Roadmaps for the Soul (or: Hunting, Gathering, Singing)

In “Tombstone Blues,” a song released in 1965, Bob Dylan sang, “The National Bank at a profit sells roadmaps for the soul / To the old folks home and the college.” In the context of the song, Bob clearly doesn’t think this is a good thing. Commodifying the meaning of life?

Yes, well . . .

Suppose for a moment that all the religious and philosophical speculation through time, and all the art and architecture to boot, have been about the same thing as the hunting and the fishing, the gathering and farming. Suppose that all human actions—from the sacred to the profane—have been and are still . . . ways to survive. Ways for us to adapt to our environment and, perhaps, thrive.

Sounds Reasonable, Doesn’t It?

Does such a supposition denigrate—or cheapen—all the blood and tears shed in service to the gods? Or in service to art? I don’t think so.

Is a symphony less because it’s an adaptive trait rather than a window onto absolute truth? What if the search for truth and meaning is itself an adaptive trait—a way of surviving.

Put this way, it’s hard not to say, “well, duh!” Yet we often don’t go quite far enough. Yes, human activities of all sorts are attempts at survival. But if our search for truth and meaning in all its manifestations, from fine art to fine dining to religion, is an adaptive trait, doesn’t it follow that the search for truth and meaning is an entirely human construct? It’s filling a need but has no larger purpose.

It’s Easy If You Try

Like most people, I searched for a “really true truth” for a long time. Hey, I’m a Baby Boomer, it’s what we did. It was a brilliant marketing ploy. Forget the gurus; the tax dollars you lose giving churches tax-exempt status is seventy-one billion dollars a year.

That’s a lot of moolah for Moloch. (And full disclosure: as a minister, I ride that particular gravy train.)

The search for truth and meaning puts a lot of food on the table and a lot of money into retirement accounts for various sorts of people. No, this isn’t about tax exemptions. It’s about the price we are willing to pay purveyors of truth and meaning. After all, yoga alone is a twenty-seven billion dollar a year industry.

The Fine Print

We pay a lot for truth and meaning, in bookstores, museums, churches, and storefront meditation centers. To repeat, I think that’s great. It’s an adaptive trait. Yet, it’s good remember that there is no one truth to find.

This particular survival trait only becomes problematic when we fall into the trap of thinking there’s a truth out there to find. It’s problematic when we begin paying a high price for one particular roadmap for the soul, or when those around us begin paying too high a price.

Until someone gets hurt.

Yes, it’s the search itself that is the answer. Not the answers. Or the roadmaps.


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