December 8, 2019
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What is Meaning? – Theology and Religion undergraduate taster lecture


My name’s David Cheetham and I’m the Reader
in Philosophical Theology here at the University of Birmingham. I’m also the Head of the
School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion as well. And I’m also the Programme Lead
for the BA in Philosophy, Religion and Ethics. Some of you might be doing that, I don’t
know. Happy to take questions at the end, maybe if you’ve got any questions about
that programme. So it’s not surprising that the lecture
I thought I would give you today or the taster lecturer is to do with something really pretentious,
like the question of meaning. And by that I mean something like the meaning of life,
a really big question. And the question really I have to ask today is whether it’s a genuine
question or whether it’s a question which any of you have any interest in whatsoever,
whether it’s a question which is really something to be put off to the future or whether
it’s a question which is relevant for you today. And certainly, one of the things we
do in this part of the Philosophy, Religion and Ethics is we consider the ways in which
different religions and different cultures and different parts of the world address this
particular question. Because for some people the question comes in an entirely different
from than the one that you might be expecting. It may be framed differently. It may be framed
as a collective question about you and everybody else or you and your family, whereas in the
West we tend to frame things very individually. And there’s a question also about how deep
do you need to go. So I bet you, the question of your life at the moment is, “Should I
come to Birmingham University?” or “Will I get the necessary grades for my A Levels
to get into my desired university?”, or “Is this the right course?” Those are
the right questions for you at the moment. So if I say to you “What is the meaning
of life?” you might say “Oh hang on a bit. I haven’t got there yet. I’m more
interested in what’s the meaning of whether I should go to university or not”. And that’s
a very interesting point you see because how deep does the question of meaning go? How
profound is the question? In the West our ideas of what are the big
questions are rather determined by the Greeks, the ancient Greeks, great philosophers like
Plato for example. And the Greeks tended to see things in terms of archetypes, that is
to say they seemed to think that the real answer to questions what about getting beneath
the surfaces of things, of trying to get down into the depths to get underneath questions
to find out those particular answers. That was their prejudice they call the philosophy
of the archetype. And the great philosopher Plato came up with the idea of something called
the ideal form – I don’t know if any of you have ever come across that idea. But that
was a classic idea of Plato known as the ideal form. And what he meant by that was that the
way that we look at the world is we have in our minds a series of kind of principles or
blueprints, so that when we see things we recognise what they are. Let me give you a really trivial example.
So take chairs. How do you know it’s a chair when you see it? Because when you think about
chairs there are lots of different kinds of chairs. Some chairs have cushions, some chairs
have three legs, some chairs have four legs. Some chairs are stools I suppose. Is that
a kind of chair? But your mind never goes through that kind of routine. That’s what
Plato’s point is. You never come across different chairs and say that’s a different
object from that object, because you have in your mind a concept – don’t laugh – called
“chairness”. There’s something in your mind, so that every time you see something
that looks vaguely like a chair or maybe has three legs or four legs, you automatically
know it’s something to be sat on. You have a principle in your head, so that every time
you come across, even if they’re wildly different, you somehow recognise oh, that’s
a chair, even though they’re very different. And Plato thought well that’s because there’s
an ideal blueprint of a chair in your mind, or there’s an ideal blueprint of the perfect
chair in the heavenly realms or in the noose as he called it, in the world of the mind.
