[Book Review] The Riddle of Life

Man is no more able to create meaning and purpose than he is able to give life to the dead or call into existence the things that do not exist.

Man and his world remain an unsolved riddle, an impenetrable mystery. Yet, we are not to despair. There is, in fact, a clear way forward as J. H. Bavinck demonstrates in his book The Riddle of Life. In a simple, understandable, and persuasive manner, he presses in to answer the big questions that have riddled life: What do we know? Who are we? Why are we here? Where do we come from? What is our destiny? How should we live?

 

J. H. Bavinck. The Riddle of Life.Translated by Bert Hielema. Grand Rapids, MI. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2016. Pp. 94. $20.00.

For fallen man, life is a riddle that was, and that is, and that will continue to be. A few brief notes on the history of Western thought demonstrate this point. The self-proclaimed autonomous man of the Enlightenment sought to employ either his reason (rationalism) or his sense experience (empiricism) to interpret a supposedly open, un-interpreted universe that included himself. However, unable to ground the law of cause-and-effect or even the most basic notion of a subject-object correspondence, David Hume buried the autonomous man. On his gravestone he wrote: a relativist, a skeptic, an unsolved riddle.

Eventually a shift occurred. After repeatedly arriving at the absurd and irrational as a conclusion, the absurd instead became a self-given, the assumed starting-point. This was particularly the case for consciousness and existentialist thinkers. For example, Albert Camus, in his work The Myth of Sisyphus, assumes from the outset that the life of man is akin to that of Sisyphus who was condemned to ceaselessly rolling a stone to the top of a mountain, which would only roll back down of its own weight. Yet, Sisyphus is not to be pitied, but imagined to be happy. “Sisyphus is the absurd hero,” writes Camus, “He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing” (The Myth of Sisyphus, 120). From nothing man came, to nothing man is fated, and everything in between is absurd—if only he will embrace this, he will live.

Out of the absurdity that is life or existence, others called forth monstrous beings, like Nietzsche’s Übermensch who would reject the hopes of another world as pitiable escapism, declare the death of God, fully embrace his irrational existence, and forge for himself value and meaning. Thus, the testimony to the futility of fallen thought is manifold: man is no more able to create meaning and purpose than he is able to give life to the dead or call into existence the things that do not exist. Man and his world remain an unsolved riddle, an impenetrable mystery.

Yet, we are not to despair. There is, in fact, a clear way forward as J. H. Bavinck demonstrates in his book The Riddle of Life. In a simple, understandable, and persuasive manner, he presses in to answer the big questions that have riddled life: What do we know? Who are we? Why are we here? Where do we come from? What is our destiny? How should we live? His basic point is that if we begin with the self-attesting man of the Enlightenment, then we are doomed to irrationality and absurdity. But if we begin with the self-attesting Christ of Scripture then and only then can we move forward to find the answers to the mysteries of life.

Accordingly, Bavinck argues for the necessity of a revelatory epistemology, that is, a theory of knowledge that arises from the revelation of God in Scripture. The only silk thread that leads us out of the labyrinth of life is that which God has let down from heaven: his Word. Bavinck writes, “God has spoken. The eternal mystery of the ultimate basis of everything that exists has been revealed. In Jesus Christ the Light has come, the Light that bans all darkness from our hearts and instills in us the unspeakable joy of having found and having been found” (5). Bavinck further clarifies this point by affirming that the only way to arrive at any knowledge is “to believethat we are part of a rational universe,” which can only be maintained if “we confessthat an almighty and all-wise God has created the world and the human race in mutual dependence” (16).

From this revelatory foundation, Bavinck proceeds to answer the mysteries of life in the light of Scripture. For example, in order to answer the question, “Where do we come from?” we must know whether or not God exists. Bavinck lists the various classical proofs for the existence of God that have been given, but concludes that they are “in themselves … not totally convincing” (24). The reason for this is that we are always biased in our conclusions, which means our intellect and logic “cannot possibly be the final arbiter” (25). In contrast, “the Christian faith, realizing this truth, strongly stresses the confession: I believe in God, the Father, creator of heaven and earth. That is not a scientific conclusion, not a well-rounded statement, but it rests on faith in God’s Word. When I, in this world, amidst an untold number of mysteries, ponder the question of ‘Where do I originate?’ I only can trust that the whole of this rational and yet so mysterious universe has been wrought by a superior Reason, by an all-wise Maker who is also our Father” (25).

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