Meaning (or, “Life, the Universe, and Everything”)
Some may remember a British television series, written by Douglas Adams some years ago. It developed something of a cult following in the U.S. The premise of the series was that the earth was actually a mammoth computer designed on the planet Magrathea to discover “The Ultimate Question.” The question was, “What is the meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything.”
The answer to this question had already been found by a computer called Deep Thought. The computer, Deep Thought, as I understand it, had been developed by an infinitely-advanced race of mice to discover the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. The answer — 42 — took seven and a half million years to calculate but, to say the least, “42” was a disappointment. In fact, as it turned out, it was the wrong answer. Deep Thought then created the computer, earth, to find the question that gave this answer (much like on the TV quiz show, Jeopardy). Unfortunately, the Earth is wiped out minutes before the question could be found.
So, if you followed all that, the earth, in this series, was a computer, created by another computer which was created by a race of mice to discover the meaning of life. Douglas Adams — who takes great pride in being what he calls a “radical atheist” — delights in making the attempt to find ultimate meaning seem absurd and futile.
No more absurd, perhaps, than many, if not most, of our more earth-bound attempts to understand what it’s all about. Since our furry or fur-wearing ancestors stood staring uncomprehending at the night sky, or the dead cave-mate, or the fire racing through the forest, we have felt it necessary — as a race and most of us as individuals — to ruminate about what our lives, what the universe, indeed, what everything might mean.
Not everyone, of course. More than one sophomore in mid-philosophy lecture has groaned “who cares” into his armpit. For some skeptics, if all that ruminating about meaning were to come to an answer like “42,” and if that should turn out after all to be the wrong answer, what does it matter?
“42,” according to some, is as good an answer as any arrived at by the philosophers and theologians and every bit as useful to live by. Others, their meaning attached to money, and losing that, have gone out of their office windows. Some, even with fortune and fame, have gone despairingly to their deaths leaving notes behind that say, “I can’t go on. Life has no meaning.” Does life have meaning? And, if it doesn’t, what shall we do? And if we think life has meaning, does it matter what we think that meaning is?
It does matter. It matters because we live our daily lives and conduct our personal affairs and the affairs of the world on the basis of what we believe the meaning is. Another term for all that might be “Faith.”
What is of tremendous importance is whether we believe that whatever meaning we live by comes from the outside in or from the inside out. For the eons and for the billions of adherents of traditional western religion, Meaning comes from the outside in. Or, if you will, from the top down. In the traditional western religious view, Life, the universe — everything — has meaning because it was all created by a Supreme Being. Early on, of course, it was thought that everything was created by a lot of gods; but that thought got refined into the idea that One God is responsible for everything. One God created all that is and, more importantly, created all that is for a Purpose.
There have been those — the Colonial American Deists, for example — who believed that God created all that is but that God did not have a purpose, that, after he created everything, he simply went away. That would explain a lot, they thought. There were others, like the ancient Gnostics, who believed that God created everything but, that, unfortunately, this god, the demiorgos, was madder than a hatter and evil as sin. That also would explain a lot.
But, for most, the traditional grasp of Meaning has been in Western religion’s understanding that One Supreme Being created everything for a purpose. The meaning of life, then, for those who believe, rests with God. To have meaning is to know the will of God. When I was a boy Methodist minister several lifetimes ago, I would delight in singing with my tiny country congregation, “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the works Thy hands have wrought. I see the storm. I hear the rolling thunder. Then sings my soul, my God how great Thou art!”
The Meaning of life is in the Mind of God. Our function, so the faithful believe, is to attempt to find out what that meaning is, to live by whatever we can find out — by reading sacred texts, listening to the experts — priests and whatnot, and having occasional revelatory experiences. What often goes horribly wrong from within this understanding of What It All Means is that those who live by it necessarily hold firmly to the conviction that the meaning revealed to them is not merely the meaning for them, the meaning by which they live, but is, in fact, The Meaning by which all humankind must live.
One could probably demonstrate that most of the evil the world knows and most of the evil the world has ever known has followed from that Meaning — that all is created by God for a Purpose revealed to a particular race, clan, or nation. There were the Israelites, hacking away at all their “Pagan” neighbors because their god told them to; there were the Christians, slaughtering the Moslems, because the popes and bishops told them Christ was the true meaning; the Catholics burning the Protestants, the Protestants burning the Catholics. Both of them burning the odd Unitarian.
Then, there’s Manifest Destiny. The same collection of mid-eastern literature — known as the Bible — from which white Europeans have constructed the meanings by which they have killed each other has served them in their near-annihilation of entire races and the usurpation of their lands. In North America, that aspect of the Meaning-of-it all called Manifest Destiny, grounded in the Biblical instruction to subdue the earth, was interpreted as a mandate for the white race to usurp all the land from sea to shining sea and to displace any other people who happened to be living on it.
When the Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything is assumed to be contained in sacred books — in our sacred books, of course — it is inevitable that whole races and nations of people are going to be excluded from that meaning at best and, at worst, enslaved or annihilated.
Human beings live by their assumptions of what Life Means. Embodied in nations, races, and religions, those Meanings are near-impervious to change. You Star Trek fans may have noticed that Captain Kirk and all the crew of the Starship “Enterprise” refer to all the other inhabitants of the universe as “aliens.” Alien to what? Alien to us, of course. What is not-us is alien. What Life means is reflected in our icons, our flags, songs, literature, sitcoms, gleaming sedans, rifles in racks inside the pick-up.
