Finding Meaning in a Mysterious World: A Guide to Following the Religious Sense
Alex Wyvill, Spring 2016
Why are we here?
Does my life have a purpose?
Is my existence an accident?
These questions have haunted the human consciousness since there was such a thing as the human consciousness. The desire to make, find, or otherwise access meaning in our existence is in many ways innate to human psychology. Whether or not human beings have purpose and direction in life, we certainly want it. Without a personal sense of meaning, we struggle to push forward towards our goals and lead lives that we find fulfilling.
Proposed methods to find our meaning are diverse and plentiful, and have come down to us from various disciplines, particularly philosophy and the natural sciences. Common to most of these solutions, however, is that they rely on analytic methods, methods that approach the “big questions” of our existence with a careful, precise and scientific lens. I propose that this lens alone will never get us what we seek in our quest for meaning, and that our only hope in finding solid ground is to incorporate another method, which I call “the religious sense.” I argue that the religious sense, working in conjunction with our analytic sense, is the best means by which we can hope to find meaning in life. In conclusion, I will propose that Christianity is uniquely postured as a clear and satisfying combination of the religious and analytic senses.
The Two “Senses”
In his masterpiece, The School of Athens, the Renaissance painter Raphael depicts the two fathers of ancient philosophy, Plato and Aristotle, in a debate over the nature of “ultimate reality.” Aristotle gestures downward, suggesting that ultimate reality is “right before our eyes,” ready for us to study. Plato, Aristotle’s teacher, points to the sky, suggesting that ultimate reality lies in some sort of transcendent world. Though the analogy is not perfect (our discussion is one of method, not metaphysics), this distinction is characteristic of the two main “modes of attack” in our quest to find meaning in our lives. On the one hand, we can engage with the world “right before our eyes” in a detached manner, carefully finding order and structure bottom-up from the raw data. On the other, we can engage with the sensible world relationally as part of a larger reality to which we necessarily lack total access.
The former method is what I call the analytic sense, a rigorous, careful, and skeptical science. The latter I call the religious sense.
What exactly is the religious sense? It bears three distinctive components:
1. It encounters the world as necessarily mysterious, not entirely available to us without some larger revelation.
2. It interprets the world narratively, as the disclosure of a larger story in which we play a necessary role.
3. It assents to this interpretation as true, despite potential doubts, in a practically transformative manner.
These three characteristics are distinct from the analytic method, which could be said to have the following characteristics:
1. It encounters the world as an object of study, wholly accessible to us, so long as we have the proper tools.
2. It interprets the world hypothetically, as potentially one of many possible “stories” or accounts.
3. It assents to interpretations skeptically, not accepting conclusions unless they have been sufficiently justified against all possible objections.
To be clear, these two “senses” are not mutually exclusive; quite to the contrary, we use both senses interchangeably throughout our lives. The analytic sense is slow and at times reductive, but at least it is accurate. The religious sense, on the other hand, is immediate and creative, but it is not always accurate. Both senses are important for our practical goings-about in the world.
Meaning That Matters
We understand that both the analytic and religious senses are important tools in our human “toolboxes.” But how can we use them to find meaning in our lives?
Before I attempt to give an answer, it is essential to give an account of the sort of thing we seek in “meaning.” The first quality of the sort of meaning we seek is that it is relational; that is, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is your meaning or my meaning. That being said, it is not relative, or subject to change with respect to arbitrary factors. Otherwise, it ceases to “mean” anything at all to us. Existential philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard argues for a similar notion in his private journal:
“What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.”
A matter for which I am willing to live and die! The stakes are high when it comes to this question. This “matter” cannot be your favorite flavor of ice cream; it must answer and give an account of those very deep desires innate to the human psyche, the great “why” of our existence. Meaning that “matters” therefore must be comprehensive, that is, not reductionist. It has to cut to the very core of the question being asked, not merely cover up the question.
Lastly, meaning must not be subject to change. Suppose a person takes up a hobby, such as fishing or crocheting. They do this because they enjoy the activity and are naturally motivated to engage in it. They might find the activity “meaningful.” But when that hobby ceases to provide the enjoyment that it once did, the “meaning” found in that hobby ceases to motivate and direct their attention. Meaning that “matters” must therefore be immutable, not prone to change according to our particular situation or feelings.
