Book Excerpt: 'Meaning Without Meaning' by Gerhard Stübben
The following is an excerpt from Gerhard Stübben's forthcoming book Meaning Without Meaning: A Christian Reflection on Ecclesiastes, Death, and the Meaning of Life.
I was nine years old when I realized that I would die. I was at my grandma’s house in Lawrenceville, New Jersey and everyone else had gone to bed. I was walking around on the first story, passing from the kitchen to the dining room, when the thought first rooted itself in my brain. Stepping across that threshold was the first step from the innocence of my childhood into my morose fascination with death. At that moment I knew all at once that I would die and, therefore, that my entire life would be meaningless. A number of careers I had been considering flashed across my mind in an instant, and I felt them all at once melt into a pool of insignificance. I could be a businessman and get rich, but I would die and the money would be useless. I could be a musician and get famous, but I would die and that fame wouldn’t mean anything to me anymore. I could be a scientist and discover some new, important knowledge, but I would die and my brain would rot in some hole in the ground. Death, I knew then, was the mocking scorn that turned all of life into irony.
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Perhaps it was the crushing nature of that realization, perhaps it was the fact that I was a pre-pubescent boy with a strong bent towards the neurotic, but I forgot that lesson learned in Jersey as I grew up. Of the three options in my despairing flash of insight fame sounded the best, so I bought a guitar and got to work. I spent three hours every single day practicing, improving, worshipping my guitar, knowing that it was my key to immortality. One day, I still knew, that I would die. But I was going to leave my mark, dammit.
I went through a few different phases in my quest for immortality, though none of them involved a snake or an apple, but the underlying drive was always the same: every day death takes a step nearer, and I’m going to be ready. My first hope was to emulate the only immortals that I knew and loved, musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Tom DeLonge. When I began to take Christianity seriously at 16, that drive for immortality morphed. From then on I desperately hoped to make my lasting mark on the world in a religious way, by becoming a great missionary or teacher or pious example. Then, when I began to feel that evangelical fervor was no longer my scene, I turned to religious academics. If I didn’t care as much to change people’s hearts I could at least change their minds. In all of this, though, I was still wandering through Sumeria seeking some way to live on beyond death.
That all changed when I began to read, began to really read, Ecclesiastes. I was told by a mentor of mine never to take Ecclesiastes or Acts too seriously. I took that advice until late college. At some point, though, I read and understood that beautiful, troubling little book in the Bible. I felt the despair, the anxiety, the crushing reality of death speaking to my nine year-old self – a self wiser than my twenty-something year-old self – and calling it out of hiding. I would once again face death and all of its implications, all of its despairing and overwhelming overtones, and this time wouldn’t go drinking from broken cisterns. I would become a Nihilist because, as they say, the Bible tells me so.
This is a book about that journey, that deceptive hope, and that troubling little Hebrew book. In this book I will do my best to examine death, life, and the meaning of both as rigorously and Christianly as possible. And when I say examine these issues “Christianly,” I mean it. I have been helped along the way by many minds, from the Buddha to Albert Camus to Friedrich Nietzsche, but ultimately this book is grounded in Christian Scripture. It is, first and foremost, an attempt to really listen to, understand, and live the message of Ecclesiastes, taking it seriously and on its own terms, rather than as a foil for the “real” message of Scripture. This book is, if I may risk being a bit overly dramatic, an attempt to do what has never been done in contemporary evangelicalism: read those forgotten texts as if they really were the Word of God.
Before reading Ecclesiastes and exploring what the book has to say about the meaning of life, we have to understand what the phrase “the meaning of life” even means. The first chapter, then, will try to define the word “meaning” and some related terms (“purpose,” “fulfillment,” etc.) as precisely and concretely as possible. I will argue that the word “meaning” is a linguistic term, a term that primarily refers to reference itself; the letters D-O-G point away from themselves to the idea of a brown four-legged animal. Asking about “the meaning of life,” then, is asking what external thing life points to that fills life with substance, purpose, direction. It assumes that life doesn’t exist for its own sake. If life has a meaning then it, by definition, is only worth living for the sake of something else. And, I argue in the chapter, if we are to ask about the meaning of life then we are asking nothing else than about what meaning God assigns to life. This chapter sets the parameters, defines the terms, and points the direction for the rest of the book.
In chapter two, I explore some answers given by philosophers to the question of the meaning of life. I discuss two broad philosophical schools, Existentialism and Nihilism, through the work of four different philosophers: Søren Kirkegaard and Jacques Derrida representing Existentialism, Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Camus representing Nihilism. I argue that the main difference between the two is that the former group assumes belief in a transcendent purpose of life, based on the fact that humans have an intense yearning for such a purpose. The latter rejects the meaning of life, rejecting the Existentialists’ evidence as special pleading – just because we desire a meaning of life doesn’t mean one exists. Based on my argument in the first chapter, I then argue that if a meaning of life exists then it must exist, by definition, in the mind of God. This sets the stage for the following chapter.
