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“THE MEANING OF LIFE”
by ProfDave, ©2020
(Oct. 10, 2020) — Teaching world civilization forces me to think about questions too deep for mere historians. We are supposed to limit ourselves to documents and not to mix our religious biases into the story. Since Thucydides, we are supposed to leave the gods and goddesses out of it. But religion is a big part of human experience. Some observations were inspired by a Jewish atheist on Linkedin.
First, there is an almost universal human consciousness of (an) unseen will(s) and intelligence(s) beyond the physical cosmos. Instinctively we feel that the cosmos is not all there is and that we are not alone. We have experiences of dread, horror, worship, superstition and – if nothing else – conscience (categories of good and evil, ought and ought not) that are not easily attributable to reason or the senses. That is, unless there really are spiritual realities. Then those experiences and feelings begin to make sense. To tell the human story without these experiences is not to be true to the record.
Secondly, some people are more conscious of the spiritual than others. There have been through the centuries a handful of spiritual giants who have received insight, enlightenment, or revelation so compelling and influential as to form the basis of world religions and to shape civilizations. Jesus Christ is a bit different in embodying the revelation in his person – His message secondary – but one does not have to be a believer to acknowledge His enormous impact – or that of Moses, Muhammad, Gautama and a very few others. There are not many giants, but most of us are conscious enough to resonate with the teachings of one or the other, to have our worldviews directly or indirectly influenced by them and to identify ourselves with one faith or another even though its power in our lives may be nominal except in times of crisis. There may also be those who are spiritually tone-deaf – insensitive to anything beyond material existence. Finally, there are those who, for whatever reason, make a lifestyle (a spirituality?) out of rejecting spirituality.
Thirdly, to acknowledge, as historians, these giants (and pygmies) does not credit the myth that all religions are the same nor address the truth of any particular one of them. They could all be wrong. It isn’t our field.
The historian’s objective is to understand the importance of each in history, regardless of his own or his audiences’ preferences. We seek natural explanations wherever possible, in the faith (if we have a faith) that God’s providence works normally through proximate causes anyway. Some things, like the Exodus or the Resurrection, either happened or they did not. These are historical events which, by their nature, could be historically proved true or false, verifying or falsifying the dogma erected on them. Other “providential” phenomena are naturally explainable or they are not – and God sticks out like a sore thumb. History is full of ironic and counterintuitive developments. But I digress. Most religious teachings, while they have a history in the realm of ideas, do not depend on historical events.
Finally, the almost universal God-consciousness is itself strong circumstantial evidence for the existence of a spiritual realm and of a real God. World religions have superficial similarities, but fundamental differences. They contradict each other at basic levels. They may all be false, but they cannot all be true. They deal with the basic questions of human existence with varying degrees of success: Where do we come from? Where are we going? What is the meaning of life, its central problem and the path to salvation? How do we determine right from wrong? Religion is the soul of a civilization. Each major faith or worldview drives fundamentally different attitudes and societies, giving the civilizations of the earth the wonderful diversity we enjoy studying in World Civilization.
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.”