For many people in the 21st century the search for some transcendent meaning is futile, a mere chasing after rainbows. The meaning of life is simply what you make of it – relationships, pleasure, achievement, accomplishment (which can include sacrificial service) – in the limited time available. Certainly this has been the response of many commenters when I’ve delved into the questions of purpose and meaning in the past. In ch. 3 of his new book Making Sense of God Tim Keller argues that, ultimately, this isn’t enough. He admits that such “subjective, created meanings do serve human life well,” (p. 74) but these can weaken under adversity or on close examination.
But what are we actually asking when inquiring about the meaning of life? In common usage the term “to mean” has two overlapping senses. The first sense has to do with purpose. … The second sense has to do with significance. …
So to have meaning in life is to have both an overall purpose for living and the assurance that you are making a difference by serving some good beyond yourself. (p. 58)
The psychological need for meaning or purpose is intrinsic to humanity. It isn’t enough to simply exist – we need to do. But perhaps the subjective created meanings are enough. Keller notes that moving from modernity to post-modernity it is claimed that the loss of Meaning is liberating. After all, if there is no transcendent Meaning, then we are free to create our own meaning.
In the modern era we mourned the loss of the Meaning of life, but in the postmodern era, an age of freedom, we say good riddance to the very idea. (p. 61)
The very idea of submission to some transcendent Meaning of life is submission to a life of bondage … to that transcendent Meaning.
Created meaning vs. discovered meaning. Keller suggests that while a secular life is not meaningless, there is something missing.
If you decide that the meaning of your life is to be a good parent, or to serve a crucial political cause, or to tutor underprivileged youth, or to enjoy and promote great literature – then you have, by definition, a meaning in life. Plenty of secular people live like this without being tortured and gloomy in the manner of Camus. It is quite possible to find great purpose in the ordinary tasks of life, apart from knowing answers to the Big Questions About Existence. (p. 65)
These meanings are created or assigned meanings. In contrast “Traditional belief in God was the basis for discovered, objective meaning – meaning that is there apart from your inner feelings or interpretations.” (p. 65)
Keller argues that discovered meanings are more rational (and more satisfying) than created meanings. Ultimately created meanings are temporary. It simply doesn’t really “matter whether you are a genocidal maniac or an altruist; it won’t matter whether you fight hunger in Africa or are incredibly cruel and greedy and starving the poor.” (p. 66) We all die eventually, it is likely that mankind as a species will die out naturally, and virtually guaranteed that our solar system will eventually vanish one way or another. (Solar image from NASA)
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Robert Frost, 1920
It isn’t necessary to think about this – but when it comes up “it is time to ‘go down stairs and play solitaire.‘” (quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes p. 67)
Discovered meaning, on the other hand, transcends the temporary nature of human existence on this world. Because of this they are more rational (what is rational about brushing doubts and questions away and playing solitaire?)
Discovered meaning is more communal – the we matters as much or more than the me.
Created meanings cannot be the basis for a program of social justice. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, did not tell white Christians in the South that they should support civil rights because everyone should be free to live as he or she sees fit. In his “I have a dream” speech he quotes Amos 5:24, calling for justice to roll down on the nation. (p. 71)
Discovered meaning is more durable. It stands up under adversity – whether the adversity comes because of one’s views, because one is a convenient victim, or merely in the way. Created meaning doesn’t stand up to pain and suffering very well. Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning provides some insight here. Hitler’s death camps were horrific – how would created meaning survive?
Frankl discovered that the only way for the prisoners’ humanity to survive was to relocate the main meaning of their lives to some transcendent reference point, something beyond this life and even this world. (p. 73)
Now, none of this means that Christians have discovered the true meaning – only that discovered meaning is superior (more rational, communal, and durable) to created meaning. Clearly we want to discover true meaning. Keller gives some arguments in favor of Christianity – but this isn’t the main focus of the chapter or the book.
Is there a difference between created and discovered meaning?
Is the Meaning of life an important question – or simply one we’ve outgrown and better off without?
Where would you agree or disagree with Keller?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net