Wednesday 14 November 2012

The three existential problems of life: alienation, meaninglessness and purposelessness


Christianity is, so far as I know, the only system on offer which claims to solve all the three main existential problems of life:

1. Alienation - feeling detached from the world, that the world is just objective fact and that I have no relationship with the sun, moon, stars, plants, animals, landscape or anything else.

2. Meaninglessness - that the decisions and occurrences of life are devoid of any real significance - any sensation of meaning being at most a useful delusion.

3. Purposelessness - that there is no direction or goal in life, that life is just one thing after another and then death (and oblivion, or misery).


1. Alienation is not a problem for hunter-gatherer animists, nor for young children - who are 'animists' and see nature as alive, and they are in communication an in relationship with it.

However, there is no real significance or goal to life for animists: life simply cycles round-and-round, transforming, but in total the same forever. Individuality is transformed into something else, or reabsorbed into the energies of the universe. This is common to most or all types of animism, totemism, paganism.

Christianity solves alienation by adoption of the believer into the family of God and by awareness of the presence of unseen intelligences (angels and demons) peopling this world.


2. Pure monotheisms offer a weighty sense of the significance of behaviours and occurrences in this world - these are all known and 'recorded' by the one God. There is also the presence of angels and demons - so Man is not alone.

However,of monotheisms, only Trinitarian Christianity also addresses the alienation problem - only Christianity promises that the believer becomes a Son of God via death, purification and resurrection in the perfection of 'a god' (infinitely below the one creator God, but above the angels).


3. Purposelessness. To my understanding, all religions except Christianity lack a sense of purpose; since impersonal participation in the energies of the universe, or some cyclical process is not purpose; neither is endlessly-more-of-the-same-kind-of-stuff  but only including the pleasures (i.e. eternity in 'paradise') any real answer to anything.

Paradise it is merely an eternity of euphoria - much the same as a permanent orgasm, drug trip, or a good dream. This is indistinguishable from a state of cheerful delusion; and in fact a species of nihilism. The promise of eternity in paradise is actually an horrific threat.

By contrast, Christianity promises a future state in which - on the one hand - we retain our individuality, our personality, our distinctiveness: we are still ourselves. Yet on the other hand this self is purified and perfected (resurrected) and in the best imaginable situation of living in the presence of Christ.

This is not, of course, an exact or comprehensible promise (at least not to normal everyday consciousness); but my point is that Christianity recognizes that any future which involves annihilation, destruction of the self, or eternity of our unchanged selves is nothing more than a nightmare.

Christianity alone recognizes what sort of circumstances would need to prevail for eternity to be not just bearable but blissful.


The greatest recent triumph of Satan has perhaps been to obscure this fact from the mass of people; the fact that if we believe Christianity to be true, then Christianity is not merely the best offer on the table: it is the only offer on the table that is not in reality some kind of nihilistic horror or everlasting nightmare - even if the horrors and nightmares be disguised with a sugar-coating.

Indeed, more than this, Christianity represents (so far as I know) the only desirable interpretation of the world which takes into account the reality of the world as we experience it, the only one which denies nothing.

It is Christianity or nothing: it is our only hope. And this is not a matter of opinion, but a matter of whether you know enough to understand and understand enough to acknowledge.


You may think Christianity is false, or be uncertain whether it is true - that is a different matter.

But you ought to recognize, to acknowledge, that Christianity is the only religion which you would both want to be true and which could in principle be true.

If you have not yet reached that point, you have work to do.



PhilR said...

Spes unica. Spot on.

Donald said...

I recently (and sadly) came across a former internet apologist who had apostatized to atheism. What was interesting to me was that he supposed that the arguments William Lane Craig (and evangelical philosopher) gave in support of the absurdity of life without God were all mistaken: he said that it was Craig's subjective opinion that life was meaningless without G-d, that choice between different worldviews was essentially arbitrary, and that G-d creating an end purpose for humans in their lives actually was authoritarian and counterproductive to meaning. Aside from the fact there are many prominent atheists who have also believed that life was ultimately meaningless, devoid of morality, etc., it just seemed sad that one would give up Christianity for such terrible reasons (maybe he didn't maybe there was something else, but it also included someone being able to die without knowledge of God, which again seemed weaksauce to a sympathetic interpretation of Christianity and the activity of the Holy Spirit).

