humans call such a force, or is there merely a vague and abstract “Structure Providing and Spiritual Essence of Existence” that has caused our existence to occur?
And what, if anything, can one rightly know or believe about this God, if there is one, or about this “Essence of Existence”? Why did we, and the world around us, come to exist? Does existence have any purpose? Is there an order behind the evolution of existence? If so, what brings that order about, and how is that order structured? What are the objectives of any evolution, if there actually are any objectives at all?
Can we or anyone else have any meaningful contact with the force or essence behind existence, with God? In other words, is there a personally reachable and responding God? What would it mean to us if it were found that no God had given any directives to the human race, no God would judge individuals or nations by their moral actions and, mainly, that God is not reachable by, or responsive to, prayers or cries for help? What would it mean to us if there were no actively interfering spiritual forces – or no purpose in cosmic existence?
Consequently, what significance – what direction and guiding parameters (values) – can we establish for our own life during the limited span of our existence?
Religion, science, and personal observation
The concepts of “religion” or “transcendental” refer to mental phenomena beyond the physical world and are thought to be beyond scientific understanding (which always requires verification by reproducible, factual experiments and measurements, leading to “knowledge”).
Most religions attempt to explain the origin and also the functioning of our world as based on the action of Gods or a transcendental essence. From this understanding, religious leaders assume the position of providing moral, social, and, occasionally, hygienic teachings and the format for communication with the Gods in prayers or rituals – even if this is not a clear connection.
The theme of “Religion” is discussed in detail in the essay “Religion: What Is Religion? What Should Religion Be?” on the website “www.schwab-writings.com” in the section on “Philosophy/Theology”. That essay covers the following aspects of religion:
- What is the origin of religions?
- What provides for the stability and what for the change or evolution of religions?
- What would be a beneficial approach to the question of religiosity?
- What benefits and problems derive from organized religion – congregations, churches?
- Would other “conscious”, extraterrestrial beings in the universe have any religions?
- What is “cosmotheology”?
What is the origin of religions? Historically, religions are a universal mental phenomenon of mankind – naturally evolving from the universal human search for causality in natural phenomena beyond understanding. The universal capability of the human brain for visualizations of the mind led to the assumption of unseen, “spiritual” causations of otherwise unexplainable phenomena – such as the movement of the sun, wind, weather, lightning, earthquakes, diseases, and unforeseen probabilistic accidents. Once another, transcendental, virtual world was seen, the phenomenon of death, the departure of a living being, led to the concept of ongoing life in another, spiritual world and to the immortality of the “soul”.
Historically, about 2,500 years ago, a wave of searching thought was going through mankind. At that time, Confucius, in ancient China, saw the problems of existence on Earth and proposed a solution in adherence to strict rules of human behavior – leading to calm and harmony. The Hindu Upanishads relate less to our problems on Earth and more to finding an understanding of God – as the ultimate Essence of Existence. Buddha, despairing at the extent of all the suffering on Earth, suggested that one close one’s mind to all emotional involvement on Earth, tried to get out of it through the experience of Nirvana. The Hebrews progressed to the recognition of an ultimate essence of existence, seeing it in an anthropomorphic God – hopefully a benevolent one. They saw the solution of appeasing God in observing rules agreeable to God – assumed to have been issued by God – increasingly detailed – including not only behavior but hygiene, clothing, and food as well – finally more than 600 of them. Another man from the Mideast, Thales of Milet, with parents from Phoenician Tyre, started with practical thought and observation – opening the world to reason, then to philosophy, and finally to the sciences. That is how the Western world progressed to where it now stands, with all its immense improvements – and remaining deepest problems.
Many religions actually are the result of the observations and thought of especially gifted people in their historical cultures. Today, their thoughts would be called “theories” of the functioning of the world – as Einstein’s Relativity Theory once was until proven valid by further observations and experiments.
Other religions resulted merely from spiritual “visions” leading to “beliefs”, which were then taken for otherworldly “real”. In Chapter 2 of this essay, the functioning of the “Human Mind” is discussed, including the capability for “visualizations”. The experiment described how the visualization of an ancient god or goddess can lead to assumed communication with this visualized presence, then possibly leading to religious consequences. Consequently, all religious visualizations are in line with the then and there existing conditions and habits or their extrapolation.
The great desire to see favorable divine forces and the fact that religions were established by already prevalent or content individuals led to the assumption of a favorably guiding God, a God one could lean on, the ideal of mankind. A “true” and generally valid religion should, however, be valid for both the winners and the losers. What can those believe of God who, in the end, have to cry out, “Why have you forsaken me?” – or the thousand workers who were recently crushed in a building in Bangladesh – or parents of a child who was just diagnosed with cancer?
In other words, the good or warm “visualizations” by some founders of religions must be complemented by observation of the real life of all of us. The theories of the successful British rabbi Jonathan Sacks, focusing on Old Testament visions, are not convincing. Many of us still find peace and support in believing in the God Father of Christianity. Can all of those who perished also believe this?
