I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

A Meaningful Life

One of the differences that separates humanity as unique, as far as I see it, is our ability to transcend our thinking from the activities of living and ask whether or not our life as a whole is meaningful. We can do things and perform tasks and complete activities, but many of us often reflect on whether or not our life was a meaningful one. We ask ourselves questions of significance. And even if these are not explicitely stated they are in many cases deeply felt. Parents try to pass on to their children all of the meaningful things they wished they had done and hope that their kids have more meaningful lives...

The problem is that meaning and significance is relative to the community and to the individual. If you were born in ancient Sparta, for example, you would find significance in honoring your city-state, and dying on the battlefield would be a very meaningful death. Same thing with the Samurii. In The Last Samurii there is a strong motif of dying "a good death." Contrast this with a northeastern, liberal dinner party where dying in war would probably be about the worst possible way to go!

So, in terms of what is meaningful and living a significant life, we must reference our context. We take our que's from our families and clans and from our peers and our neighborhoods and our nations. This is the way we are made. We learn from others as the desire for meaning wells up within us and as we comtemplate and long to do something significant. In this way meaningfulness is taught.

But is there something greater? Is there something universal? Is there "one thing" that defines the meaningful life? Is there a commonality that transcends culture and binds together all meaningful ventures. This seems to be the unstated question that underlines all of Qohelet's pursuits. So, I take this question to you, the people: Is there an ultimate meaning in life?


ktismatics said...

For each of us there probably is one thing by which we define the meaning of our lives. A lot of people probably couldn't name it, even after a lot of questioning and probing. I'm not sure I could summarize mine, but it probably has something to do with some combination of creation, excellence and difference. Nonetheless I don't believe that the meaning I come up with for my life ties into any transcendent or objective or God-given meaning for what human life is all about.

Is this a response, or is it an "about me" blurb I should put up on a MySpace blog?

Jason Hesiak said...

Doyle...get a mysace page! THAT would be more entertaining than the conversation between Adam and larvadude and Anthony Paul Smith and Dejan! (for others...conversation here: http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2007/04/29/yet-another-annoying-discussion-of-religion/)

Erdman and I will be your first friends. But for me...sorry dude...there's like a God-given meaning for what life is all about and stuff, man. How did I say it? "The mistake is fuel for the truth that was even before the mistake."


samlcarr said...

On the one hand, as Jon points out, meaning is something that we are taught. But, beyond this o we create something 'extra' or ifferent from the builing blocks that we have been given? I believe so an that's why we are each indiviuals. Certainly the concept of language an communication ois a 'universal' factor for humans, so is society-culture.

I would plumb for unselfishness as a universal good, even when it is held as a countercultural ideal. I have seen it expressed recognisably but in slightly different ways in cultures on four continents.

ktismatics said...

What's become of our host? Has the meaning of his own blog escaped him, so that he can no longer write coherent sentences?

Melody said...

It may be because of the new job, but if that's the case I have to say he needs to take a serious look at his priorities.

Jason Hesiak said...

Doyle and Melody...that was funny of both of you...

Maybe there's a virtual flog of someone else occuring in his head, and we just aren't seeing it. Or maybe someone else is secretly doing a flog of him elsewhere, and we aren't seeing that either.

Jonathan Erdman said...


It is interesting to me that you mentioned that there is "probably one thing by which we define the meaning of our lives," but that we probably can't get at it even after being picked at and probing.

Question: If there is, in fact, one thing by which we define the meaning of our lives, would it be an appropriate goal of psychology/counseling to align the various factors of one's life with that single meaning/purpose?

I think of Viktor Frankl and his logotherapy.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I think the term you are looking for is bff.

ktismatics said...

"Question: If there is, in fact, one thing by which we define the meaning of our lives, would it be an appropriate goal of psychology/counseling to align the various factors of one's life with that single meaning/purpose?"

