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A Purpose For Everything by L. Charles Birch


Charles Birch is a biologist specializing in genetics, and resides in Australia. He is joint winner of the 1990 International Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.. His teaching career includes Oxford, Columbia and the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota, as well as visiting professor of genetics at the University of California at Berkeley and professor of biology at the University of Sydney. Professor Birch has blazed new paths into the relationships between science and faith. Published by Twenty-third Publications, Mystic, Connecticut, 1990. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 1: Purpose in Human Life


He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Without interest and passion nothing great has ever happened in history.
C. W. F. Hegel

If there is much unhappiness among today’s student body, the reason is not material hardship, but the lack of trust that makes it too difficult for the individual to give his life a meaning.
Werner Heisenberg (in Wilber 1984 p. 43)


The most powerful influence in human life is neither the environment in which we happen to be brought up, the genes we were bequeathed from our parents at birth, nor all the slings and arrows of fate, no matter how tragic and harrowing their effects may be. We blame our lack of zest for life on to anything but ourselves. As Cassius said:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Our fault is that we have failed to choose purposes that could fulfill life. Even in the most dire circumstances and against all rational assessment we are what we freely choose to be. Of course there is much that we cannot choose, including our genes. Nevertheless we do not have to let the world squeeze us into its mould, ever.

Charles Darwin tells us that his father at one time was discouraged about him and thought that he would amount to nothing: ‘My father once said to me, "you care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family".’ Who could have guessed what would happen when enthusiasm for a purpose in life dawned on that mind, marshalling its latent talents for a lifetime’s work?

Thomas Bridges was an unwanted babe found by a riverside. They picked him up at a bridge: that is why they called him Bridges. They discovered him on St. Thomas day; that is why they called him Thomas. He didn’t have a chance. But for all that he picked out the hardest thing that could be found to do -- working with the aborigines of Tierra del Fuego, at the desolute southern end of South America. Even Charles Darwin paid tribute to his work. For Darwin turned up at that forlorn place on his famous scientific voyage in the steamship Beagle. When he returned home, Darwin sent a financial contribution for the work amongst the Tierra del Fuegians saying that, having learned of the transformation wrought amongst them, he was glad to have a hand in it. Don’t pity Bridges in Tierra del Fuego. Spare your pity for those who need it; the well educated, the well-to-do uninterested people who have never found anything to take themselves out of themselves by commitment to a purpose greater than themselves.

We don’t have to go to Tierra del Fuego for that. We can do it here and now, right where we are. For several years I led a discussion amongst a diverse group of young people at the Wayside Chapel in Sydney’s Kings Cross. Some of them were drop-outs from life, others were involved in drugs, prostitution or petty theft. Some were on leave from mental hospitals. Others had just walked in from the boisterous streets of this cosmopolitan, anything-goes part of Sydney in search of yet another happening. Our discussion tended to get out of hand unless we had a book, chapters of which we could read before we met. I tried many books. Only two were acceptable to my group: Victor Frankl’s (1964) Man’s Search for Meaning and Erich Fromm’s (1962) The Art of Loving. Frankl is fond of quoting Nietzsche’s ‘He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how’. The how of life had its problems for everyone in the group. Each desperately wanted a why. They hadn’t found one in the work-a-day world, nor in formal religion, though some were flirting with Eastern faiths. They related to Frankl’s book. It was evident to us that his meaning for life had made it possible for him to live through those terrible years in Auschwitz concentration camp. ‘The sort of person the prisoner became,’ wrote Frankl, ‘was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone’ (p. 66). Frankl was convinced that prisoners who had lost their sense of any meaning in life were the first to fall ill and die. They let their environment conquer them. Those who survived the terrible ordeal were usually those who were not totally at the mercy of their environment. They didn’t fall victim to the camp’s degenerating influences.

