In his magisterial book The Introduction to Christianity Cardinal Ratzinger wrote the following:
What is belief really? We can now reply like this: It is a human way of taking up a stand in the totality of reality, a way that cannot be reduced to knowledge and is commensurable with knowledge; it is the bestowal of meaning without which the totality of man would remain homeless, on which man’s calculations and actions are based, and without which in the last resort he could not calculate and act, because he can only do this in the context of a meaning that bears him up. For in fact man does not live on the bread of practicality alone; he lives as man and, precisely in the intrinsically human part of his being, on the word, on love, on meaning. Meaning is the bread on which man, in the intrinsically human part of his being, subsists. Without the word, without meaning, without love he falls into the situation of no longer being able to live, even when earthly comfort is present in abudance. Everyone knows how sharply this situation of “not being able to go on anymore” can arise in the midst of outward abundance. But meaning is not derived from knowledge. To try to manufacture it in this way, that is, out of the provable knowledge of what can be made, would resemble Baron Munchausen’s absurd attempt to pull himself up out of the bog by his own hair.
I believe that the absurdity of this story mirrors very accurately the basic situation of man. No one can pull himself out of the bog of uncertainty, of not being able to live, by his own exertions; nor can we pull ourselves up, as Descarate still thought we could, by a cogito ergo sum, by a series of intellectual deductions. Meaning that is self-made is in the last analysis no meaning. Meaning, that is, the ground on which our existence as a totality can stand and live, cannot be made but only received.
I first read these words a little over 2 years ago. I have mentioned numerous times before that this particular book was set me on the road to Rome. These words, in particular, sent chills down my spine. As I read and reread the bolded words at the end I was struck by a very simple and very clear thought: That’s it. This is what it comes down to. The choice between objective meaning and subjective meaning.
That is, he [the “Crunchy Con”] cannot separate his essential religious vision from metaphysics. That is, he believes his religion doesn’t state an opinion about how the world is; he believes it is an accurate guide to factual reality. I do not think it is possible to be authentically religious without being in some fashion an orthodox traditionalist.
Dreher goes on to discuss the psychological and sociological distinctions between orthodox and progressive views of religion, and emphasizes that tradition in religion is essential to keep religion being reduced to “divinized rationalization for self-worship.” In doing so he is giving flesh to the point Ratzinger stressed so strongly in Introduction Christianity: If meaning is to be real it cannot be created. It can only be received. Nor am I by any means the only person to make this point. Pastor Tim Keller has hammered on it numerous times, most recently in a talk given in January. The entire talk is excellent, but I’d particularly highlight what he says at 22:00-23:00. Reflecting on Tolstoy’s A Confession Keller summarizes the great Russian’s thought as essentially boiling down to “As long as I didn’t think, as long as I wasn’t too rational, so long as I didn’t think about the implications of what I believed about the world, I could handle it.”
Keller stresses that the heart of the issue comes down to the implications of one’s worldview. Using Tolstoy as his case study he notes that the woman (I figured I’d switch pronouns lest anyone think the above paints me as a sexist) who doesn’t think through-or at least think too much-about what she believes, who stands back from the “big questions”, can get through life just fine on self-made meaning. Of course, as Tolstoy said so eloquently, “One can only live while one is intoxicated with life.” When “sobriety” hits one will collide into the question “What will come of my whole life?” as if with a brick wall. Keller notes dryly that one will soon realize there is “no point to the points” we often make of our life. Family and relationships, loving others, improving the world, are all wonderful things. But can they stand against the nature of existence?
Existence is marked, of course, by transcience, what the Buddha called “impermanence”. On a philosophical level one may look at the nature of the universe and conclude-not unfairly-that the whole thing is “pointless” as physicist Steven Weinberg did. One could even go further and conclude the whole thing is shot through with futility. Nature, in theological terms, is bound by Death. Everything dies. Of course we will die, as all living organisms will. So will our family lineage. So will our civilization. So will our species. The sun will die (as all stars do) and take out our planet with it when it does. And-though I grant the physics is unresolved-the entire universe appears to be mortal and will one day die as well. In this big picture, everything we are, everything we do, ultimately disappears, swallowed-so to speak-by the apparent nature of existence. What does one do with this “big picture” of a cosmos destined for death, with no meaning? Is the proper solution to face this fact like an adult and then make our own meaning from there on in?
Most atheists today would say that is exactly what we should do. A friend of mine recently posted a link on his Facebook to a Patheos blogpost entitled Where Does an Atheist Find Purpose? (I realize meaning and purpose are not necessarily the same thing but here for the sake of simplicity I am conflating the two). Neil Carter, the blogger, presents a typical-if quite well written-summary of the atheist position: Religion is a fantasy designed to address our deepest longings but that in no way validates its veracity (apologies for the alliteration); meaning is a man-made fabrication, sometimes based on genuine optical illusions, that all human beings engage in (Carter doesn’t mention evolution but presumably his view is that we owe this tendency to evolutionary conditioning); it is more mature and properly human to set aside this illusion; and we can find purpose thereafter by finding ways to matter to another person, moving around and contributing the progress of the species as a whole.