In summary, the kind of meaning which we so deeply pursue is thus at once relational, comprehensive (answering our deep questions, not just covering them up) and immutable (unchanging). We derive meaning from activities and beliefs that fall short of these criteria all the time, but we nonetheless pursue “something deeper” because our very existence predisposes us to do so. Insofar as we exist, we desire to discover why.
The Role of Religion in Meaning-Making
Our religious sense, so defined earlier as our valences towards mystery, narrative and transformation, plays a critical role in our quest to find meaning in life. Greek pagan religion, for instance, mythologized natural phenomena not just for the sake of “explaining” scientific realities, but as a means of situating a culture within a narrative drama of gods and men working out the course of human history. To call the Greeks “silly” for their belief in metaphysically bizarre things (like a pantheon of fickle gods constantly bickering and fighting with each other) would seem to miss the point: Greek culture is enlivened and made rich by their fervent religiosity, regardless of the validity of their positions. Even today, many people growing up in religious families identify as “cultural” versions of their respective religions. They cease to believe in the validity of their religion’s theological or moral claims, but they still find some form of meaning in their religious heritage. They say “I am a cultural Catholic” or “I am a cultural Jew.”
Why do people seem to see value in religiosity even when they do not “believe” in the particular claims of a
given religion? Perhaps it is because religion alone seems apt to connect us to the answers we seek in our journey to discover meaning. If meaning must be relational, immutable and comprehensive, it must not therefore be detached, hypothetical and skeptical (the three aforementioned characteristics of analytic thought). One must depart from analysis in order to have even a chance at finding meaning, at least the kind of meaning that we truly desire. Th is is why secularism seems so reductive: many (though not all) non-believers, whether atheist or agnostic, admit that their non-belief is reluctant and unsatisfactory. They don’t disavow religion because they want to. If they could believe in religion, they would; they simply can’t. The skeptic is dissatisfied because they fear that the meaning they sought all along is not truly there. Our existence, in this view, is truly reduced to cosmic accident.
The Role of Analysis in Meaning-Making
Importantly, the skeptic might be right. Our existence very well might be an accident. In this case, why does it matter if people would prefer religion to non-religion? If religion is indefensible, it doesn’t matter whether I desire it to be true or not—it simply isn’t true! This point is well-taken, and forms the basis for the role of analysis in finding meaning. Recall that meaning doesn’t “matter” to us unless we can relate to it; unless it is our meaning. This entails that meaning requires belief. Here is the issue: can we believe in something that we know not to be true? I would argue that we cannot. We might hope for it to be true, but we cannot truly believe in any system, be it Christianity, Marxism or Kantian ethics if we know it to be false. To say otherwise is to be dishonest with ourselves.
Analysis, therefore, gives us the tools to determine whether we can justify our beliefs. Our “religious sense” reaches beyond what we know, grasping for meaning and structure in our lives in hopes that it might prove to be solid. Analysis helps to whittle down those lofty ambitions, subjecting them to a critical test so that we can safely go about believing. If anything passes the test, we can believe it; anything else is tossed aside.
Unfortunately, analytic thought isn’t very good at constructing meaning on its own. The analytic method has produced many systematic philosophies, attempting to comprehensively “account” for every aspect of life, from metaphysics to ethics to everything in between. But we do not seek a mere “accounting job” in our quest for meaning; rather, we desire to be drawn towards something bigger, called out of our present condition into some life worth living, something inherently mysterious. Anything short of that seems reductive, impossible, almost suicidal. This observation is nothing new. Consider one of my favorite pieces of Scripture, from the ancient book of Ecclesiastes: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” There is a reason why people place such a strong identity in religious faith. It is because it offers us something beyond the sun. It stares into the void, but it refuses to accept that the void is all that is. It ventures a brave and wild guess, a leap of faith. Analysis would never do such a thing. It keeps us honest, but it can only get us so far. It cannot reach beyond the sun; it cannot give us a meaning capable of grasping the whole of our being.
To summarize: human beings universally desire to seek meaning. We desire for meaning to be relational (my meaning), comprehensive (answering the whole question, not just covering it up) and immutable (not subject to change). We have two tools with which to work out this challenge: the analytic and religious senses. Analysis alone cannot give us comprehensive meaning, because our existence is not entirely comprehendible. There is an element of mystery to our being that is necessarily involved in our lives. Religiosity creates answers to these questions despite incomplete evidence, allowing meaning to be bestowed upon us in hopes that it might prove satisfactory. Analysis returns to scrutinize our religious sense, determining whether or not our beliefs are justifiable. If anything passes this test, we’ve found meaning.
