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The Meaning Crisis

The fitness industry, political activism, mystical practices, psychotherapy… the salad bar of the “meaning market” has all the options we can possibly think of, and more. And yet we intuit a felt sense of vacuity beneath all of these options. Jordan Peterson (which some hate and some love) has made a splash; people seek solace in identity politics but find unease as they seek to be seen and understood by others and even themselves; Jonathan Pageau reminds us of what now seems like strange symbols from the past that we had forgotten; the new atheism has given way to an ontology of power which seeks the apotheosis of newly-constructed oppressed classes… Transhumanism lies on the horizon. We rapidly move toward it, yet deep down we know that if it is unbridled it means our doom. Is any real humanism still possible? For the small-town Christian the last scroll of his holy book is playing out like a movie script. The rural conservative plants his patriotic flag on the digital geography of his party line. The agnostic teenager buries his angst in the thrills of video games… we all feel like nihilism is secretly true. We haven’t paused to consider, lest we face what really terrifies us, that God’s death has brought with it new questions to which we have no answers, new questions which we still do not understand. Maybe we haven’t paused to consider that we are in hell? What God can rescue us now if he is dead? What God will give us the meaning that will liberate us from the slavery to contemporary “isms” and digital listlessness?

John Vervaeke, a cognitive psychologist and a philosopher, is another public personality making a splash. He calls the above reality “the meaning crisis,” and has been devoting his life to understanding it, and to working on the beginnings of a solution. I was surprised when I came across a couple of John’s numerous videos where he engages the work of an author I love to read. I then saw that he had had a few conversations with him. I am speaking of Catholic philosopher David C. Schindler. What brought John and David together was David’s book Plato’s Critique of Impure Reason from which much can be applied to this “meaning crisis.”

I have been engaging this conversation on the meaning crisis by listening to John Vervaeke and other noteworthy online thinkers. But I have principally been thinking about it through my reading of various thinkers such as David Schindler, Henri de Lubac, and Joseph Ratzinger. As head of one of the most ancient institutions that is in current collapse, Ratzinger surprisingly managed to open up a field where thinkers of all stripes found themselves gathering together. Atheists, Anglicans, Orthodox, Protestants, agnostics, etc. something about this man’s thought spoke to humanity and created a space for the full breadth of reason. In fact, I think we’ve reached a point where the Christian and the Secularist have finally discovered common ground… and it is not the common ground of secular neutrality, but the common ground of doubt and crisis. “The meaning crisis” is a crisis of faith in meaning, meaning construed as broadly as humanity is broad. Ratzinger puts it as follows: “Both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide from themselves and the truth of their being.”[1]

Whatever new meaning the word might possess today for many people, “Catholicism,” according to Schindler in his book The Politics of the Real, “is not just a ‘religion,’ but what we might call a ‘Realsymbol:’ a form that unites in history the three traditions of the Greeks, the Romans, and the Jews, mediating each of these to each other, and thereby giving rise to a novel whole.”[2] This quotation is relevant precisely because the loss of meaning which constitutes any “meaning crisis” can only be understood from the backdrop of a “deconstruction.” Schindler again writes: “In order to 'slough off' the Christian claim, it is necessary to neutralize history, tradition, and culture tout court, because the actual culture of Europe cannot be separated from the Church.”[3] This deconstruction has been named “classical liberalism” by the historians. Now, whether deconstruction and liberalism are a good thing or a bad thing, one thing is for certain: they are a thing, here and now, and we are beginning to feel like they are becoming obsolete (some say they already are). The dawning realization that they have failed us forces us to consider what comes next. Deconstruction always involves collateral damage, often involves opportunities for a greater reconstruction, but never involves the ground for a lasting foundation.

This article is not interested in rehashing the historical and philosophical implications of the Protestant reformation. Suffice it to say, whether deleterious, misguided, or justified, it changed “Catholic” Christianity from Schindler’s “Realsymbol” to modernity’s “private ‘religious’ membership.” Thus, state neutrality (more aptly dubbed “neutralization”) emerged first as a metaphysical structure and not merely as a historical compromise to appease warring confessions. William Cavanaugh’s work on the secular foundations of the wars of religion is a perspicacious exploration of such a dynamic. But, for our current narratival purposes, the tape of this history played on, unraveling like the film of a 90s cassette tape. The bloody century of a couple decades ago unleashed the destructive power of a dehumanizing atheism which sought a man-made eschatology through the power of the state. In the wake of the collapse of such devilry, a new optimism arose: science recognized its limitations (and thereby it’s openness to something other), and faith, in the Catholic Church, recognized it’s need for “updating,” both political and philosophical, in light of its new situation. But this optimism was soon to discover its own naïveté when faced with the depths to which the roots of secular atheism had reached. Ratzinger explains: “Those who expected that with this fundamental ‘yes’ to the modern era all tensions would be dispelled and that the ‘openness towards the world’ accordingly achieved would transform everything into pure harmony, had underestimated the inner tensions as well as the contradictions inherent in the modern epoch.”[4] This incautious openness, practically speaking, nullified the very project of contributing to “the meaning crisis.” Ratzinger’s following words are a warning for those of us interested in this dialectic: “A Christianity that believes it has no other function than to be completely in tune with the spirit of the times has nothing to say and no meaning to offer.”[5]

