V: The Problem of Meaning
If we ask what is the most urgent and burning problem engaging Western man in our time, the answer cannot be in doubt. What disquiets and torments him most is the problem of the meaning of life. What is the meaning of human existence? Has it any meaning at all? The terrific convulsions of this generation, which have laid open to question not only the survival of human civilisation but also the existence of the human race itself, together with the earthquake in the spiritual foundations of life, give this question an urgency and a radical character which it never had before nor ever could have had. But beyond this, the point has already been reached where man is so much inclined to doubt the meaning of life that he does not even put the question, and therefore sinks into a sub-human form of existence. So long as the problem of meaning is alive and burning, the spirit of man is alive. But where man ceases to ask this question, there the spirit is extinct. Man jumps from one experience to another, just as a squirrel leaps from branch to branch, and the oneness of his life is dissolved. It is in asking the meaning of life that man becomes aware of the totality of this existence.
Meaning is totality, wholeness. If we say, “This word has a meaning”, what we are trying to say is that these different sounds or letters forming a word become one word through a spiritual unity, which binds them together and makes them intelligible. If we say that a phrase, a speech, a book, a work has a meaning, we are pointing again to the spiritual unity which ties the parts into a whole. It is in this fashion that the Greeks formed the concept or idea of Logos, implying by that word what we call meaning. They called it that because it was in human speech (Logos) that the character of spiritual unity or wholeness had struck their minds. Speech is the immediate manifestation of meaning.1
It is possible to approach the problem of meaning from another angle, which may be more familiar to modern man, namely from the angle of purpose. To forge a hammer, to build a house, or to plough the field has a meaning, because this action serves a definite purpose. This purpose, which gives meaning to action, is primarily a biological one: self-preservation, the preservation of race, nourishment, safeguarding physical existence. All these actions, which support the natural instinct of life-preservation in its spontaneous utterances, and which therefore place intelligence at the service of life-preservation, have a meaning, because they serve an obvious purpose. But the mental action which is placed at the service of vital necessities is not that which is distinctive for human life. The spiritual stands here under the domination of animal nature and merely completes what the natural instinct of the animal desires. The specifically human comes to the fore only where man does something which goes beyond the realm of physical preservation, whether it be by the way in which it is done—eating, instead of feeding, building houses, instead of creeping into holes—or by the fact that goods are created or spiritual actions performed which serve higher requirements than the necessities of life. The meaning of human life therefore must become visible where human action is not under the domination of natural urge but of spiritual purposes. Where we have in mind such purposes, the two concepts “meaning” and “purpose” merge into each other. The animal has merely vital purposes, but man has such purposes as have meaning in themselves and which, as such, give his life its specific human stamp. It is in things or actions which have their unity in their spiritual purpose that the spirit expresses itself as the unifying power.
Meaning is therefore a fundamental factor of culture and civilisation. Nay, one can even say that culture is materialisation of meaning. Culture is the creation of units which exist only for the spirit. For the dog there is no Rembrandt picture, but only specks of colour, no Beethoven symphony, but merely a series of noises or perhaps tones. The spirit is the meaning-creating and meaning-acknowledging power, and culture is the totality of meaning-creating powers and meaningful creations of man. But culture or civilisation taken by itself cannot in itself answer the question of meaning, for the idea of meaning is curiously inexorable. Because it means totality, it cannot be satisfied with anything partial. The single work does not suffice, the spirit cannot but ask for the totality of all works, of all human doing. Just as one cannot be satisfied with the single meaningful word, but only by the meaningful connection of single meaningful words through the spiritual unity of a speech as a whole, or a book as a whole, so the spirit in seeking for meaning demands the unity of man's life as a whole. Not even the unity of all man's action is sufficient, because man's action is in relation with something else—with nature, with the world in which it is performed and with which it is wrestling by thought and action. For that reason the mind, wherever it is truly living, cannot but ask for a total meaning, and it is through the intensity of this question that the aliveness of the spirit manifests itself. Where this question of total meaning ceases to be asked, the spirit is in a state of disintegration, and human life is about to perish in a sub-human, animal existence.
