Once upon a time on Tralfamadore, there were creatures that weren’t anything like machines. They weren’t dependable. They weren’t efficient. They weren’t predictable. They weren’t durable. And these poor creatures were obsessed by the idea that everything that existed had to have a purpose, and that some purposes were higher than others.
These creatures spent most of their time trying to find out what their purpose was. And every time they found out what seemed to be a purpose of themselves, the purpose seemed so low that the creatures were filled with disgust and shame. And, rather than serve such a low purpose, the creatures would make a machine to serve it.
This left the creatures free to serve higher purposes. But whenever they found a higher purpose, the purpose still wasn’t high enough. So machines were made to serve higher purposes, too. And the machines did everything so expertly that they were finally given the job of finding out what the higher purpose of the creatures could be.
The machines reported in all honesty that the creatures couldn’t really be said to have any purpose at all. The creatures thereupon began slaying each other, because they hated purposeless things above all else. And they discovered that they weren’t even very good at slaying. So they turned that job over to the machines, too. And the machines finished up the job in less time than it takes to say, “Tralfamadore.” (Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan)
Human beings do not like purposeless things. A purposeless cosmos cannot give hope to creatures desperately seeking ultimate significance. And without hope for the future, humankind will perish either through nausea or revolt, according to Teilhard de Chardin.
Quantum physicists are not very sure about how the observable universe is going to end, even as they cannot come to terms with the fact that it came out of nothing. Once the notion that the universe started with the Big Bang became accepted by the majority of scientists, they were forced to discuss what the ultimate fate of the universe would be.
Their speculations depend upon the physical properties of the mass/energy in the universe, its average density, and the rate of expansion. Some believe that the ultimate fate of the universe is dependent on whether the shape of the universe is positively or negatively curved and what role dark energy will play as the universe ages.
A few cosmologists say that the universe is flat and will continue to expand forever. They conceive of the end of the universe as a vast space populated by dead stars and black holes billions of years from now.
And what do the poets say? “This is the way the world ends/ not with a bang but with a whimper” (T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men). “Some say the world will end in fire,/Some say in ice./ From what I’ve tasted of desire/ I hold with those who favor fire” (Robert Frost, Fire and Ice).
Some of Shakespeare’s most quoted lines are “All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death,” and “Life is a tale told by an idiot, all sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Combative, militant atheists look down on religion as collective hallucination or idiotic superstition when it talks about meaning and death, ultimate judgment and a new heaven and a new earth. The roster includes Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’ The End of Religion, Victor J. Stenger’s The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, and Christopher Hitchen’s God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. For them, this is an absurd, purposeless universe devoid of all meaning.
“You must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (Mt. 24:44). As Christians celebrate Advent in expectation of Christ’s return at the end of time, every believer is called upon to think about what the end of the universe will be. In the star-crossed twilight between birth and dying, we search endlessly for the meaning of our lives and the basis for our hope.
Christianity is a religion of hope because of its expectation of a final future fulfillment. It therefore should have the ability to think differently, to be creative enough to see reality from a wider perspective in order to engender intellectual convictions, ethical responses and spiritual strength. With commitment to a common hope—scientific, ethical, and personal—we can overcome the many crises of poverty, corruption, conflict, and unsustainability that confront us. This is what being historical creatures mean, pilgrims in the space-time continuum—to be embraced by history and yet touch history too by personal acts of courage, compassion and creativity that leave the world a better place than when one came into it.
In the transcendence of the God who is future, faith is carried by the forward momentum of anticipation and openness to what is new, carried forward into hope by the transcendence of the future. Only in hope’s light and warmth can Filipinos overcome their tendency toward disunity and self-destruction.
We need hope as we remain stunned by the ravages of the siege in Zamboanga, the earthquake in Bohol and the devastation wrought by super typhoon Yolanda. Hope is a source of strength, an inner light that can strengthen our resolve to create a better nation and help us navigate the darkness of our times as we seek to rebuild the country in the face of unimaginable destruction and the grinding poverty of the majority of the populace.
What each of us decides as the meaning of our life and the basis for our hope guides our behavior and will mark the future for us all.
Fr. Benigno P. Beltran, SVD
The Rev. Fr. Benigno P. Beltran, SVD, was born June 5, 1946 in Kolambugan, Lanao del Norte, Philippines. Ordained in 1973, Fr. Beltran received his Doctorate in Theology from Gregorian University in Rome in 1985, and was Scholar-in-Residence at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago from 1985-1986. Author of numerous publications, he won the Manila Critics’ Circle National Book Award in 1988 for “The Christology of the Inarticulate.” His most recent publication is “ Smokey Mountain: Ravaged Earth and Wasted Lives.” Currently the parish priest for the Parish of the Risen Christ in Smokey Mountain, Tondo, Manila, Fr. Beltran has spent over a quarter of a century working with the “scavenger residents” living atop of the third largest untreated garbage dump in the world. He has helped to organize, house, educate and empower a community that truly embodies living on “the margins of society.” With a foundation of spiritual and value formation, Fr. Beltran has helped the people of his unique parish to help themselves, finding self-respect and hope.