REPLY | The other side of religion


REPLY | The other side of religion

The big answer to the big question that eludes the smartest people is at the same time so complex and so simple that only God alone could have formulated it, writes KOOS MARAIS.

  • 24 November 2023
  • Free Speech
  • 10 min to read
  • article 11 of 22
  • Koos Marais

IKE BOSS launched an attack on religion in Vrye Weekblad of November 17, eliciting strong reactions from readers who agree with him. One of them, Henning Janse van Vuuren, quoted Arthur Schopenhauer: “They tell us that suicide is the greatest piece of cowardice… That suicide is wrong; when it is quite obvious that there is nothing in this world to which every man has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person.”

The great Russian writers Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky independently arrived at the same conclusion: the only thing that makes sense is suicide unless there is an awareness of something greater.

In May 2017, the renowned Afrikaans writer Karel Schoeman, at the age of 77, acted on his words and took his own life. For him, nothing, not even his work and fame, made sense any more. He left a thorough and clinical farewell letter, explaining that he did not see any prospect other than the weakening of the body and spirit and that he did not want to be a burden.

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Schoeman wrote about the meaning of life. “I do not believe that life has meaning, except in the sense that mere living lends meaning to it. One gives meaning to one's own life through a belief, religious, political, or otherwise, or by setting a goal to strive for or achieve: to raise a family, for example, or to write a book; but it is relative meaning and has to do with passing things.” Like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, he understood that the meaning of life is anchored in “something else”.

Yet Schoeman writes elsewhere: “Sunshine after rain, the green of spring or early summer still vivid, bees over the flowers in the garden. The meaning of life is here, is now; it is the present moment, always." He realised that heaven can be here and now if one can only perceive it, but then doubt crept in and he wrote again: “What meaning is there in continuing an existence like mine, one that is of no use to anyone any more and increasingly a burden to myself; unless life as such would still possess some meaning or value for a person?"

Schoeman often expressed the idea that his creativity gave meaning to his life. “I think I have already said it here, many times even, and yet I must repeat it: all that still gives meaning to life, to my life, is the creative ability, in my specific case, the ability to give apparent order and form to reality in rhythm, words and language." When his creativity began to falter, he lost the meaning of his life.

Indeed, creativity gives meaning to many people's lives, including my own. The arts (writing, music, painting) are not the only form of creation. Cooking a meal, gardening, even completing a form, having a conversation or signing a contract are different forms of creation. The mystery of prayer is surely the deepest form of creation. God created us in his image, the image of the great creator. That is why creativity is embedded in our DNA. God made us this way so that we can honour him with it. Our problem with creativity is that we so often want to use it for our own glory. Then things inevitably go awry.

Humanity's deepest desire is to be independent. Personally, the thought of the round hut by the mountain stream, complete with a vegetable garden, 20 sheep, chickens and solar panels, looms large. “Off the grid," as they say. The “heaven on earth", as many think. We do not want to depend on others, whether it's the ANC, Eskom, the Tshwane municipality, our family, or children; we want to look no one in the eye for help. Perhaps Schoeman wanted to avoid that too.

We all know the deterioration of the body makes us dependent on others. This is what Tolstoy and Dostoevsky meant when they said the only thing that makes sense is suicide. According to them, it is the only way to ensure we do not become dependent on others.

There is another perspective. Jesus Christ began his public life with the well-known Beatitudes, and the first says, “Blessed are those who know how dependent they are on God, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 4:3). Here, Jesus turns all our dreams of independence upside down in the first sentence of his first sermon. For Jesus Christ, the “round hut with solar panels" is not an option. Nor is an overweight bank account that exempts you from “dependence" and “grace" from other creatures. No, he wants us to be dependent on God and each other. For him, the meaning of life is precisely that we should help each other. For him, our pursuit of individualistic independence counts for nothing.

Perhaps the purpose of ageing is to bring us closer to God and our fellow human beings and to give us the opportunity to care for and be cared for. Perhaps that is precisely God's purpose. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness." Shouldn't we experience God's grace and power fully when we are broken, shattered, powerless, discouraged, sick and tired? Is that not the time and opportunity when we can experience his presence best? When we can experience heaven in a different way? Isn't that perhaps the pinnacle of a Christian's life? And is that not precisely why suicide doesn't make sense?