That is why men have always asked for the meaning of life, for a total meaning. They sought the answer in their religions or their philosophies. The religious myths are to be understood, in the last analysis, as attempts to interpret the total meaning of existence. In the same way philosophy, in its truly great and powerful forms, has to be evaluated as an attempt to discover meaning by the use of rational thought; as the Greeks said, λόγον διδόναι. Here it is possible only to sketch a few of these attempts. In Indian religion, the problem of the meaning of life was answered by the doctrine of Karma—the circle of birth or the transmigration of souls—and in the body of doctrines teaching man how to get out of this circle of birth and to enter Nirvana. These answers rested upon the presupposition that this empirical existence, as such, is not meaningful, but that, on the contrary, meaning consists in living and thinking in such a way as to escape from this life. With regard to this life, then, the answer is thoroughly pessimistic.
Another solution of the problem, impressive in itself, is the ethical dualism of the religion of Zarathustra. The meaning of life consists in supporting life and defending it against everything which destroys and kills it. Here, also, the truly significant thing it not life, as such, but eternal, imperishable life, which one achieves by following that rule. By joining battle with the good god in his fight against the god of destruction, man gets his share in the victory of the good god and his eternal life. Apart from the answer of the Christian Gospel, however, the most important solution of the problem of meaning within Western history is that of Greek philosophy. Of course, as we all know, this philosophy is not a unity, but presents itself in a variety of very different systems. But within our Western history, it was primarily Greek idealism—this word taken in a very broad sense—which became influential. The meaning-giving principle of this philosophy is the divine Nous or Logos, which permeates the world and forms it into a Cosmos. It is the same Logos which underlies meaningful speech and thought as well as all cultural activity of man. Man's speech and action are meaningful in so far as they partake of this divine Logos. The divine Logos, then, is seen in closest connection with the logical or rational element of our life. This relation to the divine Logos appears in the various systems of Greek philosophy—of Plato, of Aristotle, of the Stoics, and the Neoplatonists, in different settings, according as they placed the emphasis more on the secular, the cultural, scientific, artistic or philosophical element, or on the ethical and religious aspect of human life. They all have in common this reference to the divine Logos or the ideas, as that which contains the meaning, and are therefore akin to each other in a marked rational and immanentist tendency. It is the divine reason, immanent in our reason and in our reasonable doing and thinking, upon which the meaning of life is grounded.2
Within the Christian doctrine and faith the principle of meaning, i.e. that which gives meaning to our existence, can be summarised also by the word Logos. We recall the pregnant and, at the same time, cryptic words of the Prologue to St. John's Gospel: “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him; … In Him was life; and the life was the light of men …” etc. No doubt it is this Logos in which the whole world has its meaningful foundation as well as its meaningful end, in which therefore the meaning of human life is mysteriously contained. But this Logos is not the Logos of Greek philosophy; there are three radical differences between the two. The first is that it is not an abstract principle, an “it”, as it always is in Greek philosophy, but a person—“in Him, all things were made by Him and in Him was life”. The second is to be seen in the fact that this Logos is not an immanent element of the human mind or spirit, but given to man by historical revelation as the secret of God's essence and will. Finally, it is not a timeless, fixed truth, but the moving dynamism of history, the definite manifestation of that which in the end of time brings with it the victory of the divine will over the powers that threaten the meaning of life, and which perfects historical revelation in eternal life, thus completing the meaning of historical, earthly existence.
