“Meaningless! Meaningless! … Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
– The Preacher, Ecclesiastes 1:2 NIV
Through the years, I have developed a passion and desire to reach those whom the church fails to reach most often—the secular, western individual. I have read and written blogs and books on the topic, listened to and preached sermons, talked with experts and have been interviewed by others and am currently working on planting a new church specifically designed to reach a post-church society. Throughout this adventure, I have learned to identify the ways in which I personally push people away from God. And consequently, I have begun to identify the ways in which we collectively do the same.
One particular error stands out above the rest. The error is simple: in our attempts to reach the culture with the gospel we have begun, perhaps unintentionally, to see the post-church mind as a problem. And when we see the culture as a problem, people become projects instead of people. The secular mind thus becomes a quandary to be resolved – an obstacle, hurdle, dilemma and nuisance which we, as the church, must fix—an impenetrable fortress which, rather than admire, we inspect with the hopes of finding a crevice we can exploit to gain entry.
In reaction to this damaging posture, I have begun asking: What if the culture’s aversion to Christianity wasn’t so much a problem as an opportunity? What if we slowed down and stopped trying to find the key or the secret to reach the culture and instead sat down with it, inhaled its fragrance, appreciated its questions, felt its despair and learned to sing its songs, speak its language and dance according to its rhythm? What if we admired the fortress with such sincerity and authenticity that its gates let us in?
In this approach, the mind of the secular is—to appropriate the words of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard—no longer “a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced”. I enter into a relationship with this mind and learn to listen to it, observe its color, taste its flavors. I am not obsessed with proving it wrong or with stamping my ideological convictions onto it so that the “contact” emerges a mere parrot of Adventist orthodoxy. Instead, I am searching to experience life with this mind, to belong and explore together. In the context of this mutual dance, I have discovered, Jesus shines brightest.
But some repeatedly inquire, Why approach the secular mind this way? What is wrong with the traditional doctrinal approach Adventists have been mastering for decades? What is so bad about just preaching the old truths, proclaiming the straight testimony, sounding the midnight cry or telling the old, old story?
The Absurdity of Life
To answer this question I want to take a few moments to travel, as best as possible, from the faith-consciousness that we presently enjoy into what I have come to refer to as the chaos-consciousness of the culture.
Now this is no easy task. One of the most sobering thoughts I have had to meditate on as I invest in reaching the culture is this: I do not know, nor have I ever known, what it is like to live in a state of chaos-consciousness. I was brought up in an Adventist home and taught to trust God from my birth. Consequently, I have always had an enthusiastic lens through which to perceive my being and its place in reality. I simply don’t know what it’s like to exist without this foundation.
Consequently, there is a huge chasm that separates my experience as a human being and that of the modern secular mind immersed in chaos. This state of immersion is best described in the words of Gary Nelson who, in his Huffington Post article, “Getting Churchy in a Time of Chaos and Hate: A Personal Journey” noted that this state of chaos is one in which comfort is “elusive” and “fleeting” – an experience in which even sleep itself becomes a “dance with the unwelcome strangers.”
And this state of being is not reserved for a few hyper-introspective individuals but for the whole of modern society. Research shows that more and more people are born into and raised in non-faith environments that have never known the enthusiastic expectation that can be derived from faith in a good and loving God. Thus, emerging generations are left to manufacture and construct meaning out of the chaos. They are on their own in justifying their existence over against the absurdity of life.
And just what is this absurdity of life? Before I answer this question, allow me to make a very significant statement. If the promise of redemption is the field in which the believer sows his identity and hope, the absurdity of life—replete with its inherent chaos—is the field in which the secular man attempts to sow his purpose. This is the differentiating understructure between people of faith and people of no faith. Thus, to understand the absurdity of life is an absolute for those of us who long to reach the culture. If we fail to understand this, we will never be capable of interacting meaningfully with the secular mind.
