In this week’s chapter, Tim Keller examines how various perspectives equip a person to deal with questions about “the meaning of life” and suffering. An index of all my posts in this book study can be found HERE.
- Throughout history, THE question has been, “What is the meaning of life?” But in recent times, this “crisis of meaning…is resisted by many in the twenty-first [century].” (60) Why? Many modern, secular people argue, “If the Meaning of life exists, then we are not free to create that meaning for ourselves…No one (and certainly no religious institution) has the right to tell us how we should be living…we get to forge and make our own meanings.” (61, 63)
- Keller has two questions for this “Everyone gets to define meaning and happiness for themselves” worldview – “Is this a cogent, consistent position? And does it work practically, for living your life?” (63)
- Is it cogent? Keller argues no. If one says there is no objective answer for the meaning of life and that everyone should just determine his/her own meaning, are you not “assuming a value-laden standard [that freedom is the ultimate good] that you are using to critique all other approaches to life?” (64)
- Does it work practically? While you can to an extent create your own happiness, you will eventually eventually run up against two problems – you will either become “troublingly narcissistic” and/or you will hit a wall, forced to confront the the fact that there are realities in life that prevent you from being happy or living with the kind of meaning you want. (64)
- Keller then differentiates between discovered, objective meaning (outside of one’s feelings or interpretations) and created meaning (subjective from person to person). He argues that while created meaning might be more popular today, it is actually more fragile than discovered meaning, and he gives three reasons why:
- Created meaning is less rational – If you believe that there’s ultimately no meaning to life, then logically, even the meanings you create to get through life now (like living for family, a peaceful community, etc.) won’t matter in the end. The sun will eventually burn out and nothing you do or have done will matter. But of course, no one would want to think about that depressing prospect so to maintain a sense of purpose you would just have to put those logical ends out of your mind. “Don’t think too hard about it,” Keller argues, “is not a very rational way to have meaning in life.” (65-69)
- Created meaning is less communal – When everyone is only focused on creating MY happiness all the time, we eventually end up in a hyper-individualistic culture. In that environment, how does justice get accomplished if no one is allowed to impose a standard of morality or ethics and everyone is defining that for themselves? (69-72)
- Created meaning is less durable – How does your definition of meaning stand up to suffering? If it’s defined by temporal things like family, relationships, or a job your whole life will crumble when those things are taken away. But if your sense of purpose and meaning transcends/exists outside of circumstance and tragedy, you will be much better equipped to deal with suffering. (72-74)
- Keller argues throughout the chapter that religion in general better equips one to deal with questions of meaning and suffering because religion points to ideas that transcend the shifting sands of circumstance. Furthermore, among the religions, Christianity offers a unique perspective: Suffering is often unmerited (unlike karma), it is real and not an illusion to be transcended (Buddhism), and it’s not accidental and ultimately meaningless (secularism). (74) As to meaning, Christianity teaches that all people experience a sense of purposelessness and alienation because of our self-centeredness and sin, which cuts us off “from a direct relationship with the God for whose fellowship we were created.” (75) But God sent his Son to die and experience the full alienation we all deserve so we could be brought back into living for something far more meaningful and glorious than our own personal happiness. Christians “don’t believe in a meaning we must go out and discover but in a Meaning that came into the world to find us.” (76)
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Two thoughts (of many) from the chapter…First, I think that Keller does a great job of separating out the potential views on these questions and dealing with them individually, but it seems like in practice, many people seem to believe a mix of things, which I’m sure Keller would argue is equally illogical. For instance, there are many people who would normally say they don’t believe in God, life is just the here and now and what we make it, etc. But when a loved one dies, suddenly they believe their friend or family member is “in a better place” or “in heaven.” Or if something terrible happens, they suddenly believe in God’s judgment or ask why He doesn’t seem to care to make things right. These inconsistencies are not just among the views of the secular. Professing Christians say that they believe in God and that He provides the framework for their whole lives, yet they live in such a way that does not reflect His ways or words. So I guess some questions we should continually ask ourselves are one, “Do my views make sense?” and two, “Do I even hold them consistently and with integrity throughout my life?”
I also think this question of how we cope with suffering is so very important. It’s surely no accident that Keller grouped the ideas of meaning and suffering together in the same chapter. Questions about the meaning of life seem much more relevant in times of great pain and suffering, and suffering has a way of shaking our definitions of happiness and the meaning of life in a way that nothing else can. I know that we all just want to be happy and “reject all negative thoughts,” but trying to stay in a dream world free of pain is not only impossible, it’s setting us up for failure. At some point in our lives, “the unthinkable” (however you define that) WILL happen. It’s inevitable. So the wise path would be to ask: how well equipped are you/am I to deal with those moments and even lesser moments of pain and suffering when they happen? I’d encourage you to consider that Christianity provides both true and deeply satisfying answers to questions like “Why there is suffering in the world at all?” and “How do I deal with it when it happens?” Ask me about it if you’re at all curious as to what Christianity teaches on those topics. I know that for some people, that last bullet point in the above chapter summary may make very little sense and I’d be happy to help explain and flesh it out better.
- If you’ve read the chapter, were there any quotes or sections that were particularly thought-provoking to you?
- How do you answer the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Is it composed of objective meaning or created? Or some of both?
- When tragedy strikes in your life, how do you cope? Do you scramble to find some framework to make sense of it all in the moment? Do you temporarily adopt a religious framework just to get through and then discard it when it’s not useful anymore? Or do you have a worldview that is objective, immovable, and not subject to the ever-changing circumstances of life?
As always, I welcome any and all feedback!