Shayne Looper: The incredible shrinking sphere of meaning
In ancient Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the violent and duplicitous son of the King of Thessaly. For his sins (especially his habitual deceitfulness), the gods sentenced him to unending punishment: He was compelled to push a large stone up a hill, only to see it roll back down. This up-down cycle continued without interruption throughout eternity.
The 20th-century French novelist Albert Camus suggested that we are all Sisyphus. Our lives, he claimed, are absurd. Our greatest deeds amount to nothing more than pushing a stone up a hill, to see it roll down again. Camus saw life, and the universe itself, as meaningless.
Many academics (not just philosophers) have followed the path Camus traveled. The major universities where our leaders (and, more importantly, our children) are educated operate from the assumption that life lacks any objective meaning.
You only need to go to the movies or watch television to see how this philosophy works itself out. Self-realization assumes the place of meaning in people’s lives. In the absence of meaning, truth has no foundation. If no truth, then no rules. Divorced from rules, traditional morality is jettisoned as an obstacle to reaching the all-important goal of self-realization.
There you have the theme of many of Hollywood’s most critically acclaimed films. Without meaning, the only real question in life is: “How can I get my way?” That is, of course, the plot line for most television sitcoms. (Think of "Seinfeld," which was advertised as “the show about nothing.”) Sadly, it is also the plot line for much of what happens in politics.
But humans cannot live without meaning. Without meaning the soul withers and dies. Even Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher most responsible for the fog of meaninglessness that surrounds today’s university campuses, wrote, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Unable to find a transcendent “why,” Nietzsche advocated creating one’s own.
And that is the state in which much of the western world exists today. The domain of meaning has shrunk from the universal to the personal. (Is it any wonder society has become increasingly individualistic?) Having dethroned (or so they think) the creator of meaning — God — individual men and women find it is necessary to create their own meaning.
And they are not very good at it. Because they lack the necessary breadth of intellect and expanse of imagination, meaning is not assigned to all of life, but only to segments of it. This is always the case for the man or woman “who just lives for blank” (and you can fill in the blank).
We’ve all know people who live for sports. Take, for example, the man who just lives for the Detroit Lions. (How sad is that?) He pins his hopes on the Lions. He follows their trades. He reads their stats the way some people read the Bible. He writes letters to the editor about their front office and explodes in anger over their recent draft picks.
The Lions give his life meaning, and because meaning always evokes emotion, the Lions are the one thing that can make him happy (or sad or angry). This explains the fanaticism one finds everywhere in sports. Meaning itself is at stake. It is not just the Lions who lose on Sunday afternoons. It is the very meaning of life, at least for some people, that keeps getting trounced.
But sports is not the only venue where meaning plays. Music is another. Church another, along with art, fashion, physical fitness and, of course, politics. For some people, the only meaningful question in life is whether their party can gain or retain power. When their party’s success is threatened, so is their life’s meaning. Is it any wonder people get emotional about it?
The situation is entirely different if a purposeful creator exists. Life means what he meant by creating it. We need not (and cannot) create meaning, but we can participate in it. All of life — the pleasant, painful and prosaic — takes on meaning when we mean to be what he meant us to be.
Shayne Looper is the pastor at the Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Mich. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.