I’ve been getting a bit nihilistic recently, talking about ‘embracing the void’ and saying that we can’t know anything for certain. So let’s go for the ultimate: everything is meaningless and pointless. Schopenhauer? Nietzsche? No, the Bible of course. It’s official, folks. Thus sayeth the Lord: ‘Everything is meaningless’, Ecclesiastes 1:1.
So just what the heck is that doing slap in the middle of the Bible – surely the greatest book of Meaning and Purpose ever penned?
The search for meaning
Humans are incorrigible meaning-seekers and pattern-finders. It’s hard-wired into us, whether by evolution or by God – or indeed both. We look up at the sky and we see pictures in the clouds by day, and patterns in the stars by night. We see shapes and faces in tree bark or rock markings, or in the random noise patterns we see when we close our eyes tight.
And then, quite often, we go a step further and try to discern meaning in the shapes and pictures. We read them as messages, as signs, as communications from the universe or from the spirit world – or from God. Or else we imagine stories that give the patterns meaning – like the legends of the Greek heroes represented by constellations like Orion the Hunter.
In our sleep we go one better, creating patterns in our minds and then simultaneously giving them meaning and story as the dramatic vignettes we call dreams. And occasionally we have dreams so intense that they really do seem to have some deeper significance.
In an obvious sense our pattern-readings and dreams actually are messages – from our subconscious. But are they ever anything more? And – whether they are or not – why is this search for pattern and meaning so innate in humans?
Why do we need meaning?
There are of course obvious evolutionary advantages. The ability to spot patterns and assign them meanings can help us make predictions, find food, avoid dangers and do all sorts of other things useful to our survival.
But why we often feel the need to attach ‘deeper’ sublime or spiritual meanings to patterns is harder to fathom. Perhaps we need to have sense of meaning and of purpose or point in what can be a bewildering and mysterious, often apparently random, universe, particularly in the face of tragedies and disasters and of our own minuteness and mortality. Otherwise we’d go nuts.
However, the fact that we need (and sometimes spuriously invent) meaning and purpose doesn’t mean that there isn’t ever any genuine meaning and purpose; that nothing has any real meaning except what we give it.
Some life experiences are so profound and powerful that it’s hard not to believe that they carry meaning. For example, falling in love, or looking into your newborn baby’s eyes, can feel so life-changing, so utterly full of meaning and purpose that they can be almost a religious revelation or epiphany. But… are they just nature’s trick to get us to reproduce, to replicate our genes? Do they really have any deeper meaning? I would cautiously say that they may do; they can do. I’ll come back to this later.
Missing the point
The search for meaning (or at least understanding) lies at the heart of most of our great human endeavours – in particular religion, art and science. All of course approach it in slightly different ways and perhaps for different reasons. They can offer different explanations and meanings at different levels, which can often be mutually complementary rather than inherently opposed.
There’s the now very well-worn joke about Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson lying in a field at night. Holmes asks Watson what he can deduce by looking up at the starry sky, and Watson proceeds to give detailed astronomical, astrological, meteorological and theological accounts. ‘Watson, you fool,’ exclaims Holmes. ‘Someone’s stolen our tent!’
One point of the story is that you can read all sorts of perfectly valid meanings – as well as some entirely bogus ones – into the patterns of available data. But the main point of course is that at the same time you can easily miss the most obvious and central meaning. You can look but not see, or only see what you want or expect to.
It’s certainly not only the religious mind that assigns meanings to patterns and arrives at conclusions that may be merely subjective or even spurious. It’s only a film, but I was very struck by the scene in A Beautiful Mind where the brilliant but paranoid John Nash thinks he can spot coded patterns in random text and numbers. His mind makes complex (but mistaken) connections and then reads meanings into them that just aren’t there, interpreting them as signs of a sinister conspiracy.
Again, this doesn’t mean that there are never any ‘real’ or objective meanings to find. It simply means that when we read patterns and ascribe meanings we should ask ourselves if it’s not just wishful joining of dots into whatever picture best suits us.
