LET ME SHARE A STORY, one told by Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) the British mathematician, philosopher, political activist, and atheist. Once upon a time . . . Okay, he doesn’t actually begin it that way:
“… Even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation be safely built.” (from Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship”, in Why I Am Not A Christian).
This is the Big Story, the Grand Narrative of human existence that Russell tells himself is the Truth, and he clearly desires—fairly insists—that we also make it the Story of our lives. Russell cobbled his story together from equal parts philosophical atheism, cosmology as it was then understood, and especially from Charles Darwin’s story of evolution by natural selection. Some told a similar story before him, and many have told the same story since, but Russell’s version stands out in its eloquence and for the unflinching way he follows the logic of his atheism—an atheism he inherited from his aristocratic British father—to its despairing conclusion. There is almost a kind of tragic grandeur to this story—of the same sort with which Charles Darwin characterized his story of evolution: “There is grandeur in this view of life” arising and diversifying from “the war of nature, from famine and death” and spinning out “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” (from The Origin of Species). But ultimately Russell’s story, as Darwin’s, is just a terrible and trivial tale told well. There is no power in this story and no beauty. And, therefore, no Truth.
There is no power in this story—despite its pretensions of being based on science—to explain the existence of a universe at all or to explain how inanimate matter, through chance and necessity alone, produced living organisms. There is no power to explain how an impersonal, un-self-aware universe operating according to impersonal physical laws with no intentions or “prevision of the end they were achieving” could accidentally produce persons with consciousness, self-awareness, and a deep longing for meaning and purpose.
Most importantly, this story has no power to tell us who we are to ourselves in a way that is both satisfying and fitting. Who really gets themselves up in the morning believing that their part in the Story of existence is that they are nothing “but the accidental collocations of atoms”? What power does a “firm foundation of unyielding despair” have to inspire us to build a life, to discover knowledge, to produce art, to love one another?
There is no beauty in this story—despite Russell’s eloquence and erudition. His literate style in fact masks a deep ugliness. His is a story of nothingness to nothingness, of endless death and darkness. It holds no light, no beauty to desire; an odor clings to it of decay covered by cheap perfume. Telling this story—and trying to convince oneself and others that it is the Truth—is a failure of imagination as well as reason. Perhaps Russell was comfortable in his harsh nihilism, but I wonder. Perhaps he believed he was grasping a hard Promethean fire of truth that lesser mortals could not manage, but maybe it was more a Milton-esque hubris at work: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” I don’t know. But I do know that Russell’s story—a paradigm of atheist materialism—is so unattractive in its substance that I wonder why anyone would want to believe it at all, let alone hold it in a death grip, especially when there are better stories.
LET ME SHARE A DIFFERENT STORY:
“Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself; and when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.” (The Book of Common Prayer, Rite II, p. 362)
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away … And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’. (Revelation 21:1-4)
There is beauty in this story of an infinite God who, out of overflowing love, creates the whole vast cosmos and creates us to share it with him, and, when we turn from him, seeks us out to bring us home. This story illumines our existence and engenders a desire to be wrapped in its beauty. There is power in this story to explain and weave all the facts—of science, of history, of logic, and intuition—into a coherent and meaningful whole. This story tells us where we came from, who we are, and where we are going.
THE WORLD DOES NOT NEATLY DIVIDE INTO FACTS, but humanity does divide into Stories, and fewer than we might imagine. And there is, there must be, one True Story. A story with the power to explain the origin and meaning of human existence, and with a beauty and brightness that surpasses human imagination; a story that answers our deepest longings and in which we can live and move and have our being.