When I was in high school, my cousin Leo and I would occasionally get into ‘philosophical’ debates late at night. “What is nothing?” “Why does something exist?” and so on. We were pushing the limits of what we knew, spreading our mental wings, trying to make sense of it all. Later, as an adult, I met people who, after some crisis or disaster, asked the same types of questions. “Is there any way to make sense of this?” “How can a good God let this happen?” They struggled to make sense of a tsunami or 9/11 or a tragic death of a child.
“Making sense of it all” describes the ultimate growth challenge for every human being. Erik Erikson, a pioneer in human development, described the stages of growth we all go through, with the final stage before death being “Integrity versus Despair.” If we fail to “make sense of it all” our life may seem useless, and we may end up alone and in despair. My cousin and I were learning a process we would need later on in life. I want to share a few thoughts about the challenges of “making sense of it all” in the 21st century because the process is much harder now than it was 50 years ago when I was a young man.
The process of “making sense”
Who, exactly, is it that makes sense of everything? Is it some ‘guru’ or teacher or minister who explains the meaning of life to us? No, we instinctively know that we have to do this process ourselves. But what part of us, the complex being that we are, does this? Antony Storr, a noted Psychiatrist, wrote a book called The Integity of the Personality. Is it our personality that makes sense, or is there other some part of us that is deeper than our personality, which does that? Some philosophers and theologians call this a “person” or our “soul.” Whatever part we decide is in charge of making sense, there is still the question of how this process works. The phrase itself gives us a clue — we must actively “make” sense; it isn’t infused or given to us. We may want some magical authority to explain everything but the more we seek such authorities, the more we learn that they don’t have the answers we seek. Christians realise that this limit to our understanding is what it means to be human. We believe that the ultimate explanation for everything lies in God, which we will never know in this life. That does not say that we Christians are exempt from the challenge of “Integrity versus Despair.” It says that we are more comfortable with not understanding everything, as we wrestle with and grow our personal wisdom and integrity.
The process of “making sense” is lifelong and iterative yet unrecognised by most people. Our ‘worldview’ largely takes shape hidden from our view, starting at birth, perhaps even in the womb. We are a social being so we make sense in conversations and interactions with others. But, these conversations are always inadequate. The Theologian Karl Rahner describes this: “The abyss of existence opens up in front of us . . . mystery in its incomprehensibility is what is self-evident in human life.” In his view, the process of making sense and creating a worldview that explains everything is impossible. Still, every human has this built-in desire and tries to make sense, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout their life.
Why this process is more difficult now
I read an interesting book a few years ago called Villages. The author spent many years living in primitive villages, studying how they worked as communities. The interesting thing to him was how radically different than cities villages were. Villages have many more enduring connections among people, which transmit how village people think about life, what their values are, and so on. Cities have many fewer deep connections and essentially no agreed worldview or consensus about life. As the world’s population becomes increasingly urbanized, and experiences more and more shallow connections due to globalization, travel, the expansion of knowledge, social networking over the Internet, and so on, many people are experiencing an explosion of diverse ideas about every topic imaginable, without any community support in finding a worldview. Making sense is a far greater challenge because of this. Furthermore, we have far less trust in traditions and institutions in our ‘post-modern’ culture — so there are no authorities to help us make sense of life. This includes the church for many people! Whereas fifty years ago, many churchgoers trusted their pastor or the heirarchy, the vast majority of Christians today don’t depend on religious professionals to make sense of their lives. In Part 2 of this post, I will discuss why this is true and why Christians should be delighted that, in the age we now live in, more and more of us are beginning to recognise that, ultimately, we are responsible for making sense of God’s purpose for our life. That is not to say that Christians don’t need to belong to a church. We do, but we need one that, like a village, actively helps us make sense of our lives.