"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, July 26, 2015

“It Is Finished”–Why Is Purpose Still So Important?

According to the Gospel of John (19:3) Jesus’ last words were “It is finished”.  His physical life was over, his work on earth was completed, and his suffering was at an end.  Christians believe that Jesus’ time on earth was only part of a divine cycle. Even before God the Father, said John in the first verses of his gospel, was logos, an ineffable universal spirit which existed before creation and before time itself; and Christians, Hellenized Jews and Gnostics believed in it. The nature of God, his Son, and the Holy Ghost was debated for four hundred years until under the edict of Constantine, doctrinal debates and disagreements were ended at Nicaea, and Christians accepted the orthodoxy of the Trinity.  Jesus, when he said “It is finished”,was speaking as a man thankful for relief from his human suffering, ready to return to his Father after his filial duty was done, and ready to take his place at his right hand.

Most Christians extend the meaning of Christ’s words to suggest that although his life was finished, their life was just beginning. Thanks to God’s grace, mankind now had an eternal future. “It is finished” meant “It is just beginning. 

As Ivan Ilyich, the main character in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, lay dying, he heard someone say, “It is finished”:

And death...where is it?" He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. "Where is it? What death?" There was no fear because there was no death. In place of death there was light. 
"So that's what it is!" he suddenly exclaimed aloud. "What joy!" To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. 
For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent. 
"It is finished!" said someone near him. He heard these words and repeated them in his soul. "Death is finished," he said to himself. "It is no more!" 
He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died. 
Tolstoy had been a seeker, and for most of his life sought meaning. Answers eluded him, and despite decades of academic research and religious study, he was as perplexed as ever as to why he had been put on earth.  Konstantin Levin, a principal character in Anna Karenina and Tolstoy’s alter ego, sees only a cruel and tragic irony in human existence.  We have been created with wit, intelligence, insight, and creativity.  We live for a few short decades, and then spend eternity in the cold, hard clay of the Russian steppes. 
Later in life Tolstoy wrote A Confession, a personal memoir of his search for faith and describes how he finally gave in and accepted God – not because he had found compelling logical reasons for belief or because he was persuaded by the arguments of the Church; but because he could search not long.  If millions of people today and billions before him believed, then why not?
Levin also backs into faith after a life of quest.  Doing good, he says, is the only act possible in a meaningless world, reflecting Tolstoy’s continual swing between nihilism and faith. 
So Ivan Ilyich’s  “It is finished” could either be a reference to John and Jesus, and a religious epiphany; or more likely a statement of nihilistic fact. Why had Ivan been so stupid to agonize about death which he realized in his last moments, was nothing more than the completion of a natural, well-known, and obvious cycle. 
The contrast is stark.  Either death is simply an incident in an eternal trajectory; or a final, absolute, and irrevocable extinguishing of life. 
So why is purpose so important? Why do both the devout Christian who has accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior, and the nihilist who has rejected both religion and meaning need to find purpose in life?
Martin Luther’s revolution was profound. ‘Works’ do not matter, only ‘faith’.  Christ will not look at resumes on Judgment Day. The faithful will be saved and all others lost. Good works are only expressions of faith and eventual salvation, not means to an end. 
Nihilists believe that since life itself is meaningless, any particular act is necessarily meaningless. 
Both ends of the spectrum have no stake whatsoever in secular purpose. 
Nietzsche was not content to simply conclude that life had no meaning.  Such a void was unconscionable. The acts of Supermen might mean nothing, but they at least were validations of the human spirit.  The expression of Will might mean nothing within the context of universal meaningless; but it was the only way for anyone to exist. “I am because I act”, Nietzsche said.  Morality and ethics are irrelevant. 
Nietzsche, however, was not as much of a nihilist as Tolstoy who concluded that the expression of any individual will made no sense at all.  That would automatically imply a hierarchy of meaning – not all expressions of will are the same. Life is simply without meaning, purpose, or value. 
In War and Peace Tolstoy dismissed the ‘Great Man’ theory of human events, suggesting that even a figure as reputed as Napoleon acted randomly, propelled by the random events of the near and distant past.  His failure at the Battle of Borodino was as much because he had a cold (thanks to a negligent servant who had forgotten his foul weather gear and had been so thoughtless because of concerns about his errant wife) than because of a sudden loss in his proven strategic acumen. 
Yet all of us seek purpose.  Many of us closer to the end of our lives than the beginning are obsessed with figuring things out before we die – “Too soon old, too late schmart” – but ignore the senselessness of this activity.  Truth is a fiction, conclusions are subjective – Tolstoy especially knew that – and no amount of preparation can prepare us for the end of our lives. 
Ivan Ilyich thought he could construct his life perfectly so that there would be no surprises.  His professional and personal lives were well-managed and controlled. He would grow old intelligently and in good health, and would come to his end with equanimity, knowing that he had led the best life possible under adverse (meaningless)conditions.  He was wrong. 
Youth is all about ambitions, and often compelling purpose.  The middle-aged have lost much of their enthusiasm, but are  too young to be concerned about finality, so tread water. 
Again, why bother with purpose?  Why volunteer? Why study Renaissance painting? Why teach Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or the Book of Job? 
To fill up the day.  There is something frighteningly existential about waking up every morning to the same alarm clock, the same Starbucks coffee, the same Red Line train, and the same, predictable, unchanging, walk down the fifth floor corridor to assigned seats in the cubicle; and the need to disrupt this endless routine and the surprisingly easy disappearance of days is essential.  There has to be more; and leisure doesn’t count.  Unless there is purpose to the activities that fill the interstices of routine and eventually replace them, there is no point. 
In the larger scope of things, purpose has no purpose.  Whether we are saved or cogs in The Grand Mechanism of a perpetually revolving history, what we do has very little relevance to our future. 
Purpose is a function of leisure; and as Thorsten Veblen observed 100 years ago, our conspicuous consumption is commitment. A combination of Puritan hard work and existential, secular reality. 
Purpose has no purpose, we must all conclude; but there is nothing more restrictive and confining than compulsion a compulsion to perform and to make sense. 
 

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