God, Zombies, and the Meaning of Life
I recently finished two books that I have been unable to stop thinking about. One was World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks; the second was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Both of these books involve, in different ways, a global catastrophe and the varying responses to it of the characters in each story. Now, you may be asking yourself what, in Darwin’s name, this might have to do with de-conversion, but hear me out! The issues they raise address (though perhaps in an unexpected way) some profound questions we have to struggle with as part of leaving our faith.
The first, World War Z, chronicles an outbreak of zombies (yes, zombies), as it spreads from the first few, sporadic cases into a rapidly engulfing worldwide plague, nearly pushing the human race to extinction as social order and entire societies collapse. Though I had never before heard the term “zombie apocalypse”, as this sub-genre’ of fiction is apparently called, I was nonetheless hooked. I couldn’t get this book out of my head. I found it to be surprisingly, even strikingly, evocative – of a strange admixture of despair and poignancy. Which seemed a odd response to have to a book about zombies. I found myself wondering: why?
The second, The Road, is a bit less fantastical, perhaps, but in many ways even more horrible. It is told from the vantage point of two survivors of what appears to be a ongoing nuclear winter, a man and his young son as they try to make their way across the desolate, ash-covered wasteland. Nothing, but nothing, grows anymore, there are no animals, no society, and no people except occasional bands of ravenous brigands who have turned to cannibalism for survival. They live, starving, on old cans scavenged from the burnt husks of houses and stores. The man is driven solely by his ferocious love for his son and his determination to keep him alive. The story is as horrid and bleak as the landscape it describes, yet in a way, perhaps by contrast, starkly beautiful in its depiction of the man’s indomitable devotion to his child. And again – I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Again, I found myself wondering: why?
Now, it is true that I am a science fiction geek by nature. But stories of the sort told in these books, involving some sort of world-ending cataclysm – the proverbial apocalypse – have in particular always gotten under my skin, and I tend to ruminate on them for weeks. I even dream about them. After these two most recent books, and some introspection, I now think I know why – and the answer takes me back to my days as a Christian fundamentalist.
When I was in the long process of leaving Christianity, one of the most overriding questions on my mind was this: if there is no God, what meaning is there in life? The answer that I first came upon, came from Friedrich Nietzsche. Although this topic could (and has) been the focus of entire books, in brief, Nietzsche’s solution was, as his slogan had it, “Say Yes to life”. In short, the main theme, for me, for these many years of my life, was: the world is good, and beautiful, and that is why life is worth living. [… more on this in my next installment on this topic …]
Reflecting on this, I can begin to understand why these post-apocalyptic stories evoke issues of meaning for me. Because from my perspective, at least, the situations depicted in them are so horrible, so stripped of all (or almost all) the particular ways in which peoples lives have meaning, such as what I have listed above, that it can’t help but raise the question of, what’s left? What meaning can there be, given the horrible loss of so much of what we value? It’s a grim and unpleasant question, but a necessary one, I think – even if raised only in the fantasy world of a novel – because it confronts me with the boundary conditions of my own personal answers to meaning in life. It forces me to take seriously this issue, to continually reexamine it, and not rest content in my solution.
The answers given in the novels are beautiful and sublime. In McCarthy’s book, for example, the father has relinquished all other hopes and aspirations beyond the survival of son, and to accomplish even that much means confronting the most overwhelming, bleak, and hopeless of circumstances. Life, for him, has been drained of all other color, all other possibility. No other values remain in his charred world. There is no future, no possibility of the betterment of the world, no creative expression, no other cause to give oneself to, not even any refuge or enjoyment or beauty in nature; the sun is literally no longer ever even visible through the ash-filled air.
Yet this one goal is enough for him. He is able to find meaning and value – enough to fill a life – in nothing more than the wonderful, sublime miracle that his son just is. In one gorgeous passage (evoking a sense of what is truly valuable – sacred, holy – as only religious language can) McCarthy writes:
He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: if he is not the word of God God never spoke.
As a parent, I can only say this line makes me want to weep.
Indeed, the dual edge of this line coheres perfectly with my own experience of the loss of God and it’s impact on meaning in life, for me. Sometimes I note that I do not believe in God and, therefore, God simply never spoke. Period. So our relationships, like the man’s to his son in the novel, are only ordinary, finite, small elements of human concern with no cosmic significance. From a certain perspective, that is entirely true.
Sometimes, however, I think: relationships are Holy. As a parent, I can unhesitatingly and with my whole being affirm this sentiment: my children are, to me, the Word of God. They are my scripture, my burning bush. And in them my life has all the meaning it can hold. For others it may of course be different, but the point is this: the universe is, for me, silent. Yet I have found it simultaneously symphonic with meaning. In the tension between these two perspectives is where I live.
Thus, these stories teach us that life can be given meaning under any circumstances, and that is why I value them. God or no God, life has value. Life is an intrinsic good. That is a worthwhile lesson to recall, for those of us who have struggled to extricate ourselves from religious illusions, illusions that pre-packaged our meanings and convinced us that their meanings were the only ones possible. And it is indeed so much harder to do it ourselves. But even if the hope of the world were lost in the unending, desolate twilight of a nuclear winter, or even overrun with something as absurd and horrible as zombies, life would still be worth living– could be made worth living – God or no God.
Psychotherapist Viktor Frankl argued that humans are meaning-seeking and, even more, meaning-discovering animals. Frankl, as a survivor of the Holocaust, is someone worth listening to. The truth of his view is never more clear than here – even here, at the end of the world. The fact that we can do it here, too, is testimony to our skill at this. We can always, always find and create meaning – with or without God.