A purpose-driven life? Not so fast…

I read an article today in The Conversation that started me thinking. It talked about a demonstrable psychological link between those who believe in “creationism” and those who believe in conspiracy theories. The article reports that “The new study takes the role of conspiratorial thought in creationism a step further. It suggests that creationism itself could be seen as a belief system involving the ultimate conspiracy theory: the purposeful creation of all things.”

Yet rejecting the teleological idea of “the purposeful creation of all things” is hardly “a step further.” Koheleth (The Preacher of Ecclesiastes) begins:

הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃

Utter futility!—said Koheleth— Utter futility! All is futile! (Ecc. 1:2)

He proceeds to observe the workings of nature and to test out each thing a person might do with his or her life and decides all is purposeless and futile. Koheleth goes so far (Ecc. 3:18-21) as to counter what I see as a bedrock biblical belief, the sanctity and uniqueness of human life in relation to other animals with whom we share the planet:

אָמַ֤רְתִּֽי אֲנִי֙ בְּלִבִּ֔י עַל־דִּבְרַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י הָאָדָ֔ם לְבָרָ֖ם הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וְלִרְא֕וֹת שְׁהֶם־בְּהֵמָ֥ה הֵ֖מָּה לָהֶֽם׃

So I decided, as regards men, to dissociate them [from] the divine beings and to face the fact that they are beasts.

כִּי֩ מִקְרֶ֨ה בְֽנֵי־הָאָדָ֜ם וּמִקְרֶ֣ה הַבְּהֵמָ֗ה וּמִקְרֶ֤ה אֶחָד֙ לָהֶ֔ם כְּמ֥וֹת זֶה֙ כֵּ֣ן מ֣וֹת זֶ֔ה וְר֥וּחַ אֶחָ֖ד לַכֹּ֑ל וּמוֹתַ֨ר הָאָדָ֤ם מִן־הַבְּהֵמָה֙ אָ֔יִן כִּ֥י הַכֹּ֖ל הָֽבֶל׃

For in respect of the fate of man and the fate of beast, they have one and the same fate: as the one dies so dies the other, and both have the same life breath; man has no superiority over beast, since both amount to nothing.

הַכֹּ֥ל הוֹלֵ֖ךְ אֶל־מָק֣וֹם אֶחָ֑ד הַכֹּל֙ הָיָ֣ה מִן־הֶֽעָפָ֔ר וְהַכֹּ֖ל שָׁ֥ב אֶל־הֶעָפָֽר׃

Both go to the same place; both came from dust and both return to dust.

מִ֣י יוֹדֵ֗עַ ר֚וּחַ בְּנֵ֣י הָאָדָ֔ם הָעֹלָ֥ה הִ֖יא לְמָ֑עְלָה וְר֙וּחַ֙ הַבְּהֵמָ֔ה הַיֹּרֶ֥דֶת הִ֖יא לְמַ֥טָּה לָאָֽרֶץ׃

Who knows if a man’s life breath does rise upward and if a beast’s breath does sink down into the earth?

Yet the book concludes with:

ס֥וֹף דָּבָ֖ר הַכֹּ֣ל נִשְׁמָ֑ע אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֤ים יְרָא֙ וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתָ֣יו שְׁמ֔וֹר כִּי־זֶ֖ה כָּל־הָאָדָֽם׃

The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind:

כִּ֤י אֶת־כָּל־מַֽעֲשֶׂ֔ה הָאֱלֹהִ֛ים יָבִ֥א בְמִשְׁפָּ֖ט עַ֣ל כָּל־נֶעְלָ֑ם אִם־ט֖וֹב וְאִם־רָֽע׃
[סוף דבר הכל נשמע את־האלהים ירא ואת־מצותיו שמור כי־זה כל־האדם]

that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad. The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all humankind. (Ecc. 12:13-14)

After an entire book devoted to demonstrating the utter purposelessness of life, Koheleth exhorts us to revere G-d and observe His commandments. What does this mean?

It means that in the final analysis, all a person can do is make choices, and one of those choices is how will you live your life? On the basis of what belief, what worldview? Yet there is no objective basis for making this choice and no argument to be made to support your choice.

As I wrote in a post a couple of days ago, this is basically my own position. Admittedly this is not a comfortable place to be in relation to my life. I’ve often admired and even envied people like my grandmother who had a deep and very specific religious faith and sense of purpose.