That’s the first thing that has dominated Western thought, the idea of the archetype,
that really the surfaces are not important, it’s what is beneath the surfaces or the
principles behind those surfaces that are really important. Another kind of prejudice is this, that the
West has, is the idea of simplification. The idea that we can get a complex idea and boil
it down to its basic principles, that we must get down to the fundamentals of what something
is about. So we look at complexity, we say oh this can’t be the whole story. We have
to go deeper to find out what the basic principles are. So when we say what is the meaning of
life and we’re asking sort of really big questions, well maybe that’s the point,
is that we tend to think in terms of what’s underneath. So if you give the answer “What’s
the meaning of life?” Well you know “Get married, have kids, whatever”. Some people
might say “Oh yeah, but what is the real meaning of life?” And for some people well
that’s just enough. Why does there have to be anything more than that? Is it because
there’s a kind of a sense within our religions and also within our, the predominant ideas
of western philosophy that have dominated our thinking for so long, that have tended
to presuppose that there must be something underneath the surface? Now some people say the question is not genuine
because it’s not actually meant to be a question that receives a real answer. So if
you asked somebody the question “What is the meaning of life?” They might say “Well
I didn’t really mean it, I was just being rhetorical”. It’s rather like telling
someone to get lost. You don’t mean literally “Don’t find your way” you just mean
“Go away”. Or if somebody says to you “Oh you have no soul” it doesn’t mean
you don’t have this gaseous substance inside of you, it means that you somehow lack depth
or you lack basic humanity. Basically we use metaphors all the time and sometimes when
people ask questions, this is what Ludwig Wittgenstein thought, the great philosopher
of the twentieth century, that our language sometimes ties us up in knots, to make them
think that we’re asking real questions which have real objects of study. Well take this famous statement by Winston
Churchill. He said this – “What then fellow countrymen once the enemy is vanquished can
we no accomplish in our hour of victory?” Classic Churchill. But he doesn’t mean you
know, oh, we can accomplish anything, he just means to just buoy people up, he means to
encourage them. It’s not a genuine question, it’s merely rhetorical device designed to
beef people along and keep them going. And this is the whole question about the meaning
of life. When we ask that question, is it a genuine question that we can say “Oh,
found it. There it is, buried underneath that chair over there, the meaning of life”.
Can it be discovered in quite that way? Well some religions claim that is the case,
as you’ll see in a second, that truth is not something which you experience or you
fathom by reading lots of books. I shouldn’t really say that as a lecturer really should
I? But rather you find truth because it comes and introduces itself to you instead and you
would never have known it unless it walked into the room. That’s a different kind of
way of looking at meaning, that you don’t even know what you need yet until it walks
in the door. So is it about depth? But what about the shallows? What about the surfaces
of life? Why aren’t they just as profound in some ways as the depths with claim are
beneath them? Now who’s this guy? Oh I’ve already given
it away, sorry. Damn. David Hume, yes, I wasn’t meant to press the second button. Anyone come
across David Hume? Anyone doing philosophy? So you’ll know he’s a real sceptic about
just about everything. Best people to read in terms of real good scepticism or atheism
I suppose is David Hume because he writes some pretty annihilating stuff. But he’s
very clear about what he thinks is the criterion for meaning. So he thinks that anything to
do with poetry or anything to do with sort of religion in particular, don’t bother
with it because it’s really just poetry in the end, it has no factual merit about
it at all. And so he famously said well “If you read a book and it contains no experiments
or no scientific claims or no verifiables then just dump it” he says “Just discard
it. It can’t be worth much”. And this was very influential for a whole twentieth
century movement known as Positivism. And Positivism was basically the idea that you
shouldn’t really buy into anything that isn’t capable of being verified or falsified
and that statements are only meaningful if you an verify or falsify them. So if I say
“There is a pen next door, can someone go and fetch if for me?” Hume would say “You’re
making a meaningful statement because you can actually literally go next door and find
out whether that’s a meaningful statement” so there is either a pen next door or there
isn’t. But if I say to you “Does she love you?” or “Does he love you?” or “What
is the good?” Hume says well you can never find out what that would mean. You could never
verify or falsify that, therefore consign it to the flames. Don’t bother with such
questions. Now already you can see there’s a problem
with that isn’t there? In the search for precise meaning, maybe we end up eliminating
a whole range of meanings that we know make sense. We know it makes sense to say to somebody
“I love you”. We know it makes sense to say “It was a good thing that that person
did. We know what we mean” is the claim. And so for people like Hume to come along
and say “Ah, yes but can you test it? Can you boil it in a test tube?” The point is
this – is he setting the bar too high? Has he ended up eliminating all the other meanings
just because he wants to somehow get rid of the religious meaning in particular? And so there are different lives, different
aspects of meaning aren’t there? There’s what you call meaningful lives and there’s
the meaning of life. And so you I presume want meaningful lives. That’s why you’re
here. I presume you wouldn’t be here wanting to do a degree if you didn’t believe in
somehow that you wanted your life to have some kind of purpose or meaning. So there
is the micro level of meaning that makes so much sense within a horizon of our own finitude,
how we’re going to live and die and whatever. It’s very interesting. They did a study recently
to ask this question about whether the meaning of life was still a valid question in the
twenty first century for young people, because some of you in this room will probably live
way, way beyond your hundreds, whereas people like me maybe won’t. But people like you,
because of all the advanced technologies that we have, and maybe all the consciousness about
healthy heating and all that sort of stuff, maybe that’s not so important, but certainly
the medicine will somehow allow you to live for as long as you want. I guarantee it. They’re
already getting that way already. Now think about that. Think about the cultural
effects of that particular change. It means that in a way the question of what happens,
or maybe there is a life after death or maybe there is a bigger meaning, will disappear
into the horizon. Similarly, your concern about limited horizons, you know will I get
a degree? Should I do this? Will I find a lifelong partner? Will I get a good career?