What we have to understand if we are going to live in the world with others — if we are, perhaps, going to save the world from the meanings others ascribe to it — what we have to understand is that we do not contend with reason, or with mere opinion, thought or idea. We contend with what others hold as the Meaning of Life; the Way It Is; The Way It Is Meant to Be. It is no more conceivable to those ensconced within their Meaning of Life that the values, principles, ideas and notions that are contained within their meaning could be anything less than absolute and universal than it is for us to conceive of the possibility that our sense of what is good, just, true and beautiful is twisted out of a maniacal nightmare.
At the other end of the spectrum of speculation — what if there is no Meaning, no Grand, Divine Purpose behind it all? What if there is no Supreme Creator God? That certainly is a possibility (there are, at least, those of us who grant it a possibility), a possibility entertained throughout the history of thought by philosophers, poets, artists — even by theologians. The renowned Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Kung, devoted over six hundred pages of his book “Does God Exist?” to struggling with the question. Of course, in the last chapter or so he answered “yes” — but he really has you going for quite awhile there.
Can there be Meaning without a Maker?
There was nothing — well, there was something, a little speck of something (I haven’t heard much about where that came from), then there was a Big Bang and over a journey of billions and billions of years, here we are. We just are. And, for many, none of it — not Life, not the Universe, not Anything — none of it means anything. We survived and the dinosaurs didn’t. Maybe the cockroaches will survive and we won’t.
Those of us who have turned — sadly, or angrily, happily or fearfully — away from the Meaning embodied in traditional religions must live with the possibility of Meaninglessness. “42” or God was the answer given us and we have declared the answer wrong and lost the means to ask the question again.
If we came here by evolution and not by design, then we are here, not by the grace of God or any gods, but by sheer dumb luck. And if that be the case, we have nothing more on our side to guarantee survival than our wit and will to win the race against the microbe and against our own tendency toward self destruction.
It happens that I do put my personal faith in a Meaning-Maker — God, if you will, though God far removed in nature from that ancient Meddler carried so clumsily, and so unnecessarily into contemporary life. The working hypothesis I share with certain so-called “process” theologians and philosophers, is that at the center of all being there is that — variously called God, Divine Creativity, or simply Creativity. It is this inherent Creativity which wills all things to the greatest fulfillment which is possible for them. One theologian puts it that Creativity “lures” all things to their greatest fulfillment. This is not a God that creates all things in finished form. But a creative force which intends that all things should be becoming, forever in the process of becoming.
For me this means that nothing is ordained. Nothing is as it must be. The child does not die because it should. The nation is not victorious because of its faith. There is no divine plan — except that all things move toward their greatest fulfillment. That’s the essential difference between Creationism and Evolution. God the Creator fixes all things in their places. “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world,” was an aphorism made up by someone whose world was all right.
Creationists abhor the idea of evolution because, for them, it removes the Creator and in removing the Creator removes the only Meaning by which they believe their lives and the world can make sense. But evolution is not without Meaning. Charles Darwin — who married into the Unitarian Wedgewood family — was not an ungodly man by any means. But, for Darwin, all existence was in process and God is in the process. For Darwin, God was in the possibilities inherent in every form of life. What Darwin discovered about God — the discovery that changed what life means — was that God does not guarantee every form of life. Instead, the ruling principle is Freedom. In freedom is risk. And in Freedom is possibility.
Who knows, the dinosaur may have lumbered on toward the development of a huge brain and opposable thumbs and we might have just come up with the idea of hitting each other with a stick when the meteor wiped us out. Darwin’s God would have allowed such an outcome, so we ought not to think too highly of ourselves. The dinosaur’s chances were as good as ours and the cockroach’s chances are better.
But here we are. Here we are in freedom and in possibility. Not born in sin or predestined to be saved. Not imprisoned in the Mind of a Divine Meaning-Maker but ourselves the makers of the meanings of our lives. For me, if God is that which intends all things to fulfillment, then I choose to regard the meaning of my life as a commitment to live and act in the world in such a way as to open and sustain the possibilities in which all people and the earth itself can reach toward fulfillment.
The poet said our reach should exceed our grasp else what’s heaven for. For me, God, is in the reach. Awhile ago, in the supermarket, I came across a woman seated in a motorized shopping cart, staring at an upper shelf. I asked her if I could help reach something for her. And as I walked away, I thought, “Yes. That’s where it is. That’s the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything for me.” It’s living for the reach — my reach, the reach of others, the reach of all being toward fulfillment. God is in the reach.
We may formulate and articulate meaning in different ways. What is important is that we gather the courage to shrug off meanings that are not our own — that have come from the outside, not the inside. Then we can declare the Meaning for our own lives.
And this is not entirely a solitary or individualistic process. Creating and sustaining meanings by which to live is a mission for a religious community which is not engaged in merely perpetuating meanings bound to other times and other peoples. We gather to enjoy the freedom to voice our wondering. We share our sudden inspirations. We receive with encouragement other’s revelations.
The Meaning we come to declare, however tentatively, for ourselves, is different, perhaps, in color and texture but, in community, becomes interwoven with the discoveries and declarations of others.
And let us remember this — that the meanings we discover and declare are meaning-less when shut away in bound volumes of mystic text. Meaning-making is not an academic exercise. It is crafting a way to live in the world.
I am talking about arriving at our declarations of why we are going to be who we are going to be and of why we do what we do in and with our lives. What we struggle to declare is the meaning for our lives by which we can live our lives–live with reach, live toward fulfillment for ourselves and others, live, not in fear of life, but in love of the life whose Meaning we continually create.