Life is Worth Living

For many people, believing in God means believing in the God that is depicted in the Bible, or some other holy work that is believed to be the word of God, as it was delivered to certain privileged human beings. The problem with such works, of course, along with the many strictures and exhortations they contain about the way people should live their lives, is that, as societies and modes of behaviour change, they become increasingly restrictive, confining, and outdated. The increasing dissonance between the living reality and the dead, unchanging words eventually begets a rupture, which leads many people to reject most or all of the teachings which their ancestors devoutly accepted as the unchanging word of God. But this immutability of the sacred, written word ignores what is perhaps the most fundamental feature of the entire Universe, which is that it is constantly in flux and never remains the same.

This basic fact of all existence, whether it is animate or inanimate, is nowhere more evident than on the Earth. Over different time periods, we see the constant and continual change that characterizes all Life and all earthly forms, whether we consider the life of a single individual, the species to which it belongs, or the life forms that exist or existed at any given period of time. We now know that even the ground we stand on, which seems solid and permanent, has changed in terms of its size, shape, and location over the course of millions and millions of years.

A number of the world’s major religions, including Christianity and Buddhism, have emphasized only or primarily the negative aspects of life, while ignoring, belittling, or even demonizing its positive aspects. In their sacred writings, the negative exhortation “Thou shalt not” is usually more frequent than the positive exhortation “Thou shalt”. Many of these religious exhortations or commandments encapsulate certain beliefs or superstitions that were prevalent at the time when they were written down and promulgated. This was probably due to the great fear in which our ancestors lived as a result of the precariousness of life in the past, when they were subjected to the incomprehensible and unpredictable ravages of disease, accident, famine, natural disasters, attacks by predatory animals, and raids and invasions by other humans.

When human beings began to believe in a deity or deities that had created the world and all its inhabitants, it was inevitable that they would fear this deity and its awesome powers, as well as the control which, they believed, these powers gave it over their lives. This state of adulation, fear, and submission in the face of the Almighty led to a peculiar vision of the world and its relative values, namely that the divine or non-material, which is the plane in which God exists, is good and perfect, while the material, which is the plane in which all life forms, including humans, exist, is, by comparison, inferior, imperfect, unworthy, bad, and evil. Central to all these religions is the belief that immutability is better than mutability, and therefore it is believed that the divine realm in which God exists is changeless, unlike all the things in the material realm where we reside. Indeed, the mutability of all earthly things was taken as a sure sign of their intrinsically inferior nature, since they do not long endure in their present state, eventually being overtaken by the forces of decay and corruption. The flower that enchants your senses will soon wither and fade, the fruit that smells so wonderful now will putrefy and rot, disgusting your senses with its foul odour, the iron that seems so hard, strong, and enduring will rust and become brittle, and the beautiful young maiden whom you find so ravishingly enchanting will shrivel up and grow old, eventually becoming a lifeless, stinking corpse, fit only to nourish worms.

This widespread belief about the worthlessness or inferiority of terrestrial existence in comparison to the divine has had significant practical consequences.

I begin, then, with the assumption that perhaps the great disaster of human history is one that happened to or within religion: that is, the conceptual division between the holy and the world, the excerpting of the Creator from the creation. [John Stewart] Collis is worth quoting again in this connection; though perhaps it may be argued that he is wrong about the cause, I think he is correct in his description of what happened:

. . . whereas under polytheism the gods were intimately connected with the earth, and stimulated veneration for it, under monotheism deity was extracted from the earth. God was promoted to higher regions. He went completely out of sight. It became possible to fear God without fearing Nature—nay, to love God (whatever was meant) and to hate his creations.

If God was not in the world, then obviously the world was a thing of inferior importance, or of no importance at all. Those who were disposed to exploit it were thus free to do so. And this split in public attitudes was inevitably mirrored in the lives of individuals: A man could aspire to heaven with his mind and his heart while destroying the earth, and his fellow men, with his hands. […]

The contempt for the world or the hatred of it, which is exemplified both by the wish to exploit it for the sake of cash and by the willingness to despise it for the sake of “salvation,” has reached a terrifying climax in our own time.[1]

In this context, we would do well to remember the story of the Tower of Babel. Whether it is historically true or not does not matter, for the moral of the story is still relevant to our present discussion. In this tale, it is told that our ancestors sought to reach Heaven by constructing a high and mighty tower. Displeased by their presumptuousness, God punished them by rendering their speech unintelligible to each other, so they could no longer coordinate their efforts and complete the tower. The desire for eternal life can be considered as a metaphorical Tower of Babel, encapsulating, as it does, the desire to reach Heaven, not during our lives, but after its earthly span has ended.

But surely it is wrong to lust and yearn for what we cannot be. For what else is the widespread desire for eternal life than the desire to escape the transience and mutability of the world, and enter into the divine realm of changeless eternity, if such a realm even exists? What would we say of a person who wished to be able to fly in the air like a bird, or swim in the seas like a fish? We would say that such a person is mad, silly, or foolish. And yet, there are billions of humans who wish fervently to exist forever, a desire that is many times more absurd than the desire to fly like a bird or swim like a fish. For this desire means partaking of God’s nature or existence, a presumptuous desire that has no equal in the annals of human history, except perhaps the foolish conceit entertained by some humans that they actually were gods. Instead of lusting after something as absurd, for us mortal humans, as eternal, immaterial life, it would be far better for us to be content with the life that we have here on Earth, making the best of things while we are alive, and cease pining for something that we can never attain.

“Life is suffering,” declared the Buddha, and millions of his followers have reverently repeated this phrase, as if it summed up the whole of our earthly existence. But this is only a part of the truth, for Life is also joy, beauty, wonder, goodness, health, pleasure, excitement, satisfaction, harmony, and happiness. To deny these things is no different from declaring that there is only darkness and night while ignoring the life-giving sunshine of day, that there is only winter and no summer, or that Life is only death and decay, which ignores the fact that Life is also growth and the vitality and promise of birth and youth. The Buddha erred by emphasizing only the negative aspects of Life: pain, hunger, suffering, sickness, misery, loss, decrepitude, feebleness, and death. From this half-truth, the Buddha concluded that life is not worth living, and therefore non-existence is better than existence. In doing so, he showed that he was not able to free himself from the ascetics’ scorn for earthly pleasures and splendours which he acquired from having passed a part of his life in their austere and denigrating company.

To deny or belittle the wonders of the Living Creation is to deny the glory of God’s magnificent achievement. Similarly, to deny the wonder, beauty, and joy that are inherent in all Life is to reject God’s greatest gift to every one of Its creations, which is the deeply mysterious fact of our existence. Both Jesus and the Buddha were wrong, for life – this one, unique life that we have here on Earth – is indeed worth living, and therefore we should cherish and honour it, not by seeking non-existence, as the Buddha taught, nor by seeking a more glorious, eternal, and unchanging existence in the afterlife, as Jesus and many others have taught – both of which are religious mirages that have led the many credulous believers astray – but by living as well as we are able to live during our time on Earth, in harmony with, and with reverence for, all our fellow creatures who also inhabit the Earth, each and every one of which, no matter how small, is also a manifestation of God’s Greatness and Generosity. For by doing so, we will best honour and give thanks to God for Its Glorious and Magnificent Creation, and for endowing each and every one of us mortal creatures with the very precious Gift of Life.

 

[1] A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural by Wendell Berry, pp. 4-6. Counterpoint, Berkeley, California, 2012.