Here is a dramatic demonstration that not one of us, even in the most awful circumstances, is simply caught up in a situation. We don’t have to be victims of circumstance. Human beings are always free to take a stand. You can harm my physical body, but no-one can harm me emotionally and spiritually. It is I alone whose attitude makes harm to myself possible. I always have some choice of action. This spiritual freedom, which cannot be taken away, makes it possible for my life to have meaning and purpose. Most of my freedoms can be taken away. But I can still preserve some vestige of spiritual freedom and independence of mind, even in the most awful conditions of physical and psychic stress. It is what we bring to the crisis and not the crisis itself that determines the prospect. Our problems are not there for us to solve but for them to solve us! Such an attitude sustained Frankl and his colleagues in their terrible circumstance. He showed to me and my little group in the Antipodes that life depends as much upon our response to events around us as upon the events themselves.

To find meaning is a primary motivating force in life. It doesn’t have to be a distant purpose, but a meaning for this day, this hour, this moment. Life is anticipation. When that goes life ebbs away. Someone has said how dull it would be to wake up each morning always the same person. But if we anticipate something each day and move in that direction, then we wake up a different person each day. Thoreau (1908) says

little is to be expected of that day, if it is to be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius . . . to a higher life than we fell asleep from; and thus the darkness bear its fruit, and prove itself to be good, no less than the light. That man who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way. . . It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face? (p. 77)

So Thoreau tells us: ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately’ (p. 78). I found something of this spirit in some youths on a street corner in a village in the heart of the Mato Grosso. I had come from the bustling city of Sao Paulo to this far-away village. ‘What do you do here?’ I asked the youths. ‘Why we live here’ came their reply. And their tone of voice really meant live.

Meaning brings motivation. Motivation leads to action. Action leads to transformation. Transformation is possible because human life can rise above present circumstance.

On Being All There

Every moment of life presents us with the possibility of creative novelty. No-one has to think or act as he or she has been taught to think and act. To be all there is to be fully present for each moment. And that means imaginatively transcending the daily round and in so doing to be transformed. Imagined experience is the mainspring of motivation in life. To be human is to be passionately committed to something that grasps and transforms us. That’s why Hegel said, ‘Without interest and passion nothing great has ever happened in history.’ Historians refer to the Stone Age, the Dark Age, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Age and the Post-Industrial Age. Each successive age gained something in rising above the past, and always at great cost. The cost was deemed to be a price worth paying. The human being is made for creative transformation as a bird is made for flight. To be sure, each of us is in a cage much of the time. We long for the door to be opened that we may be free to soar into the heavens.

In his Voyage to the Beginning Colin Wilson says that when he was very young he became more clearly aware than ever before that he was faced with a choice between meaninglessness and commitment. Martin Luther proclaims on the steps of the cathedral: ‘I can do no other so help me God!’ Paul Tillich (1955 p. 152) wrote about the innumerable concerns in our lives which demand attention, devotion and passion. They are important. We are concerned about our work, about our relationships to others and about ourselves as we grow and develop. Many of our concerns are a cause of worry and anxiety. Each concern tends to become tyrannical and wants our whole heart, our whole mind and our whole strength. Each concern tries to become our god. The concern about work becomes a god for some, as does the concern for pleasure for others. And as we become older concern about the infirmities of age can dominate life. We may then try to dismiss all concerns to maintain a cynical unconcern. Or we may attempt to practice the un-attachment of the Buddhist.

There is another way. It is, in Tillich’s terminology, to be committed to ‘ultimate concern’, the one concern that matters ultimately. The only appropriate response to ultimate concern is ‘with infinite passion’ or, if you will, ‘with all your heart and soul and mind and strength’: no more emphatic utterance is to be found in all scripture. When I fail to give myself in full commitment to that which matters most I inhibit and frustrate myself.