It might appear, at first glance, that this conception of meaning would be closely related to that of Persian dualism, which we have just been sketching. As a matter of fact, certain common traits as well as certain historical connections between the two cannot be denied.3
All the same, there is an unfathomable gulf between them. One should not over-emphasise the difference between the Christian conception and the element of metaphysical dualism in the conception of Zarathustra. For this dualism, after all, manifests itself as being less than ultimate by the certain victory of the good god over the evil spirit. The opposition between the two lies somewhere else, namely in the fact that in Biblical revelation the idea of God's mercy, His redeeming grace and love, is central and dominating, whilst it is entirely absent in the religious system of Zarathustra. Here it is the good men who, by the proof of their moral sincerity, acquire participation in the final victory and eternal life, whilst in the Christian Gospel it is the sinners, graciously pardoned and saved by the atoning sacrifice of Christ and God's merciful forgiveness, who become participants in eternal life and thereby in the completion of meaningfulness. It is therefore not to be wondered at that within Christian history and Western history at large, the Persian solution of the problem does not play any conspicuous rôle. The discussion is primarily between the Biblical revelation on the one hand, and Greek idealism on the other.
This discussion between the two predominant principles of meaning within our history—between the Greek Logos-principle and the Biblical revelation of the Logos-Son, of Jesus Christ—marks the beginning of the modern epoch. From the end of classical antiquity up to this point, the Christian idea had been entirely dominant, although not in its original purity. Modern spiritual history, on the other hand, is characterised primarily by a progressive displacement of the Christian, the transcendent, revelatory, personalistic conception of meaning, by an immanent, rational and abstract principle. Human reason sets itself on its own feet. It thinks itself capable of solving the problem of meaning from its own resources. That is why European thought re-established its connections with the models of Greek philosophy. Of course, this could not be done without thorough-going modifications and variations. Two essential traits, however, remained in common between the modern and the Greek conceptions of meaning: the predominance of the rational, logical element and the tendency towards an immanent solution. Meaning must prove itself in its rationality, and the realisation of meaning must take place within this temporal existence. This limitation necessarily produced, in recent centuries, the new idea so characteristic of our epoch, about which we have already spoken in the last lecture: the idea of progress.4
If rationality on the one hand and this historical existence on the other are to be sufficient to answer the question of the meaning of life, it is necessary either to prove this existence to be rational, or to show the possibility of believing in rationality, in spite of the present irrational character of existence. The first of these two ways is that of Theodicy, i.e.
the proof that what exists is at least approximately rational; it was possible only (as we see in its greatest example—that of Leibnitz) as long as it was possible to draw considerably from the Christian theological tradition. It is therefore no mere chance that as soon as this method—the Leibnitzian Theodicy—lost its power of conviction, the second began to be taken.5
The death of Leibnitz coincides almost exactly with the appearance of the idea of progress, first in the form of an idealistic, speculative philosophy of history, later in the form of a naturalistic, pseudo-scientific evolutionism.
Those who had broken with the religious faith of the Christian tradition and were still seeking a meaning for existence, could certainly not be expected to find that rational meaning within the given realities of the natural and cultural life of their time. The elements of negation and destruction of meaning were too obvious even for the most optimistic rationalist to ignore them. From this difficulty the idea of progressive evolution seemed to afford an escape. This world is not yet rational and therefore meaningful, but it can and it shall become so. How is it possible for it to become rational? The answer was: It can and will become more and more rational by a progressive spiritualisation of nature and human life in the course of cultural expansion; by a progressive elimination of what is really or seemingly irrational, by rational action and rational thought, therefore by a double evolution of the powers of divine reason immanent in man through his action and his thought. It was this idea of a spiritual evolution and the progressive elimination of irrational elements by cultivating and educating the individual, by extensive and intensive increase of cultural and civilising action, as well as by progressive knowledge, which gave the last two centuries their dynamic élan and their feeling of assurance.
It was inevitable, however, that in the course of this movement the tendency towards this-worldliness became more and more conspicuous and predominating. The high-minded, idealistic evolutionism of Herder, Humboldt, Schleiermacher and Hegel gave way increasingly to a more realistic and earth-bound principle of progress, which was related more closely to the interest of the average man, and was also more credible than the idea of a progressive spiritualisation of the world. As the stream of idealistic enthusiasm began to decline, its place was taken by the more prosaic idea of scientific and technical progress, of the spread of democratic freedom, and of overcoming irrationality by raising the level of general education. In all these fields progress was conspicuous to everybody. Moreover, it was in close relation to the practical interest and everyday life of the large majority of men. The surprising and truly revolutionary achievements of technical industry, the no less astounding progress of natural science, the rapid spread of democratic institutions and of general education seemed to justify this belief in progress so completely as to place it beyond doubt. Mankind became intoxicated by these visible and indubitable manifestations of progress, in the sphere of its practical needs, to such an extent that there seemed to be no room or capacity left to meditate seriously on the profound problem of life's meaning. All those things which threaten the meaningfulness of man's life—death, evil, suffering—all these voices were drowned by the loud-speaker of progressivism.
