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Christianity from an Existential Perspective..

Meaninglessness: Understanding the problem


All people at some stage during their life confront meaninglessness, and despair that their life thus far has been a meaningless one. This is far from a general rule, however, as the confrontation with meaninglessness differs in substance depending on the person. Some confront it young, and spend the rest of their lives grappling with the tremendous courage needed to live with meaning and the tremendous anxiety that is provoked by the ease of which meaning can be lost. Some confront it in middle age and (using no spiritual terminology) experience a “mid-life crises.” Some have revelations on their death bed that their entire life has been an exercise of flagrant trivialities and gains that were not fulfilling and will not carry over in the afterlife to come. And some, being both the most cursed and the most blessed at the same time, go through life with such spiritlessness that they never confront meaninglessness and thus never attain meaning.

Paul Tillich in his magnificent work “The courage to be” explains how this confrontation with meaninglessness is rooted from an anxiety the human soul has with non-being (a kind of universal despair akin to what Kierkegaard formulated). This anxiety towards non-being is expounded in several ways — the anxiety towards fate and death, guilt and condemnation, and a meaningless existence — and is found evident in every person that is aware of themselves as a spiritual being.

Tillich argues that at different stages of human history one of these three anxieties is featured prominently. In the classical age philosophers, poets, actors, and common folk were preoccupied with the anxiety towards fate and death, the two best examples being Greek society and the Old Testament Jews. Philosophies such as Epicureanism, stoicism, and indeed Judaism all possessed an answer and cure towards this anxiety. In the Middle Ages, the anxiety of guilt and condemnation came to the fore as sin and repentance was in the minds of both peasants and kings alike. Religious institutions were assembled to combat this anxiety, offer repentance on a mass level, and guide the countless people who wanted redemption from their sins. In the modern age, the death of God has brought about the anxiety of meaninglessness. With a new earthly mind-set the anxiety of fate and death became less of a problem, and the anxiety of guilt and condemnation was nullified since no person considered themselves subject to a higher spiritual authority. Once religion and a higher purpose to life were abolished, the question was finally asked “from whence does my life find meaning?” At every stage of human history man was confronted with something that threatened to destroy his soul. Following a confrontation a person can do one of four things: he can ignore it, try and solve it himself, look towards secular philosophy, look towards religion, or look towards Jesus.

I wish to address the various proposed solutions to anxiety in the following posts, for I don’t see a more significant topic than something that can shake any thoughtful person to the core. Religious people cannot share their faith by formulating grand universal theologies, and then trying to solve a person’s existential problems and anxieties with these supposed rational proofs. Religion, properly understood, is also the understanding and explication of mankind’s deepest fears, anxieties, needs, sins, and desires. Any religion solution to all these existential states must be arrived at with this in mind, and only then will the words of Jesus be illuminated for what they really are, something that we really need. Not just metaphysically need, but existentially need.

-- By Timothy Neal