Collapsing Meaning and the Retreat into Identity

It has always been shocking to me that the very many insightful developments in philosophy during the 20th century have gone almost completely unheeded by the vast majority of people. The existentialists freed us from Medieval concepts of meaning decades ago, and yet most people would probably define the meaning of their lives in the same way as our ancestors from centuries ago. This isn’t proof that the old concept of meaning is durable; in fact, the entire enterprise of 20th century philosophy proves that our old concepts of meaning are bankrupt. It is simply that public opinion has not kept pace with academic philosophy.

Even despite broad differences in opinion on every subject, the overwhelming conclusion of 20th century philosophy is an existentialist one. Regardless of your thoughts on metaphysics or theism, we know today that meaning comes from within.

So why do so many people still believe their meaning or purpose comes from On High? Why do so many people exist as if the entire 20th century of philosophy never happened? Why would people be surprised, in 2021, to learn the basic conclusions of the 20th century’s biggest names?

The obvious answer is that existentialism is scary. It takes an enormous psychological and emotional toll. It asks more of us than the alternative. The reality of being is much harder than the lies humans fabricated over millennia. The very reason they fabricated those lies in the first place was to avoid having to confront the very issues which existentialism forces!

But the conclusions of the existentialists are inescapable, and decades later we’re seeing inescapable effects of their thought as it continues to infect our cultural consciousness. Lately, the collapse of meaning has lead to problematic epistemological problems, as bad actors have attempted to manipulate misinformation to their advantage.

We are also seeing an increasing fervor in replacing traditional concepts of meaning. As religion or God or authority slowly evaporates from our cultural concept of meaning, we’re seeing people supplant that with other external concepts. Because of its personal and individual nature, this takes the form of identity, even if it is identity prescribed by another (or worse, by the vague demands of an amorphous group).

Take the example of a super-fan: they desperately seek something to “grab onto,” a limb of meaning as they free-fall through the void of meaninglessness. Previously this was provided by religion, or for the non-religious by a cultural idea (rooted in old religion), but since those have faded in our public opinion, our super-fan is left only to grab on to things he likes. He feels an affinity to, say, Star Wars, and so he begins to build a sense of meaning around that. In fact, there is a community of people who already feel strongly, and so the blueprint to meaning is ready-made for him. Star Wars may not tell him how to live like religion, but it does tell him why to live, and with whom. Star Wars becomes like a religion to him, and he is a zealot.

Although there is a philosophical opinion expressed in something like Star Wars, it does not a metaphysic make. So the meaning of “Star Wars” to him simply becomes his whim; when something challenges him (for instance, a certain actress or director challenging his deeply ingrained misogyny) he unilaterally decides that this isn’t “his” Star Wars. He retreats deeper and deeper into fanaticism, arbitrarily assigning elements of his fandom to his worldview without any thought beyond what “feels good,” sometimes even ignoring the facts of the world around him.

But Star Wars isn’t even his! He appropriated someone else’s creation into his entire identity. His own identity becomes hollow, then, and his sense of meaning continues to avoid the difficult reality of existentialism.

This happens not just in fandom, of course, but in politics or national identity, in nationalism or racism or any group which provides identity. Worse, it is difficult to address, because identity is ultimately inviolate. So the way out of polarization isn’t to get people to stop identifying with their groups, but rather to face, culturally and as a whole, the conclusions of philosophers who have (mostly) all been dead for decades.

The Lives of the Saints: making up miracles

“Sainthood” is decidedly medieval as a concept, and yet the Roman Catholic Church continues to canonize more saints than ever before. Beginning with unprecedented numbers of saints elevated during the reign of John Paul 2, and in part because of a sweeping rule change that allowed greater numbers than ever before, the church is claiming incredible numbers of new saints each year. In the case of the quickly canonized John Paul 2, there is some criticism of sainthood, and the very criteria for canonization, namely miracles, is already so bonkers that it raises the question: what does it mean to be a modern day saint?

The first steps to sainthood make enough sense: the person is a “servant of God,” a qualifier that is vague but intuitive. They further must have led a life of “heroic virtue.” This sets up the entire process to be one of subjective public opinion, since these adjectives don’t describe quantifiable metrics. That’s a good thing: sainthood is like pornography, you know it when you see it.

The last, and weirdest, qualification is two verified miracles. Sometimes it can be waived down to one, and if you died as a martyr for the faith you don’t need any miracles at all to qualify, but a central hurdle of the process is “verifying” miracles. These are normally performed during the saint’s lifetime but frequently verified much later: in the case of Laura Montoya, the first saint canonized by Pope Francis, the verification of her miracles was conducted over 50 years after her death. How could investigators possibly verify miraculous acts decades (or sometimes centuries) later? They conduct interviews, they do research, they ask around, check out physical evidence (if any exists), and then make a determination. Naturally, these determinations largely support the existence of “miracles,” especially once public opinion has moved the status of beautification far enough to warrant the verification process in the first place.

Rarely, the miracles are performed after the saint has died. This was the case with John Paul 2, who cured two people of illnesses after he he died by the intercession of their prayers. These miracles were verified and verifiably attributable, the panel said, to JP2, because the sick people prayed to him in their hour of need and so he became responsible. It was definitely him, they claimed, because the sick people prayed directly to JP2 and no one else.

Of course, there is suspicion surrounding the nature of these miracles. In the case of medical miracles, what appears miraculous in one decade becomes commonplace in the next. In the case of John Paul 2, the nun’s Parkinson’s seems to have relapsed several years after the saint’s canonization. Was it a miracle if it didn’t “stick?” Was it even Parkinson’s at all, or maybe some different undiagnosed condition? Or maybe the illness was inevitable, and the ghost of JP2 miraculously delayed it?

