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Can Man Live Without God
By Ravi Zacharias
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 1994 Ravi Zacharias
All rights reserved.
Anguish in Affluence
Give me the making of the songs of a nation," said eighteenth-century Scottish political thinker Andrew Fletcher, "and I care not who writes its laws." His confident words not only divulge a major cultural access point to our contemporary mind-set, but also acknowledge the extraordinary control of song lyrics upon the moods and convictions of the young, who are embattled by the tug of so many allurements.
I readily grant Mr. Fletcher his assertion. My own experience testifies to the impressions carved upon my consciousness by popular music. Beyond that, such music accorded me the privilege of identifying with the expression of shared sentiments. I recall an occasion in that pliable stage as a teenager when I sat in my living room in New Delhi, India, suspended between the dreary world of my physics textbook on my lap and the low sound of music from the radio in my ear. In this "between-two-worlds" state of mind, I was suddenly captivated by the sentiments of a song that seemed to echo the struggles in my own heart. The strange blend of Eastern chant in the background and the crisp baritone voice of the singer, a Westerner, conveyed a sense of universality to the obvious anguish that imbued each line and articulated the crowded questions I had painfully suppressed:
From the canyons of the mind
we wander on and stumble blind,
Wade through the often tangled maze
of starless nights and sunless days,
Hoping for some kind of clue—
a road to lead us to the truth.
But who will answer? ...
Is our hope in walnut shells
worn 'round the neck with temple bells?
Or deep within some cloistered walls
where hooded figures pray in shawls?
Or high upon some dusty shelves,
or in the stars,
or in ourselves?
Who will answer?
The songwriter persuasively touched the emotions as he grappled with the pain that life's passages engender—the overwhelming despair of a family when love is lost; the agony for one in the death of a child; the torment of another struggling with suicide; the noise and din in a night club for some as they seek to escape the haunts of loneliness; the apprehension of all, living under the threat of a nuclear conflagration. Each scenario ended with the question, "Who will answer?" Finally the chorus thundered forth the intensity of the conflict deep within the human consciousness.
If the soul is darkened
by a fear it cannot name,
If the mind is baffled
when the rules don't fit the game,
Who will answer?
Who will answer?
Who will answer?
It was remarkable to me, even at that stage of my life, that the candid admission of such emptiness emerged from the world that symbolized the new Eden—America. And even more to the point, it came from that segment of society that epitomized the success for which millions of young people clamor—Hollywood, that bastion of perpetual enchantment. How could this be? Had the breadth of such anguished questioning been articulated from my native soil, it would have been understandable, for Indian culture has never been reticent to voice the tragedy that life portends. V. S. Naipaul, one of the world's finest writers, has appropriately captured India's angst in referring to her as a wounded civilization.
Coincidentally, at that very time in my life, one of India's finest artistic accomplishments had won international acclaim with a film called Mother India. The film portrayed a family's life-and-death struggle to bring some measure of dignity and decency to their mortal existence. Between warding off disease and death, battling the vicissitudes of national disasters, and coping with family clashes, life had become synonymous with pain. The chorus of the film's theme song summed it up well.
Since I have come into this world,
I must live.
If living means drinking poison,
I have to drink it.
The fatalism, the nihilism, the "take-life-by-the-throat" philosophy with all of its existential trauma, were endemic to a nation so victimized by centuries of conflict and struggle. But how was it that the same questions that were predictable from within a "wounded" context were also raised by those who apparently did not experience the same impoverishments and lived in a country where life's physical deprivations had been in large measure conquered?
Although I wrestled with these issues then as much as it was possible for a young mind to do, years later my deep sense of puzzlement remains. But the struggle has taken on a new twist. Now, as I live in the West and witness the dying moments of this century of progress, the songs of the nations have not changed, and my bewilderment lies in the conspicuous absence of any answers; even more so, in the complete failure of our cultural elites to grasp the reason behind the life-defining questions the music asks. Listen, for example, to the words of two very thought-provoking songs performed by King Crimson as they scream forth their own confusion.
Cat's foot iron claw
Neurosurgeons scream for more
From paranoia's poison door
Twenty first century schizoid man.
Once again the mind is taken captive as the imagination wanders through the senseless violence, the needless hate, and the heartless cruelty human beings foist upon each other. The unshakable barrenness of soul and the uncertainty of the future are tellingly anchored to the extermination of the spirit.
The wall on which the prophets wrote
Is cracking at the seams.
Upon the instruments of death
The sunlight brightly gleams.
