Friday, May 4, 2012

Professor Ratzinger on “Meaning”

Behold, I am scary-smart.
Continuing a tribute to B16 seven years on, here is another insight inspired by Professor Ratzinger.

Science tells us a lot about how something works, what it does or what physical attributes it has. The scientific method is frustrated, however, by questions related to “meaning”. Galileo hinted at this when he said, "Religion tells us how to go to heaven; science tells us how the heavens go." As a result, a secular answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” might be, “We make our own meaning.”

If you think about it, we really don’t understand what something is unless we know its purpose. Imagine you were to stumble upon a razor, but didn’t know what it was for. You will notice that it is very sharp. Let’s say YOU decide the purpose of the razor is to cut wood; what will happen? You will not cut wood very well and you will destroy the razor. Why? Because you did not know what the razor was really for. You did not know the intended purpose of its existence.
Professor Ratzinger addresses the question of “meaning” in the first chapter of his book, Introduction to Christianity. Here are some highlights paraphrased a bit:

Ø  Meaning is the bread on which man subsists. Everyone knows the situation of “not being able to go on” in the midst of outward abundance. How many have plenty in terms of health, food, clothing and shelter, but live quiet (or not so quiet) lives of desperation. It’s a problem related to “meaning”.

Ø  He goes on about two kinds of thought. Calculating thought is concerned with “make-ability”; reflective thought is concerned with “meaning”. We need both. In an age in which calculating thought is celebrating amazing triumphs, we are all threatened by thoughtlessness, a flight from reflective thought.

Ø  Meaning is not manufactured from knowledge. We can study the physical attributes of a razor for an eternity and never grasp its true meaning. Meaning, that is, the ground on which our existence as a totality can stand and live, cannot be made, but only received. Meaning that is self-made is in the last analysis no meaning.

Ø  The good professor also gives a clever analogy to self-made meaning; imagine a man trying to pull himself out of a bog by his own hair. This is the absurdity of the statement, “We make our own meaning.”
Why am I not being uplifted?!?!

A very simple, but very good answer to life’s meaning can still be found in the Baltimore Catechism. Why did God make us? God made us to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven. Theologian Frank J. Sheed said it in a simple way too; why did God make us?.......because we should like it.

“Eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love him.” (I Corinthians 2:9)


  1. I do think that what we see in our society today is a result of the lack of meaning or its pursuit. It's one thing for science to tells us what happens to matter in our universe and how it all works together, but it cannot tell us where the matter came from or why it came to be at a particular moment. All it can tell us is what happened to matter after it appeared on the scene.

    Religion, the complimentary of science, attempts to provide the answer of the why and the 'what or who' created the matter in the first place. God, through the revealing of himself, provides that answer.

    When we deny a 'meaning' to our lives then we are only dealing with the matter that man is made of, rejecting the other part of man, his spirit. Man is body and soul. We cannot exempt one from the other otherwise we deny the whole man. By rejecting the idea that man was placed here by design rather than by a random act, science gives man no more value than a rock, which in turn, man is now viewed as expendable according to society's whims and idea of worth.

    Society has rejected God, our meaning for life, and has lost half of it's identity as a result. Science has accepted the author's book, but denies the author exists, thus rejecting his reason for writing it.

    1. Well said. Perhaps you have studied under professor Ratzinger? ;-)

  2. Can you imagine being one of his students???? Oh man! lol. I'd love it!

  3. Awesome post, you guys rock! B16 is wonderful, I adore the analogy of a man trying to pull himself out of a bog by his own hair. It's both painful and useless. Brilliant! God bless you two Catholic men as well as your blog!

    1. Thanks Bridget. I'll have 3 or 4 more posts inspired by The Professor in weeks to come. Stay Tuned.

  4. There are three points I;d like to make on the question on meaning.

    1) First not all "why" questions are sensible. "Why is a mountain?" is syntactically correct by semantically nonsensical.

    2) Even "why" questions that are sensible don't have to have a meaning. It may seem scary but some "why" questions may not have answers and we have to live with that. Some "why" questions have been answered by science,"Why to apples fall?", "Why are people different colours", "Why do people die?" have scientific answers.

    3) And why not make up our own meaning to life? The alternative is either to life a meaningless life or to adopt one of the multitude of complete "meanings of life" packages call religions. Why not say no, I'm going to make a meaning for my life by doing something meaningful, to help others, to ease suffering and pain and to leave this world in some small way better than I found it. Can an pre-packaged meaning be better than that?

    Of course the way to make life meaningless to to believe in heaven. Then this life of 4 score years fades to absolute nothingness when compared to the never ending, immense vastness of eternity. Then this life becomes a boring car trip to get to an endless "vacation". Once the "vacation" of heaven begins is anyone going to look back on their meaningful life?

    1. For #1 One could say, however, why is a mountain HERE or THERE? For more on meaningless statements you may like a post called “All Statements are False”. Just use the blog search engine.

      For #3 For leaving the world “better than I found it”. One could say let's have madatory euthanization all people who are a drain on society, like the very old, the very sick or disabled, and all criminals. It is merciful. We will easy suffering and pain. We will leave the world “better” than we found it. Moral law tells us that this is wrong, even if everyone on earth agreed with it.

      Think of this life more like your life in your mother’s womb. You may have been perfectly content in the womb, but there was much more waiting. It was NOT meaningless. It was absolutely critical to your (physical) growth and maturation.

      Some Christians teach that the physical world is a distraction at best, evil at worst. Not so in Catholicism. Both the physical world and the spiritual world are good and important and real.

      BTW, thank you for your thoughtful & respectful comments.

    2. Ben - I'll look up your "all statements are false" blog posting.

      But life in the womb is about 1% of the average life expectancy which is then 0% of heaven (for all practical purposes). Plus life in the womb is continuous with physical life. It's all one in the same. Heaven, as espoused by Christians, is a completely different situation. It makes this life as meaningless as the act of opening a door to attend a banquet.

      I try to be respectful and I thank you and Joe for your comments as well.