Belief and wholeness

Being aware of the creative dimension of life improves life’s `wholeness’

With psychologists, we may distinguish four levels of meaning, roughly corresponding to our basic needs. We can see them as an ever widening horizon of our world.

  1. The first, most intimate and basic level, is our personal core. It is the level of what one is oneself, one’s true self, one’s special gifts and talents, what one feels oneself to be deep down inside, the person one talks to when alone, the secret hero of one’s inner sanctuary.
  2. The second or next deepest level is our social range of friendships. It represents the most immediate extension of one’s self to a select few intimate others: one’s husband or wife, one’s children, friends, relatives, perhaps even one’s pets.
  3. The third and next deepest level we may call our secular role. It consists of commitments we undertake at a greater personal distance and of wider implication: the company we work for, the party, the nation, science, social welfare, humanity.
  4. The fourth and deepest level of meaning is our link to the Sacred. It is the invisible and mysterious level of power, the inside of nature, our being part of creation, our relationship to God.

See: E.BECKER, The Birth and Death of Meaning, Harmondsworth 1971, pp. 184 – 192.>

Now it is obvious that people live on all these levels at once, but each one of us assigns importance to one source of meaning rather than to another.

In the extreme individualism of our western culture, there are those that remain stuck at the surface level. They involve themselves with the pursuit of pleasure and physical health to such a degree that it culminates in a self-centered narcissism. “I must pamper myself in such a way that I do not need anyone else to make me happy”. This will inevitably lead to an agonising intellectual and emotional void, but for the moment it satisfies animal nature. What is lacking is a truly human quality of living (see: Ch.LASCH, The culture of Narcissism, New York 1979; G. LIPOVETSKY, L’ère du Vide, Paris 1983; M.GAUCHET, Le désenchantement du monde, une histoire politique de la réligion, Paris 1985.>

Others concentrate on their family, deriving almost all satisfaction from close and intimate relationships. Again others devote themselves entirely to a cause, at great personal cost and to the exclusion of practically every other concern. A final group attach such great value to the sacred dimension that they sacrifice everything else in its pursuit.

Well-integrated personalities derive their self-worth from a healthy mix of all sources of meaning. At least, that is how it used to be. The erosion of the religious dimension has left many people trapped within small horizons, and therefore vulnerable and confused.

The question therefore arises: what is the actual source of our self-worth? Is it nothing more than a moment of bravery in a battle against sure destruction, no more than a snatching of small, immediate meaning? Or does it lie in our integration into a larger frame of timeless and transcendent values?

This is not a superfluous question. It is a question of life or death. Seven out of every thousand deaths in Britain are suicides, mostly by people who give up. Many more quietly despair, sinking ever deeper into a quagmire of loneliness, frustration, absurdity, a sense of waste, an abyss of nothingness.

Family and friends can let us down. The cause we live for can crumble, or turn against us. The religious dimension can liberate us to see things in a wider perspective, and to face overwhelming odds with a sense of hope.

I know that the wrong kind of religion can also be a hindrance. It can fill people’s minds with superstition and cripple their progress through imposing nonsensical taboos and rules, just as the wrong kind of medicine can worsen the illness. But the existence of bad medicine does not disqualify medicine as such. Moreover, religion is much more than a cure against ills.

Good religion enhances enormously the quality of our life. It underpins and enlarges the value of our family relationships and secular commitments. It provides real meaning to self sacrifice and love. It makes us aware of the immense mystery surrounding our cosmos and brings us face to face with ultimate Reality. In this way it establishes our real worth on a cosmic level.

Jumping out of our well

The Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu (4th cent. BC) tells the parable of the Yellow River. Like most people, he tells us, it begins its life being ignorant and presumptuous. Thousands of wild torrents pour their water into it, so that it swells into a mighty stream. The river laughs, proud of its achievement. Boastful and haughty it gushes its way downstream to the coast. There he sees the ocean and his face falls. He tries to measure its vast expanse and fails. He offers his apologies. And with good reason.

Of all the waters in the world
the Ocean is the greatest.
Though all rivers pour into it, day and night,
it never fills up.
Though it returns its water day and night,
it never runs empty.
Its level does not drop in summer.
It does not rise at the time of floods.
No other water can match it.
CHUANG TZU, Sayings, 17,1.

When like the Yellow River we become aware of the Tao, of the divine dimension. We are overwhelmed by its mystery and magnitude.

This is how Chuang Tzu defines the Tao: “A mysterious reality, complete before heaven and earth, silent and void, standing on its own and unchanging, ever present, never surpassed, the mother of the ten thousand things. I do not know its name; therefore I call it Tao” (25,1).

Perhaps, it will frighten us at the beginning. Then the realization will dawn on us that the Tao is not hostile. It is the infinite, universal, creative force that carries us, and that fills us from within. It has always been there, though we were not aware of it. We did not know it because we were trapped in a kitchen-and-garden horizon.

Chuang Tzu concludes by saying: “Can you talk about the ocean to a frog in a well?” 



The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

View the following film on the meaning of creation