Meaning and Choice
Last Thursday, I found myself in the audience of a panel in which Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of England (technically, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth), discussed the issue of religion and violence with former Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, American University’s Chair of Islamic Studies, and with another scholar of Judaism. Rabbi Sacks was promoting his newest book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, and since his books are always worth reading, I picked up a copy.
In it, I found these words: “Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy, and affluence….But they do not and cannot answer the three questions every reflective individual will ask at some time in his or her life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?…The result is that the twenty-first century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.” Or, as I might add, we live amid a minimum of inherited meaning; the meaning we need to thrive is, increasingly, meaning we need to construct ourselves.
But this work of constructing meaning is inherently ambivalent. In one sense, it is the project of our lives: to figure out who we are, how we want to live, and why. If we open ourselves to those questions, they will engage us at our deepest level, compel us to be open to the world and to the opinions of others, drive us to grow and to change throughout the course of our lives.
Doing it alone, however, is no fun — and neither is living it alone. We need conversation partners to find meaning, and meaning itself becomes thin if we have no one with whom to share it. A truth that is merely personal (as in, “this is true for me”) is not very satisfying, nor does it enable us to build a coherent society. A nation made up of people who live parallel lives is a much poorer place than one in which people are in deep relationship around shared convictions. That’s why the word “religion” derives from religare, which means, “to bind together”; religion is a matrix of meaning that unites us, rather than dividing us from one another.
The truth is that, while the institutions of our time do, indeed, emphasize choice over meaning, it has always been the case that people needed to do this work for themselves. No one simply inherits a faith or a system of values without questioning it, engaging it, and making it personal. Brave people do this work in a way that opens them to the world, but people who are essentially frightened, who see the others as fundamentally dangerous, are more likely to cling to forms of meaning that define truth narrowly, divide the world into dark and light, and equate difference as danger, not as gift. After all, the Bible records many seekers of truth who had a wide range of conviction about what was truly pleasing to God; it was only Pilate who asked, dismissively, “What is truth?”
Every Sunday, people stream into the doors of my church, seeking good answers to these questions. And they find there a multitude of ways to engage them: opportunities to help those in need, classes, music, discussion groups, relationships with people they did not choose, and with whom they have to live. Week after week, they enter into a living engagement with a spiritual tradition that has endured for millennia. They do not always accept its teachings, but they wrestle with what they have inherited, and they do that work together.
And you, how do you find meaning? What are the things that you live for? What are the things you would die for? With whom do you share your convictions? With whom do you live your heart?