On MacBeth and Meaning

by Dr. Steve Blakemore

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time; and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

A less eloquent, cruder expression captures the same sentiment: “Life’s hard, and then you die.”  This is, when all is said and done, the only conclusion that even the most noble of atheists have to embrace.  Even if we try to “give our lives” meaning, at the end each of us is just a poor player who “strut and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.”  Shakespeare’s MacBeth is an honest materialist, it would seem.

But, there is another way to think about life.  Consider John Wesley’s MacBeth-like observations about the brief, uncertain sojourn that is a human being’s existence.

From the introduction to The 52 Standard Sermons of John Wesley.

I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity!

Not anymore cheery than Shakespeare’s character–at least to that point. Too bad that so many stop at that insight and do not pay attention to their deepest longings, namely the desire to know that their lives do matter and that there might be reason to care about life.

Wesley pressed on and did not ignore this most fundamental of human yearnings.

I want to know one thing,—the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end He came from heaven.

Of course, there are many who would dismiss such talk as mere wishful thinking, a kind of frame of mind that cannot look with honesty at the utter meaninglessness of existence.  These persons have too insist that they and all of us pass a judgment upon our lives that concludes we are fantasy makers and too cowardly to admit that nothing really matters.  That, it seems to me, is a strange thing to say to a human being.  It is like telling them that their innate desire for food, or for shelter, or to belong in human community is something they could ignore and instead embrace starvation, exposure, and isolation.

Yet, even among my atheist friends most of them really do want to be loved, really do want to know truth, really do think we should treat each other with justice and kindness.  But, why?

There is no reason–not really–to be good to one another, or even to ourselves, unless the God of Christianity is real.  The Christian Gospel is not about religion, but about God’s deep caring for us and desire that we understand that we do matter.

So, consider St. John’s words found in the  prologue of the Gospel that bears his name, as he contemplates the great mystery of Christ’s coming that we are preparing to celebrate.

From John 1.
10 He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him.
11 He came to His own,[c] and His own[d] did not receive Him. 12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: 13 who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth

Take your pick, but as for me I’ll pay attention to my deepest desires for meaning and rejoice that I matter so much to God that the Word became flesh for my sake.

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