What 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:
- What is my life all about?
- What is the ultimate destiny of all things?
- 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.