In most religions, doubts are not allowed and experiments regarding the truthfulness of the religion are considered punishable blasphemy. What if a statistical experiment were made to find out how many, and which, prayers were answered by God and how many, and which, were not? What if theological conclusions were drawn from the fact that modern Western countries flourished more than those in their most fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist phases?
From the mental belief in transcendental forces (gods) resulted the universally found practical attempt to favorably influence such spiritual forces, leading to various forms of sacrifices and to rituals.
Sooner or later, all religions connected presumed divine favors with proper human behavior and misfortune with the lack thereof. This evolved into the search for divinely acceptable moral laws by way of meditation, mental intuition, or visualized divine revelations – as often proclaimed by religious leaders and priests – often returning to basic ethical behavior.
In times past, the struggle for survival and basic needs was predominant. Throughout most of history, people were tied to their occupations – farming, fishing, the trades, and so on. In our time, there is some surplus in resources; mainly, there are more choices in life regarding occupation and priorities in values. There is more pressure on demonstrating personal value and accomplishment in real terms. Furthermore, the sciences and general education have brought more knowledge about the world we live in and its evolution in time: the origin of the universe, natural evolution, and the historic development of mankind. This, in turn, led to new questions concerning existence and the essence of life – often leading to conflict with established religions.
The sequence of new religions through history was mostly opposed by common beliefs and the power structures of priests of the established religions, then too often accomplished by way of conquest. New religions often brought mental progress, even liberation (as also Islam once did). Further mental progress, however, then also let those once new religions appear suppressive. Only occasionally did mental liberalization in a culture permit peaceful progress, as in the time of ancient Greece, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and in our modern time (except in the Muslim world).
Our modern time, more than any other, emphasizes the human search for a meaning in life – a search for purpose and direction. Traditional religions were expected to provide explanations concerning meaning or purpose and guidance for our lives and actions. But traditional religions are often unable to convincingly fulfill this need for the modern, scientifically trained mind – leading either to a rejection of rationality and retreat into dangerous religious fundamentalism (some of it violent, see Islam) or to aimlessness. Some answers to these questions are presented in the following sections of this chapter.
In this world, each organism is threatened by accidents and is attacked by diseases, parasites, predators (including humans), or natural catastrophes. All too often, the innocent and very young meet terrible calamities. The great catastrophes – plagues, wars, violent invasions, the Holocaust, bombings, ethnic cleansing, terrorists, and such natural disasters as tsunamis and volcanic eruptions – have killed or injured innumerable individuals and destroyed civilizations. There is no end to cruelty in this world. The very urgent outcries of too many innocent victims have remained unheard or unanswered. The sad conclusion, then, is that one cannot see a benevolent, all-guiding, readily helping, and evil-preventing God actively ruling this world. 
This is a most serious loss of support – which then calls that much more for mankind’s own responsibility for the conditions here on Earth and for benevolent action!
Further sincere problems arose to the modern mind by observing that only very selective observation has allowed maintenance of the belief that sacrifice and “acceptable” behavior (or “following the law”) lead to divine favors and their neglect to divine punishment or misfortune in this world (even though attempts to teach and prove this correlation continue in our own time). Observation shows that, too often, “bad” individuals fare well and that too many innocent or “good” individuals suffer in this world – just read the newspaper or watch TV for a few days.
A valid religion cannot be merely the religion of survivors and lucky people. It should also be valid for those who perish and suffer in spite of their good deeds and in spite of their most urgent prayers for help – or when calamities happen to their children, close relatives, or friends.
Religions have found a solution to this dilemma in the concept of a judgment of the “souls” (or of the “resurrected” body) after death and a compensating afterlife – for the “good” in paradise or in Nirvana, for the “bad” in hell.
Most religions still maintain the above concepts – maintaining sacrifices and ritual for the presumed pleasure of the gods, combined with morally acceptable behavior intended to obtain divine favors or avoid punishment in this world – combined with a belief in a last judgment and a compensating afterlife. Some of the reported mental “visions” may permit selective belief in this.
Concerning the questions of meaning, purpose, and direction in life, the different religions, as they evolved, came to similar conclusions – finding the only answer in a single-perspective view – in the effort to get out of this world and into the next one (or Nirvana) as safely as possible, through collection of merit in this world – with merit generally described in moral or charitable terms and in terms of providing sustenance (if not wealth) for monasteries or churches and their hierarchies.
The worst form of gaining merit presently appears in the Muslim world – through suicidal self-sacrifice in “jihad”, to reach heaven instantly, even at the cost of killing and wounding many others, most of them innocents. The wounded ones then often have to live the rest of their lives in suffering and misery!
Seen historically, some remnants of older human goals and directions have remained among the governing and warrior classes – in values described, for example, by fidelity, honor, courage, and conquest. Then came the Renaissance, bringing with it an emphasis on learning, mental exploration, and the arts as significant fields of human expression and experience and, thereby, fulfillment or purpose in life. This development was accelerated by the rise of the middle class, specifically during the industrial revolution and in democracies.
While not presented by any of the great teachers of mankind, our modern world actually accepted a triple perspective on the meaning and purpose of life and the direction to pursue:
- personal development in mental growth and exploration
- moral goodness or service to others
- pursuit of the arts
Lately, environmental protection has been added as a perspective.