All those sort of questions which are time focused. They’re about five or ten or maybe
fifteen years ahead of you. Maybe that’s as far as we go as human beings. We can’t
go much further than that. And so maybe we can talk about meaningful
lives – I want to do this. I want to get married. I want to do that. I want to get
a good career. I want to do all kinds of – those are meaningful goals possibly. But the meaning
of life might be just too big a question. And then the other thing is is about then
the significance of things, as a how significant are events in your life? What kind of premium
do you give the basic significance? But significance is this. Say, so imagine you go on holiday
and you’re on a beach or wherever, and somehow, just round the corner comes your friend or
your next door neighbour. Some of you, that will fill you with great horror probably – you’re
trying to get away from your next door neighbour. But imagine they turn up on the same resort
as you turn up to. Now some of you will do this. You’ll say
“Wow, what a coincidence. Fancy you being here”. That will be the significance of
the event for you. Life’s just like that. It throws random stuff at you. Others of you
will say “My goodness, there must be a purpose. There must be a – timing is so perfect.
There must be a reason why we came together. What are the odds of meeting you on the same
time in the same place? There must be a design behind it”. Now some people say that the point behind
that is that we have a lot of freedom regarding how we interpret the significance of events.
For some of us coincidence make all the difference and for others there is a definite teleology
or design behind those particular significances. And we have a lot of freedom to decide how
to interpret those. I was visited a couple of months ago by a
civil servant. This is the question by the way “Is my degree going to be useful?”
So I was visited by a civil servant who came to see me and said would I be interested in
suggesting some people who would go down and sit on a government think tank to talk about
the deeper meanings that we need to cultivate for our society today. Because not surprisingly,
as you might guess, the government doesn’t have an idea about what it wants to do about
value and meaning in society. It knows about money and finance, it knows all about that,
but it doesn’t know so much about value. And so the question I was being asked, the
government anxieties, is about meaningful society. And this is the problem you see. Because some
great philosophers have asked the question “How do all these people with different
meanings of life live together?” And I bet you there’s about ten or fifteen different
meanings of life in this room today. How do we get you to co-exist? How do we get you
to live? Now some people think, oh it’s OK. Leave
religion out of it. Stuff all the meaning into the private domain and leave the public
domain free of religion and free of comprehensive commitments. Instead let’s just be reasonable.
And the problem with that, as government finds, is if you take away the meaning from the public
square, well you’ve taken away meaning. You’ve taken away the reason why people
want to do stuff, why they want to be good, why they want to say yes you should do this.
And people say “Well why should I do that?” Well because, well what? Precisely. And so
government is asking the question, how do we cultivate meaning in the public square
when there is a multicultural situation at hand? What are the values we all share? What
are the meanings we all share? It’s a genuine question. And I’ve just put above here,
the question more compelling today, a post modern anxiety, the end of the grand meta-narrative.
