“To an Unknown Truth” (Changing Generations Part 3)
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
For as I went around and observed closely your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown god.’ Therefore what you worship without knowing it, this I proclaim to you.
-Paul in Athens, Acts 17:23
Picture this. You’re standing before one of those photo-mosaic things. Each individual tile is a separate photograph. Up close, what you see is a dizzying array of individual pictures, almost like postcards – one depicting a beach scene, another a winter landscape, still another shows a bouquet of flowers.
Take a step back. Then another. Then another.
Suddenly your eyes adjust to what you see. The myriad of individual images coalesces to form one complete picture, such as the one of the Royal Albert Hall below:
This is an analogy of how the coherence view can ideally operate. An entire host of information connects in such a way as to provide a complete, structured view of truth. A recent commenter very wisely observed that it might be possible for this coherence or network view to be a positive thing. He is absolutely correct, but here is why I have been and will continue to be a bit cautious, if not outwardly critical.
Let’s go back to the photo mosaic. Again, individual images, all interconnected. Take a step back. Then another. Then another.
But this time nothing happens. There is no picture that appears. Instead, the further you step back, the more confusing it becomes, little more than a blurred mess with no clear purpose or meaning.
For many, this is an unfortunate result of the present culture. Those who are philosophically minded will be quick to recognize that my mosaic analogy alludes to what is called a “metanarrative.” A metanarrative is a “master story,” an idea that seeks to organize and unify all other truths. This is analogous to the first mosaic: the individual images coalesced to form a composite picture.
In the second mosaic, there is no metanarrative, nothing to organize the pictures into anything meaningful. In our postmodern culture, what has happened is a loss of a larger sense of meaning, and it is this that is man’s greatest need.
And so, to answer a question someone had asked earlier, do younger generations get their truth from the internet? The answer is yes and no.
If we think of information as the individual photographs of our mosaic, and truth as the overall picture, what often happens is people absorb information through a variety of sources (that is, through their communities as mentioned previously). However, these sources do not, on their own, provide a complete picture. Thus, on a very general level, younger people gather information through an entire network of sources, but the question of truth is rarely asked. It has been my general observation that in the absence of such questions, truth is often relegated to matters of personal preference (again, the danger of utilitarianism).
And so what we are left with is a generation that lives life day by day, truth nothing more than a flickering sea of TV ads, youtube clips and radio sound bites. Without an organizing structure or metanarrative, each experience communicates nothing beyond its own clichés of “buy me,” “sleep with me,” “use me.” The end result is a generation that languishes in uncertainty and angst, devoid of any real meaning.
Searching for Meaning
All this sounds terribly depressing. It doesn’t have to be, for it provides a fertile ground for reaching the needs of present and future generations.
In the previous post, we observed that the gospel is uniquely suited to answering man’s deepest needs. In this post I have sought to argue that man’s greatest need is a sense of meaning. Man desires a “master story,” something to give his life meaning and therefore purpose and direction.
And in the absence of this meaning, people have chosen a wide variety of options to try and make sense of their lives. We are, in many ways, a society like that of ancient Athens, erecting our monuments to “unknown gods.” But Paul reminds such a culture that God “…made every nation of the human race to inhabit the entire earth, determining their set times and the fixed limits of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope around for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us (Acts 17:26-27).”
Our generation is reaching out blindly for meaning and direction. The song is a few years old, but I can’t help but think of the band Hoobastank when I read this passage:
“Show me what it’s for,
make me understand it.
I’ve been crawling in the dark,
Looking for the answer.”
(Hoobastank, “Crawling in the Dark”)
Similarly, in Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, the characters share this sense of meaninglessness:
The carapace of coolness is too much for Claire, also. She breaks the silence by saying that it’s not healthy to live life as a succession of isolated little cool moments. “Either our lives become stories, or there’s just no way to get through them.” I agree. Dag agrees. We know that is why the three of us left our lives behind and came to the desert – to tell our own stories and make our own lives more meaningful in the process.
The question of meaning is of vital importance. All other needs are subsumed under it. What other needs? We will identify five:
(1) Identity: the need to answer, “Who am I?”
(2) Loyalty: the need to spell out, “to whom do I belong?” Who do I trust?
(3) Values: the need to answer, “by what shall I live?” What do I pass on to my children? What would I like to see prevail in respect to the true, the beautiful and the good?
(4) Power: the need to answer, “how can I protect myself?” or how can I make my way against others?
(5) Hope: the need to answer, “how can there be a future?”
(these are a modified form of those presented in two sources: Martin A. Marty, “Cross-Multicultures in the Crossfire: The Humanities and Political Interests,” Christianity and Culture in the Crossfire, ed. David Hoekema and Bobby Fong (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1997), 17. and Marva Dawn, A Royal “Waste” of Time: The Splendor of Worshipping God and Being Church for the World. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1999), 22.)
In future posts, we’ll be looking at how the gospel provides a unique way of organizing these needs, and how an ancient text can provide meaning to a modern and even postmodern people.
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.