The Christian and Meaning
Two propositions summarize why a conservative Christian church is concerned with meaning: Christians are humans, and Christians live in the world. What is the world? The world Christians live in is a world that is the handiwork of an intelligent Being, filled with all His purposes and designs. What is a human? A human is a creature made in the image of God, who echoes and reflects His Creator in creating things that are likewise meaningful.
The implication of these propositions is that the universe as a whole is meaningful. Meaning permeates everything we experience. As much as the unregenerate use meaninglessness as a cover for their disobedience, they are without excuse. Creation shouts and proclaims that all things have significance, invested by the art and craft of a Designer. There is a Mind behind all the empirical data of the universe, and it is that Mind’s purpose, plan and design which makes sense of that data.
To live as fully Christian is to desire to understand the meaning of this creation and its creatures. This is necessary for three critical areas: worship, obedience, and ministry.
First, if we are to do all things to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31), it presupposes that we understand what it is we are doing. Understanding is a prerequisite of worship (1 Cor 14:15). I cannot do what I do heartily as to the Lord, and give thanks to the Lord fully, if I do not understand the activity I’m involved in, its place in God’s universe, or its overall significance. I cannot give thanks for every good gift that comes from above, if I do not understand it, recognize it, or appreciate its significance in the interconnected universe God has made. Understanding the meaning of something allows me to love it rightly (ordinate affection) and use it correctly. The more we understand the world we live in, the better we are able to glorify God in our work, our leisure and our enjoyment of His world.
Furthermore, in the act of worship, we are called to do at least two things which are part of the created order: make music (sing), and use poetry (Eph 5:19, Col 3:16). If nothing else, Christian leaders need to learn something of what these two creations are, and how they function.
Second, and related to the first, if we are to obey God and apply His Word, we must understand the world in which we apply it. Every command, precept or principle has to be worked out in a context. Scripture does not supply my contemporary context for applying its timeless principles. It is up to me to work out what returning my neighbor’s straying ox looks like in a 21st century city, or how ‘do not steal’ applies to the Internet, or how Leviticus 18 (or 1 Corinthians 6) applies to people who have undergone a sex-change operation. Usually, to make these applications, one needs to learn about the world. Properly applying the truth of Scripture means obtaining truth about the world. No lie about the world can be brought into the service of the truth. If we misconstrue what is true about the world, it will mean we fail to properly apply the truth of Scripture. When we refuse to learn about the world in supposed service to the principle of sola Scriptura, we then ironically keep Scripture locked within its covers, and declawed when it comes to the world.
Third, if we are to truly love our God and our neighbor, we must understand who our neighbor is. We cannot rightly love what we do not understand. Therefore, Christians are interested in humanity. To understand humanity means we must be interested in human concerns – that is, the humanities. We want to understand languages, history, economics, government, jurisprudence, poetics, art, music, and philosophy. Scripture is our primary and final source of anthropology, but it is not our exhaustive source. Given the framework which God’s Word supplies, we can evaluate human history, law, government, culture and its artifacts, all of which are external expressions of what humans are internally. We see from all these things that humans are made in the image of God, and order their world into systems of meaning.
While those meanings may be warped, sinful or perverse distortions of God’s mind, Christians cannot afford to ignore them or dismiss them. These are our neighbors, the ones we are called to reach with the Truth. We must take them seriously, understand them, even if we oppose their ideas. It is a hard sell to say we love the greater good of God and His gospel whom we have not seen, when we have nothing but dismissive contempt for our neighbor whom we have seen.
This is not about ‘redeeming culture’. It is about understanding the meaning of what it is to be human. Christians, of all people, should be the most humane.
For these reasons, Christians ought to attempt to discover the meaning of the world God made, the people in it, and the things they create. In the next few posts, I would like to consider how a pastor can encourage such an attitude in the Christians he shepherds.
About David de Bruyn
David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.