Christ & the End of Meaning, Paul Hessert: Chapter One


If faith is a deficient way of knowing, a kind of believing that surrenders reason to make-believe, then I am afraid I cannot be a Christian. If, however, faith defines a way of being, a stance toward reality that sees it clearly for what it is, then it is possible that I might strive to be faithful -- a "faither" as Paul Hessert puts it. All the better if that faith sees the reality of our human situation more clearly than other ways of being and knowing.

Christ and the End of Meaning, by Paul Hessert, seeks to make the latter argument for faith and the Christian gospel.

Reading Christ and the End of Meaning for the first time was a revelation. Actually, it was more of an apocalypse (an apocálypsis, an un-covering) that destroyed my previous ways of knowing and understanding the world and my life in it. It sounds like an overstatement, but I mean it earnestly when I write that this is the most radical book I have ever read.

Hessert sketches an outline of the gospel that has informed some of the theological ramblings on this blog (see the bottom of this post for links), and that has tended to dominate most of my recent theological reflections. It doesn't hurt that the work is profoundly Kierkegaardian.

A professor (Doug Meeks) at Vanderbilt impressed upon us the idea that one cannot know what one thinks until s/he writes it down or speaks about it in conversation. I think he has a point. The post that follows (and the posts that will follow in the coming weeks) is my attempt to better understand Hessert's book one chapter at a time, and hopefully to introduce a few others to it.


Paul Hessert doesn't begin out of the gate with faith, but begins the book saying, "Christianity often assumes a form that outrightly contradicts its central tenant that God is uniquely present to humans in a crucified Christ" (3). He extends criticism not only to the usual suspects of Christendom -- conservative Christians stressing a particular morality, family values, and seeking to support the power of American empire, often with an emphasis upon otherworldly salvation -- but to progressives as well, those seeking to correct culture toward particular concepts of justice, truth, and goodness driven by liberalism. Hessert aims at any and all who call on Christianity to make "better children, better parents, better students, better workers, better citizens, better business people, even better soldiers," to any who generally seek to leverage the Christian story primarily to make a "general improvement of life" toward a better future or back to a ideal time in the past (3).

In his first chapter, Hessert defines the cultural structure of meaning within which these groups function and for which these groups, both conservative and liberal, work to support.

Hessert begins by seeking to understand how religion in general functions within and defines what he calls "the circle of reality." The circle of reality is that common world of symbols that binds culture together -- the realm of cultural agreement supported by "what everyone knows to be true" (4). Defining this circle of reality are the structures required to make sense of the data gathered in the day-to-day experience of the individual. These structures are supported by generalizations, both formal and informal. We view experiential data through structural lenses to make sense of our lives. Generalizations include science (demonstrable formal generalization), aphorisms (ingrained common sense), and myths and images (visceral generalizations invoked to re-establish our circle of reality when it is threatened, the "basis of doubt and certainty") (5). Humans, Hessert argues, actively use these generalizations in a largely unconscious effort to make meaning.

Meaning itself is important as the wellspring from which individuals draw to answer the question "Why," to give us a reason to live, to feel that things are in order and that life has a satisfactory goal worth heading toward. Meaning, then, is "the major drive for human life" (7). In this sense, humans are believing, meaning making animals.

Meaning does not just exist in the ether, however. It, too, has a structure. Defining this basic structure of meaning is the key required for understanding the rest of Hessert's thought. To understand the structure, Hessert must first define the constitutive elements of the structure -- possibility, progress, power, and reality -- and how they interact.

  • Possibility: The first element of the structure of meaning is the "should-be" condition in relationship to the "is" condition, that is, the present. The present is always, necessarily, seen as deficient compared to how things could be. The ideal against which we see the present as deficient exists outside of time, but meaning requires time for possibility to exist. More on time and the direction of possibility later.
  • Progress: To actualize the timeless ideal into the timely realm of our lives is called "progress." To lack possibilities is to be cast into a meaningless or hopeless situation. It is also true that to lack the ability to actualize the timeless ideal into timely existence results in meaninglessness or hopelessness.
  • Power: To lack power is to lack the ability to actualize possibilities. Power, then, is the ability to manifest possibilities in time. For power to be meaningful, however, there must be a goal. Power itself is meaningless without possibilities to manifest in the actual. And again, possibilities without power are likewise meaningless. Hessert points out that if meaning is one pole of human striving, then power is the other. One is pointless without the other.
  • Reality: Our experience of reality within culture occurs within the interplay of possibility, progress (from actual to ideal), and the power to carry possibility into actuality. To cease to exist within this interplay is to cease to exist within the prescribed circle of reality tacitly agreed upon within the culture.

