The Meaning Crisis, The God-man and Communal Living

Walker Pearcy’s existentialist novel, The Moviegoer is a story of the modern condition. The main character, Binx Bolings feels “sunk in everydayness,” battles malaise, and searches for God knows what. Binx describes feeling like an “anyone” who is “anywhere.” He, like many in the modern age, experiences a sense of being uprooted, abstracted out of existence, and longing for return to a paradise lost. Indeed, the story of the fall and expulsion from the garden is a striking metaphor for the modern condition. There is a sense that there was a time when heaven and earth were united. But now they are not. We are adrift and yet conscious that something has gone horribly wrong.

Late in the novel, I was struck by the following passage. We are, the narrator writes:

“…living in fact in the very century of merde (shit), the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, where everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead, and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall pray to desire.”

This is the paradox of the modern age. While the unity of science and technology has made most (or some) of us materially better off than at any other time in history, we are simultaneously experiencing a crisis of the spirit. While we all “prosper like dung beetles,” we are “dead, dead, dead.“ The solution to our material needs, is the cause of our spiritual crisis. What has happened? We have abstracted ourselves out of existence. Our ability to attend to the world objectively, to see the world from a perspective not bound up in subjectivity and particularity, from what Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere,” is what has made science possible. Ian Mcgillchrist explains the role of attention in bringing about the scientific view of the world:

“Attention changes what kind of a thing comes into being for us; in a way it changes the world… A mountain that is a landmark to a navigator, a source of wealth to a prospector, a many-textured form to a painter, or to another the dwelling place of the gods, is changed by the attention given to it. There is no ‘real’ mountain which can be distinguished from these, no way of thinking which reveals the true mountain. Science, however, purports to be uncovering such a reality. Its apparently value-free descriptions are assumed to deliver the truth about the object, onto which our feelings and desires are later painted. Yet this highly objective stance, this ‘view from nowhere,’ to use Nagel’s phrase, it itself value-laden. It is just one particular way of looking at things, a way which privileges detachment, a lack of commitment of the viewer to the object viewed. For some purposes this can be undeniably useful. But its use in such causes does not make it truer or more real, closer to the nature of things.”

This way of attending to the world has given us stunning power over nature, but it has alienated us from ourselves. We see the world from our monarchical vision, but we ourselves have ceased to exist. Instead of being Julian, a Canadian Hutterite, rooted in a specific time, place and grounded in a specific history—I become an abstract anybody anywhere. This is the modern condition, a sense of being removed, and uprooted, absent from the moment and the particular, hovering in the despair of empty space. Science has given us vast knowledge and power—at the expense of our humanity. Technology also alienates us from what is essentially human. We are becoming increasingly alienated from the places where we have always come to get into contact with reality, with ourselves, with others, or with God. Good work is taken over by industrialization. Relationships are replaced by social media. Nature is destroyed by our lust for power. Church becomes consumerism. 

We no longer touch reality, instead we touch our smartphone. Our phones suck us in like a black hole, transporting us to the world where we are anyone, anywhere. And there we perch, alone together.

There is no inner life in this, nothing essentially human: we are offloading ever more of what is essentially human to our technology. We remember with Google, relate with Instagram and see with our iPhone camera. We no longer ponder, we ingest information. We no longer read, we watch YouTube videos. We dream of the theosis of the man-machine: the offering up of all that is essentially human to become like gods.

The God-man and the meaning crisis

This modern slow death of the (inward) self and the “death of God” (the expulsion of the transcendent) are connected. Kierkegaard writes somewhere that the modern age has not stopped believing in God because we no longer find the arguments convincing, but rather, because we have lost our inwardness. God is not found in the monarchical vision: that is in the grand scheme of things, an attempt to take His place. God is found within: only through inwardness, does God come into being for you.

What then, is the solution to the modern condition? That we are all anyone anywhere and “dead, dead, dead.” What we need in the age of immanence is for the transcendent to reach down and transform our “everydayness.” We need an incarnational life. We need Jesus Christ the God-man, who is not a Demi-god, but fully God and fully man. The one who joins heaven and earth: The bringing together of transcendence and immanence.

Christ-followers are those who are called to imitate the pattern the God-man exemplifies: to live the truth and follow the way. Through faith and inwardness, the follower “awakens the God-relationship” and becomes “contemporaneous with Christ.” In inwardness, through faith, the sacramental life becomes possible, and all of life manifests the glory of God. Kierkegaard writes:

“Nature, the totality of creation, is God’s work, and yet God is not there, but within the individual human being there is a possibility (he is Spirit according to his possibility) that in inwardness is awakened a God-relationship, and then it is possible to encounter God everywhere.”

Thus the Christ followers, with God alive in them, follow in their Master’s footsteps. They are those who bring transcendence to immanence, those who bring heaven to earth. They are, to use a Kierkegaardian analogy, like Dancers who leap up in faith, to bring heaven to earth. The “everyday” is transformed by the infusion of the infinite, and God is everywhere.

