What is meaning?
Meaning is the role assigned to entities and events by their factual context. Example: an old man is lying on the street; in context New Delhi, zero meaning is assigned to him; in context Western Europe, normally at least enough to get him treated in a hospital.
The relevant factual context can be invisible. Example: The old man from above is treated differently in part because of the different cultural context. Which consists of habits, values etc., all of which are invisible per se.
The meaning assigned by the context can have a delayed effect. Example: A police system cannot prevent crimes, but it assigns meaning and importance to them, in many cases leading to sentences long after the crime was committed.
The meaning of something may affect the way we treat it, and our motivations what to do with it. Example: somebody hands you a hard disk with highly valuable data, of which no backup exists, to store it for a while. With that meaning in mind, you will treat it differently than a defective and empty hard disk, though they are physically the same. Note that our perception of meaning affects our actions and feelings, not the meaning itself: the message that the disk contains highly valuable data might be a lie, but this does not affect your behavior if you believe it to be true. Let’s say that our actions and feelings are “adequate”, if they follow a perception of meaning that is adequate to the actual facts.
If an entity’s or event’s context assigns no role to it, it is said to be “meaningless”. Something meaningless has no importance for anything in its context, so can be removed, or exchanged by any other meaningless thing, without any effect on the context. In analogy, something can be meaningless also for just a part of its context. Example: the exact position of one single grain of dust on the floor is meaningless; in contrast to the collective position of all of them: people would be happy if this position would be inside their dustbin always.
Meaning is leveled by context level. Each entity and event can be thought to belong to multiple contexts, leveled like an onion into narrower and broader levels of context. Each level can assign a different meaning to something. Example: a single person’s life might be meaningful on the individual level, because she might be a mother with children to care for. On the level of the universe, if evolution is true, mankind is meaningless, including her and all her children.
The meaning assigned to something by the broadest possible context is called here “substantial meaning”.
Meaning could be defined as a non-material, informational quantity that affects the future of things to which it is assigned. Example: if a cow lives on a farm, its final meaning is to be eaten by humans, which affects its future, because it will be slaughtered one day. From this follows: if the future of something is influenced by chance only, it has no meaning (at the context level currently treated).
If life has meaning
So if evolution is true, people can create meaning by themselves on the “local” context levels, but need to accept that all this is rendered meaningless on the level of the universe. Depending on a person’s current mindset (“philosopher or party animal”), the thought to have zero substantial meaning will cause depression, or the attempt to mute such thoughts by excessive fun, drugs and the like.
If however evolution is wrong, things look very different. I will not discuss the evolution hypothesis here, or the question whether there is a God. I am currently just discussing the effects of answers to that question (which should, of course, not affect your answer).
So, for the rest of the article, let’s assume one has answered the basic questions of life so that a fundamental belief in God emerged from that. This makes one also think that human existence on earth has meaning; namely: man is created in the image of and for eternal communion with God, and for stewardship over the rest of God’s creation; because of the moral failure of mankind, he needs reconciliation through Jesus Christ first to live up to this meaning / role. With respect to this, the meaning can be summarized as: There is a great God, who loves us that much that he goes to great lengths, even so that Jesus Christ died for us so that we can now be under his grace eternally. To exist is always worthwhile because of having a great God: it is the guarantee that life will never be too bad, and on long-term average, really good.
This kind of belief might be able or not to rely on visible experiences that support it. This may change from time to time, but say there is currently no such support. If one indeed beliefs this, the belief has nonetheless effects on the human mind, and if the belief is true, these effects are all justified.
These effects can amount to turning the mind upside down, to an extent that psychotropic drugs cannot reach, and without their adverse effects. They can, for example, eliminate depression. The effects of assuming this substantial meaning of human life can be: joy, patience, love, hope etc. – things named “the fruit of the spirit”.
In effect, we have a highly interesting situation. The mind (and by it, values, behavior and life) is totally changed just by having meaning, without any factual changes!!! And, even more interesting, this totally justified. The Christian belief in meaning is no psychological crutch, but it is living in the light of a bright future, living adequately according to the believed (invisible) facts. Yes, the Christian belief has its effect on the mind by psychodynamic principles, but justifiably so, if the believed things are facts. And, also highly interesting, if one can derive a positive life feeling from the meaning inherent in the Christian faith, one practically ceases to need the immediate, supernatural help of God to survive in this world. Ones life has meaning (and therefore joy, hope etc.) with and without God’s immediate help, by the facts that are true about God.