The Role of Christianity
It would be a very daunting task to attempt to survey all the religions of the world and to “test” them with analytic scrutiny. Many individuals abandon organized religion altogether for this reason: as soon as one system fails, the thought that another system would stand on solid ground seems unlikely. But Christianity, I would argue, is uniquely postured to “pass the test” of rigorous analysis. Why? Because Christianity alone lives and dies not on a logical system, not on some set of arguments, but on a person.
Why is this important? Let’s back up a few millennia. The Ancient Greeks commonly appealed to the three “modes of persuasion:” logos, pathos and ethos. Logos: logic and rational argument. Pathos: emotion and spirit. Ethos:
Testimonial credibility. Logos, as demonstrated earlier, is bankrupt in our quest of finding meaning; it is too reductive. Pathos is unreliable, and is subject to change. Ethos, however, takes the best of our religious and analytic senses and synthesizes them. It says, “I cannot find meaning on my own, but I trust that someone else, someone worthy of my trust, can.” The reason that I can justify my Christianity is because I rely not only on my own reasons, but on the testimony of the most trustworthy person to ever live: Jesus Christ.
Now many might say: “You are pleading a special case! Every religion has a “trustworthy person” central to it: the prophet Muhammad, Abraham, the Buddha.” This is, of course, true. Christians neither have to deny the existence of these people, nor question the wisdom of some of their teachings. Rather, we have to consider the unique and privileged credibility demanded by Jesus Christ as compared to any other “religious leader.” Considers these words used to describe Jesus by those who witnessed him:
“He has done all things well” (Mark 7:37). Jesus is described as having lived a perfect life.
“If I touch even his garments, I will be made well” (Mark 5:28). Jesus is widely known as having supernatural abilities to heal and to work signs.
“You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God” (John 10:33). Jesus is accused as considering himself one with God, to the ire of the religious authorities of the day.
“Though he was in the form of God, [Jesus Christ] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). Jesus, despite his claim to divinity, embodies the utmost in humility, enduring the torments of crucifixion, which he offered for our sins.
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Corinthians 5:3-7). Jesus, according to the independent testimonies of hundreds of people, appears to his followers as resurrected from the dead.
Now consider this: if a person lives an unparalleled, upstanding life, miraculously heals people, draws thousands to his counter-cultural teachings, undergoes a heinous and torturous death voluntarily, for you, and then raises from the dead, appearing to hundreds of people, would you not be justified in listening to what this person has to say? I think so. I think that the life of Jesus demands a sort of credibility vastly outweighing that of any other religious leader. Jesus was not just a guru or prophet, espousing ethical teachings or grand insight into life (though he did that, too). He was not delusional, as demonstrated by the extraordinary consistency of his moral teachings and his sharp wit with the Pharisees. He certainly was not lying for personal gain, for he seemed to gain nothing in the worldly sense. While other religious figures attracted similarly large crowds, endured sufferings, and spurred controversies, only Christ claimed to be the God-Man himself, the one foretold through over three hundred detailed ancient prophecies from the Old Testament to be our Savior. Jesus Christ offers us not just a story to consider and scrutinize; he proposes his very self as the greatest story ever told, the narrative of God’s love for us as disclosed to all of humanity through the course of human history. How do we account for this? How can we ignore this, or analyze this away? We must conclude: Jesus Christ uniquely gave everything as a suffering servant for us, in a way that cannot be accounted for in the logic of this world. By that testimony, we are justified in trusting Him.
But Christ isn’t just the best candidate for us to trust; He is the only candidate. Let us return to Ecclesiastes. “There is nothing new under the sun.” Through thousands of years of human history, we have been examining, analyzing, speculating, and evidence-weighing in a world of nothing-much. We desire to find meaning in this world, to encounter the mystery towards which our religious sense is oriented; and yet, we still struggle to find something solid. But then, in that climactic moment in our great story of existence, Jesus Christ enters human history. The Word became Flesh, and dwelt among us. Jesus entered into the death of world, that he may conquer it. Jesus Christ alone offers something “new” under the sun. He alone throws a wrench into our downward spiral of finding meaning. He alone gives us someone to trust, someone to believe in, someone to follow. Let us therefore trust our religious sense, uttering alongside Peter the Apostle those profound words of faith: “Lord, to whom else shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).