So what is this absurdity of life I speak of? In a non-faith world, the phrase summarises a basic and assumed premise: that life is absurd. From start to finish it is a dance with the incongruous with mild glimpses of cohesion. And what are we as humans meant to do with this absurdity? When a parent buries a child, there is no reason to it. When a marriage ends in divorce, we witness the death of what was once entered into starry eyed, and magical and it is absurd (enough to convince younger generations to stop marrying). And what are we to do with death and disease – as what was once fully conscious now ceases to be as though it had never been—how nonsensical! How do we make sense of injustice, addiction, massacres and their inherent idiocy? Of depression, anxiety, phobias and dark pathologies that eb and flow within each of us? Or of the dystopian future to which we are all seemingly trending?
But bizarre as these scenarios may be, they do not in and of themselves exhaust the absurdity that a non-faith culture is contending with. Instead, the best way to fully appreciate this absurdity it is through the Greek Myth of Sisyphus as popularly analysed by the existentialist Albert Camus.
Sisyphus and Meaninglessness
The myth of Sisyphus goes something like this: Having angered the gods, the king of Corinth Sisyphus was condemned to an eternal task of rolling a large boulder to the top of a hill only for the boulder to roll back to the bottom every time it reached the peak. Over and over again, Sisyphus repeats the task with no end in sight. But the most painful part of the story, Camus observes, is that Sisyphus is not simply condemned to an eternal task but to an eternal meaningless task. That is, all of his effort, all of his labour, all of his sweat and blood and agony ultimately amounts to nothing.
This myth captures the heart of the non-faith culture with stunning clarity. Life, in this portrait, appears a pointless and senseless struggle where we fight to our last breath to validate our existence only to die and be forgotten. You will suffer in life. You will be a victim in life. You will weep—not the surface romantic tragedy kind of weep—but the soul crushing tears that flow from fountains of repressed agony. You will do your best, pursue your dreams, build your empire only for life to mock you with the seeming emptiness and vanity of it all. And yet, at the same time “the body shrinks from annihilation” as though it wants to go on to something better somewhere beyond. It is this experience, this “wresting meaning from reality”, this thing we all must endure for no apparent reason, that can only be described as absurd. Absurd because deep within there is something that cries out for meaning and yet, to the naked eye, the universe is indifferent to our longings. It mocks us with its infinite blackness and reminds us that we are nothing. That all is nothing. That our best and brightest is absolutely nothing.
This perspective, dark as it might be, is affirmed by the preacher who declared, “Meaningless! Meaningless! … Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Ecc. 1:2) Ellen White echoed this thought when she wrote, “[Men] often they think they are plucking fruit most essential [but] they find it altogether… nothingness.” And the British theologian Adam Clarke paraphrased the preacher in melodious poetry declaring,
O vain deluding world! whose largest gifts
Thine emptiness betray, like painted clouds,
Or watery bubbles: as the vapor flies,
Dispersed by lightest blast, so fleet thy joys,
And leave no trace behind.
This Sisyphus and his eternal meaninglesness is an archetype of the thought that permeates our cultures substrate. From the scientist who declares that our universe – like Clarkes “painted clouds” and “vapor”, in due time, will die and all memory that we are and were erased, to the accountant who drags his feet through life – a mindless zombie, animated but not living – most people today, declared the holocaust survivor and psychologist Victor Frankl “have the means to live but no meaning to live for.” Thus, the culture – the one that surrounds our churches – with all of its amusements and pleasures cannot escape its own reality – that it is drowning in absurdity.
And confronted with this absurdity a human being must do something. There must be an objective to which we can aspire, to go on living – something meaningful enough to justify the futility of it all. Sisyphus must find some means through which to avoid insanity. If he is to live with some measure of happiness, then what is he to do condemned to eternal vanity?