Carter makes several valid points, in particular his brief critique of C.S. Lewis. He states “the existence of our need for meaning does not automatically validate the ways we were taught to meet that need“, which is a fair point. For the record, I’ve never found Lewis’s statement that this world’s inability to satisfy us as suggesting we were made for another world as being in any sense a “proof.” It as, at most, a compelling question: Is our hunger for transcendence really an evolutionary vestige like our appendix or is it more? It is an invitation to dive deeper, a pointer to God, but not in any meaningful sense of the word “proof” of anything.
I was particularly intrigued by Carter’s point “The theist’s life purpose is just as made up by us as is the atheist’s.” Not, mind you, the point that religion is wish-fulfillment. As good a writer as Carter is he can’t hold a candle to Freud in that regard. No just the opposite-the unhesitating admission that the purpose of the atheist is in fact made up, that it is a fiction, a projection and nothing more. There is something almost touching about Carter’s admission that all people are in the same boat when it comes to our need our fictions and projections. This is followed, however, by a rather interesting paragraph in which Carter notes some people are more prone to brooding and introspection, and it is often the “most intelligent” who are able to unplug themselves from the Matrix and see the world as it really is. While one could see a touch of Dennett-style elitism in his words (only atheists, the “Brights”, are smart enough to see the world as it really is) it also seems to me Carter is simply approaching the same thing Keller observed in Tolstoy but from the other direction: the existentialist ramifications of objective meaninglessness are serious and make an immense impact on how one lives their life. This is an intriguing admission, and-tellingly?-Carter does not really offer much of a solution to those people who can’t just “get over” the meaninglessness of the world.
The Christian narrative is not, of course, the only one on the market for dealing with this market. Buddhism was specifically designed to address the meaninglessness of the world by allowing us to detach ourselves from it and live serenely, indeed with great compassion, until we escaped the world. Ancient Greek philosophy, particularly in Stoicism and Epicureanism, was designed to help the human being live in light of a universe that simply doesn’t give a shit about its inhabitants. Nonetheless, the form of “self-made meaning” that is presently popular today is a far cry from these ancient forms. The modern form is cut from the same cloth as the cliche “Life isn’t about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself.” Modernity as a whole, as has been pointed out many times, has no worldview to offer whatsoever. It delegates that task to the individual. And in spite of our protestations to the contary, the individual cannot very well create him or herself from scratch.
Indeed, we are far more shaped by our culture-which today is consumeristic, narcissistic and shallow-than we realize. No one can create themselves ex nihilo. No, the modern form of self-made meaning is precisely what one would expect from the culture of post/modern Western civilization: Compared to what the Greeks had to say it is flippant. Of course there are parallels-as Jonathan Sacks has noted the changing social mores on abortion and suicide are not far from the views of the ancient Greeks. And of course there are some atheists who are wise and hold a worldview closer to that of Plato. But the average person? Not really. Self-made meaning in post/modern terms amounts to little more than pursue pleasure, avoid pain, act on your desires, and assert yourself to your heart’s content, so long as you don’t hurt anybody and your are halfway nice. That this worldview is a synthesis of views articulated by long-dead philosophers doesn’t occur to the average American. Much less do we realize that the flippant approach we often take is a luxury that belongs to those with the wealth and comforts of middle and upper class America-something denied to most people who have lived in history and the majority of the world’s population today.
None of this, of course, validates the Christian story, nor is it intended to. It is rather a commentary on a cultural paralysis that has reduced the fullness of humanity to something that is now within spitting distance of Huxley’s A Brave New World. Maclin “Mac” Horton, a Catholic blogger interviewed by Dreher in Crunchy Cons, notes that many contemporary Americans look disturbingly like the Eloi in Wells’s The Time Machine. Ratzinger was dead right: Something instrinsically human has been lost. And as the Pope Emeritus stated so well, the problem cannot be solved by scientism. Perhaps it can for Richard Dawkins. But more than a few people who confront the existential emptiness of the universe will find themselves little comforted by marveling at the wonders of the universe when their own lives carry no inherent meaning. Some can be anesthestized by the creature comforts of our modern society, at least for awhile. But in the end, the problem of confronting the existential emptiness does not go away. Even Carter’s excellent summary could not deny this.
What, then, has religion to say on the matter, if anything? I am not interested for the moment in engaging in apologetics or philosophical arguments about the veracity of Christianity. That is a subject for another day. I am rather more interested in a different question: If one choses religion, what guides the choice? That religion is so often just another coping mechanism to avoid dealing with the meaninglessness of reality is a point I’d concur on vigorously with Carter and others. A spirituality of bumper sticker sayigns and cliches offers nothing of substance. This is Flannery O’Connors electric blanket, the fictional life purpose castigated by the atheists. Here I rather agree with the atheist’s point: Such a faith is nothing more than what David Bentley Hart calls a “religion of consolation”, a therapy, mere sentiment. Again to quote O’Connor, I say to hell with that. Mere belief in God in some abstract sense is of no help either, as Peter Kreeft so aptly demonstrates in his powerful commentary on Ecclesiastes (Three Philosophies of Life).