The Christian life is greater though than a lone dancer leaping up and returning to earth. Christianity is two things: “love God with all your heart, soul and with all your mind.” This is the individual upward leap, to be conformed to the image of Christ. And also: “love your neighbour as yourself.” This is the Christian dance, a leap upward, and down, and propelled across by self-giving love, and back, and up and down. The neighbour then, is a sacramental source of Grace: a place where Christ dwells and is revealed, and where His treasures pour out. The unity of the Christian with God in the realm of the Spirit, through the God-relationship, is manifested in the world by the love of neighbour. The reciprocal self-giving love, brought about by the god-relationship is the Church: the body of Christ.

Community of Goods as the Incarnational Life

What does love of neighbour look like if manifested fully? Self-giving love which empties itself, but is filled by the Other. Loving the neighbour as if he was yourself to the point of equality: equality of the Spirit and material equality. This is community of goods, what Peter Riedemann called “the highest command of love, “ the socio-economic system that Hutterites (and later, other communal groups) have been practicing for centuries. In the Hutterite conception, community of goods is a self-contained, largely self sufficient community, self-governed and established, at least in principle, on the rule of Christ. There are common meals, and community work, play and worship. All goods are held in common in the manner of Acts 2:

“And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes they received their food with glad and generous hearts.”

The rhythm of worship together, helping one another and breaking bread together is the liturgy of communal life. It is the humble and loving participation in this rhythm that conforms us to Christ’s image. This is the rule of Christ, the pattern of His life coming down and becoming embodied in all of life. It is the incarnational life, where the mundane glows with transcendence: a life where all that one does, participates in the greater whole of the body of Christ, and where the light of the united life shines as the city on the hill.

The modern condition is that we feel abstracted out of existence. The path forward is not an abstract system which gives you all the answers, but rather a return to the particular. It is within the particular, the local and the face to face where God is encountered.

The most terrifying and most beautiful part of Christianity is that God became a man. Not the abstract archetypal universal man, (though he is that too) rather, the particular man Jesus of Nazareth who talked with Martha, ate figs and Olives, and walked beside the Sea of Galilee. The sublime wonder is that God is encountered in the small, the simple, the particular.

Jesus in revealed in the Christ-like life of another. His Spirit pervades the daily self-sacrifice. God shows Himself in the beauty of His creation. Christ is present in His people’s faith in tragedy.

In the communal life, Christ is encountered everywhere. In the laughter of a child. In the wise words of the old. In the prayer before supper. In the “good morning” of the person you pass on the sidewalk. In the evening of guitar and singing. In the glorious sunrise. In the cup of tea with your cousins. In the Sunday morning sermon. In the freshly pressed apple juice. In the evening hymns of an elderly couple. In the lazy Sunday baseball game. In the freshly cut lawn your neighbour mowed for you. In death and in new life.

Is this image ideal instead of real? Yes. Is there ugliness in communal life? Yes indeed. The mirror of Christ that is the church is smudged. Transcendence shines through darkly. But as we strive to die and be resurrected, as we, communally, work towards contemporaneousness with Christ: His beautiful face radiates ever more clearly from our lives.

How can we become somebody, somewhere, who is alive, alive, alive? We can only live, in faith, and strive towards hope.

8 thoughts on “The Meaning Crisis, The God-man and Communal Living

  1. What, in your opinion, is the centerpiece of Christian community?

    There is a danger in dwelling too much on the practical implications of Christianity at the expense of the spiritual. I believe the bigger problem is modern times is that even the most faithful fundamentalist types, those most willing to put their proverbial money where their mouth is, really only amount to jaded idealists like Judas and see the kingdom in terms of a pragmatist. Sure, they can be extremely radical in their commitment, but at the end of the day they are humanists who would criticize a woman for pouring out an extravagant display of worship, pretending to be concerned with the poor, and are really only self-interested humanists. That is why I ask…

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    1. Christ is the centrepiece of Christian community. He is what our lives revolve around.

      I’m having a hard time unpacking your comment. What do you mean by the distinction you draw between the practical implications and the spiritual (implications?)
      I would challenge the idea that the fundamentalists (depending on what either of us think the term means) are the most faithful to Christ, I think in many ways they serve Christendom instead of Christ or forget that Christ desires mercy and not sacrifice. Often I think, a certain type of fundamentalist confuses the scorn he/she gets from society with “suffering for the sake of Christ”

      I’m not sure if this answers your question, I would have to hear more from you.

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      1. John 6, starting in verse 25, I believe gets to the heart of what Christianity means.

        My concern, based in my own experience as a product of Anabaptism, is that words like “Christian community” (which was my aim for many years) are centered on human needs, not actually Christ as is claimed, and this is a serious error. Liberal Mennonites tend towards “social justice” (a political and pragmatic idealism) while conservatives focus on maintaining an artificial distinction for sake of preserving their own children, but neither seem to partake of the fullness of Christ as an aim beyond the substance of things we know through our senses.