For some, that meaning is pursued in amusement. Life and its energies are spent in partying, depravity and hedonism. These are those who, pushing the giant boulder up the hill, decide to numb the meaninglessness of life through materialism, entertainment and the pursuit of pleasure. Sex, cheap novels and pornography for some. Alcohol, gambling and drugs for others. The accumulation of temporal goods and experiences for yet another crowd. Anything to distract the mind – to medicate it against the absurdity of life. On the surface they appear full of joy and excitement. But underneath, in the upside-down of the soul, there is a rotting gash, festering but neglected and best captured in John Mayer’s ballad “Something’s Missing” when he asked, “How come everything I think I need, always comes with batteries? What do you think it means…”
In the end, the system fails for the way of the amused is but a knocking at the door of significance. Thus, the twentieth century Scottish writer Bruce Marshal could assert, “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.”
For others, meaning is pursued via duty. Life, in this sphere, is invested in the responsibilities of work, career, financial success and familial commitments. These are the people who invest fully in the pursuit of accomplishment, who dedicate their life to discipline, positive thinking, and systems. They do well in their jobs, get awards, earn a PhD, and live a strict, ethical life. Such people cannot understand the foolishness of those who pursue amusement. They see them as wasted potential and at times judge them for their stupidity. But what the duty bound man fails to realise is how similar he is to the one who chases pleasure. Both are pushing a giant boulder up a hill for no obvious reason only to have it roll back down again. Both are repeating the same futile chapter only worse than Sisyphus, for they know they are mortal and their time is running out. With each passing day the grave is nearer, such little time and to what end? Thus, both suffer. Both have to deal with the incongruity of a soul begging for meaning against an indifferent reality that whispers there is none. The approach may be different, but the goal is the same and both, sooner or later, find themselves awfully unsatisfied at best or broken beyond repair at worst.
For others still, the absurdity of life is medicated via transcendence. For such, meaning is found in a spectrum of ideals from the liturgy of traditional religion to the free spirited adventure of self-defined spirituality. To this kind, the pain of reality is transcended. Pain and suffering here do not matter because there is a beyond. These often try and justify the chaos of life with platitudes of an afterlife, life’s pain as preparing us for a future elevation into a greater dimension of existence – a heaven in which all true meaning ultimately rests. Thus, life is dedicated to the transcendent and whatever rituals and paths must be taken to escape the state of absurdity in the end. It was to such people that Karl Marx referred when he declared that religion is the “opiate of the masses”. It masks the pain of reality by promising a pie in the sky in which we place all our hopes but says and does nothing about the real, day-to-day absurdity we must still face.
Regardless of which approach a person takes, or if they oscillate between two or all three, the experience is the same. People are trying to find a reason to justify going on in the face of a hollow, sterile and empty existence. People are fighting for a reason to get out of bed in the morning, for a skip in their step, for a purpose that animates their being. Post-modernity may in fact be an ironic and dark vision of the future, but the philosophy itself fails in the very real experience of life that calls humans, regardless of creed, to pursue enthusiasm and the tenuous “better” that lies somewhere beyond. As a result, the culture is increasingly now moving toward meta-modernity—a new approach to existence that attempts to embrace enthusiasm while still believing that the future is empty. Thus, rather than trying to fight it, the absurdity is increasingly embraced as a natural part of life. This is a fancy way of saying that the culture is settling in meaninglessness and hopelessness as the natural state of things. There is no use fighting it. Just accept it and try and manufacture some sense of meaning in it, for the 80 years will soon pass away and eventually all memory of us and yet, we press on. To what? We don’t know—only that we do.
And it is in the midst of this experience, of balancing the chaos of being with the impulse for the beyond, that the culture finds itself in absurdity. Most tragic to the one who comprehends this is thus the traditional Adventist dialectic. For here comes the Adventist with conviction: “The Sabbath is not on the 1st day of the week, but the 7th!” she declares. “Why so many denominations you ask?” (No, I didn’t) “Did you know ghosts are not real? That the only true church is the Seventh-day Adventist remnant? That archaeology proves the Bible is true? That evolution is false? Oh, and while we are at it, get a load of who the ‘little horn’ is and the antichrist and the mark of the beast! And by the way, jewelry is bad, and tattoos, and Hollywood, and syncopated beats.”
