Introduction- Age Old Questions

“Who’s there?”[1]— The opening words in one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, Hamlet, ask a question very closely related to “Why am I here?” Is it someone or no one? Is he a self-existing personal agent with a free will to act or is it simply a very complex chemical reaction that is completely determined by the laws of nature? Or, is this kind of question even possible to answer? Both questions, “Who’s there?” and “Why am I here?” are related to ultimate meaning. They haunt us during times of personal pain and heartache, when we are confronted with all kinds of evil, both man-made and natural disasters. In Hamlet’s case the questions loom up during his darkest hour when confronted with the death of his father, the discovery of the circumstances surrounding that death, climaxing in ultimate betrayal by his own family and those he supposed to be his friends.

However, these questions can also surface in the good times as well.  Many times upon reaching our goal’s we find ourselves unsatisfied and are left asking, “Is this all there is?”   King Solomon writes about this in Ecclesiastes.  Solomon, having reached the pinnacle of achievement, opens Ecclesiastes crying out “’Meaningless! Meaningless!’ … ‘Utterly meaningless.’ What does a man gain from all his labor under the sun?…I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, as chasing after the wind.”[2] Both aspects of the pain of apparent meaninglessness are depicted in Hamlet and Ecclesiastes.  Hamlet is forced to find a motivation for existence when it seems that his whole world is falling apart, and Solomon must find a reason to have joy when it seems that all of his accomplishments turn to ashes in his mouth. Because both Hamlet and Solomon’s worldview is founded on the transcendent God of Christianity they have the capacity to address these questions with some assurance that the answers will account for not only what is observed, but what is experienced as well. Not so with the Modern Atheist or the Postmodern Skeptic.  They must make leaps of faith onto transient, not transcendent, foundations.

Modern Answers to Old Questions

The New Atheist[3] response to the universal cry, “Who’s there?” is unanswerable in their worldview.   Because atheists reject the supernatural in any form, the question has to change from “Who’s there?” to “What is there?”   The a priori rejection of a personal agent behind everything leaves only materialism or the phenomena of the natural world to explain the universe. However, several problems arise from this assumption.  First, a purely scientific explanation leads to meaninglessness and futility because, the second law of thermodynamics states the universe is destined to run out of available energy for work and reach a state of equilibrium, or “heat death.”[4]  This is a rather bleak future to look forward to.  All of the accomplishments of humanity, scientific or otherwise, will eventually be for naught. Theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg in his essay, “What about God,” states the problem this way:

In my 1977 book, The First Three Minutes, I was rash enough to remark that ‘the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.’ I did not mean that the science teaches us that the universe is pointless, but rather that the universe itself suggests no point. I hastened to add that there were ways that we ourselves could invent [emphasis mine] a point for our lives, including trying to understand the universe.[5]

This perspective leads to the second problem. Many New Atheists, in order to counter the devastating effects of despair which result from the “rashness” of their worldview suggest adopting a stoic bravery in the face of absolute meaninglessness and purposelessness and settle for inventing temporal, individualized purpose and meaning.  One must “create” meaning and purpose wherever one can.  What is wrong with inventing a point for one’s life?  The problem with inventing purpose is that it sets up every autonomous self as the arbiter of what is good. However, all those invented “goods” begin to bump into other invented “goods” resulting in a chaos in which only the strong survive.

In Hamlet we can see a perfect example of multiple “goods” coming into conflict with each other. Our first encounter with Hamlet is at court with the freshly wed and crowned King and Queen, Hamlet’s newly bereaved mother. Hamlet’s father has just died and Hamlet is still in an appropriate state of mourning, dressed in black and obviously quite sad. The King wants everything to seem normal, as if his brother’s death and his expeditious marriage to his sister-in-law is no big deal, which conflicts with Hamlet mourning.  The King asks Hamlet: “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?”[6] And the Queen exhorts Hamlet to take off his mourning clothes and “let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark. / Do not forever with thy vailѐd lids/ Seek for they noble father in the dust. / Thou know’st tis common; all that lives must die, / Passing through nature to eternity.”[7] We can hear the echo of the Modern Atheist to put a brave face on the inevitable. The King and Queen’s response seems odd because it was not as if Hamlet were still mourning years after his father’s death.  It was barely two months past. Through this dialogue Shakespeare is commenting on the logical kind of mindset that one must adopt if one rejects God. Why be so glum if death happens to everyone?

