The fighters of ISIS—the “Islamic State” group that wants to establish a transnational Muslim Caliphate—seem to be sincere in their aims and to sincerely worship what they take to be God. The imagined “God” they serve through brutal violence, however, has a primal essence only of raw power. This God is all Will and Demand; the brutal Dictator of existence. The only possible human response is absolute submission and obedience, under the threat of wrath and torment. While this has been called “Radical Islam” there is nothing truly radical about it; it is only another sad occasion in history of the will to power of violent men. For such men, the heart of existence is the will to power through conquest and subjugation.
Because of the depth and nuance of his philosophy, and his refusal to take cheap shots at Christianity, Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) is one of my favorite atheists (see http://www.mbird.com/2014/09/these-are-a-few-of-my-favorite-atheists-albert-camus/). Camus concluded that the “silence” of God and of the universe, in the face of our human “longing for happiness and reason” meant that at the heart of existence was “the absurd” (The Myth of Sisyphus, p. 21). He believed that we must still “rebel” against the absurd and affirm human values—decency, compassion, freedom—but it is hard to see how the mere individual affirmation of these values would ever succeed in bringing them about in a world that truly was absurd or bring any real solace to the individual.
In his influential book, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe (1977), atheist theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg concluded, “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” Weinberg later walked that statement back a bit in a PBS interview by asserting that, “I believe that there is no point in the universe that can be discovered by the methods of science. I believe that what we have found so far, an impersonal universe in which it is not particularly directed toward human beings is what we are going to continue to find. And that when we find the ultimate laws of nature they will have a chilling, cold impersonal quality about them.” Yet, his assertion that the point to life might be that, “faced with this unloving, impersonal universe we make a little island of warmth and love and science and art for ourselves” (see http://www.pbs.org/faithandreason/transcript/wein-frame.html), seems little more than self-contradictory whistling-in-the-dark. If science has truly revealed a cold, impersonal, pointless cosmos of which we are the random impersonal product, than Weinberg’s attempt to assert a “point” to human life in the midst of a pointless cosmos is simply the counsel to write whatever meaning suits you on the blank slate of nothingness that is the heart of existence.
History, Philosophy, Science—if we look at these separate and alone we come up only with Power, or Absurdity, or impersonal Nothingness as the heart of existence. As startling or disconcerting as these things may sound, there is nothing radical here, either. For centuries, conquerors, barbarians, Sophists, scientists, and pantheists have asserted such things. Against all these, it the absolutely radical claim of Christianity that the heart of existence is love. This claim has lost its radical-ness by repetition, familiarity, and misuse, but it is anything but obvious.
In the face of a blood-soaked human history in the midst of a seemingly absurd and pointless material universe, how can we know, how dare we claim that the heart of existence is the God who is Love? And what is this “love”, that God is?
Next Week, A Follow-up—What is Love? (Baby Don’t Hurt Me)