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The search for meaning and values

30 November, 1999

From the Veritas ‘Into the Classroom’ series: Eoin G. Cassidy looks at how we derive and process the great questions concerning the meaning of life at large and one’s own life in particular. He discusses both secular and religious sources of values which emerge from this questioning.

291 pp, Veritas, 2004. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie.


Part one: Reflecting on the context
1. The contemporary context
2. The tradition of the search
Part two: The response to the quest
3. The language of the symbol
4. The tradition of response
Part three: Concepts of God
5. Gods of the ancients
6. The concepts of revelation
7. Naming God, past and present
Part four: Religion and the emergence of values
8. Religion as a source of communal values
9. Secular sources of communal values
Different relations between religions and the secular world
Select Bibliography


One of the few things that we all share in common is that we are questioners. None of us can avoid the foundational questions such as why we came into existence, whether we can ever be truly happy, why we die, and perhaps most difficult of all, why we suffer? No young person arrives at adulthood without wondering what it is that makes us attractive to others or how to explain the feeling that one ought to be good. Then there are theoretical questions such as: is the world intelligible, or is it merely the product of blind chance?

The ability to name human questions and the desire to articulate our own questions is the first step in what is commonly called the search for meaning. In The search for meaning and values, Eoin G. Cassidy reminds us that it is only when someone is present for us, one whose very presence responds to our questions in ways that answers could never do, that we can glimpse the possibility of meaning. From a Christian perspective, that person is God.

CHAPTER 1: Contemporary context

It is a truism to say that no search for meaning and values takes place in a vacuum. Whatever one might say about the universal character of the search for meaning and values, each person undertakes this quest in a particular cultural context and this milieu not only shapes the answers but also shapes the questions that are asked. The first step in uncovering the contemporary context for the search for meaning and values is to be attentive to the importance of culture – that cluster of assumptions, values and ways of life that both create and give expression to the identity of each human community. All questioning takes place in a particular context, but because culture determines what we regard as normal and abnormal, we are, for the most part, unaware of the extent to which our questioning is predetermined.

Educators charged with the responsibility to foster in young people a reflective awareness of the search for meaning and values need to be attentive to the main themes of the contemporary ethos. They need to be cultural meteorologists proficient readers of the signs of the times; otherwise they risk being blind to the manner in which the contemporary milieu shapes the contours of these fundamental questions. The problem facing educators in reading the signs of the times or spotting the straws in the wind lies precisely in the fact that there is no neutral vantage point from which to survey any culture. We are all creatures of a particular ethos and each one erects a highly selective screen that makes it difficult to see with clarity our own or any other culture. To some extent we are all ‘prejudiced’ in that we inevitably bring a pre-judgement to bear on any act of cultural analysis. Educators, therefore, need to be people of discernment. This is a task that demands an ability to be sensitive to the cultural presuppositions of the students and an awareness of the presuppositions that we bring to any encounter.

Asking questions in any milieu is difficult, but asking questions in a youth culture is a particularly challenging task. Not only does it demand sensitivity to the cultural parameters within which we question and those within which young people live their lives, but it also requires alertness to the developmental factors that are at work in young people’s lives. Each society is composed of a mixture of light and shadow: There are factors in contemporary culture that can block young people’s search for meaning and values, but equally young adults have the potential to re-imagine the quest in ways that would have been inconceivable to an earlier generation. Ultimately, the challenge is to strike a balance that neither dismisses nor naively accepts as normative the value system and beliefs of any particular culture. The educator needs to be both a respectful and a critical listener.

The world of classical culture
It is often said that the most enthusiastic disciples of post-modernity are the marketing executives of publishing houses; ‘what is new sells’ is a good post-modern maxim. Whatever about the truth of that allegation, it reminds us of the need to be wary of uncritically accepting the newest label by which contemporary culture is described. While not denying that western society is changing and that this is most evident in what might be described as youth culture, nevertheless, it would be foolish to presume that all vestiges of previous culture no longer holds sway with a significant segment of the youth population. Despite the all-pervasive nature of pop culture, all the evidence suggests that the dominant behavioural influence on young people remains the parents or extended family. Furthermore, it must be recognised that cultural change seldom, if ever, happens through a sudden or indeed a complete rejection of all features of the previous ethos. For the most part it occurs incrementally and over an extended period of time. Despite the ‘market’ driven perceptions of the increasing pace of change in western society, our world-view is to a surprisingly large extent still shaped by ideas and values of the classical world of Judaeo-Christian and Greco- Roman civilisation.