Sounds profound stuff. Well there was a great thinker called Francis
Fukuyama who wrote a book called The End of History and the Last Man. And he basically
kind of said that well, it [0:15:23] history’s run its course. We seem to, we knew about
fifty or sixty years ago, because it was a very scientistic (sic) scientifically dominated
intellectual sphere. We thought we knew what facts were. We thought we knew what societies
should do. Societies were far more monocultural perhaps. But now, in the post modern world,
the post modernity basically means difference. It means that there’s lots and lots and
lots and lots of different things. And the question is what do you do with all that difference?
I mean once you’ve arrived at a place where you have so much choice about meaning. You
know you don’t have to say “What do my parents think?” or is this society, does
it agree on all the same things, because apparently one of the great virtues of our society is
diversity. We seem to champion that as the chief value if you notice – diversity, all
that sort of stuff. So diversity is a value but what does that
look like in terms of purpose and meaning? What I means is choice. It means lots and
lots and lots and lots of choice and so really it leads to an anxiety of a surplus of meaning
– not just no meaning but too much meaning. And so the question is what to do in today’s
society with all these multiple meanings? So some people say, as you might be not surprised,
given the fact that we, it’s about religion as well, that the meaning is transcendent.
That is to say that the true source of meaning, rather like what Plato was saying but not
quite the same thing – he was talking more about the intellect. But some people will
say well meaning comes from above. Simple as that. Where do we get the certainties from?
Well it must come from outside of the flux of life. It must come out from beyond, from
further afield. And there was a great thinker called Blaise Pascal – some of you may have
heard of him. And he kind of, he said something like this, he said “The individual tries
in vain to fill everything around him, seeking in things that are not there, the help he
cannot find and those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can only
be filled but with an infinite and immutable object, in other words by God himself”. So Pascal has come up with one of those classic
things that you often hear, often from preachers possibly, is that human beings have this infinite
hole, this infinite yearn for something that will fill it. And it has to therefore, it’ll
never be ever filled if you know what I mean, except by the infinite. It can’t be filled
by anything else because it’s infinitely huge. Now some people say, well that’s Pascal’s
point, that in some ways – and this is the point made by a number of philosophers and
theologians. They say that well, the answer must come from outside of the human sphere
because it transcends the human sphere. The question’s too big to be answered by humanity
alone. And that’s Pascal’s point. He says that
there’s a voracious appetite that human beings have for multiple meanings but how
varied it is or however multiplied it is, it doesn’t satisfy. Now of course Pascal
heart failure a problem with that, Pascal’s thinking, but of course he’s assuming that
– how does he know that a finite being like a human being has an infinite need? Is that
just human poetry again? Oh the need is infinite. Is it genuine that or is it just very big?
Does it go on forever or does it just go on for a long, long, long, long time our particular
needs? This is the question. How large does the answer need to be to satisfy? And Pascal
just throws out an infinite need. Well that might be his bit of plenty there.
Maybe what he really means, it just needs to be very big. And that’s the question
you need to ponder about how much satisfies the question? Is it very big or does it have
to be bigger than anything else? Or even further than that, does it have to be infinitely big?
And how do human beings know that given the fact they’re not infinite themselves? There’s
only so much you can stuff inside the human body I presume or inside your mind. Well maybe
there’s a finite answer to the big question. That’s a question you could think about. Another thinker called Karl Rahner. I don’t
know if any of you have heard of him but he was a thinker of the twentieth century who
was the chief architect behind one of the major councils in the Vatican church called
Vatican Two. He put the, he had this whole idea of, he said it’s more natural for a
human being to be supernatural than it is for them to be purely natural. That’s a
big of a tongue twister isn’t it? It’s more natural for you to be supernatural than
it is for you to be just natural. And he said this, or rather it was the thinker
here, Karen Kilby who is in our department and she writes this really short book on Karl
Rahner, about ninety pages long. You can read it in about two hours. It’s really well
written. And she gives this analogy. She says this, he says “What Rahner is trying to
say is because God is so obvious” – that’s his view, you may disagree – “you can’t
help but take into account into your day to day lives the fact of this particular horizon
that’s always there though you never acknowledge it”. Now Rahner’s point is simply this, is that
it’s somehow, the belief in God or the horizon of God on the horizon as it were, in your
minds, is what makes you have a purpose in your life, why you think it’s worth getting
out of bed in the morning. Maybe you don’t think that’s worthwhile. Or whether it’s
worthwhile going to work or going to lectures or getting a degree. I mean why do you bother
with all that stuff? You know how it ends and yet you do. You want a job, you want to
do these other things with your lives. And Rahner says well the reason why you do that
is because there’s this horizon where you think, you’ve sort of got to say to yourself
it’ll be all right in the end. It’s all going to turn out fine. There is a bigger
purpose after all. This is the horizon. And what Karen Kilby my colleague said – it’s
rather like as if you’re climbing up Mount Everest and it takes a long time to climb
up Mount Everest and so – it’s different from climbing up any old hill like the Brecon
Beacons which takes you about half – not half an hour, half a day. But Everest takes
about three or four weeks. And in the process of climbing up that huge mountain you might
forget the mountain’s even there, but you’ll be still putting one foot in front of the
other and stopping by camp sites. You can’t always keep on looking up for the three or
four weeks, and so you start to look down, you start to talk to your friends, you start
to kind of – but you’re all heading in some direction. You’re moving towards it.
