The tragedy of a meaningless life

April 21, 2007 | Atheism | 20 comments

In light of the interesting discussion going on about my last post, I wanted to throw out this quote (via Melanie) to hear what you all think about it:

Millions all around us are living the tragedy of meaningless life, the “life” of spiritual death. That is what makes our society most radically different from every society in history: not that it can fly to the moon, enfranchise more voters, have the grossest national product, conquer disease, or even blow up the entire planet, but that it does not know why it exists.

–Peter Kreeft, Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing

I think this is exactly right, especially in the segments of society that have taken great pains to unmoor themselves from America’s Christian roots. I’m currently working on a consulting project that puts me in touch with a lot of the big secular self-help authors and their ideas. And what I see frequently are very sincere, well-meaning people who are often just…flailing.

They’re trying to lead people to some vague sense of happiness through the self, through introspection ad nauseaum and asking what you think and what you want and who you are, and it just always falls flat. At best this sort of advice leads to a fleeting, surface-level happiness; at worst it’s a total waste of time. It’s been interesting to me to see how even these people, many of whom are quite brilliant and putting forth their best efforts, simply cannot lead people to happiness — and certainly not to peace — without a higher purpose that comes from something outside of us, without God.

Anyway, I promised myself I was getting offline for the night about 30 minutes ago, so enough from me. What do you think?

20 Comments

  1. Mike J

    From Kreeft:
    “That is what makes our society most radically different from every society in history: … that it does not know why it exists.”

    Every other society in history knew why it existed????????????????

  2. Mike J

    The other thing that occurs to me is; what about those societies that were never moored to “America’s Christian roots”? Are/Were their members universally unhappy, purposeless and peaceless?

  3. SteveG

    Mike
    I think you might be overly literal in your reading. The point is that at least prior societies ‘thought’ they knew why they existed (rightly or wrongly), whether based on Christianity or not. They seemingly had a real sense of purpose (even if at times it’s not something we would consider praiseworthy).

    We do seem to be in a seemingly unique time in that modern Western culture is the first more or less built on an acknowledged relativism. Without intending to debate whether that is a good or bad thing, it is something that by default seems to strip a culture of the ability to hold to a common purpose, a common reason for existing.

  4. Seeker

    I agree wholeheartedly with the quote. Not that there has not most likely always been some people who haven’t known where they are going: I just think that it is just so very prevalent now.

    I see it with my own son, who has rejected Christianity and God (though he might just accept some kind of ‘Higher Being’), yet has, become a follower of some weird guy who has many very strange ideas, including one that many public figures are descended from reptiles! It is evident too in the celebrities who are increasingly likely to turn to the wackier religions! They reject the conventional religions, yet seem to need something (however weird) to replace them!

  5. Professor chaos

    I think it’s maybe just a tad bit of a stretch to claim that you know how secular folks feel better than they do.

  6. Anonymous

    Eventually we are going to here about your Easter Vigil and the marriage blessing, yes?

  7. melanieb

    To clarify a bit further for Mike J.
    Kreeft continues:

    “Every past society gave its members answers to all three great questions [What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope?]. It transmitted the teachings of its sages, saints, mystics, gurus, philosophers or gods through tradition. For the first time in history, society no longer regards tradition as sacred; in fact, it no longer regards it at all. We are the first tree that has uprooted itself from the universal soil. If we are to find an answer to the question “For what may I hope? we must find the answer individually; our society simply does not know. The only sound we hear from our noisy society concerning the most important questions in the world is the sound of silence.”

  8. beez

    Until I turned myself back to God, my life was full of “stuff,” money and position. God had the great wisdom to strip me of everything, opening my heart up to the truth.

    Before I changed, I had two kinds of days: awful and so-so.

    Since I have returned fully to His embrace, I have two kinds of days: good and great.

    You may think I am nuts. I still have all the same frustrations and annoyances in 2007 that I had in 1997. The difference is: they all have a meaning.

    Now I know that there is a path before me, prepared by God and simply waiting for me not to fight but to follow.

    When I started following, rocks and even walls ceased to be obstacles and became challenges. I can’t conquer these alone, but I no longer have to. I have someone, a whole lot of someones (The Triune God and the Communion of Saints) pulling for me. Together, they help me, who would otherwise be lost and stuck, continue forward.

