Have you ever wondered whether the meanings of things are made or found?
As is the case with many philosophical dilemmas like this, the choice between the two is a false one hung up on terminology and/or limited perspectives. Resolving this dilemma requires transcending it: moving to a higher plane of thought where the two opposing points of view dissolve into each other. Meaning is both constructed and discovered.
In the journal entry below, I consider whether the messianic meaning of the life of Jesus was made or found by his many interpreters. Specifically, I question how the Bible portrays Jesus as having fulfilled Old Testament prophecies about the messiah of Israel:
In Luke 22:35-38, Jesus tells his disciples to carry moneybags, knapsacks, and swords, in order to fulfill an Old Testament prophecy. It seems as though Jesus had told them not to carry those things then later read the prophecy himself and realized that being the Messiah required him to fulfill the prophecies…
Prescience and prophecy are instances of prospective meaning-making: discerning events, figures, and patterns yet to occur in the unfolding of space-time. As my journal entry illustrates, I eventually began to wonder whether Jesus’s alleged fulfillment of prophecy was instead an example of retrospective meaning-making:
How can we be sure that the interpreters of Jesus did not read meanings back into the Old Testament? How do we know Jesus himself didn’t do that while still alive? How do we know that what is currently in the Bible isn’t a combination of these three factors: 1) prophets foretelling archetypes, heroes, images, tropes, themes, etc. that could in principle be fulfilled by any particular future person in the right circumstances, 2) Jesus being familiar with Old Testament prophecies and, believing in his divine destiny, intentionally crafting certain actions and sayings to match those prophecies, and 3) the authors of the New Testament taking the contents of 1-2 above and filling in the gaps using ‘creative’ interpretations to complete the picture of why Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah?
After all, we humans are continually trying to make sense of our life-stories by connecting past-present-future, and not always in that order. We review our past to make sense of our present. We look to our present to make sense of our past. We imagine the future to make sense of the past and present, and so on.
It is as if our lives – past, present, and future – are already eternally meaningful wholes that we time-bound creatures move through chronologically.
The real question was, for me, whether 1) God intended the whole thing: that Hebrew prophets would foretell a specific person (Jesus) who would perfectly fulfill what they foretold OR 2) whether mere mortals (authors of the New Testament) creatively used the Old Testament prophecies to make sense out of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.
In other words, is the meaning of Jesus a) a divine meaning to be found or b) a human meaning to be constructed and maintained?
Well, perhaps both? Perhaps divine and human meaning-making are not mutually exclusive? Perhaps they are two sides of the same cosmic intention?
All meaning in the universe is, I believe, God’s meaning, divine meaning…insofar as everything comes from some mysterious origin many call ‘God’. Among the things originated in ‘God’ are we human beings. Unlike any other creature (that we know of), we have the ability to step away from ourselves, from our own thoughts and feelings. We can step away or step above and observe our own emotion and cognition. When we do that we can initiate a second-order process of meaning-making through thought and language and gesture that recapitulates God’s cosmic meaning-making. That’s the second principle: humans recapitulate the cosmic meaning in their own personal meanings. We are microcosms of the macro-cosmos. The third principle is this: since meaning and meaning-making are native to the cosmos, human meaning-making is not foreign but a natural continuation and elaboration of cosmic sub-human meaning-making. All human meaning-making is divine meaning-making because all meaning is always already divinely originated. And divine meaning-making becomes human meaning-making when the unconscious movements of the divine in the world burst out into the conscious awareness that is the unique privilege and purview of we human beings.
To use a spider-and-web analogy, the cosmos is a web of meaning spun from divine intention. One of the strands of this web – arriving rather recently – is the human one. The human strand has the unprecedented ability to mentally trace not only itself but the entire web, one strand at a time – including its own points of connection to other strands and the web as a whole. The human strand is, as it were, creating a map of the cosmic web of meaning. The maps it spins out are far from complete but are getting better and better with time, trial, error, and adjustment. Perhaps one day the cosmos will reach some kind of fulfillment when the map and the web merge in perfect identity and unity.
And so, with all this in mind, I concluded my journal entry with the hypothesis that the dichotomies human/divine and retrospective/prospective are epistemologically relative:
God’s action in the world to fulfill his own will involved – dare we say required – the agency of a conscious being on earth. Not only did the original messianic prophecy come through a human being (meaning-making) but it also was interpreted and acted upon by another human being (more meaning-making).
In short, human meaning-making IS divine meaning-making, retrospectively and prospectively.