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2.3: The Problem of Meaning and Its Different Aspects

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    The definitions offered in the preceding section imply that people involve themselves in religious practices as such because they want to draw near (again) to ultimate realityo, get (re)connected with it, come (again) into right or appropriate relationship to it. This presupposes that people so involve themselves because, for whatever reasons, they somehow feel that they are not near it (or not near enough), may not be connected with it (or not fully enough connected), may not be in right or appropriate relationship to it. Different religions conceive of this distance from or disrelationship to ultimate realityo in very different ways, as being of greater or lesser extent, and as involving all, some, or only certain persons. Some conceive of the disrelationship as radical and objective-for example, a disorder in the nature of things stemming from an original Fall from what was an original perfection; others as an objective but rectifiable condition (e.g., one of impurity from which one can be "cleansed" by means of appropriate purification rites); still others conceive of it as psychological and subjectivea condition of ignorance and distraction that can be corrected through appropriate psychological discipline and philosophical insight. In any case, all religious life seems to presuppose it as a kind of generalized existential predicament for which religious practices promise some resolution.

    As will be explained more fully below, this idea does not imply that theresulting motivation for involvement in religious practices is therefore predominantly a negative one-that is, to get out of this predicament. Religious motivation may also be positive, as much to draw near what is deemed to be the source of meaning, vitality, power, virtue, and so forth, as it is to leave behind a condition of experienced lack of meaning, vitality, power, virtue, and so on.

    Even so, one might say then that one of the fundamental reasons of religions for being is the apparently universal sense that human life in certain respects is out of joint or on the brink of being so; that it is not at-one with the way things ultimately are and the powers on which life in its fullness seems to depend; and that it (or specifically one's idea of it) is consequently liable, if something is not done about it, to lose its meaning and point, or worse: The varying but fundamental, if somewhat vague, sense of alienation human beings often feel between their everyday selves and a numinous reality felt to lie beyond life's surface appearance is the mystery symbolized in the diverse stories of a primordial Fall from perfection at the beginning of human history that we find in many traditions (or of an original perfect One that disintegrated first into two and then many). Correlatively, the intention of religion is to mark out a way of relating to life in a manner appropriate to the mystery and, so far as possible, in some respect to close or lessen the felt breach of alienation. Hence religion is preoccupied with whatever is believed to restore human rapport with what is understood to be the ultimate ground of life's meaning .and vital order.

    Following up an idea of the sociologist of religion Max Weber, Clifford Geertz has described this rationale of religion, a felt disrelationship to ultimate realityo, as "the problem of meaning."13 This phrase is meant to be an extension and generalization of what in Western philosophical theology has been known as the Problem of Evil-namely, how can the fact of evil and suffering in the world be reconciled with belief in an ultimate good (i.e., an ultimate ground to life's meaning and purpose). There are more aspects to the problematic character of human life than are covered in traditional, intellectual discussions of the problem of evil and, in practice at least, religion has dealt with them in a variety of ways other than through theological inquiry and explanation. For the point of the problem of meaning is that events in human experience from time to time in a variety of different ways pose a threat to the meaningfulness of life. The question is, how to cope with that threat and, in theface ofit, attain to an affirmationofthe meaning and worth of life14 despite it. In large measure, religions are designed to offer practical answers to this question.

    According to Geertz's analysis, religion-at least at its most authentic-is not a way of avoiding life's absurdities, pain, and injustice. Rather, in relation to the problem of meaning, religion is a way-for adherents, the most sensible way-Df facing them, of taking them on. Generically speaking, religion doesn't deny the undeniable: that life at times seems (1) incomprehensible, (2) overwhelmingly painful, and (3) apparently pointless. These characteristics of life Geertz identifies as three aspects of the problem of meaning-as three existential predicaments (which may, of course, be compounded). Instead of denying them, religion denies the ultimacy of such experiences. Religion characteristically affirms that in the ultimate perspective or in the widest horizon of meaning (to which perspective or horizon the forms of religious practice claim to offer some access) these experiences are not cause for despair, for giving up on human life. Religion affirms that they do not cut one off from the possibility of a meaningful life. More specifically, religion offers means of coping with each aspect of the problem of meaning: (a) resources for investigating and reflecting upon the ultimate reasons why some things are not understandable to us (at least in our present condition), (b) the emotional wherewithal (in terms, for example, of emotional reorientation and focus, pastoral guidance, and community support) to bear up under what seems unbearable, and (c) insight, motivation, and guidance with regard to the ultimate moral ordero 15 in responding to the inequities and injustices with which life presents us.

    In basic agreement with Geertz, Hans KUng puts much the same the point more concretely:

    . . . [A)ll religions offer an answer to the question of the meaning of everything, of life, of history, in the light of an ultimate reality which already has an effect here and now-whether this is described with classical Judaism as "resurrection," with Christianity as "eternal life," with Islam as "paradise," with Hinduism as "moksha," with Buddhism as "nirvana" or with Taoism as "immortality." Precisely in the face of many frustrations and many experiences of suffering and failure, religions can help to lead people on by offering meaning beyond death and giving meaning here and now, not least where moral action has remained unsuccessful.

    Kung goes on to say:

    Religions speak with absolute authority, and they express this authority not only with words and concepts, teachings and dogmas, but also with symbols and prayers, rites and festivals-i.e., rationally and emotionally. For religions have means of shaping the whole of human existence, not just for an intellectual elite but also for broad strata of the population-means that have been tested by history, adapted to cultures and made specific for the individual. Religion certainly cannot do everything, but it can disclose a certain "more" in human life and bestow it.

