TITLE: Plunging Through the Darkness (college philosophy paper)
By Jacob Gibson
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1 The brilliant Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard lived in 19th century Denmark and wrote a great number of works about things like faith, ethics, theology, and “the emotions and feelings of individuals when faced with existential choices.” He has been regarded as the Father of Existentialism and his bold confrontations with insincerity and hypocrisy in the Danish State Church may cause one to think of Martin Luther. Numerous well-known philosophers have mentioned Kierkegaard, as well as Karl Popper, Jerry Fodor, Ludwig Wittgenstein and many others who thought very highly of him (“Soren Kierkegaard”). He approached the question that we probably think about or hear much too frequently: what is the meaning of life? One of his wise thoughts could point us in the right direction, and two more could lead us all the way there.
2 Kierkegaard suggested that “...life can have meaning only if we commit ourselves to a cause that, ahead of time, we know is worth pursuing.” (Velasquez, 725) He did not say this directly—Manuel Velasquez stated it—but clearly implied it in his work Either/Or volume II, when he explained the different life-views that we can have and how not all of them are meaningful. The things in life that we know are the most important are the main things that we should be doing (subjective meaning) and nothing else will give us meaning. We should use our subjective minds to consider the actions that we believe have benefited the objective world (human progress), and also brought satisfaction to others, and then try to do those things. Not the things that we think will give life meaning, but that we know for certain will. How can we really know for certain what is worth pursuing?
3 Most of us should have some ideas about what are most important, but what if we think that we know that something is important, but we find out later on that we really didn’t? One thing we should do is honestly examination our thoughts and feelings about everything we do, question everything like Socrates did, ask others about their opinions, and learn as much as possible. If we only do what everyone is telling us to do, without being honest with ourselves, we could be living a lie in some way like trying to please everyone. We should be honest with ourselves all the time, without making excuses or thinking about short term results, because the long term results are what will matter and last. If there is a cause in life that we should try to pursue, then perhaps this objective goal or goals have always been available to us. If it is available to us, then maybe it is available to everyone else too in a similar form.
4 Before I continue, I must also observe a second statement from Kierkegaard about extentialism that I have to attach to the first. He said, “What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except insofar as a certain understanding must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.” (Velasquez, 723) Just like Kierkegaard, I believe that I must look for what works for me alone because I can’t completely understand all of the thoughts and feelings of anyone else, and hardly much of my own. I also want to know what God wants me to do, how I should use my time, and learn, understand, and remember that which will teach me how to live. If my way of thinking and living work for me, then maybe it could for others too. If not, others can choose to search somewhere else because I’m only looking at myself, like we all can do.
5 Let’s return back to the first statement about knowing what to do. If this statement wasn’t true and life doesn’t need to have meaning from specific things, then we should have the ability to create meaning anywhere and anytime by doing anything we wanted. But speaking for myself at least, that never seems to work (Velasquez, 725). When I try to do selfish things that will benefit me alone and not help anyone else, I may feel pleased for a short time, but eventually I’ll probably feel guilt or emptiness later. On the other hand, if I do what I believe is right but I might not really want to do at first—like be generous with other people and give my time to them—then I may feel unhappy for a short time or worse, but in the long run I will probably feel glad that I helped out, and so will the other people. For some reason, it’s much easier for me to do the wrong thing than the right thing, but the results of doing the right thing always help me and usually other people too. (Romans 7:19) It’s like everything is upside-down.
6 How do I know what is right and wrong? I don’t always know for sure and I can’t really explain that which I do, but most of the time I think I just do. My parents did teach me how they thought I should behave, and so did others like church, the media, and the consequences of my actions. Even so, it’s possible that I could somehow already know or learn what is right and wrong without those things, but I wouldn’t know unless I was unfortunate enough to go through that. C.S. Lewis believes that everyone has a conscience or subconscious moral law inside their heads that tells them what is right and wrong, and people use it to argue about what is fair or not. “These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.” (Mere Christianity, 8) I doubt that anyone could try to prove this, but I feel like it is true and that we often seem to know what is right or wrong and struggle to actually do it.
