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How Can Ancient Texts Help Us Find Meaning in Our Lives?

by Dr. Hal Taussig

Dirt Road leading to a colorful horizon

How can we claim meaning in our lives?  How does meaning come into our lives?

In many different ways.  Claiming meaning for ourselves and noticing that meaning can come into our lives helps us grow.   But for me, there is not just one way that meaning happens; there are many different ways.

Meanings come in relationships.  In beauty.  Sometimes meanings surprise us.  Sometimes they seem to elude us, and we have to reach out and grab them.  Sometimes meanings slowly build inside us.  Sometimes something happens and that’s enough for meaning to come into our lives.

Today, in my beginning of conversation with you via blogging on this site, I am thinking why I look for meaning in ancient writings.  I’m asking that on this blog and website, because it is called Early Christian Texts: The Bible and Beyond.  And the website has all kinds of information, thoughts, and feelings about early Christian texts.

I have worked for thirty-plus years on early texts from the Christ movements, the rest of the Bible, and all kinds of ancient writings, because it has been one of the ways I claim meaning. When in the next year, you read material from me in this blog, it is not because I like ancient things, because I think early Christian writings are the only way meaning comes into our lives, or because I like being an academic.  It is because meaning has come into my life in the process of reading and writing some (not all!) ancient documents in the Bible and beyond.

For most of us, it is helpful and scary to acknowledge how the last generations have taken some meaning away from us.  It is helpful because a lot of what people want things to mean has had a stranglehold on how we think, and now even in the loss of some meaning we are feeling a loosening of that grip of worn-out meanings.  Now more seems possible.  At the same time, though, I have to admit that as so much predictable meaning has fallen away, we are often frightened.

In these current times, hope and chaos have been especially intense.  Life at its most disturbing and creative gives special chances and dangers for us as we sort out meaning for our lives and the bigger pictures.

The title ‘The Bible and Beyond’ has a similar ring of challenge, learning, and movement.  It so happens that my career in writing, teaching, experimenting, ritualizing, and research has mostly been about the Bible and beyond. ‘Bible and beyond’ is a way of describing my work in the messy moments of the last forty years.  ‘Bible and beyond’ has been at the intersection of religion-in-disarray and new spiritualities.  ‘Bible and beyond’ is a part of a mosaic of many newly discovered ancient texts, splashy mixes of different kinds of self-understanding in the Bible itself, and contemporary openings of beauty.

In the unfolding of new, old, and half-baked meanings for our time, ancient writings have a particular and—in many cases—curious power for helping people think about meaning for themselves.  Who would have thought that in a time where so much is in unpredictable motion, really old writings help us think new thoughts? It is not that biblical books or any other newly discovered Christ-related writings from ancient times have definitive answers to what life means today.

But special energy in the mix of the Bible and recently discovered texts from old times does prompt four surprising promises:

  • Placing Bible verses in new partnership with other ancient writings we’ve never heard opens up a new relationship with ancient texts. This new mix of ancientness distracts us from our current 21st-century dead-ends and entertains us.
  • Now we have recently discovered ancient texts. Their existence alongside something biblical now scrambles our normal disdain for threadbare Bible verses and worn-out doctrine, allowing fresh thoughts about the Bible and the new texts.
  • Invention and creativity from ancient times nestle close to what is scaring, numbing, and confusing us.
  • Meaning-making for our time has a chance with new words from ancient sources.

I do not mean to say that the key to meaning now depends on ancient writings.  Indeed, it is easy to see how some sectors of our society rely too heavily on ancient writings.  Many people in my religion (Christianity) have said Christian writings are the only way to have meaning in one’s life.  I reject that super-Christian presumption.  Parts of my decades as an historian and theologian have been spent on presumptuous research, rigid secularism, and tired religion.  I’m glad for this chance to be in special dialogue with the Bible and Beyond website as we try to prompt poetic, gracious, open-ended, ancient and unfinished meaning-making.

I look forward to musing, meditating, researching, and giving ourselves into this large and vulnerable presence between ancient texts and 21st-century meaning-making.