Essay: Existential Questions, part 1
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from


Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Essay: Existential Questions, part 1

[Occasionally I offer thoughts not strictly related to the week’s Lectionary reading. This is the first of a three-part series.]
As self-reflective creatures, we cannot avoid thinking about three fundamental existential questions: Where did I come from? What will happen to me when I die? What is the purpose my life? I will argue that answers to the first two questions tend conflict with each other, and both have implications for the third.
Science cannot answer these three questions, because the questions relate to the individual psych, which cannot be measured or tested scientifically. Science might show correlations between brain activity or neurotransmitter levels and contemplation of these questions, but the experience of life and the questions that this experience generates is outside the purview of science. Some atheists argue that human consciousness is an artifact of nature and what many people of faith regard as the “soul” is a brain phenomenon that ceases when the brain ceases to function. I see this as a denial of the mystery of existence rather than an explanation. Further, this atheistic position does not resonate as true or relevant for many people. Consequently, many people, including people who put considerable stock in science, have often sought out religious traditions for answers to these existential questions. Indeed, I doubt that the dream of some atheists to see an end to “religious superstition” will ever come to pass, because religion aims to address fundamental human needs, including the need for answers to these three existential questions.
Where did I come from? We find ourselves situated in a certain place and time, and we have no idea how or why that happened. We note that we are products of two parents, who are themselves products of parents, and our ancestry relates us to countless other people. We are also products of the earth, because our bodies are made of the earth and parts of the earth continuously cycle in and out of our bodies. Further, we find that our feelings and desires are shared by other individuals (human and animal), and this commonality encourages us to look to others in an effort to find out where we came from. So, trying to understand our origins yields knowledge and insights that connect us to the earth and its inhabitants, which in turn promotes empathy, compassion, and concern for the world and those who live in it.
The biblical creation story bears this out. The Bible describes all creatures living in peace and harmony, which God found “very good.” This account reminds people that the ideal world is nonviolent, a theme that Isaiah 11:6-9 reiterates in the “realm of God” vision.
Of course, people of faith don’t have a monopoly on compassion, and some of the most compassionate people I know are atheists. Meanwhile, many people of faith are hard-hearted, particularly when it comes to animal issues. Next week, I’ll explore how our effort to address the question what happens when I die influences our degree of empathy and concern for others.

Go on to: Essay: Existential Questions, part 2
Return to: Reflection on the Lectionary, Table of Contents 

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