Meaning and Understanding (Part 2 of “IMUD” Series)

The opposite of “meaning” is not “untruth”.  The opposite of “meaning” is “nonsense” also known in some circles as nonsensical, gibberish, baloney or gobblygook.  In other words the opposite of “meaning” or “meaningful” is that which has no clear meaning.  Meaning is the pre-condition for both truth and falseness.  In other words, if there was no clear meaning then one could not judge a thing to be either true or false.  By the same token, we could also say that when a person does not understand a thing (so therefore there is no meaning) they cannot be expected to make a genuine decision about that thing.

  • A mathematics student that does not understand the meaning of fractions may have much trouble deciding whether it is best to accept 1/3 or the chocolate pie or 1/9 of the pie.
  • A young husband may foolishly answer his wife’s question, “Do I look fat?” with an honest, “Yes, you’ve put on a few pounds,” because he has not yet learned to understand the question behind the questions.
  • A Hindu or Muslim who does not truly understand the meaning of the Christian faith, person of Jesus Christ and the deep truth found in Christian Scripture (which are often hidden behind Christian platitudes and hit-and-run evangelism techniques, unfortunately) cannot truly make a judgment on the truth or falseness of the Christian faith. If they reject Christian faith without understanding it’s meaning, then have not rejected Christ, but rather a false and/or deficient understanding of him.  We should not force anyone into anything that they do not understand, nor keep them from rejecting what they do fully understand (though, it would seem, this is less often the case).  In the same way, we should not encourage people to accept something they do not fully understand without the opportunity for continued growth of understanding.  

Lewis understood Imagination to be the organ of meaning.  By imagination he did not mean what we often mean by imagination, that is “make believe.”   For Lewis the term imagination was more like a dream or vision of something that wasn’t, but could be.  Imagination could also come through a fictional story that, by use of imagination, could point to a real truth.  Lewis’ Narnia series—and even moreso the parables told by Jesus—all worked through the imagination to help people find meaningful truths.  Sometimes these truths were visions of what would be, could be or should be.  Through imagination, reason and will are transformed, as unseen truths become clear and visions for what can and will be come into focus.

Doctrine, for example, is not the foundational truth about Christianity but rather translations and succinct statements that digest the much wider truths of what God has revealed to us through the “lived language” that is recorded in the Christian Scriptures.  This “lived language” of God is not the Bible, properly understood, but rather the real, historical and personal story of God and life of Jesus Christ that was actually played out in history and time.  Christian Scriptures, inspired by God, are not exhaustive of this “lived language” (they don’t tell us every story and every event than happened) but they do tell us—using rational power of history, the affective power of prose and the imaginative power of story—all that God needs to tell us about Himself and his work throughout history.

Doctrines and systematic theologies are developed from the wide breadth of Christian Scripture for the purpose of helping us understand.  Doctrines, however, are less true than the actual story of God and His work among the people around the world that has been revealed throughout history.  Not everything that is true can be adequately represented in the language of theology and doctrine.  Narrative and “lived language” are far more powerful for teaching and gaining full and true understanding.  A culture of rule-based doctrine leads to a lack of understanding.

For Lewis, the Gospel story was the essence of the Christian story.  There were many myths[1] and stories that pointed to deep truths through utilization of imagination, but the Christian story was the true myth that pointed the full understanding of truth and purpose through their use of reason and personal experience.  Imagination was lower than reason, but reason could not stand without imagination.  The myths and stories that that exist in every culture, language and people group hold in them truths that could be recognized through the power of imagination.  We, as Christians, might understand this to be a part of the prevenient grace of God that is poured out to all people, everywhere.  There is no one, anywhere, that is without some level of truth and understand—incomplete, to be sure, but not fully absent.

God is the Father of all light so there is not reason to deny the truth that exists among the pagan myths and other religious teachings.  Rather, we should seek out this truth and fan it into flame!  Paul pointed to the pagan gods—not saying “you’re wrong” but “your partly right”—to express a deeper understanding of what was true and to provide an opportunity for new and deeper understanding.  There is no need to denigrate, put-down or reject that which is not fully true or, more importantly, that which we do not fully understand.  Rather, we can look into a culture, a religious system or into the eyes of the person sitting across from us and say, “you have something good here, but there is more.”  We can meet them at the point where they are, at the point of meaning that they already possess and help them move—often slowly—in the direction of deeper understanding that can, in time, lead to a real decision.

The only basis for a proper interaction and encounter with the world around us is a proper respect for other ways of life, belief systems, philosophies and religions.  “Respect” means to look back at something in order to understand or know.  When we respect someone we look back to where they are for the purpose of understanding them and moving ourselves to where they are, even if we might perceive ourselves to be more advanced, more civilized or in a better place than they.  We willingly submit ourselves to their authority or their ways of being and doing.  When interacting with other cultures and people of other religions we must respect them—move to where they in order that we might better understand them AND that they might better understand who we are and why we live the way we live.

[1] A proper definition of “myth” does not imply falseness or untruth, but rather a traditional story of allegedly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.  The designation as “myth” alone does not imply truth or falsehood.  Many myths, even if historically or factually false, contain deep truths.

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