Saturday, July 8

Meaninglessness: Understanding the problem

All people at some stage during their life confront meaninglessness, and despair that their life thus far has been a meaningless one. This is far from a general rule, however, as the confrontation with meaninglessness differs in substance depending on the person. Some confront it young, and spend the rest of their lives grappling with the tremendous courage needed to live with meaning and the tremendous anxiety that is provoked by the ease of which meaning can be lost. Some confront it in middle age and (using no spiritual terminology) experience a “mid-life crises.” Some have revelations on their death bed that their entire life has been an exercise of flagrant trivialities and gains that were not fulfilling and will not carry over in the afterlife to come. And some, being both the most cursed and the most blessed at the same time, go through life with such spiritlessness that they never confront meaninglessness and thus never attain meaning.

Paul Tillich in his magnificent work “The courage to be” explains how this confrontation with meaninglessness is rooted from an anxiety the human soul has with non-being (a kind of universal despair akin to what Kierkegaard formulated). This anxiety towards non-being is expounded in several ways — the anxiety towards fate and death, guilt and condemnation, and a meaningless existence — and is found evident in every person that is aware of themselves as a spiritual being.

Tillich argues that at different stages of human history one of these three anxieties is featured prominently. In the classical age philosophers, poets, actors, and common folk were preoccupied with the anxiety towards fate and death, the two best examples being Greek society and the Old Testament Jews. Philosophies such as Epicureanism, stoicism, and indeed Judaism all possessed an answer and cure towards this anxiety. In the Middle Ages, the anxiety of guilt and condemnation came to the fore as sin and repentance was in the minds of both peasants and kings alike. Religious institutions were assembled to combat this anxiety, offer repentance on a mass level, and guide the countless people who wanted redemption from their sins. In the modern age, the death of God has brought about the anxiety of meaninglessness. With a new earthly mind-set the anxiety of fate and death became less of a problem, and the anxiety of guilt and condemnation was nullified since no person considered themselves subject to a higher spiritual authority. Once religion and a higher purpose to life were abolished, the question was finally asked “from whence does my life find meaning?” At every stage of human history man was confronted with something that threatened to destroy his soul. Following a confrontation a person can do one of four things: he can ignore it, try and solve it himself, look towards secular philosophy, look towards religion, or look towards Jesus.

I wish to address the various proposed solutions to anxiety in the following posts, for I don’t see a more significant topic than something that can shake any thoughtful person to the core. Religious people cannot share their faith by formulating grand universal theologies, and then trying to solve a person’s existential problems and anxieties with these supposed rational proofs. Religion, properly understood, is also the understanding and explication of mankind’s deepest fears, anxieties, needs, sins, and desires. Any religion solution to all these existential states must be arrived at with this in mind, and only then will the words of Jesus be illuminated for what they really are, something that we really need. Not just metaphysically need, but existentially need.


Blogger cindy said...

I have been enjoying your posts as always and am looking forward to the next ones.

All people at some stage during their life confront meaninglessness, and despair that their life thus far has been a meaningless one.

I was wondering if you have encountered this in your life?


3:00 AM  
Blogger Timothy said...

Hi cindy,

Yeah I have, although in not such an acute degree as many people experience because I was quite young when it happened. It happened because I became alienated from what I based my life's meaning on (Christianity). Check out my post "Becoming a Christian" that i wrote ages ago, that sortof addresses the personal experience.

Thanks for the encouragement..


6:39 PM  
Blogger The Militant Atheist said...

"This anxiety towards non-being is expounded in several ways — the anxiety towards fate and death, guilt and condemnation, and a meaningless existence — and is found evident in every person that is aware of themselves as a spiritual being."

So are those who do not consider themselves spiritual beings exempt?

2:30 PM  
Blogger The Militant Atheist said...

I apologize for the double comment, but I just saw something that struck me as odd.

"Following a confrontation a person can do one of four things: he can ignore it, try and solve it himself, look towards secular philosophy, look towards religion, or look towards Jesus."

It struck me as very strange that you would place Jesus outside religion - and then I counted.

"Following a confrontation a person can do one of four things: (1)he can ignore it, (2)try and solve it himself, (3)look towards secular philosophy, (4)look towards religion, (5)or look towards Jesus."

You had five options but only mentioned four. So did you actually separate Jesus from religion or did you merely specify that by religion you meant Jesus?

If you actually separated Jesus from religion, can you explain why? In literal terms, Christianity is the following of Christ in the same way that Buddhism is the following of Buddha. If you separate Christ from religion then shouldn't you also separate The Buddha? Perhaps you didn't mention him for brevity's sake.