But what can be so commanding as to elicit such a total response? Nothing less than that which fulfils human life in all its deepest possibilities. In the biblical story of Mary and Martha, Martha was so troubled and anxious about many things as she went about her household activities that she missed the one thing needful. Mary chose the one thing needful at the present moment, her total response to the visitor to her house. It happened to be Jesus. The one thing needful is to enjoy the visitor, whether the visitor be in the form of a friend, a stranger, a sunset, a tall tree or a bird singing by its nest. Mary was committed to that which was of ultimate importance. That is always a value. And when values become realities in human life we experience a richness of life that was not there before.

We know whether or not we are all there. Try, for example, greeting people with the following question: ‘On a ten-point scale, where perfect health, maximum vitality, and ecstatic joyfulness are represented by the number ten and suicidal depression by the number one, how do you feel today?’ You will no doubt find that, although the question gives rise to amusement, an answer is given readily, sometimes with instantaneous refinement of the scale as In; ‘Oh, I would say, maybe six and a half’.

Besides Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, my Wayside Chapel group responded with enthusiasm to Fromm’s The Art of Loving. When Fromm (1962) says ‘Love is the active concern for life and the growth of that which we love’ (p. 25), the link with Frankl’s thought becomes clear. Where active concern is lacking there is no purpose and there is no love. Our purposes are determined by what we love which is what we set our hearts on. This is the meaning of religion. For religion is the state of being grasped by the infinite seriousness of the question of the meaning of our life and our readiness to receive answers and to act according to them.

Following an interview on radio I had a telephone call from a young listener who had been a member of our discussion group some fifteen years past. His name is Greg. He said he wanted to talk to me about purpose. He had been in and out of mental hospitals and had been diagnosed as having schizophrenia. He had accepted his condition. He knew the symptoms that indicated he should present himself again to hospital, and in he would go for therapy. When he got out again he would get what job he could to earn something to live on. He knew some goals were denied him. But he also knew that life was not denied him. Indeed, one of my strongest recollections was when he would show me what he had written in his extensive notebooks. There were poems and sketches and lots of philosophizing about his life. When he was not working in a flour mill he must have been putting down his thoughts in vivid form in his notebook. And more, he had discovered a sense of purpose and fulfillment by becoming a counselor at the Crisis Centre of the Wayside Chapel. Many are the people who attempt to do this only to find the crises of others too overwhelming. Not so Greg. He was daily wading the Rubicon of life. He had touched bottom and found it was sound. When he rang me he said he felt committed again to restoring a definite purpose in his life. That very day he offered his services and time to the Way-Out centre of the Wayside Chapel in a back lane where people could get a cheap cup of coffee and paint and talk and do what they felt like doing. And that might include talking to Greg. When I saw him there, a few days after he rang me, he told me he could get odd jobs and help with the Way-Out centre. And although he was certainly eligible for support from the government he was going to stand on his own feet while he could.

Understanding of life comes to us from people like Greg. For me they include drop-outs who have dropped back into life, students who were almost total failures in their first years of study who, given another chance, made good. Others were students from Europe who became refugees after the Second World War. They had migrated to Australia on government-paid passages, in return for which they worked for three years in whatever work they were directed to do. A Ukrainian who was making cement pipes is now a senior research scientist. A Polish student who was scrubbing floors in hospitals is now a professor of neurosurgery in a leading American medical school. Some years ago I had a visit from a young man who said he was now a millionaire. Years before he had come to me for advice as a newly arrived Hungarian migrant. He said he took my advice which, he reminded me, was to learn English and earn some money before trying to become a student again. By working day and night he had managed both to learn English and to start the first factory to manufacture nylon in Australia. Why was he visiting me now? He wanted to know if I knew of any student in the predicament he had been in. If so he would like to pay his or her way through university. He had not forgotten others on his way to material success.

