Friday, August 15, 2008

Metallica and Existential Angst

When we are well fed, the philosophers say, and when we dwell in safety and have our basic human needs met (pizza, good shoes, decent wine, and ESPN), we ask grand, ultimate questions. Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? Is there anyone out there? And on and on....

On the other hand, some choose to numb the questions out of existence like people ignore that pea-sized wort on Mrs. Linskey's right cheek. Forgetting such notions, people existentialize their lives with stuff and habits, so they don't have to come face to face with them. A popular slogan of the 1980's was "He who dies with the most toys, wins." I think Tommy Lee coined it. It was easily countered with a subsequent T-shirt that read: "He who dies with the most toys--still dies." The latter may have been the original First Ever Christian T-Shirt. I dunno.

One of the foundations of such behavior is philosophical materialism. That is to say, only matter exists. There are no immaterial things. There is no god, no spirits, no soul in man. Even things like the laws of science and logic are said to be the result of chemical processes in the brain.

Materialism and other "isms" go hand in hand with each other: Naturalism, Darwinism, Nihilism, Existentialism. In fact, I would argue that Materialism is the foundational impetus of the aforementioned isms. If all there is, ever was, and ever shall be, is the material universe, as Carl Sagan so aptly put it, then we die and the world carries on until it dies too. Metallica's song On Through the Never from their 1991 "Black Album" discloses the angst and blank stare of the cosmos and all that occupy it:


All that is, was and will be
Universe much too big to see
Time and space never ending
Disturbing thoughts, questions pending
Limitations of human understanding
Too quick to criticize
Obligation to survive
We hunger to be alive

All that is, ever
Ever was
Will be ever
Twisting
Turning
Through the never

In the dark, see past our eyes
Pursuit of truth no matter where it lies

Gazing up to the breeze of the heavens
On a quest, meaning, reason
Came to be, how it begun
All alone in the family of the sun
Curiosity teasing everyone
On our home, third stone from the sun

All that is, ever
Ever was
Will be ever
Twisting
Turning
Through the never

On through the never
We must go
On through the never
Out to the Edge of forever
We must go
On through the never
Then never comes
All that is, ever
Ever was
Will be ever
Twisting
Turning
Who we are
Ask forever
Twisting
Turning
Through the never
Never
~~~~
The theme of the poem is clear: we are alone in the cosmos as a planet that twists and turns through the "never." "Never," as a negative term, connotes void, purposelessness, and meaninglessness. We search for meaning, we use reason, we search for our origins. But the only answer is that we are alone on this planet, moving through the endless, dark void of cosmos.
~~~~
As we gaze up at the heavens, we realize how infinitesimally small we are. Even our curiosity betrays us. We ask about what is there, but there is nothing. Then we look inward and see our faults (too quick to criticize), and yet we strive for life and like the good Darwinian animals that we are, we hunger and thirst after life--after survival, but nothing else. Because there is nothing else. And yet, "We must go" through the Never. We are determined by our cold, answerless universe. There is nothing beyond us, and when we expire, the grave consumes us to dust and from dust, death spreads our mist to the careless earth, of which we become a part.
~~~~
We are in "the pursuit of truth." And the truth is, we are alone. We are "third stone from the sun." We are as faceless as a white, desert stone baking in the hot, cruel sun. As desperate as we are for life--in ourselves and somewhere "out there," nothing comes. The "Never" comes. That is, the only thing that comes to us is the vast ocean of silent nothingness.
~~~~
Even the shape of the poem is in a spike, or spiral that goes continually down, down, into a deep abyss. There is no one there, at the bottom, even if there is a bottom of this personless chasm of spinning, chaotic, endlessness...
~~~~
By virtue of this existential emptiness that Materialism offers, it should be rejected. Materialism contradicts our human longing and desire for meaning, purpose, happiness, and everlastingness. There are other, logical reasons why Materialism should be rejected as well, and we will touch on this in the near future.
~~~~
Humans are "soulish." When we see something beautiful, like an Olympian athlete win an event after suffering a staggering setback, or when we see an automobile with the dual aesthetics of engineering and fine art, or when we enjoy a good meal with wine, friends, laughter and love, we prove to ourselves that we are indeed, more than matter. We are more than tissue, chemicals and electromagnetic impulses.
~~~~
When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well in John 4, he told her he had "living water." The context of this woman's life was that she had had many husbands, and was on her fifth. Jesus, in his conversation, tells her everything she ever did, and despite her adulterous life, he loved her and offered "living water," as a break from her existential struggle for meaning in life. The text of John's gospel does not inform us of the circumstances of why this woman had a fifth husband to her tally. Instead, we see Jesus offer this woman a break from her lifelessness and tell her that if she drinks his "living water," she will "never thirst forever."
~~~~
The living water that Jesus offers is his life. His life gives us an answer in the cold, meaningless void. Through Jesus, we can know about the universe, our origins, our meaning, and our destiny. He teaches us how to live (Love God, love neighbor). He offers forgiveness of sin. He answers why we feel guilt. Jesus is the living water in the sense that whatever ultimate question we have, he doesn't just have the answer, he is the answer.

