Our current series, “Encounters with God,” consists of essays written by several participants in the summer 2015 writing workshop, Apart & Yet A Part. M. Sophia Newman wrote about ecology and faith in “A Wild Strawberry Patch,” and Jamie Howison shared a story of ten voices who helped him hear God’s call on his life. Today, read Kurt Armstrong’s essay on why he chooses meaning over meaninglessness—even in the midst of uncertainty. And stay tuned for two more essays, to be published in the coming weeks.
My wife and I are raising our kids in a deeply religious home. Unlike some of my friends who have made a decisive, generational break with the religious tradition they grew up in, opting instead to let their kids “decide for themselves,” my wife and I are giving our three full-dose Christianity. All three were baptized on the same day four years ago. We take them to Sunday school every week and pray before supper and before bed. The two oldest spend a week each summer at Bible camp, and the youngest will join them when she’s old enough. They know most of the morning prayer and Eucharistic liturgies by rote; I helped them memorize the Nicene creed, the rest they’ve picked up by hearing it repeated hundreds of times. I know that one day they will have to struggle through the process of navigating faith for themselves. But I want them to have something substantial to work with when that time comes, something real to accept or reject, rather than simply cobbling together a metaphysical pastiche of sentimentalism, superstition, and spiritual trends. They already know that it is not always a wonderful life, but the faith in which we raise them tells them that it is a meaningful life.
Of course, my efforts to bless them might just mean they turn out weird because nowadays big-picture meaningfulness like the kind I’m offering my kids is highly contestable. Up until roughly 500 years ago, our cultural forebears, theists or not, would have implicitly understood that there was a genuine overlap of transcendent meaning and day-to-day existence. Now belief is optional and arbitrary. We might choose to believe in God or the transcendent, or some kind of great, abiding meaningfulness to this life, but the cultural gravitas in this sort of thing may be no greater than choosing a wall colour for the living room or condiments for your burger. So long as you don’t spill your existential mustard on me or anyone else, you’re free to believe whatever you like.
In his book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor differentiates between what he calls the porous self and the buffered self. The porous self, he says, is that of our ancestors from centuries ago, open to a broad causal matrix filled with other humans, spirits, demons, and cosmic forces of meaning. Meaning is bestowed upon us, and we are given a place in the order of things. Belief in the transcendent was part of what Taylor calls “the social imaginary;” it was atmospheric. The world was enchanted, and we were participants in that enchanted world.
Contrast that with the buffered self, which is how most of us are inclined to think of ourselves, with protective layers of social and psychological insulation between us and the cosmos. We no longer intuitively understand ourselves to be subject to any grand metaphysical order; we think of ourselves as free. We are rational, intelligent, informed beings, living in a comprehensible universe where “mystery” is just a word for things we don’t understand yet. We no longer encounter real meaning; we simply select it.
Taylor’s analysis is connected with another reason I keep going back to church (and bringing my kids along with me). I still want to know if there really is anything meaningful going on here that’s deeper than my choosing. That crumbling of transcendent meaning and the buildup of those those buffering layers between ourselves and the traditional sources of meaning make it hard for someone like me to easily believe that life is meaningful. There are abundant and compelling reasons not to believe, but that buffering we cherish, that sense of being liberated from powers beyond ourselves, doesn’t get any of us around all of the timeless problems of existence, all those things that set us looking for some sort of explanation. Being buffered from the permeating forces of the cosmos doesn’t buffer us from suffering, loss, fear, loneliness, illness, depression. The buffered, “free” self is still left to navigate all the raw material of life, which proves to be insufferable without some kind of meaning.
I recently heard Don McLean on the BBC, speaking about his career as a songwriter and discussing the enduring legacy of his song “American Pie,” one of the most intensely scrutinized American pop songs every written. McLean’s poetic lyrics have baffled listeners and scholars for decades, and when the interviewer asked McLean to describe how it feels to have created such social and cultural waves, McLean simply responded: “We’re all just trying not to go insane.” Of all the creatures in the universe that we humans are aware of, it seems that only homo sapiens sapiens is in any real way bothered by the grand existential questions, bothered enough that we sing, paint, philosophize, dramatize – and write essays – in our attempts to not go insane. Only humans seem conscious of the gap between what we long for and what is, and all even the best of buffering doesn’t seem to quell the grand, perennial existential questions: How did we get here? What’s going on? What happens next?
