Friday, March 7, 2014

A Meaningful Life: Eternal Life

Lenten Faith Formation Series
For St. Vincent de Paul Parish

A Meaningful Life: In our search for happiness, goodness, and beauty, at the end, we all want to say that we lived a meaningful life. We all want to say that our lives meant something to someone, if not only just ourselves. We look and we strive to find certain things, different ways of life, particular people, all with the hope that they will give our lives meaning, significance, direction, or purpose. As with anything, we want to know that, if I am going to run this race, there will be a finish line and a reward, even for just participating; that, if I am going to invest in something, there will be a return; that, if I am going to make this choice, it will pay dividends; and finally, that, if I live this life, I can say it was worth it.

This four part series will look at this desire for meaning, examining the various paths to meaning offered to us by our culture and more importantly by our Faith, the Christian Faith. Tonight, we will begin with the end, the goal, the purpose. Where are we going? What is the purpose or end goal of this life? What will come afterwards? As the topic indicates, the answer will be Eternal Life, but we have some work to do before we get there.         

Two Extremes: Our culture offers us two extremes, two ways of validating our lives and giving them meaning.

Tonight’s the Night: The first extreme I like to call “Tonight’s the Night.” We know and hear of this option every time we turn on the radio or watch music videos: “Baby, tonight is the night so let’s whatever like there’s no tomorrow;” “Tonight’s gonna be a good night, so raise your glasses.” The image that comes to my mind most vividly is a music video from several years ago. It begins with a young girl waking up in the morning after what looks to have been a party to remember. She immediately stands up and begins walking around the house singing about how she cannot wait until the next night to repeat last night.

In this view, meaning is given to life by the vivid pleasure of the current moment, tonight. Such highs of emotion and pleasure validate our experience of hardship and pain by giving us a momentary escape. Happiness is the ecstasy of the moment and the hope of a return. Everything and anything is judged as good and beautiful in so far as it leads to this moment, to “tonight.” In a word, there is no meaning beyond or outside of these “nights,” so raise your glass and make merry while you still can!   

ESPN Man: Now, for many of us, refuting such a view of life would not be difficult, at least on a prudential level: “that just isn’t a smart or responsible lifestyle.” But consider a more nuanced or subtle version of this kind of meaningful life. Consider the “ESPN man.” This man works his average well paying 9-5 Monday through Friday with major holidays off job. He has a wife and kids, a good family. Yet the drudge of work and the difficulty of family life take their toll and do not provide real meaning for him. To what then does he look: Sunday, Sunday, Sunday: Football! After sleeping in and suffering through Church, he comes home to his lovely lazy boy and, perhaps with a few of the guys, reclines back to watch the game with a bowl of Tostitos. This is “tonight” for him, and depending on how it goes, win or lose, his whole week now has meaning. Monday on his way to work he listens to sports talk radio playing Monday morning quarterback. Yet, midweek offers a bit of a lull, almost a slight depression only held up by the hope of the next Sunday--God forbid there is a by-week. Looking to fill this gap, ESPN man takes on a college team. The college he attended isn't very good, but, no worries, a few purchases of merchandise and he is in: Saturday Game Day! Now, he has Saturday and, if things go bad, Sunday as well. Surely the excitement of two games and two days can get him through the week. Ah but alas, no bowl game and missed the playoffs again. So next season, Monday night football! Yes, waiting for a new coach to be hired and new recruits on Saturday, Sunday same old mediocrity, but Monday, if not his team, at least a good game. Surely, three nights and three games can carry him through this week, can give him something for which to live, some kind of meaning to 2 pm falling asleep needing a 5 hour energy drink and traffic and family drama. But alas, Tuesday
through Saturday is too much to bear. So now, Thursday night football, the Monday night of college football. Great a little pick him up during the middle of the long 4 day week without football. Now he only has to endure 2 days without football at a time, and surely there is enough criticism and gossip to fill up that time on talk radio and Sportscenter.

Summary: It is easy to see that as with the more vivid version of this extreme, happiness is the high or rise of the moment offering an escape from the difficulties and pain. The good are all those things which lead and are conducive to this moment of “happiness.” And because of this all of life is meaningful or worth it. My sufferings at work and with my family pay out in my ability to achieve this high or escape.

Really?: But we have to ask: does this really give life meaning, or simply distract us from the fact that it is meaningless? Indeed, in this view, life really does not have any meaning. The lie is that such pleasures or highs give meaning when in reality they only distract us from the lack of meaning. This is particularly devastating when our efforts to reach such a “night” are thwarted and we are consistently unable to achieve them. Particularly for the “ESPN Man,” it is this attempt at a meaningful life which will cause him to confront the proverbial midlife crisis. He will realize that such a life is not sustainable and, when the difficulties of family life and the drudge of work finally take their toll, that such a lifestyle is completely inadequate at giving meaning to life. In the face of such a meaningless life, he despairs and goes into crisis. Again, these pleasures only distract us from the lack of meaning until such a reality catches up with us and we are left with a meaningless response to life.

