By Patrick Schmadeke
After a few children’s nighttime books, I often read theology to our 4-year-old son when he goes to bed. It’s a win-win situation; he falls asleep quickly and I get some long awaited reading done.
Then again, maybe only one of us is winning. One recent night, I told him I was going to read to him about “meaning.” “What is meaning?,” he asked. “Well,” I said, “it is meaningful to me when we play outside, it is meaningful to me when we go on family walks, it is meaningful to me when you’re helpful and kind. Something is meaningful when it is important.” His response: “Chocolate means a lot to me.” He seems to be on the right track!
When we consider the state of shared meaning in society today, we notice that the American landscape is fragmented. Our context includes the breakdown of shared meaning. Discord and disagreement abound. Shared values and dreams do not hold sway. Out of this fragmentation, we must identify the ever-fragile filaments that constitute the social fabric of our time.
Meaning is fundamental to human experience. However, efforts to critique the structure of meaning itself might be rarely pursued. When disagreement arises, the next step is often somewhere between a civil “agree to disagree” and the figurative throwing of the hands in the air in frustration. Sometimes the best we can do is just walk away — conversation partners are disrespectful, uninterested in listening, desire a one-way exchange, and sometimes we ourselves are not in a good place for genuine dialogue. We want more than this. How can we get beyond the veil, get behind the curtain of meaning?
Going about the process of restoring, recognizing and facilitating meaning is no simple task. It is not magic. There is a method, à la Bernard Lonergan, S.J. Meaning is fundamentally communal and contextual. Relationships, for example, are imbued with meaning. Call to mind a cherished relationship. Call to mind a fragmented relationship. Consider these relationships through the following lens.
Common meaning is built upon a pattern of shared experiences, shared understanding, shared judgments and shared decisions. The wider one’s base of shared experiences with a person, the more likely the two will share understandings, which often lead to shared judgments, which often lead to shared decisions. The more cohesive our experiences, understandings, judgments and decisions are with others, the more we share meaning. A lack of shared experiences leads to contradictory understandings, divisive judgments or narrow decisions. We are not talking about a method for uniformity, but rather a method for unity and shared meaning through dialectic.
Meaning is fragile because we bear it with greater or lesser care and fidelity. We are bearers of meaning, and religious meaning in particular, to the degree that we have allowed our hearts to be flooded with the love of God. And so we come to evangelization, and the fruit it might bear in the restoration of meaning.
Evangelization is an effective starting point for common meaning because evangelization is fundamentally about God’s love flooding our hearts. This love transforms, transfigures us so that we too see with the eyes of Godly love. What better starting point of common meaning could we find? To evangelize is to facilitate an encounter with the living and loving God. Evangelization does not hasten towards understanding, judgment and decision. Those will have their time, but evangelization insists upon beginning with the shared experience of God’s love.
If we are to take seriously the task of restoring, recognizing and facilitating common meaning in the context of our fragmented society, then we begin with our own experience of God’s love and out of this fullness, we share God’s love with others. If we find that beginning with the shared experience of God’s love is not enough to achieve shared understanding, judgments and decisions, then we best return ourselves to God’s love and begin anew. For somewhere there was an oversight, a forgetting of the grandeur and immediacy of God. Somewhere we forgot the scope of God’s love, the dignity of our brothers and sisters and the solidarity in shared meaning that grace beckons us towards.
(Patrick Schmadeke is Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)