Are We Special?

My daughter is a freshman in college and one of her assignments was to watch a YouTube video showing a high school graduation address entitled “You Are Not Special.” She watched it and sent the link to us, asking what we thought. Hopefully my reply will be of some interest to any of the 1.7+ million viewers of the video who also happen to read my blog. The link is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lfxYhtf8o4.

Sweetheart,

“You are not special” was an interesting video. The first thing that we need to do is to define the word special. Dictionary reference.com defines “special” as “of a distinct or particular kind of character” and as “particular, individual or certain”. Judging from his speech, one suspects that he defines “special” as unique.

If that is his definition, then in one sense he is completely wrong; we each have a unique genetic code and unique environment and therefore we are one of a kind.

Perhaps he is instead using “special” as meaning “more valuable or more important than others”. If so, he is on firmer ground. There is no objective way of ranking a person’s importance or value, and so society uses surrogates such as wealth, education, position, etc. People use those surrogates to make themselves feel better. This is related, as he said, to our fear of mortality. Anyone with the slightest insight can see that the universe is vast, our powers are weak, and our lives are short. It is not much of a stretch, even for the most thickheaded, to conclude that we are insignificant and our lives are without meaning.

Unfortunately the prescription that he writes to cure the disease is lacking. Being selfless is truly the best for us, but being selfless for your own benefit is being selfish in the extreme. Climbing a mountain simply for the climb and going to Paris simply to be in Paris rather than to cross them off your list or brag to your friends is the right approach, but if life is meaningless why climb a mountain or go to Paris at all? Because you enjoy it? But is not pleasure just as meaningless as anything else, and why should we do anything for our own happiness anyway? Is this not more selfishness? We find ourselves trapped on a treadmill from which we can never escape, much as Eustace from C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader was trapped in the dragon’s skin.

Friedrich Nietzsche understood it, and it drove him mad. Many throughout history have gotten it, and it has driven some to suicide. Within ourselves, and even within our universe, there is no escape from the fact that everything we do is utterly meaningless.

What the graduation speaker did not say, perhaps because he did not know or because it would have been too controversial, is that meaning can only be found outside our universe. Some people, those who want to reject the notion of God, seek meaning in reincarnation and a kind of merger with some kind of impersonal life force that can provide a sort of immortality. There are many troubles with this, but one of the biggest ones is the utter loss of individuality in such systems. If I am reincarnated a thousand or a million times, who am I? If my immaterial and immortal part is lost in a metaphysical soup such as “the Force”, in what sense do “I” exist? If that will be true in the future, in what sense am “I” an individual now?

The only other logical option is that even as I exist as a personal individual in the universe, there exists Another who is a personal individual outside of the universe. If that is the case, then I am a person and an individual now, and will be in the future, because He is. If He made me, and if He made me unique, as we have already established in the first paragraph, then I actually am special as defined above because He made me so.

Note that the Individual outside the Universe did not necessarily make one person more valuable or more important than others, but He did make them unique and therefore special.

The speaker in this graduation speech made some very good points, especially speaking to Americans, who tend to be overindulged and over important in our own minds. Graduates would do well to heed his words, but they will do better to look at the realities behind his words and seek the One who turns meaninglessness and madness into significance and salvation.

Daddy

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A Child Leaving Home, and the Providence of God

I was chatting with a friend, a professor of government late of Georgetown University, during our Wednesday night church dinner.  He mentioned several Christian youth he had recently met who had lived a sheltered life of homeschooling and church activities, and his concern of how they would do when confronted with the belligerent anti-Christian staff and libertine lifestyles prevalent in most secular universities.  As my oldest will be starting a state college this fall, I was intrigued by his observation.  This educated and devoted man was certainly right to be concerned, and mentioned that he wanted his children to attend a Christian school when the time comes.  There are many sad tales of students raised in Christian homes who are too unprepared intellectually and too undisciplined morally to resist the temptations of living on their own.  How many make mistakes that haunt them for the rest of their lives?

At the same time, Jesus and His disciples lived and worked in Galilee, the most cosmopolitan place in Palestine.  He clearly tells us to be in the world but not of the world (John 15:19, 17:14-16), and to be as salt (Matthew 5:13) to preserve and light (Matthew 5:14) to illuminate the fallen world.   How does a faithful Christian know what to do in the face of such important principles?

On one hand, man has genuine freedom and the real responsibility to use that freedom for the glory of God.  The Bible teaches that each of us is responsible for our own thoughts, words and actions (Exodus 18:20).  We will be rewarded if we do well, and punished if we do poorly (Matthew 25:31-46).  Salvation through Christ is given to people on the condition of their belief (John 3:16).  Our work is important, as Paul teaches believers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…(Philippians 2:12a).”

On the other hand, God is absolutely sovereign; everything that happens will work together in His perfect plan (Ecclesiastes 3:14, Ephesians 1:11).  After his trials, Job wrote “I know that you (God) can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted (Job 42:2).”  The Psalmist wrote that God “does whatever pleases Him (Psalm 115:3).”  Even in matters of salvation, Scripture teaches that it depends on God (Romans 9:14-29).   The second half of Philippians 2:12 concludes “for the Lord works within you to accomplish His good will and purpose.”

These statements about God seem mutually exclusive, and yet the Bible clearly teaches that both are true.  We will make no attempt to reconcile them here, but need to remember that there are many things in life that seem mutually exclusive but are nonetheless true.  For example, wave-particle duality, a key tenet in quantum physics, postulates that all things (such as light) exhibit both wave and particle properties.  In another example, time and eternality seem to coexist, but if the universe is eternal, time could never have arrived.  If the universe is not eternal, then nothing is eternal, and where did time come from?  If pursued deeply enough, most questions in life end up as a paradox.

How do we live with such knowledge?  Some people ignore the sovereignty of God and emphasize the responsibility of man, living as though everything depended upon them.  Others ignore the responsibility of man and live as though nothing they do matters so they may as well do whatever they want.

Perhaps the best way for Christians to live today is to follow the example of saints who have gone before.  Stonewall Jackson, the Confederate Civil War general famous for his skill and courage, was a man of action.  Nonetheless he wrote “My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to always be ready, no matter when it may overtake me.”  The Apostle Paul, was unstoppable in spreading the gospel in the Roman Empire and brilliant in his words and works.  Nonetheless, knowing that imprisonment and possibly death, stood before him on returning to Jerusalem (Acts 20, 21), Paul went anyway.  The best example of all is Jesus.  No man before or since has ever worked harder, worked smarter, and done everything right to accomplish His goals.  Nonetheless, in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, He determined to continue to follow the will of the Father, knowing it would lead to His death (Matthew 26:39).

So what then?  It is the role of man to do everything he can, as hard and smart as he can, to accomplish the will of the God who made him.  My wife and I have done everything we know to do to raise our daughter in the best way we know how.  She has always been safe, as Jackson was, in the hands of God.  My Georgetown friend was right; the dangers are real, and the Lord’s people must stand strong against them.  But ultimately God is sovereign, and He will bring all things together for good for those who love Him; those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).