Meaning and Endings: Death, New Creation & Meaningful Life

Feast of St Gregory the Dialogist

Christ_tomb_red_square.jpgTHAT IT'S ALL going to come to naught—for individual persons and the universe as a whole—if naturalism is true, is relevant to meaningful life. Quite a few philosophers disagree. They do not disagree with the claim that there are likely sorts of dying (dying very young so as to prevent one from attaining important goals, for example) that could threaten or, more modestly, mitigate meaningfulness in life. They disagree, however, that the mere fact that our lives will end and that the universe will someday become irreversibly inhospitable to life makes much of a difference for meaningful life. After all, if one secures meaningful existence through rich interpersonal relationships or by experiencing great joy in attaining carefully-chosen goals (making medical breakthroughs with one’s research, for example) or in devoting one’s life to a larger-than-oneself cause (fighting to end the plague that is sex-trafficking, for example), then those pursuits and a life oriented around them are not thereby robbed of meaningfulness because they and that life eventually come to an end. Surely their meaningfulness or lack thereof is not tied to lasting forever, is it? If you noticed a small child about to be run over by a car and you could do something about it, you wouldn’t reason as follows: “Both I and that child are going to die someday, maybe soon for all we know. The universe will 'die' someday too. Hmmm . . . I think I’ll pass on this opportunity.”

Many philosophers are critical of assigning evaluative significance to personal and cosmic endings (qua endings). Philosophical protestations aside, it’s quite common to hear a claim like: “If death has the final word (as it does on naturalism) then life is ultimately meaningless.” A rubric has been coined to capture a family of arguments originating in such an intuition—final outcome arguments (FOAs). FOAs attach most or all of the significance to the final state of something. Critics of FOAs think that such privileging of the future over the past and present is arbitrary and misguided. Why should the end have veto power over the pre-end?

Are death (again, just the bare bones fact that we will die and cease to exist forever if naturalism is true) and meaningfulness hermetically sealed in such an absolute way? Are advocates of something like FOAs completely misguided? I suspect not.

HINTS FROM HISTORIOGRAPHY

The future can alter the significance of the past. The thick past (the past as told by historians) includes our descriptions of the thin past (the bare bones, skeletal events that provide the raw material for the enterprise of history). Though the thin past cannot change in any strict ontological sense (given the plausibility of a principle like the necessity of the past), the thick past surely changes in its significance and meaning as it enters into new relationships with future events.

I teach at the University of Notre Dame. It goes without saying that football is a really big deal in the community here. Let’s imagine that during a game, Notre Dame’s quarterback throws a touchdown pass with one minute left in the final quarter. The thick description of that touchdown pass (above and beyond a mere physical description of the ball’s velocity, distance thrown and so on) will change depending on whether Notre Dame goes on to win the game. If they do win, the thick past can now include the description that the quarterback threw the winning pass with 1:00 to go. If they lose, it cannot be the winning pass. Something about the pass remains fixed, but something not entirely trivial changes given the outcome of the game. The future altered the significance and meaning of the pass (and the past!). Similarly, the way life ends—whether death has the final word as in naturalism or whether death is only penultimate as in Christian theism—alters the significance and meaning of pre-end life.

THE PROLEPTIC POWER OF NARRATIVE ENDING

In virtue of being the end, a narrative’s ending has great proleptic power to elicit a wide range of broadly normative human responses on emotional, aesthetic, and moral levels towards the narrative as a whole. Importantly, the emotion that resolves a narrative cadence subsumes the emotions that preceded it. The ending marks the last word, after which nothing else can be said, either by way of remedying problems or destroying felicities that have arisen within the narrative. If the last word is that hope is finally and irreversibly dashed, then despair and grief will be indelible at the end; if the last word is that deep longings have been satisfied, then joy will be indelible at the end.

We often think of our personal lives and cosmic “life” narratively, in the case of the latter, meta-narratively. As long as our narrative proclivities are engaged, and in so far as narrative ending is normatively significant, thoughts of ending inevitably will encroach on our evaluations of the meaningfulness and significance of our lives. Are we being unreasonable for allowing such encroachment? The above lessons from historiography and narrative theory are important clues that we are not.

TRAGEDY OR COMEDY?

Back to our young child in peril, I’d still try to save her even if I knew that both my life and hers would end in two weeks. I’d still try to save her even if naturalism is true, there is therefore no supernatural realm, and the universe will eventually become irrevocably hostile to life. But, saving the child would not be without a salient undercurrent of tragedy, tragedy partly connected to the way it will all end. The universe will eventually crush us both, and there will be no one to save us. Someday, eons into the future it will crush itself, and there will be no one to save it. The last word will be death not life. Decay not fecundity. Absence not presence.

The final, indelible end lurks. If naturalism accurately narrates our universe’s ending, then tragedy more aptly than comedy describes the world in which we live. If Christian theism accurately narrates our universe’s ending, then we live in an ultimately comedic universe, though of course not one without significant pain and suffering. Bertrand Russell spoke of “the debris of a universe in ruins.” Sacred Scripture and Tradition speak of a renewed creation. Naturalism leaves us with a lifeless universe in the end. Even more tragically, it leaves us with a situation where many (perhaps most) injustices and atrocities in world history are not rectified. Naturalism simply lacks the necessary ontological architecture to put all things to rights. Christian theism offers us a redeemed humanity and cosmos, and Trinitarian omnipotence underwrites such redemption. These are two vastly different endings to the story of our universe, endings relevant not only at some distant point in the future, but relevant right now.

I side with Qoheleth, Tolstoy and pessimistic naturalists like Schopenhauer. I side with the Apostle Paul and Jesus. Death is a real problem for meaningful life, much more of a problem, I would argue, than many contemporary naturalist philosophers think. It’s partly a problem (and the Christian theistic ending is a solution) because ending is relevant for meaningful life.

Not all endings are created equal. When, with tear-filled eyes, we witness yet another loved one’s coffin being slowly lowered into the earth, something deep within our heart longs and hopes for a blessed ultimate ending, an ending that naturalism cannot offer.

Grant us, with all who have died in the hope of the resurrection, to have our consummation and bliss in thy eternal and everlasting glory, and, with all thy saints, to receive the crown of life which thou dost promise to all who share in the victory of thy Son Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen (Burial, Rite I, Book of Common Prayer)


Josh Seachris is Program Director at the Center for Philosophy of Religion and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He lives with his wife, Sarah, and their three sons, William, Owen, and Evan in Granger, IN. A native Kansan, he misses Kansas sunsets.

A slightly different version of this essay was translated into Polish and published in Filozofuj! (April 2015). Both versions are highly-condensed, popularized forms of my “Death, futility, and the proleptic power of narrative ending.” Religious Studies 47:2 (June 2011): 141-163.

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