This assumes that the person's single meaning/purpose is worth sustaining. Maybe it needs to be shaken up, undermined, overhauled, etc. Maybe it's too much of a "totalizing discourse," keeping the person from acknowledging other values/loves/wants/etc. that never get to see the light of day. Maybe it's an inherited meaning that needs to be reconsidered, or an idealized picture of what one "ought" to value and that makes the person feel inadequate for not living up to this image.

But sure, I think meaning is a lot of what therapy should be about. In fact, I suspect that clarifying meaning and purpose should be the central meaning and purpose of therapy. But I'm not persuaded that helping the person engineer the rest of his/her life in accordance with a single meaning is the therapist's job -- at least it's not the job I want. Then if the grand self-integration scheme succeeds it's my success; if it fails it's my failure. I'd rather focus on awareness than on action plans.

Oh, and by the way, did you know that the South Park guys are Boulder dudes?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yes, good thoughts.

And, yes, I knew the South Park guys were from Boulder. I don't know that any other city/town/village in the world could have produced South Park creators. Those guys have incredible imaginations and creativity.

Jason Hesiak said...

So, you're Kenny, I'm Cartman. You were off saving the world...in the world of the dead. Of course, now you're back to life, and its the next episode. I like cheesey puffs. Respect my authority.

I did not know those guys were from Boulder.

Jonathan Erdman said...

The traditional view is that Jesus is the meaning in life.

Let's assume that Calvinism is correct in their view of the Elect: That some are predestined for salvation and others are not.

In terms of our discussion on the Meaningfulness of Life what are the implications for the non-elect? If you are in a position of being a non-elect reprobate and you will remain so for the remainder of your life, then will Jesus make your life more meaningful? Or would Jesus make your life less meaningful?

I guess I bring this out as one possible example of how there may not be One Ultimate Meaning in life for all people at all times...

ktismatics said...

That sounds like the plot for a novel. Does "Left Behind" follow any characters who know they're not going to be chosen but who are otherwise interesting, nice people? I wonder if there are others in fiction who meet this description.

It's also interesting for the Calvinist Christian counselor. Maybe if your client isn't elect then you use a more existentialist backup plan?

Melody said...

[i]If you are in a position of being a non-elect reprobate and you will remain so for the remainder of your life, then will Jesus make your life more meaningful? Or would Jesus make your life less meaningful?[/i]

I think that if you believe that Christianity is true but that you're not elect so you can't participate it would make your life less meaningful. I don't suppose it would make your life less meaningful if you thought it was all some myth...but I don't see how it would make it more meaningful.

Before one of the Great Awakenings (the first one, I think) it was taught that only the elect can be saved and that no one could be sure if they were part of the elect until they died... you still have to profess Jesus as your savior and get baptised and what-have-you because if you didn't then you definately weren't part of the elect, but doing all that didn't mean you were either.

Which made everyone pretty apathathtic towards Christianity and is believed to be where we get the phrase, "Damned if you do, damned if you don't"

Then of course revival happened a la Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield (Whitefield?), personalizing religion and all of a sudden people cared again...because it mattered what they did again.

Another interesting incident that I read about (too much reading, I know, I was a boring child) was from when Brother Andrew, before he started smuggling bibles, worked in a factory with some... really unlady-like ladies.

He tried witnessing to them but they just mocked him. A revival preacher came to town and Andrew invited one of young ladies to come with him and she did, but after that he decided to back off and give her some space.

And in the next week or so she was all depressed and wouldn't talk to people and finally Andrew asked her what was wrong and somehow or another they got around to her saying that because he'd stopped bugging her about Christianity she thought he thought that she was past saving...which of course wasn't the case and she got saved and everyone was happy.

chris van allsburg said...

on ktismatics not being sure if life ties into any transcendant or objective God-given meaning for what life is all about, I find that depressing. Would I go to him for counseling? Sheesh. Maybe I'll just have a drink and watch the Tigers.

Now of course, I wrestle with the whole deal with finding meaning in my life like everyone else. Questions of vocation are the most prominent. Then follows my longing for change in this world and what I can do to be a part of it--to do some good in a big way.

But if meaning doesn't come from something grounded in the infinite, absolute God, then where does it come from? Might as well be an existentialist. But Christianity is not existentialist in essence.