This optimism, threatened by the truly irrational social conditions, which had actually been created by the revolutionary progress of technical industry, could be sustained only by the hope of a social paradise which Karl Marx preached as coming inevitably. But then came the time when this intoxication began to wear off, when it became more and more apparent that, in spite of all school education, men were not becoming better, that, in spite of all technical progress, life had not become more human, but on the contrary more and more inhuman. Above all, the disillusionment was hastened by the first great and the second even greater shock brought about by the first and the second world-wars, with their revelation of demoniac, even diabolic, backgrounds of human existence and human nature.
The belief in progress had played out its fatally dazzling rôle, and Western humanity, which had staked all its hope on this one card, found itself facing the nothingness of despair. Now, in view of the ruins of his civilisation, in uncertainty as to whether the past storm, which had destroyed in a few years what centuries had built, might not soon be followed by another even more terrible, which would mean the end of all civilisation, perhaps the end of humanity itself—now, faced by all this, mankind experiences the dawning of the fearful and disastrous thought that life probably has no meaning at all.
If, looking back from the standpoint of Christian faith, we ask ourselves why this has happened, and was bound to happen, it will not do to point merely to the last degenerate forms to which the idea of progress had fallen a prey, or in which an already decaying evolutionary creed expressed itself. It is not in these obvious and most recent extremes, but in the first spiritual and exalted beginnings that we have to discover the roots of the evil. We have to go back as far as Greek idealism, and its fundamental conception of the principle of meaning, in order to understand the completely nihilistic disappearance of meaning which has threatened our generation. The first thing we can observe, then, is that this idealistic principle of meaning was based entirely upon the “formal” side of the human mind. It is the possession of reason which distinguishes man from animal; it is reason by which man produces culture and civilisation; it is reason that links man to the divine. It is sufficient, it appears, that man has reason. Reasonable or spiritual action as such confers meaning. One does not ask what this reason thinks, what direction spiritual activity takes; it is the possession of reason in itself that makes man human and links him to the divine. Reason, as such, is the divine. You can find this same idea even nowadays in the speeches and writings of eminent spiritual leaders, repeated and varied a hundred times: “We believe in the spirit, in reason, in the human mind as that which gives life meaning and makes man human”.
From the Christian point of view, this idea can be seen as a great illusion. Human reason as such, spiritual activity as such, can be both good and evil, godlike and diabolical. There is a godlike and there is a godless use of reason. Therefore there is a possibility of culture being according to God, and also of its being quite godless. The possession of reason, of intellectual activity as such, is no guarantee of truth, goodness, and true humanity. The principle of the truly human, of goodness and truth is higher than reason. It does not lie within the sphere of the formal, not in a that, but in a what, not in the possession and use of spiritual powers, but in the right use, in the right relation, in the right decision, in that self-determination which is according to God's will.
The formalism of the idealistic principle of meaning is founded, as we have already seen, in a second factor, in the theological immanence-conception. Man is—that is the assumption here—partaker of divine nature by being a reasonable creature. The divine element is immanent in him because the divine element is in itself reason, the same reason which also dwells in him, in man's nature. Therefore, idealism cannot understand what we Christians assert, that evil is a spiritual thing, an act of reason and not of sensuality. For the idealist, evil is that which is divided from the spirit, emptiness, the reason-vacuum, therefore animal sensuality and brute instinct. The acknowledgment of the spiritual nature of evil would explode the whole philosophy of immanence. Therefore the idealist cannot but refuse to admit this conception of evil, and by doing so he is bound to minimise evil. Only that evil which is understood as spiritual is truly evil. What comes out of animal nature is not really evil: it is pre-moral primitivity.