When Hamlet responds to these requests by explaining that his pain is real and justified, the King then launches into an extended speech intended to pressure Hamlet into accepting his invented “good.” His tone is somewhat condescending; (very much like tone that the New Atheist’s take in their writing) “Tis sweet and commendable in your nature,”[8] but this is normal, every one dies, and your obstinate persistence in not accepting my will is really unmanly, in fact it shows “a mind impatient, / An understanding simple and unschooled.”[9] The King attempts to use his position to bully Hamlet into accepting his picture of the situation  When Hamlet does not cooperate, the King sends him to his death in England. This dialogue is foreshadowing of the clash of wills evident in the worldview debate between the New Atheist’s and religion today.

Another problem with inventing a purpose for one’s self is it tends to function well only when things are good. The popular entertainer and New Atheist, Pen Jillette, puts it this way:

I’m not greedy, I have love, blue skies, rainbows and Hallmark cards, and that has to be enough. It has to be enough, but it’s everything in the world, and everything in the world is plenty for me… Just the love of my family that raised me and the family I’m raising now is enough that I don’t need heaven. I won the huge genetic lottery and I get joy every day.[10]

What Jillette suggests is that meaning and significance exists so long as one can find good things in one’s life.  What about those who did not win the genetic lottery?  Is there no meaning or significance to their lives?  Human beings seem to have an innate desire for significance, not just for pleasure or survival. Pleasure is not a very good motivator, because it operates on a principle of diminishing returns. How one finds meaning and significance in life has to trace back to one’s teleology; what one considers the purpose of mankind to be. However, if your basic assumptions about how mankind came to exist imply that he has no purpose that, in fact, there is no purpose of any kind in the universe, then meaning becomes arbitrary. Arbitrary meaning cannot hold up when one is confronted with injustice.

The exchange between Hamlet and the King and Queen highlights the faultiness of this kind of philosophy.  After berating Hamlet for his persistence in his mourning, the King tosses in a reminder of something positive, “for let the world take note, / You are the most immediate to our throne, / And with no less nobility of love/ Than that which dearest father bears his son…”[11] However, Hamlet’s position makes absolutely no difference to him. As soon as the King and Queen leave, Hamlet launches into his first soliloquy lamenting the pointlessness of his life: “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/ Seem to me all the uses of this world!”[12] There must be something else that can motivate Hamlet other than the good things in his life. Hamlet’s motivation has two aspects, justice and revenge. Although they keep him pressing on, his desire for revenge corrupts his desire for justice, which eventually leads to his death.

My Truth is Right For Me

On the other side of the Atheistic coin is the hopeless morass of Postmodernism. Postmodernism by its very nature is something that is ever shifting and difficult to define. Suffice it to say that one of the main characteristics of Postmodernism is relativism.  Postmodernism was born out of a reaction to one of Modernism’s chief tenets: certainty. With the Enlightenment, the West transitioned out of the Medieval period into the Modern era.  The God-centered universe was replaced with the man-centered universe, and “truth” became only what could be known through science and rational thought. Historian Jacques Barzun writes: “Science had persuaded the intelligent that the universe was nothing but the mechanical interaction of purposeless bits of matter.”[13]  Certainty was reduced to what one could deduce through scientific experimentation. Everything else was relegated to the realm of illusion and falsehood, including not only religion but the arts and humanities as well.

The Romantic Movement rose to counter the resulting death of subjectivity, and became the precursor to Postmodernism.[14] Reacting rather strongly to being ejected from the realm of truth they exploited a chink in the Enlightenment’s armor. Modernity’s shift to the supremacy of science discovered through the rational autonomous self actually exposed a contradiction in the worldview. If the universe was nothing more than “purposeless bits of matter” operating on natural laws, then this must also apply to the human mind.  The idea, carried to its natural conclusion, calls all human understanding into question.  Under this framework, the human mind is the tool by which we understand the universe.  All of our perceptions about everything, from scientific theories and laws to truth and beauty, are filtered through the mind. If the human mind is merely a product of the randomness of evolution, there is no way to verify that human thought and experience actually correspond to reality.  Postmodern philosophers noticed this chink in Modernity’s armor and to shore up atheistic worldview, had to conclude that everything is relative. All “scientific certainties”, the meaning of the words, ideas about morality become simply an ever-changing product of the social environment.