The classical vision of human nature was one that placed emphasis on characteristics of the search for meaning and values that highlight the transcendent and social dimensions of human experience. With few exceptions, the classical world was one that never doubted the existence of a transcendent and objective horizon for the search for meaning. It was also a culture that defined human beings as social beings and would have been convinced that this quest for meaning could only be successfully undertaken by those who accept their status as members of a community and the inheritor of a tradition.

Modern culture, or modernity, is an umbrella term for a number of cultural developments that took place primarily in Europe and North America over a period of roughly two hundred and fifty years between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Four of the core themes that have shaped modernity have been secularisation, the acceptance of an individualist anthropology, the emergence of a technological world-view that accompanied the rise of instrumental rationality to a position of pre-eminence, and finally, the development of a Liberal culture that flowed from an increasing societal acceptance of liberal democracy.

Secularisation is the process by which culture progressively defines itself in a ‘this-worldly’ context. Although its origins can be traced to the rise of secular humanism during the Renaissance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, its development is closely associated with the growth of the empirical sciences. With its focus on the material world the secularisation process has given an impetus to the development of science that has brought considerable benefit to humankind. However, from the point of view of human progress every cultural development is a mixed blessing, and the movement to a more secular society is no exception. The ‘this-worldly’ focus of the secularisation process in western societies has encouraged the belief that the parameters of the search for meaning and values are those defined by a materialist worldview. Furthermore, the secularisation of culture has also been accompanied by the growth of an individualist ethos. Taken to extremes this trend encourages the privatisation of core beliefs and values and the progressive loss of engagement with a social context for the quest for meaning and values. The secularisation of culture has also given impetus to the rise of a belief system entitled secularism, which holds that the progress of civilisation can be measured by the extent to which societies are able to free themselves from all religious/superstitious belief patterns.

An individualist anthropology can be traced back to the early philosophers of the Enlightenment, but its development is for the most part associated with the emergence of a Protestant ethos in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This cultural development is by its very nature anti-authoritarian and its growth has in no small measure led to the acceptance of a human rights culture. Today this individualist ethos has the potential to create an ethical environment that espouses the positive ideal or ethic of authenticity, one that stresses the importance of self-esteem and the need to be responsible. On the negative side, it also has the potential to lose sight of the larger community within which human beings can and ought to live. In extreme forms of individualism, the appropriation of oneself as an individual can be accompanied by a withdrawal from any engagement with the community – a stance that is inimical to all values associated with social solidarity.

The rise of individualism is often linked to that of capitalism. In fact, many would argue that capitalism, as an indicator of a cultural ethos as well as an economic theory, would never have successfully inserted itself into the cultural fabric of contemporary western society if it were not for the rise of an individualist anthropology in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Whatever about the merits of the argument, it is undoubtedly true that capitalism is an individualist doctrine that, in its extreme forms, divides the world into winners and losers. The modern development of a technological view of the world, reflected in the rise of instrumental rationality, can be traced to the industrial revolution and the development of capitalism. In its pragmatic concern with efficiency it has promoted a confident self-mastery over our environment. However, the ‘can-do’ attitude that is typical of a culture that is shaped by the success of instrumental reason could very easily lead to an over-valuing of the logic of the market place, a consumerist ethos where everything and everybody has an economic price, to the exclusion of all other values. In such a milieu, there is little place for what might be described as virtue ethics; foundational issues of meaning and value tend to be set to one side in favour of more short-term pragmatic concerns.

