Wednesday 22 June 2011

Alienation, purposelessness, meaninglessness and Christian conversion


Although the only reason for becoming a Christian is that it is the truth, that it is reality; nonetheless, since we humans are weak and corrupt there also needs to be at least some short-term reward for conversion.

There needs to be some therapeutic aspect to conversion.

And that which requires therapy is modern secular life; which (whether pleasurable or miserable on average) is perceived as ultimately alienated, purposeless, meaningless.


Alienation, detachment, alone-ness, lack of any connection or relation to the world - is pervasive in modernity.

Alienation can be solved with animism, with paganism; it can be solved in fantasy and sometimes in art; it can be solved in human love (of spouse, of family).

And alienation can also be solved by Christianity which affirms a continuous personal relationship with God (specifically Jesus Christ) so that we are never truly alone.

Also, for a Christian there is the continual reality of Unseen Warfare, of the struggle for salvation affected by angels and demons (which are Christian interpretations of the conscious natural entities of animism or the gods and goddesses of paganism).

Since the Christian is never alone, and always the object of attention; alienation is a temporary illusion - not a permanent reality.

Furthermore, for a Christian the unity of Man is not a mere aspiration, but a fact. We are - whether we like it or not - all in it together; and what we think and do affects not just ourselves but everybody.

No Man is an island: not even in his 'private' thoughts; humans are necessarily social even in solitude. Hence the divisions between practical and personal, work and prayer, contemplation and labour are abolished. A desert-dwelling hermit may exemplify the fullest membership of humankind.


Purposelessness is a feature of modernity where life is specialized, each specialism exists only to serve other specialisms, yet each specialism is narrow, literal and un-engaging.

Everything feels trivial because it is going nowhere for no reason.

Some moderns 'lose themselves' in work or human relationships, others in whatever happens to provide temporary distraction or relief from consciousness (e.g. intoxication, busyness, serial pleasure-seeking). But these are merely means to an end which is left blank by modernity.

For the Christian, however, there is an underpinning purpose to life: which is salvation. All our choices lead either toward, or away from, salvation.

Properly understood, there is also the possibility of increasing holiness - which is termed theosis - i.e progress in this life towards God-like-ness. The success of theosis is Sainthood - a Saint being understood as one who lives partly in Heaven while still on earth.

So, for a Christian, nothing is trivial: everything is goal-directed.


Meaninglessness is the sense that nothing matters in an indifferent universe. The secular materialist looks up at the stars and feels infinitely insignificant.

By contrast, Christianity states that on the contrary everything is significant.

It offers a cosmology, a description of reality, which encompasses this life, the reality of the soul and its survival of death, the nature of the next world into which the soul survives, the existence of beings intermediate between Man and God - namely angels and demons.

When a Christian looks up at the stars he become partially aware of (is glimpsing) spiritual reality: a universe of life, meaning, struggle - the field of transcendent truth, beauty and virtue - and a reality in which his own soul is a focus of vital importance.


So that although Christianity is not about 'being happy' (rather it is a struggle until death, an unseen warfare); and although Christianity is not about re-making the world in accordance with our subjective desires (not about lets-pretend or wishful-thinking  - but rather about fitting oneself to reality); nonetheless adopting the Christian perspective does offer some immediate and profound psychological rewards.

For a Christian things matter: choices matter, what we do has meaning and purpose; and the universe is in personal relation to the perceiving soul.

What happens in life is never lost in time and space - but (for better or worse) is a permanent reality of the soul.


Wholeness, weight and significance are restored to life; there is no longer reason to live wholly for distractions.

So although wholeness, weight and significance bring a new set of problems for the convert - Christian conversion is not entirely a matter of struggle, trial and tribulation; it does have immediate rewards.

Conversion to Christianity means reality is real and has our human experience at the centre of things; there is no longer need to live by strategic evasion of consciousness and systematic suppression of thinking.



Brett Stevens said...

I like this article because it tackles one of the most painful aspects of modernity: when you ask for meaning, modernity gives you hobbies.

In my experience, having seen many people trying different angles on this, you either find transcendent meaning in the world, or you try to find it in material, including the body (mistaken for "self").

That latter path is, even absent the influence of aging, one of pointless thrashing among options that have no significance. They are methods, or effects, or at the very least details; without a narrative or purpose uniting them, they become meaningless.

The problem is that too many people mistake narrative for purpose. Purpose is case/effect logic applied toward an ongoing goal; narrative is a way of explaining what happened as the best way things should be. It's a compensatory and backward-looking point of view.

Thursday said...

Since I have been a bit critical of some of your recent ideas, let me say that this post is absolutely brilliant.

Of course, it pretty much logically follows from the nature of a loving God that he wants us to be happy, at least in the long run. So, a religion that tends to make people really unhappy is almost certainly a false religion. As C.S. Lewis has pointed out though this does not mean that the direct pursuit of happiness ought to be our goal.

Wm Jas said...

For a non-Christian (and the post seems to have been written for non-Christians), the first clause of this post tends to make the rest of it seem irrelevant. The therapeutic value of religion is relatively obvious; what's not obvious (to put it mildly) is that Christianity is actually true.

