DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Head to Head
Meaning

Theologians of many persuasions have remarked that the uniquely rapid pace of recent social change has produced an equally unique crisis. Modern humans are in a real sense existentially rootless in a way their ancestors were not. The challenge is one of accessing ultimate meaning in our lives - or what some would call God. Here Mick and Rick try to understand what is meant by meaning.
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Rick: Before embarking on the main discussion I think it appropriate to be sure we are talking about the same thing. We should establish what we mean by meaning.

I don�t think we will be discussing the meaning or translation of mere words such as cat, horse or house. I suspect we will be talking about the meaning of life of the human species and what is its purpose? Does it have significance in the vast expanse of the universe? Perhaps it would be more accurate to use the term meaningfulness in this context if life is to be filled with meaning.

I need your take on what meaning means to you.

Mick: I think I was expecting to discuss "meaning" in the sense that individuals find meaning in their lives. I don't have an answer about the bigger sense of the word - except to say that I suspect that the universe exists for the sake of life. But as a living creature I would think that, wouldn't I?

Rick: Good. We are on the same track. I am not sure the universe exists for life alone. There are forces for life and death, for building up and tearing down. The outcomes are frequently dependent on the people who wield and influence these forces.

In order to analyze the process of seeking meaning in life, allow me to present three vignettes.

  • A young Swedish girl leaves home and family to seek a better life in America. She will never return. On the advice of her father who feels there is no future for her in Sweden because of dire economic circumstances, she embarks for America. A long and dangerous journey ensues before she reaches the New World. There she finds menial work. Marriage is arranged to another Swedish immigrant and she raises a family. In later years, just before her death at 89 she tells me she could not have endured all the pains and tribulations without her faith in God and Jesus Christ. It was faith that gave her life its meaning.

  • A young man, born into poor economic conditions, struggles to better himself. He works tirelessly to put himself through college. His family has told him he has the capacity to do anything he wishes and they are constantly cheering him on. He is successful. Both he and his family find meaning in his struggle and success.

  • Another young man approaches a large gathering of people. In a few minutes he will detonate explosives strapped to his body. By performing this terrible act he will have found meaning for his life. From the start of his quest he has found encouragement from his family and friends. They too will find meaning in his act.

Generalizing from these stories there are the following elements:

  1. A conscious person who makes decisions;
  2. An encouraging and facilitating family or support group;
  3. A challenge for change of the status quo;
  4. A guiding principle leading to a future goal.

The first three factors are derived from flesh and circumstance. The fourth flows from a metaphysical source such as religion, faith or morality, whatever you would call it.

It is clear that finding meaning does not always work out well for the individual or society. Many critics of religion say it is the very fact of faith or having stable guiding principles or ideology that is at the root of the world�s social upheavals.

If my analysis is reasonably accurate, I am concerned that in an increasingly secularized world the search for meaning will entail predominantly materialist standards or principles. How much money can I accumulate, who can I beat etc? In the West this phenomenon is increasingly evident.

You may counter that radicalism is fueled by distorted metaphysical principles. That may be. But should the West give up its source of transcendent inspiration that fueled civil and material progress in the first place? I submit that will lead to ennui and entropy.

Mick: Your point seems to be that we all naturally seek meaning as significance for our lives. If so, the discussion moves on to the relative value of various meanings. If I understand you correctly, you maintain that secular, materialist meanings such as money or suicide bombing are at best unsatisfactory, at worst bad. Those derived from a "source of transcendent inspiration" are good, particularly when they fuel "civil and material progress".

Boiling it down, you appear to say that my life's meaning is given to me. It's not something I make for myself. Have I got it right?

Rick: In my analysis of the three vignettes, the first element cited was, "A conscious person who makes decisions." Meaning is not given. Rather, meaning is selected from a myriad of choices available to the individual. In that sense one can make meaning by making choices.

A few years ago I published a treatise on the nature and implications of consciousness (Time and the Mystery of Consciousness, 2003). I proposed the creation of "cells of consciousness" in each person. The cells are composed of past, present and future. For the cell to be whole and effective, each of the three components must be represented. Only animals or non-sentient beings live wholly or mostly in the present. They have a rudimentary sense of the past that conditions their responses to the environment, but I doubt that they have any sense of the future.

