Discover more from Contents and Containers
On manufacturing everything, including meaning
One of the most read blog posts of 2014 for me was the one I wrote about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s remake of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I couldn’t keep watching it. One of the reasons that I couldn’t was because he was criticizing Christians, while acting evangelistic himself.
I have generally avoided him since, but something recently caught my eye. The astrophysicist recently answered, endearingly according to the Internet, a six-year-old’s question about the meaning of life. Here’s what I noticed:
“So — what is the meaning of life? I think people ask that question on the assumption that ‘meaning’ is something you can look for and go, ‘Here it is, I found it. Here’s the meaning. I’ve been looking for.’ That scenario, however, doesn’t consider the possibility that ‘meaning’ is something you create. You manufacture it for yourself and for others.”
The social constructionist, postmodern espousal of Tyson, does not surprise me. In a hypermodern, capitalistic world, everything is manufactured, including meaning. That is the perfectly American way of doing things. And bear in mind, manufacturing, by itself, is now a form of meaning. The meaning of life is to create meaning for yourself, I suppose. Tyson, in his nihilistic view, must invent his meaning since his life was purely accidental. To cope with the existential angst of not believing in a creator, we have to become our own gods. Already at six, someone is wondering what the purpose of life is, because it is not evident. The Christians are silent.
The meaning of life is not distant, though, and not exclusively a personal expression. Even the social constructionists have a predetermined meaning, purpose, and “rule” that they are following. The United States is a perfectly functioning institution when people are given the falsehood that they can construct their own meaning under the guise of freedom and democracy. Meanwhile, they are being enslaved, not just to themselves, but to the authorities that are crafting this thick veil of propaganda that gives us a false sense of hope. The President was channeling this on Tuesday’s State of the Union address—giving Americans a sense of hope for their future, selling the idea that their country and nation will save them and the rest of the world.
I was again reminded of the pervasiveness of this idea when I finally watched Disney's rendition of Into The Woods. The lyrics in the number "No One Is Alone" are revealing. They describe the unique second act where both the witch and the giant have moments of redemption:
Everybody makes One another's terrible mistakes Witches can be right Giants can be good You decide what's right You decide what's good
The main point, of both Tyson and the song, is that the meaning of life is to learn what our meaning is. We decide what's right. We decide what's good. That meaning is not far off and distant, but as close as new data, new information, and new experiences are. By the end of your life, as long as you have experienced and learned enough—as long as your bucket list is mainly complete, you’ll be satisfied.
For the capitalists and oligarchs that run this world, their meaning may be found in their unabashed power and wealth acquisition that gives them the opportunity to have such a luxurious and grandiose sense of themselves that they think they can actually manufacture meaning. More than that, their meaning is wrapped up into selling us the illusion that we have the same opportunities to literally be larger than life and larger than God. Chomsky would say that they, in particular the one percent who controls our media, manufacture not just meaning, but consent.
What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?
The meaning of life, as Jesus would say it, is to love God, to follow him, to know him, to connect to him. The limitless God—a pillar of fire and smoke to the Jewish people in the Old Testament—came to us in the form of a person, so that we could relate to and know and be like him. Rather than fight to defend himself and his freedom, like his oppressed people would have loved him to, he took on oppression to give freedom to the whole world. In Him we find our meaning, not in aggrandizing ourselves to be as big as he is.
Jesus transforms us so that we don’t have to invent how big we are. He invites us into community so that we don’t have to go-it-alone—so that we don’t have to discover ourselves and our purpose before we are eighteen years old figuring out what our major in college is going to be. He saves us before we are trying to save ourselves from crippling debt, a tiny minimum wage, and a world without a true selfless purpose.
Jesus models the self-sacrificing love that energizes and enriches us, so that we can serve others and share his love with them in practical ways. When we marched on MLK Day, it was not with the idea that fair funding for schools, and minimum wage, and ending police brutality would give us meaning, but rather, through those actions and advocacy people may see the true meaning of life: loving through the best Lover ever, Jesus. Love is the rule of meaning, and Jesus embodies it like no one else.
We don’t have to be a slave to manufacturing and consumption. We don’t have to wonder what our meaning is.It dwells in the Body of Christ, and among us in the Holy Spirit, in the person of Jesus Christ, in the living God.