2:48 PM  
Blogger Timothy said...

Hi, thanks for the comments.. In regards to the first thing, im not really sure. That might sound funny to you, but im really not sure what i meant with that comment. I write these things on the fly, so alot of them are affected by my mood of the present moment. haha i guess it is pretty funny.

For the second thing, I started writing that with four in mind, but changed it to five at the end and forgot to change it. I did it because many people look towards religion for answers, but not to Jesus. Most of the time it is safe to say modern religion and Jesus are pretty separate in significant ways. Doubtless this seems weird to some atheists, but there are quite a few "Christians" who believe present Christianity doesnt reflect what Christ taught.

6:59 PM  
Blogger Vynette said...

A definition of 'meaningless'..the simple message of the New Testament has been made utterly 'meaningless' by doctrines that teach he was other than a normal man.

Doctrines such as the Trinity, Virgin Birth, and the various 'divinity' teachings, impose a barrier between Jesus of Nazareth and the rest of humanity; they misrepresent the values he stood for; they falsify the issues that brought him into collision with the priests; and they conceal the motives of those who caused him to be crucified.

But most of all, they conceal the fact that the same issues are just as much alive today as they were in 30 AD.

Until these doctrines are cast aside, God's controversy with humanity that began in the Garden of Eden and has continued through the ages right to this present moment, will continue unabated.

And what is this controversy? That "humanity exchanged the truth of god for a lie and worshipped and served the creator instead of the Creator"

Jesus warned his followers to beware the teachings of the Priests. This warning was given at the end of the Abrahamic period.
Now, after nearly two thousand years of the New Covenant, nothing has changed. How is that for 'meaninglessness'?

3:54 PM  
Blogger Joseph said...

You're blog is increasingly excellent.
double comments for double minded I had to take a second look at that myself and was encouraged- Jesus should always be represented as "outside of religon" the people Jesus had the biggest problem with were the 'religious' ones - if you think they're gone turn on the TV. The very people that are responsible for the image of Christ give him a bad name, creating militant atheists all over the world - Exsistentialism is an indicator of self awareness but to what end? exsistence is meaningless! there is no right, no left, no center, no balance, only nothing - or freedom

1:27 AM  
Blogger Ron said...

Good blog. I am a fan of Kierkegaard too and while I can't speak for others, I know that the despair I've felt about meaninglessness has to do with what Kierkegaard calls the 'sickness unto death.' I am in the process of searching through Christian theological thought to find spiritual food in order to help with this sickness but perhaps all I need to do is just rest transparently before God, having faith in him from an honest love.

Anyway, I have read S.K.'s Sickness Unto Death and Fear and Trembling. Both were good. Are there any more that you would recommend? I checked out Works of Love from the library and will read it eventually.

2:30 PM  
Anonymous Jathan said...

Kierkegaard is one of my heroes. But I must say, having read "The Courage to Be," (though it was a year ago now), I am not a fan of Paul Tillich.

I found his analysis of the three anxiety types insightful, but I felt let down by the end of the book, where it appears to me that Tillich has turned to an impersonal something, not a personal God. What was that last line of the book? Something about the courage to be being manifest when the God of Theism disappears? Looking to a God beyond that? I agree with what I think he means, if he means that in our deepest moments of despair, we might still have a groundless, irrational hope. I have experienced that a lot in recent years while restling with questions about Jesus and his God. But I cannot settle for a "ground of being." I need something more -- a Someone.

Here is where I think Paul Tillich differs from Kierkegaard (perhaps I do not understand Tillich enough, though). Kierkegaard was very adamant about a God who LOVES human beings. I cannot see how Paul Tillich believes in such a God...though he might talk about eternal acceptance or whatever. When it comes to my intuition of what real love is, there needs to be proof in the pudding. I'm not going to feel loved by imagining that some mystical force has created me, and that it loves/accepts me, even though I am still going to the grave.

I feel that Tillich is trying to skirt around the simple human intuition that if a God lets you die for good -- eternally--, then the God doesn't care much about you. I would say that the anxiety of condemnation is the worst, followed by that of death, and lastly that of meaningless. I'm a bit cynical when it comes to talk of meaning. I feel that such talk arises after a person has felt unloved and has turned to objects, whether material, emotional, or mental to distract himself from that lack. When I feel loved, truly loved, I have found all the "meaning" I need.

5:25 AM  
Anonymous Jathan said...