This model is helpful to me in analyzing meaning. It suggests that meaning resides in the future as a guiding star or principle that energizes and propels the individual toward a goal. At this juncture, religions that propose a future after death can be decisive in giving meaning to this life because the cell of consciousness is complete even at the point of death.

Thus I see the Christian doctrine of resurrection and life hereafter as a positive contribution to a sense of meaning in this life.

Mick: Fair enough. You say that we select meaning from the blooming, buzzing confusion that is life. If we didn't have some sort of meaning - in your words a "guiding star or principle" - then we would be like a compass without a magnetic north. It occurs to me, as an aside, that every north has a south. Does the compass point north, or does it point south, or both?

But back to our subject. I think you are saying that we select meanings to place within our cell of consciousness. What we select in the present enters the "past" part of the cell. We look to the future in our cell of consciousness and take certain parts of its myriad possibilities into our present.

Some would say, however, that we don't really choose as much as we think we do. Even as adults, they would say, we are at the mercy of the tides of fortune and the clusters of stimuli which comprise them. For example, it would seem that we are formed by the culture into which we are born and in which we grow and develop. That might explain why Christianity, resurrection and all, appears to mean little to the majority worldwide. How does that strike you? Isn't the larger part of life's meaning given to us?

Rick: A couple of analogies occur to me in response to your question. No doubt we are given the bodies, skin color, social circumstances and a variety of specifications that delimit the scope of our individual choices. However, it is of interest to realize the genome of a chimpanzee has 98% homology with that of humans. The 2% difference is obviously of huge moment in differentiating us from the primates.

Poker players are dealt cards not of their choosing. Yet, by working within their limited possibilities some players may, through their skills, be highly successful.

So it can be in our individual search for meaning in life. Our conscious minds give us the tools to work within our limitations to find meaning. Our freedoms may also lead to misery and meaninglessness.

In my circle of associates and friends, Christianity is of immense importance. Even if Christianity "means little to the majority" as you assert, this possibility in no way detracts from its decisive importance in the lives of many. I don�t think my fellow Christians adhere to the faith because of the results of popularity polls.

Mick: I suspect that we are walking roughly along the same compass bearing. I say "suspect" because the terms and images we use tend to be dissimilar. I may have it wrong, but here is a brief summary so far:

  • Life meaning can derive from faith, from struggle for success, even from the sacrificial death-dealing of a suicide bomber.
  • A meaningful life is best chosen according to a guiding principle. Support from loved ones in the choice and on the journey is a great help.
  • The guiding principle matters. Ideology flowing from a metaphysical source such as religion is better than materialist ideology, for example.
  • Meaning in a human life is not given but selected from a myriad of future possibilities.

Let me start with the latter point.

Future possibilities exist equally for us all. But the range of available possibilities for each of two people - say one in China and one in the USA - are very different. More importantly, the available "metaphysical" ideologies are not the same. And if religion is a social thing, then no range of meaning is invalid.

We choose meanings from given options. But are the options "given" in the sense that they are just there as part of our social and physical environments? Or are they "given" in the sense that a supreme originator has "put" them there with deliberate intent?

That's the big question. It seems to me that Jesus (who is my personal pioneer in such matters) held that there is no final answer to it. He said that "God's people" and the despised "others" of his time and place - the foreigners and the Gentiles - have equal access to the divine and therefore to meaning in life. He spoke as a Jew, of course, and not as a Christian.

I may not like a materialist meaning, but can I caste the first stone?

Rick: You have summarized my arguments accurately. The search for meaning is a universal human drive. Meaning galvanizes the will to realize a goal. That goal may be death and destruction as previously described. It would be better if the goal was to sustain life and make it more abundant for all human kind.

It is apparent that simply finding meaning is not necessarily a positive end in itself. There is good meaning and there is bad. At times it is difficult to decide which is which. We must then look for some standard to make a judgment. You and I rely on the example of Jesus. Where we seem to disagree is whether or not Jesus is the representative and messenger of the "supreme originator."

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