I was at the store the other day, and the cashier said something that struck me. I can’t remember the specifics, nor are they that important. All I know is that it primed my mind about purpose. Why are we here? What is the point of it all? I’ve done my best to wrestle with the various conclusions of the major philosophies of this world in a desperate attempt to answer that very question. Like an archaeologist crawling through the labyrinthian tombs of dead Egyptian kings, I have been looking, searching, and digging for meaning. Obviously, Christianity is one of my most familiar, given I was born into it and continue to adhere to it. Although, Nihilism is also one I have been quite immersed in as I am a child of postmodern culture.
I’ve spent my time in the ring wrestling with the meaninglessness of the world, or at least the apparent lack thereof. Simply being born is argument enough for meaninglessness. H.P. Lovecraft captured this perfectly in one of his many Eldritch gods. His creator god Shub-Niggurath spews forth life from pus-oozing sacks on its body. The inception of life is one draped in a grotesque and unceremonious nature. Life is born forth by an uncaring entity and either escapes to live a short pathetic life or is immediately consumed back into the fleshy horror. “C’est la vie,” Lovecraft would say. Such is the way of things for us who have been born. Great suffering befalls the innocent, we treat one another with malice unimaginable, and then brush off our own interior wickedness.
While many have been swayed by this tempting meaninglessness, and it is tempting, many still search. While there is some level of freedom that comes in accepting the arbitrariness of existence, it is one tinged in misery. It’s bittersweet freedom, but at least it’s freedom. Meanwhile, those who embrace meaning may rest comfortably knowing they are doing what’s right, and heroically struggle to maintain a “meaningful” existence. Yet, is that really all the point to life? Maybe those who love meaning or have abandoned it, may very well just be burying their fear of their own insignificance. We, or at least I, have a vainglorious idea of meaning. That this “meaning” I so earnestly search for has something to do with me. Perhaps those who have accepted meaninglessness are simply those who have prematurely uncovered the truth: life isn’t all about you.
We turn up every rock and tire ourselves out in a desperate hunt for this self-glorifying meaning, but what if it isn’t there? Not the meaning, it is somewhere, but yourself. On what grounds do we begin to believe that meaning is about us? We’ve already established the fact that “we are alive” entitles us nothing. Every life to have been conceived did not ask for its conception. We are human persons. Fleshy sacks that didn’t ask to be born. Why do we, who had no control in our own act of existence presume that we have any control over our own purpose or destiny? Is this lack of control over everything not also an argument for meaninglessness?
Perhaps it is, and yet perhaps it isn’t. We’ve been thinking so much, but do we even understand what meaning is? Is it that weird, amorphous, fuzzy feeling you get as you stare into a crackling fire with a pint of beer in your hand? Maybe, in fact, I wouldn’t mind having that feeling more often. While a lovely experience, I would hesitate to define that as meaning. We could define meaning as a sense of fulfillment. Satisfaction with one’s own existence independent of one’s circumstance. Now that’s a workable definition, and a difficult thing to achieve at that.
While that is a bit more practical, it does not answer whether or not meaning is made or discovered. Though it would truly be a horror if meaning were simply something one created. This may come as the typical statement from someone who holds to objective truth and a knowable chief end of man, but let’s truly consider this for a moment. Let us say life truly is devoid of all-purpose, that meaning is something that we are responsible for providing ourselves. Is that really a comfort? Is that true freedom? Or, like Sartre before us, would we cry out “God is dead! We are free from His chains only to be shackled in the dungeon of freedom?” What are we to make of ourselves in a world where there is no direction to go? We work towards achievement and progress, but to what? We are progressing towards some end, but not in this world! No, there is no end to be found. Only infinitesimal misery in a world that would be unchanged whether you existed or not. For what would my created meaning even mean? Perhaps it would be something noble, I would search for the good of man. Where would that desire come? No sense of altruism for sure. What would be the point of altruism in a world devoid of meaning? Maybe I will shoot for something lower. I would search for my meaning in the depths of as many women as I could find. The noble and the savage, both being used for some sort of meaning. How do they relate?
They are numbing agents. Whatever meaning one would be capable of making would be unable to fully cover the horrible fact that you don’t matter and your life is meaningless. It would be like taking Tylenol for a bullet wound. Sure, perhaps with enough alcohol/drugs or self-sacrifice to the level of St. Mother Teresa you could forget for some seconds or even a couple minutes the absolutely crushing fact that your life is not your own and insignificant. Not because your life is in the possession of a Creator God, but a faceless, unintelligent void called the universe. This “meaning” of which we would bind our lives to would really be an interior thing, yes influenced by objects in the world around us, but it would be something spawned from within our own, limited psyche. And how could anything I, a finite creature, create close the infinite wound left inside me that cries for meaning in a meaningless universe. This is the inescapable truth to which the only reasonable answer is suicide. This is something materialistic philosophers since Nietzsche have struggled with. Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus tried and manifestly failed, to provide some reason to not just end your life in a universe that didn’t care about you. This is the truth they accepted. If this is actually the truth, which I most heartedly reject as nonsense. This is not reflective of reality by any means.
I propose that reality itself testifies to the contrary, that meaning is something to be found or a treasure to be uncovered. Our hunger for meaning is exactly that, a hunger. Just as it would be weird for us to feel hunger and thirst when food and water did not exist, so it follows that our appetite for meaning shows the existence of something to satiate the said appetite. For example, when gazing at an art piece, while we may graft onto it some meaning from our own subjective experience, is not the artist’s original intent waiting to be found? Take it a further step back. The artist when planning the painting is not necessarily creating something out of nothing, but drawing on his collective experiences to produce a piece that gives verbiage to the non-verbal.