It’s over there, something. Oh yeah, it’s Everest. Do you know what I mean? But because
it’s three or four weeks ahead, it’s not the immediate point of conversation. Now Rahner says that – that’s God you
see. That’s the reason why we all put one foot in front of the other, why we make our
lives have meaning, why we go from one step to the other and try to get better and better,
or whatever it is we’re trying to do. So he calls that – and of course most philosophers
as you know like to think of nice big words when they have a good idea, and he’s no
exception. So he calls this the supernatural existential. Posh stuff. But basically it
means somehow that our whole existence has somehow got fused within it this basic horizon. I said a minute ago that – I don’t know
if any of you have seen a film called Total Recall, or Memento. That was another one wasn’t
it? Oh there’s a really dark movie which I don’t know whether any of you have seen
called Angel Heart. But the basic story behind these things is that these people, these characters
in these films don’t know what they’ve done because their memories have been erased,
and so their true identity is concealed from them until some terrible moment in the film
where somebody says “This is your true brain. Let me put it back inside you.” Ah, that’s
what I did. And so it turns out that in Total Recall the hero has a wife he never knew about
because his mind’s been erased. It turns out in another film that the guy turns out
to have been a murderer but of course he’s changed his identity and somebody wiped his
memories. But the point of that is – now why am I
saying all that in the context of this, is that sometimes the meaning of life arrives
unbeckoned or as a surprise or as an intervention rather than something you’re looking for.
So you could spend hours and hours and hours and hours or centuries maybe in the library
and you still wouldn’t get anywhere close to the answer to the meaning of life because
if the meaning of life is something that’s meant to drop out of the sky, so it surprises
you – that’s another model for meaning. So the other models that we’ve talked about,
about career and life and so on, but some of the monotheistic traditions like Islam,
Christianity and Judaism, is that meaning is given. It arrives as a surprise. It’s
like a revelation. A book turns up, a holy writ, a person turns up and says “I am he”
or whatever it might be. But it’s totally discontinuous with anything that might be
part of your knowledge. You could never read about Jesus Christ in a book. You could never
read about the Koran by learning philosophy. It just turns up if you know what I mean. And other thing to say is this – that’s
one aspect of it, is that therefore God, the idea of the theistic traditions is that God
[0:24:58] meaning. But there’s the other idea that somehow that also our meaning requires
God in order to give it shape. Has anybody ever seen those Christmas decorations that
kind of hang from the ceiling and they’re kind of [0:25:12] they’re like kind of disco
balls sort of thing, they’re kind of spree things, but when you collapse them down they
collapse flat into a pack. Do you know what I mean? Those kind of spiral things that become
round shaped? I’m using great analogies today I know. But that’s the idea that somehow
while they’re all flat packed they don’t look very interesting, but when you hook them
up to the ceiling, they become three dimensional. So some views of meaning take that form. They
say that well meaning – this is the view of the great philosopher Thomas Aquinas. He
said meaning gets, we get our meaning because it participates in the divine. It gets, it’s
like as if God is blowing up the balloon and making it have shape. And so the question
of meaning then becomes something which God inflates or bestows and therefore transforms
an object that is rather imminent and flat into three dimensions instead. That’s another
view of meaning – very theistic, Semitic view of meaning. But then you go East and they say well no,
it’s not about things dropping out of the sky. It’s not about revelation in that sense
that you don’t know about it, it’s about thinking towards self improvement. And so
the basic, at the root of Hinduism and Buddhism for example is how do I experience joy. How
do I have a joyous life? Not happy. Happy’s different. Happy’s not the same as joy.
