A former history teacher, Tom is a columnist who lives in Lovell, Maine. His column is published in Maine and New Hampshire newspapers and on numerous web sites. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Name: Tom McLaughlin
Tuesday, October 11, 2016
“What does it all mean?” theists ask. Pure scientists believe the question irrelevant. Theism professes one God created the universe, intervenes in it, and sustains a personal relationship with humanity. Science doesn’t look for meaning. Meaning is irrelevant. Unless one embraces religion, nihilism is the default position. Meaningful or meaningless? Western culture is in conflict, and in the early 21st century, nihilism prevails. As I contended in last week’s column, many see the west as post-Christian and maybe they’re right.
Whenever a new principal came along, I’d get a visit. He/she would ask me about my “Beginnings” unit in which I outlined different explanations about the origin of the universe and of humanity, comparing and contrasting the fading creation narrative and the prevailing big bang/evolution account. It was controversial, they said, and they asked me to drop it. I pointed to the Scopes Monkey Trial covered in the text, and that teaching about evolution was as controversial during the early years of the 20th century as teaching about creation had become in the later years. As the K-12 curriculum in our district existed then, only in a high school elective were some taught the Big Bang Theory. Only in Sunday school were some taught the creation story. Near the end of my career I had some students had never heard of Adam and Eve, for example.
The way Americans understood their origins affected how they perceived other issues, I argued. One principal told me he got flak from both sides: Progressives claimed I taught creation. Jehovah Witnesses complained I taught evolution. I didn’t teach either. I taught about both, and encouraged students to take a position. Some years we conducted formal debates. Students asked me throughout what my position was but I’d demur until the end. Then I’d tell them mine is the Catholic position under which the creation and Big Bang/evolution accounts are not mutually exclusive, but complementary.
Each principal relented and I went on with my Beginnings unit — until September 11, 2001. As part of a current events lesson, I was writing the word “jihad” on the board, explaining to students why Palestinian Muslim suicide bombers were blowing themselves up to kill Jews in Israel when Principal Joe Soraghan knocked on my door. It was about 9:15 am and he motioned for me to step into the hallway. Two planes had hit the World Trade Center, he told me, and that changed everything. Jihad had come to America.
Each September for the next eight years, I’d start with a unit on why we were at war — why radical Muslims wanted to kill American Jews, Christians and atheists. Instead of comparing and contrasting creation and evolution, we instead compared and contrasted Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — in that order, because that’s the order in which each was established — approximately 2500 BC, 1 AD, and 600 AD, respectively. All three share the same creation story. Abraham is a patriarch in all three as well. Christians believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God, but neither Jews nor Muslims do — and so on. We were at war because Muhammed instructed Muslims to convert the world to Islam — by the sword if necessary. That they did until early in the 20th century, and many were resuming in the 21st — and that’s why we were at war. It was the end of one controversial unit and the beginning of another.
Jews established the State of Israel after the Holocaust — which has ultimate meaning for them, and they’re willing to die for it. Radical Muslims deny the Holocaust and vow to wipe Israel, which they call “The Little Satan,” off the map — then destroy America, which they call “The Great Satan.” Those goals are meaningful enough that they’re willing to kill and die for them.
When Martin Luther Day came around in January, I’d quote what he said in a 1963 speech:
“I submit to you that if a man hasn't discovered something he will die for, he isn't fit to live.”
Then I’d ask each of my four classes if there were anything they would die for. Only about ten to twenty percent could think of anything. When I asked those few, they said they were willing to die for their families. One said he would die for his cat. Most couldn’t think of anything at all. Are they representative of the rest of America? How many of us have discovered something meaningful enough to die for in this age of existential nihilism?
Existential nihilism (Wikipedia): “the philosophical theory that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. With respect to the universe, existential nihilism posits that a single human or even the entire human species is insignificant, without purpose and unlikely to change in the totality of existence.”