16 comments:

povertyhill said...

"By virtue of this existential emptiness that Materialism offers, it should be rejected. Materialism contradicts our human longing and desire for meaning, purpose, happiness, and everlastingness." - I disagree, Chris - if emptiness is true, it's to be dealt with, not rejected. Of course, I'm convinced that's not the case (like you, I'm convinced that the truth is found in the Trinitarian G_D, and gives hope and meaning, etc.), but "human longing" does not make "meaning" real. Your fan, Len

chris van allsburg said...

Len,
not the emptiness should be rejected, but materialism.
thanks for commenting on my blog, though!

and, "human longing does not making meaning real" is true. Rather, human longing points to a reality beyonnd that which materialism can explain. Thefefore, materialism should be rejected, and other means of answers for human destiny should be investigated.

YOUR fan,
chris

povertyhill said...

Hiya Chris,

Fair enough - "not the emptiness should be rejected, but materialism".

Agreed that "human longing points to a reality beyond that which materialism can explain"; still, it's impossible to discount the possibility that human longing points to something other than reality, as considered from a 'natural theology' starting point; 'memes' are one recent explanation - wholly unsatisfying, of course, but not disprovable (and thus not scientific). Only a believer can say confidently that 'human longing points to a reality', and can't be convincing to the skeptic in doing so.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Well, I think that Nietzsche has a good point with which I tend to agree: living for the afterlife focusses attention beyond this world and can thus render us impotent for making the most out of life in this world.

I think the "meaning" arguments can easily go both ways.

I just talked to a guy today who expressed some of his bitterness that his parents did not invest more time in him b/c they were pursuing "eternal things."

Also, where do you get the idea that if God exists (the God of Scripture, that is), then there is meaning in the world? Can such an idea be found in Scripture?I see it as the contrary: Qohelet, as I read him, would contradict that notion.

A non-Christian worldview seems superior in that if there is no God, one can make the most out of life and live to enjoy life and/or to create a better world in the here and now. The Christian, on the other hand, must live in the face of the absurd: A good God created a world with heinus suffering and mind-numbing terror.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Also.....kind of following up on my prior comment.....I think I am questioning the logic of the argument.

You said: "human longing points to a reality beyonnd that which materialism can explain."

But why does "human longing" have to correlate (or correspond) with anything? If the world is essentially absurd, then human longing is merely another example of the absurdities that surround us.