Faced with the practical problems of our rising societies, all religions have accepted the need for mankind to somehow look after law and order and to provide some public balancing of economic fortune by means of tithing, taxation, or charity – where divine action did not occur!
In some cultures, this allows the ruling Imams, Mullahs, or kings and nobility to see this task of ruling mankind as their God-instituted mandate or privilege, as an extension of God’s power and action in this world.
Democracy, however, has not accepted this mindset.
Many aspects of the old religions have disappeared in our time – with varying rates of decline among different populations – sometimes resulting in the liberation of people, sometimes leaving others in mental or moral insecurity, even in deep loneliness and without support by their God.
The transition in historical times from the polytheism of primitive cultures to monotheism was not an easy one. The quiet springs in nature no longer harbored nymphs, the wild oceans were no longer ruled by Poseidon, and the sun was no longer a God-driven heavenly chariot in the sky. How was it possible that all those deities, that were so evident before, were now, all of a sudden, said never to have existed? Had all those people of times past prayed in vain, addressing their prayers to spiritual emptiness, to figments of their imagination?
The diverse Christian cults of saints and the adoration of Mary, with numerous chapels and places of pilgrimage where absolution could be obtained, were substitutes serving all those naive, sincere, and often suffering people and did them good. More importantly, the new hope for admission to a wonderful “paradise” and the vision of a loving God-Father, combined with the newly appearing social structure of the people in supportive congregations (the main support of all ideologies and religions), facilitated the transition from the pagan world to the new religion.
As said before, the loss or absence of religion, while greatly liberating for some, may be heavily felt by those who are suffering and lonely – specifically when social bonds are not an avenue for help or for own corrective action.
Were religions only spiritually enhanced observations (visualizations) by the human mind to explain the functioning of life on Earth – subject to clarification as mental knowledge set in? If ethics resulted as a social benefit from natural evolution, does that also apply to moral laws?
The search for “God” is generally based on an “outgoing” search for an almost pre-conceived entity, as for a transcendental personality as described by earlier religions and too close to a human understanding of a “creator” or “ruler” of the world.
This may be a basically wrong approach. One should not try to find what one almost knows or wants to know to exist. As in a “listening” approach, one should be ready to be surprised by a deeper understanding, one should only ask what understanding one can possibly gain by observation (where observation is possible) about the transcendental (pre-physical) origin, and possible control of what we perceive as the structure and functioning of our existence (leaving open that there might be other universes). After all, “existence” has a special way of appearing (and vanishing) as shown by advanced cosmology and has a more or less clearly observable structure and function or evolution in time – material and spiritual (the latter as in our minds, emotional values, and even appreciation of aesthetics), which might be different in different universes.
Relativity theory and, mainly, quantum mechanics with probabilistic effects offer special problems to an understanding of any underlying “essence” (for lack of a better word) from which the structure of existence in any universe arises.
Do time and any kind of space exist before the existence of a universe or outside of universes?
What is left of evolving religions? Even in our “scientific” time, the question of the origin of the universe remains the most fundamental enigma, leading to transcendental, if not religious, explanations in our mind, beyond the sciences.
The nascent universe, called “Creation” in the religious view, was found to have basically intellectually structured characteristics – energy (as oscillating fields in the vacuum), a specific set of particles, forces, natural laws, basic principles and constants of nature, additionally the phenomena of quantum mechanics. All these phenomena were made understandable to the human mind by physics and mathematics. Their origin can or must be found in a transcendental, “Origin- and Structure-Providing Essence” or spirituality – an ultimate Essence of Existence – to which one can either not give a name or can call “God” (or merely “X”). But the astronomical recognition of the vastness of the universe and the expectation of parallel or other universes does not allow an anthropomorphic view of such ultimate creative essence, rather a most transcendental one.
Yet, the assumption of a transcendental origin of the universe does not imply ongoing involvement of this originating Essence in the following natural evolution or human history (the question of the “living God”) or a personally helping responsiveness of this Essence to human prayer (the “personal God”) or a final “judgment” of “souls” after their death.
And what are religious or divine “revelations”? The brain’s capability for visualizing speech – appearing as the common phenomenon of the “inner voice” (see the discussion of “visualizations” above) – can, in the believer’s mind, lead to the perception of verbal, divine religious guidance. Depending on where one stands denominationally, such verbal or visual personal “visualizations” or revelations are either accepted as being of divine origin or are totally rejected as such (see the voices and visions experienced by early Christians, by Mohammed in perceiving the Qur’an, by Joseph Smith in perceiving the Book of Mormon, by Reverend Moon as founder of the Unification Church, by certain preachers of various religious sects of our day, or as reported by numerous individuals all the time from their daily lives, whether sane, insane, or criminal).
In any event, psychology recognizes the various phenomena of split personality and of hallucination in schizophrenia which can, at least temporarily, lead to the loss of distinction between visualizations and reality. This leads in the believer’s mind to assuming the visualization of speaking angels as actual appearances. Their “divine” messages must be followed and cannot thereafter be modified – thereby freezing religious evolution.
