Sunday, August 26, 2001

The meaning of life? Who cares?

By Michael Harrington

What is the meaning of life?

What is the best life?

If you believe God is real and active, what is He calling you to do?

How would you answer these questions? Do you think answers are possible - and are even worth pursuing?

Sociologist Douglas V. Porpora, chair of the culture and communication department at Drexel University, thinks they are. But in his new book, Landscapes of the Soul: The Loss of Moral Meaning in American Life, he laments that there is a widespread complacency about these "ultimate" questions, even on the part of people who are religious. He finds this a consequence of a contemporary rejection of basic truths, which results in a postmodern mindset that considers truth relative and a coherent sense of self provisional.

In the mid-1990s, Porpora came to the realization that most of his students shrugged off ultimate questions.

"They didn't really care. There was no interest in the meaning of life," he said in an interview, sitting at his desk under a wooden crucifix and a large picture of Che Guevara.

The juxtaposition of images is telling. Porpora, 49, of West Mount Airy, is both a Marxist and a Roman Catholic who spent time in the 1980s as an activist working against U.S. policy in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Around the time he began to explore his students' views, Porpora had just finished writing How Holocausts Happen: The United States in Central America - a book he saw as being about "the social creation of moral indifference." He wondered if his students' apparent unresponsiveness reflected American society as a whole.

"I started to think in terms of moral purpose: What do people stand for?"

For research, Porpora used national opinion polls and local surveys conducted through Drexel's survey research center. His primary material, though, was a series of in-depth interviews he conducted with 40 people from across Pennsylvania. The 40, chosen to represent a cross-section of society, included the religiously committed and atheists, left-wing activists and businessmen, Christian fundamentalists, the director of religious education at a synagogue and a nun, a physicist and a farm couple in Western Pennsylvania.

The result is Landscapes of the Soul, released in June by Oxford University Press. The work joins a list of recent titles - Moral Freedom; Public Spaces, Private Lives: Beyond the Culture of Cynicism; The Secular Mind; Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time - that deal in various ways with the sense of a widespread cultural malaise.

Though polls show that an overwhelming majority of Americans profess belief in God, Porpora said, that doesn't necessarily mean they believe God has a purpose for them.

Many of his subjects found God to be a "cipher," he writes: "That there is a God means there is an ultimate someone to whom what we do here matters. . . . Lacking, however, is any talk of experiencing God or of God as an emotionally inspiring exemplar of the good."

Even in those who professed a belief in God, Porpora heard deep confusion. From a woman who professes to be "not religious" though she is a member of a Lutheran church, he was told: "I'm not sure that there is . . . I think there's a God. There has to be a supreme being. What he's like or . . . I have no idea." From a man educated in Catholic schools: "You know, I was taught that there is a God. If I grew up in an environment where I was taught there wasn't a God, I'd probably believe there wasn't a God." And a young physics major: "I'm pretty sure there's a God, but that can change tomorrow. . . . Life is different to everybody. Therefore, you can't say it has one definite purpose."

Equivocations of that sort don't result in larger moral projects such as building a better society, Porpora said.

"There is a lot of talk today about our loss of vision, and that is what the loss of overarching moral purpose entails. This hardly means that we are all immoral. It does mean that our sense of morality has become largely procedural."

The result, he says, is a spiritual numbness.

"The withdrawal from the sacred is not principally a matter of belief but of emotion," he writes. "Our skepticism about any answers to life's ultimate questions is often just a way for us to dismiss the questions. Our emotional withdrawal from cosmic meaning comes first. Our skepticism is secondary."

When he asked people about meaning, Porpora noted, they responded by talking about the meaning of their individual experience. "[Their] understanding is that we are all here to work out our personal salvation so as to make our way privately to heaven."

Porpora calls, instead, for a moral purpose that transcends individual concerns. He finishes Landscapes of the Soul with a rousing call for a return to what he labels the "Most High" - the inspiration for a collective "cosmic vocation," a commitment to social-mindedness that cuts against the moral malaise.

Landscapes has received generally positive reviews. A Christian Science Monitor review called the book "food for famished hearts and hungry minds." Publisher's Weekly found it diffuse and ultimately unconvincing but "a provocative conversation starter." Library Journal said it "just may launch a national discussion of the important issues it raises."

So is the culture really drifting away from commitment?

Sister Mary Scullion, director of Project HOME, which provides services to the homeless, said interest in volunteering seems to be on the rise - though "not in epidemic proportions."

"I see a lot of hope and commitment," she said. "We've definitely seen more people talking about a search for spirituality as one of the reasons they become involved with Project HOME."

Sister Scullion echoed Porpora's call for a social-minded commitment.

"In a time of unprecedented economic prosperity, there's a temptation to be numbed to the pain and suffering around us," she said. "However, within each person there is that flame or light that gravitates toward compassion. People feel a restlessness, an emptiness - a boredom, almost."

Porpora allowed that there are signs of increased commitment but said "they're not talking about big numbers." When reminded that his sample was only 40 people, he laughed.

"I think that there's a spiritual hunger out there," he said. "But it's not yet a commitment. There's not yet a spiritual vision."

Michael Harrington's e-mail address is

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