        What I am speaking of is the Zwinglian dismissal of the supernatural value of Communion. Communion with Christ, together with the church (past, present, and future) is the true centerpiece of Christian community and yet is dismissed as irrational by many because all they see is an empty ‘symbolic’ only ritual. This is not what Christ taught and is a rationalist approach that has serious consequences if followed to it’s conclusion. The foundation of Christianity must be Christ, something that originates in spiritual power and is then made manifest in our flesh. Unfortunately there are many who are trying to do this in reverse, they build a tower of human effort/understanding and ultimately end up scattered much like the West.

        In short, Christianity in the West has veered towards rationalism (as well as individualism) and to the detriment of the faith in the supernatural that makes true Christian community possible. In other words, a person can literally follow the commands of Jesus to the ‘T’ and sell everything they have to follow him, yet will totally miss out on the spiritual transformation only possible through a work of God and end up like Judas. The body and blood of Jesus is transformative and makes us His body from the inside out.

        Btw, this is not criticism or correction of anything you’ve said, it is just my own musings based in my own experience, a reflection of my current thoughts…

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  2. Thank you Joel, you touch on a lot of important issues.

    First, I think you are dead on right about the Protestant reformation being the move towards rationalism and individualism. I think many of the problems we are dealing with today have their roots in the Protestant reformation. It bothers me that the Annabaptists are so “low Church,” it seems like our lack of liturgy sort of assumes a rationalist anthropology where humans are essentially floating minds without hearts or bodies. The same goes for our view of the sacraments, while I haven’t looked into this at any depth, I am finding myself attracted much more to the catholic view of communion. One quick point while I’m talking about communition, part of your objection seems to be that the Annabaptists arn’t getting the spiritual nourishment they need because of our impoverished view of communion. I guess I would say that our view on the matter doesn’t change the spiritual reality. We will be transformed whether we believe it or not. 🙂

    That said, what I’m trying to say in this piece is that communal life IS liturgy. That our communal life, while seemingly centered on “human needs” is actually participation in, and the embodiment of, the kingdom of God. Communal life, as I conceive of it, is moving the liturgical participation in Christ from the church building, to ones entire life. Thus I write:

    The rhythm of worship together, helping one another and breaking bread together is the liturgy of communal life. It is the humble and loving participation in this rhythm that conforms us to Christ’s image. This is the rule of Christ, the pattern of His life coming down and becoming embodied in all of life. It is the incarnational life, where the mundane glows with transcendence: a life where all that one does, participates in the greater whole of the body of Christ, and where the light of the united life shines as the city on the hill.

    You write:
    “In other words, a person can literally follow the commands of Jesus to the ‘T’ and sell everything they have to follow him, yet will totally miss out on the spiritual transformation only possible through a work of God and end up like Judas. The body and blood of Jesus is transformative and makes us His body from the inside out.”

    I guess part of my problem is here, and this might just be the Annabaptist in me talking, it seems like “the body and blood of Jesus,” if this is a reference to communion, can be preformed by lifeless person, just as a lifeless person can participate in communal life. I keep coming back to Jesus, quoting Hosea (I believe) “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Yes liturgy and community can help shape a person, but that person remains dead until he/she receieves a new heart. Only then will communion or communal life have the meaning and power that it does.

    I hope this helps, I feel like I don’t know nearly enough about Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Thanks again for your astute comment.

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  3. Thank you for the post. For me, and how I think and process the world, the crisis is about bullshit (sorry). What I mean by that we are constantly bombarded with materialistic virtues that tell us we are never enough. Hence we try to fill that void with things that we are told will fulfill us but never does and on purpose. It’s about what matters and increasingly we are focused on things that don’t, bullshit!

    The answer is God and to lead a simple life in that Light, to focus again on the inward, the truth. I really admire your tradition. No doubt, I’m sure there are struggles, but it seems they are handled in a Godly way. Thanks again!

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    1. Thank you for your comment. 🙂

      John Vervaeke speaks of “bullshit” in a technical sense where he distinguishes the “bullshitter” from the liar.” The liar is exploiting your sense of truth by trying to present something false as true. The bullshitter just distracts by distracting everyone’s attention. Making things salient which shouldn’t be salient and which don’t actually matter.

      Its very much like idolatry: it distracts and breaks up you and your attention, pulling you in the wrong directions and away from the things that matter. This kind of idolatry can even make things that matter into distorted, broken versions of themselves.

      Now how this notion of distraction by “bullshit” ties into the meaning crisis is something I will have to think more about. I think of the bs as “layers” which pile on us, distorting reality and alienating us from what matters.

      One thing I’ve been thinking about recently which ties into your insights about “Bullshit” is the notion of the kingdom of God is within you. How can we get to the place where we ACCEPT where we are right now, where the people around us are right now, and where the society we are a part of us right now… and find that transformative security and peace? Its not the same thing, and I think you would agree, as saying oh I’m fine, you’re fine, everything’s fine, its rather, accepting the way things are, but never losing sight of the ideal.

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