Many, many years ago, “Deep Thoughts” with Jack Handy was a recurring series of sketches on Saturday Night Live. They featured scrolling words over a serene background that expressed what one expected to be some great insight or meaningful story. Typically, however, they featured some kind of ironic twist or ridiculous addition that rendered the entire moment ludicrous. They were often clever and hysterical, though occasionally inappropriate. I once had a book that collected several of these stories and one-liners, but I can’t seem to find it now. The entries usually gave me a chuckle.
I like the idea of being a deep thinker. I like the idea of artfully expressing deep thoughts. My fear, however, is that I am really just a “Jack Handy,” expressing ridiculous notions in clever disguise and merely being ostentatious. Lord help me!
I make part of my living by doing my best to communicate truths. As a pastor, I have multiple opportunities to engage both groups and individuals in discussion regarding the Kingdom of God and it’s implications for our lives. I enjoy speaking, but often experience the pitfalls of unexpected tongue twisters, mixed metaphors, and the occasional mis-speak. I’m not hung up on it…it’s just life, and I’m human. I roll with it and endeavor to “do better” the next time.
Written communication, however, affords a greater opportunity for me than what I find with extemporaneous speech. I get to sit and think about words (which I love!). I find I suddenly use expressions that help me convey meaning in ways that are hopefully more thoughtful than my verbal skills currently allow. In the process of writing, I find I also learn as I go. I discover things in my own writing that sharpen, stretch, and refine my views. And when I don’t think I’ve “said” it quite right, I can backspace, rewrite and reach deeper. I experience a quiet satisfaction and private delight when I realize I am learning from my own writing. Egad, now I’m really sounding ostenatious!
Here’s the case in point: earlier today, I found myself sucked into a written discussion taking place on a popular social media platform. It came from someone I shall call “Holly.” (I’ve changed her name for purposes of this discussion.) I have met her briefly in person, but don’t really know her in any real way. She is a well respected (by me and by others) singer, musician, artist, and Christ follower with a fairly large pubic following. She currently lives in another country. She is also, what I would consider, a deep thinker.
Holly posted the following, “I’m thinking about the existence of meaning. If someone gave you a gift but didn’t mean anything profound with it, yet you took profound meaning, are you right or wrong? Is meaning contingent on intention?”
For reasons I’m not yet intuitive enough to explain, I was drawn to the discussion. Several people had already commented…and I felt the need to add my two cents. I’m reposting the conversation below in order to better preserve and keep track of the writing. I felt like I learned some things along the way. I felt like it was “deep.” I got to use words I don’t usually use in conversation (kind of like “Egad” and “ostentatious” – that makes three times so far on that last one.)
On the other hand, maybe being “deep” simply means I need a shovel? 😉
Anyway, I want to hold on to my responses and think through them a little longer. So, here is my interaction with “Holly,” copied from her social media page. I’ve left out the many others who also commented and interacted for the sake of space and discussion. Feel free, though, to add your thoughts in the comments below if you are so inclined. Who knows what deep thinking we might discover together?
Holly: “I’m thinking about the existence of meaning. If someone gave you a gift but didn’t mean anything profound with it, yet you took profound meaning, are you right or wrong? Is meaning contingent on intention?”
Me: Hmmm…did you intend this to be a meaningful conversation? And even if you did, what if I don’t find it particularly meaningful? Who’s right?
So…I want to say that meaning is in the eye of the beholder.
But on the other hand, there’s probably nothing more meaningful than God sending His Son…and yet, how many of us are too blind/self-absorbed to appreciate that sacrifice?
There is absolute truth…that remains true despite my perceptions, or the lack thereof. So is there absolute meaning….despite our individual perception in the same way? Hmmm…
Holly: I was thinking that too. Is there absolute meaning? Meaning independent of anyone’s experience or perception? Off hand I think I would say no speaking epistemologically.
Me: Is such a vacuum even possible? “In the beginning, God…” If we believe that God is personal and intentional, then perhaps by definition, there is divine meaning at the very core and fabric of being. It follows then, that in the rejection of Him, there is ultimately only meaninglessness. Our perceptions, then, are distorted to the degree that they recognize and appreciate divinity.
Holly: What makes you think that there is absolute meaning?
Holly: Does love exist outside of our experience of it?
Me: Ah…does color exist if we are color-blind? Certainly. 🙂 Does love exist if we are “love-blind?” The issue isn’t the existence of love, but rather our ability/willingness to perceive it. Blessed is the man who has not seen…and still believes!
Holly: Actually Burt color doesn’t in fact exist at all.
Me: Technically true…and perhaps not the best analogy…yet colors are how we perceive light, and light definitely exists…even if my eyes don’t work.
Holly: Ok can we swap out the emotion cause I want to get God out of your answer. You’re missing the essence of what I’m asking. Can we say then does hate exist outside our experience? Something you don’t associate with God.
