One evening a few friends and I were writing music together in the living room. We were working to nail down a three-part vocal harmony on a song I had recently written. Of course, one can’t exactly write a three-part harmony all by oneself, so I had never heard this particular chorus sung by three voices at once. I was playing guitar and singing the melody while two other guys were trying to find the harmonies. After several shaky attempts, we finally did it: our voices harmonized—as if uniting with some divine standard—and a whole new, beautiful dimension of the song burst upon the living room in a flash. It was so beautiful, in fact, that before we were even through singing the chorus, I erupted with a spontaneous fit of laughter. I stopped playing, threw my guitar pick on the floor and slapped my hand to my forehead, laughing almost uncontrollably at what I had just heard. I was overwhelmed.
Since that day, I have had similar experiences of joyful, overwhelming laughter—but not many. Occasionally they are sparked while witnessing some vast natural beauty, tasting a surprisingly colorful coffee, worshiping in a congregation, watching a compelling story on film, or connecting deeply with another person. I once “broke down” into an overwhelmed laugh while reading a book on legal philosophy—as if the author’s prose and logical arguments were so sound, so satisfying, that they created a kind of “harmony” in me. This struck a chord in my soul, as we say.
I do not know why these experiences result in laughter; I do know, however, that the laughter is tied to a visceral sense of joy. I have since come to call these experiences “moments of meaning.” Let me explain.
Joy and Harmony
We all want our lives to be meaningful. It is difficult to explain what a meaningful life feels like, however. At the very least, we feel our lives are meaningful when they have purpose, hope, fulfillment, contentment, success, and so on. In the few seconds my friends and I sang my song in harmony, it felt as if everything in the world was as it should be—as if existence itself had attained peace. Everything felt right. In fact, moments of meaning seem meaningful just because they feel like encounters with something transcendent, something beyond the experience itself. These moments are so evocative, so gripping, that they preclude me from believing that my life, and perhaps all life, is meaningless. At least for a moment.
Of course, we cannot always trust our experiences: sometimes they deceive us; sometimes our emotions convince us of things that are not true. Even so, I believe it is near-impossible to live as if such moments of meaning are, in fact, meaningless. What would that mean, anyway?
Moments of Meaninglesness
It would mean that these “moments of meaning” are merely sparks within the immanent frame of our accidental universe—that they can all be reduced to mere natural, biological, or evolutionary explanation. It would mean that the deep-seated wonder I feel when star-gazing or listening to Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” is embarrassingly arbitrary, and nothing more. To ascribe any cosmic “meaning” to the experience would be wishful thinking at best, and gross self-deception at worst. (To be clear, I’m not claiming our experiences are somehow less than biology or neurology; I’m claiming that we yearn for them to be more.) C.S. Lewis once explained why it is impossible to see one’s life as truly meaningful from a materialistic worldview:
You can’t, except in the lowest animal sense, be in love with a girl if you know (and keep on remembering) that all the beauties both of her person and of her character are a momentary and accidental pattern produced by the collision of atoms, and that your own response to them is only a sort of psychic phosphorescence arising from the behavior of your genes. You can’t go on getting very serious pleasure from music if you know and remember that its air of significance is a pure illusion, that you like it only because your nervous system is irrationally conditioned to like it.
Perhaps, in the end, despite my refusal to admit it, despite all my natural impulses, and despite my deep desires for life to be truly, really, meaningful, perhaps these moments are only biological accidents—what Bertrand Russell called the “accidental collocation of atoms”—devoid of transcendent significance. Maybe they are moments of meaninglessness. Or maybe they are evidence that life is in fact meaningful at its core, that the universe and our experiences within it are neither accidental in origin nor destined for oblivion. Maybe, to take it further, “all this” is the intention of a good creator whose will serves as the foundation of our existence and experiences in the natural world.
Presence and Transcendence
A paradox lies at the heart of these moments of meaning. On the one hand, they are moments of intense presence. At least in my experience, I have only encountered moments of meaning when I am focused on the here-and-now—a song, a taste, a sunset. They seem only to occur when I am very much here. On the other hand, as mentioned above, these moments feel meaningful precisely because they are accompanied with a sense of transcendence, or a hunger for something beyond the moment. Indeed, they produce a longing for more—more meaning, more joy, more laughter—but more of something the moment itself never supplies. So these moments give a real sense of meaning to your life, but they always leave you thirsty for more.
Lewis, again, captured this idea in The Weight of Glory:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
“Moments of meaning” as I have experienced them over the years are not necessarily an argument for the existence of God. However, I cannot help but conclude if there is no good and personal God, then these moments I speak of are not meaningful in any real sense. If, on the other hand, there is a good and personal God who willed the world into existence, then perhaps these moments are indeed meaningful—news from a distant but real country, as Lewis would put it. Moreover, they may even be clues to God’s existence. I am not finally a Christian because my experiences point to God; sometimes they do, but sometimes they do the opposite. However, my Christian faith provides me a lens through which I can interpret the most poignant moments of life. It allows me to make sense of them. Maybe life is meaningful, in the end, because God made it so. And maybe our deepest longings for meaning—for purpose, hope, fulfillment, contentment, success—are found finally in God himself.
Cover image by Mike Giles.