It is easy to see how radical relativism has filtered into the popular culture and unhinged the moral responsibility of the individual. An overarching moral code has been obliterated. Individual moral autonomy has been redefined as freedom instead of rebellion against God, in these days as in Judges, every man does that which is right in his own eyes, even if it goes against natural law.  Goodbye certainty, hello “freedom.” This “escape from reason,” as Francis Schaeffer puts it, has led to a growing sense of apathy among those espousing Postmodern thought, particularly in the realm of Christian truth claims. From this perspective there is even less on which to base meaning and purpose than the Modern Atheist has, because now even science is unmoored from ultimate reality.  Meaninglessness is now complete. Personal happiness as defined by the autonomous self is the new religion.  It is easy on the surface to sidestep the hopelessness inherent in this sad, destructive, civilization destroying perspective and just go along to get along, oblivious to everything but what is “true for me.”

Both the Modern Atheist and the Postmodern Skeptic agree that happiness is the chief aim of man.  Darwin in his autobiography writes: “all sentient beings have been formed so as to enjoy, as a general rule, happiness.”[15] And from the Postmodern relativistic perspective, what else could possibly be the aim of humanity? But there is something that tends to intrude on individually autonomously defined happiness, a universal innate sense of justice. It is hard to maintain one’s sense of happiness when the injustice in the world intrudes into our consciousness either through personal misfortune or through observed atrocities. There is something in us that balks at the idea of having peace and joy while others are suffering. This is why atheists, both Modern and Postmodern are just as offended by perceived and real injustice as Christians.

Divine Justice – A Robust Motivation

There is an intimate connection between meaning and purpose and our own happiness. That connection is ultimate justice. If man’s chief aim is to be happy (and I am not sure that it is, but let’s grant that for the time being), then there has to be some way for a person to achieve at least peace in the midst of personal struggle. This is where Hamlet and Ecclesiastes have something to teach us about meaning, purpose and happiness.

It is possible to maintain the perspectives of the Modern Atheist and the Postmodern Skeptic when things are going well, even when faced with injustice in the wider world. However, those perspective begin to break down and give the Christian apologist an opportunity to give an answer for the hope that is within us when the Atheist and Postmodern Skeptic is faced with personal tragedy and hardship. How does one answer the bleakness of these kinds of outlooks?  Especially poignant is the time when they find that everything is not blue sky and Hallmark cards. In this we can return to Hamlet and Ecclesiastes to see if there might be some potential answers.

As Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in the 1590’s, it is clear that that the issue of the futility of human existence is not a problem that has cropped up with the scientific discovery of the impending demise of the universe.  In Hamlet we have a character who is certainly not experiencing blue skies and Hallmark cards.  After his exchange with the King and Queen mentioned above, Hamlet’s response is “O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, / Or that the Everlasting had not fixed/ His cannon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, God, / How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/ Seem to me all the uses of this world!”[16]  Hamlet’s distress brings him to the brink of suicide, but his hand is stayed from taking his own life by his deep belief in Divine justice. All the other things that could be perceived as good in Hamlet’s life are worthless to him. The answer the Modern Atheist has to give Hamlet in his pain would not be sufficient.  I suppose that Penn Jillette would have to tell Hamlet that since his belief in ultimate justice was simply an illusion, and if he did not feel like living, then he might as well end it all. Suicide is an acceptable alternative–though not the brave alternative. But Hamlet’s worldview gives him strength to muddle through his pain, because he acknowledges a transcendent authority that supersedes his own desires and a purpose for all things that he is bigger than himself. He is sustained by his belief in an ultimate justice that will hold him accountable for his decisions

It is important to note that Hamlet does not know that his father has been murdered when he makes his first soliloquy. Yet he still perceives that an injustice has been done. His mother, who appeared to love his father greatly – “…she would hang on him/ As if increase of appetite had grown/ by what it fed on.” [17]– married his uncle before the body was even cold. His mother’s callous act was just as instrumental in driving Hamlet to suicidal thoughts, as was the death of his father. This speaks to the fact that outside of societal laws Hamlet believed in a universal moral standard. Hamlet was not saying: “well, I guess if she thinks it’s okay then it must be okay for her.”

