Meaning and Meaninglessness


It is a truism that human beings are meaning-making mammals, which I take to mean that we have a propensity to see patterns in things and, more than that, to see such patterns as having significance or value. But I was made to think again about how Christianity talks about meaning by two unconnected thoughts from yesterday. One was a highly amusing and thought-provoking speech given to graduands at the University of Western Australia by one its alumni, the comedian and singer-songwriter, Tim Minchin. The two things that stood out for me were his statements that life has no meaning (and that we should just get on and live it) and that it was foolish to make grand plans (it’s better to be fully focussed on what we are doing now). I find myself largely agreeing with him, though knowing his antipathy towards religion, he might be surprised to hear me say this.minch

Indeed, I think his insights speak of a deep spirituality. To take the second point first, the kind of focus Minchin was describing is powerfully represented in religious traditions as ‘watchfulness’ or ‘mindfulness’. Just think of the desert Fathers and Mothers with their clear focus on the simple spiritual disciplines of each day, or the prologue to St Benedict’s Rule for Monks which speaks of the urgency of ‘today’ as being the time in which we are called to live lives that are full of divine light and wisdom. The practices of meditation in many religious traditions also speak of this kind of full presence in the present.

The first piece of advice regarding meaning may seem more problematic for Christians. Surely it is without question that our faith presents a view of life that shows it to have meaning. Well, I think it rather depends what we mean by ‘meaning’. If we mean that our lives fit into some larger scheme or that every thing that happens to us happens in order to bring about some pre-planned outcome, I am not sure that this fits into my notion of ‘meaning’ in the Christian sense. Indeed, I think it is highly problematic to see every event in life as having a ‘meaning’ that is just waiting to be discovered: it is not always possible to make sense of senseless acts or events and it can give us serious problems if we try to do so. ‘Meaning’ in this sense can be seen as the notion that every thing that happens refers to something else – this means that – whereas the focus on present things I mentioned above is more about this means this. In other words, the insight that comes from wisdom allows us to see more clearly what is there. This is entirely consistent with Christian theology and practice.

I think I would rather speak in terms of ‘value’ or ‘worth’ that ‘meaning or ‘sense’. I think it is a profoundly Christian insight to say that life has value, that lives have value. Those humanists who do not come from a religious perspective are content to let that statement stand on its own self-evident merits. Christian humanists are more likely to offer theological or spiritual weight to this statement by talking of the giftedness of life and its fundamental orientation towards joy, praise, wonder and love. So life has meaning or purpose in the sense that it has direction – outward, towards fullness, towards goodness, towards compassion, towards creativity.

The second thought reinforced much of what Tim Minchin had to say. It was an article the Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality by the priest and academic, David Perrin OMI in his article on mysticism. He rejects a focus on a totalising system (‘meaning’) and urges instead a gathering of life-giving fragments ‘that do not necessarily need to be connected to a common ontological foundation’ ‘such that our love relationship with God and our world is constantly renewed.’ I think this all offers us some interesting common ground for religious and non-religious people to start talking!

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