What is Life?

blog-08-03What is life? It seems the simplest and most basic reality, but it is hard to define in a way that is satisfying. One philosopher I know defined it as “ordered energy.” But does that really advance the understanding of the mystery we call life?

Consider an example: I have in one hand a small rock, and in my other, an acorn. They are similar in both shape and color. Now I place each of them in the ground and water them. The small rock just sits there; even a thousand years of water and sunshine would do nothing to change it. But in the case of the acorn, the water is able to reach a mysterious spark of life within it and fuel its mysterious power. The life takes the water in and springs forth. Soon enough, it thrusts through the soil and over time becomes a mighty oak.

What is this secret, mysterious force we call life? Yes, it is ordered energy, but it is so much more than that.

When we say that someone dies, what has really changed?

I remember when my father died. After watching him struggle through weeks of labored breathing and agitation, it was eerie to see him lying so still; he was peaceful for the first time in weeks. His body was still warm, but he was gone. He was a giant in my life. The man through whom God gave me life lay still and silent. His life, his soul, his life-giving principle, his “ordered energy” was gone. No amount of words could fully describe the reality before me. On the surface, nothing appeared so very different. Surely he would stir in a moment and speak to me! He did not. The something mysterious we call life was gone. We can say that he died or that his life ended, but mere words do not explain, they only describe; they are empty sounds before so great a mystery.

I have also seen many of my pets die. One moment there is life and movement, the next a great stillness as the something we call life has departed. What is that mysterious force?

I don’t know.

On my street there are two elm trees. One is luxuriant and full of leaves. The other is dead; it bears no green leaves and its branches are brittle. Something is gone from it, but is that something called life?

I don’t know.

We speak often of that great mystery called life, but a word is not reality; it is just a word. The word “life” cannot really tell us what life is. Saying that something is alive is more to tell us that it is not dead, nor is it inanimate.

Many decades before his death, my father talked to me about the mystery of life. He told me that when he was about ten years old, a powerful thought occurred to him: “I exist.” So stunned was he that he said he stayed very quiet for the next three days, just being silent in the face of a mystery too great for him to fathom. I have had similar moments of reverential silence, when I ponder consciousness and self-awareness, or when I think about the fact that I am thinking.

It is altogether too much. Simple or even complex definitions cannot ultimately provide satisfaction.

The secularism of our time seeks to suppress such matters because they are about meaning, not just about physical things that can be touched and measured. The mysterious reality we call life does not weigh anything. It cannot be seen as it arrives or departs. Its effects can be seen, but “it” cannot be seen. We cannot say of life, “Look, there it is!” or “There it goes!” It is certainly real and it affects physical things profoundly. But of itself, it seems more metaphysical than physical and defies simple categorization.

The secularism of our time would hurry us past questions such as “What is life?” Neither would it have us dwell on other questions of meaning that the physical sciences cannot speak to, such as:

  1. What is my life all about?
  2. What is the ultimate destiny of all things?
  3. Why is there something rather than nothing?

“No, no,” say secularism, atheism, and scientism. “Hurry along now; there is nothing to see here.”

But pardon me if I am not content with being hurried along and if I insist that suppressing such questions does great damage to individuals and cultures as a whole. Without appreciation for imponderable mysteries, there is little reverence. Indeed, too few ask the question “What is life?” And even fewer accept the imponderable quality of such a question.

What is life? It is a mystery too deep for words. Silent reverence, please, before so great a mystery.

These are some of the lyrics of a song written by Steve Green, a contemporary Christian singer:

God and God alone, created all these things we call our own;
from the mighty to the small, the glory in them all;
Is God’s and God’s alone.
God and God alone reveals the truth of all we call unknown;
And the best and worst of man can’t change the Master’s plan;
It’s God’s and God’s alone.

8 Replies to “What is Life?”

  1. But the Lord Jesus used these words which give us more clues about your topic;

    “I am the light of the world…Whoever follows me will have the light of life.” (Jn 8:12)

    “I am the way, the truth and the life…No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn 14:6)

    So, we see here that light (and therefore, sight or seeing, and as a result, knowing), life (“always on”, self-replicating animation), deliberate process (way), and law (truth, structure of reality) are in the same class. All of these have an origin, purpose, and orientation.

    When we look at a star, we see light and we see that, in a way, it is “always on” like life. So, there appears to be something in a star which we, humans also have in us.

    Something to ponder…

  2. Msgr: This article was a gem. I couldn’t scroll and read fast enough – but then you STOPPED! 🙂

    Your are on to something here that is not only relevant but critical if we’re going to revitalize our parishes. Most people-in-the-pews are good people but are passively passing the time in their lives and on Sundays. Mission? Personal relationship with Christ? Spiritual destiny? Making Diaciples? Being Disciples? Totally foreign concepts to them.

    What you said moves the needle in the right direction. I’ll pray that the Spirit inspires “Part 2.”

  3. Not to mention that the acorn, life, came from life. All life is related, which when thinking back to Adam and where he got life from, means we are related to God, in a very personal way. And related to each other.

    It’s not chance. He intended me.

  4. Life. Securalists would insists that life sprang from inorganic chemicals to self replicating cells by mere chance. Amino acids can be made in a laboratory from chemicals but never have any evidence been found for a mechanism for producing proteins or DNA with their pure chiral forms that are required for life.

    Stars are just stupid (but impressive) nuclear fusion driven element factories. Hardly the stuff of life.

  5. I think the order of Creation is the dignity of Man, which is Man´s need of God, who is Being and Love, and therefore also of Virtue and Immortality. Hence Man is a person, and every living organism is a partial person. This dignity of Man is immaterial, it is referred to as the soul, which is the image of the Son of God, and therefore all men are created equal. Indeed the dignity of Man is Man´s need of friendship, who is the Holy Ghost. And original sin is the absence in our world of such friendship, the absence of grace, which is by way of Nature transmitted by natural inheritance, as the world is in sin. Therefore there is no salvation without the wish for faith and baptism, a wish that by the Holy Ghost can be granted to all Men, but especially those, who learn about our Lord, when the Gospel is preached. In fact the Lord is He who comes to the world. For the observable Universe is finite, as it is delimited by our socalled backward light cone, and hence the night sky is predominantly dark, the darkness being where our backward light cone meets with the beginning in time. But then the backward light cone of the Parousia – the purgatory fire? – would separate the whole universe from God. So I believe in geocentrism.

  6. When you consider so many things are alive but we cannot make things come alive, it is a marvel. The earth teems with life – all around us is exploding with life, yet, how did it come to be? It is a continuum, yet branches can end. But life keeps exploding into being, from one life to another; seeds, eggs, a part splits off and becomes a whole, live births from the womb of a mother.

    But two principles are always true. One life begets another, and it is always of the same kind. A dog never begets an eagle. An amoeba cannot generate a protozoa. And once something that was alive dies, it can no longer bring about an offspring of itself. Only life begets life.

    In no other way does life come to be.

    Only life begets life.

  7. I often wonder about all persons that could have come into existence had married couples been totally open to life. How many millions of conceptions never take place because of contraceptives. Does this limit God in his desire to have many more human beings given existence? Did He will millions more to be with Him forever in heaven but His divine plan for all these potential human beings are ended through contraceptives. It almost seems as if we are limiting God’s love for creating and it is a tragic … God does not want us to use contraceptives which means He wills millions more conceptions and human beings. What if you or I was one of these that God willed but our parents would not allow our coming into existence?

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