Yes, belief is hard in an an age of doubt and disenchantment, in this our "secular age," to use the phrase of Charles Taylor. And yet, we're dissatisfied and disillusioned with doubt and disenchantment in various ways. And that dissatisfaction and disillusionment can be used and leveraged back upon doubt and disenchantment. As in the martial art jujitsu, you use the momentum and energy of the attacker against himself. Doubt and disenchantment erodes belief, but doubt and disenchantment create all sorts of dissatisfactions that can be leveraged right back upon doubt and disenchantment, causing us to doubt our doubts and edge back toward enchantment.
So in the next few posts I want to walk through a couple of locations where I think this existential jujitsu is effective.
In this post I'd like to consider meaning, significance and purpose in life.
Specifically, we'd like for our lives to have meaning and significance. We want our lives to matter. We want our lives to have purpose.
But in our disenchanted and secular age the transcendent and metaphysical structures that gave the lives of our ancestors value, direction, purpose, significance and meaning have all been dismantled. All that we are left with, in a thoroughly disenchanted world, is the preferences and choices of the lone individual. But when I'm confronted with the fact that the great, grand goal and purpose of my life is the product of my own momentary choice and preference the fabric that makes up the meaning of life seems thin and insubstantial. I'm a fickle human being. Who says the "meaning" of my life, the meaning I chose for myself today, isn't going to be different tomorrow when I decide to change my mind?
Fickleness isn't the only problem. As I reflect upon my life I see how my visions of success, significance and meaning in life are often driven by vanity and selfishness. Or fear. In Christian language, my vision of success and significance is always being contaminated by my own sin, brokenness and fallenness.
And it's not just fickleness and sin. Sometimes it's just simple inattentiveness. I don't, by and large, wake up each day pondering the deep existential significance of my life. I'm too busy, distracted and superficial. I mainly spend my days moving back and forth from To Do Lists to entertainments. Now I'm working on something that has to get done, then surfing the Internet, then excited to get back to show I'm following on Netflix. Then back to work. So pass my days, life as an producer and consumer in late modern capitalism. My life is rendered superficial by mindlessness. I'm being "productive" and having "fun" but I'm not living deeply.
Such is meaning, purpose and significance when life is left up to me. When it's left up to me the deepest things in life suddenly seem fragile and insubstantial. So we are chronically confronted with crises of meaning. We never escape the haunting question, "What's the point?" Life feels random, arbitrary, and rootless.
All this is to simply say that meaning, purpose and significance is harder in a disenchanted age. And we feel a deep dissatisfaction with this state of affairs. Here's how Charles Taylor describe this fragility of meaning in our secular age:
Almost every action of ours has a point; we're trying to get to work, or to find a place to buy a bottle of milk after hours. But we can stop and ask why we're doing these things, and that points us beyond to the significance of these significances. The issue may arise for us in a crisis, where we feel that what has been orienting our life up to now lacks real value, weight...A crucial feature of the malaise of [modernity] is the sense that all these answers are fragile, or uncertain; that a moment may come, where we no longer feel that our chosen path is compelling, or cannot justify it to ourselves or others. There is a fragility of meaning...And because of this void of meaning, continues Taylor, "the quotidian [day to day life] is emptied of deeper resonance, is dry, flat; the things which surround us are dead, ugly, empty; and the way we organize them, shape them, in order to live has not meaning, beauty, depth, sense." In our disenchanted world we experience "a terrible flatness in the everyday."
I think we've all experienced this, especially if you struggle with doubt and disenchantment.
So here's the existential jujitsu.
Yes, doubt and disenchantment make it hard to believe in metaphysics and transcendence.
But doubt and disenchantment also make it hard for meaning, purpose and significance in life.
And the dissatisfactions we experience in this regard--"the terrible flatness in the everyday"--can help us edge back toward enchantment.