An additional warning: While one always sees an exception to one’s own religion from criticism, it is easily piled on other religions, and vice versa. Unrealistic religious expectations, however, lead to a misdirected life and can bring great suffering to both the believers and the world.
Religions with voluminous holy texts too easily allow selective following of some few verses, possibly leading in divergent extremist directions (see some Christians in the Middle Ages and, more so, Muslims implementing the killing of those leaving their religion, the so defined “apostates”, or of perceived religious enemies in some “jihad” in our days).
Selective reading or interpretation of holy texts is used for some adaptation of old religions to the themes of modern times, some dangerous and inhibiting (birth control), some benevolent (charities) – thereby changing the veracity and value of such religions.
On the other hand, one should not overlook that benevolent religions can bring comfort and strength to weak, suffering, lonely, or hopeless people, where nothing else can – sometimes for their support and benefit. Unfortunately, such faith can sometimes, also, prevent the believers from activating their own remaining strength to pursue a more beneficial course in resolving their problems.
Religious people fear that the abolition or loss of religiosity would lead to loss of morality, to excessive selfishness, greed, licentious behavior, and aimlessness in life – and use this argument for the support of their religions. This may not be true or justified. Basic ethical emotions are genetically anchored by nature and are a necessity for the continuation of life, especially for social life (such as caring for offspring, reciprocity in friendship or networks, sacrifice for the group, and respect for others). Basic human nature and strictly practical considerations will not only continue to support basic “moral” laws, but their expansion will be visible in all the strictly secular civic and criminal laws of modern nations.
Closing and Summary Comments:
Religions tend to promote a very human image of God. Does observation of the universe allow any conclusions regarding the nature of the Creating Spirit, God? Does the fact that causality is at the root of the functioning of the universe indicate that “time” and reliable physical causality are part of the creating spirit? Does the fact that we sense human love and compassion allow the expectation of love and compassion in the Creating Spirit? Does all the horrible cruelty and senseless destructiveness in nature and history indicate such a cruel and insensitive character of “God”?
The abstract nature of the Structure Providing and Spiritual Essence of Existence, far above the human mind, does not allow such conclusions as taken from the human world on Earth.
A less “anthropomorphic” (human-like) understanding of the ultimate “Structure Providing Essence of Existence” than believed by most religious people cannot be equated with simplistic “atheism” – which negates all spirituality at the root of existence. It can not even be called “agnosticism” – which claims that no truth about a transcendental background of existence can be found. At best, it can be seen as a variant between fundamentalist, historical religiosity and a moderate form of “agnosticism” in not daring to be able to reach the height or depth of that most transcendental Essence which brought forth Existence and its Structure.
Were not all religions still “agnostic” regarding an in-depth understanding of their gods? The more primitive gods of prehistoric times were mostly seen as super-humans. Protagoras of Athens (490 to 420 BC) was possibly the first “agnostic” by challenging what one could know about the gods. The Indian Nasadiya Sukta (possibly a later addition to the Rigveda) deals with thoughts of agnosticism. The “Great Spirit” of the American Indians and the Jahweh or Jehova of the Old Testament or of the Qur’an is not described in any detail as a “person” either. Jehova is reported as having led the Jewish people through the wilderness and occasionally helped them – even showed emotions at times (and went for a walk in his garden, Eden “in the freshness of the evening”) – but is not known as having done anything specific anywhere else to any other people on Earth or at any other time. What controlled or guided the successes of the Assyrians, Romans, or Mongols against the Jews or Muslims in those days? The vague religious indication that every detail of destiny for all people on Earth is controlled by God is in clear contradiction with the immense cruelty, vast destructiveness, and, often, senselessness of events in nature and throughout history.
Our prayers can still be in greatest admiration of that “Structure Providing Essence of Existence” – but for us humans on Earth there remains the responsibility to act for ourselves – searching, helping, and improving our lot.
This is where we stand with the concept of the “Structure Providing Essence of Existence”. All we can conclude derives from the observation of the universe we live in and from the observation of our human course through time – driven by our goals and hopes.
Could there be progress in religious beliefs? Organized religions can easily become closed systems of thought, incapable of further evolution or of keeping pace with the evolution of human knowledge, thought, and cultures. It can happen that this incapability for evolution of religious thought holds up the evolution of the underlying culture and society. Examples are the stagnation of societies dominated by religious hierarchies (who are mostly inflexible) or are limited by inadequate constitutions (as are some modern democracies).
The evolution of religion appears to occur, as does the evolution of species in nature, subject to random events of history and the appearance of variations of thought (in the minds of the reformers) and in accordance with borderline conditions and opportunities. Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha were individuals embedded in their time and culture, as were Luther and Gandhi – all brought innovations commensurate with opportunities – Buddha gained India, then lost it all but won all of China; Jesus had seen the imminence of the end of the world and preached primarily to the Jews, then was accepted all over the world except among the Jewish people. Luther, fundamentalist in his own way, gained only northern Europe, but impacted the rest of the world over centuries.