When every man is torn apart
With nightmares and with dreams,
Will no one lay the laurel wreath
As silence drowns the screams.
Between the iron gates of fate,
The seeds of time were sown,
And watered by the deeds of those
Who know and who are known;
Knowledge is a deadly friend
When no one sets the rules.
The fate of all mankind I see
Is in the hands of fools.
The end of life is summed up in one word—confusion, a suitable epitaph for the "morning after" of life itself, which promised not laughter, but tears. Despite all its melodrama and pardonable overkill, the underlying message of the futility of life is irresistible.
I recognize the risk in beginning this hard look at hard questions with the popular philosophers of our time, musicians. But I do so because I credit them with a greater degree of honesty and unmasked vulnerability in recognizing the anguish within the human heart than the academician, who often conceals such a struggle behind a facade of self-assurance. It is easier to hide behind philosophical arguments, heavily footnoted for effect, than it is to admit our hurts, our confusions, our loves, and our passions in the marketplace of life's heartfelt transactions. With all the education to which we now lay claim that has pushed back the horizons of knowledge undreamed of a generation ago, the messages of popular songs have not changed because the conflicts still remain; if anything, they have only intensified. That intensification in search of a spiritual answer still continues in spite of the fact that every now and then there arises on the educational landscape some new antitheistic voice, arrogantly sounding forth with an air of omniscience, mocking religion and debunking the sacred. "We have outgrown this myth," is the boast. But the masses just ignore such gloating, intellectual posturing because they are well aware that these "experts" are woefully unable to force-fit life's mental furniture by restructuring reality.
Albert Camus confessed decades ago, as did psychologist Viktor Frankl more recently, that the search for meaning is life's fundamental pursuit; all other questions they deemed secondary. And so it is that every generation—ours being no exception—raises the issue of life's essence, the latest theory or invention of science and technology notwithstanding. Cognizant of this search that cuts across time, generations, and cultures, I venture to present some answers. But we will first need to define the dilemma clearly and set some boundaries so that we can begin these considerations for our time from some points of agreement.
Intense Heat, Diminishing Light
There is a story told, whether factual or not I do not know, of the onetime heavyweight boxing champion of the world, Muhammad Ali, flying to one of his engagements. Ali's name has never been synonymous with humility, and thus whether this story is fact or fiction, the notoriously yet affectionately branded "Louisville Lip" at least made possible such an anecdote. During the flight the aircraft ran into foul weather, and mild to moderate turbulence began to toss it about. All nervous fliers well know that when a pilot signals "moderate turbulence," he is implying, "if you have any religious beliefs, it is time to start expressing them." The passengers were accordingly instructed to fasten their seatbelts immediately. Everyone complied but Ali. Noticing this, the flight attendant approached him and requested that he observe the captain's order, only to hear Ali audaciously respond, "Superman don't need no seatbelt." The flight attendant did not miss a beat and replied, "Superman don't need no airplane either."
I draw attention to that story because of the immediate and larger context in which many of us find ourselves. Unquestionably, we live in a nation of immense wealth with an array of possibilities for material and educational success. Some among us will have access, as a result, to the finest education available anywhere and thereby position ourselves for extraordinary success in a fast-changing world. By the same token, such a sophisticated environment can easily induce within us an air of invincibility, leaving us thoroughly deceived that the prosperity procured or the educational gains we have made have elevated us above the "ignorant masses," and that we are better equipped for life itself, no matter what jolts and bumps lie ahead. Academic or material advancement unfortunately does not necessarily confer wisdom. It would be foolhardy of us to take what generations preceding us have revered in coping with the turbulence of life and censoriously cast it all aside just because we are modern. Should we fall victim to such a posture, the appropriate word to describe that self-exaltation is hubris, translated into English from the Greek as "pride." But the connotation of the original word is much deeper, implying a wanton self-aggrandizement that looks down its sympathetic nose at the hoi polloi, seeing them as bereft of any intellectual strength and as plagued by confusion from which the educated, successful self is exempted. I ask, therefore, that as we deal with some of these lofty ideas, we do so with an attitude of humility. Falsely posing as supermen makes a crash landing certain, for history is punctuated with reminders of the peril of such grandiose delusions. It is quite ironic that the self-deifying concept of man as Superman surfaced again in one of the darkest moments of the twentieth century—when the Third Reich harnessed and enfleshed Nietzschean philosophy. Hopefully that reminder alone should spell caution to any enterprising boast of human exaltation to the exclusion of God.