But an equally important warning ought to be given to the world. Ratzinger warns the Secularist: “In today’s world it is clear that faith’s claim to be a public force must not be detrimental to the pluralism and religious tolerance of the state. But from this one cannot conclude that the state is completely neutral with respect to values. The state must recognize that a fundamental system of values based on Christianity is the precondition for its existence. In this sense it simply has to know its historical place, so to speak: the ground from which it cannot completely detach itself without falling apart. It has to learn that there is a fund of truth that is not subject to consensus but rather precedes it and makes it possible [emphasis added].”[6] Yet another public personality, the historian Tom Holland, has recently garnered attention. He voices this same point: “In my morals and ethics, I was not a Spartan or a Roman at all. That my belief in God had faded over the course of my teenage years did not mean that I had ceased to be Christian. For a millennium and more, the civilisation into which I had been born was Christendom. Assumptions that I had grown up with—about how a society should properly be organised, and the principles that it should uphold—were not bred of classical antiquity, still less of ‘human nature,’ but very distinctively of that civilisation’s Christian past.”[7]

And so, the billion-dollar question still stands: How do we rediscover meaning? Or better yet: How do we discover, for the first time, meaning in a new register hitherto unknown? One that can save us from the pervasive nihilism that is suffocating us. How can we discover a meaning which can ground us anew? This is one of Ratzinger’s central themes: it is faith in “a reason that is love” that grounds us, that saves us from nothingness. This insight is found in Plato, and it is shared by Vervaeke and others. The discovery of this meaning, according to Ratzinger, takes place through a synthesis between past and future. Not a synthesis which destroys the past with the future or undermines the future by keeping us imprisoned in the past; rather, a synthesis that is discovered not made, a synthesis which is the cause of both past and future. This synthesis is Tradition. Now, it must be said, at this juncture, that the true meaning of the word Tradition is astonishingly abused. Those who abuse it are the secular religious and the secular areligious alike. For Ratzinger, Tradition is the precondition for meaning. He elaborates: “it is as memory that intellect proves itself qua intellect; memory generates tradition; tradition realizes itself in history; as the already existing context of humanity, history makes humanity possible for without the necessarily transtemporal relationship of person to person, humanity cannot be awakened to itself, cannot express itself.”[8] In other words, Tradition is an identifiable subject’s capacity to change and grow precisely in the direction of a deeper realization of his distinct subjectivity across time. Any humanism which is transhumanist is dehumanizing. And any humanism which is historically stagnant is depersonalizing. Thus, Ratzinger defines Tradition for us: “Tradition properly understood is, in effect, the transcendence of today in both directions. The past can be discovered as something to be preserved only if the future is regarded as a duty; discovery of the future and discovery of the past are inseparably connected, and it is this discovery of the indivisibility of time that actually makes tradition.”[9]

Because deconstruction must lead to “meta-construction,” the impetus behind the misguided Catholic optimism of the post-war era is nonetheless correct: “It is clear,” says Ratzinger, “that this commitment to expressing a specific truth in a new way demands new thinking on this truth and a new and vital relationship with it.” In other words, a new task lies ahead of us, and this should give us meaning. And so, this is the humble proposal: let us come together, Vervaeke and company, and others. Let us make the unifying mission of entering into this new “meta-construction” a “space for the full breadth of reason.” This “meta-construction,” however, cannot be the work of subjective “meaning-making.” It must be the work of meaning-uncovering, the uncovering of something prior to us which can ground us. Let us uncover together the synthesis which ties the past to the future in this current moment of ours.

__________________________________________________________________________________ [1] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 46-47. [2] David C. Schindler, The Politics of the Real: The Church Between Liberalism and Integralism (Steubenville OH: New Polity Press, 2021), xvii. [3] David C. Schindler, The Politics of the Real: The Church Between Liberalism and Integralism (Steubenville OH: New Polity Press, 2021), 21. [4] Address of his Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia Offering them his Christmas Greetings ( [5] Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), 57. [6] Joseph Ratzinger, "Christian Orientation in a Pluralist Democracy?" in Church, Ecumenism, and Politics (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 218. [7] Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (New York: Basic Books, 2021), 16-17. [8] Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, 87. [9] Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, 87.

Dom Dalmasso is a 2023 graduate from Holy Apostles College and Seminary with a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and philosophy. He was a Benedictine monk from early 2011 to late 2012 at Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma and was an active-duty United States Marine from August 2014 to August 2018. He runs the YouTube Show / Podcast The Logos Project, and is the editor-in-chief of The Ecclesia Blog. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Dogmatic Theology at Holy Apostles.

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