Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Searching for Meaning

In February 2014 famed science advocate Bill Nye debated creation science advocate Ken Ham. They got together for a couple hours and threw point and counterpoint back and forth in an attempt to establish which position is correct. They wanted, each of them, to prove that they possessed the right answer. In some ways it doesn’t matter much what the questions were. They just wanted to be right.

Nye kept pointing to observations about the age of the earth that contradicted Ham’s young-earth theories. Ham repeatedly rebutted with the quotation of scripture. Neither one of them changed their positions and most of the people who viewed the debate came away thinking the same thing as they did when the debate started.

So what’s the point?

David, king of Israel, was a songwriter. He may have even been as prolific as Neil Diamond. David primarily wrote songs that were his prayers. Those songs, along with songs from other people in the history of Israel, were collected into a prayer/song book called the Psalms. Some of the psalms are declarations of the way the world works. Other psalms are pleading questions to God, trying to figure out where it all went wrong. And other psalms are like emerging from a mist to see clearly again.

But all the psalms are concerned with meaning. There’s a difference between meaning and answers. Another way to talk about it is the difference between wisdom and knowledge.

Both knowledge and answers are, usually, static. The answer is or it isn’t. It’s right or it’s wrong. You have knowledge or you don’t. If I ask how far it is from Portland, Oregon to Cork, Ireland there is a specific, unchangeable answer. Once you have that knowledge you have it and you don’t need to figure it out again (yes, I know the movement of the tectonic plates means that the distance is changing all the time, stay with me, I’m trying to make a point here).

Nye tried to use his answers -- observations about nature -- to answer Ham’s questions. Ham tried to use his answers -- an understanding of the bible -- to answer Nye’s questions. Neither one of them made headway because their answers and questions weren’t lined up with each other. The absurdist fiction example of this is from the book A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where a computer is constructed to determine the “The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.” Which is, of course, 42. Unfortunately they forgot to ask it the question for which 42 is the answer.

Meaning, on the other hand, is connective. Meaning takes answers and puts them together in a new and creative way. An answer is like a Lego brick, meaning is the castle made from all the bricks you’ve pilfered from myriad Lego sets. My castle has a rocket launcher.

So how do Legos and A Hitchhiker’s Guide connect with David and the Psalms? I’m glad you asked.

David had some rough patches in his life. There was the time when his friend, the king, tried to murder him (there were several of those). There was the time he had to hide among his enemies and pretend to be insane so the king didn’t murder him. There was the time when committed adultery and murdered his friend, and there was the time when his son deposed him as king and publicly humiliated him. There was a lot more that happened, but that’s enough to know that David had some bad stuff happen to him.

The answers to all of the things that happened to David are available. Saul was angry, the Philistines wouldn’t harm an insane person, blah, blah, blah. Those answers didn’t really help David, in the end. They didn’t give him a better path forward. They only helped to describe the past, not move forward into the future.

Answers are helpful and a necessary step in processing through questions, but they aren’t the final step. Answers are limited. Meaning, however, can go beyond the immediate question and look to the future. Meaning doesn’t describe the past, it gives purpose to it.

If you think of David’s most famous song-prayer, the 23rd Psalm, it doesn’t give answers. It doesn’t explain how God will provide, it doesn’t give reasons for trusting God, it doesn’t show how faith is supposed to help in the midst of the worst life has to offer. But it has been one of the most comforting and helpful pieces of literature in history.

Meaning is more than a pile of individual answers. It’s taking those answers and seeing the pattern behind them. It’s using that pattern to move forward.


Did you ever play with Legos growing up (or yesterday)? How do you like to play with them?

Do you think debates are helpful? In what way?

What has helped you to find answers? In general? In the bible?

What has helped you to find meaning? In general? In the bible?

Do you think answers or meaning are more important? Why?

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