In Hamlet’s other soliloquies he is becoming even more morose before the obstacles in his path.  In the famous “To be or not to be” speech we see Hamlet’s temptation to slip into something of the Modern Atheist’s sentiments of courage in the face of futility when he muses: “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles/ And, by opposing, end them.”[18] However, Hamlet is struck in this moment with all of the injustice in the world, at the pointlessness of taking arms against the sea of troubles for in the very next line he is flirting with death: “To die, to sleep-/ No more- and by a sleep to say we end.”[19] In this speech we have an example of not only personal tragedy but also general human tragedy as well. He laments about the futility of life where good people “bear the whips and scorns of time, / Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, /…the law’s delay, / The insolence of office, and the spurns/ That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes.”[20] This is very similar to Solomon’s lament in chapter 4 of Ecclesiastes: “Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed- and they have to comforter; power was on the side of the oppressors- and they have no comforter.”[21] In the face of this injustice Hamlet is motivated by two things; his fear of divine justice for the sin of suicide, the “dread of something after death”[22] and the desire for justice for his father.  As we can see justice is a very powerful motivator for Hamlet during times of distress. It is strong enough even to overcome Hamlet’s feelings of hopelessness in the futility of the human condition.

The tragedy of Hamlet is that underneath Hamlet’s desire and respect for justice is an equally strong desire for revenge. We can see this most clearly from Hamlet’s final soliloquy. Hamlet has just encountered another example of futility in Fortinbras’ campaign against the Poles over an area of land that is worthless. Rather than have this discovery put Hamlet’s own situation into perspective, Shakespeare has it be a motivator to goad Hamlet back to his course of revenge.  Hamlet has just killed Polonius by accident and this, being the first death at his hands, should have had the effect of bringing Hamlet to his senses.  Instead, Hamlet identifies himself with Fortinbras. He says: “Rightly to be great/ Is not to stir without great argument, / But greatly to find quarrel in a straw/ When honor’s at the stake.”[23] Hamlet justifies himself by saying that if it is right for Fortinbras to sacrifice thousands of men for a matter of his country’s honor, how much more is his cause just who has a “father killed, a mother stained.”[24] From this point forward, Hamlet pursues his goal with single-mindedness, and by the end of the play has four more deaths to his name in quest for revenge and it ultimately costs him his own life.  Self-justification has been Hamlet’s undoing.

When we turn to Ecclesiastes we can see a better answer to life’s futility, and a path towards joy, even in difficult circumstances. In Hamlet we see the futility of the human condition in personal tragedy. In Ecclesiastes we have a much more comprehensive catalogue of meaninglessness.  Solomon writes of the futility of human achievement and labor, the futility of human knowledge and wisdom, the futility of seeking pleasure, and the futility of material gain.  For Solomon, everything is meaningless because the same fate of death awaits all, the righteous and the unrighteous. Taken at face value, this can seem very similar to what the Atheists are arguing. Solomon’s answer to this, “A man can do nothing better that to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.”[25] Also this sounds similar to the Atheist’s solution of creating meaning and purpose out of the good things in life. The difference is that their worldview does not support a reason to press on during times of personal tragedy when all the possible good things seem worthless. Solomon has a better answer for the question “Who is there?” For Solomon and for Hamlet, the answer is God, Who is the source of meaning and purpose. Though we cannot completely fathom His purposes and plans, He is One we can trust. From this perspective the good things in life can be seen as gifts from God and not arbitrary illusions created by the mind of man. This helps us hold onto them even during times of trouble. Solomon states six times[26] that we are to enjoy our lives and the good things in them, but in each case he reiterates that we must acknowledge that these are gifts from God.