In our secular age, we have endless options for adding a touch of meaning to any occasion. Any given day might include therapeutic massage, organic vegetables, mindfulness-exercises-for-people-on-the-go, political slogans, mood-specific iTunes playlists, “like” buttons, Oprah, vacation time, Zoloft, newsfeeds and the comments section to be used as required. We have sentimental poetry for birthdays and retirement parties, self-help counsel for job cuts and curable diseases, de-stressing exercises to neutralize the angst of excess and consumption. Like a soul-building workshop filled with tools for the spirit, we can pick up this-or-that, use as needed, then put it down again when we’re finished. It seems unlikely, though, that soul-making tools used only occasionally can build an internal structure strong enough to hold and make meaning of the infinite minutiae of the day-to-day, the singular moments of sorrow, joy, grief, wonder, boredom, mystery, fear, loneliness. We can carry bits of meaning, but we are no longer carried by meaning. What holds and shelters us through all of life’s moments between birth and the grave? Meaning is shaky all right, unfortunately so, because the big, existential problems are as big as always, and none, of course, more unsettling or unknowable than death.
So. What are we to do about the inevitable? Dying. Charles Taylor writes that: “modern humanism… has no place for death. [I]t must be combated, and held off till the very last moment.” But what meaning will help us face the inevitable truth about ourselves, that dark, terrible chasm that separates the living from the dying? For many people the old answers don’t work as they once did, but the problem hasn’t gone away. The very first sentence of Julian Barnes’ book, Nothing To Be Frightened Of, sums up the situation precisely: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”
I’ve lost a lot of people that I’ve known and loved; my parents did not shield me from dying. In university I met friends who had never been to a funeral, but by the time I was twenty I’d already been to dozens, sometimes for someone younger than me. But only recently has the fact of my own death begun to bother me. I may well have just crossed the precise mid-point of my years because only now has my mortality started to make me restless. It’s not the dying itself, really, and it’s not the burying or the burning that I find so unsettling. My loved ones will have to make decisions about what to do with my body and my books, and that’s fine with me. Do what you need to do, grieve as much or as little as necessary, and don’t worry a stitch about how I’m doing, ‘cos the dead don’t care. I’m not even that anxious about heaven: whether it’s there or it isn’t, either way, I get a nice, long dirt nap.
No, what bothers me is the ending of this, the end of all that I have been, this rich, meaty life, during which I have done my best to live as though meaning were actual and real. My lifetime of encounters with the Grand Beauty, with life itself and all that has so utterly captivated me: my farm upbringing; my nurture in love and faith; the exhilaration of education; falling in love with my wife and the kids we’ve made and raised; all of the people I have loved; the songs that have changed my life and the stories that have guided me. All of those moments of wonder, ecstasy, deep sadness, longing, grief, and inexplicable joy, and one day: curtains. All the richness that is life itself, gone. Finished. Done. Cut to black. “The frightening thing is not dying,” sings T Bone Burnett, “the frightening thing is not living.”
Not long ago a friend tried to tell me that my religion loads the basic things of life with so much weight it makes the stakes way too high. “All the body and blood stuff,” he said. “It’s too much for people to bear. Sacraments? Life conquering death? It’s too much. Living, dying; here, or not here; either way it’s not worth getting all that worked up about.” Soften the fall at the end by flattening everything here now, I heard him saying. Don’t worry, there’s nothing you’ll really lose because there’s nothing really going on here anyways.
No. No. Do not diminish love, goodness, truth, and beauty. Don’t tell me this fleeting life is empty because it is fleeting. Do not attempt to make dying easier by robbing me of this life. “Death be not proud,” writes John Donne, “though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so.”
I place my bet on genuine meaning, held by a God who minds the details. I don’t have any knockdown arguments for that God, nothing to persuade those who are genuinely self-satisfied. But there are others. “Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.” Good advice for those of us with a longing we can’t shake, those of us who feel we owe something to the cosmos (and not just a body to the earth), those of us who believe we have something to say and something to do as part of a greater story, those of us who are unsatisfied with the suggestion that life is just a joke, and those of us who want to believe more than we really know how to.
Christian tradition tells of a God who knows that this flickering, fast-burning life is charged with meaning—a God who knows that how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. Since those passing details matter so much, so choose carefully how you live your life. The details of life matter enough that Jesus himself got fleshy alongside us. He showed up to spend time feeding bodies and hearts. He made a banquet out of a kid’s lunchtime snack, minded the sick children of mothers who refused to take “no” for an answer. He loved the brief, human existence enough to heal a blind man with spit-mud and a deaf mute with a bit of saliva, as easily as your mom used to straighten your tousled hair with spit on her fingertips. Jesus arrives and shows us who God is, who we are, what life is for. Jesus, the one who teaches that all of us live in order to give our lives back to God himself—the God who can hold onto the meaning of our brief lives beyond the expiration date because his love is the strongest thing in the universe, stronger even than death. “Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?” God become flesh, his life poured out for his creation. Jesus, the one who teaches us how to die, in order that we may know how to live.