Loss of Meaning

dddThe tragedies in Marin have been piling up these last few weeks. Two teenagers committed suicide, there was a horrifying drunk driving accident, a stabbing, and that’s just the stuff I know about. I’ve been impressed with the impromptu responses all over the county, but they have left a question in my mind.

The initial events had dealt with facts, and advice on how to keep our teenagers safe. It boils down to this: stay informed, stay involved, 4 family dinners a week, communicate with your children. Good advice. Easier said than done.

This is a cultural problem, not just and individual one. We understand that our frenetically paced lives contribute to this cultural milieu. The pressure we put on our children, always well-intentioned, contributes as well. The average GPA it takes to get into the University Of California at Berkeley is a 4.26. A 4.26? We’ve actually had to manufacture new grades that are beyond perfection, so that our children can achieve even higher.

The result seems to be an alienated teenage population, 50% of whom are using drugs and alcohol with some regularity, that is disconnected from the adult culture. And my question is why? Why has our culture devolved to this point? It’s not because the parents of Marin are bad people. It is because our lives are not grounded in meaning. When we talk to our children, do we have anything to say that will sustain them?

I don’t think so, because the meaning we are talking about, the meaning that gives stability in a disturbingly chaotic world, needs to be formed into our lives. I think the development of meaning is the role of religion in our lives. So much of the blame for our current, collective spiritual state, belongs to the church. For too long we refused to face the modernist deconstruction of faith. For too long we asked people to believe things that are absurd. Six day creation? Oh come on.

Society has transcended that world view, but as it did so, it forgot to include the meaning the stories represent. If you don’t know why you are living, or if you figure all there is to life is pleasure of the senses and security, then I think we can see how a society like ours could develop.

Meaning comes from the quality of our commitments, meaning grows when we live in a way that reflects the creative purpose and power of a “God” who has driven creation’s story for 13.7 billion years. There are many religions which explore such meaning. I’m not interested in talking about which one is best. But if we are going to create a cultural ethos that sustains and nurtures our children, we’ll need to seek formation in one of them.

My friend Eric says that we always carry across as heavy as we can bear; any heavier and we would change. We need to change. I’m hoping we don’t have to absorb more tragedy before we do.

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About Sam Alexander

Sam Alexander is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of San Rafael and also serves as Adjunct Instructor in Homiletics at San Francisco Theological Seminary.


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