7 One final problem still remains here with ethics. If we try our best to live a good life and always try to do what we think is right, what will any of that matter when life ends? The world may be a better place thanks to us, but people will live on and forget about us and we’ll get nothing for it. But if there is another life after this one, then it really matters quite a lot. We don’t have any solid proof of life after death (at least one that most scientists would agree with), but we’re facing an infinitely huge gamble if we’re wrong. William James said, if a decision if forced (we have no choice), living (will affect us), and momentous, then we should go for it (Velasquez, 303-305). As long as this belief is not physically or emotionally harmful to us or others, this is probably the best idea. The final question left now is... will our attempts of doing what we know is right allow us to enter, or maybe affect, this new life? If an afterlife does exist and there are only certain ways to enter, then finding those ways (by asking and thinking about what others believe) should be top priority over everything.
8 When I think about the meaning of life, I like to theorize about what some of the requirements of it could be apart from other philosophical thoughts. One is that, I should hope, it is available to everyone, and from that I would think it should be something very simple, possibly involving what or how we think, believe, and/or know. (Because the least that anyone can do is think clearly, like the physically handicapped individuals who can’t do the same physical things, and perhaps those who can’t think clearly do not have to worry about this when they have no choice.) Second, it could offend and convict me because the truth almost always does that to me. Third, it should match the way life really is to me and who I am, what I do, and how I feel. Fourth is that it should involve agape—unconditional love—because in my view this kind of love can fix and prevent many problems in the world, if not all of them, and improve many things. Fifth, it should help me to practice agape because of the difficulty for me to do so myself.
9 Concerning religion, I have chosen to
believe in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but not with blind faith or just because I heard it from my church or the Bible without any other evidence. When I see things like the beauty of nature, the ugliness of human nature, the way my subjective mind works, and the change in peoples who want to live for God, I see an interesting pattern that appears to say that a certain, invisible reality surrounds the one I live in. If I never even heard about religion, I would still notice these things and wonder.
10 I believe in God because I think that the world I see around me is too complicated and beautiful to be an accident. In “The Case for a Creator,” reporter Lee Strobel searches for hard evidence of a creator and interviews scientists of multiple professions to hear what they think and know about the universe. He looks into cosmology, physics, astronomy, biochemistry, biological information, and consciousness, asking many tough questions that most people wouldn’t dare. His discovery is that all of the millions of variables of the intricate universe—from the atom to the solar system—are so perfectly balanced, fine-tuned, and held together that any miniscule adjustment anywhere would ruin everything. (“Creator”) I could never force myself to believe in extreme chance unless I simply didn’t want to believe in God.
11 I believe that Jesus is real and really did die and come back again for many reasons—one is that I don’t think his followers who were killed for what they said would have sacrificed their lives for a lie. (“Christ,” 56) But besides the outside evidence, I have evidence in myself that only I can understand more, and God fully. I have noticed that after asking for it, Jesus has changed my life and still does in a way that I never could do by myself alone. I know that with all of the people who would say the same, I’m definitely not the only person to claim this.
12 To me, God is not a crutch. He is a
power inside me, a missing piece of myself, a perfect peace, a best friend to talk to, a motivation to live differently, a help in trouble, a new life I’m living, and everything else I desperately need. (Matthew 6:25-34, John 14:6, Philippians 4:7, 19) There’s just no way to explain it unless someone tries it for themselves, like eating a new kind of food or going on a new ride at a theme park for the first time. I’ll talk more about the Holy Spirit later, but that is another internal thing.
13 What is the cause that I want to commit myself to? I believe there are only two: people and God. But with those two things alone I have more than enough to stay busy. I can learn how to love people, how I can help them physically and emotionally, how I can understand them better, learn from them, teach them, serve them, and try to live the Golden Rule. With God, I can learn more about who He says He is in the Bible, learn to become more like Jesus in everything I think and do, build a stronger relationship with Him, find His will, and do it. I definitely won’t get bored.
14 In the Purpose-Driven Life, the author dares to say that we’ve been looking at life completely wrong, and life isn’t even about us! “Never forget that life is not about you! You exist for God’s purposes, not vice-versa.” (Warren, 173) Rick Warren even goes farther to say that he knows the meaning of life and that the Bible has the answer. So what is that meaning? Warren claims that we all have at least five purposes to focus on and develop in life: worship (loving God), ministry (serving God by loving people), evangelism (a mission to tell everyone about Jesus), fellowship (building God’s family, belonging in it, and taking care of it), and discipleship (learning to be more like Christ and teaching others to do the same). (Warren, 55-57 and 305-306) He defends his ideas by quoting Scripture and influential people, retelling Bible stories and motivational stories, and using common sense. In fact, the entire format of the book comes from just two places in the Bible: the Great Commandment in Mark 12:30-31, and the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20.
