Watch TV or read the newspaper for any length of time and notice how often people talk about “making sense” of an experience or “giving meaning” to some event– often tragic.
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It’s so common few people realize just how odd such language would be in other times and places.
In his book, The Question of Meaning, German theologian Gerhard Sauter identifies the modern-day “search for meaning” as a recent development. It comes from the loss of a common story that religion, tradition, law, and community once provided.
What happens when a society loses it’s common story?
An illustration would be the Los Angeles riots in the early 1990s. People got up one morning, wanted some orange juice for breakfast, thought about going to the corner store for a bottle, and then remembered they had burned the place down the night before.
The same kind of thing can be true of the common stories that tie people together. When times get tough, people want to find comfort in a common story that makes sense of their situation only to find that story has been “burned to the ground” by a debunking fad that has discredited the overarching narrative it once provided.
The Enlightenment (18th century) broke the synthesis of politics, religion, education, family, law, and community that had previously been reflected in a social structure permeated by references to a transcendent God, divine immanence within the created order, eternal truths, and eternal judgment. In its place, came absolute confidence in science, human reason, and man’s ability to master nature.
Many good things came from the Enlightenment, but religion, tradition, law, family, and community were gradually robbed of their ability to give meaning, to comfort individuals during existential crises– crises such as death, sickness, poverty, abandonment, etc. The result has been to create disconnected, atomized individuals in search of meaning.
So in times past, people didn’t have to “make sense” of their lives because shared understandings of past, present, and eternity had already done so in advance. Today though, most people have no “story” but the one they make up for themselves.
But made-up stories eventually fail. The only meaning that truly lasts is meaning rooted in transcendent power– in the meanings that God assigns. In the absence of such meanings, people necessarily have to “make sense of” and “give meaning to” their lives every day in every way.
The church is not immune to the secular pursuit of private meanings made necessary by the erosion of common beliefs. It often comes disguised as a pious search for “the will of God” in one’s personal life. The goal is God’s secret plan for the individual. The net result is the continued neglect of a common story and the crowding out of communal meanings shared within communal settings.
An alternative is to reject the exaggerated ambitions of the Enlightenment credo and return to the biblical story shared within a biblical community, where the “will of God” ceases to be some private, extra-biblical discovery, and instead is understood as public knowledge, publicly available– a public knowledge through which the need “to write one’s own story… to give meaning… and to make sense…” naturally recedes in the face of a cosmic narrative that explains everything.