Daddy, What Are People For?"

by Gerald Robison

This presentation was delivered at Mountain Light UUC on 2009 August 23.

"Daddy, what are people for?" My oldest son, Richard, asked this in a series of "what for…?" questions when he was under 6 years old. This question is the second of a triad: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? As the French would say, "What is our raison d'etre, our reason for being?" Placed inside his casket holding the remains of a friend was a cushion containing these words: "Golf is not a hobby. It is my purpose in life."

You may not be aware that the search for purpose and meaning is the basis of the Hebrew Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes. Near the beginning of the book, Solomon, now in his older years, writes:

One generation goes, and another generation comes, but the earth abides forever. The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and haste to its place where it arises. The wind goes toward the south, and turns about to the north…. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full. (Eccle. 1:12, 13)

Essentially, Solomon was observing that we, and everything about us, are just going around in circles. Little did he know how true that was and that is:

  • his blood making a complete circuit in just over a minute
  • spherical earth revolving at about 1,000 miles per hour at its equator
  • satellite earth circling at about 66,000 mph around its sun
  • our sun (taking us along) speeding thru its galaxy at about 568,000 mph
  • our 100 billion plus sun galaxy circling a black hole at up to 581,000 mph.

And we are still terrified of roller coaster scream machines??

But, if life is just big epicyclical merry-go-round rides, what is its purpose? What does it all mean? We have such a short time.

While we explore with Solomon answers to this question today, I most certainly want to avoid paper cutout, mental pablum type solutions. I would like initially to lead us through a reality check about the universe into which we were born and live.

First, to seek answers to the purpose of life, we must consider the reality of non-life. Scientists' estimate our universe's age at about 13.7 billion years old and started with what scientist Fred Hoyle derisively dubbed a big bang. The infant universe was so hot that 100 million years lapsed before any suns were formed. No conceivable form of life could have existed for a billion years. When finally our earth was born 9.1 billion years after the big bang, some 4.6 billion years ago, the earth was a cauldron of unbearably searing heat, asteroid bombardment, and volcanic eruptions for at least 700 million more years.

About 67 percent of the earth years had lapsed (1.5 billion years ago) before the appearance of the simplest form of unicellular life that contained nucleii (eukaryotes). Therefore, we must recognize the astonishing reality of non-life and extreme simple life in the history of our universe and of our earthly home. What was the purpose of the universe and of our earth without life or with only unicellular life for billions of years?

The second parameter I believe we must consider is that life's underlying purpose must be the same throughout the universe. The universe operates under the same rules; we may call them laws. The purpose of life, if and when it does exists, should not differ in any solar system whether in our galaxy, or in any of the billions of galaxies that we have now determined are racing away from each other in an expansion of blinding speed. The underlying purpose of life cannot just be earthbound.

The panspermia hypothesis purports that the seeds of life permeate the universe and may have been the source for earth life. We do not know if other life of any kind exists in the universe. The probabilities seem extraordinarily high. We have already identified exoplanets circling other suns, billions of suns within billions of galaxies. Yet we are so very far apart. In his book, Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, author David Overbye writes:

... but the cold terrible distances between the stars should make us scream with insignificance….the stars didn't care. The universe was immense, it was out there, independent of what Carl Sandage calls 'the human morass'…Nature had its own rules, remote, impersonal, and terrible...

A third parameter in our search for meaning is that life's purpose is not limited to earth's humans, the homosapien. We like to think of ourselves as special, being human, when 99.9999999999 percent of earth's life forms are not. We can strike an arrogant pose and, in the vain of Chevy Chase's famous quote, "I am Chevy Chase, and you are not," we can say that we are human, and all you other living creatures are not. I read recently that the earth has so many ants that the sum of their weight about equals that of all humans.

We humans have been around a while, but reptiles roamed the earth as far back as about 360 million years ago. Bony fish, sharks, amphibians, and spiders reach back some 400 million years ago to the Devonian. Long before us came cats, dogs, deer, cows, pigs, horses, rhinos, elephants, owls, rabbits, sheep, bears, rodents, apes, and even whales. They did not need us to justify their existence by our hunting them or eating them.

At last, Mr. Johnny-come-lately, the human mammal, evolved into about what we recognize as humanity today, with earth's history having run over 99 percent of its course. Geologist, David Levy, says: "If the entire history of the earth were thought of as one 24-hour day, all of humanity would exist for only about 4 seconds." We humans have barely made a cameo appearance on life's stage.