In chapter three, I argue that in order to know God’s mind God must speak, since it is impossible to read minds. I further argue that God has indeed spoken, once. Christian Scripture is the only access we have to God’s thoughts and, therefore, the meaning of life. And luckily for us, Christian Scripture contains an entire book that is one extended reflection on the meaning of life: Ecclesiastes. The bulk of chapter three is an exploration of the philosophy of life offered by Ecclesiastes and comparison of it to the very similar philosophy of Albert Camus, discussed in the previous chapter. I argure that according to both Ecclesiastes and Camus life has no meaning and that’s ok. This is a joyful, if Spartan, Nihilism.
Chapter four is an answer to the most common and obvious critique of my program. Many today say, as Camus himself said, that the Christian belief in life-after-death is a denial of the Nihilist claim that life is meaningless. If death is not the end, it is believed, then life must have some purpose. In chapter four, therefore, I closely examine the Christian notion of life-after-death, insisting that the authentic doctrine is belief in a future and physical resurrection rather than belief in some ethereal “heaven,” and does not contradict the meaninglessness of life in any way. Far from contradicting Camus, and therefore Ecclesiastes, the authentically Christian belief in life-after-death confirms the claim that life is, at its core, utterly meaningless.
In chapter five, I begin a movement away from abstract and philosophical discussion to concrete reflection on life itself. The previous chapters had been a cumulative intellectual argument that life is meaningless-but-good, that life has no meaning beyond the mere embrace of life itself, and chapter five is a reflection on what that embrace means in actual practice. What does it actually mean to love life, just as it is, without reference to some majestic and transcendent “meaning”? This is the purpose of chapter five. Taking my cues especially from Buddhism and the secularized Mindfulness tradition, I argue that to truly embrace life we must learn to live life as it actually presents itself to us: without criticism, without craving, without anxiety, without anticipation, and in the present. Or, as Mohandas Gandhi explained his philosophy of life, “Renounce and enjoy.”
Chapter six begins the final section of the book, the first of two chapters on issues that arise specifically for Christians trying to live life in a meaningless way. The philosophical school Nihilism has, for very good reason, been associated with rejection of belief in God, of the reality of moral good and evil, and especially the rejection of a future reward and punishment based on peoples’ conduct in life. Chapter six attempts to show that belief in a future judgment does not contradict the philosophy of life of Ecclesiastes and, therefore, does not contradict the claims of this book. I attempt to show that Christian obedience still makes sense within a Christian Nihilistic system and while also attempting to recommend ways to keep Christian obedience from sneaking some meaning of life in surreptitiously through a back-door. Chapter six is about obedience, about keeping obedience intact within the philosophical system of this book and about keeping it in check from introducing some new and pernicious meaning of life.
Chapter seven deals with another specifically Christian problem related to the meaning of life. Christians have become accustomed in the modern West to talking about “God’s calling” in and about their lives. In this chapter, I explain and explore the notion of “calling,” claiming that while it doesn’t necessarily contradict Ecclesiastes’ meaninglessness of life, in practice it most emphatically does. God’s calling, as it is understood by the vast majority of Western Christians, implicitly and necessarily creates a hierarchy of Christians and careers, making some careers worthy of God’s calling and leaving other menial jobs to the masses of the uncalled. Even more important for this book, the notion of God’s calling revives an old idolatrous way of conceiving of the meaning of life, that a person’s career can give them sustainable purpose. This idea of calling contradicts Ecclesiastes, for sure, but it also finds a surprising enemy in the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation’s concept of “the priesthood of all believers,” I argue, was formulated precisely to undo the hierarchies and quests for a meaning of life that the notion of God’s calling implies. Both Scripture and Protestant tradition, then, converge to attack the notion of the meaning of life.
And with that reflection on Protestant tradition, this book will end. This experiment of thought against thought, this claim that living is immeasurably more important than thinking about life, that perhaps thinking about life is a dereliction of the real duty to live, ends with that claim to a very conservative, very traditional heritage. Nihilism, we might say, is the faith of our fathers. And if we are to enact that faith, to live that philosophy, then we will have eventually to put away our books, silence our restless thinking, and begin to simply live. So I hope that you are a fast reader. I hope you can read this book, reflect on its arguments, and weigh its claims relatively quickly. The more important world of kayaks, coffee, friendship, meditation, hiking, curry, prayer, and music is waiting for you.
is an author, a co-host of Podcastica Patristica, and a graphic designer in Waco, Texas. He is a co-author of Divine Providence: A Conversation and Arius in His Own Words, the first ever stand-alone translation of the works of the fourth century heretic Arius.