Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Does My Life Have Meaning?

(Sunset, Monroe County Community College)

Does my life have meaning?

Let's look at the meaning of "meaning." (See this, for some linguistic fun.)

I define "meaning" as: fitness in a coherent context. For example, I understand what a certain joke means if I understand the socio-linguistic context. And, that context must be coherent and narratival. 

I understand the meaning of a pawn in the coherent, narratival context of the game of chess. But a chess pawn standing on a tennis court is meaningless, because it has no "fitness" there. The pawn has no fit in the narrative of tennis. For there to be meaning, there must be fitness within a coherent context.

The movie Mad Max: Fury Road takes place in a land called "Wasteland." Max sums up the meaning of his life with these words: "My world is fire and blood" where everything "is reduced to a single instinct: survive." The movie longs for redemption as a woman named Inperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) smuggles five women out of Wasteland, hoping to take them to a destination called "the green place." Context affects meaning; meaning changes relative to context. If there is no coherent context in which we fit, then life is meaningless, and nihilism prevails. "Mad Max is about a road that goes nowhere but exists only for itself. It's meaningless mayhem." ("Mad Max: Fury Road - Finding a forgotten Eden in the midst of post-apocalyptic anarchy") 

The film ends with these words, as a epigram:

Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland,
in search of our better selves.

Where can we go to find the meaning of our lives? The options are:

1. An incoherent context where nothing fits.
2. A coherent context where I do not fit.
3. A coherent context where I fit.

Option 1 is atheism and nihilism, ultimately and logically.

Option 2 is the kingdoms of this world which, as a Jesus-follower, I was not made for. I don't really belong, I don't really fit in, to the form and pattern of this world.

Option 3 is the kingdom of God, which, as Jesus said, is "not of this world."

In the pre-modern, existentialist biblical book of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher weighs the meaning-options and finds them all wanting. Except for one. 

He looks for the meaning to life in nature (Eccl. 1:5-9). But nature is a closed system of cause and effect, an endless circling of sunshine, wind, and rain. The answer, the key, is not in Nature. 

He looks for the key to life's meaning in mankind (1:3-4), and humanity's efforts and accomplishments. But this yields only an endless seeking for happiness through this and that, but to no avail.

He looks for an answer in human wisdom (1:12-17; 2:13-17). But even the most brilliant are only learned ignoramuses (cf. Jose Ortega y Gasset), who fail to make sense of it all.

He looks for the meaning of life in pleasure and sensual delight (2:1-11), but finds the same reality: it's all nothing but "vanity and striving after the wind. (Here it feels like Bertrand Russell's atheism has borrowed from Ecclesiastes - see Russell's "A Free Man's Worship.")

The answer? Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 concludes:

Now all has been heard;

    here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
    including every hidden thing,
    whether it is good or evil.

To answer the question of life's meaning we must first answer these two questions:

Who, or what, made me?

What was I made for?

The answers to these questions will lead you to either Option 1, Option 2, or Option 3.

I've opted for 3. By experience, and by reason. My life's meaning and purpose are found in these words of Jesus:

You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind,
and with all your strength.
And you shall
love your neighbor as yourself.