For someone who does not believe, the therapeutic benefits of Christianity are worse than irrelevant -- they are temptations to sin against the truth, to try to trick oneself into believing something false in order to feel better. They also provide the atheist with a convenient way to dismiss believers -- i.e., as weak souls who have succumbed to that very temptation.

The Crow said...

The idea that people will only do something for something is a common one. It is the main reason religion fails as it so often does.
The thing that gets missed is that doing this thing is its own reward, but only if it is done without the goal of being rewarded.
Why does a gardener tend her plants? To admire the results? Sure. But beyond that, lies a level upon which the effort is made for the plants, because the plants are there.
Why do I feed raccoons, when I know all I will get is more and more raccoons? Beyond the obvious pleasure I derive from their proximity, it is simply because they are there.
Why revere the Divine? Because it is there. And because it is the Divine.
Maybe I will get to this fabled place called heaven, maybe not. It was never, and never will be, my motivation for revering what is there, all around, everywhere, always.
The French have a phrase that fits the context:
Pour la Gloire!
Why do this unlikely and evidently unrewarding thing? For the Glory! Il n'y a que ca.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - I don't think I agree.

"The therapeutic value of religion is relatively obvious; what's not obvious (to put it mildly) is that Christianity is actually true."

Many secular moderns regard the therapeutic aspects of Christianity as being of a kind they neither want nor need - chummy fellowship, cheerful singing and clean fun, unconvincing wishful thinking etc.

What I am trying to show is that the therapeutic aspects of Christianity (properly conceived) are, in fact, exactly those which modern people need most.

"For someone who does not believe, the therapeutic benefits of Christianity are worse than irrelevant -- they are temptations to sin against the truth, to try to trick oneself into believing something false in order to feel better."

If Christianity *is* true, then what you say cannot be true; certainly not the whole or main truth of the matter. The Eastern Orthodox tradition has a strong theme of the therapeutic in Christianity - but it is therapy of the *soul*; which is not what modern people mean by therapy (which is more a therapy of the feelings).

However, the soul is not disconnected from the feelings.

"They also provide the atheist with a convenient way to dismiss believers -- i.e., as weak souls who have succumbed to that very temptation."

Maybe, sometimes. From personal observation, I perceive the opposite. Atheists comfort and excuse themselves with this kind of argument; but it is transparent nonsense. Christianity is far, far more strenuous than secular modernity - which is indeed built on self-gratification raised to the status of a principle.

Jonathan said...

I've been reading Seraphim Rose's "The Soul After Death," and just finished the section on hell. One of my biggest blocks to accepting Orthodox Christianity is that I just can't believe that a "loving God" would consign souls to an eternity of torture because they guessed wrong about whether God exists, or guessed wrong about what the right belief system is, especially considering how hard it is to find evidence for those guesses. To me, this is a much bigger objection than the standard objection of "How can evil exist?" Have you seen it addressed anywhere?

Bruce Charlton said...

There is a lot to be said about this.

In the first place, it is our job to find out what happens, not to judge what happens.

Secondly, all religious language is metaphorical - the reality is not directly comprehensible. So I leave aside the question of what hell is 'like'. My assumption is that hell is what happened to (nearly) ALL souls before Christ, and He offered a way out of this for those who chose it.

Thirdly, the starting point is that souls are real and survive death - there is disagreement over what happens afterwards.

Fourthly the deepest religious thinkers seem emphasize that ultimately we get what we 'want', get what we choose. This matter of choice is right at the very heart of Christianity.

Fifthly, therefore, the choice is between love of God and love of self (this is what is meant by pride, as the worst sin); those who choose self get what they choose - the self, for eternity.

Sixthly, what makes the self into hell is original sin - that (almost) all humans are so mired in sin (pride, self-love) that this is what makes an eternity of self (with no distractions) to be such an appalling torture.

Finally - I find that fantasy fiction is a way that I personally 'understand' these matters. For example, the fate of Voldemort (and the cause of this fate) in the Harry Potter books is a depiction of hell which I can understand. Another example is Descent into Hell by Charles Williams. Another is in The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis. Another is the depiction of Melkor/ Morgoth spread across several volumes of the History of Middle Earth.

And there is the Gospel account of the repentant Good Thief, contrasted with the Bad Thief (Luke 23: 39-43).

The difficult point to grasp is that we seem to be free to *choose* at any time until the end of our lives, or perhaps (it seems likely to me) immediately after death - but this choice is pretty much irrevocable.

As I understand the Orthodox account (in a more abstract way) immediately after death we will be given a choice and subjected to extreme temptations - our Christian life on earth is a preparation so that when this happens we will make the right choice and reject the temptations (e.g. because we have clarity of mind, and have developed good habits).

Another point is NOT to get stuck on hard cases and gray areas - the borderline between salvation and damnation.

This line of thinking, in itself, strikes me as a temptation, a way of avoiding making the choice for oneself - trying to 'get away with' as much as you can, or to do as little as possible yet attain salvation. (As if salvation were an examination)

I hope this helps.

Jonathan said...

Thank you.