    Does God give life purpose? No. God is life’s purpose.

  9. Mike J

    > I think you might be overly literal in your reading. < Let’s see, “That is what makes our society most radically different from every society in history:” OK. Why am I not to take that literally? What was the subtle wording that I missed, by which Kreeft was telling me, “I’m being hyperbolic or allegorical now.”? > The point is< So Kreeft, the writer, communicator, scholar, apologist, authority, can’t write clearly enough for readers to get his point without an ‘apologist-for-the-apologist’ to explain and clarify his writings? The more you try to cover up his shortcomings, the less impressed I am with him. > that at least prior societies ‘thought’ they knew why they existed (rightly or wrongly), whether based on Christianity or not. < So people in our society (I’ll take it as the USA. Unless we’d like to include all of wester civilization just to make the error more widespread.) don’t even “think” they know why they exist (rightly or wrongly)??????????????
    What the Sam-hill are all those blooming editorials in the papers? What are all those opinion bits on the TV and radio? What are all those books about politics, philosophy, why-we-have-the-answer-and-they-don’t? What are all the call-in talk shows?
    You mean all those opinionated, outspoken people don’t even “think” they know why they exist? Lordy but they sure are vocal about it.

    > They seemingly had a real sense of purpose (even if at times it’s not something we would consider praiseworthy). < Unlike all the politicians, social service workers, altruists of every stripe, protest marchers, ……….. > We do seem to be in a seemingly unique time < Look up the opening lines to “A Tale of Two Cities”. Every generation seems thinks they are unique. That they live in the worst/best times. That people/government/agriculture has never been better/worse/smarter/dumber. This sort of thing always reminds me of CS Lewis’ statement, “A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract if nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”
    Conversely we can say that the man who knows little or naught of other places or times will be largely infected by the nonsense of his age and village.
    At least in Kreeft’s case, you’d think his background in scholarship would have prevented him saying something so patently foolish.

    > in that modern Western culture is the first more or less built on an acknowledged relativism. < Oh. Wasn’t someone just hereabouts talking about America having Christian roots? Haven’t I read droves of drivel about the Christian origins of Western Civ?
    I guess even foundations must move and change to hold the point being defended at the moment.

    You know, I can understand wanting to defend the Faith, the Church, the Pope, God, or Christ. But Kreeft??

    What’s wrong with, “Yep Kreeft boned it.” Surely no one’s faith will fall from that?!

  10. Mike J

    Seeker
    >Not that there has not most likely always been some people who haven’t known where they are going: I just think that it is just so very prevalent now.< See the quote from CS Lewis in the previous post.

  11. Mike J

    Melanie
    >Kreeft continues:
    “Every past society gave its members answers to all three great questions [What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope?].< Every society? Is that every society, or most, or some? Do I take you and Kreeft literally on that point? Perhaps Steve will clarify. I’ll be a slow, stupid pud and take him literally until someone straightens me out.
    Every society? Never a one failed to give those answers to it’s members? I marvel. I had no idea that Kreeft had studied every society. Could you get him to provide me with the answers to those three questions from several societies please? I’d definitely like them from: feudal Japan; imperial China; eastern Europe during the early Middle Ages; India prior to 500 BC; the Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs; the various Inuit groups; late Czarist Russia…. that will do for starters. Let me know when Mr. Kreeft, or his apologists, can get that for me.

    > It transmitted the teachings of its sages, saints, mystics, gurus, philosophers or gods through tradition. < So Kreeft tells me that a significant majority of people in every society knew all those teachings? A marvel! To think that one could grab a handful of vineyard workers, and maybe their bosses, and have them regale you with so much knowledge! > For the first time in history, society no longer regards tradition as sacred; in fact, it no longer regards it at all. < I’m going to have to tell my wife this. She keeps insisting that Danes are big into tradition. And then there’s the 4th of July, and Christmas, and New Year’s, and all those times I’ve heard, “That’s how we’ve always done it.” , and, and, and just no bloody tradition anywhere. > We are the first tree that has uprooted itself from the universal soil. < Universal? What is that? The dirt from Eden? > The only sound we hear from our noisy society concerning the most important questions in the world is the sound of silence. < Well, barring the opinion columns, politicians, ……. oh, not the whole list again Mike.

