The Problem of Meaning and Truth

America’s culture and very existence was built on a statement in the opening lines of her constitution that the rights of the citizens are undeniable: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal with the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But now, as if the concept of self-evident truths was only hypothetical, young people are being challenged to question reality and meaning. We are told there are no absolute truths, no meaning, and no universal morality. This leaves America with a big problem. If everything is relative, how can a truth be self-evident or unalienable?

The Search for Meaning and Truth:

Very few people will blatantly disagree with the words of the constitution, but at the same time, new ideas have been accepted that subtly dismantle our constitutional rights.

            Since the beginning of time, people of every nation and belief have been on the quest for meaning and truth. It is a natural instinct to be aware of purpose just as an infant knows the difference between the crib and the arm. We can see that in 1787, when the constitution was written, men and women were searching out unalienable rights based on self-evident truths. Go back further to 970 B.C. where we see Solomon, king of ancient Israel, on a relentless search for meaning. He wrote in Ecclesiastes 2:1-3, “I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is purposeful.’ But that also proved to be meaningless. ‘Laughter,’ I said, ‘is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?’ I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly, my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.” The search for meaning is evident in every worldview in every age. It would be unnatural to run from having a purpose; yet the majority of this generation has done just that.

The most startling example is the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University. This building was designed by Peter Eisenman who dubs his work, “America’s first postmodern building”. The Wexner Center has staircases which lead to nowhere and pillars that hold nothing up. Eisenman explains, “Why, if life itself is capricious, should our buildings have any design and any meaning?” The fact that someone can make such a statement without causing an immediate argument is a prime example of blindly accepting a belief without thinking it through logically. Logic would have us ask the question, “How can his statement itself be true if there is no meaning? Doesn’t the statement itself have meaning?”

The Logic Part

            The whole concept that there could be no ultimate meaning or absolute truth self-destructs when it is logically examined. Rap artist, Lecrae, wrote a song titled, Truth, in which he describes the irony like this, “Some folk say that all truth is relative… But that means you believe your own statement is true… You’re saying that that statement is true. It kills itself. If what’s true for you is true for you, then what’s true for me is true for me. What if my truth says that yours is a lie? Which is true?” The Law of Non-Contradiction forbids one truth to be true for one person while an opposing truth is equally true for another.  Ever tried playing a game of soccer with relative goals? It doesn’t work!

In every other area of life, we understand the need for a purpose. An oil factory exists for a purpose: to provide the world with oil. But suppose said factory were to use its own oil to keep its oil machines running. Then suppose the factory used 100% of its oil to fuel itself. It would shut down. The factory has purpose beyond its own existence, or else it cannot exist at all.

Our existence is the same way. If we were to possess no meaning, we would either cease to exist or cease to function. Communication would be impossible. I could say, “I would like a hamburger.” The cashier could interpret my words to mean whatever she wants and reply, “Yes. I too think the sky is green.” Without an absolute truth, could we even say that she is wrong about the color of the sky?  Of course, if there were no meaning, no one would care. C.S. Lewis says it best in his book, Mere Christianity: “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning; just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.” It wouldn’t even occur to us that there is such a concept as purpose. If there is no meaning, purpose, or truth why does anyone care enough to debate it, let alone design and construct a whole building just for the sake of demonstrating a lack of purpose? Nobody would; and thus in doing so, they disprove their own argument. The very nature of things insists that there be ultimate meaning, absolute truth, and a universal morality.

So What?

            If there is meaning to life, it requires action, and in some cases, a change of lifestyle. If one concludes that he has ultimate meaning, he is then obligated to fulfil it. If one concludes that there is absolute truth, he is obligated to live by it. If one concludes that there is absolute truth, then he must admit a universal morality and is obligated to follow it. Nobody wants to be in the dark which is why the search for truth has been a constant quest; but knowledge carries responsibility. Once an individual has acknowledged the existence of purpose, there is no excuse for ignoring it. King Solomon is hailed as being the wisest man who ever lived; yet listen to what he says in Ecclesiastes 1:18 about the responsibility his wisdom carried: “With much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” Perhaps this explains why the idea of personalized truth has attracted so many.  It is sobering to ask these questions in depth, but it is necessary that we do.

Now What?

We must continue to ask these questions if we are to identify where to park our purpose. We have seen that the very nature of things demands that there be answers. When we cannot identify what is true, we risk believing in a lie just so that we can have something to live for. Lies form the foundation of injustice and totalitarianism; therefore, the truth of meaning must be sought out for what it really is in actuality. In The Death of Truth and Decline of Culture, author and apologist, Ravi Zacharias observes, “If in one court case, it is imperative that we know the truth, the full truth, and nothing but the truth, how much more in life itself with all of its questions about origin, meaning, morality, and destiny.”

The importance of purpose is this: without it, we live in a chaotic and dysfunctional world, void of morality, ethics, and communication. The real question raised by the issue is not, “Can a person be right to say the sky is green?” The real question lies in whether or not a person can take a knife and mutilate the body of a little baby for his own personal pleasure. Can a rapist form his own definitions for a person’s meaning, his own personalized truth, and his own laws of morality? The line has to be drawn somewhere. When we do away with the absolute, when we do not know where to draw the line, of all places we ought not to have drawn it, we have drawn it precisely there: in the personal preference. It’s time to step up to the plate and take responsibility. Draw the line where it should be.

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