In 1952 philosopher Mortimer Adler co-edited a fifty-five volume series for Encyclopedia Britannica titled The Great Books of the Western World. Overseeing a staff of ninety, the editors created a diverse index of topics containing selections from many of the finest thinkers in the history of Western Civilization. Upon completion, Adler was asked why the work included more pages under the subject of God than any other topic. He replied matter-of-factly that it was because more consequences for life and action follow from the affirmation or denial of God than from any other basic question.
What we do with the subject of God is a far-reaching choice, defining life, informing death, shaping everything. The one who lives as though there is no God lives quite differently than the one who lives confidently that there is a God. It is a subject of consequence because it reaches everything and everyone; whether mindfully or indifferently, a decision is always made.
Through avenues of every emotion known to humankind, the Psalms make the astounding claim that God not only exists, but that God is present and can be found. In victory and defeat, illness and poverty, health and prosperity, the psalmist maintains that it is God who gives all of life meaning, that God alone answers the deepest and darkest questions of life whether in the depths or from the highest vantage.
Calling to the multitudes, crossing lines of status and allegiance, the psalmist pleads for care regarding a subject that concerns all. Like Adler, the psalmist makes it clear that what is being communicating is of consequence. “Hear this, all you peoples; listen, all who live in this world, both low and high, rich and poor together… I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp.”(1) This riddle the psalmist wants to bring to the attention of all is a riddle forever before humankind. It is a riddle to which all must diligently attend but many wholeheartedly ignore. Fittingly, the Hebrew word for “riddle” has also been translated “dark saying” or “difficult question.”
The psalmist continues, “When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others. Their graves are their homes for ever, their dwelling-places to all generations, though they named lands their own. Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.”
Most of us go about life as if we know what we are doing, but what is the purpose of it all? Some accumulate wealth, others remain in poverty, some live well and others live wickedly, but all are destined for the grave. The one who claims there is no God in life, so claims emptiness in death. But then is life also empty? Again we return to the riddle of the psalmist: What, then, is the point of it all?
Solving the riddles of life and death, like religion and politics at a social gathering, means, for many, changing the subject. As Woody Allen once quipped, “It’s not that I am afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” But that our lives are fleeting awakens a sense of urgency, a sense of inquiry. That life is fleeting, though inarguably full of meaning, is either a peculiar contradiction or a hint that there is more to come.
Even so, for the Christian death remains something of a mystery. For we know that death is the last great door through which we must walk, the mark of a broken world. Yet we know also that through death God has declared the end of that broken hold on our lives, that the one who loses his life will save it, and that by Christ’s death the Spirit works Christ’s life in us. As C.S. Lewis once said of the Christian, “Of all men, we hope most of death; yet nothing will reconcile us to…its ‘unnaturalness.’ We know that we were not made for it; we know how it crept into our destiny as an intruder; and we know Who has defeated it.” In the riddle of life and death the psalmist expounds this certainty of God’s action. “But God will ransom my soul from the power of the grave, for he will receive me.”