Sin, the world, and death – we wonder of these at some time in our existence – by choice or we are compelled to. In these very words or some other, in one language or another, we are confronted and cannot run away.
There is to be found a peculiar coexistence in human thought today, one that might have existed in the same way and to the same extremes at some time in history as well. Maybe there have been many times in history when, humans in their pursuit of answers about life and the simple incompatibility of the limitations of the human body and the expansiveness of human consciousness have sought out answers about who they really are. So what is this peculiar coexistence? It is about the two basic sets of beliefs:
- This material world is all there is.
- There is a spiritual existence aside from this material veneer.
Man does find himself constantly caught in this dichotomy of physical and spiritual, leading to some of the greatest of pains and pleasures known to man. It continues to feel like a battle in which, man must choose one or the other. Either man is to lean toward the physical and get trapped in this world of pleasures and pains, or he can choose to aspire for the spiritual and hope to find release from these experiences by finding that elusive contentment. Even a great thinker and teacher of his time like Jesus Christ, leaned toward the rewards of spiritual pursuits and found it impossible to be wholly devoted simultaneously to the material and the spiritual. Yes, the material is the physical! This is why he, and subsequent Christian writers, repeatedly warned of the temptation of riches and the consequences thereof.
So what is the truth about human existence? The answer to this question by necessity must deal with the unknown, if there is to be a consideration of the spiritual. It is for this reason, there are many teachers who speak of knowledge, but themselves have no conviction in it. We have seen the failure of so-called spiritual knowledge, and how it leads to a life that is severely unfulfilling. On the other hand, we must also honestly admit the failure of the way of life that seeks to find all manner of physical satisfaction through material wealth and pleasures. Unfailingly after the passage of time, such ones discover an emptiness in their existence that can only be fulfilled by seeking answers for their spiritual longing, even if there may not be absolute answers with evidence. Yes, evidence of spiritual answers lies beyond ordinary human power, and if the evidence of supernatural or superhuman claims cannot be provided, the one seeking answers is left with bitter disillusionment.
So what are we left with? We are left with the unmistakable truth of death. No matter how strong, how wise, how virtuous, or how evil a person is, each one is finally subjugated by the power of death. All men are powerless before death. This is the absolute physical truth. Death is the absolute, ultimate physical truth! Since we are all confronted by this unchanging reality of human existence, death must provide us with a measure of understanding about what life is.
It is true, we do not fully understand what death is and we seek to understand it by means of speculation and wonderment, but we are truthfully powerless in its face. The other great reality we are all forced to confront is, the world we live in, both – the one made by man, and the one made by God. Surely, the world made by man is derived from the world made by God, for we must borrow all our raw materials from what nature provides on the surface and under the surface of the earth. So death and world – these are the two great physical realities we have before us, and we must incorporate these truths into our understanding of human existence.
Since we are all confronted by this unchanging reality of human existence, death must provide us with a measure of understanding about what life is.
So death and world – these are the two great physical realities we have before us, and we must incorporate these truths into our understanding of human existence.
An understanding of the physical world and of death
One of the first obstacles we have to face – whether we will overcome it or not is another matter – is to accept the reality of the material, physical world. There have been thinkers and philosophers who have sought to altogether leave aside tackling the question of the material by denying its very existence! The simple fact is, any person who cannot walk on water or walk through a wall has to accept the liquidity of water and the presence of the solid wall. To deny what water is or what a wall is, it is possible, but the physical constraints provide the very evidence we seek to deny. Water exists! In fact, we must drink it regularly to keep from getting thirsty, or letting the lack of it kill us. Similarly, the wall exists and we are wiser to seek to walk through the door, if it is open. If the door is not open, we must then knock first to seek permission of the one on the other side.
For those who accept the nature of water and accept the wall, existence is much simpler. However, this same existence is unfulfilling. Why? Not because there is something amiss in the nature of water or in the wall, but due to the ability to imagine. Yes, man imagines about what he cannot do. What if I could, or someone else could walk on water? What if someone, or I, could walk through the wall? It is by virtue of this ability to wonder that man has built vessels like submarines and ships. Though man has not walked on water on his own two feet, he has sailed oceans and gone deep under the surface of the water. Man has used X-rays to see through solid objects, and radio waves can penetrate solid walls to reach receivers in mobile devices. These “miracles” have come about which, not too long ago would have only been confined to the imagination of thinkers.
