The Last Night of the Year
New Year’s Eve. Someone has described it as a sanctioned party that makes way for another 365 days of drudgery and responsibility. December 31 is the night the civilized world steps on the gas and blows last year’s gunk out of its carburetors.
The above reflects a perspective of the shallow and misguided nature of the secular life. The end of the old year and beginning of the new year should be a time to focus on more than the tinsel and confetti of the world symbolized in a sparkling ball that falls from Times Square. The old year passes with its success and failure, sunshine and sorrow, and triumph and trial. Such, in conjunction with the dawning of a new year, can be a purposeful time of deep reflection on the real issues of life.
Even from such an unlikely source as the Victorian intellectual Thomas Huxley, a prince of agnostics, we are reminded of the value and power of the metaphysical (spiritual) perspective. It was Huxley who coined the terms agnostic and agnosticism to describe “his own professed inability to know whether or not God exists” (Smith 64). In his classic work Agnosticism, being The Croall Lecture for 1887-88, Robert Flint says:
“Sceptics” and “scepticism” . . . would have served Professor Huxley just as well . . . “skepticism” refers more clearly and distinctly to the spirit or method and “agnosticism” to the outcome or result of the tendency or phase of thought which is their common object, but either term may do duty for the other fairly well so long as they are philosophically employed; and, in fact, the two words are about as synonymous as any two words can be expected to be which refer to any comprehensive or complex phenomenon. (4-5)
However, it is not Huxley’s agnosticism, per se to which I wish to call attention while giving thought to the last night of the old year and the beginning of the new; rather, it is an oft seen contradiction or betrayal within atheists and agnostics as they come to grips with the real issues of life. The inconsistencies in how skeptics live and think are often quite telling. There are many examples of how skepticism thinks in one world but lives in another. Two powerful examples are the Scottish philosopher David Hume (cf. “God and the Value of A Mother”) and the early American patriot Ethan Allen (cf. “She has Told You the Truth”). Another example, relevant to Near Year’s Eve, is Thomas Huxley.
In A Handful of Stars: Texts that have Moved Great Minds, F. W. Boreham tells the story. It was 160 years ago tonight on the last night of the year 1858 Huxley was waiting for the birth of his firstborn child. During those anxious hours he framed a New Year’s resolution and entered it in his diary. Before concluding the entry, Huxley wrote the following: “It is half-past 10 at night. Waiting for my child. I seem to fancy it [the child’s birth] the pledge that all these things [the resolutions] shall be.” The next entry in the Huxley diary says, “New Year’s Day, 1859. Born five minutes before twelve. Thank God!” (qtd. in Boreham 127). The final entry in his diary was made after the death of this firstborn son, Noel. Huxley wrote:
Our Noel, our firstborn, after being for nearly four years our delight and our joy, was carried off by scarlet fever in forty-eight hours. This day week he and I had a great romp together. On Friday his restless head, with its bright blue eyes and tangled golden hair, tossed all day upon the pillow. On Saturday night, I carried his cold, still body here into my study. Here, too, on Sunday night, came his mother and I to that holy leavetaking. My boy is gone; but in a higher and better sense than was in my mind when, four years ago, I wrote what stands above, I feel that my fancy has been fulfilled. I say heartily and without bitterness—Amen, so let it be! (127-28)
Continuing the story, Boreham says, “‘Thank God!’ exclaims our great Agnostic when the child is born. ‘Amen!’ he says, submissively, when the little one is buried” (128).
Additionally, another Huxley incident illustrates the inconsistency of skeptics when it comes to the implications of their doctrine. On a certain Sunday professor Huxley and a fellow member of a Royal Commission were lodging together in a small community. Huxley inquired of his colleague: “I suppose you are going to church.” The friend acknowledged he was planning to attend worship. Huxley asked, “What if, instead, you stayed at home and talked to me of religion?” The friend answered in the negative while saying, “I am not clever enough to refute your arguments.” The agnostic professor then asked, “But what if you simply told me . . . .what religion has done for you?” The fellow stayed at home and used the opportunity to tell Huxley all that Christ had been to him. As he spoke, there were tears in the eyes of Huxley. Passionately the agnostic acknowledged “I would give my right hand if I could believe that!” (128).
What caused a militant agnostic, at the birth of his child, to say confidently “Thank God!”? What caused the same agnostic to say submissively, “Amen!”, when the child died at four years of age? What caused tears to flow from this agnostic’s eyes as he listened to a friend share all that Jesus Christ meant and did for him? What caused Huxley to cry, “I would give my right hand if I could believe that!”? All of this from “the man who was supposed to be as cold as ice and as inflexible as steel!” (128). C. S. Lewis, himself a former atheist, provides the answer, in part, when he said in a letter to his friend Sheldon Vanauken, “In Heaven’s name why? Unless, indeed, there is something in us which is not temporal” (90). There is something in man that urges him beyond the temporal (the unlasting) to the eternal (the everlasting). As I heard the late Hugo McCord once say, “There is something in man that didn’t come from the barnyard.” The Bible says it best: “. . . [H]e has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). You and I are beings limited by time as well as in other ways. But there is something within our innermost nature that is “related to eternity. That which is transient yields [man] no support, it carries [man] on like a rushing stream, and constrains him to save himself by laying hold on eternity” (Delitzsch 261).
The Christian faith teaches us to “not have [our] hopes set on the uncertainty” of the physical (even great riches) “but on God who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). Appropriately may you and I enjoy the last night of the year and the New Year, if the Lord wills (cf. James 4;15). However, may that enjoyment be in conjunction with having our hope set on the living God (cf. 1 Timothy 4:10). As an old song says, “Time is filled with swift transition . . . . Hold to God’s unchanging hand.”
Charles C. Pugh III
Boreham, F. W. A Handful of Stars: Texts that have Moved Great Minds. 1922. Philadelphia: Judson, 1950.
Flint, Robert. Agnosticism. The Croall Lecture for 1887-88. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1903.
Keil, C. F. and F. Delitzsch. Commentary on the Old Testament. Vol. 6. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprint 1982.
Smith, David W. “Agnosticism.” New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2006.
Vanauken, Sheldon. A Severe Mercy. 1977. New York: Bantam, 1979.