October 19, 2020 Daniel Harrison

Why Little Lumps of Particles Dream of Progress

Everyone is on a search for truth.

We often fail to realize this though, because it’s disguised as a quest for significance—a hope that our lives would be filled with meaning and purpose.

Searching for Truth

A living example of this is from Tolstoy, a famous writer and philosopher tormented by desire to understand the nature of reality. While pondering the origin of mankind, the question of purpose plagued his mind, “Why do I live?”

Tolstoy had all the wealth and fame anyone could want, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy his longing. After much toiling, he hopelessly resolved (like all naturalists), there is no real meaning to our lives.

In his book A Confession, he concluded that only two things are real: particles and progress.

He wrote,

“In infinite space, in infinite time, infinitely small particles change their forms in infinite complexity, and when you have understood the laws of these mutations of form you will understand why you live on the earth.”

He tells every person “You are an accidentally united little lump of something.”

He continues,

“That little lump ferments. The little lump calls that fermenting its ‘life.’ The lump will disintegrate and there will be an end of the fermenting and of all the questions.” 1

But something baffled Tolstoy.

As simple as it was to adopt a naturalistic perspective on life’s toughest questions, he couldn’t get over the fact that these little lump of particles “dream of progress.”

Tolstoy lived “being tormented (like every vital man) by the question how it is best for me to live.”

Here was his best conclusion: “Live in conformity with progress.”

This is a good question worth asking.

If we are the result of a blind purposeless process, why do we have this inherent drive for progress? Why do we long to be special, and dread the thought of being “just another one of those” ordinary persons?

No person escapes his desire for significance. John Calvin explains, “Every man flatters himself, and carries a kingdom in his breast.” 2

Longing for Meaning

As stated in this video, I am building this blog on the four central concepts of a worldview: origin, meaning, morality, and destiny.

And in reference to Tolstoy’s story, the answer to the origin question (where do we come from?) is directly tied to the meaning question (why do we exist?).

If we don’t know where we came from, we will struggle to know why we exist, and ultimately how we should live in today’s world.

In simpler terms, if we eradicate God from the nature of reality, we have no choice but to accept the mere particles and progress theory.

Even Tolstoy himself said there’s a link between origin and meaning, “When you have understood the laws of these mutations of form, you will understand why you live on the earth.” 3

But we know, of course, that accidental mutations of form aren’t intelligent enough to grant purpose to mankind.

If we are confused about origin, we will be confused about purpose. We cannot understand our makeup apart from our maker.

No Moral Law, No Meaning

I want to humbly submit further, that not only is our significance tied to the question of origin and meaning, but it is also tied to the question of morality. Morality asks, “how should I live?” It’s a question that starts wars.

Just think of politics for example.

Liberals in America are at war with conservatives because conservatives aren’t free enough. Conservatives are at war with liberals because liberals aren’t moral enough. But who holds justice in his hands?

Is there an absolute standard of morality? Is there such a thing as “moral knowledge?” Who defines right and wrong? Who is the judge of “immoral behavior?”

God holds justice in his hands, determines absolute truth, and defines immoral behavior.

For, “the foundation of God’s throne is righteousness and justice” (Psalm 89:14). And, “Good and upright is the Lord, therefore, he instructs the sinner in his way.”

Here lies the downward spiral to insignificance:

Without a Moral Law Giver there is no moral law. Without a moral law there is no meaning. Lose meaning and you lose significance. And bereft of significance, you are directionless.

This is why today, despite all we’ve learned about the brain and mental health, depression is at an all-time high, and still rising. Without purpose, we are prone to depression, and live like those Isaiah describes:

“Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like people without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the wrong, we are like the dead” (Isaiah 59:10).

This is exactly what Tolstoy felt, despite his progress in wealth and fame.

Destined for Significance

But, God has destined every human for significance. And in order to have it, we must live within the moral framework of his loving governance and care.

Psalm 119:1 tells us, “Blessed are those who walk according to the laws of God.” And Ezra, “Why do you break the commandments of the Lord, so that you cannot prosper?” (2 Chronicles 24:20).

Too many people are hung on the idea that “obedience” is somehow unloving restraint. But as Ezra clearly stated, we often don’t prosper in life simply because we reject God’s design for human freedom.

God created humanity and designed a system where they can flourish. Life in His kingdom is “peace and joy through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). It is friendship with Jesus who gives “life more abundantly” (John 10:10).

This just makes sense.

When my children live within the boundaries I set for them, they flourish. These boundaries don’t restrain them from being happy. They create an environment that nurtures their health.

Likewise, only a coherent framework of Godly moral knowledge can bring moral joy.

God told Jeremiah,

“I knew you before I formed you in your Mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as my prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).

More Than Particles

God formed you too; he knows you—every particle, creative gene, and idiosyncrasy.

But you’re not just a little lump of particles. You’re a person made in God’s image. And like Jeremiah, he made you for a purpose too.

But that purpose is discovered only within his loving rule.

As Dallas Willard so delightfully reminds us,

“The condition of life sought for by human beings through the ages is attained in the quietly transforming friendship of Jesus.” 4

Thankfully, Tolstoy discovered this.

Later in life he began to read Jesus’ words in the Gospels, and discovered a transcendent purpose for mankind. He surrendered his life to Christ, who gave him vision for his future and hope for eternity.

God offers the same to you.

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