A Sacred Look: The Search for Meaning
With Sr. Nancy Usselmann on November 22, 2016

Each month throughout 2016, we are proud to feature regular articles from two of the most spiritually aware and keen thinkers in the discipline of theology and film we know – Sr. Nancy Usselmann and Avril Speaks. We have commissioned both of them to write new series considering particular questions pertinent to those of us who are interested in how Christians can contribute positively to the world of cinema. In the third and fourth weeks of each month of this year, we will feature the next article in each of their series. These articles will remain on our website throughout 2016, but at the end of the year, we will remove them and publish a reworked, edited version of their series in a pair of books available thereafter for purchase.

Sr. Nancy Usselmann is the newly appointed director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA, a position formerly held by Sr. Rose Pacatte. Believing Christians of all catechisms can learn from each other, we're excited to feature Sr. Nancy's distinctly Catholic vision for how we can all become more spiritually aware movie-goers and how we can share that experience with the world. You can find her entire series archived here.

Seeking Meaning

Human beings’ search for meaning and complete fulfillment is an age-old quest that has concerned humanity since the beginning of time. The fall of human beings after creation and the subsequent effects of sin left us with a gaping wound in our souls where we yearn for union with the Ultimate Reality, the Absolute from whom we are separated through sin. However, contemporary society’s proliferation of ideas, philosophies, and theologies through scientific developments and technological advancements in communication, has made this quest an even more desperate search for human beings today. The incessant desire for individualism only leads to a greater desire for belonging and connection. Technology may advance our way of communicating but it also seems to have only made that desperate yearning in the soul for purpose and meaning all the more insistent. Popular movies and television are the artistic avenues that often address some aspect of this yearning.

Power of Story

Comic book stories have piqued imaginations of numerous young and non-so-young fans throughout the decades and continue now in often bloody and violent ways to question human beings’ ache for power, connection, and purpose for existence. Even with overt sexuality and gratuitous gore, these stories delve into the spiritual realm beyond our concrete human existence. Innately, we know there is another world beyond this earth. And we long to understand it, possess it, and perhaps even try to control it, which is so evident in stories of superheroes or persons with supernaturally-endowed powers. Yet, if we look deeper into the stories there is the longing for grace, redemption and forgiveness.

In AMC’s series Preacher, adapted for television  by Seth Rogan, Evan Goldberg, and Sam Catlin and based on the DC comic book series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, these underlying theological concepts come to fore. Perhaps for those with a faith lens can see these attempts at deep human questioning point to more profound spiritual truths. It takes some reflection to navigate the intense violence to see what is really being communicated, not too unlike a Coen brothers’ film like No Country for Old Men. Preacher is the story of a reluctant, former hard-living son of a preacher, Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) who takes his father’s place in a small Texas town as its spiritual leader. Violence-prone and hard drinking, Jesse desperately wants to believe and so guide his strayed congregation to God, but he is possessed by an unusual combination of angel and demon called Genesis one night while struggling to pray that makes people do exactly as he says. He and his rogue ex-girlfriend Tulip (Ruth Negga) and vampire companion Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) set off on a search to find God. In fantastical, outlandish, and excessive comic book-like ways, their paths confront evildoers and the strange situations of the town of Annville. In all of the extreme cosmic-like violence and comedic action, Jesse is seeking meaning for his life, his calling and his destiny. It is the age-old search for God, albeit in a zany, weird way.

Before he was killed, Jesse’s father told his son to be “one of the good ones” because there are way too many of the bad. Just as Jesse was about to quit as the preacher he receives an insight that he cannot quit, that he must continue his search for God as his father encouraged him. He tells the sheriff’s son, Arseface (Ian Colletti) who suffers from a facial disfigurement and believes God made him like that because of his sins, that God forgives us and does not hold grudges against us. He encourages him to get on his knees and trust in God’s forgiveness, though he himself struggles with trusting in God. Addressing the hard issues of why do people suffer and God as harsh judge are only some of the theological topics with which the show grapples. In all of it, human beings seek meaning and purpose. What are then the boundaries of the Christian response to humanity’s search for meaning?

Theological Schema

Following a schema mapped out by theologian Karl Rahner, we begin with the acknowledgment that humanity will always struggle to grasp the ultimate answer to absolute fulfillment of human existence, but will always fall short and will never be satisfied in this quest. The reason is because God is the answer to this fulfillment and God is not concrete enough for our practical everyday existence and limited comprehension. Grasping at the incomprehensible cannot fulfill a human being’s search for a concrete answer to the definitive meaning of life.  

We presume that this essential meaning is knowable and real. The Christian perspective is that there is the possibility of obtaining definitive meaning in life and through this search we come to know God, as well as ourselves. From the Christian understanding, this complete and total meaning has two arguments, first, it cannot be pieced together from partial meanings and secondly, God ultimately is our goal in this quest for complete meaning. Yet, this mystery cannot be completely comprehended, so loving surrender to this mystery is part of the response to humanity’s search. As Rahner puts it, to this mystery we, “surrender in the silence of adoring love.”

