Manufactured Meaning




Rachel Held Evans piece for CNN titled, “Why Millennials are leaving the church” has gotten quite a bit of traction in some circles. It’s an interesting piece that is a good discussion starter and she has moments of solid insight among her sometimes over-simplistic opining (read on for my own over-simplistic opinions). Evans argues, if I understand her correctly, that modern, Western churches are losing Millennials because they’ve capitulated too much to the whims of modern society. They’ve lost the practices and doctrines that make church what it traditionally has been—a retreat from the everyday that represents something greater and transcendent by being different and being about something greater. There’s a lot of truth to this I think. 

Responses to Evans vary in quality but this one, by Artur Rosman, caught my eye recently (thanks to Ben Olsen for the pointer). Rosman seems to agree with Evans for the most part but argues that she doesn’t quite go far enough in placing the locus of the problem. Even those religions that belong to more liturgical and doctrinally stringent traditions like Catholicism are losing. “Catholicism” Rosman writes, “is blowing its Catholic Moment because it has idolized assimilating to America.” He seems to say this not necessarily as a criticism of Catholicism or even of the failure of churches in general but as a failure of a generation.

In a particularly honest and almost despairing moment he writes, “My generation (and the generation of students we teach in college classes) is totally clueless. If you ask us we will tell you that we are lost in the cosmos. We have failed at manufacturing our own meaning, because meaning cannot be manufactured like the consumer services and trends mentioned at the start of this (and the Held Evans) piece.” I fully agree that Millennials are lost in the cosmos. This is seems to be a product of both authenticity and cynicism—sometimes both held at the same time. (In my opinion, Millennials seem to be after what many were striving for in the 1960s though the 60s had too much of the former without enough of the latter to temper it so authenticity turned into disgust and then to open rebellion.) Because of this, I don’t think Millennials are clueless. I think they are very much aware of their situation and don’t know what to do next.

No Country for Old Men–Opening monologue

Indeed, despair is the right attitude. As Soren Kierkegaard observed, despair is the gateway to authenticity. But I’m not with Rosman (assuming I understand him) that we should despair because we can’t manufacture meaning. In fact, I think the way through is to realize that any meaning, wherever it is found, is manufactured. As Evans has observed, Millennials are seeing through the façade of American “culture” and the manufactured “meaning” it attempts to create: buy this car, achieve this career goal, eat this food, have this many kids, go to this church etc. and are rejecting it—just as young people did in the 60s. Similarly, they are rejecting church either because it’s transparently fake or, as Evans notes, its too much like the culture they’ve already turned their backs on.

But the problem isn’t that these meanings are manufactured, and surely they are. Despair may come when we realize that manufacturing meaning is all we got (in the parlance of our times). In Seattle, where I live, people are attempting to manufacture new meanings to replace the old: eat vegan, marry a same-sex partner, legalize (and then smoke) pot, drive an electric car, save the planet, hate the republicans, say fuck a lot (and mean it), climb a mountain, run your legs off, raise chickens, join a band, keep a philosophy blog – whatever. And these things work for many people. But they’re all manufactured. They’re all devices that people use to get out of bed in the morning. And it’s damn good we have them. Without these manufactured meanings, none of us would be able to survive, as Ernest Becker so brilliantly taught us. Despair enters the picture when we realize this and stand naked before a world devoid of intrinsic meaning. That’s what truly scares us.

I recently read a quote attributed to Woody Allen that someone had posted to Facebook. Allen is one of my favorite filmmakers because he embraces the despair Becker talks about and yet figures out a way to meaningfully manufacture meaning. The quote reads:

“It’s just an accident that we happen to be on earth, enjoying our silly little moments, distracting ourselves as often as possible so we don’t have to really face up to the fact that, you know, we’re just temporary people with a very short time in a universe that will eventually be completely gone. And everything that you value, whether it’s Shakespeare, Beethoven, da Vinci, or whatever, will be gone. The earth will be gone. The sun will be gone. There’ll be nothing. The best you can do to get through life is distraction. Love works as a distraction. And work works as a distraction. You can distract yourself a billion different ways. But the key is to distract yourself.”

