Finding Meaning in Something That Is Problematic

Galen Guengerich | OnFaith Voices By on

Last Thursday afternoon and Friday night, the people of Beirut and Paris were doing what residents of Beirut and Paris tend to do on Thursday afternoons and Friday nights. Indeed, they were doing what most Americans tend to do. They were shopping in markets and going to school. They were attending sporting events and music concerts.  They were eating in restaurants and hanging out in bars. They were enjoying the first fruits of what we call civilization.

Without warning, death-obsessed opponents of civilization showed up with automatic weapons and suicide vests. A typical Thursday afternoon in Beirut and a festive Friday night in Paris turned into killing fields. By the time order had been restored, 43 people had been killed and 239 injured in Beirut, and 129 people had been killed and 352 injured in Paris. When the Islamic State took responsibility for this horrific carnage, they called it a miracle.

In his response to these atrocities, Dan Colman, curator of the website Open Culture, cited words written 250 years ago by the Enlightenment thinker Voltaire. In his essay titled “Questions about Miracles,” Voltaire wrote: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Voltaire wrote: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

The atrocities committed in the name of absurdities on Thursday and Friday reveal yet again the tenacity of evil and the persistence of human wickedness. It’s deeply distressing to realize how thin the veneer of civilization can be and how easily our lives can be turned upside down. In part because we know all too well that this violence could have erupted close by and the dead could have included us or people we love, our hearts ache for the people of Beirut and Paris. To the best of our ability, given the distance, we will suffer with those who suffer and weep with those who weep.

Earlier last week, amid the commemorations of Veterans Day, I found myself thinking about a moment in the life of Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. One of nine children born into a wealthy industrialist family in Vienna, Wittgenstein grew up in significant privilege. His father was a leading patron of the arts, commissioning works by Rodin and hosting regular concerts by Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler in the family’s home. Like his siblings, Wittgenstein was educated at home (his father feared the children would acquire bad habits at school), but eventually he went on to study philosophy with Bertrand Russell at Cambridge.

When the First World War broke out, however, Wittgenstein abandoned his privilege (he would eventually give away his inherited fortune) and signed up for duty. He eventually found himself fighting on the Eastern front against the Russians, where he volunteered day after day for the most dangerous duty. Perched in a forward observation tower that was vulnerable to snipers, he helped direct the attack of the infantry and artillery.

We know that the world exists, but we have also learned that there’s something problematic about it.

As he did throughout his life, Wittgenstein kept a notebook at hand in which he jotted down his philosophical musings. These notebooks would eventually constitute the bulk of his published writings. One day while in his observation tower, he wrote in his notebook:

I know that this world exists.
That I am placed in it like my eye in its visual field.
That something about it is problematic, which we call its meaning.

We look out on a world that we know exists, Wittgenstein says; we can see it with our own eyes. And we know that something about this world is problematic, and therein we find the key to its meaning.

For his part, Wittgenstein had a birds-eye view of one of the most devastating conflicts in human history: a global war that engulfed all the world’s economic powers and left nearly 20 million soldiers and civilians dead. But there was also trouble at home: three of Wittgenstein’s four brothers committed suicide, and Wittgenstein himself struggled with depression throughout his life. Instead of trying to escape what was problematic, however, Wittgenstein focused on it. He knew the key to meaning could be found there.

My own sense is that people gather in religious community for much the same reason that Wittgenstein did philosophy. We know that the world exists, but we have also learned — perhaps the hard way — that there’s something problematic about it. Given the events on Thursday in Beirut and Friday in Paris, the headlines leave little doubt about that.

And what is our work? It is to be the presence of the divine in this world.

But we also experience the problematic dimensions of life in more personal ways. Maybe someone we love has died, or someone we trusted has turned against us, or someone we counted on has failed us. Maybe we have failed ourselves or hurt someone we love. Maybe we have experienced injustice, or observed oppression, or witnessed bigotry, or beheld brutality. Whatever the problem, whether personal or political, whether individual or institutional, we need to figure out together what it all means.

The role of religion is to help us discover how everything fits together — this astonishing yet often devastating world and our amazing yet often agonizing place in it. From where have we come? Who are we? To where are we going?

When things fall apart, there’s no place I’d rather be than at All Souls — the religious community I call my spiritual home. For me, it’s a sanctuary for seekers. It’s where we remind ourselves of what doesn’t fall apart. We covenant with each other to embrace what is true, champion what is good, and do what is just. As Voltaire said in Candide, which is about what happens when everything goes wrong, the only way we can crush the horror is by doing the work that is ours to do.

And what is our work? It is to be the presence of the divine in this world. As the poet William Blake reminds us, the divine has a human form. Mercy has a human heart, pity has a human face, love takes human shape, and peace wears human garb. “Where mercy, love, and pity dwell, there God is dwelling too.”

Image courtesy of Stacey Newman /

OnFaith Voices is a series of perspectives about faith.