From another perspective: those of us who want to play God get the opportunity to be his hands and feet when we help people who are struggling. It makes a lot of sense to help others. Just ask any doctor or nurse who is worth their salt. Indeed, it is heavenly to serve our fellow human beings, especially when we give glory to God again. Helping other people is a recognised therapeutic technique for treating depression. People with depression are encouraged to find someone they can do something for, even if it's a simple task like shopping or mowing the lawn. By meaning something to someone else, they find meaning in life themselves.

Another philosopher, the great playwright Jean-Paul Sartre, created the phrase “hell is other people" in No Exit. Many people incorrectly interpret these lines as meaning other people make your life hell. Sartre means the opposite. His three characters are in hell where each can only see themselves through the eyes and words of the other two characters. What's more, all they're interested in is themselves, their own ego.

There isn't even a mirror in Sartre's hell. Gradually, the characters become more and more disillusioned with themselves because they are so dependent on the opinions of the others. Because each is only interested in themselves, their opinions of each other are negative, so all three of their self-images eventually shatter and they discover the truth— they created their own hell, and the only way to escape it is to care for each other. By creating “heaven" for others, you escape hell yourself.

What Sartre meant by “hell is other people" is that your dependence on and obsession with other people's opinions about yourself can mean hell on earth, and the best way to escape that fire is to forget about yourself for a while and focus on helping and serving others. It sounds to me exactly like the message of the Bible. Heaven is now and here, but it takes a bit of work and effort, and forgetting about yourself.

Sex is another example of selfishness that can be destructive. By focusing solely on your own satisfaction, sex changes from a healthy, enjoyable, “heavenly" activity into something pornographic, but when one in the relationship focuses on satisfying the other, sex changes into what it is meant for — a heavenly activity, even the third sacrament. Talk about heaven on earth.

God created us in his image, as his representative, to be creative, to honour him, not ourselves. As soon as you seek your own glory — that is, the recognition of “other people" — life indeed becomes hell on earth, just as Sartre meant.

Most people will admit that they seek happiness. If you ask people what they want most in life, they will usually tell you, “I just want to be happy." It is sheer nonsense. There is no such thing as happiness or being happy. It is an illusion of something that does not exist. Lying on the beach or being in the game reserve, or wherever, will not make you “happy". The closest you'll come to it is when you try to make other people “happy". When you make it your life's goal, you may find something else. Peace. The peace that God gives and that “surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4:7).

The word “peace" appears on more than 70 occasions in the New Testament and even more in the Old Testament. The best we can hope for is peace, not “happiness". Christ came to give us peace, not to make us “happy". The Greek word for peace is “eirene", which also indicates wholeness and indivisibility, like a rock. The same applies to the word “integer", from which the word “integrity" is derived. The Hebrew word “shalom" or “peace" is of course still a greeting of Jews and Israelis to this day. To experience or possess Christ's peace is to live a life of integrity, to be sure of your identity, indivisible like a rock This is what one can indeed call true happiness.

To experience or possess Christ's peace is to live a life of integrity; to have peace with God and yourself and to experience and live your true purpose on earth. Your so-called “happiness" that you seek in yourself and your knowledge and cleverness does not exist, but God exists. When you discover that integrity and shalom, you will stand on a rock, indivisible, a whole person with integrity. 

The so-called pursuit of happiness usually turns into self-obsession. People read books, take courses and swim around on Facebook to create a better and happier version of themselves. Sartre's three characters did the same and experienced it. Self-obsession often turns into depression and ends in suicide because these people cannot see any further meaning in life, exactly as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky wrote. The only thing that makes sense to them is suicide.

Why don't they give Ecclesiastes a chance? “Fear God and obey his commandments" (Ecclesiastes 12:13). What commandments? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and the first commandment." And the second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself" (Matthew 22:37-40). 

It sounds simplistic because it is. God chose to be our God because he loves us. Simple? Perhaps, but over the centuries, all the philosophers and scholars with their clever theories could not come up with anything better, and they never will. Not even Ike Boss. The great answer to the great question that the smartest people evade is simultaneously so complex and so simple that only God alone could have formulated it.

*Quotes from Slot van die dag: Gedagtes van Karel Schoeman, Protea Boekhuis, compiled by Nicol Stassen.


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