BERTRAND RUSSELL (Public Domain Photo from Wiki Commons)
Can life without God be meaningful?
There are two answers to this question: yes and no. The “no” answer becomes apparent in Bertrand Russell’s description of the universe as presented to us by modern science. In his book A Free Man’s Worship (Mysticism and Logic), Russell first quotes a passage stating that the universe was created by a heartless being, and then he continues,
Such, in outline, but 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 beliefs, are but the outcome of 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 labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspirations, 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 henceforth be safely built.
Given this kind of universe, many people will say that life has no meaning and seek to find refuge in God — a Being that Russell believes does not exist. However, Russell continues and finds some meaning in life without God:
Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.
Russell has certainly painted an unromantic picture of the universe; however, we know that he found meaning in his existence on earth despite his lack of belief in God and in an afterlife. Russell found his meaning first in mathematics and philosophy, and later in his opposition to the atomic bomb. For much of his life, he was in opposition to war. Certainly in this world there are evils to be fought and new knowledge to be discovered. I believe that Norse mythology also presents a picture of a universe that will ultimately end in chaos, but is yet a universe in which there are gods who find meaning in their lives by struggling mightily and heroically to stave off the final destruction of the universe.
In Norse mythology, Ragnarok is the name given to the twilight of the gods and the destruction of the universe. Ragnarok will be preceded by the coming of three straight winters with no intervening summers. These will be followed by three more winters, during which wars will be fought on earth. Three great monsters that the Norse gods had previously bound will break free and will attack the gods, riding over the rainbow bridge named Bifrost into the domain of the gods. The wolf Fenris will kill the chief god Odin, but will in turn be killed by Odin’s son Vidar. Another son of Odin, Thor, will kill the Midgard serpent, which is so big that it encircles the earth, but Thor will die from the serpent’s venom. The watchman of the gods, Heimdall, will fight the evil Loki until both are killed. The god Freyr, who cares for the fruits of the earth, will be killed by Surtur, who will then burn up the universe.
So, the gods know that the universe will end in destruction, but rather than despairing, they devote their efforts to postponing the day of destruction known as Ragnarok. Odin is the chief god responsible for postponing the day of destruction. He values wisdom. In one myth, he went to the Well of Wisdom and begged its guardian, Mimir the Wise, for a drink from it. In payment, Mimir, who was blind, asked Odin for one of his eyes. Odin paid this price. Perching on Odin’s shoulders are two ravens, Thought (Hugin) and Memory (Munin), which fly over the world and bring Odin the information they discover.
Odin was always a benefactor to Humankind. He won the knowledge of the Runes by suffering for it in a kind of crucifixion, and he gave this knowledge to Humankind. In addition, he took from the Giants the skaldic mead, which made a poet of anyone who drank from it, and he gave this mead to Humankind.
Despite the view that the universe cares nothing for human endeavors and that the universe will eventually kill Humankind, Bertrand Russell and the Norse gods found meaning in their lives. That meaning lay in serving Humankind and in staving off the day of destruction as long as possible.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
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