Let us consider the same idea from a third point of view. The Greek idealistic conception of meaning is primarily taken from man's cultural activity. Indeed, culture is a primary manifestation of the meaningful; as we said before, culture is the materialisation of meaning. But, as we shall see more clearly later on, culture itself is primarily formal, because culture is the expression of a given spirituality or spiritual condition. Culture therefore is not in itself the human, but it is an instrument, an expression of the human; just as mind is not the human but the organ of the truly human. Culture is the expression of the given spiritual status, good or bad, human or inhuman, of a certain time or group. It is related to the truly human as the style of a speech or a book is related to its content. You can express truly diabolical ideas in the most superb style, and it can hardly be doubted that the devil, if he wants to be, is a very brilliant stylist. Therefore there can be false culture, just as much as false spirituality—even anti-human, godless culture. Culture, then, is not in itself the measure of humanity but merely the measure of the degree of spiritual intensity, whether good or bad. This misunderstanding which accepts culture as the criterion of humanity is, however, the fatal error of both ancient and modern idealism, and of modern thinking at large.
Now, this whole misunderstanding, implied in the Greek idealistic principle of God-immanence, stands in the closest relation to what the Bible calls sin. Man, understanding himself in that fashion, understands himself primarily as divine. He accepts as his nature what is in fact a divine gift
. He wrongly assumes his rational nature to be the content instead of seeing it as a vessel. It is Hamann, the great Christian seer of the 18th century, who has called this “the misunderstanding of reason about itself”. He points to the origin of the German word “Vernunft”, which is derived from “vernehmen, annehmen”, “to receive”, and therefore expresses a relation of receptivity and dependence. True reason would be that which receives the divine, not that which thinks it has
the divine in itself, or that it is
, in its depth, the divine. True reason, then, would be only that which does not think it has the meaning of existence in itself but is ready to receive it from God. Greek idealism, in its pre-Christian form, remained in a measure religious, because it believed in the objectivity of the divine Logos. The idealism of modern times, however, having branched off from Christianity and left Christian truth behind, could not fail to become irreligious, and contained a dangerous element of rebellion which was lacking in the old Platonism. That is the fundamental reason why the emancipation from Christianity, introduced and begun by modern idealism, ended in such meaninglessness.6
According to Christian faith, the meaning of life is not in
man—neither in his rational nature nor in his rational or cultural work—but comes to
him as a divine gift, as the Logos, which is the revealed Word, and as that Word which is the self-revealing God. Meaning, then, comes from transcendence, out of the mystery of divine being, the Logos, that (as the fourth Gospel says) “was in the bosom of the Father”.7
This mystery does not remain in its transcendence; it reveals itself, it communicates itself. This Logos is the self-communicating Love of God, which in itself is personal being: the Son of Love. It is in Him, through Him, that human life receives its true humanity, its goodness and truth. “Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”8
Man's life receives this Word by an act which is mere reception—the act of faith—and this faith manifests its essence as being divine love by “working itself out in loving”.9
Now, in this fact—that man's life has no meaning in itself and in his own creation, but has to receive it—lies the possibility that the negative powers, death, evil, suffering, which threaten the meaning of life, can be regarded without palliation, without any attempt at theodicy, in their sheer, naked negativity. It is the Christian faith alone which makes no such attempt to extenuate evil, as is found, for instance, in the Neoplatonic idea that evil belongs to the good just as the contrast is necessary for harmony, or in the older Platonism in the identification of evil and animal instinct. No, evil is understood as sin; evil, understood as sin, means rebellion against the divine will, destruction of the good order of God, disintegration of the totality or wholeness of human life, hence, as the radical negation of meaning. Similarly, death is not glossed over as a mere fact of nature belonging to the Cosmic order; death also is ranked among the anti-divine powers threatening and destroying the meaning of life. Death is an “enemy” and not a friend. Because these two elements, sin and death, and the suffering issuing from them, determine the character of human life in such a fashion that nothing is untouched by them, no attempt is made to understand earthly existence in itself as meaningful. On the contrary, it is explicitly affirmed that this temporal existence, taken by itself, is meaningless, even contrary to meaning. And this applies to the total history of humanity as well as to that of the human individual. Historical life does not have meaning in itself. It acquires it from outside itself, and where this happens, there this earthly history comes to its end, there the new æon begins, life eternal.
