We are at last moving out of the frantic Christmas season celebrations most of us enjoy – or endure – with the coming of the new light. Theoretically at least, it has been a celebration of new life, of hope in the future.
But what of those of us who no longer believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible, who possibly no longer believe in a transcendent God who created this world with some final goal of perfection in mind? What, for us, is the meaning of life, what are we doing here, what drives us, on what principles do we make moral choices?
A frequent answer given by those immersed in science is that survival is our over-arching principle. Some philosophers argue that survival is the essential driving force of the entire universe. Here on planet earth, sociobiology says that the preservation of our genes is what ultimately drives us. Sex, with the goal of instigating successful procreation as broadly as possible is our driving force. Paradoxically, this is in agreement with both Freud’s theory of the id and the teaching of Catholicism that it is sinful ever to interfere with the act of sexual intercourse with the goal of preventing conception.
I’ve got a problem with survival, though, as the ultimate driving force. In terms of the universe as a whole, physicists simply don’t know what is going to happen. Some theories suggest that the universe will keep expanding into an infinity of space. Others think it will return into the singularity of energy out of which the Big Bang first burst. Or perhaps our universe will be swallowed up by a bigger universe. But we have no evidence. We just don’t know. So survival on a universal scale impresses me as pretty theoretical and not very exciting. Not the way being alive is exciting.
On the other hand, if we are talking about survival on a personal level, we are all doomed to failure. Total failure, and even for the very-longed lived, failure in what is actually a very short-term. Secondly, survival of the individual as a driving force does not explain altruistic behavior, something which we see throughout the living world. Why, if my personal survival is the ultimate value, would I willingly give up my life to save another? Why would I share my last piece of bread with a stranger? Why would I dive into the water to save a drowning swimmer? Why would I dedicate my whole life to serving others? Why would a doctor volunteer to serve Ebola patients, putting his or her own life in profound danger? Nor does this kind of behavior occur just among religiously dedicated humans. It occurs among animals. So personal survival does not work for me as an over-arching principle. I’m doomed to fail by that standard, and it doesn’t explain the evidence anyway.
What, then, about survival of the human species as a whole as a driving force and over-arching principle? or of the survival of life in general? This has more potential for me, with the value it places on life. But we know that extinction of all life on planet earth is inevitable when the sun has burned out in perhaps another 5 billion years.
Rather than focus on survival, I prefer embracing the fullness of the amazing, incredible reality as we can see it in the lights given to us in this 21st century. Where we are going eventually is a mystery beyond our capacity to know. In fact, what we think we understand reasonably well is matter, which consists of a mere 4% of the universe. We have some glimmer of what another 23% consists of, called “dark matter,” but no idea at all of what 73% of the universe which consists of “dark matter” is. There is, though, sound scientific reason to conclude that energy is eternal. And we know from Einstein that matter and energy are convertible. So the matter and energy out of which each of us is made is eternal. What happens to “me” when I die is a mystery. But the matter and energy of which I am made will continue on forever.
So each of us is participating in a potentially infinite and eternal process. The glimmers of it we get today are fantastic. I find this process utterly overwhelmingly wondrous and amazing. To actively participate in it is a huge privilege.
To be faithful to this process to the best of our understanding seems to me to be a glorious challenge. It’s my understanding of the biblical metaphor of God’s command to Adam and Eve to be stewards over all creation. It’s why destroying the environment is such a denial of what we are. It’s why caring for others, even at the cost sometimes of our individual benefit or even survival, can still drive us, and why we value that selfless love so highly. It’s why figuring out problems – little ones and big ones – is so rewarding. It’s why daily jobs like cooking and cleaning and washing the clothes aren’t menial jobs to be denigrated but essential to the whole process of an ongoing universe.
And when I die, I will continue to be part of that glorious challenge. Even if I don’t know how that may evolve, and I don’t know what “I” becomes.