Yet, to give a particularly Christian answer to this search for definitive meaning, we need to understand whether and how Jesus Christ is the ultimate answer to the meaning life. Rahner then eloquently expounds on how the doctrine of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is humanity’s redemption and salvation—and ultimately the meaning of all created existence. He says, that seeing Jesus solely as the eternal Logos of God would not bring anything particularly Christian to this discussion since we know that God is the goal. However, looking at Jesus as eternal Logos insofar as he has become flesh—the Incarnate Son of God—who suffered, died and rose, and is an integral element of human history—proves that he is the definitive answer to the meaning of life and brings the Christian element to this deliberation.

Jesus Christ as Savior

The urgent question for human beings today then is: What does the humanity of Jesus, who died and rose from the dead, mean for the human person? This is answered in Scripture and Tradition. Jesus, in becoming human, has taken on the whole of humanity into himself, and he who was the guiltless one accepts death to redeem sinful humanity from utter meaninglessness. Jesus of Nazareth is that historical event, “in which God himself deals with the world on the stage of history and with it suffers its tragic character through to the end.” Jesus opens up humanity’s way to the Father by being totally united to us.

To understand how Jesus is the salvation of humanity, Rahner looks at the soteriological significance from two dimensions: a pure Chalcedonian view and a neo-Chalcedonian perspective. The Council of Chalcedon affirmed the dogma of the one person of Christ with two natures—divine and human—unmixed yet without division or separation. So, the eternal Logos of God suffered our fate of suffering and death and in this way redeemed humanity. The Neo-Chalcedonian’s interpretation of the dogma is that God himself experienced our fate of death and so has redeemed us. This neo-Chalcedonian view is present in our own day. The pure Chalcedonians insist that the unity of divinity and humanity in Jesus is not at the same time mixed. Eternity is of divinity and finiteness, suffering and death are of humanity and so they cannot be a single identity in Jesus Christ.

In reviewing these interpretations of the dogma and the hypostatic union one wonders if a better method of doing theology could aid in a clearer understanding. Instead of beginning with the divine nature of Jesus Christ as the eternal Logos of God, perhaps starting from “below” with Jesus’ humanity might better serve our purpose in seeing Jesus’ salvific significance for humanity as infusing meaning into our finite existence.

In Jesus Christ we see a human being who has a two-fold solidarity: with God in a life of complete obedience to God, with humanity in a life united in solidarity with all of humankind. Jesus, in taking on flesh, has taken on the whole of human existence. His utter powerlessness in his death on the cross is his very acceptance by God because of his obedience. And through this fate we have experienced his redemption of all of humanity. Through Jesus, God takes humanity to himself in an embrace of forgiving love through which he offers himself. God’s self-communication to the world is sealed through the very fact of Jesus being fully and definitively affirmed by God in his resurrection. As Rahner explains, “…on God’s part the triumph of God’s forgiving love establishes itself in human history in a way that cannot be overcome.”

Jesus, through his passion, death, and resurrection, is God’s affirmation of his very self to humanity. This is the heart of the traditional doctrine: Jesus’ humanity is united substantially with the divine Logos. If God communicates his “self-promise” to us in a definitive and irrevocable manner, then the created reality in which this occurs cannot be equal to any other created reality but is the very reality of God himself. God’s self-communication is his utterance of the Word, the divine Logos, who in the person of Jesus is interpreted and given expression through his death and resurrection. Christ alone can claim to be God’s definitive self-utterance.

Because of this, Jesus’s reality is God’s own reality. Jesus is consubstantial with the Father. He is the definitive self-promise of God only because his is the consubstantial Son of God. From the biblical view, God’s Word alone, who is the Son, is the definitive utterance of God who is irrevocable, completely unconditional and the prophetic Word.

Christ the Answer of Human Longing

This Christology “from below” starts with the experience of Jesus as our salvation and as the self-promise of God to humanity. This ascending theology shows that our very trust in Jesus who is the eternal Logos, the unity of divinity and humanity, is a relationship that is achievable for human beings. And this Jesus, who is the face of God’s mercy and forgiveness is the fulfillment of all human longing, the desire of our search for ultimate meaning, the hope of an eternal existence. This is God’s final and definitive Word to the world and it cannot be surpassed.

To be committed to this understanding of the doctrine of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, the ultimate meaning of our existence, and to have faith in the person of Christ and hope in this doctrine’s validity surpassing all doubts, is to be an orthodox Christian. One is truly a Christian when one lives with this faith and accepts Jesus as one’s definitive salvation. This is the significance of this doctrine for the Church today. Without this doctrine we are not Christians. Without this doctrine humanity’s pursuit for meaning and fulfillment leads to nothingness and ultimately despair.