15 Even if he’s completely wrong about everything else, he’s definitely right about one thing. The more you focus your life on something, the stronger your impact in life will be. (Warren, 32) The most influential people in life were so focused on their goals that they put more effort into them and spent more time doing them. When I first realized this and gave some thought to that, I have looked at my life in a new way and I’m trying to learn how to put everything into focus and stop wasting time. I believe that God has given me this book to challenge me and make a light for my path.
16 So far, I feel like this book well fits my reality as far as I know. I think I can agree with everything he describes and want to try and follow this plan. Nevertheless, I’m sure that plenty of folks would say this doesn’t count as “knowing” what to pursue, but that’s not important to me. I feel like it’s my goal to just understand the main idea of who to be and what to do, and I don’t have to understand it 100%. If we just aim to find the meaning of life by thinking about things without actually trying them, we’ll probably never discover it (just like in scientific experiments).
17 If we think about it, life could be, in a way, very much like skydiving through a pitch black night. All of us who are still alive are quickly plummeting to the ground together with no way to go back up. No one knows when it will end, where we will land, or how we can obviously save ourselves. Some people have already reached the ground but we’re not sure what happened to them. A few odd fellows beside us chat about the strange idea of a special kind of backpack that everyone supposedly has, and we also notice some very odd ones who appear to fall much slower underneath some kind of glowing parachute. We must figure out what to do soon, because it won’t be long before the experience ends in one way or another.
18 Eventually we’ll need to take Kierkegaard’s so-called leap of faith and make a decision about not only God but also what we’ll choose to believe and who we’ll be. “Faced with objective uncertainty... we are anguished. This anguish, this suffering, is compounded by the anticipation of our own death and our feeling of smallness and insignificance in the face of the eternal order of things. The debates go on; our lives ebb away. We must make a decision [a leap of faith].” (Velasquez, 310-313) That’s what I aim to do here with the five purposes, but not without judging every part of the plan during the process. If this plan always works well for me and I am satisfied with the results and always challenged to become more and do more, then in a way I know that this is what I need.
19 These goals I have for myself may appear to limit what I can do, but that is actually a good thing in the right areas. Rick Warren says, “If you want your life to have impact, focus it!... Prune away even good activities and do only what matters most.” One thing we all know for sure is that our time is limited, so we should do what William James said and spend more of it accomplishing things that will last beyond our lives. (Warren, 285) At the same time, I am not limited of the normal things I do. I can still choose the college, career, and wife that I want, as long as God shows me that it’s part of His plan, and I try to live by the five purposes with God’s help. (Philippians 2:12-13, Warren, 317)
20 Ephesians 2:10 says that we’re God’s workmanship and created to do good works. But Philosopher Kurt Baier states an interesting point that serving God could be an offensive idea, because if God made us to serve Him then we’re nothing more than little tools. “But to see humans in this way is to see them as objects or things. Consider that tools have purposes.... To say that humans have a purpose is to see humans as tools that are being used by God. But it is morally wrong to use humans as tools.” (Velasquez, 717)
21 It’s definitely wrong to use humans as tools, like badly mistreated slaves, but what if someone wants you to do things that you also want to do, but you may not know it? What if God cares about us and the work He has for us is work that will not only please Him but that we’ll also enjoy doing in the long run? (Ephesians 2:10, Jeremiah 29:11) What if that’s one of, if not the best and only way, to feel the most satisfaction with our work? Will our unique talents make us completely happy if we just use them for ourselves? (Romans 12:6, I Peter 4:10) If there is life after death, and it’s a wonderful life where our spirits will last forever, if we do have spirits, then should we complain about a little bit of work in the shadow of eternity? (Ecclesiastes 3:11, II Corinthians 5:1, I Corinthians 2:9) We may only know the answers to the first four questions by finding out for ourselves.