The sarcasm escapes me—what joyous revelation! But let my sarcasm be a window into the soul of a culture drowning in the absurdity of life. For that which we find so obscenely interesting, that which we fight about and scream about, that which we allow to divide us and distract us, the culture does not notice long enough to even process. And I pray the irony does not elude you—that a people with the antitoxin to absurdity, with a real answer to the suffering of being, to the hearts cry for meaning and significance, with something truly valuable to offer a generation suffocating in chaos—that we would be so distracted and obsessed with the obscene. That we would be so out of touch with the heart of the lost. That we would be preaching a message that no one is listening to all the while thinking we are faithful to the call. What are we to do with such irony? The irony of a people with hope but distracted with obscenities while a culture without hope passes us by drowning in absurdity.
Ellen White once wrote, “Christ bids you look to Him as the Illuminator of your darkened souls…” In this little statement lies a profound revelation. That the upside-down we all contend against is not to be medicated via amusements, duties or religion but to be navigated in relationship. That there is in fact, a whole other way of interacting with the absurdity that invites us into an intimate and personal encounter with one who can illuminate the darkness and provide us with everything our hearts are searching for because, in truth, these hearts were made for intimacy with him. In this vision, we are not hiding from the chaos but rather confronting it – not alone but in relationship with the one who brings order out of absurdity. To this end, CS Lewis famously stated, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
If we want to keep having this conversation about reaching the secular mind, we must first learn to sit with its lament and its perceived escapes from such despair (amusement, duties and transcendence). For the truth is that despite the angst, the culture is generally happy. The perceived escapes are working for many. They go through life empty thinking they are full. They live each day with expectation despite the fact that they have nothing to expect. The culture, despite its absurdity, is not miserable and collapsing. It is far too distracted for that – too amused, too occupied and too abstracted by its perceived escapes. And the church’s message is hardly even noticed. Thus, we must learn to understand this angst and its escapes and aim to interact meaningfully with them. We must lay aside the argumentation and sermonizing that says nothing to this collective experience and instead explore the biblical invitation to redemption. As we navigate the mind of the culture and learn to appreciate it, we will be able to see just how laughable (obscene) the message we often proclaim is in the eyes of those we have been called to reach. We will discover that for too long we have been preaching to ourselves all the while thinking we are preaching to others. And only then will we be capable of reimagining our message and mining from it a worthwhile pathway to the existential sorrow of the age.
 Gary Nelson. “Getting Churchy in a Time of Chaos and Hate: A Personal Journey” [Web: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/getting-churchy-in-a-time-of-chaos-and-hate_b_1551423]
 Michael Lipka. “A closer look at America’s rapidly growing religious ‘nones’” [Web: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/13/a-closer-look-at-americas-rapidly-growing-religious-nones/]
 Steven Mintz. “Is Marriage in Decline? The percentage of unmarried Americans is approaching an all-time high. But why?” [Web: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/the-prime-life/201503/is-marriage-in-decline]
 Albert Camus. “The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays” [Web: https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0679733736/braipick-20]
 Maria Popova. “Albert Camus on the Will to Live and the Most Important Question of Existence” [Web: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/11/07/camus-myth-of-sisyphus-suicide/]
 Maria Popova. “Alan Watts on the Antidote to the Loneliness of the Divided Mind, Our Integration with the Universe, and How We Wrest Meaning from Reality” [Web: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/11/01/alan-watts-wisdom-of-insecurity-3]
 Ellen G White, “This Day with God,” p. 169
 Adam Clarke Bible Commentary [Digital via bibletools.info]
 Victor Frankl. “Man’s Search for Meaning” [Web: https://www.amazon.com/Mans-Search-Meaning-Viktor-Frankl/dp/0807014273]
 Bruce Marshall. “The World, the Flesh and Father Smith” [Web: https://www.amazon.com/The-World-Flesh-Father-Smith/dp/B001V674RE]
 Ellen G White This Day with God, p. 169