All of our understanding of life -- historical, biographical, and scientific -- Hessert argues, happens within this basic structure of meaning (8).

Time, Questioning, & Guilt

We relate to this structure of meaning in different ways, but primarily through the concept of time and guilt. Time relates the present ("the 'is' condition") to the ideal ("the 'should be'"). Interestingly, Hessert points out, "if the ideal were to be reached, the time of possibility would collapse," and meaning with it. Thus, in our search for meaning the ideal is always rushing away from us as we draw closer to it. Otherwise our search for meaning would cease. The present, then, is always seen as deficient.

We seek to maintain meaning by searching for one who is responsible for this deficiency in relation to the ideal. Thus we arrive at guilt: "Guilt is manifested as human responsibility for the separation of the present from the ideal." We ask why the ideal is absent and almost in the same moment ask, "Who is responsible? Who has failed? Who entertains alien goals?" Guilt then, is part in parcel with our culture. Guilt is our relationship to meaning, and thus to time itself (8).

Most importantly for Hessert, when we experience frustration with our circle of meaning, we do not question the structure but instead seek answers within the realm of the meaning -- the ideal, time, guilt, and the generalizations of science, popular aphorisms, and powerful myths and images. In so doing, we reify the structure that led to our frustration in the first place (11-13).


Often this structure is seen as divinely ordained. Religion is the traditional resource and last line of defense in legitimating meaning. In the contemporary West, we no longer turn to religious authorities for cultural legitimation of meaning, but we do tend to hear invoked a "highest common factor" of religious opinion (13). The "god" of presidential speeches, for instance. Or "In God We Trust," printed on our money. Or, a most nefarious theological statement: "the way things are." According to Hessert, though, religion's most powerful legitimation of culture is not in its provision of authority figures, but the very modeling of the structure culture imposes upon the world. By modeling this structure, religion imparts upon it an ultimate significance it would otherwise lack (14).

In conclusion, Hessert turns specifically to Christianity -- or what he calls "Meaningful Christianity."[^1] For Christianity to be meaningful, he writes, "it must validate the culture's demands for meaning and power and try to fulfill them … by accepting the cultural structure as the basis of its own understanding." Meaningful Christianity primarily does this in both its conservative and liberal forms by condemnation of the present. Focusing on moralisms of illicit sex, drugs, family values, or secularism, on the one hand, or systematic poverty, greed, and materialism, on the other, both stripes of Christianity end up supporting the same base level structure of meaning in the culture by pointing out our present separation in time from the ideal and projecting guilt upon those they deem to be responsible (15).

Conservative or liberal, Hessert finds that Meaningful Christianity "agrees with the cultural tenant that the quest for meaning and power is the legitimate human task" (emphasis mine). Rather than contradict the culture, Meaningful Christianity seeks to reinforce it. Hessert's example is illuminating. He writes, Meaningful Christianity "will not say, 'Blessed are the poor,'" which would contradict the culture, "but 'We can all be rich'" (16). And, I would argue, that even when the church says "Blessed are the poor," they usually mean "the poor can be middle class just like us, we just have to teach them." Worst of all, when "Blessed are the poor" is actually muttered with contradiction of the culture in mind, the audience who hears it does not find contradiction, but instead hears "We can all be rich," making a direct approach impossible. Rather than expunging guilt, Meaningful Christianity leverages guilt to encourage people to use their power to pursue the ideal in time, and thus to take part in the structure of meaning to which they are enslaved (17).


Hessert will argue that it is this enslavement to the hegemony of meaning that Christ -- specifically the faith of Christ crucified -- offers as salvation. More on that in chapter 2 and the next post.