Saturday, September 19, 2009

where do we get meaning from?

I’m not sure how I can switch from human rights to the meaning of life with any easy dance steps so I won’t try, but I want this blog to be primarily about meaning, which is said by some religious folk to be absent from the lives of the non-religious. A theme worth exploring.

Some religious folk even say that God is meaning. The people who say this tend to be monotheists, perhaps because with them the claim has a neatness to it. To say that the ancestor spirits are meaning, or that Krishna, Vishnu, Shiva, Kali and all the rest are meaning, just doesn’t have the same ring to it. The point, though, is that meaning must come from outside ourselves, according to some, in order to be real. Meaning that’s generated from within, they say, has something arbitrary, shifting and unstable about it. If we invent our own meaning, what’s to stop us from reinventing it according to our own will and whim? Without God to set the meaning agenda, anything is possible.

There are a number of responses that can be made. First, we don’t simply invent our own meaning. It seems to be more a process of discovery than invention. You might even say that discovering meaning is just discovering what it is to be human, to be ourselves. For some, this is discovering our connection with God, or a spiritual connection to a landscape and a set of cultural beliefs and practices, while for others it’s discovering how our human mind or brain works, how civilization emerged, how life has evolved, how the universe came into being. For others again, it’s discovering what it is that gives us our greatest thrill of pleasure, or satisfaction, or contentment.

Second, maybe God itself is an unstable, arbitrary, shifting concept. From our global perspective, this seems particularly likely, because we can do a survey of the hundreds of gods worshipped by humans, most of them extinct, having passed away with the cultures that identified with them. Even the current gods, or supernatural objects of worship, are a diverse bunch, something we tend not to notice, having grown up under the influence of one of the three major, and inter-related, monotheisms. Yet most of us who have travelled or read or seen something of the world know that even Christianity is followed in often bizarrely different ways in different corners of the globe, mixed in with local beliefs and rituals to create exotic hybrid concoctions.

We also note that people who claim to believe in the same god seem to carry away very different meanings from that belief. Some use the belief to justify reaching out to others, regardless of creed, in a benevolent fashion, while others use it to justify hostility to non-believers. In some, belief necessitates a reaching out, while in others it necessitates a more contemplative inwardness. In some, it inspires confidence, while others feel unsettled by it.

In short, we can’t easily see how belief in gods settles or fixes or beds down the issue of meaning. Looking at sacred texts, we find that the deities or their representatives often say contradictory things, or things that seem embedded in a moral system that modern people have long rejected. Many of us instinctively reject deriving meaning from such sources.

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