This is the idea in a nutshell. We have to figure out a way to manufacture meaning, know that we’ve manufactured it and yet still find it meaningful. If Evans and Rosman are correct, Western church is becoming less and less a source for meaning for the young in American culture. Whether that turns out to be a good or a bad thing will largely be dependent upon what people replace it with. Contrary to what Rosman hopes for, I don’t think ecclesiastically-generated authoritative answers to cultural angst will do the trick unless the current knowledge explosion we’re experiencing does an about face or people lose interest in all that we’re learning about the world and want something much more simple and more authoritarian. While this certainly is possible (I easily can envision scenarios where either or both happen) it doesn’t seem likely. But it also doesn’t seem relevant if religious belief is just another—though admittedly wildly successful—device for manufacturing meaning.

What will kill America culturally isn’t loss of religious faith. It will happen when most of us feel the despair of a lack of ultimate meaning and lose the will or psychological resources to successfully manufacture it.


I had a recent exchange with a friend on a similar subject. Below is what I wrote to him about my take on Becker, Kierkegaard, and despair. I think it’s relevant to the current discussion so I’m including it here.

The view that’s developing in my mind is that religion is a by-product of a more fundamental psychological phenomenon — just as Fredian psychology, Marxists economics, Democratic politics, and any other “institutional” solution is. My views have largely been shaped by the work of Ernest Becker. Becker doesn’t really offer a “solution” per se but provides a searing analysis of the problem which is partly why I was blown away when I read Becker. His take on the root of guilt and all the various and sundry explanations of and solutions to it (if one thinks guilt needs a solution at all) shed some light in some very dark places for me.

In Becker’s view (which is a kind of post-Freudian improvement on Freudian psychology largely built on the ideas of Otto Rank), guilt and other psychological angst is derived from “unlived life” that is rooted in the more fundamental reality of human consciousness. Because humans are conscious, we are acutely aware of our mortality which creates in us a bifurcation: a symbolic self– the person (or the soul, or spirit, or mind or whatever you want to call it) and the animal self of the body. The person as symbol seems to have tremendous value–perhaps transcendental or eternal value–that should not be subject to the frailty of the mortal body. We invest in the self by raising a family, getting an education, developing long-term, meaningful relationships, by trying to achieve success in work and enjoy the fleeting moments of pleasure as long as we can. Yet we also know we have a decaying body that defecates and grows old, that needs nutrients to survive, that engages in this body-focused thing called sex in order to procreate, and is subject to the elements, disease, old age, and the like.

This realization–when we actually take time to think about it–causes an enormous conflict psychologically and leads to angst and the development of what he calls “character armor” in order to deal with that angst. Character armor is a kind of façade that we create where we emphasizes the symbolic self and we try to minimize the body with all it’s decay. We like to think of our “self” as being eternal, not subject to decay and having transcendental meaning. From this vantage point, religion becomes a kind of emotional and psychological armor that supports this idea and gives us comfort.

In my view, that view really resonates because it explains so much about our psychology. For example, it really explains why we become “religious” (in the broad sense of that term) about so many things: politics, sports, various theistic worldviews, cars, companies, sex, economic theories etc. It seems to me to have enormous explanatory power.

Interestingly, Becker, while not a theist at the time he wrote Denial of Death, did argue in that book that Kierkegaard’s existential approach to the problem is probably the most effective and balanced approach out there. He argues that Kierkegaard saw the issues–and the solution, better than Freud and just about any modern psychologist writing at the time. That’s a pretty big statement.

In his view, mental health comes by embracing the despair that comes from realizing our mortality yet taking a leap of faith to act in the face of that despair. While Kierkegaard obviously thought that the faith one should leap into was theistically grounded, Becker believed that one might be able to make a similar leap without theism. Still, it’s Kierkegaard’s model that’s important here. The mental trick is to live meaningfully while still understanding that life is essentially absurd (and ultimately meaningless). If you can make the leap–something most of us are unable to do, the absurdity is minimized once you’re over the chasm. This is Kierkegaard through and through.

Update (8/11/2013):

Rod Dreher at The American Conservative wrote a few notes on Rosman’s piece and picked up my response (along with a few comments about it). Check it out here and join the conversation!