I am sometimes fascinated by juxtapositions. For instance, on page 593 of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (13th edition), this quote from a hymn by John Mason Neale:
Brief life is here our portion.
…is followed by the quotations from Karl Marx, beginning with:
Religion…is the opium of the people.
Two worldviews providentially arranged for our comparison.
The first worldview sets this life in the context of eternity. Our days in this world are few–but there is another life to come, in the heavenly city, for those who belong to Christ. The hymn is actually a translation of a 12th century work by Bernard of Morlas, and the entire hymn can be found here. It connects, in turn, with Hebrews 13:14, “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (ESV). So an acknowledgement of the ephemeral quality of this present life serves actually to prompt us to faithfulness and to ground morality in this present world. Relativizing this life undergirds living it well.
Marx, on the other hand, may agree that this life is short–but, in any case, it’s all we’ve got. The grand religious narrative that calls us to think of the world to come is a stupefying fable. Therefore we must focus on this life, and on the equitable distribution of resources for human flourishing.
But that last point does not follow. If this life is all, why should we pursue equality and flourishing for everyone? Why shouldn’t the strong take advantage of the weak for their own gain? And that, of course, is how Marx’s ideas actually played out in human history. Absolutizing this life is how we make it best approximate hell.
So the merry juxtaposition of Bartlett has set before us something like the two ways of biblical wisdom literature. Live for this life, and you make this life a misery. Live for God, in light of His eternal kingdom, and you fill this life with meaning. This is true for cultures, but it is fundamentally true for individuals–cultures are, after all, aggregates of individuals. Two ways are set before us; “Therefore, choose life” (Deut. 30:19).