Think for a moment, is there anything in your mind that was not placed there by experience? So, would it not follow that meaning works this way? Why should we expect meaning itself to just suddenly appear in our minds? It would be as absurd to expect the food to just appear in our bellies. Yes, we have the appetite for food or the structures for food present in our bodies, but not the food itself. Same with meaning. We have some structures inside us that cry out for it, but it’s not immediately there. So, this meaning of which we crave is outside of is. It is something that at our deepest core we long for, and work towards. Just as our ancestors innovated ways to gather food and purify water so that it may satiate their desires more and more. We no longer subsist on bread and burnt meat but enjoy chocolates and well-roasted ham. So too have our ways of searching for meaning grown and become more refined.
While we’ve established that meaning is outside of us, this does not complete the journey. Meaning, in and of itself, does not exist in a vacuum. Further, the concept of “meaning” is not capable of bringing forth something out of nothing. A painting requires an artist, so too does the tale of meaning require a story-teller. We’ve established it can’t be ourselves, which draws us back to our previous point, our utter insignificance to the cosmic novel.
Think of all the great classics of the world. Aside from their titles, what is remembered? The author. Yes, there are themes and brilliant characters that are dear to our hearts, but our astonishment is with the mind that made them. Is it Alyosha from The Brothers Karamazov that we compliment, or the great mind of Dostoyevsky that was so able to capture the human condition in his perennial work? But who is the author of the universe? Perhaps we have more of a software engineer rather than an involved world builder like Tolkien.
Much ink has been spilled on arguments for/against God’s existence from a philosophical standpoint. Consider this a more existential approach as to why God must exist. If you do not follow or enjoy my line of thinking, I encourage you to examine those arguments thoroughly, and once men far superior to me have convinced you of His existence, come back and finish this post.
So, if God is real, and I see no alternative as to why He isn’t, this is His story, not mine. He’s even conveniently written some of it down for us. If you look at the cast list though, we aren’t the main characters. Yes, there are some named roles that some members of our race get to play, but really we’re all just background. The extras. We are here and do not impact the plot, God’s story is already written, “it’s finished,” (John 19:29, KJV) and it ends how He wants it to. This is not a cause for despair, but for great rejoicing. In our humble submission to the part we’ve been cast, we can finally be free to play it. This is the great paradox of the freedom of Christianity, and the freedom of the world. In God’s story, we become enslaved that we may be free. In the world’s story, we are free so that we may become salves. For is it not better to be insignificant in God’s tale? Unlike the world, where nothing exists to care about you aside from other worthless, finite creatures, in God’s tale, where you are small in comparison to His grandeur, He has willed you. You exist because He has specifically written you into the plot.
Which means, one of the final questions is how much freedom does God allow His characters to enjoy? Is this a galactic D&D campaign where all is in the hands of God, but He accounts for His players’ freedom and plans accordingly? Does He guide the party in their freedom to His conclusion? Or is this more like a traditional novel, where all of our actions are dictated by rigid ink on a page, unquestionable and unchanging?
Is there an answer to this question? Perhaps. If one searched the Fathers and Holy Writ long enough, they may come to a satisfactory answer. Though, no matter the truth, would it matter? We experience the world as our story. Within our perception, we are the main character, and so it is important as to how well we play our role. This is a hard line to walk, however. If we become too obsessed with “our story”, we lose awareness that it is really God’s story to tell, and it will be told with or without us. Which is possibly another paradox to consider. Whether D&D or a novel, are our wills not enslaved by sin? Even after being freed by grace, does that crippling addiction to sin not remain? Does that Wretched Tempter not still wait for us to fall in a vain attempt to spill ink across the pages of God’s book?
So what is our part to play? This story is not all that happy, a fact that has led us to this current ponderance. We could pursue pleasure, we are “free” to do so. This pays for a time, but it only numbs the pain and further distances you from the thrice-holy Storyteller. Yes, once meaning is accepted, hedonism becomes an archaic practice. Yet sins of the flesh remain almost inescapable. Accept your transcendent purpose all you want, but the harem of your mind still calls to you. The Laws of God are still impossible to achieve. So, what am I to do with this dichotomy? For, at least within the perspective of experience, if salvation has anything to do with me, then I might as well consider myself damned already. For my heart will always have its propensity towards sin. I will always desire the impatient answer of sin over the patience of Providence. Clearly then, the answer must have something to do with Christ. He, who is the great protagonist of this Divine Comedy we are a part of. What is my relationship with my savior and judge? Can we fully know?
For there are some who say I can be sure I am saved, and this is truly a comforting thought. As much of a sinful wretch as I am, I do at least have faith in the reality and condescension of my Savior. But is it that simple? Do not demons also “believe” in Him in an albeit sick and twisted way? I am sure that there is a God above, and yet I sin all the same. Am I beyond saving? That cannot possibly be true, for Christ did die for me, so why would he die for the unsavable? Perhaps faith is more of an act than a simple statement of knowledge. Faith is a way of life that I must choose to live. What a difficult truth, if it is the truth.
I wish to be saved but also keep my addiction. This I know to be true, and it brings me fear and discomfort. For there is the alternative option, that you can lose your salvation. That none of your previous faith or acting of it make up for your choice against God in the present. Does this mean I go through my life bouncing in and out of the graces of my God? Is there anything I can be assured of? Is there any reason to hope, even in this meaningful world? A world where I do not even deserve to be saved because I am a sinner and have brought this damnation upon myself. I am the most unprofitable servant, and I do not wish to lead you to think that I believe God owes any of us salvation.
Yet, even after all these words, I am certain of this:
I am a sinner.
I hope in this:
Christ came for sinners, and He is mighty to save.
Somewhere, in those few words, is the answer to all this wasted ink.