Letting go of our meanings
For we can and do get very attached to our pictures, our meanings – the personal interpretations we’ve placed on the patterns we’ve seen. Sometimes these can even become idols that we may need to let go of. We may need then to strip back and (for a season) see everything as meaningless, or potentially meaningless. It’s a kind of spiritual cleansing of the palate. This is another aspect of the Dark Night of the Soul, the ‘everything is meaningless’ time so well described in Ecclesiastes.
If the writer of Ecclesiastes isn’t Solomon, then it’s at least in the style and tradition of Solomon, drawing on his famous story of wisdom, excess and fall. The Teacher or Seeker (Qoheleth) has had everything, done everything, tried everything under the sun in his search for meaning and truth – and pleasure. After all of it he concludes that it’s all just pointless, meaningless, worthless. It’s a brilliantly bald and bleakly nihilistic statement at the heart of the Bible. It’s as shocking in its way as the unremittingly dark and despairing Psalm 88. What’s the point? There is no point. What does it all mean? Nothing.
The Vale of Meaninglessness is a place we may all have to stop awhile in our journeying. Yet this isn’t the end of the journey. It’s a transitional phase, in preparation for receiving or perceiving truer meaning. It’s a realisation that all our searching, all our doing, all our attempts to create or imagine God or build a theology, are all (in one sense) in vain. But once we’ve truly accepted that, truly dwelt in that place (and only then), that can then be the start of a new phase of the journey. If we can wait and trust in the darkness and emptiness of no meaning, I believe that grace will bring us meaning again…
Breathing new meaning into the patterns
For in his grace, I believe God takes our pattern-finding and meaning-making tendencies and breathes his life and meaning into them. We may find that what seemed meaningless actually has meaning after all.
This ties in with C.S. Lewis’s (and Tolkien’s) great idea of Myth – of a kind of truth and meaning too deep and powerful to be expressed in any other way than through poetic stories that mediate truth directly to our souls via our imaginations, rather than to our intellect. Every nation and religion has these stories, the results of our search for pattern and meaning.
Lewis believed furthermore that in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, these myths had finally been given their true meaning. Up to that point all was meaningless, in the sense that the true meaning hadn’t been given or revealed yet, and the meanings we’d dreamt up were not the real ones. But now in Christ our stories and our patterns can have their real meaning at last.
However, Christians can’t assume we have all the meanings sorted now; that we’ll never need to give up our current understandings to receive fresh insight or revelation. We can never assume we’ve ‘made it’, that this time we’ve read the patterns completely aright and have all the meanings and purposes neatly sewn up. Not in this world. Sorry.
So the process of letting go of current meanings to find new ones needs to be a cycle which continues throughout our lives. Our current meanings and understandings need to be regularly challenged, and may need to be overturned and replaced. Often the new insights we gain will refine and amend our existing ones rather than completely throwing them out. But occasionally there will come a major paradigm shift where we have to start out almost completely afresh.
Let the meaning be love…
Nonetheless, I’d like to suggest that we may be able to know at least something of the deepest underlying meaning and purpose of the universe, even if we can’t understand all the details. There is one enduring central vision which (for me) has survived the various changes and strippings-back of my other beliefs.
My deepest faith then is that the central meaning and purpose of the universe is love. I don’t believe that love (in its truest form) is nothing more than a meaningless by-product of a mindless universe. Some of what we call love may indeed be no more than an automatic rush of hormones or an instinctive drive to protect one’s offspring. But there are forms of love that are far more than that. And even in the rush of hormones which may well just be nature’s trick to get us to pass on our genes, I believe that by grace there can be something more going on. Even ‘mere’ nature can be redeemed; can be given deeper meaning.
On one level and in one sense then, perhaps all is meaningless. But if we can let go of our desperate attempts to assign meanings to things, I believe we may find that grace – or God – bestows a new meaning to what was meaningless; the meaning of love. That’s my hope, at least.
There you go, not so depressing after all… 😉