Solomon acknowledges something more though that can answer those times when one is overtaken by the depression of life’s futility in difficult circumstances.  He writes “I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity I the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”[27] Examples of this eternal perspective are actually evident even in the fact that Atheists, who believe that death is the end, care what kind of world they are leaving for future generations, and also the fact that everyone wants to be remembered well. Along with this eternal perspective Solomon acknowledges future justice. He writes: “Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account.”[28]

Conclusion

Justice is a very important part of human existence; one, in fact, that we can’t ignore. Otherwise there would be no outrage at horrors that happen in parts of the world that have nothing to do with us, including societies that may have completely different standards and moral codes. This pertains not only to the Modern Atheist but also to the Post Modern skeptic. The Modern Atheist might say that everything is explainable in terms of cause and effect and natural law and therefore, freewill is an illusion, but let a religion say that it is sin to be homosexual or that women should be circumcised and they are quick to denounce these as inhumane and immoral. The Postmodern Skeptic might say that your truth is right for you and my truth is right for me, but can be quick to rail against any society that acts environmentally irresponsible. Everyone has something inside that recognizes when some kind of behavior is wrong, even when one’s philosophy might not be able to support why it is wrong. Why can’t most Atheists be content to believe what they believe and let others who disagree with them do the same? Why must there be books like The Portable Atheist that are practically devoted to denouncing other people’s views. I believe it is tied to out innate sense that justice should be done.  When our sensibilities are offended we cannot stand by and do nothing.  It affects our ability to be happy.

Divine justice ties everything together and makes it possible to enjoy the good things in our lives when times are tough or when confronted with senseless evil and suffering. It provides a reason to keep on going when the good things are not enough, like we see in Hamlet’s personal tragedy. It is so important that it is Solomon’s last word on the matter.  In the final verses of Ecclesiastes he says: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”[29] As Christians we should be grateful for the difficult times, for it is in those times that our lives serve as the best example to those who don’t believe. It is during those times when we are holding onto the promise that God will make everything right and we are able to have peace and joy that our light shines brightest and can point the way for the unbeliever. The Christian hope includes God’s exceeding great and precious promise to make all things work together for our salvation.  We alone can put a brave face to the world.

[1] William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark Folger edition, Ed. Barbara Mowat, and Paul Werstine (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2012) Act 1 Sc. 1 line1.

[2] Ibid., 1:2,14.

[3] Professor James Taylor describes the New Atheist’s as a group of early twenty-first century authors who “exhibit an unusually high level of confidence in their views,” and who “tend to be motivated by a sense of moral concern and even outrage about the effects of religious beliefs on the global scene… The New Atheists make substantial use of the natural sciences in both their criticisms of theistic belief and in their proposed explanations of its origin and evolution. They draw on science for recommended alternatives to religion.”

James E. Taylor, “The New Atheists,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/n-atheis/ , (9/19/2014).

[4] Stoeger, William R.. “Thermodynamics, Second Law of.” Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. 2003.Encyclopedia.com. 13 Sep. 2014 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

[5] Steven Weinberg, “What about God” in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings For The Nonbeliever, Ed. Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007) 375.

[6] Hamlet, Act 1, Sc. 2 Line 69.

[7] Ibid., Line 71-75.

[8] Ibid., 90.

[9] Ibid., Line 97-101.

[10] Penn Jillette, There is No God in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings For The Nonbeliever, Ed. Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007) 349.

[11] Hamlet, Act 1 Sc. 2 Line 112-115.

[12] Ibid., Line 137-138.

[13] Jacques Barzun, The Use and Abuse of Art (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974), 53.

[14] For more on the transition from Romanticism through Existentialism to Postmodernism see Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind Morals, and Meaning by Nancy Pearcey (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 95.

[15] Charles Darwin, Autobiography in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings For The Nonbeliever, Ed. Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007), 94.

[16] Hamlet, Act 1 Sc. 2 line 133-138.

[17] Ibid., line 147-149.

[18] Hamlet, Act 3, Sc. 1, line 65-68.

[19] Ibid., line 68-69.

[20] Ibid., line 78-82.

[21] Ecclesiastes 4:1 NIV.

[22] Hamlet, Act 3 Sc. 1 line 86.

[23] Ibid.,  Act 4 Sc. 4 line 55-57.

[24] Ibid., Act 4 Sc. 4 line 60.

[25] Ecclesiastes 2:24 NIV

[26] Ecclesiastes 2:24-26, 3:12-13, 5:18-19, 8:15, 9:7-9.

[27] Ecclesiastes 3:10 NIV

[28] Ecclesiastes 3:15 NIV

[29] Ecclesiastes 12:13-14.

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