If he had said the evidence was "insufficient" or the arguments weren't up to snuff for him, at least he could have retreated to agnosticism for a time. But I think recognition of the existential threats to man is something of the 1st step for modern man - he must at least understand his predicament. If he can't understand (or refuses to understand) why he should even want Christianity to be true (and indeed if he comes up with reasons why he wouldn't want Christianity to be true, brushing aside all the talk of alienation, meaninglessness, purposelessness, nihilism) this is a man with no desire, no motivation --> no act of the will --> to even want to choose God. He will not seek out the evidence (and in his case figures he knows all the evidence) - all must one do is seek, and you are promised to find!

In these types of situations one can never know what the back story is. I think that in someones life intellectual reasons are often given but ultimately it is a question of whether one resists the Holy Spirit or gives in. So it is likely a combination of factors, and someone rejecting G-d can be intellectual failure, but often this is a cover for moral failure, failure to recognize beauty, failure of the will, etc.

It just saddened me to see a former Christian leave, pray that I never follow a path like that!

Shenpen said...

Well I don't put any value on my individuality or personality because for me it is just the tyranny of my ego, my pride, my passions over me. I don't see any value being in something distinct and separate, and being one with everything, dissolving myself in everything sounds a like a very good deal. Hence, Buddhism.

Christianity has very similar notions and I respect it, Christianity understands the need to be purified from passion and ego and pride, but the problem is that in Christianity something is left. And that something is still distinct from everything else. While in Buddhism nothing distinct is left, we become both everything and nothing.

Seriously that sounds like a better deal for me. It is something similar to Christianity, but much more radical. It does not offer a self freed from passion, it says the self is passion, and the complete purification is purification from the self, not purifying the self. How is that not a good deal?

I have no beef with Christianity, it is still better than modern egoism. But you guys are afraid to walk to the end of the road. Like the Hindus, you guys just want a smaller ego, and we want no ego at all.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Shenpen - The logical end of your road is death, and no reason to delay.

For Buddhism, life in the world has no relation, meaning, or purpose; suffering has no reason, nothing is explained; if humans live in error in being attached, then *why* are they in error?

Buddhism does not explain, cannot explain, claims there is nothing *to* explain - is a desperate despair with no hope except cessation of suffering.

If you understood Christianity you would *infinitely* prefer it to Buddhism; if you understood and believed Christianity, Buddhism would appear an empty and tragic waste.

Bruce B. said...

This isn’t related to this post. I think you said you could see converting to Catholicism. If you did, you’d have to accept their teachings on the Papacy. Presumably, you don’t now or you’d be Catholic. If you convert, would you make yourself believe their teachings?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bruce B - When I wrote that I was referring to the arrangements made for the Anglican Ordinariate, whereby a whole congregation converts together - I thought that I could probably do that with a clear conscience. I am not sure about converting to Roman Catholicism as an individual.

This is one of the wicked absurdities of being an adult convert; in most denominations you are either required to assent to a much larger range of non-core matters than the cradle member, or else make an only approximate oath.

However, as you probably know I regard myself as a 'Mere' Christian (and that salvation is achievable through any *real* Christian denomination); therefore at present, and in light of impending developments in my CofE, I am 'training myself' to be more Protestant in my practice - not least because the all-round best Church I know-of (the one I attend most) is very much on the Protestant wing of the Church of England.

This Church may be forced to leave the C of E; or I may, who knows?

So I need to be ready to move denominations if necessary - and I think simple 'Puritanical', evangelical, non-Episcopal Protestant churches may be the best available (certainly not ideal, but perhaps the best available) option for real Christians in the future.

jgress said...

Yes I think a lot of people have "work to do", as you put it. If you're not constantly thinking about death and the meaning of life, I think most of these problems that Christianity purports to answer don't exist. I know plenty of people who just don't get worked up or think that much about these questions: they just get along with life, and often seem quite happy and content in the process. There is no obvious hole in their heart that needs filling.

Of course, you could argue that there is a hole in their heart that they are simply unaware of, but then you have already abandoned any appeal to direct, subjective experience that they could relate to.

I suppose that means that those who don't feel the need for Christianity are beyond help. Unless something in their life causes them to look inwards and find that hole, there are no arguments you can make that will persuade there is a hole.

Bruce Charlton said...

@jgress - Indeed. It has become harder and harder to reach people. As was prophesied for the end times. But then I was myself one of those people of whom you speak, not very many years ago.

jgress said...

@bgc: Do you talk about what experiences caused you to find Christianity in your blog?

