By Dr. Tom J. Nettles
An aphorism is defined as “a brief statement of a truth, or principle.” It resembles a proverb. At its best, an aphorism is a maxim—an epitomized statement of truth arising from a worldview. Sometimes aphorisms are mere isolated statements coming from the observations of an individual and reflecting either his personal cynicism or his uninformed optimism about life. I have run across aphorisms from various viewpoints, reflecting diverse views of beginnings, present, purpose and end. One such approach comes from Baba Hari Dass, a Hindu philosopher who, among other works, wrote Fire Without Fuel: The Aphorisms of Baba Hari Dass. It contains 124 aphorisms each accompanied by a brief text to explain how each aphorism fits the Hindu worldview. It has thirteen chapters beginning with “God and Creation” and ending with a series of aphorisms on “The Liberated One.” According to Baba, the world is a reflection of the divine, though the divine does not create it; all beings presently existing as finite will dissolve, somehow by their effort, into the Infinite and Absolute so that at the end there will be only one, for there cannot be two. All religions look toward the same end and the same god, but the doctrines impede our true knowledge of the Absolute and inhibit our dissolution. Many births and deaths may be required to attain the state of mind in which we no longer identify the body with the self. When that is achieved we find that our self is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient, the qualities of god. One of Baba’s pungent aphorisms that point to this is “As soon as one knows one’s self, God will be known.”
Another book of aphorisms, written by E. M Cioran, also reflects much on birth and death and looks toward a different kind of nihilism as the only good. The book is tellingly entitled The Trouble With Being Born. Cioran has been called the “last worthy disciple of Nietzsche.” Like Baba Hari Dass, Cioran wants to forget his birth as having any significance; it is a testimony to utter futility and a path to overevaluating the independent self. Unlike Baba, he does not look for existence finally to be verified by dissolution into absolute bliss. Cioran gives no explanation for his aphorisms. Their only connection is that they all are distinct reflections on how everything is a testimony to absolute uselessness, nothingness, the sheer fatality of having been born. “To live is to lose ground.” “The more you live, the less useful it seems to have lived.” “Everything is wonderfully clear if we admit that birth is a disastrous or at least an inopportune event; but if we think otherwise, we must resign ourselves to the unintelligible, or else cheat like everyone else.” “Not to be born is undoubtedly the best plan of all. Unfortunately it is within no one’s reach.” He cites critically selected statements for a wide range of religious writers and finds a way to agree with what he deems their most useful insights. The “Madman Calvin” in his doctrine of predestination affirms that “We have already lived our life before we are born.” According to Cioran, Luther’s wisdom consists of recognizing that dreaming is not reality, but defecating in bed is. All the gods are gone for Cioran, so the detestability of existence, the nightmare of the self, makes the idea of wanting to have life after this one the worst of all possible philosophies and desires.
The Bible—the revelation of the truth of God, personal existence, redemption, and eternity—has its own aphorisms. These aphorisms, like all pungent, distilled statements, summarize important aspects of the overall view of truth, assuming its coherent argument as the background for its proper interpretation. “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes” (Psalm 36:1). “The saying is trustworthy and deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). “For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). The Christian has a coherent and comprehensive explanation of his life, God, evil, good, and eternity set forth in the demonstrably true revelation of Scripture. In it these “aphorisms” are connected in an infinitely glorious, truly hopeful, excruciatingly honest, and inexhaustibly relevant narrative. The Christian minster has the calling, thus the duty and the surpassing privilege of laying out the words of life that will put to flight such puzzling reductionism, hopeless nihilism, and irrational avoidance of present moral responsibility that warrants a final judgment. We must embrace the call with joy, trembling, and determination to “make the word of God fully known” (Colossians 1:25).
Tom J. Nettles is widely regarded as one of the foremost Baptist historians in America. He is the author and editor of numerous publications, and he has served as professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Southern Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary, and Mid-America Baptist Seminary. He is a board member of the national Founders Ministries, and will be the keynote speaker at the Founders Midwest Conference 2019 in St. Louis, MO. If you would like to attend the Founders Midwest Conference in 2019, be sure to check out our Facebook page or visit our website for more information.