Most of us live without knowing what we live for. Surely this is life’s greatest tragedy, far worse than death. Living for no reason is not living, but mere existing, mere surviving. As Viktor Frankl found in a Nazi concentration camp, our deepest, rock-bottom need is not pleasure, as Freud thought, or power, as Adler thought, but meaning and purpose, “a reason to live and a reason to die”. We need a meaning to life more than we need life itself.
Millions all around us are living the tragedy of meaningless life, the “life” of spiritual death. That is what makes our society more radically different from every society in history: not that it can fly to the moon, enfranchise more voters, have the grossest national product, conquer disease, or even blow up the entire planet, but that it does not know why it exists.
Every past society gave its members answers to all three great questions. It transmitted the teachings of its sages, saints, mystics, gurus, philosophers, or gods through tradition. For the first time in history, society no longer regards tradition as sacred; in fact, it no longer regards it at all. We are the first tree that has uprooted itself from the universal soil. If we are to find an answer to the question “For what may I hope?” we must find the answer individually; our society simply does not know. The only sound we hear from our noisy society concerning the most important questions in the world is the sound of silence.
How has this silence come about? How is it that the society that “knows it all” about everything knows nothing about Everything? How has the knowledge explosion exploded away the supreme knowledge? Why have we thrown away the road map just as we’ve souped up the engine? We must retrace the steps by which we have come to this dead end . . .
From the Renaissance emerged something radically new in human history: a secular society with a secular summum bonum. Of the twenty-one civilizations Toynbee distinguishes in his monumental Study of History, the first twenty kept some sort of religious basis and purpose; ours is history’s most unique experiment. It remains to be seen how long a civilization can survive without the use of spiritual energy, without a supernatural source of life.
Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing