Friday night in Toronto… here I thought I was among the more boring people on the planet, but I chose to spend Friday night listening to a series of presentations (lectures if you want to call them that) about the “Meaning of Life”. Now the event was sold out, so I’m obviously not the only one. I managed to see it on the cheap at a live-stream at my church. Which also meant that I got to spend the hours watching an interesting subject with people I liked.
I won’t do the full job of introducing the subject nor the speakers: that is available on the Wycliffe College website. Instead I want to jump into my reactions, which I was a bit surprised at. I like to approach these things with as few presuppositions as I can. Which means that sometimes my responses aren’t what I expect.
The event started with twenty minutes by William Lane Craig. As a Christian, I hoped to agree mostly with what he had to say. Unfortunately, he spent a good eighteen of those minutes not describing not why the traditional faith-based perspective produces a life worthy of living… but explaining why an atheistic life does not. I found it a bit supercilious, as he spent most of his time explaining why atheism, a philosophy to which he does not subscribe, does not produce meaning for one’s life, then quickly wrapping up with the assumption that theism does. I know several atheists, and they all have meaning in their lives. I may not understand their perspective, but they still find meaning. Like many Christian speakers today, I found that Craig was speaking about a question that no-one was really asking… and assuming a perspective that he had no right to claim.
Then Rebecca Goldstein gave the naturalist perspective. I half expected her to stand up and simply say, “wrong” to Craig, but she was better than that. She started her presentation with the comment that she hoped to build a common understanding across deep “metaphysical divides” regarding the meaning of life. If have to say: even though I would disagree with her statement that there is no supernatural force in the world, she would be the speaker whom I understood the best. So she achieved her aim. At least in my eyes, she managed to build more of a common understanding than either of the others. She gave me a glimmer of what “meaning” might mean to “us”, rather than what it might mean to “them”.
And lastly Jordan Peterson spoke, giving… well, the Peterson perspective. I couldn’t really figure out which group, if any, he wanted to align with, other than himself. I guess he wants to be out on his own, which he’s really good at. Besides saying the question was simply “stupid”, he wandered around verbally without making a point in the same way that he wandered around the stage. I even listened to his presentation twice to try to fully understand… another half hour that I won’t get back… and all I’m really sure of is that he doesn’t like to answer specific questions. Sure, Mr. Peterson, we know there are many answers that don’t live up to your expectations (they’re “absurd”), but at least they’re answers. You didn’t even really answer the question.
I suppose that’s why people like him. Especially the alt-right. Everyone else is wrong… people like that kind of thing. It’s the way of the 21st century. He doesn’t give enough of an answer that anyone can say he’s either right or wrong himself. He talked a lot about pain, and suffering, and hate, and evil (all of which he seemed to equate)… but I’m not sure he gave me much more about “meaning”. Oh, except that we all suffer. “That’s the meaning of life”. We need to each bear our suffering with “nobility”. That’s what he seemed to think. And I’ll admit I chuckled at that, both times I heard it. A white, male, cis, straight baby-boomer with a good job and family and thousands of followers… the meaning of life is suffering. Yeah, right. Like you even know what suffering is. You’ve studied it, I suppose.
Overall, I enjoyed the evening and the presentations. Though they confirmed some things in my mind that were disturbing. Christians today are answering questions from fifty years ago, not what is being asked today. We need to listen to what people are asking before we try to answer. Or, like Peterson, before we try to redefine their question. Sure, if we’re popular, we’ll have lots of likes and lots of followers, but that doesn’t mean we’re actually helping people with their questions. We’re just “entertaining”.