The fact is, our understanding of the material world too has undergone a transformation, as we have become more aware of things in existence that were earlier thought impossible. We have knowledge of and ability to manipulate the structure of organisms at the genetic level, ability to communicate across oceans within milliseconds, and build bridges and buildings of a scale not thought possible before. All this has come about because humans have excessively leaned toward the physical, but never could change their nature of being part-spiritual.
We have come into an existence when, if we were stopped by the consideration of human limitations, we would never have ventured into the pursuits that we undertake today. It was the human defiance against limitations that produced the man-made world of today. All this time, the natural world has remained fundamentally unchanged. We still need water to drink, soil to grow plants in, and air to breathe. The absence of these basic natural provisions of water, soil, and air will stop human life. We will be confronted by the reality of death. Ah, yes! Death reminds us of what life is, and what life is about.
There is a peculiarity to the world we are in. What about the birds, insects, and animals? While human beings have been changing the world in such wondrous ways, these other creatures of God have remained unchanged. These have continued to adapt silently, or even become extinct in silence while human beings have continued in their pursuits of finding fossil fuels and cutting down forests. Not only have humans engaged in pursuits with a disregard for the morrow, the greed has translated in disregard for other humans as well who have engaged in the same pursuits, giving rise to endless wars. Once a set of humans understood, that it was possible to exploit another set of humans without any repercussions – human or divine – excesses became the new normal, and fear of reprisal became absent from human thinking. Seeing all this, animals and birds seemed to show better sense than man. Man dies as these do, but the damage caused by man is far more insidious, far more pernicious.
Death reminds us of what life is, and what life is about.
How naturally any consideration of the world, whether regarding humans or other creatures, lends itself to a consideration of death! It seems, all that are living are designed for death. There is a peculiar injustice regarding human death, though. Any man who is engaged in planning and building will find out how short life is. Has there been any man who has completed all his plans and built all he desired, and then felt fulfilled at the time of his death? Such a man is indeed so happy; indeed the very happiest among men.
Man is peculiar among all creatures in his mindfulness of death, as he should naturally also be. Man seeks to find a meaningful death. Other animals, birds, and insects do not seek meaning in death as a human can, provided he is of the kind that thinks. Yes, in this man is unique, in his ability and in what he can seek to make of his physical existence. It is the finality of death and the absence of any ability to revise the past despite all possible reconsiderations, that explain the human condition. For this reason, life is such a vast and untouched territory before each man, if he understood the full extent of it, he would be absolutely overwhelmed. In order not to be overwhelmed, man seeks to simplify his existence and pursuits, even his own thoughts.
Like water or a wall, death is also very simple. The person simply comes to the end of his existence. Yes, those who know the man might remember his words, his pursuits, his actions, his affections and hates, but with the last breath, there is simply an ending of all that that man ever was. So, during the time of awareness of one’s existence man tries to fill his life with all the possible experiences he could possibly have. There might be many regrets, but none could be the regret greater than having misspent one’s limited life. At this point, do you ask yourself: Have I misspent my life?
If there is a misunderstanding of what life is, it is the greatest misunderstanding of all. A life that disregards death is a misunderstanding. Or perhaps, death is not what one imagines it to be!
This world, especially in its great wars and other man-made catastrophes has seen so much death that, even death seems to have lost its meaning. Not only the great armies of this world, but even the children were during those times exposed to piles of dead bodies. We still have pictures and some video footage of those times when, even death seemed to have lost its meaning. So man started to learn from his experience and build a world – a physical world – that by its greatness and magnificence would heal the wounds of the past. This was human folly! Human beings sought to forget the past by showing and seeking visions of a most magnificent future. This was human folly! The evidence from the past remains to this day, confronting us to remember death and destruction; at least the death and destruction brought about by human will.
When one contrasts what the world went through with today’s obsession with pleasures and material comforts, there is an unmistakable human tendency that can be discerned. Humans care enough about the past to try to forget it! The attempts at prosperity and comforts were the attempt to prevent the return of a time that could ever see a repeat of such human folly, a folly as grave as mass deaths in war, when death itself seems to lose meaning…because there is so much of it. We tried to substitute remorse and regret with prosperity, and find ourselves today in a world that is uncannily remorseless and unrepentant. No, everyone is not so; but, the leaders of our world especially so need to have a clear recollection of the past we have left behind.
