Sooner or later, we all have to face the problem of significance: we all try to find meaning in our lives. While it is fashionable to deny that life has a meaning it is quite difficult to live as if life was pointless. We all act as if we have import and we all seek significance in some way or other. We try to make a difference with our lives. We search for authenticity in our relationships and careers. We share iPhoto slide shows and profiles on social networking sites to tell others the story of our lives. This is odd behaviour if we truly believe that there are no answers, and the universe is the result of impersonal forces.
Things can only “matter” if someone is concerned about them; they can only have a purpose if someone has shaped them according to a plan. Our lives do not matter in any ultimate sense if they are the accidental outcome of impersonal forces working on impersonal particles. We have absurdly short amount of time to live under the Sun and the human species will not outlive the Galaxy; we cannot create the value we desire. So humanity craves a deeper significance than physics can offer or that we can invent. Why is that?
This craving for significance goes beyond a yearning for purpose; examining our desires reveals what we are searching for. Search for those desires which are felt cross-culturally and reoccur in literature, art and religion. Look for enduring needs that can last for a lifetime and not momentary whims. Leave out desires and impulses which would satisfy some at the cost of others: blood-lust, revenge and greed will rob some individuals of their quest for joy. Eventually we discover a logically coherent set of fundamental needs: a vision for life that would let us all exist in harmony, and that every human could live out and find satisfying.
What are these needs? First, we need to escape the terror of death – to know that our value does not disappear when we die. This is why we want to build something – be it a business, a family or some artistic project – that others will value when we are dust. But we know that, like the vapour, these projects will pass away in time too. So we need to know that someone is watching us, that someone takes account of the good we try to achieve. We also need a life full of goodness, kindness, patience and love. We need to love and be loved fully and unconditionally; we need to be known and accepted by someone who truly knows us.
When we encounter a new-born child, the vastness of the galaxies, or the complexity of the cell we are reminded of our limitations, and we feel awe. We need that feeling because we need to know there is something greater than ourselves. We can feel awe we discover the skill and commitment of exceptional human beings, or the goodness and kindness of moral saints. We need a sense of providence to feel assurance that everything really will be okay in the end. We need to know that life is fair, that the moral chaos of the world will be vanquished, that justice will prevail and that everyone will get what they deserve.
We should acknowledge that our fundamental needs can teach us something about the nature of the universe and our place in it if we believe that there is accord between the human mind and reality. Such needs have been felt by many people across time and culture; they are not superficial whims because they can endure throughout a life-time. Each need is connected to at least some of the others they form a constellation of connected desires. Finally, this is not an exercise in wish-fulfilment, a quest for Shangri-La. Each of these needs is morally and existentially challenging – having our needs for love and goodness met would lead to a painful transformation of character.
In fact, the problem with our existential needs is that we do not want to have them. We are certainly happy to dabble with them, occasionally trying to be good, having the odd experience of beauty and trying to be fair and patient when it suits us. But, in the short term, ignoring the needs or paying them lip service is so much easier than trying to meet them. They place obligations on us that are terribly inconvenient and some of the goals seem impossible to attain. Impossible, that is, unless there is a God.
After all, if there is a God, the universe would have a meaning, life would have a purpose and history would have a goal. A being of limitless, loving power – what the Bible calls Holiness – could satisfy our need to experience awe, would love us unconditionally and know us better than we know ourselves. And there’s the rub. God would demand that we live good, kind, loving lives – in fact, that would be why he made us. However, God would also know that we deliberately refuse to live such lives. He would know that we do not even try to live such lives – that we do not even regret how easy it is to set aside our needs to satisfy our wants.
God would also know what we would do if only we could escape the consequences. The fear of shame and punishment often motivates us more than a desire to do what is good and loving. It is terrifying to consider what we would become if we literally could get away with anything. If we were made a little lower than the angels we would live a little better than devils. We all have a chilling capacity for amorality; to put ourselves ahead of even those we love the most. And if there is a God, God would not only know everything we have done, but who we truly are. It is better, perhaps, never to have existed than to be seen by a good God.
If only we could be fit to see God face to face – if only we could be holy as he is Holy. We can’t achieve that for ourselves. We have done too much and wished for too many terrible things. But what if someone could take responsibility for us? After all, a parent can accept the consequences for a child’s actions; an officer can make himself accountable for his men. Hence the Cross. Here the Son of God takes responsibility for those who will come to him. If we will draw near to him, he will accept us as his children. The blame and the shame will be his and his alone. The price for our failure would be revealed, but paid in full.
However, a parent is not responsible for a stranger. We can only be accountable for those who have united with us in some way. If you distance yourself from Christ’s sacrifice the Cross will be of no benefit to you. If you come to him, you must accept him for who he is: you must give him his rights as your Creator, Saviour and Lord. This is challenging: but given what we know about human needs, we would expect it to be challenging. Indeed, this gives us good reason to trust the Gospel’s call to surrender to Jesus at the Cross.The call of the Gospel is just the sort of evidence we would expect from God. If God is good he would want to transform us morally and existentially.
We can hear his call work on our consciences and answering the call will begin to satisfy our deepest needs. The Cross reassures us that God is Good – that, even in the midst of chaos, we can trust him because he has suffered for us, and with us, and he has already acted against injustice. The Cross answers our needs for justice and forgiveness; our need to be known and loved in spite of who we are. So we should not reject our fundamental needs as illusions or mistakes. Rather, we should take them to Calvary and there allow God to transform us into something more significant than anything we ever dared to hope for: a child of God, bought at great price.
John Hare The Moral Gap ( Clarendon:1997)
Paul Moser The Evidence for God (Cambridge: 2009)
William Wainwright Reason and the Heart (Cornell:1995)
Clifford Williams Existential Reasons for Belief in God (IVP Academic: 2011)