Such are our teachers on life’s way, as well as the Paul Tillichs and A. N. Whiteheads. Having spent much of my life as a teacher I have come to realize that no-one really teaches anyone anything. We can teach others how to learn. We can lead them to the path of discovery for themselves. This indeed is the central principle of Plato’s dialogue the Meno. Meno is a slave who, step by step, answers questions put to him by Socrates. Socrates tells him nothing. What he does is draw out from his pupil his latent capacities for discovery. He leads him to water to drink. Another great teacher, Jesus, did precisely this in conversation with a Samaritan woman by a well. He led her to a metaphorical well of living water, and invited her to drink.

The Urge to Live

The wonder is that life has surmounted the hazards of billions of years to bring us here. Imagine ourselves back some four billion years ago on this planet facing two scenarios: on one side, a vast turbulence, terrific volcanoes belching forth from the inexhaustible fires of the earth’s core; on the other side the beginnings of living cells, microscopic, invisible along the water’s edge of some shallow sea, quiet, vital. On which are we betting, as in imagination we stand there billions of years ago, volcanoes or life? Life has no credible chance to mean anything against the violent forces of volcano, earthquake, tidal wave and hurricane. Yet we see today what triumphed -- life, spirit, art, music, prophets, martyrs, scientists and saints. The utterly unforeseeable, the unimaginable did happen. The vitality of life is mightier than all the forces of nature waged against it. For us today the perils are horrendous but the possibilities are momentous -- all because of the urge that is implanted in life to lead to yet more life.

Whitehead (1929) affirmed that all living things are characterized by a threefold urge: ‘ (i) to live, (ii) to live well, (iii) to live better. In fact the art of life is first to be alive, secondly to be alive in a satisfactory way, and thirdly, to acquire an increase in satisfaction’ (p. 8). Life is bound up with an urge to live. It is not a mere fact. It is a value. Being alive is valuable in itself. If life were not prized by those who live, death would soon triumph. Indeed, the principle of the urge to live is far more basic to life than the principle of survival of the fittest. Apart from the urge to live there would be no survival, whether of the fit or the unfit, human or non-human. The urge to live is the appeal of life for life.

It is the urge to live that makes us subjects as distinct from objects. To be a subject is to have feelings. It is to be an experiencer. It is to be responsive inwardly. It is to be responsive to what is our past and what could be our future. ‘The present,’ said Whitehead, ‘is the fringe of memory tinged with anticipation.’ Descartes’ ‘Cogito ergo sum’, as Whitehead (1966 p. 166) points out, is wrongly translated ‘I think, therefore I am’. It is never bare thought or bare existence that we are convinced of. What we really know as subjects are enjoyments, hopes, regrets -- in a word, feelings. The basic notion of a subject as distinct from an object is I feel therefore I am: I know I am a subject because I have feelings.

The worst we can do to a fellow human is to treat him or her as a mere object without feelings. An object is something to be manipulated, to be pushed around, to be in the service of another object such as a political party or state. The object has no value in itself. Its value is entirely its instrumental value. It is not recognized as having an urge to live. The Green Revolution in Asia broke up families because agribusiness took over their farms. Peasants were treated as objects whose value was non-existent for big farming. Many of them were driven off their small holdings and migrated to overcrowded cities such as Calcutta, where they added to the masses of unemployed.

To treat people as though they were mere objects is a desecration of life. Nazism was a doctrine that treated people as objects of the state and its leader. People were turned into numbers, in factories, in concentration camps where the rulers were deliberately deaf to suffering. In the BBC television program The Ascent of Man Jacob Bronowski is seen walking into a pond at Auschwitz concentration camp where the ashes of four million people were flushed. That was not done by gas. It was done by dogma; the dogma holds that certain people are mere objects. And as Bronowski bent down into the pond and lifted up a handful of mud in his hand he said: ‘We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.’ That means to take seriously every feeling and expression of another, entering into another’s experience rather than turning away from it as irrelevant to us.

