I can remember the first time I seriously considered that life had no meaning. In my freshman psychology class, we learned about Sigmund Freud’s assertion that belief in God is nothing more than a child’s projection of a loving parent onto a scary world. We need to believe in God, so we can feel safe. It led me down a road of thinking: if God is a projection, what else is nothing more than my own subjective needs.
Being the broody person that I am, I probably spent several months trying to figure out if I believed that was true! Through my educational and life experiences, these questions have confronted me many times. The term for the belief that life is without intrinsic meaning is nihilism. It’s the quintessential angst of humanity, where we shake our fist and proclaim that nothing has meaning at all. Even the Bible has a whole book (Ecclesiastes) devoted to wrestling with the question of meaning.
This is the continuation of our discussion of Holistic Spiritual Health. Is there meaning in life? Who determines it? How can we find it out?
There are no more important questions to consider in life. Here are some of my thoughts on the issue.
Meaning and Nihilism
We live in an awkward time in history. We’re in the middle transitioning from a modern worldview to postmodern worldview in the western world. It’s okay if you’ve heard those words, but don’t fully know what they mean! Modernism and postmodernism describe broad changes in the way western culture understands the nature of reality. Broadly speaking, modernism was a search for truth, empiricism, science, and human progress. It’s exemplified through Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, advances in technology and medicine, etc. Postmodernism is a response to the supposed “objectivity” of modernism. It focuses on subjectivity, human perspective, different cultures, and local truths. It’s exemplified through the theory of relativity, multi-culturalism, and fake news.
Our current world is a weird mix of the two perspectives. For example, we receive strong messages about understanding different cultures and people groups. Religious experience, values, and morals are seen as relative to a person’s up-bringing, cultural context, etc. Therefore, they are not good or bad, just different. However, in a field like medicine, the modernistic concepts of objectivity and global truth still reign. I would be impressed if universities taught “folk healing” techniques from around the world alongside western medicine. Instead, we have whiplash from going from conversations about science and medicine to culture and ethics.
Enter the question of meaning. Both of these inherited models give us a framework for understanding meaning. Many of us search for meaning out of a modern worldview through empiricism, science, and objectivity. The search is by definition completely in the secular realm. Unfortunately, this purely secular, evolutionary understanding of the world leaves little room for meaning of any kind other than species survival.
If we only use our ideas of science, natural selection, and evolution to determine meaning we come out with some scary stuff. In fact, we’ve tried this before, we just don’t like to think about it. Natural selection as a moral concept naturally leads to eugenics—the controlling of procreation for the betterment of society. Of course, Hitler used these ideas to justify killing millions of Jews. We could add many other examples in the western world, including the United States.
It begs the question though: If we are no more than one species among many who’s fighting for our own survival, then what’s morally wrong with that? Under the secular modern worldview, we must keep our gene pool as strong as possible through the purposeful marginalization (or even killing?) of the people who are less (mentally, physically, emotionally). It is not only justified, but actually the highest good to do this because it gives the human race the best opportunity to survive long term. If you’re a Marvel nerd, you’ll recognize this as being a very similar idea to what Thanos does in the latest Avengers movie.
Does that make you feel weird? I would hope so! Modernism gives us no real basis for the idea of human rights, justice, or compassion. And yet something tells us, there is something deeply wrong—morally and objectively wrong—with treating people like that.
A strict postmodern perspective its own problems with creating meaning. It fundamentally holds that there are no objective realities because we can’t experience the world outside of our own subjectivity. Something may be true for us individually or as a community, but it’s not true in any objective or global sense.
On one hand, this is freeing. With no authority to create meaning for us or even any objective reality to discover, we are left with the ability to create it for ourselves. There are many options. Hedonism, human progress, or even a sense of making the world a better place. On the other hand, even if we take the seemingly honorable route about making the world a better place, questions arise. A better place for who? Who determines what a better place would be like? Why would it matter if the world were a better place?
A sinking feeling remains that our own personal constructions of meaning are not strong enough to hold us over, if they’re only true to us and not true in any ultimate sense beyond us. As many have noted, both worldviews naturally lead to nihilism—that life has no meaning. That may be the natural conclusion, but in reality most of us can’t stomach that.
We can’t imagine a world where our life has no meaning. We can’t believe that the love we feel is nothing more than electrical impulses in our brains. We can’t believe that what Hitler did isn’t evil in the moral sense. We can’t believe that objective justice doesn’t exist. Something deep inside of ourselves calls out for more. There must be meaning in our existence, right?
The true nihilists are impressively intellectually honest in a way that most of us wouldn’t allow ourselves to be. They would say we just can’t accept the reality of the situation. We kid ourselves into believing there is more to life, so we can survive emotionally and intellectually. Or do our desires show us a deeper truth about the world we live in?
Meaning and God
Ultimately, I believe that without God there is no possibility of meaning. Without God we are left to create whatever small meanings we can convince ourselves of in the hopes that it will help us survive our existence. We must deceive ourselves by talking about justice, love, and peace with no actual foundations for them. The other option is to truly allow evolution to guide our principles—survival of the fittest.
In the positive, I believe that God, as the ultimate objective reality and loving authority, has infused all of life with meaning. He created the world for a purpose. Created humanity for a purpose. Created you for a purpose. In the simplest of terms, his desire is for us to take care of each other and the creation in love. By doing this, we show our love for Him. In this we find our ultimate meaning and an end to our searching. It gives us the perspective to understand and live in our world.
My own belief is that we must always test our worldviews. Worldviews should be measured by their ability to make sense of what we experience holistically. It should give us an understanding of the natural environment, humanity, morals—and yes—meaning.
We live in a postmodern world where we grasp how to deconstruct power, perspective, and privilege. We are not the objective searchers of truth we once assumed in the modern world. However, this does not mean we cannot know truth and find meaning. Maybe we can’t know it completely and objectively, but we can know it adequately. God has given us the ability to find him; and in him find our meaning.