Meaning? 94

What meaning of “meaning” is our subject? Significance. Purpose. 

We took the following sentences from an article by Dennis Prager at Townhall, in which he laments that Americans seem to be more unhappy now than they used to be. He mentions various probable causes, then comes to his main point:

And now we come to the biggest problem of all: the lack of meaning.

Aside from food, the greatest human need is meaning.

Poor people who have meaning can be happy, but wealthy people who lack meaning cannot be.

Nothing has given Americans – or any other people, for that matter – as much meaning as religion. But since World War II, God and religion have been relegated to the dustbin of history.The result? More than a third of Americans born after 1980 affiliate with no religion. This is unprecedented in American history; until this generation, the vast majority of Americans have been religious.

Maybe, just maybe, the death of religion – the greatest provider of meaning, while certainly not the only – is the single biggest factor in the increasing sadness and loneliness among Americans (and so many others).

Dennis Prager believes that religion provides the individual with meaning to his life, and endows all human life with meaning.

What is that meaning?

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What does Christian doctrine say it is?

This answer comes from CARM (Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry):

What Does the Bible say is the purpose of our lives?

According to the Bible, our purpose, the reason we are here, is for God’s glory.  In other words, our purpose is to praise God, worship him, to proclaim his greatness, and to accomplish his will.  This is what glorifies him.  Therefore, in this we find that God has given us a reason for our existence, a meaning for our existence.  We were created by him, according to his desire, and our lives are to be lived for him so that we might accomplish what he has for us to do. …

Even though things can go wrong in our lives, the ultimate reason we are here is to glorify God – even through the difficulties.  We do this by praising him and trusting him through difficult times.

So: “Our purpose is to praise God.” “The reason we are here is to glorify God.”

Was the universe made so that we self-conscious living beings on this planet will “glorify” the maker?

If such a purpose is supreme, the question arises, why was the maker so counterproductive as to make the viruses, and the adverse conditions of nature, and predators, and the propensities for things to fail, and all the adversities and hindrances that incapacitate us? Why provide a multitude of ways the purpose of all creation can be thwarted?

And again if such a purpose is supreme, why did he, the Purposer, bother to make billions of stars and planets with no living beings on them to do any glorifying whatsoever?

And does that purpose, that meaning, keep Christians happy?

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What does Islam say?

From Arab news:

Islam is the response to humanity’s search for meaning. The purpose of creation for all men and women for all times has been one: To know and worship God.

Here again is the belief that the universe was made so that we on this planet can know and worship (praise, glorify) its maker.

On this Islam and Christianity agree.

And do they agree that believing it makes a lot of people happy? Are Muslims happy?

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What does Judaism say?

We find its answer to “What is the meaning and purpose of human life and the existence of the universe?” is not much different from those of Christianity and Islam: glorify, know, worship. (Not surprisingly, as it inspired both the younger religions.) But its expression of the idea is less succinct, more recondite and perplexing, even vague – and as is common with vague ideas, long-winded.

This is from an article in Commentary by the highly respected authority Emil L. Fackenheim (April 1965):

In the eyes of Judaism, whatever meaning life acquires derives from this encounter: the Divine accepts and confirms the human in the moment of [their] meeting. But the meaning conferred upon human life by the Divine-human encounter cannot be understood in terms of some finite human purpose, supposedly more ultimate than the meeting itself. For what could be more ultimate than the Presence of God? The Presence of God, then, as Martin Buber puts it, is an “inexpressible confirmation of meaning. . . . The question of the meaning of life is no longer there. But were it there, it would not have to be answered.” …

So: Human beings – or at least the followers of Judaism – can and do “encounter” God. If a human being does “encounter” – or “meet” – God, his existence has meaning. And the whole of “creation” has meaning because some human beings “encounter” God? Wait, no. The encounter “confirms” meaning. And at the same time abolishes the need for knowing it.

But what meaning does it “confirm”?

In Judaism, however, this “inexpressible confirmation of meaning” does, after all, assume expression; and this is because the Divine-human meeting assumes structure and content. … through the way man is accepted and confirmed as a consequence of this meeting. In Judaism God accepts and confirms man by commanding him in his humanity; and the response called for is obedience to God—an obedience to be expressed in finite human form. …

So obey the God-given Law. That is the purpose of your life. Your own reward is here and now on this earth. 