The Westminster Confession answers the question rather well: What is the chief end of man? Answer: To worship and glorify God and enjoy him forever.

I often wonder if farmers old the early to mid 20th century in west Michigan where I live ever dealt with these questions we have about meaning. I think they saw good in their work, their church and their families. And that was about it. (There was the war effort).

Chris has to give us meaning, or else: eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow's the rapture.

chris van allsburg said...

And about the Calvinism thing with the whole "Hey, I wonder if I'm elect?" It's a silly thing to ponder. Really. Non-elect persons, in the Calvinist worldview, are vessels of wrath who live their lives with whatever lot the Lord has given them (Rm. 9). Ecceliastes advises them to enjoy life, because when it's over, it's over. Non-elect persons have no other option than existentialistic nihilism manifested in various paradigms, worldviews and religions. They are idolaters all of them. Non-elect persons use whatever aspect of Jesus they may want in order to fulfill their idolatrous ideas about God and life. The essential Jesus has no ultimate impact on their meaningfulness in life. Elect persons repent of their sin and seek to obey Christ. Their ultimate meaning in life comes from serving him. What else is there?

ktismatics said...

"Would I go to him for counseling?"

Are you assuming that I'd accept you as a client?

chris van allsburg said...

of course! don't you need the $?

ktismatics said...

I bet you use that line with all the girls.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I take issue with your interpretation of Ecclesiastes...but not with your bribing of Ktismatics...

Scenario: Someone has a "feeling" of meaninglessness and purposelessness.

Question: Is this feeling tied to anything?

Question 2: If the feeling is not tied to "Glorifying God and enjoying him forever," then is it wrong advice to suggest that glorifying God will "fix" the feeling???

chris van allsburg said...

I think these feelings come primarily from self-centeredness, which is the anithesis of Christian discipleship: I think of Bonhoeffer's words, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

God gives purpose and meaning in our church, family, work and giftedness. I see these as filtering out into creative ways in which to have meaning. I do very much like the idea of creation, excellence and difference, as ktismatics has aptly noted, manifested in these realms.

You may find it interesting that being postmillennial has given me great hope and meaning, because I believe even more in helping the kingdom of God grow and win--in this world, in our time. I just knew eschatology was more than mere theological flack sessions!

chris van allsburg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chris van allsburg said...

Regarding question #2, I do think it is tied to what the wcf says, so it wouldn't be wrong to tell someone to attain to it. Although, these feelings could come from many places: the evil in the world, abuse, longing, yearning, regret, mental or physical illness, joblessness, living in a crappy, Michigan economy, scarcity of a good (sex,vacation, good wine, good beer, good pipe tobacco, Pearl Jam, the list goes on). In these cases, however, I think one's church, family, vocation and giftedness can play unique roles in solving the problem. Have I confused feelings of meaningless/purposelessness with depression? Or do you think they are very close, like twins in a womb?

Thanks, and uh, I'm gonna need you to come in on Sunday, mmkay? Thaaaaaaaanks.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yeah, it's interesting because "meaningfulness" comes from so many areas - you mentioned church and family. If someone where to isolate you from anyone and you were forced to live apart from church/family/friends would you still be living a "meaningful life"? It seems as though you would (at the very least) say, "Something is missing."

I guess that for me this goes back to our presentation of the Christian faith: If there is more to a meaningful life than just "having God" then it would be misleading to say that "Those who have God live meaningful lives and those who don't have God lack real meaning."

I think there are many non-Christian people who find meaning in this life. The question for them, of course, is whether there will be meaning and joy in the life to come....

chris van allsburg said...

Yes, if by "having God," you mean the individualistic, compartmentalized form of xtianity popular in america. "Having God" should mean jesus being lord of our entire lives, without compartments, i.e. i'm putting on my god-hat now, for it's sunday morning; or, 'yeah man, i did that,' in reference to 'getting saved,' but with no effort to think God's thoughts after him in all areas of life.
you dig? or did i scate off track?