  12. lyrl

    While I agree with Mike’s take on Kreeft’s writing, I think I understand where Kreeft is coming from. I find myself reflecting on a book called The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz that explores how unique aspects of modern Western societies make people unhappy – and I think it is this unique unhappiness that is inspiring Kreeft to write on this topic.

    I find the whole idea of human life being meaningful because we like a being we believe created it to be odd. Does the meaningfulness of our lives rest on whether we were intentionally vs. accidentally created by our biological parents? If humans, say, genetically engineered a dolphin to be able to communicate with us (at our level of intelligence), would the meaningfulness of the hypothetical dolphin’s existence be tied to its human creators? I believe most people would answer no to both of these questions. I’m really not following how creation by God would cause meaningfulness to exist any more than these two situations – it’s a difference of degree, not of kind.

    Either something (life, for example) is meaningful in and of itself, or it is not. Whether or not some higher being exists is irrelevant to me.

  13. SteveG

    So people in our society don’t even “think” they know why they exist?

    I think in general many people are very, very confused because indeed our culture has lost its sense of deeper meaning. They seem to think they know why they exist, but it’s too often for the shallowest of reasons (may I judge nonsense like animal rights activism as shallow, or will our relativistic instincts get me in trouble for even making such an obvious point?).

    I see a culture of people (yes let’s include other Western nations) which sees its meaning mainly as consuming things. I see a culture in which it’s fairly well established that they think so little of their own deeper meaning, their own cultural existence, that they fail to do the most basic thing in regards to ensuring that culture continues. They fail to even make sure that the next generation exists.

    Look up the opening lines to “A Tale of Two Cities”. Every generation seems thinks they are unique. That they live in the worst/best times. That people/government/agriculture has never been better/worse/smarter/dumber.

    So I suppose the French Revolution really was a pretty run of the mill event then? 😉

    In fact it seems to me that it’s rather the case that indeed, while there are vast sweeps of general similarities regarding the struggles humanity faces, many generations probably do face their own unique challenges as well. All times probably really are the best and worst of times, but in different ways.

    And in our times something in fact very unique is happening and it bears on this entire discussion of culture, tradition, values, etc. I’ve recently read a book on, and continued studying, attachment theory (the book by the way is neither religious, political, nor even social commentary, but is discussion of the psychological field of attachment theory and how it relates to culture raising its children).

    The author, a scholar and world renowned expert in the field makes a nearly air tight case that indeed post industrialized society is in the midst of something truly unique with regard to how we’ve structured our society.

    We are the first society that has willingly taken on a structure that is non-hierarchical in nature with regards to adults and children, and in addition is contrary to how the attachment functions in our brain have evolved.

    We have switched from an adult oriented (meaning children being attached and oriented to adults from Parents to grand-parents, to uncles, to teachers, etc.) to being oriented to peers. Another author years ago wrote a book in which he called it the ‘Sibling Society.’

    And this is having a profound impact on society’s ability to pass on its culture, values, and traditions in any meaningful sense.

    Indeed, without any intent to do so by the author, it supports much of the underlying point Kreeft is making.

    This sort of thing always reminds me of CS Lewis’ statement, “A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract if nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

    Wise words which may, or may not, apply to Kreeft. The question is whether what Kreeft is identifying is indeed a local error, or if he is tapping into something real.

    FWIW, he’s in what I consider decent company with regard to identifying what Pope Benedict XVI has called the modern ‘tyranny of relativism.’ Or maybe BXVI’s view is a bit too myopic as well. 😉

    And as I’ve already hinted at above, the science of psychology supports him in identifying that something strange and contrary to our nature really is going on here.

    You know, I can understand wanting to defend the Faith, the Church, the Pope, God, or Christ. But Kreeft??

    What’s wrong with, “Yep Kreeft boned it.” Surely no one’s faith will fall from that?!

    Sorry, I am not an apologist for the apologist. I’ve never even read more than one short work on prayer by Kreeft. I just thought I’d offer what I saw as the rather obvious point to the one short, out of context, paragraph that you seemed to me to be very obviously misreading.

