Does Life Have Meaning? Four Possibilities image

Does Life Have Meaning? Four Possibilities

It is one of the great questions: does life have meaning? Steven D. Smith, in his outstanding Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac, sketches four possibilities (numbers added for clarity):

1. It might be that neither individual lives nor human activity and history as a whole have meaning in the narrative sense.

2. It might be that human history as a whole has no meaning, but individual lives do.

3. History as a whole might possess some kind of narrative sense, but individual lives might not.

4. It might be that both individual lives and human activity as a whole have some sort of narrative meaning.

Answer (1) is the bleakest answer, but probably “the safest and most familiar answer today, at least in elite circles.” It is the answer of naturalism, atheism, scientism and materialism, as articulated by men (and they are usually men) like Steven Weinberg and Richard Dawkins, and perhaps most starkly Bertrand Russell: “The whole temple of man’s achievements must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”

Answer (2) is the answer of what Smith calls modern paganism: the conviction that an individual’s life has objective meaning, even if the overall shape of global history does not. This is where the “spiritual but not religious” and “religion without God” views fit in, alongside sophisticated advocates like Ronald Dworkin, Anthony Kronman and Luc Ferry (although the latter admits that his search for “transcendence without immanence” is given a major problem by the fact of death).

Answer (3) is the response of Hegelianism and Marxism: “history in its vast sweep is like a grand master’s chess game that will culminate in some splendid victory - the classless society perhaps, or the final triumph of reason; individual human beings are merely the pawns who are pushed about.” Taken on its own, my life does not have meaning, but when seen within the context of the whole picture of universal progress, it does.

Answer (4) is the answer of Christianity, an answer which it provides by grounding objective meaning in a transcendent reality and a world to come. In a sense, Christians agree with the absurdists that this world does not make sense in and of itself; Wittgenstein’s remark that “the sense of this world must lie outside the world” sounds theistic, if not explicitly Christian. As Chesterton’s Father Brown quips, “We are here on the wrong side of the tapestry … The things that happen here do not seem to mean anything; they mean something somewhere else.”

The two answers that are obviously consistent here are (1) and (4), with the most apparently implausible being (2). But (2), “modern paganism”, is also the default approach in the contemporary West, and Smith’s book is an attempt to understand it, explain its roots, and account for the protracted “culture wars” between paganism and Christianity which have lasted since the days of the Caesars.

His explanation, in short, is that paganisms ancient and modern locate the transcendent within this world, and therefore can tolerate or accommodate any belief system that broadly agrees, no matter what its specific details. But Christianity (like Judaism and Islam) locates the transcendent outside this world, appealing to a source of meaning and authority beyond it, and thus defies and subverts certain pagan norms, including those around sex, commerce and public symbols; it cannot therefore be assimilated into a fundamentally pagan system. The last century in America, for Smith, has marked a gradual transition from (in T. S. Eliot’s terms) a Christian society to a pagan one - from a society in which the ground of transcendence is beyond this world into one in which it is framed within it - and this accounts for the increasingly shrill state of the public square.

Anyway: it’s a superb book.

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