“You have your meaning, and I have mine.”
“I’m glad that your faith gives you meaning, but that’s not my meaning.”
“You are free to make your meaning and I’m free to make mine.”
Have you come across these thoughts before, when trying to discuss Jesus with your friends?
How do you respond?
The key secular idea here is what Tim Keller calls ‘assigned meaning’: each person needs to self-assign their own meaning and purpose in life. Each individual is entitled to her own meaning and raison d’être. It is therefore a waste of time to apply one person’s source of meaning to another: just because it works for one person doesn’t mean it will work for someone else.
Assigned meaning is one of at least four common approaches to meaning in life:
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Many people have simply never considered meaning and purpose in any deep sense. When suffering comes, however, or major life decisions need to be made, humans do tend to at least subconsciously form opinions on meaning.
This sentiment is captured by this absurd story from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: a super machine is constructed to discover the meaning of life, the universe and everything. After much suspense, the computer-generated answer is revealed: 42. With comedic genius, the author Douglas Adams is expressing the impossibility of finding any kind of real meaning in our lives. Problematically for Douglas Adams, however, humans are meaning-demanding beings. It is simply unliveable to go on without any meaning. So what options are we left with? Rather than abandoning the quest for meaning, many people simply assign their own meanings.
In this framework, my role is to assign or discover my own meaning. I define a meaning that works for me. I may discover my meaning by going travelling, doing some soul searching, or perhaps just bumbling along until it falls into my lap. This meaning could most commonly be to cultivate a fulfilling career, create great relationships, align myself with a worthy cause, or perhaps a mixture of multiple meaning-sources. But there is at least one more option.
This is closest to the Christian framework. Since God exists independently from us, we align ourselves with him, who gives us objective purpose. Humans all have one inherent meaning in common. Meaning in life is fixed and consistent across all people. Specifically, in Isaiah 43:7 we find that the meaning of humanity is to glorify God. When John 1 speaks about “the Word”, John is employing a Greek philosophical framework (in the original language, logos) to identify Jesus himself as the meaning of life. Ultimately, this meaning is not a far-off concept but actually a person.
But is inherent meaning actually any better than assigned meaning? After all, assigned meaning allows me choice and also allows my meaning to develop as my life progresses. That being said, there are at least two factors to recommend inherent over assigned meaning, even to someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus.
Doesn’t the quest to live out a personally-assigned meaning end up with us gazing at our own belly buttons? Doesn’t the infatuation with subjective purpose have the potential to leave us self-absorbed? One of the great contributions of Western science is the investigation of a universe beyond this world—people are not the centre of the universe and I am not the centre of this planet. But don’t we abandon that wonderful outward-looking focus when we turn inward for meaning?
Imagine you are playing make-believe games with a child; you are playing pirates or princesses or dragons or pretending to cook. You take on identities, knowing fully that you’re not actually a pirate or a princess, but happy to be that identity for the sake of fun. So you’re waving cutlasses and putting on glass high heels and prancing through the house—until someone falls or bangs their toe or accidentally whacks the other one too hard. At that point, the entire assigned meaning falls down. The bubble is broken and it can’t, nor should it, endure when reality kicks in.
It’s enjoyable to play in the shallows, but the depth of reality is unavoidable. And at that point, our assigned meanings, our subjective meanings, our created meanings need to be left to the side so we can put a bandage on the toe or an icepack on the arm. Assigned meanings tend to work best when it’s playtime. But we all need an inherent meaning to deal with the real world. We all need an objective meaning when life hurts.
Understanding assigned and inherent meaning could be helpful next time a friend offers you one of the lines from the beginning of this article. Rather than feeling like you have encountered a roadblock, you could help your friend see that their approach to meaning is only one of at least four. Additionally, you could gently point them to the two problems with assigned meaning.
Although the gospel is the main topic we would love to discuss, pushing through the meaning roadblock is a good first step.
For further reading on this, I recommend that you read chapter 3 of Tim Keller’s Making Sense of God, which I’ve greatly relied on.