Another parameter I feel we must consider in seeking an intelligent answer to life's meaning is that life is indeed precious, but mother nature seems to put little value on its continuation. Not only did over 20 percent of the earth's existence transpire before any life appeared, when life did appear, it has had a very difficult time sustaining itself.

Since the Paleozoic Era commenced some 540 million years ago, I count at least six of eleven periods that ended in mass extinctions of life. The last was the Cretaceous, a mere 65 million years back, the extinction that included the demise of our children's beloved dinosaurs.

Had it not been for the incredible evolution of the homosapien brain within the last 70,000 years, how many of the 6.5 billion humans would be living today? We invented or discovered agricultural tools, weapons, clean water supply and sanitation, surgery and anesthetics, quarantine, vaccines, antibiotics, healthy diets, life sustaining habits, and safety practices. What if the plague still ran amok without any understanding among us as to its cause, and the same for influenza, pneumonia, cholera, Aids, small pox, polio, typhoid, tuberculosis, malaria, tetanus, rabies, meningitis, Mad Cow, Guinea worm, ebola, measles, and countless other things that are out there and waiting for a chance to nail us?

Speaking of Mother Nature's mixed promotion and destruction of life, we must also face an unavoidable truth about the earth on which we live – life feeds on other life! For creatures to live, so often other creatures must die. This creature takes the life of that creature, and the eating creature is then eaten by another. We even call it a "food chain." My 96-year old mother refuses to watch television channels that show lions chasing, catching, and ripping apart the wildebeest for consumption. In the front yard of this church building at this very moment, a war is in progress at the small creature level. We happily consider ourselves at the top of that food chain. That generally appears so now. But, not so very long ago the evolving mammal, of whom we are one, did much peeping and hiding to stay alive.

Yes, we have placed warning flares out on the roads for the search of life's meaning: (1) billions of years of non-life and mere unicellular life, (2) life's purpose the same throughout the universe (3) life purpose not limited to the late emerging homosapien (4) life periodically facing mass extermination, and (5) life existing in a culture of death, life feeding on life.

Why dwell on these warning signals? To remind us how complicated, how difficult, how deep this question is. No simple solutions can really be found. We should taste all of human kind's feeble attempts to answer life's purpose with a very huge grain – yea rather, a full box of salt, whether it be Mao's "Little Red Book," the Bible's collection of ancient writings, holy books of the Mid-east, Sanskrit and Prakrit writings of ancient India, or our own insights supposedly gained while on chemically induced highs.

Solomon said, Yes, my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. (Eccl. 1: 16) One purpose for able-minded humans may indeed be to learn all that they can. What wonderful things knowledge has wrought! I look at the picture of a sweet smiling 6-year old girl on my mother's wall who shortly after this picture was made went to greet her father as he arrived home from work in the year 1922. "Papa, I was bare foot and stepped on a nail today." This sweet child died of tetanus only a few days later, a generation before knowledge resulted in a vaccine.

Along with knowledge, let us not forget fun. Solomon continued, "I said in my heart, come now, I will prove you with mirth." (Eccl. 2:1) That is another fine purpose for living. Isn't it great just to have fun. Kids love it, and so should we. You may either be a person who has fun and/or knows how to bring fun and laughter to others. My friend, Chuck Logan, knew how to do that. What fun we had at the "happy hour" watering hole when Chuck was there! This is a great gift. Chuck, thanks for the memories.

Solomon also said, "I searched in my heart how to cheer my flesh with wine." (Eccl. 2:3) The wine helped enhance the good times. And, he says, "I got me men singers and women singers, an the delight of the sons of men, musical instruments, and that of all sorts." (Eccl. 2:8) We should add to this Solomon's 700 wives and 300 concubines. Spoken from a man's viewpoint, the triad is complete: wine, women, and song. He immersed himself into the pleasures of altered states, sexual ecstasy, and music.

Many have pursued one, two, or all these three as their goal, their purpose in life.