The above-mentioned essay on “Religion” on the website “www.schwab-writings.com” indicates that the wide variety of cultures, with their different states of evolution and the wide variety of human individuals on Earth, needed, and possibly still needs, a certain variety of religions in their phases f evolution:
o The old cults of symbolic sacrifices and giving thanks to the forces of nature and destiny in a simple way – for those who still simply live close to nature and for the simple of mind
o Strict faith in moral laws and a divine judgment – for our urban societies as they become wealth-, power-, and basic pleasure-oriented
o Faith in humanly addressable, merciful forces of destiny, in forgiveness, love, and the Christian concept of a merciful “God-Father” – for the many sensitive individuals who struggle in life, who sincerely search, and who must often suffer so very much in this world, also in compassion – and also for the gratefully joyous ones to direct their thanks
o The view of a totally abstract Structure Providing and Spiritual Essence of Existence of the grandiose, dynamic universe with its finely tuned forces and natural laws
- for the thinking, sensing, and acting living beings in our modern world – with their search for meaning, purpose, and direction – with emphasis on not relying on an all-interfering god, but on personal responsibility and initiative
- for the mental fulfillment of one’s own life – and in contribution to the improvement of the surrounding world – through personal, exploring development, through caring and compassionate (Christian) service to others, the community, and our environment – and with joy in observing the beauty of Creation and the arts – but also with acceptance of the unavoidable
2. About Meaning, Purpose, and Direction in Existence
Since Copernicus’ discovery, highlighted by Galileo’s unfortunate process, we know that our Earth is not at the center of Creation. Additional discoveries in modern times – of a universe filled with billions of galaxies – cause us to expect that there was, is, and will be other intelligent life in this universe – a universe which, after all, has been in existence for almost 14 billion years.
There is reason to believe that the appearance of intelligent life on other heavenly bodies must also have resulted from a process of evolution, since all heavenly bodies were very hot when originally formed and, subsequently, have been cooling. Other intelligent life must have been progressing from some primitive forms of beginning life to their higher forms, as they have been on Earth. One must assume that these other civilizations in the universe occurred or will be occurring at various times, most of them at different times from the appearance of human civilization on Earth. This implies that the appearance of the animate phase of existence and the appearance of more gifted, or “intelligent”, living beings did not happen first on Earth.
Why, then, did 2.5 billion years lapse between the appearance of single-cell life on Earth and its evolution, during the Pre-Cambrian and Cambrian periods, into sophisticated and diversified organisms? Why did it take 600 million additional years of Darwinian struggle for humans to appear on Earth, if those innovations had already occurred to the “Structure Providing and Spiritual Essence of Existence” of the universe”, to God, at an earlier time?
Furthermore, we now know that all inanimate and all naturally “living” existence in the universe will come to a certain end, if not by another extinction, then at a calculable time in the future – as their respective stars overheat or cool off and, possibly, fall into giant black holes or later disappear as infinitely dissipating and ever-colder radiation.
In conclusion, the pervasive, inanimate phase of celestial bodies of existence may have been, and still is, nothing but fireworks for the pleasure of one viewer, the Formative and Spiritual Essence of Existence – God. Equally, the Darwinian phase of life, possibly occurring differently on different celestial bodies, may be nothing but a transient, kaleidoscopic pleasure for its Creator, with no other meaning or purpose in itself.
How “cold” or boring-to-observe would an astronomical universe be without life!
The “human” phase of natural evolution (whatever that could mean on other celestial bodies) demonstrates, among those organisms, the existence of a degree of perception of existence and mental freedom in formulating a response – either on an individual level or by leaders, by teams of leaders, or through team spirit – possibly supported and guided by the capability for consciousness, goal formulation, or “values” – implying a degree of responsibility for the result of such behavior.
These conscious beings, within their limitations, become co-viewers and co-actors in the existence of the universe, adding their own purpose to the evolution of existence.
Looking at the political and economic conditions that exist on Earth, it is indeed pathetic that we humans, possibly still in an early phase of development, continue to struggle here on Earth with the consequences of our weaknesses and shortcomings.
There may be no meaning or purpose in the existence of our universe (beyond the pleasure of the Creating Essence, God); but there is specific purpose and direction to pursue in our own lives – to reach our natural potential and to assume responsibility for forming our own environment in accordance with our values – in reaching out in curiosity and in mental or cultural growth, in assisting or serving our fellow beings or society, and in perceiving artistic joy – thereby “fulfilling” our human existence.
The purpose of personal existence is a mandate to utilize the given opportunities, to fulfill personal existence, and to contribute to the world’s development in this, our own phase of history – with all our nature-given capabilities and human values, and in accordance with the opportunities available to us.
One must mention the limits of opportunities, because Creation is moving on a large scale, with unevenness in detail. While Creation grows and develops in general, large sections of Creation have always been given to oblivion, without continuity, indicating no other meaning than to once have existed. Large segments of our Earth have been destroyed by natural disasters; human communities and families have been wiped out by plagues. All kinds of living beings have been run over by vehicles; children die in accidents. Many, if not most, human individuals have lived in constrained circumstances and have not found fulfillment in the full use of their gifts. But are we to judge the “Structure Providing and Spiritual Essence of Existence”, God? We can only search for peace of heart by giving ourselves to existence as it is, by accepting and using responsibility and initiative in struggling to the best of our capabilities within the time and within the opportunities given to us in existence.
