Review: The Power of Meaning

the-power-of-meaning

The Power of MeaningEmily Esfahani Smith. New York: Crown Publishing, 2017.

Summary: Explores the importance of meaning in one’s life, four pillars upon which meaning rests, and how we might cultivate cultures of meaning.

The question of what a life well-lived is one that philosophers and baristas, young and old alike have considered from the earliest records we have of human musings. Emily Esfahani Smith introduces us to the importance of this in describing the beauty of the Sufi community gatherings in which she grew up and the findings of positive psychologists Martin Seligman and Robert Nozick. At one time, it was at the heart of university education and considering the great ideas was to consider how people through history found meaning. No longer. And yet now as ever, people face a crisis of meaning as they try to answer the question of what they are living for.

Smith does not offer a single answer, recognizing that people have answered this in numerous ways in different religions, philosophies, or ways of living. What she does instead is draw upon contemporary research and a wide range of writers and extra-ordinary people who have grappled with questions of meaning to identify four pillars or necessary elements upon which a meaningful live is built or as she puts it, “crafted.”

  • Belonging. She writes of the close knit community of the Tangier Island watermen and the Society for Creative Anachronism as two examples of communities that foster a high sense of belonging and thus meaning for their participants. From infants to old people, isolation is deadly to health and one’s sense of well-being.
  • Purpose. We meet a young zoo-keeper and an ex-con who launched a fitness enterprise after helping first himself and other prisoners get fit. And she gives the example of the NASA janitor who told President Kennedy that it was his purpose to “help put a man on the moon.” Whoever we are, we need some big goal around which we organize our lives.
  • Storytelling. This caught me by surprise at first.  Yet we all need to be able to see the course of our lives as a coherent narrative that makes sense of the world. She tells the stories of The Moth and the Story Corp projects and how significant the telling of stories are for both storytellers and their audiences.
  • Transcendence. She describes the “Overview Effect,” the experience of astronauts having scene the planet as a whole and not being able to ever approach life the same way again. For many, transcendence comes through some form of religious experience, but whatever it is, it is this sense of being part of something vastly greater than oneself.

Her concluding two chapters are on “Growth” and “Cultures of Meaning.” She writes of how often the discovery of meaning comes through adversity, using the examples of the Dinner Party, a gathering for those who have lost loved ones who are trying to find meaning in the midst of their grief, and Dryhootch, a coffee house for veterans suffering from PTSD founded by a vet whose struggles with PTSD led to a drunk driving accident where he killed another man. In “Cultures of Meaning” Smith describes how people have found meaning in communities emphasizing each of the pillars, ranging from a church to an apparel company.

Emily Esfahani Smith’s approach, as you may be able to tell is to mix a bit of research, insights from thoughtful writers like Viktor Frankl, and real life stories. It makes for a highly readable account. She honors both those whose sources of meaning are found in religious faith, and those for whom it is not. While some who are committed to a particular way of defining meaning might find this to “relativistic,” I would contend it is a great way to discover the ways people find meaning besides one’s own way. I could see the book being used for discussions where the object is learning about how others find meaning by exploring where each of us finds belonging, what gives each of us purpose, how each of us would narrate the story of our lives, and where we have experienced transcendence.

It raises good questions, particularly for those in religious traditions, about how one might go deeper in those traditions. We may embrace certain formal beliefs and practices, yet for our faith to be something alive both for us and others, the elements of belonging, purpose, story, and transcendence are indeed essential to living out lives that matter. To whom we belong and who we love, how we translate what we believe about God or whatever Ultimate we affirm into purposeful action, how we make sense of our story as part of a larger Story, and how we cultivate an attentiveness to God or the Ultimate are the things that bring beliefs to life. Ultimately, the “four pillars” must rest on some foundation and not thin air, but a foundation alone does not make a house to live in, but only something on which to build the meaningful life. This book may help us reflect on how well we are building.

_______________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Apologetics Beyond Reason: Why Seeing Really Is Believing

Apologetics Beyond Reason: Why Seeing Really Is Believing
Apologetics Beyond Reason: Why Seeing Really Is Believing by James W. Sire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is everything.
Therefore there is a God.
Either you see this or you don’t.

This epigraph at the beginning of James W. Sire’s latest book captures the “apologetic” for the Christian faith that Sire proposes. In the course of the book, he rings the changes on this syllogism, substituting for “everything” the terms “literature” and “the music of Johann Sebastian Bach” among others.

What he addresses here are the limits of reason to “prove” the existence of God or indeed to convince someone of the truth of the Christian faith. Using his own life story as an illustration, he contends for a “messy” approach to apologetics that is neither deductive or inductive but rooted in the idea that there are “signals of transcendence” that we might encounter wherever we look that point us to God and which are made sense of by the narrative of creation, fall and redemption we find in the story of scripture.

He begins with his encounters with Cartesian philosophy and the autonomy of human reason and the ultimate futility and implicit nihilism that results when human reason is pursued to its logical conclusions illustrated in the works of science fiction writer Stanislas Lem. There is a conundrum is using autonomous reason to articulate the futility of autonomous reason that in itself is a signal of transcendence. But where does one start?

Instead of reason as a starting point, Sire argues that the only place to begin is with God. That is, we don’t begin with what we can know, or epistemology, but rather with being itself, or ontology. We begin with God to know everything else (and either we see this or we don’t!). Sire proposes a threefold argument from this starting point:

1. An argument from God, not to God.
2. An argument from everything to God.
3, An argument from our personal experience — direct perception of God.

