Dr Eugene Stockton...

"The Search for Meaning: The Word" by Eugene Stockton

This lead commentary from Fr Eugene Stockton sits well with the frequent discussion on Catholica about the difference between either-or and both-and thinking. It's a reflection on our human search for meaning, travelling through the general place of religion in our search for meaning, and ending with a pretty profound exploration of the role played by St John's, The Word Made Flesh, in our search for meaning.

The Search for Meaning: The Word[1]

by Fr Eugene Stockton

The dualism characteristic of ordinary consciousness...

The pursuit of knowledge is going on in many fields in everyday life — in science, history, journalism, forensic investigation, etc.. The intention is to establish facts, truths, through the exercise of the rational mind. A truth, a statement of fact, is formulated by identifying a predicate with a subject (A is B), which may or may not correspond with reality, and so the demand is for evidence to prove the stated fact. Truth in this sense can be described as a diacritic value (like good, right) which is delineated by its opposite, i.e. falsity. Such dualism is characteristic of the ordinary rational surface of consciousness.

Complementarity at the deeper level...

At a deeper level of perception such dualisms dissipate, where opposites are complementary, rather than contradictory, where the exercise is not to verify facts (expressed by concepts) but to recognise patterns, and similarity of patterns, in deep subjective data registered as feelings, and expressed in art and similar figurative forms. Its typical formulation is "A feels like B". At depth the pursuit is not for truths, but for the True, a certain fullness of being. The True can be described as a transcendental value. It has no opposite to set its boundaries, for that would be non-being. It draws the seeker to itself, for the sake of itself. It is akin to other transcendental values, the Good and the Beautiful, all three converging on the One. The One is nameless, simply affirming "I am" – though different religions use titles of convenience such as God, the Lord, Allah, etc.. The Three in One draws us to reach out beyond ourselves, to transcend ourselves. This is the trajectory of all religions, even of the "religious atheist"(!), as distinct from those whose sole concern is the here-and-now materialistic, seeking to become their own god, by enhancing their ego through the pursuit of wealth, power, pleasure or fame.

In the pursuit of the transcendent, it is imperative to find meaning in the multiplicity of the here-and-now. There is a simple sense of the word "meaning", as in consulting a dictionary, of finding a synonym or paraphrase equivalent to the word in question. More broadly, for example in life situations, the search is to recognise patterns out of the jumble of elements which make up the situation in question. Meaning is not a definition (as in surface rationality), it does not establish or prove a truth, it does not add to what is already there. Where initially there is a meaningless jumble of conflicting feelings and their figures, meaning seeks to extract order from disorder, to relate parts to parts and parts to the whole. Meaning instinctively looks for direction ("the way ahead") and for value ("is it worthwhile"). It uses one pattern to throw light on another, so that the second is seen to have meaning in the light of the first. This meaning is a new way of looking at a (confused) situation, ending with the reflection, "Now this makes sense to me". It is as when a cacophony of sound is rearranged into elegant music.

Modell[2] links the metaphoric processing of feelings in creative imagination to meaning-fulness in human behaviour through human intentionality. All living beings show some kind of intent, the urge to survive and procreate. In humans the intent is of a higher order, namely self-actuation, which in some cases may over-ride the instinctive urge of animals. The human selects what is of value, that is congruent to the chosen goal, guided by feelings as markers of value. Hart shows that intentionality is found in all human perception, that is, the capacity of the mind to be directed to a goal, filtering out of the flood of experiences only what is conducive to its purpose.[3] So one moves forward in a confident, sure-footed way.

An example from the process of scientific insight...

A similar parallel can be seen in the intuitive, pre-conceptual stage of scientific investigation.[4] Once the scientist has assembled the mass of data, each represented by a "mental image" (or some other analogue of sense perception), he or she seeks to find order in the chaos. Then they "play with ideas", arranging and re-arranging the assemblage in different juxtapositions, until they sees the right "fit". This they then translate into words in rational sequence. Once they have found meaning in the mass of data, then they can go ahead to verify empirically what intuition has already presented as a possibility. So the scientist might propose a model or paradigm which can be tested by experimentation, to the satisfaction of his peers, towards the intended goal. Meaning has shown the way to the end and recognised the value of the exercise.

Saying "yes' to life...

Viktor Frankl
WikipediaViktor Frankl [1905-1997]

On a very different plane of thought, Paintner claims that spirituality can be considered a search for meaning in life: "it can provide an orientation to our lives, a set of values to live by, a sense of direction and a basis of hope"[5]. She quotes Viktor Frankl in describing this search for meaning in one's life as "the primary motivational force" in persons. Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor FranklIn his classic Man's Search for Meaning[6] Frankl recorded his experiences in a concentration camp and his observation that those who created a sense of meaningfulness were better able to survive the horrors of camp life. From this he developed a school of therapy dubbed "logotherapy" (from the Greek logos understood as "meaning") to assist patients to find meaning in their lives ("what he or she longs for in the depth of their being"), emphasising the role of responsibility in taking charge of one's life, forgetting self in reaching out to something/someone other than self (in creativeness, love, triumph over tragedy). It is saying "Yes" to life inspite of suffering, guilt or mortal transitoriness.