    I only thought I could shed some light because I am reading that paragraph from the same Catholic light that I *think* he was writing it with.

    If I thought he’d boned it, I’d have no shame if fessing up, but being a bear of very little brain, I rather think he’s got an excellent point (even if he dressed it up in a bit of hyperbole).

  14. SteveG

    Either something (life, for example) is meaningful in and of itself, or it is not. Whether or not some higher being exists is irrelevant to me.

    I think the problem here is that the two ‘sides’ are talking about two different things but using the same word. By meaning, we really mean transcendent meaning. Agree or not, where the hang up is in with a meaning which will pass away into nothingness (When humanity goes extinct? When the sun explodes? When the universe dies its heat or cold death? Take your pick). We can acknowledge the localized meaning, in and of itself as you say, but it seems rather hollow in the long run.

    I am not necessarily trying to get you to agree to that. If it’s not hollow to you, fair enough. Just trying to highlight what in my experience is usually a misunderstanding in what is being discussed.

  15. Teresa

    steveg –

    What was the book you read about attachment theory? It sounds really interesting.

  16. Michael D.

    There are so many people looking around for answers. Many of these people will go out of their way to stay away from the teachings in the bible and of any religion, let alone Catholicism, because of a perception they have of a bunch of old white men “waging their fingers at us from 2000 years ago”. Maybe what these people don’t understand is the teachings come from 2000 years of Christian writings, plus 3000 years of Jewish writings, plus untold thousands of years of Jewish tradition and all of these traditions and writings have been tested through trial and error over the same untold thousands of years. Maybe some of these very same people can be helped if they realize the bible is the first self help book ever written.

  17. lyrl

    Why does God give life transcendent meaning? Because He has a perfect memory which stores everything?

    I don’t think that’s the answer. If I enjoy eating a peppermint candy, and God remembers the small pleasure eating that candy gave me – does that make that candy-eating moment meaningful? It’s still just a piece of candy – not of any meaning compared to experiences like learning how the world works, raising a child, etc. Leading me to my current position that it is the events themselves that are meaningful, not their relation to God.

    I’m coming from a position of ignorance here – I honestly do not understand how the existence or non-existence of God confers “meaning”.

    I also do not believe animal rights activism can across the board be described as shallow. Bans on dog and cockfighting have been accepted across the country because such violent events have been repeatedly linked to humans doing violence to other humans. Cruelty to animals as a child is a main diagnostic criteria for anti-social disorder – what many serial killers have. I don’t think it’s a big step to say that the industrialized production of modern animal products is out of line with the Genesis 2:15 statement that man is to take care of creation.

    Of course, maybe Steve is talking about the extremists who blow things up and release domestic animals into the wild – I will unconditionally agree those types of activities are shallow.

  18. SteveG

    steveg –

    What was the book you read about attachment theory? It sounds really interesting.

    Teresa:
    The book is called Hold On to Your Kids.

    It’s written under the auspices of a being a parenting book, and certainly some of the later parts of it are geared towards real thoughts on how parents should approach their role given what’s understood about attachment theory.

    However the majority of the book centers on explaining attachment theory as it pertains to all human relationships (not just parent child). It also goes very deeply into discussing what I hinted at above regarding the real switch modern society has made in fostering peer orientated attachments as primary for children (to their developmental detriment) rather than orienting their attachments to adults.

    It’s really an astounding read and having finished it not that long ago, I am on a bit of a kick to tell others about it because of how profound the implications are.

  19. Faith

    I have read a couple of books by Kreeft now and I have come to appreciate him greatly, but I do think he tends to hyperbole sometimes and it weakens his argument. Still, I have find his works to have great clarity and insight so I enjoy him in spite of that annoying fault.

    I bet mike j never, ever get hyperbolic, right?

    Just teasin’!

  20. Mike J

    Faith:

    Never, ever, not even once, in all my posts have I ever gotten even the slightest bit hyperbolic, nor even approached it in the tiniest degree.

    I am always the soul of restraint and moderation and exactitude.

    You’ll never meet another oh-so-balanced person or perspective in any country or time.

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