One of the developments in western society closely associated with the instrumentalist goals of economic effectiveness or personal satisfaction is the emergence of the manager and the therapist as cultural role models. In a managerial ethos the goal of economic effectiveness supersedes ethical considerations. Too tied to the extrinsic utilitarian goal of effectiveness, too tightly dependent on the methodology of cost-benefit analysis, the managerial model is not ideally suited to transcending the narrow boundaries of self-interest. What is not often recognised is that an instrumentalist world is also one that has fostered the emergence of a therapeutic culture. In this milieu people are led to believe that human happiness is achievable without the need to advert to any ethical considerations that might relate the individual to the larger context of their life. Therapy is concerned to assist clients to become well-adjusted persons. That in itself is a most worthy goal. However, in bracketing out consideration of the ethical character of human happiness or the consideration of duties or responsibilities to the wider community, therapy can never embrace the very virtues that alone will promote a well-adjusted personality.

Liberalism emerged at a point in European history that marked the break-up of western Christendom, and with that break-up the loss of a shared understanding of the values, beliefs and practices that define human existence. Five centuries later, the distinguishing feature of a liberal culture continues to be a tolerance of many divergent and in some cases incompatible world-views. From a liberal perspective pluralism is a fact of life, and over the last two hundred years liberal democracy has been developed as a political system that can accommodate pluralism. In this context, a liberal culture may inadvertently encourage the acceptance of a relativist ethos that has little sympathy for either the importance of tradition or the belief in the objectivity of moral values.

In any attempt to summarise a cultural movement as disparate as modernity one runs the risk of neglecting divergent strands or counter-cultural forces at work in that culture. The rise of Marxism is a case in point. Fiercely opposed to both an individualist and a capitalist ethos, its appeal in the early part of the twentieth century testified to the enduring desire for relationships that are based on more than their market value. Although the totalitarian character of the communist regimes corrupted the emancipatory ideals of Karl Marx, nevertheless the desire for social liberation is one that is at the heart of modernity as is evidenced by the French revolutionary ideals of liberty and fraternity. Furthermore, one can point also to another characteristic of Marxism that is not captured in the themes listed above, namely its utopian character. The belief in the progress of history was ingrained into Marxist theory and reflected not only the messianic character of Marxism but also the extraordinary cultural optimism that characterised the culture of modernity. The industrial revolution and the colonial exploits of the European powers gave rise to an unquestioned belief in the onward march of civilisation that only met its nemesis in the trench warfare of the Great War.

As it has emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century, post-modernism has been marked by a rejection of some of the key themes of modernity and a deepening of others. On the one hand, there is evidence of an increasing acceptance of a pluralist and/or relativist cultural ethos, whereas, on the other hand, there is evidence of a growing reserve with regard to the twin beliefs in history and human progress. Both of these trends are linked to a rejection of the over-exaggerated claims of scientific rationalism that characterised modernity. From another perspective, there is evidence that, despite the pervasive presence of a ‘this worldly’ secular outlook, a post-modern culture is ill at ease with an exclusively materialist world-view. In the developed world today one witnesses a mushrooming of small communities that stress the importance of attending to the spiritual dimension of the search for meaning. Finally, while there is evidence of a deepening of the individualism that was characteristic of modernity – the emergence of a radical individualism shorn of any contact with institutions and traditions – there is also some evidence of a questioning of this trend, evidence of a yearning for the relational.

Undoubtedly, the most noticeable feature of an emerging post-modern ethos is the de-legitimising of horizons of significance – both the vertical objective framework of meaning and values and the horizontal self-definition constituted by the dialogue with others as a member of a community. With the adoption of this stance post-modernism finds itself in conflict with the classical world-view: Rejecting the classical belief in the existence of a transcendent and objective horizon, truth is proposed as something provisional and contextual; pluralism is absolute and there is a rejection of dogmas, institutions that suggest otherwise. Post-modernism rejects the belief that the quest for meaning can be successfully undertaken only by those who accept their status as members of a community and the inheritors of a tradition. In this context, it can be said to be the bearer of a culture that has both jettisoned tradition and absolutised a subjectivist and/or emotivist standpoint.

