To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
Throughout the month of August, we’re looking at Ecclesiastes, that strange and seemingly “modern” Old Testament book that depicts what happens when humanity searches for ultimate meaning apart from God.
There’s no piece of real estate on Earth quite like the DMZ.
The Korean Demilitarized Zone, which roughly follows the 38th parallel, divides North and South Korea, two nations that have technically been at war with each other for more than seven decades. An armistice in 1953 brought an end to three years of shooting. But that agreement was not a final settlement, and deep mistrust has lingered.
The result is a narrow buffer zone which keeps both sides at bay. It is approximately 2.5 miles wide and 160 miles long, running from coast to coast on the Korean peninsula.
To say that the DMZ is militarized would be a serious understatement. Minefields, tank traps, and barbed wire crisscross its length. Observers estimate that 60% of North Korea’s military forces are deployed within a few miles of the area, and have the capacity to fire 10,000 rounds a minute towards the South if President King Jung-Un ever gives the order.
Ironically, the DMZ is one of the safest places in the world for endangered animal species, including the rare Siberian tiger, which is thought to roam its hills. That’s because the DMZ is one of the least safe places in the world for human beings. Wise people stay far away.
One thing is abundantly clear. There’s no such thing as dual Korean citizenship. You can’t profess an allegiance to both domains, North and South, and travel back and forth across the DMZ in a happy-go-lucky manner.
The same thing is true when it comes to understanding the meaning of human life.
While we know of hundreds of different religions and philosophies, there are really, in the end, just two ways of seeing things. Either human lives have ultimate meaning or they don’t.
No book of the Bible puts that in such stark relief as Ecclesiastes. The author kicks things off by declaring, “Everything is utterly meaningless!” By the end of the book, however, he will make it clear that he’s talking about human life “under the sun” – that is, in this world and this world alone. “Beyond the sun,” so to speak, ultimate Meaning not only exists but sustains the cosmos and everyone in it.
So, do you believe that the meaningless muddle of daily life under the sun is all there is? Or do you believe that every human life, including your own, is eternally meaningful and significant?
Those are your choices.
That seems plain enough. But it’s all too common for people to hedge their bets. Can’t we live in a spiritual DMZ between Meaning and Meaninglessness – holding on to two passports, one for each domain, just in case we feel the need to cherry pick our values depending on how we feel about particular issues?
People who believe that the universe is ultimately meaningless, for instance, find it very hard to live that way.
One of my friends, who is a “happy humanist,” is openly enthusiastic that God does not exist. He is free. He’s free to choose his own sexual ethics. He’s free to cut corners on his taxes. He’s free to make decisions that will help him “look out for number one.” He’s also deeply compassionate. He believes in human rights, justice, and things that are objectively right and wrong.
But that’s cheating, I always point out, as we push our lunches around our plates.
If the cosmos has no ultimate meaning, it’s true that there is no accountability for our actions. He likes that part. But meaninglessness also means there can be no fixed reference points for right and wrong, good and evil, except the ones we invent for ourselves. Human rights and compassion make perfect sense in a meaningful universe, but not in a world that has come about solely by stark biological competitiveness.
My friend wants to live in a spiritual DMZ, where he can run across the border and borrow the gifts that theism (and Christianity in particular) have bestowed on civilization.
It’s also true that people who believe that the universe is ultimately brimming with meaning find it very hard to live that way.
I have a number of friends who love God. They also love to gossip, complain about their partners, tell lies, get payback for injustices, and cheat on their taxes – no, not all of the time, but enough to make it clear that they would also like to live in a spiritual DMZ, where they can run across the border every now and then and sample the “freedom” of not being accountable to God.
Everyone understands that there should be a clear separation between the theoretical domains of Meaning and Meaninglessness. People cannot carry two spiritual passports or pledge allegiance to two entirely different ways of seeing the world.
But most of us hope we can cheat at least a little bit.
It takes extraordinary courage to live what we say we believe. That’s especially true for those who are convinced that life has no inherent meaning.
The German philosopher Friederick Nietzsche (1844-1900) resolved that he would not blink in the face of temptation to compromise his atheism. He would think and live as if nothing is true.
It was a mark of his genius and his self-discipline that he apparently never flinched.
Nietzsche railed against religion and Christianity in particular. The teachings of Jesus, in his view, had plunged the world into passivity. Love, forgiveness, and humility represented a “herd morality” that was preventing humanity from achieving its destiny – the inevitable development of a Superman, the Ubermensch, who would face the problems and suffering of the world without resorting to supernatural fantasies.
Nietzsche popularized the notion that “God is dead’ – not that any kind of god had ever existed, but that it was way past time for humanity to seek otherworldly guidance for ethics and meaning.
His dream of de-Christianizing the world has not come true. Adolph Hitler, however, was a huge fan, and dared to think that he might be the Ubermensch the world awaited. Nietzsche himself died in an asylum at the age of 56, overcome by what was probably syphilis-induced insanity.
His embrace of meaninglessness almost seems a tragic parody of Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes 2:12: “Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom, and also madness and folly.”
It takes bravery to live out our convictions. None of us should go looking for a spiritual DMZ where we can compromise our beliefs if things get tough.
But this we can know:
If we choose to believe that life has ultimate meaning, we will soon encounter the God who is the source of that meaning.
And if we choose to rely on him, he will supply us with all the love, grace, and forgiveness we will ever need to remain faithful.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.