Why We Do It

By Merle Harton, Jr.


There was a time when I thought that the most important question on earth was: Why is there something rather than nothing? Now I think the most chilling of questions has to be this: Why do we bother getting up in the morning?

It is not enough, surely, that there be a world and that we live in it. It must have meaning for us. Some of us go about with the many small purposes given to us; some of us make our own meaning—we literally create a reason to get up in the morning. To serve someone, to make things, to work, to eat, to play, to spend, to frolic, to enjoy. Rarely do we not have a choice. We could go further and say, too, that we can get meaning from several natural sources: biology and culture. We can get purpose from biology by merely heeding our animal nature: hunger, thirst, sexual desire, all the pleasurables that are presented to us by sense experience. We get purpose from culture by heeding the pleasurables that our social nature prescribes: television, music, cars, houses, money, clothes, gadgets, rituals, laws, etc., etc. From one standpoint, one could construct a perfectly natural human being from biological parts and from social parts. This is what humanism states.

A critical flaw of humanism, though, is that it never leads to any purpose beyond either the biological or the social, for within humanism there really is nothing beyond the merely human. We exist, we have purposes, and we can create for ourselves—individually and collectively—sundry other purposes. But we can never legitimately fashion for ourselves any plausible purpose beyond the merely human; the attempt to do this yields only more psychological phenomena. Thus spirituality, religiosity, higher moral aims—these are mere natural expressions of psychic needs and wants. From one perspective, then, one might argue that the logical consequence of humanism is always a type of existentialism: Life is absurd; we exist, but there is no reason for it.

I wish I could claim credit for having discovered this, but, curiously, such is the very point made by the author of Ecclesiastes. From a humanist perspective, absolutely everything is inevitably meaningless: Real estate and wealth [Ecc. 2, 4, 5:8-20, 6], secular wisdom and folly [Ecc. 2, 7], the natural order of things [Ecc. 3:1-8], inductive science [Ecc. 7:27], occupational labor [Ecc. 2,4], pleasure in accomplishments [Ecc. 2], perfunctory religious behavior [Ecc. 5:1-7], positions of power [Ecc. 5:8-9], honor and prosperity [Ecc. 6], success [Ecc. 9:11-12]. So, too, oppression, loneliness, hard work [Ecc. 4]. Death, the ultimate fate of human life after the fall, also fails to give our life meaning [Ecc. 6, 9].

In a fallen world, separated from God, we will always be frustrated in our search for genuine meaning in anything—for it is not there. As humanists, what we find instead are mere facts, pointing to nothing beyond themselves. Only as a gift from God does our life derive its meaning. Indeed, we have as a gift God's revelation, giving us a stalwart tradition of his presence in our lives. We have as a gift the resurrected Jesus Christ, for through Christ we are released from the meaninglessness of the fall. We have as a gift the Holy Spirit, by means of which we are sanctified [John 17:17; Rom. 15:16; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2], taught, and reminded of Christ's teachings [John 14:26]. And, as a gift, we have meaning for every aspect of our life.

This, says Paul, was a part of the great plan: "The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God." [Rom. 8:19-21]

In the end, whether from an Old Testament or from a New Testament perspective, our duty as Christians is to do as the author of Ecclesiastes himself advises [Ecc. 12:13-14]:

Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

In other words, we are to fear God, obey his commandments, and look for the coming judgment.  But how do we escape the humanist charge that this is religion, arising out of a bio-psychological need for meaning in an absurd world, pointing inevitably to nothing beyond a natural impulse to create meaning where there is none? We escape this because we have not created God. He has created us, and revealed himself to us—through Adam, the patriarchs and Prophets, and Jesus Christ—and continues to reveal himself through the Holy Spirit. We are not of this world, and neither is the meaning of our lives.


[Part I: I now think that the most chilling of questions has to be "Why do we bother getting up in the morning?" We cannot get life's larger meaning from humanism, which inevitably leads to a type of existentialism. In a fallen world, separated from God, we will always be frustrated in our search for genuine meaning—for it is not there. Humanism must always give us mere facts, pointing to nothing beyond themselves. Only as a gift from God does our life derive its meaning.]

So what if life is absurd? We can simply make our own meaning through the many small natural purposes of a biological and social existence. Hunting and gathering, eating, building, marriage, trades and commerce, farming, conquest, drinking, music, dance, fashion, literature ... and so on. Is this not the history of mankind? Even religion has its place in this naturalistic scheme, for what is religion but "a complex form of individual and group behavior whereby persons are prepared intellectually and emotionally for the non-manipulable aspects of life positively by means of a total reinterpretation of nature and through the use of certain ritual"?

This is how we can end up with a relativism of values. Values that arise from culture can of course differ on the basis of time and geography. Where values are the same, this is somehow an expression of the genetic makeup that is peculiar to the human race. Where values conflict, this is the result of cultural differences. Thus saith humanism.

Alas, though, even while we are in the throes of the small purposes, we can run into cul-de-sacs of meaning, coming to the end of happy roads. This is the emptiness that prompts drug addiction, alcoholism, spending sprees, career changes, divorce, serial killing—anything, it seems, to get us onto another road, beyond this dead-end, onto the next dead-end. But we seek these small purposes because we want an answer to the question "Why bother getting up in the morning?" and more often than not the many small purposes do not add up to a more meaningful aim for our lives.

Okay, then, what we do not get from biology or society we can usually make up through creative reasoning. If we are persuasive enough, we can get others to believe as we do, too. Such is the stuff of gangs and cults and academic fashions. You may not get a date, or get the right price for the car you want, but you can sure find someone to believe that there is an alien spaceship hiding behind a comet, waiting to take us to heaven. Line them up—Madame Blavatsky, Werner Erhard, L. Ron Hubbard, Ayn Rand, Aum Shinrikyo, etc.—and just take your pick. (If you are especially inventive, or perhaps mischievous, you could mix them all together and call the product "New Age.")

Thus we have several sources for our beliefs and values—biology, culture, and creative thought. Add to this the workings of human imagination or fertile visions from drugs, whether vegetable or chemical, and now we have a rich cornucopia of sources for belief and value. I think this is like painting clouds on the ceiling and calling it sky.

If we have any joy as Christians it has to be because God himself has pierced this fruitless humanistic relativism by intervening directly in the world—through Adam, through the patriarchs and Prophets, and through Jesus Christ. We may be captured by the sheer number and magnificence of the Old Testament miracles, as evidenced by Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Daniel, and Jonah. We may be brought to our knees by the marvelous revelatory work of Christ. But the utmost in miracles has to be our personal salvation and our sanctifying contacts with the Lord through the Holy Spirit, for through this ongoing miracle we are able to continue the unbroken legacy of God's earliest contacts with fallen man. Indeed, should we desire any other purpose than this?

Christ said "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." [John 14:6]. In this he spoke not only to what finally centers the relativism of human values and beliefs, but also to what anchors our tradition and convictions in a truth for which there really is dependable evidence. If we do not choose Christ, we are left with what we had before: death. Death is the final outcome of relativism, and so we can appreciate the irony in Pilate's words before he attempted to return Jesus to the Jews: "'What is truth?' he asked" [John 18:38].

Humanism teaches us that we can be noble in what we hope to achieve, if only after a fashion, but its larger lesson is that advocates of this faith end up going the wrong way. "This is what the Lord says: 'Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,' declares the Lord." [Jeremiah 9: 23-24]

"Why We Do It (I/II)"
From Louisiana Quaker eLetter, vol 1:8-9 (2004)
Copyright © 2004 Merle Harton, Jr.  All rights reserved