    • Religion can communicate a specific depth-dimension, an all-embracing horizon of meaning, even in the face of suffering, injustice, guilt and meaninglessness, and also a last meaning of life even in the face of death: the whither and whence of our being.
    • Religion can guarantee supreme values, unconditional norms, the deepest motivations and the highest ideals: the why and wherefore of our responsibility.
    • Through common symbols, rituals, experiences and goals, religion can create a sense of feeling at home, a sense of trust, faith, certainty, strength for the self, security and hope: a spiritual community and allegiance.
    • Religion can give grounds for protest and resistance against unjust conditions: the longing for the "wholly Other" which is already now at work and which cannot be stilled. 16

    For their participants, religions provide ways in which problematic life experiences are relativized and divested of their threat to meaningful life. Typically, they do so by situating the problematic experience within a larger, encompassing, cosmic context where its problematic aspects are accounted for and resources for coping with them, if not for surmounting them, are provided-resources that (re)establish the lives of these followers in rapport with ultimate realityo. As Geertz puts it,

    Having ritually "lept" [sic] (. .. "slipped" might be more accurate) into the framework of meaning which religious conceptions define and, the ritual ended, returned again to the common-sense world, a man is--unless as sometimes happens, the experience fails to register--changed. And as he is changed so also is the common-sense world, for it is now seen as but the partial form of a wider reality which corrects and completes it.

    But this correction and completion is not, as some students of "comparative religion" would have it, everywhere the same in content. The nature of the bias religion gives to ordinary life varies with the religion involved, with the particular dispositions induced in the believer by the specific conceptions of cosmic order he has come to accept. 17

    Geertz identified three aspects of the problem of meaning. It is remarkable that these three aspects directly correlate with three of the six ways of being religious: wisdom, devotion, and right action. This is an interesting confirmation of the hypothesis of six generic ways of being religious, especially insofar as it does not take much reflection to discover three other general types of problematic life experiences that correlate with the remaining three ways: sacred rite, shamanic mediation, and mystical quest. For example, the prospect of facing momentous events (such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death, but also other just as great but less predictable challenges of life) with no sense of propriety that is grounded in anything other than mundane utilitarian considerations-that is, with no sense of propriety that is grounded in some ultimate archetypal pattern° can unhinge the mind (for some people at least) and result in social chaos. A second sort of threat is posed by confrontation with overwhelming practical problemssuch as serious illness or injury, great danger, or loss of food supply-whose solutions, if any, lie beyond the resources of power and imagination possessed by mere mortals. A third kind of threat is of an inward nature: an inner discontent with the unreality and insubstantial worth of ordinary life on its surface and unease with the limitations and unconsciousness (of the way things are suspected ultimately to be) that characterize ordinary experience. To these three further aspects of the problem of meaning, religion offers (1) sacred rituals in which participants' lives can be (re)grounded in divine archetypal patternS', (2) shamanic practices through which supernatural resource~ of power and imagination can be tapped, and (3) meditative disciplines and spiritual direction for developing an extra-ordinary conscious awareness of ultimate realityo.

    Each of these aspects of the problem of meaning, the latter three combined with the three Geertz identifies, are among the primal motivations to religious practice. (This is not to say they are the only motivations-more on this in the next two paragraphs.) Not only do they motivate people to be religious; they motivate them in a certain direction with a certain interest. They dispose them to involvement more in some sorts of religious practice than in others: specifically toward practices that address and help them deal with that aspect of the problem of meaning that they have to confront. As will be explained further in what follows, where the relevant options are available they tend to motivate a person to become involved more in one way of being religious than in other ways. This is because each of the generic ways of being religious is addressed more to one aspect of the problem of meaning than the other aspects. In this respect, each way of being religious amounts to a generically different way of drawing near to ultimate realityo from a different sort of existential predicament, a different way of being not-at-one with it.

    As formulated here, the different motivations identified above are construed in negative terms, as problems to be faced, borne, and perhaps overcome. They could equally well be formulated positively in terms of confidence in the specific religious practices-or, rather, confidence in the ultimate realityo accessed through those practices-that promise resolution to the problems. For example, people involve themselves in devotional religious practice because of the sustaining grace and solace that they expect and hope to receive through them. This is a more positive way of explaining why they so involve themselves than by saying that they do so because of the burden of suffering they have to carry in their lives.

    Aspects of The Problem of Meaning

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    That these six aspects of the problem of meaning provide basic motivations for people to be involved in religious practice does not exclude other motivations. Often several motivations are coincident and intertwined. Sometimes there may be no alternative ways of being religious open for a person to choose among, forcing their involvement in a single way by constraint. There are a host of possible motivations, many of which are not particularly worthy or notable or religious, for that matter. For example, many people are involved in specific religious practices because they have been raised to do so and identify with their parents' tradition. Others, in the modern world anyway, may do so because they identify more with their peers' beliefs and practices than with those of their parents. Others are involved to get ahead economically or to make a better impression politically. And some motivations-for example, the motive of sheer delight in wonder and awe or of profound gratitude-may seem wholly unconnected with the problem of meaning as just construed. The value of pointing out the different motivating aspects of the problem of meaning lies in their power to explain how and why any one way of being religious appeals to one person and not to another. Accordingly, they can be called existential motivations, and the aspect of the problem of meaning that gives rise to any one of them its specific problematic situation or existential predicament.

    In sum, people involve themselves in religion out of a desire to draw near to, and come into rapport with, what they take to be ultimate realityo. They do so because they sense at some level of their being that their lives are not at-one with it, or not as fully at-one with it, as they might be. Accordingly, when the opportunity is present, different people involve themselves in a certain way of being religious out of a desire to (re)connect with ultimate realityo a dimension of their lives that is otherwise felt in some respect to be out of touch or at odds with it. The different ways of being religious thus correspond to different dimensions of human life.

    This page titled 2.3: The Problem of Meaning and Its Different Aspects is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.