We Christians often speak of non-believers as “lost.” That is no metaphor today. For all of the technology that makes our lives easier and more pleasant, many of us–non-believers but probably some believers as well–feel that their lives and existence itself are meaningless.
I came across a fascinating description and analysis of today’s angst-ridden mindset. It’s at what seems to be a self-help site, with its authors going just by their first names. (I know, I know.) But it’s worth reading in its entirety. People who feel this way are exactly the ones Christians can reach out to with the Gospel and the rest of Christian doctrine. I’ll give you an excerpt and then say some more about what the article says.
Life is good these days, depending on how you define and measure it.
Some say we’re living in the best society that’s ever existed.
We point to smart phones, air-conditioning, hands-free paper-towel dispensers and other conveniences to confirm that we have it really, really good now – or at least better we used to. The presumption is that these kinds of things, in the final analysis, really matter.
Yet different measures speak otherwise. Addictions are up.1 Suicides are up.2 Anxiety is up.3 Depression is up.4 Rates of happiness are down.5Antianxiety and antidepressant medications are up.6 Pills that claim to help you do things like sleep7 and have sex8 and pay attention9 are up. Deaths from alcohol, drugs and suicide are now at highest level since record-keeping began.10 There appears to be an epidemic of loneliness,11 a sexual recession,12 a breakdown of trust.13 We could go on.
But statistics fail to capture something profoundly personal in all this. . . .
There seems to be a general vibe in the air these days.
Call it “angst.” Or “alienation.” A view of life as a hard road that leads nowhere. A view of life as a relentless struggle that ends up as a dirt nap in your best suit or dress. Birth, then blaring hype surrounding a hollow pocket of nothing, then death. A struggle for status-symbols and the appearance of success while knowing it’s phony to the bone and all the way through. A pointless parade of poses engineered to convince others and ourselves that we really do matter, really we do, resulting in a glorification of superficiality. An underlying confusion about what the heck is really going on that metastasizes into hopelessness. A frenzy of activity surrounding a hysterical obsession with inconsequential nonsense. Sleepwalking through life, going through the motions, pretending it’s leading somewhere, hoping maybe there’s some point to it all. And what isthe point? “There isn’t one” is often the answer we hear. There is no point, we don’t know anything, and nothing matters. Now, go enjoy yourself.
Or, in a word: meaninglessness.
Ernest Becker said that the primary job of a society to its members is to convey a sense of meaning. He described the functioning society as a vehicle for heroism that affirms that our lives matter, which helps us persevere through the brutal realities of life and death. And “matter,” not in a “Great job holding that pencil! You’re awesome! Here’s a trophy!” kind of way, but in a “this genuinely makes the painful struggles of life truly worth it” kind of way.
If Becker is right, or anywhere close, then modern society might be failing in its primary responsibility, even while excelling at everything else.
Meaninglessness doesn’t show up as a belief in nothing, but as an obsession with a thousand different things.
It doesn’t show its face openly and announce itself: “Hello! I’m nihilism!” Rather, it’s an absence of something – or, a presence of nothing. Meaninglessness rarely takes the form of folks describing themselves as nihilists. It looks more like pleasant distractions that soon transform into bigger diversions which eventually morph into consuming obsessions. These obsessions are momentary, disconnected, unanchored, and unimportant. What is important is their job, which is to keep us distracted. They congeal into a steady, unceasing undercurrent, ferrying our attention from one immediate pleasure to the next, one distraction to another, with no larger direction or end in sight. All the while, there’s a sense that somewhere, something vital has gone wrong or missing.
The authors go on to account for this pervasive meaninglessness with the fading of religion, which gives life meaning. It also shows why science cannot give this meaning. It includes a discussion of existentialism, the philosophy that first raised many of these questions. The article, to its credit, says that the existentialist answer–there is no meaning in the universe, so you must make meaning for yourself–doesn’t really solve anything. It also warns against “reductionism,” reducing the complexities of existence to some simplistic formula. (It’s all about power relationships! It’s all about sexual frustration! It’s all about oppression!)It concludes without giving a definitive answer, recommending what seem to me to be self-help bromides, which the authors themselves seem to recognize as inadequate.
This is because without an awareness of God, life and existence really ARE meaningless. As the Book of Ecclesiastes says,
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2; NIV)
“Under the sun”–that is, in the earthly realm–wisdom, wealth, pleasure, work, family, power, fame, are just “a chasing after the wind.”
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:10-11; NIV)
This word of Law from Israel’s wisest and most accomplished king leaves nothing standing. This is a book for today’s lost generations, which should find themselves resonating profoundly with this book of the Bible. Only above the sun is there hope and meaning, as God makes meaningful things that otherwise would be empty. Such as our vocations (a powerful concept that can provide God’s meaning for our work and relationships, for those struggling to find it.)
7 Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun.10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10)
Here is the bottom line for King Solomon:
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)