Human advance implies struggle. Considering the diversity in nature, however, there is room for both the weak and the strong. Each individual must choose a personal path among possible approaches to existence, extending from the tender and humble to the powerful and pioneering, each one developing the initiative to use his or her given capabilities to the fullest.
Should we now work twenty hours every day to implement the results of our thoughts and transform the world in accordance with our values? Earlier phases of our civilization, especially in the previous century, were filled with such ideals. Now, we are more critical. We want to conserve the environment and historic places. We see too much development as negative. At the same time, though, we all want to have a car and a computer and fly to distant places on vacation. We want to help Third World countries reach our level of well-being – all the while protecting the global environment. We do want more development, but of the “right” kind.
The meaning and purpose of human existence should not be quantitatively defined, but qualitatively. It should be value-related.
Many people, if not most in the world, still struggle for bare survival. They must necessarily satisfy their basic needs – and enjoy the elevating love of their families.
In our successful societies, most people merely want a more comfortable life, preferably with some reserves (or wealth); they want to have some significance (or power) in society, and they want to be entertained.
Few people on Earth have the time, resources, or (admirable) determination to strive for mental growth, to dedicate some of their resources and time to public service or charity, to partake joyously in the art and cultural aspects of their society, and to care for nature.
This is the resulting, ranking matrix of human goals and values:
Caring Service & Charity
Building a Better Society
Nature, Life, Art,
Security and Dignity
Positive Significance in Society, Action Potential
Family and Clan
While most philosophies and religions teach the pursuit of only one value – be it ethical perfection or withdrawal – the fact is that all individuals are embedded in a combination of the three distinct value directions on three different levels, constantly requiring balancing compromises.
Reduced satisfaction thresholds on a lower level allow earlier elevation to a higher level.
Personal strength, effort, focus, and some success are needed to reach the next level, to gain security, dignity, freedom, and reserves in wealth or power for responsible action.
It is disappointing, however, to see success defined only on the middle level in terms of ever more wealth or power as the only goal of gifted individuals and whole segments of the human society – all used for nothing but entertainment or basic pleasures! Ultimate fulfillment comes from reaching the highest level – of mental growth, caring service, and culture.
Additional comments regarding conflicts between different directions in life:
The fact that there are not one but three different directions for our life – personal development, dedication to others and the community, and art or culture – necessarily leads to conflicts between those preferences when time and resources are limited. Christ indicated only extreme solutions – preference for celibacy and for selling all one’s belongings for the benefit of the poor. Historically, there were only two famous thoughts supposed to lead out of this predicament, Aristotle’s and Kant’s, both of which are unsatisfactory.
Aristotle sees virtue as being found in the right balance between two undesirable extremes, one usually being weak deficiency, the other foolish excess. However, Aristotle cannot indicate what the “right” balance is. This balance may be different from case to case. Nor does Aristotle provide guidance in situations of conflict between different values.
Kant, in his Categorical Imperative, indicates that one should act in such a way that “the guideline of one’s action could be used as a directive for general legislation”. However, all people are different. The situations of their lives are different; and their cultures may be different. Therefore, one’s own Kantian maxim may not apply to others. If the guidelines were formulated universally for all people on Earth, they could become so vague as to be useless for decision-making in the practical situations of life. Kant does not provide guidance in trying to find the universally right guidelines, especially not in situations of conflict.
These writings present thoughts about “direction” in life, but not a collection and discussion of all the crimes to avoid – some simple to define, as murder, violence, and stealing – others more abstract, as cheating and not communicating the truth – and, mainly, the gray zone of exploitation of others. Exploitation of others became the main theme of historic social upheaval in society – from the formation of democracies to such liberators as Garibaldi or Bolivar, to egalitarians such as Marx and Engels, and to the struggle between the political parties in our time or the question of fair taxation. The granting of financial advances, often at a high interest rate, to individuals who cannot afford the repayment and then possession of their property or financial enslavement must be considered a special (and historical) crime of our and many other cultures.
More thought should be given to this problem!
Ethical standards of inter-human behavior are a central part of our values. They provide the foundation of our human essence and, hence, our role in the universe. Originally, they were derived from the genetic fixation of ethical behavior in social animals and humans as caused by natural evolution (evolved as an evolutionary advantage through the resulting social coherence and group efficiency) – and subsequently expanded through our value-guided minds and emotions, some subsequently formulated through “religious” inspirations of gifted individuals.
Ethical standards suffer from conflict with practical needs. Nobody will divide his or her property down to the lowest denominator of all the poor people he or she may encounter. There are moments when lying – even killing – is necessary for survival or to help others. Job obligations in an organization do not allow for the pursuit of personal ethical preferences, as in hiring and firing or in fighting off competition.
