The Search for Meaning and Existence
On an infrequent schedule, per say, over the next few months, we will begin to look at and think about the secular or modern ideas that have relationship to “The Search for Meaning and Existence”. We will be looking at world views in relationship to accurate theological Christianity. It is my premise that ‘all’ worldviews that do not center on the supremacy of Christ as the beginning and end reason for all meaning to existence can only lead to various levels of despair. Accurate Christian theology contains the truth to meaning and existence and is the only reality that produces eternal peace and joy. All others views are shadows and not substance. Many versions of modern thinking as to meaning of existence do provide pieces and parts of truth. But they do not provide full or complete truth and thus they can only come to some version of less than the truth of meaning to existence and can only lead to some level of continuing despair.
This message from J Ligon Duncan, PhD, is a good place for us to start. He captures the essence of the worldviews of ‘nihilism’ and ‘existentialism’. dh
This will be provided in 3 consecutive parts:
Psalm 8:3-9 “Christian World View” – Existentialism
J. Ligon Duncan III, PhD
If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Psalm 8. Last week as we looked at Nihilism, we saw a worldview, a philosophy, if you want to call it that, that argues that there is no meaning to life, meaning cannot be found in this world. We also said last week, and we’ll say it again tonight, that every secular philosophy since this worldview of Nihilism came into the world in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, every secular philosophy that has risen in the Western world since, has tried to give an answer to Nihilism; that is, has tried to find meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence. And I want to contrast that —Brister gave a beautiful introduction to the hymns that we sang tonight, which are so filled with the fullness of joy and meaning which belongs to those who are in Christ Jesus, and I want to go right to Psalm 8, because Psalm 8 anchors for the Christian the source of the fullness and the joy and the meaning of life as God has given it to us.
Look at verse three of Psalm 8, and consider how the psalmist responds to this massive world. The Nihilist looks at this world and he says this world is hostile, it is absurd, and it has no meaning.
And the psalmist looks at this world and he wonders, too. Look at his words:
(3) “When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; (4) what is man, that Thou dost take thought of him? And the son of man, that Thou dost care for him?”
(In other words, he looks at this huge, glorious, beautiful creation made by God and he says ‘Man is so small, Lord, compared to this gigantic creation that You’ve made.’ But then look what he deduces from this. It’s not meaninglessness, not hopelessness. It’s not unimportant.)
(5)“Yet Thou hast made him a little lower than God, and dost crown him with glory and majesty! (6)Thou dost make him to rule over the works of Thy hands; Thou has put all things under his feet, (7) all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, (8) the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes through the paths of the seas. (9) O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!”
Contrast between Christianity and other worldviews.
Now what’s the difference? What’s the difference between the Nihilist looking at this big world and finding that it’s absurd, and declaring that everything’s meaningless, and the psalmist looking at this big world and seeing little man compared to this big world, and yet praising God. What’s the difference? The doctrine of the image of God in man. Did you notice where he was quoting from there? He’s taking you right back to Genesis 1 and 2, where God tells us in His word that man was created in His image. The Creator suffused meaning into man’s existence in the very way that He created us. It’s one of His blessings that the Creator has given to His creation. And the psalmist celebrates that reality in Psalm 8, and it’s such a different view of reality than the view of Nihilism.
Well, tonight we’re going to look at the first great attempt at answering Nihilism without resorting to the Christian historic, biblical worldview. And that first attempt at answering Nihilism has been called Existentialism. Tonight we’re going to look at the search for meaning in Existentialism. Nihilism, you remember, says matter exists, but God doesn’t. This universe is a closed system. Everything is determined. Human beings don’t have real choices, we’re just cogs in a wheel, and the system is going and we’re part of it, and our choices don’t matter, and what we think doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. We’re just cogs in the wheel, to quote a popular rock-and-roll group, “we’re just another brick in the wall.” Nihilism goes on to say that humans are just complex machines; that’s what we are. And we’re part of a bigger and more complex machine. So the idea of true knowledge–it’s meaningless. Ethics are impossible. There is no meaning in life.
