In the last article, I began to explore with you some of the reasons people give for finding Christianity credible and life-changing. I now want to focus on one of these – the desire to find meaning in life. That’s become increasingly important as a result of the many uncertainties that we face at the moment as a result of wars, financial crises, and a growing realisation that our planet seems to be developing climate patterns that threaten the existence of many forms of life – including that of human beings.
So, what is this idea of “meaning” all about? And why does it matter so much to so many people? I’ve often been struck by some phrases I came across in the novelist Jeanette Winterson’s personal memoirs, which are playfully titled Why be happy when you could be normal? Winterson’s words seem to be to go straight to the heart of what we really need as human beings if we are to live meaningfully and in hope:
We need to live, not simply to exist.
“We cannot simply eat, sleep, hunt and reproduce – we are meaning-seeking creatures. The Western world has done away with religion but not with religious impulses; we seem to need some higher purpose, some point to our lives – money and leisure, social progress, are just not enough.”
I think she’s right. We need to live, not simply to exist. Many of us feel that we live in an age in which we are simply overwhelmed with information, and can’t work out what really matters to us. Facts aren’t enough! The American scientist Edward O. Wilson recently remarked that “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.” We may live in an age of information, but it is not an age of meaning. And a failure to find meaning in life can easily lead to despair.
Here’s how the psychologist Michael F. Steger explores this question of meaning. It is to be understood as “the extent to which people comprehend, make sense of, or see significance in their lives, accompanied by the degree to which they perceive themselves to have a purpose, mission, or overarching aim in life.” That’s a helpful point at which to begin our reflections. Now psychology may not be able to tell us what this “big picture” might be – but it certainly shows us how important it is for us to lead a meaningful and fulfilled life.
The death of Christ is seen as a token of commitment, a demonstration of God’s solidarity with humanity.
Psychologists have explored this fundamental human concern, helping us to understand some of its core elements, and the difference it makes to life. We need to feel that we can make a difference to things, and to take control of our lives; we need a sense of identity and purpose, if we are to cope with traumatic experiences in life, and our awareness of our own mortality.
Let’s now unpack the idea of meaning in more detail, and look at how Christianity engages its several aspects. What kind of meaning are we talking about? The social psychologist Roy Baumeister set out a classic analysis of theories of the meaning of life, Baumeister wasn’t interested in telling us the meaning of life, but rather exploring the four fundamental questions that had to be answered convincingly if a worldview was to count as a ‘meaning of life’. Let me tell you what these are.
1. The question of Identity: who am I?
2. The question of Value: do I matter?
3. The question of Purpose: why am I here?
4. The question of Agency: can I make a difference?
I want you to notice that these are not empirical questions that can be answered by the natural sciences. Let’s look at one of them, and reflect on how Christianity engages this. Do I matter?
The care of God for humanity is emphasised throughout the Old Testament. God is our shepherd, who accompanies, supports and upholds us, even in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23). Yet the New Testament adds a new dimension to this, by reaffirming the love of God for humanity, while linking to the death of Jesus Christ as a tangible demonstration of this commitment and compassion. Paul spoke of this divine commitment at several points: “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5.8). The death of Christ is seen as a token of commitment, a demonstration of God’s solidarity with humanity.
Our value as individuals thus does not depend upon our achievements, but in the esteem and affection in which we are held by God. God is our “secure base,” to use a phrase introduced by the social psychologist John Bowlby. God offers us the unconditional love and acceptance that we need to grow as people and learn from our mistakes. This kind of “secure base” helps us to cope with personal challenges and difficulties. The biblical image of God or the Christian faith as a rock (as, for example, in the image of the person who builds their house on a rock, rather than shifting sand: Matthew 7.24-7) expresses these ideas of security and stability in an accessible way. We possess value because we are valued and accepted, and enabled to cope with the challenges of life.
Just as the philosopher’s stone transmuted base metal into gold, so God transforms the value of individuals through grace.
We could speak of the transvaluation of human life through being “touched” by God – a theme that is found throughout the poetic writings of George Herbert. In one of his poems, Herbert here likens the graceful “touch” of God as being like the fabled “philosopher’s stone” of medieval alchemy. Just as the philosopher’s stone transmuted base metal into gold, so God transforms the value of individuals through grace.
This is that famous stoneThat turneth all to gold: For that which God doth touch and own Cannot for less be told.
God bestows value on us, reassuring us that, despite everything, we really matter, and have a place in a greater scheme of things. We are, as the medieval writer Julian of Norwich famously put it, “enfolded” in the love of Christ, which brings us a new security, identity, and value. This idea of mattering to God, of being valued, is a significant theme in Christian thought. A leading theme in the New Testament is that Christ demonstrates and grounds God’s love for humanity. Paul speaks of this at several points in his letters: “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2.20).
Without losing our own distinct identities, we can enter into this greater story, and gain value, meaning and purpose within it.
This is one of the reasons why so many people find Christianity deeply attractive. Let me try to flesh this out a little further by turning to C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, especially its best-known novel, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The Chronicles of Narnia resonate strongly with a deep human intuition that our own story is part of something grander which, once we have grasped it, allows us to see our situation in a new and more meaningful way. Lewis picks up on the Christian idea that we are each individuals, with our own unique story – but that we can become part of some greater enterprise, and in doing so, make a difference.
What we see in the Chronicles of Narnia is people (often humble and lowly people) realising that they can become part of something bigger. Without losing our own distinct identities, we can enter into this greater story, and gain value, meaning and purpose within it. In one sense, faith is about allowing our own stories to become part of this larger story of God.
In the next article, I will move on to explore the place of Jesus Christ in the Christian faith, and tease out some of the themes that help us understand his significance.
Alister McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford. His latest book is What’s the Point of Theology? Wisdom, Wellbeing and Wonder, published recently by SPCK.