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The Search for Significance

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Post Written by Stephen T. Hague –

William James in Essays on Faith and Morals asks two big questions: “What makes life significant?” And, “Is life worth living?” He notes rightly that there are many things (culture, ideals, heroism) that give some kind of significance to life, yet that fail “when they pretend singly to redeem life of insignificance” (p. 306).

Are we significant? Do we matter?
Is life worth living?

A life worth living is a life that has significance, but one must know that significance. James argues strongly that life is worth living, yet he falls short of affirming an unabashed Christian faith as the source of that significance. He rightly notes that pessimism is “essentially a religious disease” (p. 8), and that one stage in the recovery is the “exercise of religious trust and fancy” (p. 9). That is,there are possibilities. James quotes William Slater, “as the essence of courage is to stake one’s life on a possibility, so the essence of faith is to believe that the possibility exists” (p. 31). Surely, this is true so far as it goes, but does this take us far enough to know that (our) life is truly significant and worth living? Will “religious fancy” or belief in “possibilities” cure our disease? His exhortation to his readers is, “Be not afraid of life! Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact” (p. 31). Is this a sufficient ground for affirming significance, for living our life?

It is the rare person who is so low and without hope that they have no regard for their own significance, for in fact it concerns the verymeaning and purpose of one’s existence. Indeed, there may be some who claim to care nothing for such a concern, since their life experiences, and faithlessness, have brought them to a point-of-no-return to significance. For the vast majority, the search for significance drives all that they think and do. This search is not necessarily a straight road in any particular (pre-determined) direction, since many seek in places where no significance may be found. And many seek it in ways that are self-defeating.

In reality, since all (finite) people need an “infinite reference point” for integration, all finite reference points will fail to provide any sufficient integration for human personality, relations, aspirations, longings, hopes, fears, labors, loves, and life. Significance matters to all of these, and much more. Even the hard-hearted atheist must find spiritual, moral, and relational significance in their denials of God. Even the Scrooges of the world seek an infinite reference point for their significance, though it is in the sand-castles of their wealth-hoards.

Significance is more than meaning, however, for it particularly involves the unique quality of one’s life that provides a starting point for the kind of purpose and meaning that “make it all worthwhile.” This is especially important for those who might by some (like the eugenicist at Princeton University, Peter Singer) be categorized as “not fully human,” for it means that every human life is indeed unique and thus worth living. Meaning alone is an insufficient foundation for human significance, for meaning can be found where there is no true significance. In fact, integrative meaning derives from one’s unique significance. Significance is what gives sufficient purpose to face even extreme personal suffering, physical deprivations, and handicaps. Significance “signals” that we are for a reason, that we do for a purpose, and that at the end of the day we matter.

Now, “to matter” can be understood in very diverse ways. For the atheist or agnostic to find significance, they must seek a source other than the source of significance, God himself. As noted, however, the atheist, needing to know significance, must and will find some fragments of it without faith in God. Though fragmented by an incomplete theology (of unbelief), it is real nonetheless. Certainly, it is wrong to think that the atheist and agnostic have a life with no personal sense of significance, or have a meaningless life. This is because significance, and the search for meaningful life, is the inescapable reality of all made in God’s image (Gen 1:27; 9:6). It is the reality (environment) for all people, that being made in God’s image they do have true significance. Everyone thus finds some kind of “meaning” or “purpose,” for who we are and what we do truly matters. This is true for all, and is therefore profoundly significant.

Nevertheless, only the Creator can be an infinite reference point for those made in his image, and those seeking significantintegration in what is finite will be forever frustrated. That is, to find “meaning” or “purpose” in things finite is not to find one’s integrative significance. Yet, for all humans made in God’s image, what we are and do truly matters; we are truly significant. Who we are and what we do in this life causes real ripples in this world, in the heavenly realms, and for all eternity. Such a concept is startling, since it means we live horizontally into all eternity. That is, our lives, our present being, character, actions, personality, and relationships are eternally significant, horizontally so forever. Our work, our thoughts, our loves, our whole lives will continue into the eternal space-time continuum of either heaven or hell. The end-game, though this is no game, is determined by our present vertical relationships – whether we love God or Baal. Our present lives have eternal significance now, in all the details, in regards to this question, since we presently live in eternity.

For many Christians, however, the life of faith is primarily vertical in perspective. Faith in Christ to them means deliverance from their body and all its life-woes. Faith means biding the time until death introduces them to freedom from this body’s life of trouble.Significance, in this case, resides mistakenly in faith-survival, or “muddling through,” to the end of one’s life. “Hanging on by the skin of our teeth.” Certainly, undying faithfulness to Christ until the end of our lives is a paramount Christian calling. All the same, truly integrative significance in this life is largely absent from such a limiting vantage-point, since it excludes the totality of life lived under the Lordship of Christ, the telos of our being created: to glorify God and to enjoy him forever in his created universe. It is to live, work, create, and propagate as prophets, priests, and kings in his paradise on earth from creation to the new creation. It is to become master gardeners of earthly dominion. Though we live in the redemption-interval between the creation and the new creation, we are being prepared to live in that creation which Christ is preparing for us, forever. Actually, can we not affirm that our eternal life in creation is both now and forever? Our present lives will continue, though transformed by the renewal of all things, the resurrection of our bodies, in his created world (Isa. 11:6-9; 65:17-25; Mtt 19:28; Rom. 8:19-23; 2 Pet 3:13; Col 1:20; Eph 1:10; Rev 11:15).

The whole story of redemption of creation is thus the present context for our significance: how we treat our neighbors, friends, and enemies; how we think, work, create (or destroy); how we speak, plan, decorate, design and manage our world and lives; how we draw, sing, write, proclaim, testify, bear witness; how we study, use our time, love, laugh, suffer, and die. How we live, why we live, has to do with for Whom we live. We are all significant because God has made us so, since he made us in his image. Even our very words are all significant, since they are all spoken in his presence, as they flow out of us who are created with this marvelous gift of language to communicate.

Though feelings of insignificance are rife among us, since nothing is hidden from the One who made us, these have no merit in the reality of the Hidden One now more fully revealed in Christ. Nevertheless, a sense of smallness is prevalent among creatures living in a seemingly endless universe. Some even lovingly nurse this deep feeling of, or sense of, insignificance, since even this gives them some reference-point, some identity, some significance. Similarly, there is the sad irony of those who find faith (and meaning) in theirunbelief. This too is evidence of being made in the image of God, since all humankind must find their significance and purpose in an infinite God, or they will find a substitute. See next issue for part 2.

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