What we must remember
We find thus, a necessity in our case. We need to be reminded during all the prosperity and comfort to not forget the death. Our answer to spiritual pursuits might find answers in the words of those who have lived before us. It is perhaps for this reason that we seek to read the words of writers and poets of the past, hoping to find some insight into what life should be so that death never loses its meaning again.
We are today once again in a time when death threatens to lose its meaning. There is an evident struggle that can be seen, to give a face to victims and an identity through a name. The news and other humanitarian organizations seek to identify communities and individuals who are suffering physically, and also, spiritually. We find ourselves confronted by so many voices and opinions that, it is maddening. There is so much noise, it drowns out any possible meaning. So the very young among us are fascinated so very much with their own selves, they have succeeded in creating a detachment from the world through self-centeredness. In an effort to find meaning in life, once again we are losing the meaning of the loss of human life or through our plenty.
It thus seems clear, by the plenty of our material pursuits and in the abundance of death, that we are tethered to an invisible power of evil. Might this not be inherited sin as spoken of in the Bible? And if it is, then, the way to hope opened before us through the writings should also be considered worthy of listening to. At some level, it would be quite obvious for humans to realize that, finding a solution that addresses the collective concerns of human society are the hardest to find. Some would say, such answers could not possibly exist as individual freedom and human society grow simultaneously. We also would have a recognition that, the way to hope is a way of living and not simply an act of faith. In this, we have come so far from the understanding of, the effects of, and the solution for inherited sin that the way of life based on the impending doom of our systems and of the world would seem entirely unreasonable. Yet, that is what Christianity essentially is! Christianity is the anticipation of doom, and surviving it through divine grace.
Christianity, as expressed through the teachings and way of life exemplified by Jesus Christ and his early followers is, an awaiting of the final judgment. In waiting for this judgment, there is a giving up of physical leanings and the temptations expressed through material pursuits. The human being is seen as under the authority of sin on the one hand, and the world is seen as under the rule of the Devil on the other hand. It is the most discouraging view of humans and the world possible! But is it true?
It would be somehow very relevant to remember some famous words spoken by a certain Karl Marx. These words are especially important to remember: Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.
The cruelty human beings are capable of, but also the affliction caused by natural calamities, brings upon mankind the necessity of religious thought and understanding. Religion plays a special role in understanding and coping with difficulties that exceed human comprehension, but might it be said that religion is also the cause of difficulties? Does religion pervert the human view and perception of what is not readily understandable, and bring about a decay in the way people live their lives? Does religion produce the very problems that it then, seeks to remedy? These are perhaps some of the most pressing questions of our day, and have also troubled thinkers from the past.
Whether we succeed in finding definite answers to such inquiries about human existence, death, or what lies beyond the physical reality of our world or not, one thing is certain: the very occupation with these matters is a sign of human longing. We long to understand, and this longing is not fully met by the comforts or knowledge available to man.
Can it be, that man finds such absolute satisfaction in his present existence so as to not have spiritual longing at all? Would it even be desirable, if it were possible? During the length of a human lifespan, nothing can be said with absolute certainty in this regard. Maybe there is the possibility of such changes – unprecedented and extreme – that humans are called upon to seek spiritual answers. It could be old age, sickness, discomfort, pain, or any such thing of a real or imaginary kind. As long as there is a mind to think, and the truth is not found, the human search cannot end. The acceptance of sin, death, and insufficiency of the material comforts presents a way of understanding the world, and yet there are ways of understanding that do not hold to such concepts. Still, people have been living their lives, and they die as the “believers” do. Why and how all this happens is not at all confined to any one system of thought or belief!
There seems the greatest wisdom in simplicity and balance. If we have a way of living that enables simplicity and balance, it has the chance of greater longevity. Maybe, we will find a time when quests for and fights over beliefs will no longer exist. Maybe there will be a time when the relevance of concepts such as sin or even death will no longer matter. Maybe mankind will be enabled to cross over from the effects of greed and oppression and find the true liberation. Until then, these are only in human imagination. And the One who is able to create reality by His power is silent, our questions and answers are merely products of the imagination.