It is, however, just the knowledge of this coming new existence which gives this earthly historical life a share of the eternal completion of meaning. To live in this hope by firm belief is no mere expectation, but is in itself the beginning of the ultimate realisation of meaning. For that divine love, which is the end of all things, is not a thing merely of the future, but it is a present reality for and in the believer. This love, Agapé, is the new principle of life of the Christian and the Christian community. The divine ultimate meaning, life in the Love of God, is present reality in faith, although imperfect and wrestling with those powers threatening the destruction of life and its meaning.
If we compare with this vision of historical reality, as it is given in Christian faith, the highest conception which the idea of meaning has acquired within a non-Christian interpretation—namely, within idealistic evolutionism—we see, quite apart from its unreality, the disguised resignation implicit in this idea of progress. The tremendous difference between the two is in the single fact that, whilst the Christian Gospel makes every believing individual a partaker of the ultimate perfection, the completion of meaning for the individual is most uncertain within any idealistic conception of history. Who, after all, has the profit of this infinite progressive movement? Every generation has to sacrifice itself, to place itself beneath the feet of the next generation, so as to raise it higher, merely in order to be in itself a mere step on the infinite road of humanity to a far-off, never attainable goal. But for me, as individual man, there is little enough consolation in the thought that those coming after me are a little nearer the goal, without reaching it themselves.
We need not bother any more about this tempting but illusory and fantastic idea of universal progress. History itself has given judgment on it. The negative powers of human nature, which threaten to destroy all the meaning of life, even the bare physical existence of humanity, have shown themselves with such naked brutality that the idea of universal progress as the solution of the problem of meaning is utterly discredited. This fact can mean one of two things. It can mean the lapse into complete despair about the meaning of life, resignation to the fact that there is no such meaning, that it is better not to ask this question at all but to content oneself with the fragmentary and transient glimpses of meaning, which are inherent in human life and activity. Or it can mean that humanity turns its mind towards the Gospel as the only interpretation of existence, which is, at the same time, both realism without illusion and promise of fulfilment without resignation.
Two things must be said, however, about the Christian faith as solution of the problem of meaning in our time. First, it is not easily come by. Probably it never was. But for centuries it had the advantage of being the accepted creed of the Western world. Whether this was an advantage with respect to its true understanding can be doubted; it certainly had an important bearing on the formation of cultural stability and homogeneity. But this is gone. Christian faith has become, as it has never been since the first centuries of the Christian era, a matter of personal decision. The second point is this. Whilst Christian faith is the same at all times with respect to its foundation and content, it is different in every age as regards the frontier line along which it joins battle. The frontier line of our age is neither that of the first centuries, which was marked by nval religions, nor is it that of the Middle Ages or that of the Reformation era, when it was marked by rival interpretations of its foundation and content. In our time the frontier line is the alternative to a philosophy of despair, hidden in a number of more or less subtle evasions of the problem.10
Apart from these disguises, the question placed before man in our time is quite simple: Despair and pay the price of despair, or believe the Gospel and pay the price of believing! What the price is of gaining the meaning of life, as the Gospel alone gives it, the Gospel makes clear enough. This must be added to what was said about the Christian conception of the meaning of life: such a conception cannot be gained by any theoretical argument. The Gospel will always be rejected when it is misunderstood as merely a satisfactory theory. To understand what it says about the meaning of life, and to see that this is the truth, is identical with that total change of the character and orientation of life which is implied in the words, repentance and faith. It is only in these acts that the Gospel-perspective can be won, and with it the solution of the problem of meaning.