This, at last, brings me to the point of this rambling essay. Mac Horton tells Dreher in Crunchy Cons that he stays Catholic because “It’s quite simple: there isn’t anything else. It’s Catholicism or Nihilism for me.” And, I confess, I am now in the same boat. As far as I can see it there are really only two options on the market. Dreher also interviews an Orthodox Jew, Tikva Crolius, who says something that resonates equally with me:
Everyone comes to faith in their own way. I didn’t have a eureka moment, but I let the normal status quo convince me that as glorious as Western civilization has been, it has brought us to a point where it will destroy itself if we give in to it. When you see that the world as presented by pop culture can’t add up to anything worthwhile, the logical next step is to look into the wealth of a religious tradition. And you know what? It might as well be a real one.
It might as well be a real one. When I abandoned Spiritus Christi and gave up a short-lived almost foray into Anglicanism I had come to see liberal religion as a dead-end. I was tired of writing my own “theology” (it was nothing of the kind). I wanted the depths of a real tradition. Again Dreher seemed to be reading my mind: I wanted authenticity, the “Permanent Things.” I came to share with Mac and Tikva the fundamental conviction that ultimate truth or falsity is knowable and matters more than anything else. With Dreher I decided that I wanted to belong to a tradition that demanding something of me rather than the other way around. Those who prefer to worship the Zeitgeist rather than the Holy Ghost persist in a perpetual agnosticism. I wanted more. I wanted objective meaning.
Why are the alternatives so stark for me? I am one of those individuals who has no patience for self-created fictions, be they in the sentimental pieties that masquerade as spirituality today, nor the narrative from contemporary atheists that self-made meaning is something that just anyone can achieve and get by with. Were I an atheist I could never keep my mind from turning to the ultimate meaninglessness of all things. I might not be driven to commit suicide over it, but the brand of Nihilism I would be forced to accept would not be a happy one.
Why did I choose the Catholic worldview? It isn’t out of any prior commitment to Catholicism. For years (2000-2013 to be exact) my relationship with Catholicism was love-hate. I was both enamored and repelled. Even now, I still struggle with more than a few aspects of Church teaching. Yet, like St. Peter before me there is nowhere else for me to turn now, for the Church has the words of eternal life. A wise Trappist monk who has served as my de facto spiritual director told me that I can expect the rest of my life to be a journey of getting acquainted with Holy Mother Church. I have found in Catholicism a worldview that is existentially satisfying and rationally coherent, beautiful and challenging, able to coexist with science and human flourishing. It is the Way of Truth that leads to Life; the path to freedom and happiness.
This should not be taken as disdain for other religions. At one time-and frankly even now-I still much of Buddhism to be compelling. Indeed Buddhist and Thomist teachings more or less agree on the nature of existence-that is transient, consisting of various aggregates always falling apart and coming together again. Yet the Buddha, who offered a path of remarkable wisdom for coming to terms with this nature of the world-did not contemplate the possibility of an Uncreated Existence beyond the shifting aggregates, nor the possibility that this Uncreated might enter into transience and become the Crucified God so as to redeem the world from its bondage to dark powers. Christian philosophy and theology have made it impossible for me to be Buddhist now.
In the last analysis, I chose Catholicism because I hungered for an objective meaning. I wanted to receive a meaning on which my humanity could truly stand. Liberal religion offered me nothing; I needed the full tradition in all of its depth and orthodox fullness. For all my struggles with Catholicism I now know beyond a doubt where I stand: Between the Church and the inescapable abyss of a nihilism that sees the world without God for what it truly is: A meaningless void that can yield fleeting moments of pleasure and beauty, but is in the last analysis a tale of futility that only delusion can hide. Self-made meaning is nothing more than our own collusion with the collective delusions of our species, be they evolutionary or cultural. And upon such a weak foundation, a true humanity-a true human being-simply cannot be.
- There is one other observation worth noting. Huston Smith has observed that real religious conviction-the kind normally associated with conservatives-has the power to, as Smith eloquently puts it, get drunkards out of ditches. Again this does not prove the veracity of the conviction. It merely goes to the heart of Tikva’s point: If one is going to turn to a spiritual tradition one should expect it to be a real one and act accordingly. The conviction that accompanies someone who believes their tradition is speaking Truth carries with it the power to truly transform and sustain lives in a way that self-made meaning simply cannot do.
- This post also helps illustrate why despite my great frustrations with traditionalist Catholicism (whether on Biblical exegesis, evolution or the liturgy) I cannot help but admire the fact that traditionalists approach their tradition as it should be treated: As the bearer of an objective Truth, a Revelation we are not free to revise as we see fit. That attitude, it seems to me, is the only appropriate one. That I do not always reach the same conclusion does not take away from this very important shared conviction.