The concept ‘economic man’ treats human beings as objects, not as subjects. It is a substance view of humans. Their value is their value to the gross national product. Their value is their service. If that service can be rendered by a machine then their value disappears. The tendency of the technological society that puts a premium on efficiency is to treat people as objects for economic ends and not as subjects who have an urge to live. But what’s the point of gaining top marks for GNP and losing your soul? The golden goose can lay rotten eggs. Traditional economists are slow to learn that society is more than ‘the economy’ (see Chapter 5).

By contrast we respect people as subjects when we value them, their urge to live and their aspirations, for their own sakes. Even in love between two people this element can be subjugated to an exploitation of one by the other. Respect implies the absence of exploitation. I want the other to grow for his or her own sake as he or she is, not as I need that person as an object for my use. We may think we really love another person when it is only ourselves we love. We want our way and not what the other wants. ‘Selfishness,’ said Oscar Wilde, ‘is not living as one wishes to live. It is asking others to live as one wishes to live.’ Respect is possible only if we have achieved such independence that we don’t need to dominate or possess or exploit anyone. But this is indeed difficult. How do two people identify and feel related and not restrict each other? As a friend who was deeply in love said to me -- maybe only saints are capable of that. ‘Immature love,’ writes Fromm (1962), ‘says I love you because I need you. Mature love says I need you because I love you’ (p. 3). Significantly, in both the Old and the New Testaments the central objects of man’s love are the poor, the dispossessed, the stranger, the widow, the orphan and eventually the enemy. Only in the love of those who do not serve our purposes does love begin to enfold and enrich the lives of lover and that which is loved.

We are admonished to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. If it is a virtue to love my neighbor as a human being, it must be a virtue to love myself, since I also am a human being. If it is a virtue to seek to enrich the life of another, it is a virtue to seek to enrich one’s own life. The affirmation of one’s own life and freedom is to enrich life, both of the self and of those with whom we associate. Some people affirm very little about themselves. It was said, at the funeral at the Wayside Chapel in Sydney, of a youth who had taken his life -- ‘Life was not too much for him, it was too little’. The selfish person does not love himself too much, but too little. He is narcissistically preoccupied with self, but he fails to love that which is lovable in himself. He sees the rest of the world in terms of what use it can be to him. And he remains empty and frustrated. He sees his life as though it were a sponge to soak up experiences instead of an outgoing urge to embrace the world. To love ourselves is to be open to influences that press in upon us from all sides, that could transform us as the energy of the sun transforms a plant. The selfish person blocks himself off from these influences by anxiously snatching from life instead of being open to life. We are to be like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. They toil not neither do they spin. They are not anxious about their lives. Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins . . .
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things . . .
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

So They Show Their Relations To Me And I Accept Them,
They Bring Me Tokens Of Myself, They Evince Them Plainly In Their Possession.
I Wonder Where They Got Those Tokens,
Did I pass that way huge times ago and negligently drop them?

Be not anxious. Take no thought for the morrow. These are not irresponsible injunctions. There are things we should care about and others that don’t need our care and concern. T. S. Eliot had a prayer: ‘Teach us to care and not to care’. It is akin to the prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr (1976): ‘Give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other’ (p. vii).

The selfish person becomes anxious because of a sense of unfulfillment, a lack of meaning and the loss of an urge to live truly. Anxiety has a Latin root, angustia, meaning shortness of breath, lacking room to breathe freely. A person who suffers from angina has coronary arteries that have narrowed so much that they no longer feed the heart with sufficient oxygen for it to function properly. So the heart no longer beats freely. The Latin root of angina is the same as the root of anxiety. Anxiety like angina narrows down the gateway of experience so that we live in a bottleneck, no longer fully and freely as do the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.

The anxious and selfish person (they are often the same) may try to replace emptiness with fun. Fun consists in consuming commodities; food, drink, movies, drugs and so on. Fun of sorts one may find. But it is not the creative kind of fun connected with play and the urge to live creatively. It is a shallow greedy way of ‘having fun’. What eludes the selfish person is joy. The escape from one’s emptiness through fun makes joy impossible.