We must approach what Will Durant, popular historian and philosopher, has appropriately categorized the greatest question of our time—Can man live without God?—with arguments and attitudes that demonstrate not only intellect and candor but also a tenacious honesty. It has been my privilege to address such philosophical issues in many parts of our world, and I hold the view that all philosophizing on life's purpose is ultimately founded upon two fundamental assumptions, or conclusions.
The first is, Does God exist? and the second, If God exists, what is His character or nature? The questions are impossible to ignore, and even if they are not dealt with formally, their implications filter down into everyday life. It is out of one's belief or disbelief in God that all other convictions are formed.
One further reminder is pertinent when engaging in a discussion as important and controversial as the question of God's existence. Having been transplanted from the East to the West, I have personally witnessed what religious anger or ideological despotism can do, and I know that emotions in matters such as these can easily run amok. It seems quite self-defeating, though, to argue on issues of ultimate good while forsaking all goodness in the process. Is it not possible, I ask, to wrestle with these ideas and work through any disagreements without being disagreeable? Obviously feelings run deep on such matters, but why is it so often the case that discussions on these issues end up generating more heat than light? When cordiality is lost, truth is obscured. And it is truth, especially when trying to answer a question such as the one before us, that provides for us the very rationale and foundation for a civil existence.
No one can deny that great minds have held forth on opposite sides of the issue. Antitheistic scholars often boast that it was Immanuel Kant who provided the rational grounds for societal ethics apart from the existence of God. (Ironically, I have heard that vociferously boasted both in North America and in Russia. I shall leave you to work through the ramifications of the ensuing contradictory political and economic theories.) But interestingly enough, I have heard none of them represent what Kant concluded as he drew his Critique of Pure Reason to a close:
In other words, belief in a God and in another world is so interwoven with my moral sentiment that as there is little danger of my losing the latter, there is equally little cause for fear that the former can ever be taken from me.
During my brief time as a visiting scholar at Cambridge University in England, I well remember the lectures of Professor Don Cupitt, dean of Emmanuel College, renowned for his British Broadcasting Corporation series "The Sea of Faith," which one critic has appropriately referred to as "faith at sea." (Brian Hebblethwaite, a philosopher colleague of his at Cambridge, has powerfully refuted Cupitt's position in his book The Ocean of Truth.) Cupitt is at once an atheist and an ordained Anglican priest. The only consolation in reconciling these twin credentials is that if you do not like what Cupitt believes, come back next semester when the sea may well have borne away this mystic and his ideas and deposited his conclusions in a new and different mix. On that campus, as on many others, the tide never settles with intellectual heavyweights on opposite ends.
One of the most extensive forums ever held on the subject of God's existence in the North American context is featured in the book Does God Exist? in which two very fine scholars debated this question from opposing views while several others critiqued their presentations. Philosopher J. P. Moreland did a masterful job of defending the theistic position although most of his arguments were completely ignored by his antagonist, Kai Nielson of the University of Calgary. Nielson, in effect, insisted that no argument contrary to his own had any validity because theism could not deliver any denotative proof. In his analysis, Professor Dallas Willard of the University of Southern California delivered a scathing rebuttal to Nielson's reasoning. (For any serious student, this book, which includes contributions from some noted thinkers of our time such as Anthony Flew and Peter Kreeft, treats the subject very cogently and comprehensively.) The debate once again proved beyond any doubt that only ignorance or prejudice calls the theistic position uninformed or intellectually wanting. I sincerely hope that we can rise above those dispositions to the heart of this issue and that we can establish clearly on which side is the so-called "leap of faith."
Leveling with Philosophy
One of the challenges in presenting this content is to be fair to the tough critic and, at the same time, not to allow the argumentation to become so abstruse that it becomes inconsiderate of the many serious thinkers who are nevertheless uncomfortable with intense philosophical banter. I am keenly aware of this necessary balancing act and have therefore developed a system that realistically reflects the way philosophical thinking penetrates our lives. I believe this takes place at three different tiers, or levels, at which we as individuals formulate our conclusions or establish our convictions. This system has been helpful to me in dialoguing both with those for whom philosophy is a serious academic discipline and with those for whom it is not. I believe it was C. S. Lewis who once remarked that unless a complicated argument could be simplified to appeal to the average person, the chances were that the one doing the explaining did not understand it either. That demand is a difficult one to meet but is a needed reminder.
Excerpted from Can Man Live Without God by Ravi Zacharias. Copyright © 1994 Ravi Zacharias. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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