… The God of Judaism is no Deistic First Cause which, having caused the world, goes into perpetual retirement. Neither is He a Law-giver who, having given laws, leaves man to respond in human solitariness. Along with the commandment, handed over for human action, goes the promise of Divine action. And because Divine action makes itself contingent upon human action, a relationship of mutuality is established. God gives to man a covenant—that is, a contract; He binds Himself by its terms and becomes a partner.

You fulfill your side of the covenant or contract, and God will fulfill his.

… God is long-suffering enough to put up with persistent human failures; and at length it becomes clear that the covenant can survive only if God’s patience is absolute. The covenant, to be sure, remains mutual; and Divine action remains part of this mutuality, as a response to human deeds. But Divine action also breaks through this limitation and maintains the covenant in unilateral love. …  Sin still causes God to punish Israel; but no conceivable sin on Israel’s part can cause Him to forsake her. Divine Love has made the covenant indestructible. …

Then what happened between 1942 and 1945? The all-powerful merciful god plainly did not act as an all-powerful merciful god could be expected to act when his human partner was in extreme need of powerful merciful intervention. Then how can any Jew go on believing in him, let alone worshiping him?

It is incomprehensible. Why didn’t the Holocaust convince the entire Jewish people that their god is either non-existent or evil? 

This month is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The leaders of many nations met in Jerusalem to show sympathy with the survivors of the Nazi genocide. In speech after speech by Christian and Jew, the blessing of “God” is asked for Israel. Why? Because continuing to believe he exists and is good and merciful makes for happiness, even as they stood inside a monument to the slaughtered six million? 

Emil Fackenheim states:    

A meaning at once manifest in history and yet indifferent to poverty, war, and tyranny is unthinkable to the Jewish mind.

So unthinkable that the “Jewish mind” can pretend it didn’t happen?

Apparently so. But why?

Because, you see, “His” divine ways are inscrutable:

But the Jewish search for meaning in history is bounded by a … limitation … Not only is the disclosure of meaning in history fragmentary; the meaning itself is fragmentary. Past and present point not only to a finite future but to one which is absolute and all-consummating as well. Not until an eschatological dimension, a messianic belief, comes into view is the Jewish understanding of meaning in history complete.

The Messiah will come, then all will become clear. It will be the end of history; the eschaton. The whole picture will be seen at last and it will be absolutely glorious.

That was as far as traditional Judaism looked: to the end of time.

Jews were … forced to go beyond acceptance of an undisclosed meaning in history. They had to question meaning in history itself, in the light of historical realities. This questioning, to be sure, did not result in wholesale skepticism, or a despair of meaning in history. But it did result in the belief that meaning has remained incomplete in past history, and must remain so in any future that does not differ qualitatively from the past.

In other words, yes, what has happened to the Jews, and to human beings generally, has largely been pretty bloody nasty, which is precisely why we can expect the future to be  superlatively delightful.

Or not. Maybe the whole picture, the glorious fulfillment, the purpose and meaning of earthly existence will come only in an afterlife. Beyond the Messiah, beyond the eschaton, beyond death –  so later Judaism allowed itself to consider – there may be another life:

The messianic future, while the earliest, is not the only eschatological expectation in Judaism. Beside and beyond it emerges the hope for a “world-to-come”—a hope which, although post-Biblical in origin, was always implicit in the Jewish belief that God gives meaning to individual lives wholly and in their own right. Whereas the Messianic future redeems an incomplete history, the world-to-come redeems the incomplete individual lives which exist in history.

By “incomplete lives” does he mean miserable lives? Lives in which believing does not make for happiness? Lives cut off by murder for religious reasons?

Despite the absence of the belief in life after death from the Hebrew Bible, Orthodox post-Biblical theology quite deliberately embraces it. For the Divine commandment has accepted the individual and therefore any Redemption would remain incomplete—as the Messianic end by itself does—if it did not give completion to the individual. But no more can the Messianic goal of a redeemed future be identified with an Eternity beyond all time. A primordial Divine commanding Love has endowed history with meaning, in that it calls for meaningful human action. The great Divine-human drama of history thus initiated cannot be retroactively destroyed by an end which makes this world merely a place in which to prepare for another, and in itself meaningless. Redemption must consummate both the history in which men work and wait, and the lives of the individuals who work and wait in it.

What is meant by “redemption”?  Some sort of compensation? Or merely “forgiveness” of “sins”?