I think there is also reason to assume that the world is fundamentally absurd. Qoheleth goes through example after example of absurdity. I don't have Dostoevsky in front of me, but there is an amazing portion of literature in The Brothers. It is the "Rebellion" chapter that precedes "The Grand Inquisitor." Ivan makes the point that even if there is some grand meaning that explains it all, he doesn't want to know it, because the sacrifice of even one child to terror and incomprehensible suffering makes the world absurd. In fact, Ivan asks Alyosha if A would torture just one child to bring harmony, peace, and justice to all humankind for all of history. What does A say? "No."

So, I think your argument suffers because I don't know how you establish the fact that this world is anything but absurd. Even if God exists, how does an absurd world necessarily mean (or even imply) that God exists.

Human longing and existential angst only reflects the fact that the world is screwed up. It does not establish that there is any higher meaning and purpose. And even if there is, how does that make this world--the world where Ivan cannot understand the suffering children--any less absurd? To put it bluntly, who the hell cares if the suffering of children serves God's so-called "greater good." Children still suffer, and that's a source of existential angst that is intensified for those who believe in the Christian God.

I realize that I am standing against a good deal of Christian apologetics (Ravi Zacharias, etc.) from the 20th century. I just think that much apologetics is misguided and, ironically, cannot be biblically supported.

chris van allsburg said...

Jon,
I think meaning in life comes from the ultimate. Even Sarte said that if there is no infinite reference point, life is meaningless.

God, who is infinite, provides that meaning.

As far as being too heavenly minded for no earthly good, well,
I'm postmillennial, so the two are congruent. Plus I'm Kuyperian: every aspect of society is to be redeemed for the sake of Jesus Christ.

The Bible doesn't say a lot of things. I don't think we need a statement in Scripture to tell us that in order to deduce that conclusion.

As far as Brothers K, Ivan does indeed brings up a good point about not wanting to accept God's world, in which there is suffering.
But remove God, and we are still in the same world, full of suffering.

Assume the hedonist position, and, as you've stated, people can live for themselves and have meaning galore. But that's the problem: people do this, but look at the suffering we have because of it.

Only in Christ can we eradicate the sin in our lives that brings the suffering that humans produce.
Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil. Hence, sanctification is important.

I'm guessing your bitter friend comes from a premillennial, evangeical background that doesn't think in a Kuyperian fashion.

Maybe that's the problem.
Yours,
Chris

chris van allsburg said...

Human longing, as you've said, only points to the fact that the world is screwed up.

I wouldn't take such a monolithic approach to human longing. Also, I don't ask that we use human longing as a starting point. God as revealed in Scripture is the starting point.

I would take the sensus divinitatus as a source for human longing. Human longing does many things: shows a sense of justice, beauty, love, relationship, meaning.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Well, I do appreciate your perspective, but your post has apologetic tones: our longing for meaning implies an ultimate meaning in the world.

I suggested that this does not logically follow. In fact, a reverse argument can be formulated that suggests that our desire for meaning (and its associated existential frustration) is an argument against an ultimate Meaning Giver.

I don't have any problem with you believing in ultimate purpose, etc., etc. If knowing there is ultimate meaning helps you live a more meaningful life in the present, then go for it. Be Kuyperian or amillenial or whatever the hell you want to be!

But I do still think your argument (and the argument of many 20th century apologists) is fundamentally flawed, both logically and biblically. At this point, I just can't see how it works.

Also, I'm not Sartrean, but I do think you are oversimplifying Sartre. My interpretation of Sartre is that he still believed that one could live a life of responsibility and action through the act of free choice. But, again, I'm not really a fan of Sartre.

chris van allsburg said...

Jon,
The point of the post was a) Metallica's Existential Angst, and how they express it, and
b) an apologetic against materialism.

Given Christian presuppositions, human longing shows that materialism is inadequate in explaining existence.

I do not see, however, why this is flawed either logically or biblically.

Yours,
Chris

chris van allsburg said...

Jon,
another thing that is interesting about this post, is that I did not take a strict, presuppositional approach to the problem of materialism from the normal, logical point of view.

I followed more in the footsteps of Ravi in this one, as I rejected materialism, not for logical reasons, but for existential ones.

