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Sherlock Holmes and the Meaning of Life - Christian Education Thinking

‘What is the meaning of it, Watson?’ said Holmes, solemnly, as he laid down the paper. ‘What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.’

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Sherlock Holmes and the Meaning of Life

Sherlock Holmes and the Meaning of Life

After Holmes has solved the particularly unpleasant tale of The Mystery of the Cardboard Box, he engages his good friend Watson:

‘What is the meaning of it, Watson?’ said Holmes, solemnly, as he laid down the paper. ‘What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.’

What are we to make of these musings from this archetypal rationalist, atheist and bohemian creation of Conan Doyle? Holmes may not have any religious affiliation to speak of, but like all of us, he has to confront the ultimate questions.

It is interesting to note his agnosticism; he genuinely does not know the answer to ‘the great perennial problem’. At the same time his rejection of the notion of a universe ‘ruled by chance’ as ‘unthinkable’ points to that almost universal sense that there is more to life than a cosmic lottery in which conscious human beings have emerged and are condemned to contemplate their ultimate meaninglessness.

The absurdity of existence is a mystery if there is no ultimate reason for our being here. We could opt for either a nihilistic end to it all or choose the existentialist’s option of creating our own set of meanings for our lives in the absence of any that are anchored in a creator God.

Our existence may be absurd but it is deliciously so and most of us do not choose annihilation. We live as if our lives have significance and treat others as if theirs also matters. Our survival depends upon living out these beliefs. For those of no religious faith, there may be no coherent metaphysical underpinning for the ‘affirm meaning’ option beyond a pragmatic one, but it is better than hopeless despair. 

This common need of humans to live as if life is significant is one of the grounds for people of all faiths and none to find enough in their shared humanity to work together. In schools, the desire to nourish those in our care and enable them to flourish as more than mere cogs in the machine of modern consumerism is deeply rooted in the instincts of most educators.

Like Holmes, we are appalled by misery, violence and fear. We have a set of values that resist everything that dehumanizes us, individually and collectively. I have two challenges to offer in the light of this.

One is for us to discern that which is necessary to resist an agenda being imposed on education that fails to see beyond targets and a crude culture of so called school improvement. We need a bigger vision.

The other is to raise the gamut of issues attendant upon Climate Change which threaten to destroy all that humanity has produced thus far, for better and for worse.

We will need to think carefully about the object of our existence, ask the big questions about what really matters, and live out the best of our common core beliefs about our place in the universe. The burden and the privilege of our consciousness is our opportunity to shape the future. It must not be left to chance.

Adrian Brown is a trustee at The Stapleford Centre

Adrian Brown is a trustee at The Stapleford Centre. A speaker at national and international conferences, his publications include Skills Challenge (1992), Skills Challenge II (1995), God Talk, Science Talk (1997), articles in many educational anthologies, numerous book reviews and articles in journals ranging from the Journal of Education and Christian Belief, RE Today, to Science and Christian Belief and The Swedish Journal of Religion. He was a major contributor to Test of Faith: Science and Religion Meet: Resources for Schools (2010).

Grove Books most recently published his Reassessing the Culture of Assessment: Weighing Pigs Does Not Make Them Heavier (2011).

Think...

  • "The burden and the privilege of our consciousness is our opportunity to shape the future. It must not be left to chance" - in the light of this, what contribution can the Christian faith make to society in terms of shaping the future through education?

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