Legacy: The other extreme our culture offers us is much more “mature” and “responsible” and is in many ways an alternative to the former extreme of “tonight” and “ESPN Man.” This extreme I like to call “Legacy.” In this view, the meaning of life is derived from the legacy or memory you leave behind; how will you be known? By being responsible and mature you contribute to society making a name for yourself and living on in this way. Another way of putting this is how much “staying power” will you life have? This will determine its meaning.

Lebron James: Lebron James recently said that he would go down as one of the top four players in the history of the NBA, making allusions to re-chiseling the “Mount Rushmore” of Basketball with his face included.[1] While certainly a bold claim, I don’t mention this so as to air out my commentary, but rather to illustrate this point which I think Lebron articulates perfectly here. For Lebron, his life will be meaningful if he goes down as one of the greats; all the sacrifice of time and blood and sweat and toil will all have been worth it, meaningful if his legacy is “one of the greats.” If not, his life will literally be meaningless or mean less than it should have, if nothing else but a lesson for the next up and coming wonder. But who wants to be remembered as a lesson in achieving greatness. Other examples in different fields might be Donald Trump, the Clintons, etc…

Happiness and the Good: Happiness in this legacy vision is defined by successfully building up an image or establishing a name which will live beyond your own lifetime. The good becomes all those things which help us achieve this goal, no matter what. The trick with this view of life is that it can be as bad as it can be good. One can choose to search for meaning through a legacy such as Bill Gates, Oprah, Muhammad Ali, or Hitler, Stalin, etc…And while there are many moral problems and trappings in trying to achieve this kind of meaning for one’s life, I want to focus on something deeper: the folly of even searching for such meaning.

Really: But we have to ask ourselves, does this really give meaning to life? And if it does, is this the kind of meaning that we really want?

Exclusive Happiness: The first and major pitfall of this quest for meaning is that it is limited. Not everyone can have a legacy; not everyone can be remembered in such a grand way. So, meaning is limited to a small number of people? Is the rest of humanity left to a meaningless and insignificant life? Very much so in this vision. Meaning is something for the greatest, not the least; the powerful, not the weak; the minority, not the majority. Furthermore, happiness is available only to that same small group who were able to attain that legacy. Indeed, happiness is very exclusive in this search for meaning, and often comes at the expense of others. This is the reality if we choose to go down this road: meaning will be difficult if not impossible to achieve, happiness will come at others expense, and, if we don’t make it, we are left in the wake of meaningless failure.

Not really meaning: This troubling state of affairs causes us to really reconsider whether or not, then, this is true meaning. Looking more closely, meaning is defined by what is left behind in this life: the legacy. So like the first extreme of “tonight's the night,” meaning pertains only to this life, nothing more or beyond. Indeed, at the root of both extremes is a presumption: meaning is only attainable in this life. Yet, in light of the ever encroaching and inescapable reality of death, how can this really offer meaning, particularly for those who are unable to party “tonight” and/or establish any kind of legacy? I suppose that meaning is really that
far out of reach for us. Indeed, under both of these views meaning is extremely out of reach, indeed, non-existent. Thus both set up huge distractions to keep us from realizing that there is not meaning to this life, hoping that the pleasure of tonight or the name we have made will carry us through until we truly pass off into nothingness. This sounds depressing, and it is. These are the options, that is, without the Gospel.   

Christianity: It need not be this way. This life can mean something, but not on its own. It needs something greater, something beyond this life in order to give it meaning, orientation, and purpose. That is life eternal. St. Paul proclaims this saving message: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scripture, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1Cor 15:3-5). St. John makes it even more clear later on: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ, that whoever believes in Him might have eternal life” (3:16).Yes, in the face of these two options of  “tonight” and “legacy” the Christian claims that a meaningful life is attainable for any and for all because of a life beyond this one: Eternal life. In short: this life will mean something because of the next one. In the drudge of work, pain of difficulties, and sufferings, life becomes meaningful with an eternal life. Eternal life validates and makes all our experiences good and bad worth it.

Happiness, then, is a never ending life of complete fulfillment and joy which begins in this life. All things are good in so far as they lead to this end, as long as they lead us to this goal of life eternal. Imagine a never ending life of happiness. This is the claim of Christianity: this life means something because it will not end! 

Unlimited Meaning: This claim is astoundingly bold, for happiness is not limited to a small group of individuals who were strong enough to make a name for themselves, but rather bestowed upon everyone who believes in Christ, particularly the lowly and the oppressed, the orphan and the widow. Indeed, Christian happiness is all inclusive and upholds genuine equality. Everyone has the same chance at a meaningful life of happiness and joy for eternity.