Sexual pleasure can be life-affirming. What better psychotherapy! Elizabeth Taylor did not look upon her five marriages and many intimate relationships as an embarrassment. She simply said, "I will not live without passion." Being a married man, I was a little threatened to read aging French Actress Jeanne Moreau's statement that a woman should never give up her lovers. Songster Tom T. Hall put the good life in these terms: "faster horses, older whiskey, younger women, more money." Solomon reminded us also of the power he gained over many people and over a large territory. Power – an intoxicating goal and purpose for life! Combine that with riches, and you have named the life pursuit of many an individual. We at least need to have a feeling of status, a comfort level among others in which we are not on the bottom rung. If not power over others, we assuredly want self-empowerment, a feeling that we have considerable charge over our own lives.

So many things for which to live, so many reasons not to die! Susan Hayward won an Oscar in the 1958 movie entitled, "I Want to Live." Why live? To pursue happiness, contentment, serenity, adventure, excitement, achievement, companionship, good physical and mental health through exercise, good food, and, if necessary, good drugs, to bring children into the world and enrich their lives, to be a good friend, spouse, parent, grandparent, son, daughter, grandchild, sibling, worker, neighbor, community member or leader, or to enjoy the beauties of nature in all its visible and invisible forms.

I must emphatically reject that the purpose for human life is just a test for the life hereafter. Recently, I read a book that has sold millions, The Purpose Driven Life, by Pastor Rick Warren. Its simplistic theme throughout far too many pages is the same: this life is just a temporary test in which you are to prove yourself for the heavenly, eternal hereafter. That test essentially is to lose yourself in service to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, your Lord, Master, and Savior.

I accept that serving Jesus can be a purpose in life. Saying that this is the purpose in life we should all pursue or else face a terrible, eternal punishment is a different thing entirely. This doctrinal nostrum, like so many others, miserably fails the test of reason and objectivity. We know now the hominid mammal goes back several millions of years before Jesus ever appeared, supposedly some 2,000 years ago. But, what about after Jesus appeared?? This idea still lacks substance. Jesus was claimed to have said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes unto the Father except by me." (John 14:6) Experts tell us that 400 million people were scattered over the earth when Jesus said this. Jesus conducted only a brief 3-year ministry on a tiny piece of real estate on the eastern side of the Mediterranean. How many of those 400 million people worldwide had any opportunity to even hear about this man? There were no radio, TV, internet, and not even a movable printing machine to churn out the written word. For centuries later, how many billions of people never heard about Jesus?

Many other sane and sensible arguments militate against this theme. Just go to any old cemetery and see the hordes of little children's graves, children who lived a short time and died without ever being tested on their service to Jesus. What were they tested for? The same can be said for the unfortunate persons among us who suffer severe mental disabilities and retardation. Are they here to be tested in service to God in preparation for eternity?? Then there are all those with good minds who are devoted to the Hindu gods, Buddha, traditional African gods, the god of the Jews, and Allah. Sorry! They all, and throw in us Unitarians, we all missed it – the one true, underlying purpose of existence – to serve God through devotion to his son, Jesus, the Christ.

Therefore, a healthy skepticism should be exercised in the process of finding the meaningful life lest we fall victim to the philosophical ranting of visionary cranks, charlatans, and demigogues. Human history is strewn with the horrors of blindly following those who claim to be divine beings, to have received divine guidance, or to have been endowed with special insight. If you do not willingly accept their way, you will be ridiculed, shunned, dispossessed, tortured, or slaughtered.

I will continue to make purposeful living a daily pursuit. I am willing to hear or read what anyone has to say in this matter. It would be better if you would kindly not waste my time with the hocus-pocus, fairytales, mumbo-jumbo, hallucinations, and holy books. I can never be satisfied with answers that defy logic, reason, and good sense. I will look squinty-eyed and disdainfully at those who try to sell me on any simplistic religious or philosophical creed that requires me to park my brain at the door before entering.

The purpose of life wherever it exists in the universe, in what form it exists including our own, must simply be to live, to be, to survive, to experience some level of awareness. Beyond that, every creature that is endowed by Mother Nature to live and make choices can add onto this basic underlying purpose that which meets his/her/its needs. This is not pure nihilism. It is pure reality.

Since life is a merry-go-round, let us "catch a painted pony, and let the spinning wheel turn." (Blood, Sweat, and Tears – Rock Group) Maybe the reason for being is not really that complicated after all. It could be that the answer is as simple as the words in another Tom T. Hall country song: It's "Old Dogs, and Children, and Watermelon Wine."

Gerald D. Robison