To read entire essay, click here: THE SEARCH FOR SIGNIFICANCE
SEARCHING FOR SIGNIFICANCE, Part I
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 they fail “when they pretend singly to redeem life of insignificance” (p. 306). (right)William James
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 shy 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 very meaning 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 significant integration 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 their unbelief. 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.
SEARCHING FOR SIGNIFICANCE, Part II
Francis Schaeffer (picture on right) once preached a sermon “No Little People, No Little Places” in which he described the human ambition to escape the feeling of being small (insignificant) in a small place. How much tragedy and heart-ache the world has known from humans seeking to be and do something big, to be what they are not: either as narcissistic gods or devils. Ironically, so often this flows out of a profound sense of smallness and insignificance. On the other hand, substitute theologies such as “worm-theology” (“I am just a worm”) that some Christians advocate is no more biblical than the self-exaltation of Narcissism. Significance cannot be found in a theology of total depravity (as wrongly understood as total on the ontological level) any more than in the total love of self encouraged in our therapeutic culture, the religious cult of selfism.
Significance begins with our creation in God’s image as social, spiritual, living beings who can create, love, and communicate. Despite the reality and effects of sin, being made in God’s image enables us to be living beings in relationship, to have real personality, will (choice, determination), communication (love, truth), emotion (affections of the heart), spirituality (worship of communion with God), rationality (logos, mind, knowledge, logic, hermeneutics), morality (conscience), creativity (aesthetics, work, beauty), dignity (personality), goodness (thought and deed), value (intrinsic due to image of God), dominion (vice regents, ambassadors, representatives) and authority (derived). As we live for God through Jesus Christ, we come to experience the fullness of our humanity. One central aspect of the image of God is that we are God’s representatives on earth. In essence, this is the purpose for which he created us.
(left) Albrecht Durer (Resurrection)
Also, as his representatives, and as believers, we have the high calling of testifying to Jesus Christ and his gospel of redemption for the whole person and the whole world. True and complete significance derives from Christ alone who is himself the True Image (2 Cor 4:4 – ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν του θεου) of God. Christ is The image of God, not made “in the image of God” (Col 1:15a) (contra the Gnostics) (cf. Col 3:10). All who are made in the image of God are thus signs, signifying, pointing to Christ himself. We are not gods, angels, or devils but rather creatures made in God’s image. As humans born in Adam’s line, sin has affected our hearts’ wills, choices, bodies, relations, and minds, but it never “removes” the image of God. It can be affirmed without doubt that “there are no little people, no little places.” Hence, there are none without significance, since it does not depend upon us but upon the image of God in which we are each made.
Further, in redemption, we are “being renewed in knowledge in the image” of our Creator (Col 3:10). For the believer, integrative significance is known, and can be lived out, under the sovereign Lordship of Christ in the process of restoration, being transformed and conformed to the likeness of the Son (Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18; 5:17; 1 Jn 3:2). This recreation-restoration corresponds to the image of God given in the Garden of Eden. It involves the total person and total life of our creativity (reflecting the aesthetic of the creation-order of work). The utmost dignity of mankind’s work is thus affirmed. To work () and guard () the garden (Gen 2:15) involved being fruitful (Gen 1:28). It also involved having dominion by ruling and governing in the garden over all creation (1:28) (Jesus himself fulfils the Edenic mandate of work and creativity [Jn 5:17]). Restoration also involves family and community (reflecting the social-order of creation in fathering/mothering of children, love, community, church, society, and conveyance of the revelation of God’s Word).
One important significance of all humans is that each evidence the glory of God; we are the greatest evidence for the glory of God. Even those who deny his glory have this significance, since it derives from the living God, not from the various “meanings” or purposes they create or adopt for significance. How beautiful it is then, for believers in Christ, to know that life lived under Christ’s Lordship is eternally significant! How much more believers should grasp this, to know, live, and love such significance in this life; it is immeasurably more than for those who deny Him as the source of life and its significance. These are not nice, or abstract, platitudes about the Christian life as better than the unbeliever’s life. This is not just a pragmatic challenge to believe in Christ so as to have a happier, more fulfilled, life of meaning and purpose. This is an assertion that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that we who are made in his image are invited to partake in God’s redemptive purposes to restore us and his creation.
