Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!… All rivers go to the sea… To the place where they go… the rivers keep on going.
I remember as a youth how this affected me so much, this idea of the rivers, always going “to the place where they go”, all the water… we always end up there. (A river in Idaho, the Salmon, the “River of No Return”, I remember thinking how all rivers are “rivers of no return”…) It was an enigma to me as a young boy and a young man. Fascinating ….but terrifying.
Similarly , my favorite, Psalm 90 gives the same message:
You turn humanity back into dust, saying, “Return, you children of Adam!” A thousand years in your eyes are merely a day gone by, before a watch passes in the night, you wash them away… They sleep, and in the morning they sprout again like an herb. In the morning it blooms only to pass away; in the evening it is wilted and withered.
It is very much like the meditation from Ecclesiastes: we are mortal, our days are very brief, and there is a sad sense of the passing of our lives so quickly. But then the psalm says something new:
Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong… so teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.”
This is the real biblical teaching concerning our mortality: yes, we are mortal, our days are very brief, but if we are able to face this, and understand this in the light of the eternity of God, we may gain wisdom of heart, the wisdom necessary to live our brief days well, to take advantage of life, and use it as it should be used: to build for ourselves, with our passing days, mansions of eternity.
Nevertheless, this “counting our days aright”, this “wisdom of heart” is what, in general, we are not doing in our society today. We aren’t doing it because 1) today we try to ignore death, not think about it; since we are materialists, death is the shipwreck of all our materialistic hopes, and so I think we just don’t know how to deal with it, and because 2) today we have adopted a fundamental flaw in our hierarchy of values, in what we esteem to be the most important value in our world today. In a nutshell, it is change from the value of life, to the value which we so flippantly call today “pro-choice”. Pro-choice is winning this battle against pro-life.
For today’s society, we have come to believe that the ultimate value is the value of freedom. And it is a very seductive value: freedom is a good thing, it is a great thing. But it is not the first value. Freedom is a secondary value, or even a tertiary one. Because before freedom can even exist, there must be life, and there must be what we call “the good”. Even in our Declaration of Independence we read:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Notice that before liberty there is life, given by God, and after liberty there is happiness. Life is the precondition of liberty, and liberty without a good that would make us happy, is directionless, useless: it has no meaning. When someone asks me if I am pro-choice, I always say “yes”, strongly and passionately pro-choice, but only a real pro-choice, that is, a pro-choice that follows being “pro-life”, because, without life, liberty, and choice, is impossible. (In fact, most laws in most countries still acknowledge this hierarchy implicitly, since in most societies, it is still against the law to exercise my freedom to murder someone.)
This may seem obvious to us today, but in the way most of our population seems to think, or at least vote, this value system in not defunct. Life is not first on our value list. Even our Supreme Court votes against it. In the famous passage of Planned Parenthood against Casey, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s said: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Now for a person who believes in God, this is simply false. At the heart of liberty is not the right to define, but the life itself that precedes it and sustains it. Where did that life come from? We believe it came from God, from the same God who also determines or defines the meaning of the universe, and the mystery of human life. These things are not at the mercy of liberty: liberty cannot define them, just as it cannot define how tall I am; liberty is defined by them, just as my liberty is defined by my almost 5’7” of height: I am simply not freedom to slam dunk a basketball, for all that I might want to do it (and believe me, in a tight game, I have often wanted to do just that!).
“Wisdom of heart”, I believe, is achieved when we come to understand this “of our counted days on the earth”. Liberty meaning is defined by the good the free person wants to search for. In this sense, I find Samuel Beckett’s famous play, “Waiting for Godot”, very illuminating. There we have basically two characters, utterly free in the sense that there is no one who determines what they have or have not to do, but since they don’t know what good there has to be had in their desolate wasteland that the stage portrays, they literally have nothing to do. They aren’t free, because there is no good to look for. They are as imprisoned in their absolute freedom as a prisoner in chains would be.
But more to our point, freedom is also defined by life. Dostoyevsky illustrates this in a powerful way in “The Possessed”. It is a novel that portrays the terrible consequences of the political and moral nihilism that were becoming prevalent in Russia in the 1860s, very much like today in the United States. In brief, ‘demonic’ forces take possession of the Russian town where all this is happening. The nihilists are not all nor always bad, in fact, most have good intentions. But as Dostoyevsky says in a letter he wrote about what the book was about, he says he was attempting to “depict those diverse and multifarious motives by which even the purest of hearts and the most innocent of people can be drawn in to committing such a monstrous offence.” We can think in our own nation how many good willed people, nice people, support abortion, and, I suppose, legalized suicide.
Well, in one of the many brilliant episodes, and with this I end, a character named Kirillov, an atheist, is going to commit suicide. He is encouraged to do this by the “nihilists”, the “Possessed”, as the logical outcome of his atheism, which is the absolute supremacy of the human will. “If God does not exist” says Kirillov, “then all will is mine, and I am obliged to proclaim self-will.” This proclamation must take the form of the act of killing himself, with the motives being annihilation of mankind’s fear of death, a fear implicit in their belief in God, and as his ultimate claim that he, and not God, control his life. Kirillov does end up killing himself, giving himself his “ultimate freedom”, and…? Of course we know: it was a lie. There was no freedom any more: with the loss of Kirillov’s death, we also have the loss of his liberty. And it is almost terrifying to see the witness of this suicide, a nihilist who encouraged Kirillov to go through with it, when, after the suicide, he sees the brutal and bloody effects of the bullet on Kirillov’s head and brain, and he literally tiptoes out of the room, as if he were escaping a crime and didn’t want anyone to see him there. And in fact, it was a crime: it wasn’t the exaltation of liberty, it was the end of it.
There is not liberty without life, and despite what Justice Kennedy claimed, liberty does not have within itself the power to determine the meaning of life: this comes from life itself, and from God who created it.
Life, according to the laws of the God who created it, is the first value, the ultimate value.