The Joy of Purpose

Friedrich Nietzsche, himself the son of a Protestant minister, expressed his judgment about the followers of Jesus thus: ‘His disciples should look more redeemed’. In quoting these words Tillich (1955 p. 143) said the experience of the suppression of joy and guilt about joy in Christian groups almost drove him to break with Christianity. But he asked the question -- is that because these groups were Christian or because they were not sufficiently Christian? There is a pietistic moralism that is joyless and stunting. ‘Puritanism,’ said H. L. Mencken, ‘is the haunting fear that someone somewhere must be having a good time.’ On the other hand, joy is an expression of a sense of fulfillment and enrichment of life. To his followers Jesus said: ‘These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be full’ (John 15:11). Joy comes when we are driven towards things and persons because of what they are and not because of what we can get out of them. The lad who mows the lawn reluctantly at the command of his father has no joy in the job. But the lad who mows the lawn because it is fun and at the same time wants to please his father has joy. I knew a young drug addict who was trying to break the habit by doing other things. He got the job of mowing a large football field. He found a certain pleasure in mowing anti-clockwise. He enjoyed what he was doing. But the groundsman told him to stop and mow clockwise because that was how it always had been done before. The young man broke down as the one bit of joy he had found was taken from him.

We are able to sacrifice all sorts of pleasures and even to take pain upon ourselves for a purpose to which we commit ourselves. No student worthy of the name hasn’t given up many lesser purposes for the sake of attaining the skills and understanding needed for a chosen profession. We can disregard both pain and pleasure because we are directed towards the things or persons we love. In that pursuit we discover a new richness of experience which brings joy. That joy is the expression of a central fulfillment of life. It is the expression of a discovered meaningfulness that lifts us up. It is the expression of being open to ever new depths of experience. It is the expression of something unearned, of something given, despite oneself and something greater than oneself. There is great joy in attempting to do something we thought we could not do, did not have it in us to do, then finding we could do it. Our best friends see in us possibilities we could never see in ourselves. They trusted us when we had not learned to trust ourselves. They led us to the joy of fulfillment that we could hardly have led ourselves to. We experience a plenitude that seems far beyond anything we have earned, yet freely given and abundantly. Whitehead (1942) speaks of ‘The experience of Peace [which] is largely beyond the control of purpose. It comes as a gift’ (p. 327). It is the peace that passes understanding. Whitehead uses the word Peace to include the sense that one’s personal adventure of life is included and at one with the adventure of the universe. We return to this idea in Chapter 3.

The Ambiguity of Purpose

People in the Western tradition have long recognized a tension in life between evil and good. They have understood themselves in terms of a duality of nature and spirit or of a duality between genetic endowment and culture. What makes us aggressive and selfish? Are these propensities bequeathed to us in our genes? Or has our culture molded us this way? Biologists such as Konrad Lorenz and Robert Ardrey argue that human beings have aggressiveness and selfishness built into their biological inheritance. This attempt to locate evil in our genetic inheritance just does not stand up to deeper analysis as Barnett (1989) has so clearly shown. There is that which lifts us up and that which drags us down. Niebuhr (1941) recognized this incongruity as the fundamental human problem. He saw that although the Bible recognized the tension it refused to identify either side with evil. Neither nature nor culture is bad. That we participate in both is our glory. But this glory is at the same time the condition that leads us continually into sin. One main consequence of locating evil with either nature or culture is that it makes the human problem something outside the human will. It is not we who sin. We say we are simply placed in a situation that produces evil. We are simply victims ourselves or spectators of other victims. My genes made me this way says the rebellious youth. Another blames his home and upbringing. Niebuhr addresses us in terms of our personal responsibility. We are not simply caught up in a situation. It is not the situation in which we find ourselves, but what we freely do in it that is the basic evil. In short, we must reckon with sin and not primarily with fate, be fate identified with genes, environment or divine predestination.

