I Was a Teenage Existentialist
When I was 12, I began to wonder whether I was becoming an atheist. I couldn’t tell, of course, because while I knew I was exploring things that had turned other people into atheists, I didn’t know whether they inevitably led people into atheism, or whether I was going to be an exception to what seemed like it might be the rule.
I felt the possibility of atheism intensely—I felt the void opening up beneath me, I felt the utter loss of meaning that I knew I would face. In fact, I remember reading a description of this by an atheist, and being stunned by the fact that one human could capture another human’s experience so clearly.
I didn’t become an atheist.
But I did bring that experience back with me. And this meant that although I believed in God, I was stuck without a way to see how that belief could have much effect on the rest of the world. I had come back from the brink of emptiness, and now I was carrying that big velvet void around with me.
The thing is, I had become an existentialist without even knowing it. I had no problem believing in God, but I couldn't see how God could provide me with meaning or purpose. In fact, in my skewed perspective, I couldn’t see how God could provide anyone with meaning or purpose. I didn’t even see how the two things might be connected.
If I had been obsessed with understanding the world before, it had only intensified now. I wanted to understand everything, how it all connected, what “meaning” even means.
There weren’t a lot of answers—mostly just a lot of people wondering about the same things, unsure and uncertain about it all. But I did start noticing some connections, some things that started pulling together in unexpected ways.
My interest in religion had lead me deep into theology, and the more I dug, the more I found myself drawn towards orthodox Christian thinking. In orthodox Christianity—I read over and over—there is no deep split between the body and the spirit. The orthodox proclaim the resurrection of the body, and reject as unChristian and heretical the idea that spirituality is only about our spirits. Christianity, in this view, is about God’s mission to restore and uplift, not just our souls, but the entire cosmos.
Meanwhile, my interest in science and technology was leading me deeper into conversations about the ultimate limits of life in the universe, and the possibilities that stretched out in front of us as a species.
It would have been easy to dismiss a lot of this as speculation, but that was clearly not an option. Looking back over our history as human beings, the people who thought “things will never change, we’ve reached our ultimate limits” were always wrong.
Science and technology had paved the way for me to see the possibilities for life in the universe, orthodox theology had given me a vision for that pursuit, and both of these had surprisingly affirmed the value of something I was sorely lacking:
Before I stumbled into orthodox thinking, it was hard for me to see the value and meaning of action. Sure, we were commanded to do good things—like feeding the hungry, and caring for widows—and the people around me were great examples of this. But it was hard to see that as anything other than isolated and arbitrary. Perhaps life was a sort of test, and these were the things you had to do to pass—but they certainly weren’t the main ordeal. The main focus had to be the time and energy spent on spiritual growth, and spiritual growth surely meant knowing and being convinced of the answers to increasingly arcane questions.
The irony is that I felt most alive and most passionate when I was doing hard physical work, helping people in various sorts of trouble. In a sense, my spirit was connecting with something my spirituality had no room for.
But after encountering traditional theology, this changed. It wasn’t just helping a few people when they needed it—there was a whole world of life and living to engage in. The sense that there were a few isolated physical events that just happened to have meaning gave way to the realization that these few events were like islands breaking through the water, part of a giant island chain of meaning and significance below the surface.
Helping the poor and needy wasn’t just a good deed, it was a way of supporting more life and more living. Rescuing people in trouble wasn’t just a moral duty, it was a way of affirming and sustaining the unfolding value of life itself.
That meant that everything around me—from meals to movies, from shoes to supernovas to downhill skiing—was significant, and worthy of exploration and engagement. Over time, I got very interested in the magic that happens in the creation of music, and the very different magic that happens in the world of computer programming. I was drawn towards cosmopolitanism, drinking in all that the culture was producing and had to offer. I wanted to travel—to fully and completely encounter the diversity of the world.
Importantly, none of this worked for me unless I could imagine a bigger and even more diverse future ahead. All the world could only have significance if it was all connected, and the only way it could all be connected was if it shared a future. Not a future of uniformity—not some intensely-sculpted hierarchical vision like the architects of the 20th century had planned—but rather a future with all the room in the world, where every life, every idea, every creation had the space to breathe and grow.
This was a future seen most clearly through the imaginations of people like Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and CS Lewis.
These days, I’m not completely free of existential dread. But I think I have found the meaning of “meaning” — the sense that things are connected, that they have significance to each other, that they support each other in building a shared future. Now that I think of it, that’s what we mean by “relationship”.
Good science and good science fiction help us zoom out and see the bigger picture — the vast network of relationships that we’re all a part of. Good theology helps point us toward the future, and provoke us to action.
Looking around at the vast unfolding network of life I’m part of right now — and knowing that I can take action and contribute to it in meaningful ways — feels like all the significance in the world.