I just read a brilliant and inspiring post by Umair Haque titled What it means to Change the World. He puts in concrete terms that changing the world is about curing Ebola, eliminating poverty, give half the world clean water and fix global youth unemployment. Changing the world is not going to come from coding apps. As I read this, a question crept into my mind as to Why should we change the world? Why does the world need changing at all? Why does the world need to be improved?
I have been spending some time listening to some exceptional lectures by the late Francis Schaeffar, brilliant Philosopher and Theologian with an uncanny ability to offer insight into modern man’s existential dilemmas. He has a way of cutting through the complexity of life and getting to the basic axioms that govern different worldviews. He draws out the implications of worldviews when followed to their logical end.
When we ask the question – What can we do change the world? Or rather we want to change and improve the world. We are implying as well that all is not how it should be, that there is a much better state that the world can be in – which it has not reached now. We recognize there’s something right, but there something wrong as well, we want the wrong to diminish and the right to increase. But what basis or ground can we stand on to make this claim?
If our starting point is the existential secular world view as that best captured by Jean Paul Sartre:
“Life has no meaning a priori… It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.”
Then we must follow that starting point to its logical end, and not take a “leap of faith” to a different line. We must evaluate the basic presuppositions of any world view and see where they lead. To say life has no meaning a priori, but rather that each man or humanity itself decides the meaning and value it has- has staggering consequences. It is to say that there is no absolute moral truths, no absolute moral values and no absolute meaning which we can turn to. Essentially it puts mankind in the middle of the sea, without a compass, stars or sun to say which direction is which.
Sartre argument was when we make something we do so for a purpose. So the purpose (or essence) of something comes before its existence. The secular world view claims that there is no God who created us for a purpose (or essence) therefore we must create our own purpose.
“First of all man exists, turns up, appears on the scene and only afterwards defines himself”- Jean-Paul Sartre
If life has no meaning or purpose a priori – then every action and choice, which are part of life, will also be without meaning. A brief analogy illustrates this: If I say my whole body is wet, then it follows that my arms and legs which make up my body are also wet. Similarly if we say life is meaningless – then our actions and choices which are part of life, are meaningless as well. Camus claims that by revolting against the meaninglessness of life, life will be lived more fully. I find Camus’ claim problematic – if life has no intrinsic purpose how can any particular way of living be considered to be better than any alternative? Why should revolting be any better than not revolting if ultimately it is all meaningless? Without an absolute standard of value, of what life and its purpose is – there is no life better than any other.
Another issue is an epistemological one -how do we create our own meaning? Why should we even want to create meaning? The underlying premise seems to be that a meaningful life is good, hence we should create meaning. But the problem is how anything can be good or bad in a meaningless world. To create meaning, you would have to say it is good to have meaning, to have good requires an absolute standard for good, an absolute standard for good requires an absolute meaning to life. However the existential starting point is that there is no absolute meaning – so it becomes self refuting.
Every action and choice we then make moving forward from a meaningless starting point is itself meaningless. Our actions become arbitrary, any direction we take in the middle of this sea, has no more significance than its opposite direction.
To strive for justice, freedom, liberty, peace has no more significance than striving for tyranny, domination, oppression, greed. Without the existence of an absolute, each man’s meaning becomes equally valid. Life then becomes what Nietzsche described as the will to power. Those with power will impose their desired meaning on those without power. But remember we cannot cry foul play, the starting point we took was that there is no absolute right or wrong. When properly understood the secular worldview is a “a philosophy of despair“, the only certainty we have is that there is no meaning to life, and we will die. From these two certainties we must make an incredible blind leap of faith in order to live a life filled with happiness and hope that the world can change for the better.
So what’s the alternative starting point? Genesis 1:1 captures it best,
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”.
If our starting point is God, a personal, rational and moral being– we have meaning a priori because there is intention, design and purpose preceding our existence. God’s nature provides the absolute standard for good, and value is something intrinsic and not dependent upon the whims of humanity. We find ourselves in a universe that is not silent on who we are. Francis Schaeffer puts it this way:
“In the Christian structure, would it be unlikely that this personal God who is there and made man in his own as a verbalizer, in such a way that he can communicate horizontally to other men on the basis of propositions and language – is it unthinkable or even surprising that this personal God could or would communicate to man on the basis of proposition? The answer is no…Indeed, it is what one would expect.”
When life has meaning – Our actions and choices have great significance and are no longer arbitrary. We have found our compass and are keenly aware of where we are and which direction is good and which is bad. We have an absolute destination we can sail towards and are no longer in a sea of absurdity. The ground upon which we stand on to fight injustice, promote liberty, pursue happiness and change the world is firmly secure.
I read an interview of Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, and I loved how he connects morality with meaning in life.
“Good stories attract us and good stories are also moral stories. I’ve never seen a really good story that is immoral, and I think there is something in us which impels towards good stories…I feel that there has to be a purpose to what we do. If there was no hope at all, we should just sleep or drink and wait for death. But we don’t want to do that. And why? I think something tells us that we should struggle. We don’t really know why we should struggle, but we do, because we think it’s better than sitting down and waiting for calamity. So that’s my sense of meaning in life.”
Life is a story, it has a plot and like all good stories, good triumphs over evil. It is this story that we are writing individually in each of our lives, in our beautiful struggles each day. Yet our story becomes more profound, more richer when infused into the collective story of humanity.
Camus’ and Sartre’s starting point ultimately leaves us in despair with no story. It gives us no ground on which to morally condemn what happened in Ferguson, Charlie Hebdo or Nigeria with Boko Haram. Few people can consistently live on this starting point. The secular worldview when stripped down to its essence leaves us with more questions than answers. It gives us no ground to stand on to be able to change the world, to improve it, to fight poverty, to innovate and ensure the world has access to clean drinking water, to reduce youth unemployment, to empower others, to make it beautiful, to write poems, to love music, to enjoy books, and above all to love. In a secular world without absolutes changing the world means absolutely nothing-its all meaningless.