Now, as you can imagine, there are very few people in the world who can rest in that. Nietzsche had suggested that there would need to be a race of what he called “super men” who would be able to endure this kind of view of the world until it could be transcended. But there are very few super men and women around who can live with a view of life like this. And so, the secular worldview makers, the philosophers, attempted to come up with their own answers, and one of the very popular answers that was given to Nihilism has been coined as Existentialism.
Remember, we said that Deism replaced Theism as a worldview in the time of The Enlightenment because it was thought that Theism, on the one hand, was responsible for the internecine wars in Europe, and perhaps a more refined and rational view of God in the world could produce peace and tranquility in human life.
And then, along behind Deism came Naturalism that says, look, Deism predicates a first cause, a divine maker who made this world like a clock and set it running and then let it go to go and do whatever he was interested in doing, and he no longer interacts in this world. The laws he set in motion are still in motion, so Naturalism says, look, we can take everything that Deism gives and remove the idea of this God who created things, this first cause, and the philosophy works just fine.
And then came a view which said, well, why do you have to assume that this world is rational, and can be made sense of? So Nihilism came along behind Naturalism. In other words, Nihilism saw all of the presuppositions of Naturalism and said Naturalism’s assumption that we are in a rational world that can be understood and that meaning can be constructed out of is wrong.
And then behind Nihilism comes Existentialism, saying, no, we can make meaning in this world, but that meaning doesn’t come from the objective reality. There’s no objective meaning out there. The only meaning that can be had in life is produced by us.
And so we see a slide down in these progressive worldviews, as they continue to take one another to their logical conclusions and expose their weaknesses. But, as we said, every philosophy after Nihilism was attempting to answer the problems that Nihilism created. Albert Camus, the great twentieth-century existentialist said this: “In the darkest depths of our nihilism, I have sought only for the means to transcend nihilism.” In other words, he’s saying ‘my goal in all my philosophizing and living has been to try to find an answer to the meaninglessness which has been predicated by Nihilism.
Now interestingly, there are two forms of Existentialism that are on the market. There is one form of Existentialism that is atheistic. It doesn’t believe in God. But there’s another form of Existentialism that is theistic. It does believe in God. And sometimes it even calls itself “Christian Existentialism”–if ever there was a contradiction in terms, that’s one of them. But these two forms of existentialism have had their impact.
Now, what I’m going to do tonight is describing these two avenues. I’ve got a couple of goals in mind. First, I want to remind you that as you are talking with friends who do not embrace the Scriptures, they do not embrace Christ, they have not been found savingly by the Lord Jesus Christ and drawn into a saving relationship with the Living God through Him, who are wrapped up into other kinds of worldviews, wittingly or unwittingly, it is important for you to understand that it’s not simply that they lack the right answers to the right questions. I want you to remember that sometimes they lack the right questions.
And so if you’re dealing with people who are on a search for meaning, it is not only your job to give them the right answer, it is your job to make sure they’re asking the right question in the first place, because according to the Scripture our big problem is not meaning. If we are created in the image of God, the problem in the world is not that there is a lack of meaning. There’s plenty of meaning to go around.
The problem which is upon us is sin; our sin, and our alienation from the God who made us to be fulfilled in everlasting relationship with Him. And therefore, if you’re talking to someone who’s on a quest for meaning, your job isn’t just to do something like this: “Jesus can give you meaning.” That is true, Jesus can. But if they are conceiving the problem of man and the problem of this world in terms of the Nihilist view of meaninglessness, they need to understand that that’s not their biggest problem. Their biggest problem is idolatry and sin. And they need to be saved from that idolatry and sin. So you have to work with them on the question, and that’s one thing I want you to see tonight. It’s not just the answers, it’s the right question. And when you’re working with people that are coming from other worldviews, sometimes their whole lives have been spent in the pursuit of finding the answer to the wrong question. That’s so important for us to remember. (Part 2 Tomorrow)