The two aspects of the eschatological expectation, then, must remain mutually irreducible, even despite the conscious recognition that Eternity must surely supersede all future history. This can be so because the world-to-come remains radically unintelligible. The rabbinic sources confine themselves to saying that it will redeem the whole man whom the Divine commandment has accepted from the beginning—not an immortal soul only, but a resurrected psychosomatic totality.

That is a reference to the belief in bodily resurrection that was held by all but one faction of the Jews (the Sadducees, the party of the priests), when Judea was a province of Rome. The time of “Jesus” who, Christians believe, rose bodily to a physical heaven. To which also his virgin mother was heaved up bodily by angels.

They are well aware that this is past all understanding, and they view silence on the subject as a necessity imposed by the silence of the Bible itself.

They can’t say anything about it because they don’t know anything about it. Yet they know that it will be. They know there is an end, a purpose, a meaning. And that it is good. But not what it is. 

What does Hinduism say?

From the Ohio State University:

According to Hinduism, the meaning (purpose) of life is four-fold: to achieve Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha.

The first, Dharma, means to act virtuously and righteously. That is, it means to act morally and ethically throughout one’s life. However, dharma also has a secondary aspect; since Hindus believe that they are born in debt to the Gods and other human beings, dharma calls for Hindus to repay this debt. The five different debts are as follows: debt to the Gods for their blessings, debt to parents and teachers, debt to guests, debt to other human beings, and debt to all other living beings.

The second meaning of life according to Hinduism is Artha, which refers to the pursuit of wealth and prosperity in one’s life. Importantly, one must stay within the bounds of dharma while pursuing this wealth and prosperity (i.e. one must not step outside moral and ethical grounds in order to do so).

The third purpose of a Hindu’s life is to seek Kama. In simple terms, Kama can be defined as obtaining enjoyment from life.

So far, so good. Live well. Behave decently towards your fellow human beings. Strive for prosperity. All sound and sensible. All stands up to examination in the light of day.

But then the murkiness which characterizes religious belief closes in:

The fourth and final meaning of life according to Hinduism is Moksha, enlightenment. By far the most difficult meaning of life to achieve, Moksha may take an individual just one lifetime to accomplish (rarely) or it may take several. However, it is considered the most important meaning of life and offers such rewards as liberation from reincarnation, self-realization, enlightenment, or unity with God.

“Unity with God” is what it’s for, the reason we endure our sufferings through many lives. That’s how hard it is to achieve.

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What does Buddhism say?

Buddhism denies that there is any permanent and absolute significance of life, and described life as unsatisfactory (s. dukkha) and void (s. sunyata). However, Buddha acknowledged that there is a relative significance of life, and it is through this relative and conditioned nature of life that we can achieve and realize the universal truth. According to the discourses of the Buddha, our lives, and the world, are nothing but phenomena that rise and fall. It is a process of forming and degenerating. There is nothing that is not subject to change or impermanence. Impermanence indicates that there is no eternal bliss, because even a joyous state will eventually cease and become suffering.

Individuals can, however, attain a state of bliss temporarily. It’s not a purpose, not a meaning, not a significance, but a release from suffering. And that’s a lot!

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No, Mr. Prager. Religion does not provide anything close to a satisfactory meaning of the universe’s existence or purpose of human lives.  

There is no meaning to existence.

The significance, or value, of human life cannot be measured because human life itself is the measure. Trying to assess the value of life is like trying to assess the wetness of water.

As for happiness, we each find it, if we do, as we can.

A few things that help most of us:  Living in a free country. Doing work we like doing. Making money. (Never mind being called a gross materialist. Even if money can’t buy happiness, lack of it can’t buy anything.)  Having a family. Having friends. Learning and thinking. Pleasures of the appetites and senses. Achieving our self-chosen purposes.

But to live is to suffer. Even the most fortunate of human beings cannot escape pain, disappointment, failure, and loss. And suffering  has not and cannot conceivably have any meaning or purpose that makes it good (except, within civilized limits, as legally imposed punishment).

We concede that some find happiness, or consolation for unhappiness, in religion. But for countless millions religion has been and continues to be a source of fear, anguish, and death.

 

Jillian Becker   January 29, 2020

Posted under Articles, Philosophy, Religion general, United States by Jillian Becker on Wednesday, January 29, 2020

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