22 I do not call my “religious” beliefs a religion, because even though a religion is something that you use to give yourself a purpose to live for and a reality to live in, it appears to me that it’s mostly about having good feelings or removing guilt. My beliefs do the same thing somewhat, but good feelings and emotions are only part of it and not even close to the big point. I serve God not primarily so I can feel good or gain material things—foolishly, I have already tried that with regret—but so I can accomplish His purposes and make a difference in the world. When my life is finished, I believe that I will find a wonderful, immortal new life waiting for me in Heaven, and this is why life is not pointless to me. I don’t think that I’ll reach Heaven because of doing good things, but because of Who I believe in and give my life (John 3:16, II Peter 3:9). My actions are only to learn how to live, help others find God, and to receive rewards in Heaven. (Matt. 6:20, 16:27)
23 Earlier I mentioned that there are times I really don’t know what to do. What am I supposed to do then? How can I know what’s right to do when I really don’t? What if I can’t find a lesser of two evils or I simply can’t understand the best action to take? I am not stuck here because I have extra help with me. The Bible says that everyone who has faith in Christ will get the Holy Spirit and this spirit will tell us how to live the way God desires (Galatians 3:14, Ezekiel 36:27). I feel like this is true for myself too because of a feeling inside myself that I can’t prove or even explain, where I know what to do. It’s like a new kind of knowledge that I could never get any other way, and I see things differently as if I’m wearing special glasses (not that my vision is always perfectly clear though) or I have another mind inside my head. (I Corinthians 2:12)
24 Even with that, sometimes I still won’t know what to do, and that’s when I don’t want to make a single move right away. Since I believe that God is in control and all-knowing, I want to talk to Him and ask for wisdom for these situations, because He says He wants to give it to us (James 1:5, Ecclesiastes 2:27, Proverbs 3:6, Proverbs 28:5). I believe that God can tell me what to do by speaking to me in a small voice (I Kings 19:11-13), through the Bible (John 8:31-32), or with thoughts, people and events. He can even change things so I don’t have to worry about the choice, if that’s His plan. (Psalm 34:19) When I try to do everything by with my own strength and knowledge, I will too soon make a decision I’ll regret.
25 I know that it may seem like I have been preaching a sermon more than talking about philosophy, and maybe I have, but that was not my intention. Despite how hard anyone tries, it could be impossible to search for the meaning of life if we exclude religious thinking (I know it would be for myself). If some or all of the answers to life are hidden in religion, then by overlooking it we would be overlooking part or all of the answers we seek. Understanding life can prove to be much more confusing when you don’t include God in it, and it always seems very hard to completely push Him out of it.
26 For myself, I feel that my life-view has everything that many philosophers have been looking for. I feel like I better understand human nature and know more of what reality is. I believe that God exists and that He can and will give us truth and knowledge if we ask for it. I believe the universal ethics were written by God and He knows how society should function (Genesis 1-2, Revelation 21-22). I feel like I now understand a lot more about the meaning of my life just from the Great Commandment and Great Commission. I believe that God has unlocked a new world of truth just with my small belief.
27 I’m also learning not just to endure life but enjoy it because I believe that God is in control, and don’t need to feel afraid of the unknown. I believe He’ll take care of me, and I have hope of a life after death (I John 2:17). I want to live an ethical life with strong values because I want to please God with my life and make a difference. Not because I’m afraid of punishment but because I respect Him and feel thankful for who He is and what He does for me (Warren, 95). I haven’t escaped from all trouble in life or will ever become a “perfect person” (I’m glad that’s not possible), but I believe that the Holy Spirit is helping me grow (John 16:33, 2 Corinthians 3:18).
28 I believe I have found what I need in life, but I will not completely stay content with what I believe. I invented a little saying that goes, “Find the truth, know the truth, test the truth, live the truth, share the truth” and it means that I must try to understand my beliefs and keep testing them while I try to live them out. If later I discover that I have been wrong about some things, then I should adjust them, change them, or learn more until they fit reality. But so far I have not been disappointed. I still want to love and serve other people, love and serve God, become a better person, and tell other people about the One Who could change their lives and take them to Heaven. I believe that nothing else could fulfill me. My life can have meaning only if I commit myself to a cause that, ahead of time, and beyond time, I “know” is worth pursuing.
B I B L I O G R A P H Y
Holy Bible: King James Version. Royal Publishers, Inc., 1971.
Lewis, Clive. Mere Christianity. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1980.
Strobel, Lee. The Case for a Creator. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.
Strobel, Lee, and Jane Vogul. The Case for Christ—Student Edition. Student Edition.
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
“Soren Kierkegaard.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 20 November 2006
Velasquez, Manuel. Philosophy: A Text with Readings. 9th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomas Wadsworth, 2004.
Warren, Rick. The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?.
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.
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