Niebuhr (1972) recognized the urge to live as a ‘will to live truly’. He also saw it transmuted in human lives into the ‘will to power’ or the desire for ‘power and glory’. The same person who is ostensibly devoted to the ‘common good’ may have desires and ambitions, hopes and fears, which set him at variance with his neighbor and the world. The urge to live becomes transmuted by overweening self-interest into a will to power that is destructive. Human beings are not just interested in physical survival but in prestige and social approval. They invariably seek to gain security against competing influences by enhancing their power. Possessing a darkly unconscious sense of insignificance in the total scheme of things, we seek to compensate for this insignificance by pretensions of pride. ‘The conflicts between men are thus never simple conflicts between competing survival impulses. They are conflicts in which each man or group seeks to guard its power and prestige against the peril of competing expressions of power and pride’ (Niebuhr 1972 p. 29). Niebuhr goes on to add that the fact that the will to power inevitably justifies itself in terms of the morally more acceptable will to realize our true nature means that the egoistic corruption of universal ideals is a much more persistent fact in human affairs than any moralistic creed is inclined to admit. The error of liberal humanism is its too great reliance upon the human capacity for transcendence over self-interest. There is this capacity, but the same person who displays this capacity also reveals varying degrees of the power of self-interest and the subservience of life to these interests. Is there a way which takes into account the ambiguity of our purposes? Niebuhr’s answer is that alongside the urge to live we need a special sort of wisdom if we are to harness and restrain self-interest, both individual and collective, for the sake of humanity. It is realistic wisdom and eternal vigilance, not utopian dreams, that may guide us through these rapids.

‘The self,’ says Niebuhr (1972), ‘can become its true self only by a continual transformation over self’ (p. 43). The same person who has the capacity for transcending self-interest also reveals varying degrees of the power of self-interest and the subservience of the will to those interests. Sometimes this egoism stands in frank contradiction to the professed ideal and sense of obligation to wider values. Who else but we know the secret of our hearts?

Milan (At Santa Maria Della Grazie’s)
For The Last Supper In The Refectory
Leonardo Sought A Model For Him.

The Choir-Boy From The Cathedral, Very
Suggestive Of Grace, Firm Of Face And Limb,
Clear Of Line And Colour -- Yes, He Would Do.
Lime, Water, Umber, Ultramarine Blue.
Rome (Another Time, Another Painting):

For The Face Of Judas, He Scoured The Belly
Of Alleys And Found One, Vice-Lined. Swore
His Sitter: ‘I’m Pietro Bandinelli -- ’
He Strained His Breath. ‘I’ve Sat For You Before -- ’
As Nervous As At His Vocation, Theft.
The Artist Smiled. ‘Turn A Bit To Your Left.’
R. P. Dickey, ‘Leonardo da Vinci -- A Legend’

The morally good act optimizes the harmony and intensity of living for all those lives that can conceivably be influenced by the act. It is also one that is in harmony with the unity of nature and of the universe in the sense in which Whitehead’s ‘Peace’ is an individual experience including within itself the harmony and integrity of the universe. By contrast, evil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole, whether the whole is conceived as the immediate community, the total community of humankind, or the total order of the universe. In short -- good unites, evil divides.

The purpose of this chapter has been to show that future possibilities are real causes in our lives. Subjective they may be. Nevertheless they are as real as the external causes in life, such as food and disease. The proposition is that a fundamental category for understanding human life is the urge to live, anticipation, purpose, realistic hope -- call it what you will. It is not simply the imaginative entertainment of attractive possibilities. It is the efficacy of the future in the present. There is within life an Eros toward the realization of greater, rather than lesser, values. To be effective this must be resident in experience. It must be immanent in the present, yet given from beyond itself.

If, as a society, we are to make a creative response to the overwhelming challenges of war, injustice and environmental destruction of our time, there need be agreement about purposes that are stronger than the differences that divide us. We confront some of these social issues in Chapter 5.

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