Origins and Ideas

by Robert Brow

Meaning or Meaningless

WE HAVE LOOKED AT HISTORY, which is the wise man's prerequisite for philosophy. The past gives us the options which others have tried. It warns us not to announce as new discoveries the hoary ideas of our fathers. On the other hand, history without philosophy is trivial. It collects, describes, enjoys, fastens on details with the fond eye and the irrelevance of the antiquarian. This is particularly true of religion. Many books are willing to give us meticulous conducted tours around the museum of world religions. They have a wealth of information, but we end up by saying, 'So what?' We long for a worldview, an ordered system of thought, a yardstick to judge the past, or give direction for the future. This is the task of philosophy.

Now philosophy has many starting-points. We can begin, and probably end, with problems of knowing and logic, and the meaning of words; but modern man is bored with this clever wilderness. Previously science used to offer an attractive basis for philosophy. There are, after all, some things that science really knows, and these discoveries have given us so much progress. Let us begin with what science, better still mathematics, can tell us for sure. Unfortunately, on deeper reflection, we find that science has nothing to say about the important things of life like love, justice, beauty, goodness, pity, joy, peace, death, or even about truth. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, science atomizes and destroys every worth-while thing that it looks at. A loved one becomes proteins and electric impulses. Music is just vibrations. Responsibility vanishes into causes and effects. Even our old favourites, proton, neutron, and electron, who seemed so solid, now disintegrate into worlds within worlds to infinite nothingness. Evidently science is therefore a useless starting-point for our purposes. That is why I shall begin with the Existentialists and say 'Here I am. What meaning is there in being here?'

Having started with meaning, we have only two options. Either I have a meaning, or I have not. If I have no meaning, there are again two possibilities. One is that I have no meaning, and there is nothing whatever I can do about it. Life is utterly meaningless, absurd and always will be. This is Absolute Atheism. The other alternative is that, although I have no intrinsic meaning, I can give meaning to myself by my decisions. By acting in certain ways I can make myself a meaningful person. In this case I have to become my own creator, and I must begin by faith in myself. This is not Atheism, but might be termed Egotheism. It is a real theological position. There is a new birth to faith in the one who makes meaning out of meaninglessness. The creed begins, 'I believe in myself, only giver of meaning...'

I do not intend to proceed with an exploration of Absolute Atheism or Egotheism. If Absolute Atheism is true, there is in any case no meaning to anything, and there is no point in philosophy, least of all in bothering to write or read a book. The other alternative, Egotheism, is not new as a religion, but it has usually been considered cranky, a self-delusion bordering on mania. To exercise faith in oneself as the only giver of meaning requires faith which few will ever attain, and all others may be pardoned for questioning its validity.

The philosophical study of religion must therefore confine itself to those systems of thought which begin with the assumption that this world has a meaning. I would like to include all views that have faith in meaning as religious. On this definition Communism, Nazism and Humanism can be studied with the other religions. In each case there is a meaning to life that is preached, there is faith in the goal that is proposed, and a system of ethics is organized round the highest good.

Evidently to be religious does not mean believing in a theistic Creator-God. Neither Buddhists nor Hindu Vedantists believe in a Creator, or even in a beginning. They do believe in a meaning, and therefore a goal for man, which makes them religious. The current discussion about 'Religionless Christianity', which Bonhoeffer apparently initiated and Bishop Robinson popularized, is therefore quite pointless. If one's world-view has any meaning and goal, it is inevitably religious. The discussion is based on the idea that to take Theism out of Christianity makes it religionless. Actually all that has happened is a change from Theism to Monism. One might talk about Christless Christianity, but not Religionless Christianity.

It is also foolish to suggest an opposition between science and religion. This is the faded relic of an age when it was thought in the West that Christianity was the only religion. There is a clear contradiction between a monistic view of science and Christian Theism, but there is no possible contradiction between science and meaning. Science is in fact impossible if we begin with the assumption of a meaningless universe. Nor is there any point in the pursuit of science with a view to technological progress if there is no goal. It is possible to move without a goal, but progress implies movement towards something better, and the good is indefinable without a meaning and a goal. Even if a scientist's only article of faith is 'I believe in progress', he is still religious. He has a faith, a goal, a system of ethics and a religious experience which take him up into something greater than his own nothingness. His philosophical position was accurately described as Modified Pantheism by Hindu thinkers 2,500 years ago, but that is the subject of the next chapter.

What we are doing is to set out a series of religious alternatives. Any developed religious system has an internal logic, which seems obvious to its adherents. This internal logic can to some extent be seen by those who are prepared to investigate it from the inside with sympathy. Our either/or method, which I would like to call the vision of logical alternatives, helps us to set out some of these alternative ways in which men 'see' their place in the world. We must of course remember that living religions are far more complex than the bare bones of their logical systems.

One more caution should be given. Religion has no necessary connection with life after death. Chapter 11 discusses the hereafter and the different views which are held. Religion does require faith in meaning, but it does not need faith in personal survival. This is why such religions as Nazism, Communism and Humanism can deny the possibility of a future for the individual, but still have great faith in the race or humanity as a whole. In Buddhism there is reincarnation for those who do not attain Nirvana, but the ultimate goal has no future for the individual as a person. It is only in Theism that the future of the individual as a person is important.

Chapter 9...