The Problem of Meaninglessness

by R. Wesley Hurd


I think we’re at a moment in history where we’ve already begun a kind of apocalypse of thought, where all the models we’ve been led to believe in are crumbling. (Artist/filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, “Breaking the Codes,” Artforum Magazine, May 2009.)

The other night I had a wonderful dinner with some new acquaintances. Our conversation turned more and more philosophical. At a certain point one person said, quite rightly, “This is too heavy for dinner conversation.” We changed the subject to lighter matters. What got so “heavy” was the subject of “meaning”—whether anything today could have personal, let alone universal, meaning.

The problems of truth and meaning for one young dinner companion were directly connected to conclusions he had derived from having been immersed in the thought of Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and other postmodernist thinkers. These continental philosophers have had an immeasurable impact on the intellectual climate young thinkers today must live in, particularly in the areas of the humanities, literature, and the arts. As recent conversations with students have revealed to me, the question of meaning is disturbingly common in the current generation. As a Christian artist and educator who has interacted with young minds my whole adult life, I have never faced a more formidable challenge than trying to argue for the existence of authentic, true meaning today.

Over the past fifty or so years, the influence of nihilism—the belief that life has no objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value—has permeated our culture’s intellectual climate, enveloping like fog those having grown to adulthood in it. In today’s intellectual climate, most thinking students (including many who show up at the door of Gutenberg College) find the task of understanding themselves in a complex world daunting if not impossible.

How did this nihilistic intellectual culture develop, and what are its origins? Young people today feel the weight of cultural and historical failures that both directly and indirectly undercut their confidence that they can know about life—or even that objective truth exists to be known. The Enlightenment vision—that human knowledge would inevitably lead to a better world—failed catastrophically. Young minds today find the exuberant, humanist vision that gave birth to the modern world to have resulted in a series of tragic failures:

  • In the twentieth century, two world wars released unimaginable terror and human darkness into the world. The current generation, having grown up in a culture dominated by image (everything from TV and movies to YouTube), has digested images of catastrophic human destruction. They have seen what humankind is capable of and that we are willing to release cruel inhumanities upon ourselves. Young adults ask, “How has our knowledge allowed this?”
  • Vastly improved access to education in the modern world has not liberated us from powers of darkness and oppression. Highly educated connoisseurs of Kant, Hegel, Goethe, Bach, and Mozart cultivated their aesthetic sensibilities while administering the Nazi death camps.
  • Modern, rationalistic, industrial power and the promise of human progress has failed. Scientific and technological competence produces the thrill of apparent control and technical progress, but ugly, unanticipated consequences accompany those inhuman powers. And our human “advances” increasingly ignore needs located deep within the human soul. Nuclear energy, for example, promised an unlimited source of power, but the serious problem of nuclear waste was trivialized, unanticipated, and awaits true, effective solution. And we have only recently realized that preoccupation with the speed and allure of digital and virtual reality games tends to trivialize healthful human relationships, especially in the young.
  • Our materialistic culture has commodified everything. We live with a massive disconnect between the energies and opportunities of free market consumerism and genuine moral and ethical social concern. If only material things are real and give human fulfillment, then exploitation of child labor in South America and China to increase profit margins makes sense.

These historical and cultural failures have subverted substantive ethical reality and fostered skepticism—a distrust of knowledge—and with it a distrust of language. Humans use language to voice cultural and ideological promises, but twentieth century promises—like the 1960s political promises of a “great society”—have proven themselves vacant. For the current generation, language is merely someone’s propaganda tool, one used to create and maintain social and political power. The generation does not trust people’s words to be grounded in anything larger than their creators’ purpose to manipulate; the generation no longer trusts language to move humankind toward what is universally true because, as the current generation sees it, what former generations believed to be true was not.

A person arrives at meaning when he believes something is true and therefore gives it high personal value. The soulish act of giving purpose or importance to some idea or object—whether one believes that the idea or object possesses importance universally or only for himself—is “meaning.” When a person struggles with whether or not truth exists upon which to found any belief, meaning fades and appears unreachable. He loses the motivation to maintain human and humane intellectual, personal, social, and political work. Pursuing knowledge seems a trivial game, and this distrust of knowledge severs the necessary links between meaningful thought, hope, and productive human endeavor. When a person no longer believes in the possibility of finding truth and thus meaning, then the energy to pursue meaning fails as well.

What responses can we give to such darkened perspectives? What antidotes can we provide for such prevalent skepticism regarding truth and meaning and hope? I cannot provide undeniable evidence or proof that we are creatures of meaning created for eternal existence, but I can describe what we might call “signals” or “pointers” to real and transcendent meaning, both in us and available to us.

First, it is a curious fact that we are beings whose life and existence seem to demand meaning. We constantly ask questions whose answers are ultimately only grounded in transcendent or universal terms. Despite the claims of our postmodern climate, our most vital and important experiences—the birth and death of those we love, our cries for justice, our desire for freedom to choose, our innate belief that truth must be found, the safety and deep comfort found in loving each other—seem to revolve around a universal human nature and condition.

The universal impulse that drives us to seek answers should tell us that we are creatures whose lives were made for meaning. Recognizing this, it would be a strange and dark fact, indeed, if such meaning were not available to us when we pursue it. Yet a haunting implication continues to saturate the postmodern cultural climate we now live in—namely, that meaning is a frail, human fabrication without reference to a universal, real reality, and therefore searching for transcendent meaning is a waste of human effort.