Our inner life is a seething cauldron of formless feelings, each registering our subjective experience of the world outside us. These feelings take on form in types or figures, like the mental images in the playground of the mind, where we can play with ideas to put forward various configurations in the search for meaning. The arts play an important role in supplying possible patterns of meaning. The myths of different cultures, far from being blatant lies, bring together their story elements in patterns which meaningfully mirror those of human or natural behaviour. Jesus in his teaching made use of similar devices, his parables, to portray patterns of moral behaviour leading to meaningful life under God, his vision of the Kingdom of God.

The Bible is largely a typological narrative to understand one's own spiritual journey. I like to describe it as a map of life, as one might consult a map to locate confidently one's position and direction.[7] A prime example is the Paschal Mystery, foreshadowed in the Exodus and fulfilled in Jesus' passage through death to resurrection, which one can resort to in times of suffering, sorrow or hardship: the deadliness is not taken away, but is made bearable, or even desirable, in the vision ahead. The Long March to the Promised Land, both in the biblical account and in Maoist ideology, has been an inspiration to millions, not least in Negro Spirituals and in the longing of the Pilgrim Fathers in America. Job querying God over the affliction he suffered as an innocent man, received an answer, which was not a direct answer, when God showed him the wonders of creation. All he could respond was, in effect "Now I see". So in the light of patterns depicted in the biblical narrative, puzzles in one's life begin to make sense. The Fathers of the Church richly drew on the typology of the bible in their commentaries. Lectio Divina was a monastic exercise contemplating the sacred text to make sense of their lives as they corresponded to biblical patterns.

Contemplation...

The word "contemplate"to reflect, to look at attentively — is said to be derived from the Latin templum, the place where this happens. One might offer another etymology, namely template, a pattern or mould, so that contemplation brings together templates as described above. The verb also has a future orientation, to have a purpose, to have something in mind as a probable intention. So meaning not only makes sense of the present but also points to direction in the future.

St. Luke's Gospel lends itself to contemplation. Often Luke explicitly records Jesus at prayer [Lk. 3:21; 4:42; 6:12; 11:1; 22:41-6] and how he taught his disciples to pray as John the Baptist had done [Lk. 11:1-13]. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is set before us a prime example of the faithful follower of Jesus: twice it is emphasised that she "remembered all these things and pondered them in her heart" [Lk. 2:19,51][8]. This Gospel records a number of incidents which stand out from the general narrative as scenarios or tableaux to be pondered. They are like parables reflecting the communal life of the infant Church.

  • The Temptations in the Desert [Lk. 4:1-13]: Jesus spurns the temptation to usurp the authority of God, redressing the fall of Adam [Gen. 3, cf Phil. 2:5-11].
  • The Transfiguration [Lk. 9:28-36]: a vision of Jesus' future Resurrection glory, the culmination of the Law and Prophets [the O.T].
  • The Feeding of the Multitude [Lk. (9:10-17]: Jesus in his compassion providing for the needs of many, making use of the poor resources and ministry available – an image of the Church as a whole on one level, and of the Eucharist on another.
  • The Visit to Martha and Mary [Lk. 10:38-42, itself a prelude to teaching on prayer Lk. 11:1-13]: an allusion to the institution of deacons in the early Church [Ac. 6:1-7], underlining the distinction between logos (word) and diakonein (serve).

St. John's Gospel is even more the stuff of contemplation, from the one aptly named the Theologian by Christians of the East. His is the classic use of biblical typology, where the O.T. types are seen to prefigure and be fulfilled in Jesus, the Word of God.

  • The sacrificial lamb [Exod. 12:1] fulfilled in the Lamb of God and his Paschal Sacrifice [Jn. 1:29; 19:34].
  • The new temple [Ezek. 40-44] fulfilled in the resurrected body of Jesus [Jn. 2:13-22].
  • The brazen serpent raised up in the desert [Num. 21:4-9] and the raising up of Jesus for all to behold for healing [Jn. 3:14; 12:32].
  • The manna in the desert [Exod. 16] prefigures the true bread from heaven [Jn. 6].
  • The rock-source of water [Exod. 17:1-7; Ezek. 47] is fulfilled in Jesus, the fountain of living water (Holy Spirit), [Jn. 7:37-9].
  • Moses wrangling with the Israelites in the desert [Exod. 32: Num. 11; 14] mirrors the controversy of Jesus with the Jews [Jn. 5:19-47; 8:12-59].
  • The shepherd-kings of Israel [Ezek. 34] and the Good Shepherd of N.T. [Jn. 10:1-21].

