In the introduction to her book The Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahni Smith notes the inner longing human beings have for a sense of purpose. Where once religious belief provided answers, secularization has led to a new era in the search for meaning, an era in which the answers do not come so easily. We’ve turned to the academy, and the prophets of modernity are social scientists, many of whom work in the field of positive psychology.
Smith notes that the initial work of these social scientists focused on the idea of happiness. The research on this exploded so that there were four thousand books published on happiness in the year 2008 (a drastic climb from the year 2000, which only saw fifty published on the subject). Where do we find meaning? For a while the answer was in the pursuit of happiness,
And yet, here is a major problem with the happiness frenzy: it has failed to deliver on its promise. Though the happiness industry continues to grow, as a society, we’re more miserable than ever. Indeed, social scientists have uncovered a sad irony – chasing happiness actually makes people unhappy. (The Power of Meaning, 10)
So where do we turn? According to recent research, including Smith, we need to rediscover the power of meaning. We find meaning when we view our lives as significant: when we can make sense of them, and when we are driven by a sense of purpose (The Power of Meaning, 14). At times, meaning and happiness can be at odds, but a sense of meaning gives us the ability to experience a happiness that isn’t just artificial or selfish.
Without getting into Smith’s suggestions for crafting a meaningful life, it’s important to consider whether or not this is even possible in a Darwinian world. Richard Dawkins writes,
If the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies… are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind… The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. (River Out of Eden, 132-133)
In a Darwinist’s world, you might be able to find temporal happiness but not objective meaning. The material world is indifferent to joy or pain. Good and evil are nothing more than social constructs that we’ve created, and your good may very well be your neighbor’s evil. In the end, without a transcendent being like God to provide objective meaning, we’re left creating our own. Meaning becomes a tool we use to distract ourselves from the reality of life’s cruelty, but it’s only an illusion. If you’re trying to create your own meaning to get through life, then meaning is reduced to the category of a coping mechanism.
But, what if there is such a thing as real meaning, meaning that isn’t a way of escaping reality, but discovering it? As Smith notes, we’re all searching for this type of meaning but don’t often know where to look to find it. As a Christian, I believe the Bible provides us with the best framework for understanding our thirst for meaning as well as our inherent sense of human dignity.
According to Scripture, we aren’t meaningless organisms in a blindly indifferent world, but persons intentionally made in the image of God. As such, we are not an infection upon the earth, but dignified creatures worthy of respect. Ironically, some may not believe the Bible yet simultaneously live as though it is true. Yet, without the creator God, it’s difficult to conceive of how it could be. In a naturalistic world, we’re left grasping after a meaning we subjectively create, hoping that it might give us some sort of objective comfort. It can’t.
Meaning isn’t something we invent but something we realize was there all along. God made mankind good and endowed humanity with a privileged place among creation. As the image of God, men and women are called to reflect their benevolent creator through faithfully worshipping him. This is not a purpose that we conjure up from below but one that captures us from above and imbues the world with that which we’re all desperately looking for.
If you’re exhausted from trying to create your own meaning, or you’ve given up the search altogether, then hear the words of Jesus: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt. 11:28-29). The same God who gives the world meaning invites you to come and learn from him, and he promises you the type of rest that naturalism can never provide: rest for your restless soul.