The process has the aura of scientific rigor: they make sure only one saint was addressed so there’s no confusion over who gets credit, they make sure medical miracle recoveries were from terminal prognoses only, they make sure the miracle is “sudden” and “unexplained.” But ultimately these situations are simply ones where something unexpected happens, and those situations happen in everyone’s life if you look hard enough. Usually, retrospect proves they weren’t so unexplained at all.

Hiding behind this veneer of science is bad for the church; every time science catches up with the miracles, the church can’t help but lose credibility. It is also bad for science; trying to give verifiable scientific explanations for things that are obviously unexplained happenstance muddies what the scientific method actually stands for.

Ultimately, the church doesn’t need to verify saints in this way at all. Of course there must be a measured way to elevate certain people to such a celebrated status, but this shouldn’t rely on sneaky investigators making arbitrary decisions. The example of their servitude and their heroic virtue should be enough, especially viewed through the lens of some time and retrospect.

Look on my ashes, Ye Mighty, and turn to dust

In recalling the traditional saying for the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday I substituted “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair” and realized how much Ozymandias, the Shelley poem, could fit as an Ash Wednesday reading:

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Lent feels different in a year when we’ve sacrificed so much for so long. I think our Lenten observance this year should be once of remembrance for all we’ve lost since last Easter.

When the sainted are not so saintly

We’ve been having a cultural conversation lately about what it means to support an artist’s work even if we condemn the actions of the artist. Is it possible, for instance, to like Woody Allen films, knowing what we know about his personal life? What about movies which Harvey Weinstein produced?

Last autumn’s revelations that Saint John Paul II may have been more complicit in the sex-abuse scandal than previously known casts an unfortunate pale over not only his papacy but his sainthood. How is it possible for a saint to have erred so egregiously? It raises questions about the hurried process of canonization, but even worse it tarnishes a beloved figure of the recent church.

With a living figure, there is an important element of accountability involved in rejecting their work; by ending our support for their art, we end our support for them in a very real way. But for someone who is already gone, their fate is sealed. We can, of course, diminish the honor of their legacy, and perhaps that is reason enough to demote JP2 from sainted status. We’ll always be left to wonder if there were other problems, or if his entire history should be viewed through the lens of someone willing to sweep aside a systemic atrocity, but his fate has ultimately already been decided; the balance sheet of the departed person is already closed.

The exercise of the 20th century was one in shades of gray: gone are the heroes and villains of our fairy tales. Even a saint, it seems, exists in a moral penumbra. So what does it even mean, if not total moral righteousness, to be a saint?

Polls and Pews: complexity in self-identity

The ongoing polling research done by Pew on religion in America has been a major touchstone in understanding national trends, but new research by Pew further affirms how difficult it is to get a sense of what religion means in this country, and how impossible it is to capture a picture of that.

Photo by Emmanuel Appiah

By changing the method of polling from one primarily based in phone interviews to a system where a panel of pre-selected people fill out online surveys, the pollsters are realizing that people are more likely to represent themselves as “religious” and “church-going” to a person on the phone than they are when privately answering on their own. It is objectively funny that people would lie about being a part of a religion which condemns lying, but Pew points out that it isn’t necessary a lie. Someone who says they are “moderately religious” one day might, because of circumstances or how the question was asked, say the next that they are “only slightly religious.”

Of course, actual church attendance is a more empirical metric, and we should be able to hypothetically track actual attendance versus self-reported attendance. This gets a little sticky too, though, as the research notes:

“[…] when respondents in a telephone or face-to-face survey overstate how often they go to religious services, they may not be consciously telling a lie so much as projecting a self-image that is important to them. They may be saying, in effect, “I’m the kind of person who goes to church every week” rather than, “Without fail, I actually go to church every single week.” When answering the same question online, without the subtle psychological impact of speaking to another person, respondents evidently give answers that are closer to their actual behavior.”

Pew Research Center

Which is to say, people’s identity doesn’t necessarily align with their actions. Is someone who self-identifies as church-going but never actually goes to church actually a church-goer? A simple quantitative question becomes a complicated metaphysical puzzle. If anything, the enterprise of the 21st century has demonstrated in sharp relief the many complexities of identity.

The problem isn’t necessarily that someone would misrepresent themselves to a pollster because they prefer to give an answer that is socially desirable. The problem is that the person doesn’t recognize this answer is at odds with their behavior, and that matters of self-identity are unassailable. Instead of simply writing off a non-church-attending person who identifies as church-going by saying they are lying, we must accept that some actually identify as church-going, maybe even if they don’t actually attend church at all. The fact that they don’t enter into the building doesn’t change their self-image as a “church-goer,” and presenting them with the facts shouldn’t change it either; they simply see themselves as “church-going,” even if they don’t satisfy the generally accepted reality of that term.

There is a way in which this is simply a semantic argument and not a metaphysical one. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that a person’s self-identity has a material change on the reality around them, but I also don’t want to reduce identity down to a matter of definition of the terms. There is a real sense in which the person who never sets foot inside a church but thinks of themselves as a devoted church-goer is what they see themselves as, because, after all, who is anyone else to tell them what they are? As with all questions of identity, the conclusion is ultimately a self-identification, which means others cannot dispute the conclusion.

This also doesn’t just boil down to solipsism. Self-identity doesn’t change the fact of how often someone’s physical body enters into a worship space. But it does change how we view research, as well as how we view others: when people tell you who they are, believe them.