These signs, identified in the Book of Signs [Jn. 1-13], converge on and are seen fulfilled in the Book of Glory [Jn. 14-20]. The Discourse of the Last Supper can be read as a reflective response in the heart of the Beloved Disciple, echoing the heartbeat of the one against whose breast he reclined [Jn. 13:22-25]. In this discourse Jesus is revealed as "the Way, the Truth and the Life" [Jn. 14:6]. The Greek can be paraphrased "The Way (hodos), both as Truth and Life, to the Father". In this context, the Spirit of Truth is promised "to guide (hodogesei) you into the whole truth". [Jn. 16:13].

The fullness of meaning expressed in The Word...

The Fourth Gospel begins with the majestic Hymn of the Word of God [Jn. 1:1-18][9] in whom is found the fullness of meaning. Whatever the origins of the N.T. term, undoubtedly Jewish Christians would have equated it with the Sophia of O.T. wisdom literature, while Gentile Christians would have heard echoes of the Logos of Greek philosophy, the principle of intelligibility in the world. The nameless "I am" of the Godhead in uttering the Word, eternally expressed Godself, and in time by the Word gave rise to finite creation: "all things through him . . . and in him came to be". That is, the Word was God's instrument and blueprint (or template) of creation, and "in him was the life . . . and light of man". From the womb of the deity "the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us, full of grace and truth". Those who accepted the light of the Word, becoming God's children, "received of that fullness, grace upon grace". The final stanza of the hymn, recapped the mounting stanzas preceding it, proclaimed that the incarnate Word from the bosom of the Father has revealed ...(?)... The Greek verb exegesato (from which is derived our word exegesis, explanation) has no object and so is open ended. I am inclined to translate it "he (Jesus) has made full sense", so suggesting that the Jesus of history is the exegesis of the Word.

For Christians, our search for meaning, our pursuit of the True, the Good and the Beautiful, finds its fulfilment in the Incarnate Word, Jesus. He is the one for whom we hunger [Jn. 6] and thirst [Jn. 7:37-39]. The great Sign of the Gospel, in which all the other signs are subsumed, is the Glory as Jesus is "raised up" — on the cross and in resurrection.

"And I, when I am lifted up from earth, will draw you all to myself." [Jn. 12:32]

Eugene Stockton. Submitted to Catholica 18 Aug 2014.

“The Long March to the Promised Land, both in the biblical account and in Maoist ideology, has been an inspiration to millions, not least in Negro Spirituals and in the longing of the Pilgrim Fathers in America. Job querying God over the affliction he suffered as an innocent man, received an answer, which was not a direct answer, when God showed him the wonders of creation. All he could respond was, in effect ‘Now I see’. So in the light of patterns depicted in the biblical narrative, puzzles in one's life begin to make sense.” ...Eugene Stockton

FOOTNOTES:
[1] This is the latest in a series of studies in deep consciousness, stemming from the author's The Deep Within – Towards an Archetypal Theology, Blue Mountain Education and Research Trust, Lawson, 2011. This was followed by articles in Compass, "Archetypal Theology" 4/46 (2012) pp.34-7, "The Miracle of Life" 2/47 (2013) pp.32-4, "Plumbing the Depths of Consciousness".
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[2] A. Modell, Imagination and the Meaningful Brain, Bradford Books, MIT Cambridge, Massachusett, 2006.
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[3] D. B. Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2013, pp.191-7.
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[4] E. Stockton, "A Bush Theologian goes his Way", (in ed. P. Malone) Developing an Australian Theology, St. Pauls Publications, Strathfield, 1999, pp.254-5; "Plumbing the Depths of Consciousness", Compass 2014.
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[5] C. V. Paintner, "The Relationship between Spirituality and artistic Expression: Cultivating the Capacity for Imagining", Spirituality in Higher Education Newsletter, 3/1 January 2007, pp.1-6. Other dimensions of spirituality she lists are (2) cultivating a relationship to mystery, a hunger for something beyond the limits of our capacity to fully describe in language, and (3) transformation as we are challenged to stretch and grow through a commitment to s set of practices or disciplines, a way of being intentional about our spirituality.
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[6] V. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning, Revised and Updated, Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1985.
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[7] E. Stockton, Landmarks – A Spiritual Search in a Southern Land, Blue Mountain Education and Research Trust, Lawson, 2013, pp.5-7.
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[8] Literally "Mary remembered all these things throwing, casting (them) together in her heart". The participle symballousa is derived from the verb symballein "to throw together", which also gives us our word "symbol". In like vein "parable" is derived from paraballein "to throw alongside, compare". These two figures of comparison, symbol and parable, suggest a similar process proposed above for contemplation, a comparison by bringing together patterns or parallels.
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[9] For a literary criticism and translation of the Prologue of St. Johns Gospel see E. Stockton, The Deep Within, Blue Mountain Education and Research Trust, 2011, Appendix I, pp.95-9.

Eugene StocktonFather Eugene Stockton has served as a parish priest and priest assistant to the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry (Parramatta Diocese). He has gained doctorates in theology and philosophy (Sydney) and a licentiate in sacred scripture (Rome). Lecturing for many years in the Catholic seminaries at Springwood and Manly, he has written widely on theology, spirituality, scripture, archaeology, anthropology and social issues.

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©2014Eugene Stockton

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