Post-modernism and youth culture
In and through its rejection of classical reservoirs of tradition, many would hold that post-modernist cultural developments are lending themselves to the creation of a new youth culture where pluralism is absolute and cultural isolation a fact of life. Those who would embrace this development clearly see it in a different and more positive light, as a culture that for the first time can be truly said to be accepting of plurality, novelty, exciting possibility and play. In this scenario, the fleeting and ever changing horizons that mark post-modernity are perceived as embracing an idea of infinite capacity rather than marking the demise of any belief in an ordered and coherent world. Despite the obvious merit in this argument, there is a case to be made that there is a difference between cherishing the playful side of human nature and embracing play as the primary mode of being or belonging. Furthermore, it could be argued that the contemporary preoccupation with play, as reflected in so-called ‘Reality TV’, may mask something much more serious. Just as indifference or apathy can be a mask that hides a deep-seated anger, so too the contemporary preoccupation with play may be a protective screen that masks a sense of powerlessness – political powerlessness in the face of the global outreach and power of major multi-nationals. No serious treatment of the contemporary context of cultural change can afford to ignore the influence of these economic realities.

From another perspective, there are those who would argue that contemporary cultural developments are facilitating the creation of an anchorless or rootless generation. From the opposite perspective, those embracing the idea of a post-modern youth culture may not be as ready to accept the idea of disappearing anchor points as the critiques of post-modernism might argue, or at least they might question whether the idea of an anchor is the correct metaphor to describe the idea of a ‘rooted’ person. Perhaps a more appropriate metaphor is that suggested by the rhizome. From this perspective, it is arguable that youth culture has roots but ones that lie on the surface roots that spread out and interconnect rather than go deep. Observers of the contemporary context of youth culture will recognise here the signs of the post-modern reinterpretation of the ‘rooted’ person. However, there is clearly the danger that an unqualified acceptance of this perspective will lead to an ethos marked by the loss of place or history or any sense of cultural memory. It must be remembered that no search for meaning and values can successfully occur in the absence of a sense of the larger picture within which human identity is constructed one that includes one’s history and the community within which one’s earliest formative years were lived. To deny one’s cultural memory is to discard the furniture of one’s identity and to trivialise the significance of the search for meaning and values.

The radical individualism that is characteristic of the post-modern generation has been criticised for contributing to the growth of what has been described as the ‘Me’ generation, a culture that is perceived to be both egotistical and hedonistic in that it places undue emphasis on the related goals of self-realisation or self-fulfilment. But is this valid? One of the consequences of the growth of an individualistic culture over the past two hundred years is a greatly increased awareness of freedom and responsibility. In this context, the related goals of self-fulfilment and self-realisation cannot necessarily be dismissed as instances of a selfish mindset as they could just as easily be understood in terms of an ethic of personal responsibility. Furthermore, the contemporary importance attached to the need ‘to be true to oneself’ is an instance of this concern to use  freedom in a responsible manner; the ethical ideal that is here espoused is the ideal of authenticity. There are very few young people today who would deny that they have a duty to be authentic, just as there are very few who would not place hypocrisy at or near the top of their list of unethical behaviour.

Unfortunately, an individualist anthropology shorn of any contact either with a community or with an objective horizon of meaning and values has the potential to become enclosed in the pretence of a self-made world. In a world of absolute freedom all choices are valid, but, paradoxically, none is of any value, because there can be no reason for one’s choice of one alternative over another other than the mere fact of desiring to so choose. In such a world, where no choice carries any significance, the quest for authenticity risks being trivialised. To be truly true to oneself is to recognise that my identity as an individual is one that has been sculpted by me – but only out of the material that is the history of my dialogue with significant others, namely my family, community and friends. Furthermore, to be truly authentic is possible but only to the extent that one is conscious that there is an ethical ideal worth attending to, namely; one that transcends the parameters of personal preference.

No sketch of post-modernism and youth culture, however brief, could conclude without making reference to the evidence of the dominance of instrumental reason in the post-modernist world. Associated with the rise of a capitalist or consumer ethos, there is little doubt of the all-pervasive presence of this feature in the contemporary world of post-modernity. In fact, all the evidence points to the increasing dominance in western society of what has been described as the culture of the marketplace. It is a virtual reality largely created by the world of advertising and marketing, where the consumer rules and what is real is new; It is an ethos in which youth culture is at home; one that has embraced novelty – makes purchases and forms relationships with careful attention to ‘sell by’ dates. No serious investigation of the contemporary context of the search for meaning and values can ignore the implications of this phenomenon that makes it increasingly difficult to offer a rationale for commitments or to comprehend the idea of life-long fidelity.

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