Second, human and humane boundaries are required within which we can live with reasonable safety and outside of which normal lives of safety and sanity are threatened. Why is this? As theologian Walter Brueggemann put it, there are “…orders, limits, and boundaries within which humanness is possible and beyond these there can only be trouble” (quoted in Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be, Middleton and Walsh, 162). He added: “Life has a certain evocative quality, a certain connectedness about it, a dynamic, an intention, a direction, a presence, a meaning. And we are creatures who are an integral part of that life, and we respond instinctively to it even if we rebel at its qualities” (169). Put differently, we live and move and have our being in a reality that undeniably possesses concreteness. When we deny this concreteness, we endanger ourselves.

We must also consider that if God is not in the picture, then no final and ultimately satisfying answer to meaninglessness exists; the cosmos is just empty of spirit and meaning, and we and nature are products of a chance configuration of physical matter and unknown, impersonal originating energies. The biblical God in the picture changes everything. Meaning is not only a possibility; it is bound to the promised mercy of God for those who embrace it. Human creatures are meaningful simply because God made us that way.

Nonetheless, even Christians can suffer from feeling the weight of meaninglessness in today’s culture. The young Christians with whom I interact struggle from being caught between an “emerging” faith and the cultural, ideological, and philosophical powers of the surrounding postmodern world, whose acids dissolve confidence in all knowledge, including the Bible’s.

Questions and observations about truth and the meaning of life reside perpetually on our lips, and we are in denial when we refuse to face them. If we truly desire to escape the nihilistic darkness surrounding us, then we must accept the often agonizing work of finding out what is true; and this work must become our greatest desire—greater than our desire for materialistic or philosophical comforts. We must come to terms with the fact that finding truth and meaning is a difficult ethical and spiritual quest.

Only by facing our questions, then, can we move toward meaning, and the path toward meaning and away from meaninglessness begins with understanding that the foundation of meaning is grounded in believing with reasonable confidence that something is true. Our knowledge may not have mathematical certainty, but then none of the knowledge upon which we act daily has such certainty; every day we choose and act on knowledge that is partial and yet reliable enough. And when we choose and act on an idea we believe to be true, we generate meaning. Thus meaning is ultimately “located” in the inner conscious thought of an individual.

Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard has perceptively pointed out that though objective truth exists, it only “becomes truth” for a person when that individual appropriates it with genuine personal conviction. Truth that is knowable by an individual can be eternal and universal, but it is “known finitely” within the boundaries and limits of human finitude. Truth, then, in its humanly received and contained form, is inevitably “unfinished, partial, and finite” because it has been discovered and appropriated by temporal, finite human creatures.

The beliefs we hold with sufficient conviction to warrant our personal commitment, however, are our “anchor points” for life. These commitments create a path for our lives. And, as a tent is only stable when secured to the ground by several tie-downs, so humans find meaningful lives through multiple anchor points that collectively produce a larger (even universal) meaning for living.

We do not exist, with even moderate happiness, without these subjectively meaningful anchor points. We humans require and thrive on meaning like our bodies require and thrive on food. We starve physically from lack of food. We starve soulishly from lack of meaning.

We find our anchor points through existential, personal struggle. We must engage in a strenuous, inner conversation that strives to understand ourselves and the world as they really are, and then we must choose to commit ourselves to the truths we find. This inner struggle and commitment forms the experiential crucible for discovering and establishing authentic personal meaning.

At the beginning of our conscious lives, our anchor points are beliefs we absorb from our parents, family, and significant others. Though these early beliefs are native to us from our immediate surroundings, we still make them our own by personal choice, by naively choosing to believe them. As we grow into adults, we naturally grow out of our original anchor points. We either authenticate our original beliefs for ourselves by reflectively and consciously re-choosing what we absorbed from earlier life or we replace them with new beliefs, new anchor points.

To illustrate what I mean by anchor points, let me describe four of my own. My first anchor point is my own need for meaning. I am struck by the raw fact that I find myself to be a creature who needs meaning at so many levels of my life. Why am I not just another animal whose needs exclude that of meaning for myself and my world? The modern tale that we are the product of a chance configuration of matter plus time does not fit my experience of my essential nature and need for meaning.

My second anchor point is the belief that human life at the level of relationships and society does not work without a commitment to ethical goodness. (The goodness I reference here I would argue is described definitively in the Bible.) Without the pursuit of and practice of goodness among us, there is no meaning. A life focused on and lived for selfishness and personal pleasure is what Kierkegaard calls the “aesthetic life.” The pleasures of such a life are by definition unhinged from ethical demand. No true meaning is available to such a life.

My third anchor point is my belief in “signals of transcendence”—those human experiences that point toward but do not prove God’s authorship of this existing cosmos. They are the universal human cries for order, justice, joy, and love. These values and virtues all seem to point toward a cosmic requirement for bigger, lasting versions of themselves to exist beyond this present world. They seem to point to another, truer reality that transcends and outshines this present one—an eternal existence in which order, meaning, justice, joy, and love rule over all else.

Finally, my fourth anchor point is the explanatory power of the person and teachings of Jesus. Christ’s teachings are utterly unique and unparalleled in their penetrating insight regarding God and the true condition of man. For me, the “explanatory power” of Christ’s teaching is this: He explains uniquely what I am—not only my earthly physical creatureliness but also my eternal value and nature. He explains who I am personally—the hairs of my head are counted! He gives piercing insight regarding what is eternally true and valuable. And he offers profound hope for this life and the promise of one to come on the basis of unbounded mercy.

To be a human being is both amazing and frightening. The “heaviness” of the conversation avoided at dinner pointed briefly to this fact. We feel the weight of our freedom to ponder and choose what kind of human beings we will be. The good news is that the despairing struggle that often accompanies our search is the very means God lovingly determines to use to bring us to genuine meaning.

Copyright May 2011 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

R. Wesley Hurd