The Crow said...

So far as you know?
Then know this: I suffer from none of those three malaises, and I am certainly not a Christian, although, of course, I have a Christian background.
But you make a broadly true point, and what you claim is all too often the case.

Ben said...

Regarding point 2 and 3 and Judaism:

2. In the afterlife the Jew is purified of imperfections and close to G-d (while still underneath G-d but above the angles which do not have freewill.)

3. I think the point you make here is contradictory. You say a purely pleasurable bliss is nihilistic and therefore a kind of torment, yet to be in Christian heaven is bliss? (I've probably misinterpreted you here.)

The Jewish heaven which, rather than something like nirvana, is a closeness to G-d, rather than a reunification with him (and therefore destruction of the discreteness of the individual soul), that can only be achieved in heaven (after the testing of the soul on earth.) This closeness itself, is a human's purpose.

Bruce Charlton said...

@jgress - this may be the nearest?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - If it is correct that you are not alienated, you would also have to mean that life had *objective* meaning and purpose - not as a matter of your subjective opinion, but that reality was structured such that events were significant and you specifically had an aim in the context of the universe.

That aside, I have interacted with you enough to know that at present you do not understand Christianity in the way I describe; most probably because you feel there is no reason to make the effort.

There is of course, a sense in which to understand Christianity is to believe it - or vice versa - and this is how it is for many or most people - but I infer that you do not understand Original Sin, Christ, incarnation, death on the cross and resurrection, ascension - and the offer of adoption.

@Ben I don't think it is very fruitful for me to discuss similarities between modern (post-Christian) Judaism and Christianity.

Of course the primary one is the Trinitarian God and all its manifold implications.

But I know (from prophecies) that while there have been many converts (including the first ones) there will be Jews (Orthodox adherents to Judaism I mean, not just the race, and not 'liberal' Jews) until the end of this world - and it seems that the Jews are 'a people' with a special destiny of some kind which I do not understand and which - in a sense - does not concern non-Jews.

The Crow said...

Bruce: my meaning is to live, and my purpose is to do as instructed in Genesis: to tend the Garden.
The Garden is me, and me it. All for one and one for all.
Sure I understand Christianity, as you see it, or I feel I do. I have discovered, though, that all the trappings are not essential to it, and so I dispense with them.
This, of course, means I am not a Christian, by choice. I am though, a Holy Man, in a way seldom seen, since such beings routinely set themselves up as hermit ascetics.
I should be that smart, and maybe I will become so.
For now, however, I dabble, like you, on the internet.

jgress said...

@bgc: Thank you for the link to that post. I wanted to comment on it, but should I do that there or here, since it's dated now?

Bruce Charlton said...

@jgress - here is fine.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

Thanks for the link you gave for "jgress" above. I just read the article and your answers to commenters and I liked it all very much. Hearing about the motivations and inner workings of conversion is always my favourite read.

If it is not too much to ask, did you derive your interesting observations about animism from personal experience or from hearsay? (The few animists we have here are not particularly inspiring. I am referring to Amerindians, and it is not a racist remark because I have a few ancestors among them, as 80% of the people in the province of Quebec.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@SDR - The animism was something that came naturally to me, at certain times; but I was more aware of it from reading Tolkien in my teens (although not by that name). From the late 1990s I began reading anthropological (and fictional) accounts of animism, exploring myths, and I was making links to biology, psychology, psychopharmacology, and evolution in my book Psychiatry and the Human Condition of 2000.

At that time I tended to think that alienation was THE problem, and if that could be cured then the other problems would dissolve, and that life had not meaning or purpose would cease to trouble the mind - one would simply become absorbed in 'living'.

Christianity seemed to have nothing to 'offer' to cure alienation - since I had framed it as just a set of historical facts and an eventual goal.

This is why I write so much about the 'relational' aspects of Christianity.

For Christianity to be a cure alienation it seems to need to be real and traditional - it needs to have all the elements which have been ejected throughout the recent generations - e.g. a sense of the reality of spiritual warfare with angels and demons present and active; an awareness of the reality of adoption by God and the reality of the mystical unity of Christians; the reality of 'everyday miracles' and so on.

In sum the awareness of the world as decsribed in scripture and a lively relationship with Christ (which can have as its focus different activities - e.g. the Eucharistic presence on one hand, or the reading of and meditation on scripture on the other - and prayer ought to be the focus as an ideal aim: frequent/near continuous prayer as a form of communion.