Yours,
Chris

Jonathan Erdman said...

I don't mean to belabor the point (if you're not interested in discussing it further), but to be fair, your argument was not merely against materialism. You also argued that our longings point us to God. That's where I have pointed out the greatest logical and biblical flaws (in prior posts). As I said, just because you find meaning in believing in an "ultimate" meaning doesn't say anything about the truth value of ultimate meaning. It merely means that it works for you.

So, I think your post made a stronger case--not just against Materialism but in favor of Christianity or Theism.

povertyhill said...

Jon, I don't know your position, but I find your comments intriguing. I wonder what you think of the idea expressed by Lewis (et al) that, if a longing exists, the object of that longing is implied by the fact of the longing itself (have you read CSL on sehnsucht? I THINK he's telling something that's necessarily true, but I'd like to find an expert or two on the subject...). I understand my friend Chris' thought to be in that vein generally, and I'm finding it tough to disagree with this general approach (though I still maintain that "human longing" does not make "meaning" real. I think it's legit to say that "human longing" does not make "meaning" real but "human longing" does tell us reliably that "the object of longing" is real.) I'm no pro at this, but I'm pretty sure my difference with Chris on this is rather technical (i.e., picky). Your thoughts? Len PS Chris, weigh is as you see fit, OF COURSE!

Jonathan Erdman said...

Thanks, povertyhill,

Your suggestion that longing implies the existence of the one (or thing) longed for sounds to me like an ontological-type argument: the idea of a perfect being implies the existence of such a being b/c one of the attributes of perfection is existence. (And, of course, there are many variations of the ontological argument.)

As for me, I don't know that I see the logic in suggesting that our longing implies the existence of the thing longed for. For example, one can imagine many things that we desire and long for, but that do not exist: an adolescent may have a longing for the "perfect" woman (does that mean she exists?); I may have a longing for the perfect Thanksgiving meal (but does it actually exist?); or there may be an insane man who imagines himself to be Renfield from the Bram Stoker novel and he longs with all his heart for the return of Count Dracula to rescue him from his insane asylum and give him blood to drink. Does such an insane man's longing necessarily imply that Dracula exists? Of course not. But what if the longing is intense?

In all of the above examples, the question of truth enters the formula: does the longing correspond with a reality outside of someone's mind. (Hhhhhmmmmm....has that philosophical question ever been raised!!)

I don't want to overplay the hand and say that longings should not be pursued, but at this point I'm not sure how one would construct an argument such that our longings necessarily imply that there is a reality to satisfy it.

And, no, I haven't read much Lewis on philosophy, though I do enjoy Narnia as well as the Screwtape Letters.

chris van allsburg said...

Jon and Len,

Len, thanks for clarifying on CSL. I should have known that was the approach I was taking, but I haven't read Lewis in a while (Mere X is in my curriculum for my 12th graders this semester, as well as Bahnsen's Always Ready).

Yes, I think that is what I am saying--that the existence of longing implies the object of it.

Jon, correct in comparing this to an ontological approach. When I wrote the post, I surprised myself, b/c I normally don't take this approach in critiquing culture. However, I do think there is validity in the ontological approach. I think Plantinga supported it in his God, Freedom and Evil (1974), of which I have a copy, but have not read.

I know you are familiar with Plantinga. Do you have anything to say about his ontological-support ideas?

Thanks,
Chris

Jonathan Erdman said...

No. I'm not well-schooled in the ontological argument.

I have read a bit of God and Other Minds, but I don't recall off hand what P said about the ontological argument.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Sumabitch!

I posted a very short review of God and Other Minds last year!

Ha! How cool is that: I completely forgot about both my post and what the book was about! Not only that, but we engaged in a 54 comment discussion....gosh, that's hilarious to me!

Thank God for writing b/c I can just re-read and PRESTO(!) my mind recalls the discussion!