Fundamentally, there are the conflicts in ethics between “process” and “goal” justification, and those between trying to reach the greatest good for the most people or to respect all individual “human rights” at all times.
Lack of guidance in the dilemmas of having to limit ethical behavior is the most disturbing problem in attempting to clarify one’s convictions and to find a clear path through life. Celibacy and poverty for all is not the answer – and a philosophy of ethics often fails. Conscience is not an adequate guide – nor is reason, philosophy, theology, or practical experience.
What is the conclusion? Compromise of ethical behavior with other demands of life is necessary. Time and resources are needed for personal growth in knowledge, skills, and character development, for one’s family and friends, for the arts, a walk through nature, sitting on the porch as an old man and enjoying one’s blessings, pursuing one’s hobbies – all within limits. But which?
In any event, in searching for a compromise, one had better stay more on the demanding side of one’s ethical standards.
3. In Sum:
For many people, life is a serious struggle, one with limited hope. But as we lift our heads, we can deeply appreciate our human capability to perceive the grandiose universe or the beauty of a flower – or merely the beauty of a drifting cloud – and to actively participate in the small area, and for the limited time, of our personal existence.
This vision of the ultimate origin and evolving existence provides us with the inspiration to assume responsibility, to rise and responsibly fulfill our life as best we can. This vision can also provide us with peace, and it can comfort us in accepting the limitations of our life and our ultimate return to where we came from.
As all nature strives to live, grow, and evolve, we must struggle with prudent determination to overcome adversity in first, building an economic foundation for our life – and, despite setbacks, to further develop our individual human potential in character and thought – through learning, exploring, and maturing, while always, actively, striving for excellence in our endeavors.
We shall not abuse our skills for selfish aims only – or to the detriment of others.
Only in social coherence can we develop our greatest potential, in contributing and receiving light and harmony – in the love of our family, in caring assistance to the needy, in dedicated service to our community, and in responsible stewardship for our environment. We must attempt to compassionately reduce the many forms of suffering and overcome the darkness of the world – while also striving to improve true opportunities in the lives fairly for all. We shall not abuse the social forces of society for personal power alone or to the detriment of others.
We possess, and gratefully cherish, the gift of aesthetic appreciation in nature and the arts. We shall not abuse the intriguing influence of human sensitivity to art for selfish benefit alone or to the detriment of ethical values.
We are grateful for harmony in our world, and we need community with our fellow travelers through existence in supportive congregations and cultures – for encouragement, comfort in suffering, constraint of damaging behavior, and coordinated contribution to a beneficial evolution of society. We shall not abuse such congregations for material benefit, vocal dominance, or hierarchical power.
This essay may use a rather factual or pragmatic approach in answering the questions about God, meaning, purpose, direction, and human faith. For most people, however, faith is an expression of the “heart” or “soul”. Our scientific age is inclined to be critical toward matters of the heart or soul, relegating them to psychology. This may be too one-sided. Friendship, love, compassion, caring, dedication to the community, and joy about all beauty in the world may be the most significant aspects of human existence. Suffering, loneliness, and deep compassion are felt in the “heart” or “soul”, as one says – in the “emotional” essence of our lives.
The image people have of their God influences their behavior. Therefore, the question of having faith in the right God may, in many instances, be more important than having faith in any God or having a scientific understanding of existence. Cruelty and destruction in the name of religion – whether by the Aztecs, the Inquisition, the religiously intolerant among the Northern Irish, and now so often by Muslims, sometimes orthodox Israelis or any other religious fundamentalists of our time – are worse than religious apathy. On the other side, in many cultures of the world, the highest ethical behavior or almost “saintly” personal accomplishments have repeatedly been stimulated by underlying religious concepts.
The Christian faith – if not seen and preached as merely a shortcut on the way to heaven – has become the search for the foundation of all positive emotional forces or values in “God the Father”, thereby overlooking all the natural catastrophes affecting mankind and the pervasive cruelty in all of nature! For many suffering people, however, a benevolent vision of the ultimate, transcendental essence of existence – God – and a corresponding place for humans in evolution can be the source for strength of “heart”, for warmth of “soul”, for consolation in trouble, and, hopefully still, for personal initiative in life.
Our time has experienced great, often intractable, conflicts of ideologies, cultures, and interests, the searching for answers in a competition between science and religion, between knowledge and values. My conclusions at the end of this essay are not Promethean – referring to the one who brought mankind the practical help of fire as a symbol of light in confrontation with the gods the world believed in at the time. Nor are they Biblical, where the tree of knowledge in Paradise was savored in confrontation with God. Nor, finally, are they Faustian, where finding the last essence of existence required a pact with the Devil.
More than anything else, the conclusions presented in this essay seek a complementing balance between reason and the heart. They express the longing for mental growth toward deeper understanding and wider horizons; but they also call for renewed dedication to our fellow beings, society, and the environment; finally, they call for a fundamentally positive spirit in appreciating all that is joyful, good, and beautiful in this world.
These conclusions call for emphasizing positive opportunities more than problems.