This is the case for Jesse Custer in Preacher, who wants God to be the answer to his searching. He wants to be redeemed from his violent temper and painful past, but does not yet see that it is only in peace that Christ is found, he who is the Prince of Peace. There is the drive of the supernatural existential within us that keeps Jesse and all of humanity pursuing further truths and deeper understanding of this world, who we are as human beings and why we exist. All human pursuits for knowledge are ultimately the search for meaning, and to find ways to be smarter, live longer, and expand humanity’s power for innovation.

So how can Jesus Christ, the God-man, be the true and definitive meaning of this drive for purpose in human beings? How can we understand that God is the goal of all our pursuits and longings as we struggle with the unexplainable existential angst that afflicts all humanity?

The very experience of Jesus himself who is our salvation, points the direction for humanity’s search. We can relate to Jesus as the one giving meaning and purpose to our lives because he struggled, suffered, died, and rose. His experience in human history is that he, the eternal Logos of God, came to be one of us. This means he took on not only our flesh, but also an understanding of this supernatural existential, this angst for which the finite cannot satisfy. Jesus took all this upon himself and lived with us and died for us. Human beings can relate to Jesus because he is human and can bring God’s life to our imperfect level of understanding.

Journey for Fulfillment

When people search for meaning in their lives, they search for connectedness—a sense that they are not alone in their existence and their angst for fulfillment. As human beings, we form communities—social, familial, emotional, and religious—to feel that we are not alone in the incomprehensible desire for total and complete fulfillment. And yet it is a journey only we can make for ourselves. No one can do it for us. But, One did go before us to show us how it is done.

Jesse, in Preacher, as with all reluctant dark heroes, ultimately is on that search alone, but finds the support in others who cross his path. Jesus often stood alone in the pursuit of his goal. He was alone in his sufferings and his death. Did he not say, “Could you not keep awake one hour with me” in the Garden of Gethsemane when excruciating fear was engulfing him? And again on the cross crying out to the Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Humanity’s fear of being alone can be a crushing weight that drives many to pursue fulfillment in passing experiences of pleasure or in states of altered consciousness in order to obliterate the pain. When we turn to this Savior who understands the pain of aloneness, the fear of being abandoned, and the longing for connectedness, we find a friend and consoler.

Human beings are ultimately wired for communion with ‘the other,’ but the other is an imperfect human being, like ourselves, who can only disappoint when we seek total fulfillment. This is why relationships between people often disintegrate, because without conscious awareness each one is searching for ultimate meaning from the other and neither can deliver. When we see the other as one who can journey with us as a companion in the pursuit for meaning and we do not expect them to fulfill all our needs and desires, then the relationship is one of loving trust and hopeful wonder. We ultimately pursue one who is perfect though we may not know who the Perfect Being is or how to come to know God, who is Omniscient and Omnipresent. Jesus, with whom we can relate as a companion on the journey and the director of our lives is the one leading us to this fulfillment and knowledge of God, our soul’s final end and desire.

Pop Culture’s Quest

This search for ultimate meaning is so present in much of popular movies and television. Just like Jesse in Preacher, the protagonists in many of Joel and Ethan Coen’s films also find themselves in similar predicaments and journeys for ultimate meaning. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) in No Country for Old Men feels outwitted by the outlaws in his town and wants to retire while still compelled to protect the people from brutal criminals. He longs for purpose other than chasing the bad guys. He longs for peace. In characteristic Coen humor, Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) in Fargo also finds meaning within the brutal violence she encounters as an investigator of roadside homicides, while outwitting the criminals in her unassuming pragmatism. Her purpose is fighting crime while enjoying the beauty of family.

How can Jesus’ love touch the hearts of people today? How can this doctrine of the God-Man reach people so as to be an answer for humanity’s search for meaning? Perhaps it is through his disciples who have found that fulfillment in Jesus, who are to be the connections for people today. Perhaps it is in the unlikely, brash characters of our fantastical comic book stories taking flesh on a television series that force us to question our own existential hungers and address the God issues that we often do not want to talk about in daily conversation. Is forgiveness possible? Does God exist? What does God allow evil and suffering in the world? What is the purpose of our existence? We, individual Christians, living out our faith, hope and love in Christ are his hands, feet and heart to those who so desperately, perhaps unknowingly, desire a relationship with the eternal, loving Triune God. This is the connection they seek—complete and total infinity, perfection and love—found only in Jesus, the Divine Logos, the one who alone can fulfill all our deepest longings. Jesus alone is the unconditional and ultimate meaning of our lives and popular culture. He is our one and absolute hope.

Sr. Nancy Usselmann is a Daughter of St. Paul and the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA. She has over twenty-five years experience leading retreats, teaching workshops, and giving presentations helping spiritually-minded media creators and consumers understand media relative to their faith and vice versa. You can follow her on Twitter and read her regular musings on media on her website.

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