Our message to unbelievers is not, “Your life is presently meaningless, therefore reject your life, accept Christ, and you will find your significance.” Rather, I suggest it is better to proclaim that God made all people in his image, and that all attempts to live apart from God are subject to varying degrees of futility. And, that all of the meaning, purpose, and significance of every person’s life can only find a sufficient reference point in Christ the True image of God. This more adequately accounts for the reality of significance, purpose, and meaning in all peoples’ lives, even if twisted by the consequences of sin. It also provides more of a common-ground, or point-of-contact, between unbelievers and those of us who have embraced Christ as Lord and Savior of our whole lives, all our significance deriving from, and pointing to, him.
For those who are lost in the self-made forest of finite insignificance, or for those captivated by their over-significance (the former thinking they are nothing in the universe, the latter supposing they are everything), both are trapped in a world without integration or redemption. Humans are neither just dirt nor are they devils; they are the “glorious ruin” of creatures made in God’s image, redeemable by God’s marvelous grace. True integrative significance is always the fruit of God’s loving grace, and thus always leads to both the Cross and to the empty tomb. Christ’s empty tomb opens into the garden of the new creation where the purposes of God are completely manifested, and where the present significance of our lives will be perfectly realized in our physical resurrection to continue living forever in God’s creation before his glorious presence.
Biblical significance rests in biblical faith, being re-made whole and holy, not in William James’ “possibilities” of just believing in trust of religious “fancy.” This is not just optimism, or optimistic belief; it is knowing the Lord Jesus as the Christ and deliverer of our bodies and souls. He is the only infinite reference-point for complete integration of our selves and this universe. In Christ we are made whole again. There is nothing “large enough” in this world for our identity, our integration as body and soul made in God’s image, our personalities, our significance. Christ is the only One sufficient for the task. He is complete, and we are complete in him alone.
Col 1:15-20 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Rom 8:19-21 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Quotes from Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy:
The obviously well kept secret of the “ordinary” is that it is made to be a receptacle of the divine, a place where the life of God flows. But the divine is not pushy. As Huston Smith remarks, “Just as science has found the power of the sun itself to be locked in the atom, so religion proclaims the glory of the eternal to be reflected in the simplest elements of time: a leaf a door, an unturned stone.” It is, of course, reflected as well in complicated entities, such as galaxies, music, mathematics, and persons.
Now, considered apart from its Creator—which was never intended—the “ordinary” truly is so ordinary and commonplace that it is of little interest or value. No atom by itself radiates solar power. In its own right everything is always just “another one of those.” To be ordinary is to be only “more of the same.” The human being screams against this from its every pore. To be just “another one of those” is deadening agony for us. Indeed, it actually drives some people to their death. It was never God’s intention for anyone.
This is why everyone, from the smallest child to the oldest adult, naturally wants in some way to be extraordinary, outstanding, making a unique contribution or, if all else fails, wants to be thought so—if only for a brief time. The fifteen minutes of fame that Andy Warhol said everyone would someday have, in the modern media-saturated world, may give desperate souls an assurance of uniqueness that could protect them from being “nobody,” at least in their own eyes.
The drive to significance that first appears as a vital need in the tiny child, and later as its clamorous desire for attention, is not egotism. Egotistical individuals see everything through themselves. They are always the dominant figures in their own field of vision.
Egotism is pathological self-obsession, a reaction to anxiety about whether one really does count. It is a form of acute self- consciousness and can be prevented and healed only by the experience of being adequately loved. It is, indeed, a desperate response to frustration of the need we all have to count for something and be held to be irreplaceable, without price.
Unlike egotism, the drive to significance is a simple extension of the creative impulse of God that gave us being. It is not filtered through self-consciousness any more than is our lunge to catch a package falling from someone’s hand. It is outwardly directed to the good to be done. We were built to count, as water is made to run downhill. We are placed in a specific context to count in ways no one else does. That is our destiny.
Our hunger for significance is a signal of who we are and why we are here, and it also is the basis of humanity’s enduring response to Jesus. For he always takes individual human beings as seriously as their shredded dignity demands, and he has the resources to carry through with his high estimate of them.
Dallas Willard,The Divine Conspiracy, pp. 14-15.