This results in a call for personal initiative and effort based on our values, practical judgment, and human responsibility. We are called to reduce suffering, increase opportunity fairly for all, and bring some joy and light to whatever small area over which we have any influence – while being good stewards of nature.
Our happiness may result from factual accomplishments, the warmth of human harmony, and the joy resulting from art and beauty. But the “value” of our lives results from our own growth and how we bring more clarity, light, and warmth into this world – wherever we can – while at the same time accepting the positive in our own lives with gratitude and, possibly, with joy.
What do I personally decide to stand for?
What is my position in the midst of contradictions and uncertainty?
Following are some thoughts:
* The observation of the origin of the universe and, then, its regulated, complex functioning indicates an underlying, absolutely abstract “Structure Providing and Spiritual Essence of Existence”, whatever it is called, God, Allah, or “X”.
This force, which we commonly call “God”, is searched by the human mind in meditation and prayer. My soul often longs for guidance by and peace in God – in a benevolent God.
The greatest enigma of a spiritual view of existence, however, lies in the actual observation of pervasive and non-understandable cruelty in nature and human history – of destructions, extinctions, plagues, wars, natural disasters, and innumerable daily predicaments of families and innocent individuals – where the cries of the afflicted are neither heard nor allow any liberating, curing, or beneficial hope.
Therefore, I actually cannot observe and do not expect God to respond to human prayers – as desperate as they may be – nor to interfere with the course of the world!
I see “God” as remaining beyond human reach and understanding – as an abstract “Spiritual and Formative Essence of Existence”.
* I hold a dynamic view of evolving Creation in the universe – including the fact that all is temporary and that the whole universe will ultimately come to an end or dissolution.
In this view, there is no room for a permanent preservation of “souls”, whether in bliss or penitence.
There is comfort in seeing that everything is temporary in this world – and that in death one can find a homecoming in peace to nature. In this view, we find peace for our souls and the strength to act in our lives, following our values wherever we can.
* I cannot see any ultimate meaning or purpose in this existence but to temporarily be – for nothing but the pleasure of the Creating Essence.
For our own lives, however, I see meaning, purpose, and a direction in fulfilling the time given to us to exist – in contributing ourselves and the effort of our lives to this world.
* Human existence is subject to the principles of the earlier phases of Creation, to the laws of physics and random events, and to the competitive struggle of species and individuals.
Human existence is different from any earlier part of Creation on Earth. It is based on a degree of mental freedom to explore, understand, and make decisions in the course of life.
* Along with this freedom and these capabilities goes the corresponding responsibility for what we accomplish, to develop initiative in pursuing the development of our lives and our world in accordance with our human values.
* The meaning and purpose of human life lies in grasping and fulfilling the unique opportunities granted to the human mind as described by its human values.
* “Human values” refer to three different dimensions – mental or personality growth for the fulfillment of one’s personal potential; dedicated, caring love and service to others, society, and nature as we inherited it; and, as a mysterious gift of nature, cultural or artistic enjoyment of life.
* Human values are ranked – there is the necessary fulfillment of the basic needs and desires of life; there is the vast majority of pursuits to secure, improve, and enjoy a comfortable, influential, and respected life; and there is striving for the higher aspirations of the human mind and soul (see the matrix shown above).
* The greatest problem in the pursuit of ethical standards lies in the need for compromise with the pursuit of other directions of human values: self-fulfillment and the enjoyment of life. I hold that any compromise should be in favor of sympathy with the one who beckons for help in calamities. At the same time, though, one should assume that few others do their part in helping, and that one should see the brother or sister or son or daughter in the needy one. One should also see the beneficial restraint of egoism in a discipline of charity.
* The greatest limitation in the pursuit of personal goals and values lies not only in bad luck, but in the weakness of one’s own personality. As we struggle with our own shortcomings, we must have tolerance for those of others.
* Exceptional people have set examples of personality improvement in the course of their lives. Role models help us in our lives. Are we called to be role models for others, at least occasionally and in a minor way, when challenges arise?
* In the conduct of life, I believe in “everybody carrying his or her own weight”.
Nobody, however, can handle all the challenges of life alone. As we are entitled to accept help, so must we lend a helping hand to others in coping with their lives.
* Congregations of like-minded individuals help participating members in maintaining a course through life and in providing comfort and strength.
* I was most grateful for moments of perceiving the benevolent potential of destiny in my own life – in family harmony, in sufficient health, in exploring the vastness of the universe, nature, and the multitude of cultures on Earth – for perceiving the beauty of Creation, and for the harmony of human contacts, which were the greatest gifts to my life.
* In sum, I seek the meaning and direction for my life and seek the strength and sensitivity to beneficially pursue my course through life in the contemplation of existence and, in great reverence, of its transcendental “Formative Essence” by the observing mind, by our emotions, by practical experience, and by human sensitivity – to grow, to humanely contribute, and to enjoy this experience of once existing in this world.
 Religions have struggled with this problem from early historic times on. Several (including the Hindu, also the Christian religion) found the not-convincing answer in assuming a split divinity, split between the creative or good divinity and the destructive or evil force (the devil) – with no supreme and pure force or essence, which would wipe away the evil force.