Happiness comes and goes. Joy is continuous. You can be joyous allegedly through times
of great suffering but happiness comes and goes. And so you might say that the search
for Hindus and for Buddhists in particular is some kind of inner, you know, we’ve got
it right. And I’ve put here the third thing down on the this thing is the problem of being
out of tune. That sums up really the kind of the Eastern perspective, that somehow the
world is doing one thing and we’ve got to somehow get in with the flow of it. And so
you might achieve that through meditation. Because what’s at the root of the Eastern
perspective, rather like for Plato, is education, is that somehow peace and truth comes through
learning, which is different if you look, if you remember from the Islam and Christianity
and Judaism which is learning comes through revelation. Whereas for the Eastern traditions
learning comes through meditation. It comes through pondering on the nature of reality.
And you see that, overcoming ignorance – avidya within Hinduism is the whole point. And that’s what Plato thought. Plato thought
that the way you heal society is you educate it. So you would get people to stop being
criminals if you educated them. And it’s a kind of a basic principle that went sort
of into the East, influenced Eastern thinking as well that somehow that if we see things
right, if we see that everything is one or whatever it is, we retrain some kind of tranquillity
or serenity. And it’s very interesting that for the Buddhists
for example it’s – this is the question, whether we’re in search for the permanence
or the flux. Now remember that question I asked right at the beginning of the lecture
about whether meaning is somehow down deep in the depths or whether it’s beneath the
surface? That also presupposes another kind of metaphysic ontology. It presupposes that
we’re in search of something that stands still. That’s the prejudice of Parmenides
of the Greeks, who was in search of being. But there was another thinker called Heraclitus.
Does anyone know what Heraclitus famously said? Anyone know? It’s too late in the
afternoon I know, and the sun’s shining. It’s tiring stuff. Heraclitus said you can’t step into the
same river twice. Why? Because his principle wasn’t being, it was becoming. It was flux.
Everything changes. And the Buddhist will say to you “Ah, your problem, why you’re
so unhappy is because you’re in search of permanence when the truth is flux. Everything
is on the move, everything’s changing”. And so the Buddhist is trying to persuade
you to go with the flow, to let go of yourself, to let go of the idea that there’s a God
and go with the flux. A Hindu is rather like trying to say “Well if you meditate try
to find the deeper Atman or the deeper oneness that stands still. Different kind of persuasions
but the same sort of approach, that meaning is through experience. Meaning is through
learning, and you achieve that through practice and through meditation. I haven’t got much time left so maybe I
will just finish with this bit here, is that some people say well all, that’s all very
boring because really meaning isn’t, shouldn’t be about “I want to be a good person”
because this lady here called Susan Wolf says what about other goods? What about being a
great chef? What about being a great pianist? What about being a great tennis player? What
about those people who say “I want to win the hundred metres and be the fastest in the
world”? And what Susan Wolf says this, she says “Well if you spend all your life trying
to be good you’ll never be a great chef because you’ll think that’s a waste of
your time. You’ll think that’s not the point. If you spend all your time bothering
about sort of the great purposes in life, what about the medium purposes in life? What’s
so wrong about being the fastest runner on earth? What’s so wrong about being the greatest
maker of lasagne or curry on the earth, if you know what I mean. And now she doesn’t want to be cheeky or
churlish about it, but the question is very clear isn’t it? Is that sometimes the good
drowns out other goods, non-moral goods, and these are all part of the questions then that
show you I hope that the meaning of life is a very complex issue. Difficult to know where
to start sometimes but these are the kinds of things I think that are the primary questions
that face us today. Thank you very much.

Otis Rodgers

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