You know, I realize I just made a mistake with that last sentence. Being loved is not enough, since, well, it's still a mess of sorrow if you are loved but awaiting separation from your beloved/lover. It's also crucial that we can REMAIN together... which points to eternity.

Dostoevsky convinced me that men have eternity written in their hearts.

I like that passage in John 10:28...

"I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand."

5:39 AM  
Blogger Micah said...

Sorry if this has very little to do with the actual subject of this post, but feel compelled to comment on your position as a Christian existiencialist. That is a title that I would, with some reservation perhaps, be willing to share. But I'm curious about what this means to you exactly. Because much of my Christain thought contains elements of existencialism, I'm really interested in how you encorperate existencial thought into your faith in Christ. Perhaps I need to read more Kierkegaard; I've enjoyed what little I've read. At anyrate, I'll try to keep up with your blog; it looks fascinating.
Blessings in Christ,
Micah Carpenter

1:54 PM  
Blogger Timothy said...

Ron: "Concluding unscientific postscript" is brilliant if you're into hardcore philosophy and the role of reason in Christian philosophy, and for more strictly religious works try "training in Christianity", "For Self-Examination", and "attack on christendom"... keep in mind the titles are all translated differently depending where you look.

jathan: I have many reservations against Tillich and his idea of God as the ground of being as well, im only really interested in his analysis of existential anxiety. I also agree that love has a very close relationship with meaning, I am hoping to go into more of that later when i write on Jesus' cure to meaninglessness.

Micah: For me it isnt really about what elements of existentialism are in my Christian philosophy, but rather how the existential brings me a more authentic faith in Christ. That should be the goal of any Christian existentialist, striving to be a better Christian through the existentials of love, forgiveness, tolerance, and so forth. The impact this goal has on Christian doctrine and analytical philosophy is what I write about, but it isn't what I limit existential Christianity to, if that makes any sense. I guess you could say my Christianity and my faith is found in the existential, and exclusively through that does Christian existentialism form my views on doctrine, and theology.

To all: Uni has started again and so my time for writing is virtually nill. A friend of mine has given me a "guest post", which is great, and I encourage all others who want an audience for their writing to send me theirs also. I will not stop writing posts all-together through the semester, however, but it will be much much less frequently.


4:31 PM  
Blogger Ember Zadok Ali said...

Ahh how serendipitous that I just posted my first blog on blogspot and I come across this one. I think this blog exactly deals with folks like me and you. My first blog only touched upon that qurter life crisis and meaninglessness that I feel.

Honestly, I feel best way is to be in oblivion and Carpe Diem! Eureka!! But something I PERSONALLY COULD never do! I have to know and I have to get into and I have to seek and pursue truth. I guess that's the problem of folks like us while many are able to graduate and yet spell most things wrong and hold their beer cans with pride and talk about girls and cars.

Alright, I got something serious to add about Jesus being outside religion thing though. That's how the trap or addiction starts. First, you are stuck in meaninglessness, then someone gives you Jesus as saviour and true meaning telling you it's not religion. You buy into it, and then you are encouraged to journey deeper, you are born again at some stage and you must have a new life and trash old one...,trash old ideals, philosophies, cross out even the right things that science taught you about life on earth, existence and age of universe.... then you are required to attend church and brainwashing may begin....

You are Required to do this and that, tithe, pray, attend more meetings, evangelize the whole world.... tell them Jesus is the ONLY WAY and they are wrong, though sincerely wrong!, give up yourself. Be humble.... HANG ON..... Before you realize someone has hijacked your mind and you are in deep religious Shit!!

I am not saying this happens. But look at most respected evangelists. They say they are not asking you to become Christian but offering the freedom in Jesus.... as if that's the only thing they want! For God's sake, they got whole Manual and Catechisms to shove into your little head and defeat you!

I am sorry this was so long. I just get very passionate about it all. After all it's all about our soul and existence.

8:07 PM  
Blogger Ember Zadok Ali said...

ooops, and feel free to post comments on my blog . It is much easier for me to catch up there instead of this comment section.

8:10 PM  
Blogger mazkira said...

Great blog!

I noticed you listed Jesus as separate from religion. This illuminates a very good point; if I turn to religion for help, I am turning to a set of beliefs by a group or culture (not always Christian) could be Buddhist. If I turn to Jesus, then am I turning to the resurrected Christ of the NT? Or am I turning to Jesus of Nazareth? The "language" of this distinction is a source of tension for Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

I believe K and N make great points in their writings about the language of distinction.

If one does not personally understand the origin in which they are requesting help, then help cannot avail itself completely.

What do you think?

12:46 AM  

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