Where is meaning found?

[Part 1 of 4]

C.S. Lewis’ book entitled Abolition of Man gives us some important thoughts on the meaning of “meaning.”  Three key points include:

  • 1—Meaning is not to be found only in ones inner perception of a thing.
  • 2—Another person’s interpretation of my perception of a thing very much depends, to use another phrase from another of Lewis’ writings, “on where he is standing.”
  • 3—If (and when?) truth become merely a matter of individual perception, this will be the abolition of man, the end of humankind’s ability to function in any meaningful way.

In Western societies it is becoming more and more commonplace in education, religion and general society to encourage people to find their own meaning.  An example might be given of a literature class in which the teacher, rather than allowing the book to determine the course of discussion (as it was clearly written for a purpose and with a meaning in mind) the teacher now tends to encourage the student to find his/her own meaning.  In religion we also see this occurring when we hear people say something like “For me this verse means…”  This is at least in part a result of a highly privatized form of religion that sometimes, it seems, places individual devotions above the reading of God’s Word in community.

I think the Word must often be read in community, even if only as husband and wife or with a friend or two.  Focusing too strongly on individual devotions and individual interpretation can have unfavorable consequences.  I would venture to say that the only community reading of the Word that many people do is on Sunday mornings and often, in those times, not much of the Word is actually read.  In some religious traditions there is an extreme focus on memorizing their Scriptures while neglecting the inclination to explore the meaning contained in the words they memorize.  Sometimes the memorization is of a language the individual may not even understand.  The other extreme is to “proof-text” Scripture, taking it out of context in order support a personal interpretation of truth or a point that the individual wishes to make.  Both are dangerous.  Both bring about a personal interpretation of meaning without truly gaining meaning from the text itself.

Now, I will say this.  I don’t think it’s all bad to encourage people to search for meaning in a text.  I do this in my teaching of Scripture as I encourage students to read the text and use questions to help them “discover” the truth that is in the written word.  However, I don’t think we can carry this out to its full end by saying that whatever each student takes from passage is “truth for them.”  In the end we must, along with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, return to the text and seek to understand the context and purpose for which it was written and the meaning that was intended by the author.  This sort of “contextual criticism” is necessary to gain a full understanding of any written work.  Any written work only makes sense and can be rightly evaluated based on the context in which it was written.  So, too, our lives.

Durian (a.k.a. Stinky Fruit) ice cream, given to a group of people in small town America might quickly be judged as “gross” and “disgusting.”  People might question the sanity of someone who would even thinking of making such a thing.  The same bowl of ice-cream given to a group of people in S.E. Asia would be considered a great treat and the giver would be greatly praised.  Context is everything.

Meaning and truth exist outside of an individual, though I may ascribe a personal reaction or commitment to the meaning and truth that exists outside of myself.  The point that is brought out from Lewis’ Abolition of Man is that we must be very careful not to become a society that is unwilling to see anything as objectively true or good or right.  When that occurs it will be the abolition of civilized humanity.

See other posts in this series:

  1. Where is Meaning Found?  (11 Jan, 18)
  2. Meaning and Understanding  (19 Jan, 18)
  3. Imagination and Reason  (27 Jan, 18)
  4. Soul Killing  (Feb 4, 18)
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