The remainder of the book is an unpacking of this argument from the world of literature and the arts interwoven with his personal experience. He begins with a literary theory of the work of authors in creating a “secondary world” that, when done well, points us back to the “primary world” in which we live. Thus, whether the writer believes in a God or not, Sire argues, he or she cannot help but signal the transcendent in their work. He illustrates this with both the works of a Christian, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the work of Virginia Woolf. If there is indeed a God, we cannot create a world that is reflective of Primary reality without also pointing back to God and opening oneself to the possibility of directly perceive the reality of God. He then illustrates this with the fictional account of a bereaved professor from a fictional college in Ohio that seemed to me reminiscent of A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Van Auken.

The concluding chapter moves from our perception, our seeing of God, to the story Sire believes makes the most sense of what we perceive of God and the rest of Primary Reality. He invites the reader to move beyond the signals to the One signaled, narrated in the Christian scriptures and centering in on Jesus Christ, who incarnated the reality of God.

I should confess at this point that I am at least a casual friend of the author. He has spoken on several occasions at collegiate ministry functions I have hosted. We have teamed up as program staff at student conferences. So there is no question of me being a sympathetic reader of his work. The argument he makes is one with which I would concur. But a couple of comments are probably in order.

As I’ve interacted with questioners about the Christian faith, I often find myself asking, “do you want there to be a God?” and “if I were to give reasonable responses to your questions, would you consider becoming a Christian?” I’m well aware that others see the same reality I do and just “don’t see” or don’t want to. Sire really doesn’t address the question of “what about those who don’t see?” And perhaps there is nothing to be said but to commend them to God in our prayers.

The other comment is that Sire argues from literature throughout the central part of this book. This is beloved ground for him and there will be others who appreciate the subtleties in the literature he cites. It is a world I am increasingly coming to enjoy. Yet I realized a great many do not know this world or are even put off by it. I don’t think there is a good response for this except to say to follow the thread of the argument, which connects to everything, and not simply everything in literature.

Sire’s book comes out of a career of teaching, writing, and serving as a traveling apologist. It reflects great wisdom in understanding both the messiness of apologetics and the reality that it will often be those signals of transcendence and our perception of them that will lead to faith. But as he has written, either his readers will see this, or they won’t.

View all my reviews

Transcendence–or Resurrection?

In the current movie, Transcendence, (which I have not seen) Johnny Depp’s character is mortally wounded by anti-Artificial Intelligence terrorists, and before he dies, his consciousness is downloaded into a computer by his wife. As is typical of such things, all sorts of mayhem results as his consciousness connects to the internet.

What is interesting is that this is not just the stuff of movies but that there is serious thinking and the beginnings of research with the goal of doing just this, as evidenced in the Wikipedia article on Mind uploading. Apart from the ethical questions raised by such efforts, my question is, why would you want to do this when there is a much better alternative?

What am I talking about? Resurrection–the idea of coming to life again after one has died in a new type of physical body that has continuity in some way with the one we have in this life but is subject to neither aging, disease, or death. Frankly, there is a good deal I like about embodied existence that a purely mental or even spiritual existence can’t hold a candle to. There are the experiences of the senses, glorious visions, beautiful music, delectable smells, the pleasures of eating, touching and being touched. There are the delights of using one’s body to translate our ideas into a gourmet dish, a song, a spoken word, a beautiful garden, a work of art, or even just this sentence. Some might argue that there are digital equivalents to this, but I’m not buying it.

HE-IS-RISEN-NOWISEEMEDIA

This is why I celebrate Easter. Resurrection is not a speculation of futurists or a research goal for the near or distant future. When we say, “He is risen, He is risen indeed” in churches around the world, we celebrate the reality that the first man has already come back from the dead, not as a resuscitated corpse, but as a gloriously new, yet emphatically the same Jesus in the flesh. Beyond their wildest dreams, the first followers of Jesus empirically validated the reality that resurrection is possible. They saw, heard, even touched the risen Christ.

Not only that, but followers of Jesus believe that “resurrection” is already at work in us, dying though we are. The apostle Paul speaks of a “new creation” having begun in us, that we already have experienced a being raised from spiritual death to life. The resurrection of the body simply marks the completion of a process whose beginning was symbolized when I was lifted up out of the waters of baptism.

Death seems so final, and perhaps what motivates people who dream of accomplishing “transcendence” is to find a way to evade and transcend this final reality.  If you don’t believe in a hereafter, if all you believe is that when you die, you rot, then transcendence is the only game in town. I also wonder if for others, “transcendence” is the best shot at evading the hereafter, or so one hopes.

Death also seems not to be the way things were meant to be. The Bible speaks of it as the last enemy to be destroyed. No wonder we fight it so hard with all our medical technology! No wonder we sometimes try to deny its existence or thwart its impact upon our lives. The truth is, I love my life in this body. I loved my first cup of coffee today. I loved the spring freshness of the air as I worked to clean up my yard. I even love the twinges in muscles that tell me that I used them! Truth is, I don’t want to die. In fact, some training I’ve received tells me that one should be concerned and take action when a person speaks of wanting to die.

So I get the transcendence thing. But I’m not going there. Today I will be celebrating something I think is far better. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is empirical evidence that my bodily resurrection is possible, and that of my parents, and all those I love who have hoped in Christ. I am celebrating the hope that one day I will see them in all their physical glory, that I will be seen with a glory I’ve never had before, and above all, that I will see the glory of the risen Christ. Oh, what a day that will be!