Me: This takes us in an interesting philosophical direction. Does hate exist outside of our experience? Is that like asking “does darkness exist outside of our experience?” It certainly can feel like darkness exists (that’s the experiential part, obviously), but the reality is that darkness doesn’t exist at all. It is not measureable. It has no energy, substance, or form. What we are really talking about is degrees of light and/or the absence of light. People are certainly impacted by it…by what we call darkness…by what we call hate…but in this latter case what we are measuring is something else all together: the degree of love.
It’s hard for me to take God out of the answer. For me, it’s like trying to measure distance but taking space out of the discussion. It seems antithetical to me and philosophy tends to meander. Big bang theory tries to remove God from the discussion, but ends up in a faith origin called “quantum fluxuations.” The absence creates a vacuum that something else has to fill.
So, full circle: “meaning,” for me has to do with purpose and intention, so any question of absolute meaning will always brings us back to discussions of divinity. With God removed from the equation, of course there is nothing left but subjective relativism…which always proves meaningless in the end.
Holly: Burt, you took it right back to what I was trying to get it out of. Oh well…. I”m going to keep trying… If humanity had no ability to feel emotion, would joy still exist?
Me: Is human emotion the source of joy? 😉
Holly: Burt – yeah it is. 110%
Me: What if joy was a byproduct of redemption and more substantive than fleeting emotion? What if it is not the result of subjective feeling or chemical/hormonal inducement, but rather something deeper, mystic, and “more real.”
The problem with hypothetical questions, of course, is they too often take us beyond the realm of the practical and experiential. Does a falling tree make a sound in the forest if no one is there to hear it? Certainly. Then what if the tree is in a vaccum where sound can’t travel? Then no…but this would never occur. A tree would never exist in a vacuum. So, we reach conclusions in the hypothetical that feel like “proof” of our position, when in reality the question has deviated from reality to the point that the conclusions have no bearing in the real world.
Example: “If collective humanity ceased to feel any given emotion…” Thought provoking! But any conclusions are inherently invalid because the premise is not based in reality. Such a circumstance would not occur.
Comparably: Can God (who, if omnipotent, can do anything) make a rock so heavy that He can no longer lift it? As a hypothetical, the question seems at first glance to be self-defeating and therefore “proof” of His non-existence. Afterall, how could such a being exist? However, the conclusion is rendered moot when one considers that the question isn’t based in reality, but is clearly defined by limited parameters. God is omnicient…but He is also more than than. He is also omnisapient…with enough common sense to know the question is theoretical and not actual. The circumstances that would require Him to create such a rock will never occur. Instead of doubting God, we should doubt the question.
In like fashion, we could create a theoretical construct that seems to philosophically suggest that emotions such as love, peace, joy, etc…are only emotions, subjective and circumstantial. We then question them as possibly meaningless and relative. We avoid seeing an absolute root for them because the framework of the question renders the absolute obsolete. Jumping through the philosophical hoops, then, we think we arrive at accurate conclusions. But the reality remains that the proposition was never based in actuality.
Love is the nature of God, not merely a human emotion. Joy is the atmosphere of His presence, not only the result of happy circumstance. Peace is the relational position of the Godhead to which human experience is but a shadowed comparison. Independent of human encounter, such things continue to exist because the nature of God is eternal, without beginning or end. Hate, discord, despair, on the other hand do not emanate from God and are therefore, by definition, temporal and finite. Anything based in them is eventually blown away like chaff.
So…if meaning (purpose, intention) is to be evaluated in separation from the absolute, it will always be rendered relative. But this isn’t truth…only conjecture…because the construct is false. God is absolute and eternal. His actions and intentions are what ultimately weave meaning into the fabric of the universe. That’s the reality. (from my eyes anyway!) 🙂
DON: (new commentator): Burt, it seems you are expounding on the danger of false syllogisms and fairly pointing out the subjective nature of debates of these types. Still, often times breakthroughs and advancements come by virtue exploring and questioning the currently incomprehensible.
Me: Certainly Don! I have found this discourse surprisingly interesting and sharpening (though I’m sure I’ve overstepped my bounds and perhaps put others to sleep!). I agree there is much value in the asking. The trick for us all is how to sail the sea of the unknown without losing sight of the stars that guide us. And sometimes we see as through a glass darkly! In the end, though, truth withstands scrutiny, and the questioner should be free to explore!
Holly: Burt, joy is experienced in the emotional realm. It’s an emotion even if it goes beyond our immediate reaction to life. Still you’re missing my question so I’m gonna drop out now. Did my best to ask it but clearly didn’t do a very good job.
Thanks for all your thoughts!!
Me: Thanks for the dialogue, Holly. After a small night’s sleep, the irony this morning seems inescapable. My tendency to fixate on a certain understanding of this discussion and to pursue a meaning outside the scope of your intention or desire probably does more than anything else here to validate the direction of your original question.
Blessings to you!