But it’s the only place I can be. Once I say with Steven Hawkings that there is no G-d, or with Neil deGrasse Tyson, that we come from the same material as the stars, and it is an incredible series of coincidences and accidents that resulted in human life, or with Yuval Noah Harari that our human genius is creating fictions that we persuade others to believe and that it’s all fiction, or with Charles Eisenstein that it’s all stories . . . it’s a short step to say we cannot demonstrate that any system of belief or morality is objectively superior to any other. And it is one more short step to say there is no intrinsic purpose to anything. But that’s not the end of the world. It might even be the beginning of one.

Yes, we are left with stark basic choices: will we continue to live knowing there is no objective evidence for purpose in it? And if yes, how will we live? Read the message behind Koheleth’s words: “Revere G-d and observe his commandments!” Recognize and be humbled by what is greater than yourself, the impossible-to-conceive stretch of time and beyond-time, of space and beyond-space. Live according to a set of norms that teaches and guides you to experience your connection to all being because that is all you have. And it turns out, it’s more than sufficient.

Job discovers the same truth: the comforters with their reasoned arguments and judgments are no comfort. Experiencing the unimaginable vastness and beauty of creation in a profound moment of connection is the only thing that touches his pain and heals him.

As I read the article from The Conversation, I thought two things: I understood a little better, perhaps had a little more compassion for, a group of people that I have had great difficulty understanding: anti-science, climate-denying, religious literalists. Existentialism is a scary branch of the tree to sit on. It’s actually not even a branch. It’s more like floating alone in space utterly disconnected and without knowledge of how you got there or where you’re going. Consciousness in this place can be terrifying. I understand how attractive the alternative of certainty is, how attractive it is to imagine that the joy and the suffering we experience in life has purpose and meaning and we know, with utter certainty, what that is.

I also understood a little better the source of my own faith which is both faith and, I think, science. I believe everything is interconnected. Science tells us that every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. It tells us we came from the same substance as the stars. It tells us that we are connected to our planet and that our actions affect the planet.

It is also a belief expressed in the Bible, a text I grew up reading sitting in my Dad’s lap and continue to read today as I approach the eighth decade of my life. The Bible reminds us in every page of our connection to each other, to other animals, and to the planet. When we fail in our responsibility in the social realm, all of creation rises against us.

As I view the world through the prism of that observation and belief, I choose a set of practices and experiences that reinforce it and repeatedly demonstrate its truth. I experience connection and nurture the experience. The experience is self-affirming. It provides me with certainty and encourages me to open the circle of connection wider and wider, to resist or seek to overcome experiences of disconnection.

Here, on the other hand, is an image that contrasts so sharply with that experience of connection. Instead it expresses isolation, loneliness and anger in the midst of a sea of connection between people on the right and the left, throughout a divided nation, and among nations.

The image shows so clearly that this choice for science-denial and creationism doesn’t present an easy or comfortable path either. What are the sources of strength that might carry this person through personal suffering?

And here I return to Koheleth’s final message: recognize and be humbled by what is greater than yourself, the impossible-to-conceive stretch of time and beyond-time, of space and beyond-space. Live according to a set of norms that teaches and guides you to experience your connection to all being because that is all you have. Continually stretch the boundaries of compassion. The truth reveals itself and provides its own evidence.

And so after all, I can see that my belief is evidence-based. To the extent that I experience connection to my world, to family, friends, community, other animals, the planet and even, possibly, beyond, not only does scientific observation support me in that, my life just works better. It is more fulfilling, more beautiful, and I experience purpose. In other words, the experience of faith through connection is true because it works at the simplest levels: I have only to put my hands in the soil, prepare a meal from real foods, or walk with my dog in the snow, an experience of connection because we both love being outdoors, we are both happy, and it’s better together.

“At the end of the world, turn left.” Sof ha-olam smola.  Just be sure you have a friend of any species with you.

2 thoughts on “A purpose-driven life? Not so fast…”

  1. This is an incredibly profound and insightful post Leslie.

    Because all people and all animals desire physical and emotional well-being and abhor physical and emotional harm, we know there is purpose in creating more of the former and much less of the latter.

    And that, in sum, is why I’m vegan and why I promote veganism.

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