There is a lot of talk in IDW (Intellectual Dark Web) circles about the “Meaning Crisis”. The general claim seems to be that the secular worldview we have inherited from the Enlightenment is insufficient to satisfy the deep human need for existential meaning. The story of material progress and technological advance just isn’t a big enough story when it comes to the meaning of life.
So where do we find meaning? Well, on one level, there is no meaning crisis. We can find meaning anywhere. What is the meaning of life for an addict? Getting high. What is the meaning of life for a muggle? Belonging. What is meaningful for a victim? Resentment and self-pity. For a muppet? Fighting the good fight. For a diva? A sense of superiority. For a demon? Death and destruction.
The genius of samsara is that there are different sources of meaning. If one starts to wane, just move round the Wheel and pick up another. Bored of the cosy “sorge” world of muggles? Try getting high. You might risk the sense of belonging and acceptance you enjoyed before, but even if you get seriously addicted, you know you’ll be welcomed back eventually. Or you might decide to attack the muggle world, “the system”, and join a band of muppet brothers. Then you’ll derive meaning from your struggle for justice and freedom, from a sense of solidarity with your comrades and ultimately, from martyrdom.
But what happens when you see through the whole show? What if all these sources of meaning seem ultimately hollow and meaningless? What if even the fame and fortune, power and influence of a diva seems utterly pointless? That’s when you have a real meaning crisis. Then you are in the position of King Solomon in Ecclesiastes: “vanity of vanities; all is vanity” or of Camus’ existential anti-hero Meursault: “I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another. I had done this and I hadn’t done that. I hadn’t done this thing but I had done another. And so?”
This is an uncomfortable place to be. But if you are on a spiritual path, it is unavoidable. If you want to escape samsara, the meaning has to be drained out of it, otherwise you will be continuously pulled back into its orbit. Your desire is directed beyond; your meaning must come from elsewhere. This is fine if you decide to become a hermit or take monastic orders. You can (to a certain extent) remove yourself from samsara. But what if you live in the world?
Jesus said, “If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple.” This is a hard saying. It makes sense from a spiritual point of view, but it puts a bit of a downer on everyday life. It’s not easy to live hating everyone. There is a serious problem here. It is not peculiar to Christianity, of course, but affects all religions. In order to transcend the world, you need to hate the world, but if you hate the world, how can you be said to have transcended it?
But Jesus was only talking about disciples. You should only “hate” everyone if you want to be a disciple. Apparently, Jesus only had twelve disciples, which isn’t many. Over and again in the gospels it is made clear that he has one teaching for his disciples and another for everyone else. They are his “inner circle”, privy to the deeper spiritual knowledge reserved for the elect.
So what were the disciples privy to? And why does it mean you have to hate your mother and father? I imagine it would have to do with Jesus’ most dramatic claim, that he was the Son of God: “I and the Father are one”. If we are to take this as the expression of an actual lived experience, as opposed to an abstract, theoretical statement of fact (which would then be the self-appellation of a liar, a fiend or a lunatic), it would have to be an experience of radical unity.
I find the usual Christian view that Jesus called himself the Son of God simply because he was the Son of God totally vacuous. How would you know that you were the Son of God unless you experienced being the Son of God? Or rather, unless you experienced something that warranted those words? Something that the words “Son of God” pointed to? My guess is that an experience of such transcendental insight would be something akin to the experience of unity produced by a high dose of DMT.
If Jesus had such an experience, he would understandably struggle to communicate it. He might say that he was one with God and that he was in everyone and that everyone was in him. But other than sounding pretty, it wouldn’t make much practical sense. If he were to say, “we are really all one person”, his followers would simply retort, “no we’re not”. To support their position, they would only need to point out the simple fact that they were patently not one person but different people. Jesus might respond with something like, “Alright fair enough, but when you transcend your ego and are united with the Universal Consciousness, then you will see that we are actually the same person, even though it seems as though we are different people.”
If the disciples had the same experience of unity, they would know exactly what he was talking about and they would be able to see the unity reflected in each other. They would treat each other with deep recognition and understanding, as if they really were in some mysterious sense the same person. Perhaps they had glimpses of unity. They must have at the very least believed that what Jesus was telling them was true and aspired to share in his vision.
But Jesus was clearly the only one who had the full-blown experience of unity. He was the only one who could say with any confidence that he was in everyone and everyone was in him. So in the end, since he was the only one who knew that he was God, he was the only one who could say that he was God (or more modestly, the Son of God). It then made as much sense to say that his disciples were one in Him as it was to say that they were one in God. He was the living proof of the living God.
If the twelve had all completely understood, if they had all had the same experience, there would have been twelve Sons of God, but then again, because they were all one, there would still actually only be the one, “only-begotten” Son of God. St Paul was alluding to this when he said, “Not I, but Christ lives in me”.
In any case, it seems that only with his death and resurrection did the penny finally drop for the disciples. Until that point, they believed in and followed Jesus, but they didn’t really get what he was on about. They knew how difficult it was to achieve and to retain the vision of unity. Which is why Jesus’ death and resurrection became the symbol of redemption. Jesus couldn’t destroy the world of samsara, the world of division, but He could redeem it. This great insight at the climax of the Christian story made Bodhisattvas out of his disciples and made Christianity a religion of redemption.
Redemption means that it is okay to be on the Wheel of Samsara. It’s okay to be a muggle, a diva, a muppet, an addict, a victim, even a demon. It’s okay to be human. We need to forgive and be forgiven. But this is only possible through “Jesus”, which means, through the vision of unity with God and all humanity. The ultimate meaning of life is incomprehensible to our petty human minds. It is ineffable. It is impossible to communicate to those who haven’t experienced it for themselves. But neither is it possible to remain in that state. We have to come back to the world of duality.
There is a place for spiritual community, where brothers and sisters in Christ can see the unity of God reflected in each other and establish a little Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth, or to use Buddhist terminology, where an Enlightened Sangha can create a Pure Land. This is ultimately what the institutions of Church and Monastery point towards. The hope is that the ultimate unity will be fully realised one day in the Eschaton. Until that day, however, we have to make do with the existential reality we find ourselves in. Until then, we have to accept the world as it is.
The world is redeemed through the vision of ultimate unity, not condemned by it. It becomes meaningful again. There is value and meaning in all six worlds of samsara. It is good to belong. It is good to succeed. It is good to fight for a just cause. Even a bit of greed, hate and fear are okay. But the meaning we derive from these things are not absolute. We can take it all a bit more lightly, with a pinch of salt, in the knowledge that the greater meaning is beyond the wheel altogether. But this greater meaning does not destroy the lesser meanings. Jesus said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”
This is the only real solution to the “Meaning Crisis”. The meaning of life is not about rejecting the world. It’s about redeeming it.