Cornerstone

“Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever.” -Psalm 125:1

It’s not hard for Christians who read their Bibles (yes, there are many who don’t, but I know you are not among them...) to connect big philosophical issues like “disappointment with life” and “lifelong bitterness” (often subsumed under the catch all word “bummer”) with the events that took place eons ago, described for us in a blessedly brief shorthand in Genesis chapter 3. We often verbally tiptoe around it with the delicate shorthand of “The Fall.” 

For the sake of a newish believer and those who have never ever even heard of a book called “The Bible,” allow me to summarize: We start with the idea that there were two original created individuals made by God—consisting of exactly one female human and one male human—literally the people we should all call “Mom ’n Dad,” who lived in perfect harmony with God and worked in a beautiful garden. One day they decided that they didn’t really need this giant God-person who kept looking over their shoulders at what they were accomplishing, and that they could do this all on their own, so they rebelled.

Since then, our vocabulary in every language contains many words to describe how life doesn’t work, how it fails to please, how it avoids our every attempt to tame and conquer it, and how it inevitably deals us the crushing blow of death, no matter how we attempt to avoid it. “Bummer” is, I think, the latest of them. This non-working “bummer” life frustrates our attempts to find meaning and a sense of purpose, and the result is undergraduate philosophy majors and about a zillion books and articles on the “meaning of life.”

Jaques Barzun is no longer well-known but his insight and wide knowledge always make him interesting. In the latest issue of “The American Scholar” two of Barzun’s grandchildren introduce a talk delivered by their distinguished grandfather at a conference in 1969 that somehow got lost for many years. “The American Scholar” advertised his transcribed speech on the cover as being titled “What Is The Meaning of Life?” I’m pretty interested in the subject of life having meaning, so I practically ripped the magazine open to read what he thought. There was an introductory article by his grandsons that explained how they got a CD of the “lost” speech. Their article used the actual title of the speech: “Present-Day Thoughts on the Quality of Life”. Now, to me, “thoughts on...” seems a step down from “Meaning of...”

A couple of pages later I found the actual transcription of the speech which is titled: “Is Life Worth Living?” I guess you could conflate those three titles into a common query. I mean, if there’s no meaning to life then “quality” is definitely reduced, and life probably isn’t worth living. But at this point I was much less hopeful of getting an answer to the “meaning” question and more expecting a sort of musing on the miseries that assail us. Bummer.

But reading anything by Barzun, especially from my biblical perspective, is worthy of my time and attention, and this was no exception. He finds the essential question each individual asks of life is very personal, but can be summarized as “My life is ​not of the right quality. How can I make it so?” He argues that people say society is crushing them, fitting them into its iron-hard parameters and demanding each of us do our part so that all of our lives can be a little easier. And yet we feel trapped. Remember, this was delivered in 1969, when the cultural standard for the good life involved “dropping acid and dropping out”.

He raises the issues of the impersonality and alienation of life. People feel like they are “mere units” in a very complex culture that requires everyone to perform well and rightly and not make trouble. It is impersonal, yet being “personal” tends to jam the cogs of the great wheels of our culture that make it work. It’s also dangerous, usually an egregious imposition, emotionally draining and seldom helpful.

We might argue from our perspective of fifty more years that we have focused a lot more on allowing people to be more “personal”. Yet as a culture we seem fairly dissatisfied with what we see happening. It doesn’t look much better. But since we are helpless to prevent much of it because of our strong emphasis on respect for individual “rights” we develop a defense of indifference. We hunker down, do our piece, get away from work quickly, maximize entertainment (sports, gaming, making jewelry, gardening...), and endure.

A second loss he sees is the disappearance of “work.” And by that he doesn’t mean a job or stuff to do, but “a sense of tackling a job of some interest, overcoming its difficulties..and seeing...a finished product.” We’re all frustrated. We work and work, and nothing changes. We are treadmill-walkers. “Frustration” is the premier word to describe your career and mine, and pretty much everyone’s. He defines “frustration” as “repeated non-accomplishment.” He writes: “non-accomplishment is one of the most debilitating and despair-making experiences in life.”

That’s the sentence I underlined. 

Sadly, I suspect little has changed about our society or our culture. I think the reason this old speech was published has less to do with the fame of his name as it does with the relevance of his ruminations fifty years later. We seem to be struggling in the same mud pot, and perhaps not even aware that this has been a struggle for previous generations. I’m sorry to report he didn’t try for an answer to our dilemma, just to define and clarify it.

I remember very clearly the point at which I realized that I had a new and reduced definition of the the word “frustration.” After many years of public sector work—which trains you magnificently in the art of being frustrated—I was slowly and reluctantly awakened to the reality of the biblical God, fighting the battle to end my sovereignty and acknowledge His, and beginning to view my life and my purpose  very differently. “Non-accomplishment,” the major product of civil service work and life in general, was no longer an issue.

It was through my daily actions, whether accomplishments were achieved or not, that I encountered people and built ever deeper relationships. Something began to enter my mornings like a rising sun, changing my way through each day—I had only a three-letter word to describe it, “joy”—and it was not so much a definition as a sighting. 

It was interesting to me that once death was taken off the table, issues of “quality of life” and “self-worth” became self-fulfilling. The very fact that I was known and deeply cared for by the everlasting, caring, seriously powerful God described in this ancient book made pretty much every act and every relationship an accomplishment of the highest order.

I think Barzun is correct in his insights into what was, and is, broken about our culture. I’m impressed and saddened that the world at large seems to think this country is the optimum location for life at its best. I admit it does look good when everything in a person’s present life and location is worse. But I imagine how great the disappointment to work so hard to successfully get here and find out that this culture is only a more sophisticated version of what you just left: greed, boredom, “non-accomplishment”, injustice, hardship. 

Somehow I find it sad that Dr. Barzun, so brilliant, didn’t find his own way to the true solution. He analyzed the issues accurately but achieved no answer. He seems to have stayed within the defeating bonds of a God-absent and non-transcendent life. Or if he knew, he didn’t tell. 

But he certainly asked the serious questions, whether it was “Is Life Worth Living?” (Wow! Is it!) “What Needs Correction in Our Present Day Thoughts on the Quality of Life?” (A biblical understanding that life transcends what we can do on this planet.) and “What Is the Meaning of Life?” (How about: life forever with the God who made me, in the world He made?) 

He was a brilliant man and I respect him for his brilliance. The real bummer is that any ordinary Christian who knew her Bible could have taught him to hope.

Jim Leonard

Jim serves Cornerstone through pastoral care and by overseeing internal ministries and administration.

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