It simply cannot be that bad
Now the assumed meaning is a quite general one, and even does not let one expect visible confirmation and visible improvements while living on earth. So it is an “art” to have ones mind adequately affected by this meaning, because the meaning itself is not an overwhelming force (its nonphysical after all). This art might be called the “art of believing”. Many Christians are not good at it, living without hope. Here are some hints that might help:
- If someone believes that human life has meaning, and can justify that on fact level, he is justified to actively shape his emotions etc. in conformance with that. He may first train to shape his emotions by his will, by deciding what mood to exhibit in what situation. Then, he may train to have emotions that are adequate to his believed meaning of life.
- Living “in the light of this meaning” is basically another view on the same life. Christian are, in their life on earth, quite as good or as bad off as all the other people (except for having the church, the visible part of God’s kingdom). But instead of assuming
that most on earth is horrible and bad, the fact that Christians believe to have a great God makes them assume there are still many good things to find in his fallen creation. Also, they assume they will never be alone, and that God will come and help them immediately if it really gets too bad. It makes them assume life is basically manageable without stress. Which allows them to truly rest, and approach life from that position. There are also other helpful effects on the mind, like hope and fresh motivation; these effects remove stress, and help people to perform better in life. These improvements, then, can make life indeed as good as one views it. But this is no self-fulfilling prophecy, it is a hypothesis that was tested by building upon it. Assuming
life to be horrible and bad is a self-fulfilling prophecy, however. Pessimism cannot fail because lack can be created by waiving everything and every chance.
- Meaning not only affects the individual mind: the effect on many minds are an effect on society. In the case of the Christian faith, the effect on social level is the creation of the Christian brotherhood: the church, the Kingdom of God on earth. While this does not necessarily involve God’s supernatural activity, it is a visible effect of the meaning one believes in, and will make it easier for the individual to derive hope from that meaning, because there is already something visible good to enjoy.
- One should better say “Christians should not live as if they had no meaning in life” than “as if they had no hope”, as today’s word “hope” always implies to hope things will be better soon. While the Christian hope is, things are better in heaven. This Christian hope is an effect of the Christian’s believed meaning of human life, but as a hope for the far future it does not help much in daily life. Other effects of that meaning do, however, as detailed here. But: the Christian hope for heaven helps when experiencing calamities on earth. According to Paul (in Romans), such calamities are of no weight when views in the light of this bright heavenly future.
- A good part of the secret is to see that the meaning in Christian faith assigns importance to everything we do. Which can grant motivation to decide and act the right way. For example, decisions have a moral importance because there is a moral God. Also, creative activity is meaningful and enjoyable because it is the image of God’s creativity.
- Finally, if there is forgiveness through Jesus Christ, this makes it meaningful to thank God for this, and to live a basically joyful life because nothing can ever destroy ones bright future in heaven.
Beware of circular arguments
So after all, the only question necessary to answer is this: Is the Christian hope justified, is it true? You need to know for sure, as you will derive all meaning in life from that, and base all your attitudes and behavior on that meaning, and will do so contrary to everything you see (in the sense that what you hope for is totally invisible). History and the Bible (embedded and confirmed by traditions) and the search for contemporary signs of God’s activity, and also personal experiences, may all be used to decide this, and people use different approaches.
One caveat: it is unjustified to believe that something is true “because it is then possible to derive hope (and joy, patience, …) from the meaning coming from that belief”. This circular argument cannot be employed here. The positive meaning for life resulting from the belief in a great God is a great psychological help, but this fact must not motivate us to believe in God. Also, meaning must be allowed to unfold itself (to have its natural effects); if forcing that by expecting psychological help from that meaning, we will quickly postulate effects of that meaning but later cannot sustain that. So instead of saying what effects the meaning should have, better let it have these effects in your life itself, by thinking of your great God in many situations, and letting that knowledge affect your behavior, values and emotions in all these situations.