Meaning from beyond: And unlike the two extremes, meaning is not dictated or dominated by what happens in this life good or bad, not even death. Meaning comes from the hope of living beyond these trials and tribulations forever. Furthermore, this hope frees the Christian to embrace the life he is currently living. Instead of distracting himself from difficulties and troubles by pleasures of “tonight” or the pride of “legacy,” he can take them on and acknowledge them with the confidence of a power which can overcome even death. The Christian can actually take on reality because he knows it has meaning, and is not afraid that he will be disappointed by the realization that it is all just a farce—meaningless!

The Resurrection: But what guarantees this for the Christian? How do we know that this claim is true or meaningful and not just another farce or distraction from the real meaningless reality we live? In a word, the resurrection: “If Christ has not been raised, the our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…But in fact Christ has been raised form the dead” (1Cor 15:12-20).
The Christian claim is based on cold hard concrete history. A man who claimed to be God suffered, died, and rose from the dead, and is still nowhere to be found. He is gone like he said. You have to deal with this claim. No one can truly avoid this historical fact. No writing it off to religious fanaticism or ignorance. This man who was dead came back to life, appeared to those closest to him, and ascended into that life which He promised to us. This resurrection guarantees the promise of eternal life for those who believe in Him and live a life worthy of such a belief. Because if it is not true, if He didn't really rise from the dead (like they find his bones), I am out; there are many more ways we can have fun and enjoy this life while it still lasts. I mean we could eat meat! But He rose. Our faith is not in vain.

Beware of the Pseudo: But I have to warn all of you now: beware of the pseudo! Beware of the fake, the knockoff. Beware of a fake Christianity. What is this, you say?

Fake Christianity: In this view, the Christian message of the resurrection is preached and taught, offering a new life already in the present. This resurrection is defined as a certain good feeling or rebirth brought about by good works both in the one doing the work and in the one receiving. This resurrection bestows meaning to life through an all inclusive and equal opportunity happiness. Virtues such as altruism and love are put forward as ways of living which give happiness and meaning to life.

What are we talking about here? Consider any generic feel good story you see on the nightly news, the person of the week or good deed of the day. Some young successful and talented individual takes time out from building their legacy or leaves behind a night scene and begins a charitable organization or giving back in some way. They garner meaning from their life by bestowing this sort of resurrection upon others, as it was on them. Happiness is defined as the sentiment or feeling brought on by such deed that force us outside of ourselves and into an encounter with another who is less fortunate or well off. 

What’s the problem: But what’s the problem with that? Isn't that what we are suppose to be doing as Christians. Isn't that the meaning of Christian life? I have even heard Pope Francis say almost the exact same thing!

Don’t be fooled: No, don’t be fooled. This view is right. Pope Francis has said very similar things. But don’t be fooled by the subtlety. Did you hear mention of eternal life? of Heaven or Hell, Judgment or Purgatory? Did you hear the promise of a life hereafter? No, and you never will. This fake or pseudo Christianity inverts the Christian message and corners it in this life and this life alone. Life is meaningful only in these passing moments of feel good works. But honestly why? Why do such works, why give oneself away like that if I am not going to receive it in return? Why throw a life of “tonight” and “legacy” away if not only for a life which will actually conquer death?

The Resurrection: Let’s make it a bit more clear. The resurrection St. Paul and St. John were talking about was not a surging emotion of happiness from the depths of the soul not yet felt before because we finally had the courage to be nice to someone. They were talking about bodies, a body, popping out of the grave! Yes, this other type of resurrection is present and true, but meaningless without the real McCoy. Life is only truly meaningful because a man who was God rose from the dead and promised me the same if I but follow Him.  

The Wager: I want to close with a thought experiment that I think will clear things up. You walk into a Casino in Vegas and go a corner where 4 slot machines sit. You have one coin, the sum total of all your possessions. After the life came crashing down you went to Vegas and had the night of your life, and now you have nothing but this one coin left. All the machines have a 50% chance of winning. On the far left, you have a 50% chance of winning one more coin, one more chance to play. On the far right, a 50% chance to win 10 coins. In the middle two machines: one holds a 50% chance of 1,000,000 coins, the other infinity. Where do you place the coin?

The Parable Explained: You see it would be illogical to put your coin anywhere else but in the slot for infinity, since all the odds are the same. Any good gambler would tell you the same. The machine on the left is the first extreme of “tonight.” Play to win for one more night, but if you lose its all over: life is meaningless. The machine on the far right is the “legacy.” Win the first go and you can play for a while, maybe even get pretty rich if you’re lucky enough. But be careful before the odds catch up and you lose everything and become a meaningless failure. In the middle two machines both boasting a quite a prize. What you could do with a million dollars! But this is the pseudo. It looks like a lot; it promises a lot; but it isn’t infinity. Such a life will always mean less than infinity infinitely. Infinity is the true Christianity, the true promise of eternal life guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Where will you place your life?

[1] Sports Illustrated:

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