It exists, for most of us, as an ever-present lingering in the back of our minds. It persists ceaselessly, though we are usually able to suppress it to a lull with the power of preoccupation. However, when something drastic or tragic happens in our lives—an experience that Boston College Theology Professor Brian Robinette refers to as “world collapse”—we may find that we are suddenly unable to contain it any longer.
This, in fact, is the question of meaning.
In his freshman theology core class, Professor Robinette hands out an initial questionnaire. At first glance, it doesn’t seem to be out of the ordinary, asking for students’ names, majors, even their favorite kinds of music. But here the perceived normalcy ends, interjected abruptly by two distinct questions: “What is the most beautiful experience you have ever had?” and “What is a question that is lingering or enduring with you?”
It is common to be taken aback by such questions; they dare to delve to a deeper level than we expect to be reached in our normal, everyday experiences. But for the student response? “Two thirds of the responses I get have to deal with questions of meaning,” Robinette says. “Questions of a purpose in life.”
Professor Robinette is no stranger to this enduring question of meaning. It is the same itch that drove him forward on his own spiritual journey—which, ultimately, landed him in the Catholic Christian tradition. However, this search for meaning is by no means limited to the realm of religious or spiritual traditions. It is common to us all.
“This might be the most fundamental and unavoidable thing about us, about the human animal,” Robinette tells me, “that we have these enduring and lingering questions, whether they are clear or unclear to us.”
Our conversation takes place on a rainy Wednesday afternoon in his office, a peaceful, fourth-floor room overlooking Stokes Lawn. Running in from another day packed full of academic and extracurricular preoccupations, it feels as if our conversation is a distinct pause from the usual hum of daily routine.
Enter the backdrop of this college environment: a highly-charged atmosphere that Robinette agrees “can make it difficult to put the brakes on.” Full schedules and workloads hold students captive during the academic week, while weekends are reserved for catching up on sleep and engaging in the social scene. Student life is often quite fast-paced and even a little bit relentless—many of us tend to lapse into a to-do list mentality with little room for reflection.
“This fast pace makes it harder for students to have these lingering, question mark conversations,” Robinette tells me. “There’s just not enough time.”
Robinette offers up some practices that students can integrate into their daily routines in efforts to slow this tempo, such as journaling, reflection, or learning to master the art of mindfulness, of being fully aware of the present moment. Even with these options available, however, we often tend to keep ourselves busy as a kind of comfort mechanism.
“Sometimes, students preoccupy themselves with other things to buffer from the fear of not finding a conclusion when exploring these questions, or even of finding one that they don’t like,” says Robinette. “It’s pretty risky.”
Here is where his notion of world collapse plays in: often times, people will come to face these questions more directly and abruptly when they experience, in some way or another, a “wobble in their mental infrastructure.” Such a moment allows for a chance to be reborn, in a way—to experience a fundamental shift in one’s life that brings with it an inevitable period of instability.
“In a way, college gives people a chance to do this—to experience this disorienting effect,” says Robinette. “It lets you try on different things, like an intellectual sandbox. But you must have a certain courage to be wrong and to be a little reckless.”
BC, however, is a college environment with a uniquely Jesuit tradition, where questions of spirituality seem to be an ever-present background noise. Retreats like Arrupe and Kairos provide a means through which students can form communities and talk through such questions of meaning—though primarily through the lens of a Christian faith. Where, then, can such communities be fostered for students who identify as non-Christian or as non-religious—or for those who really aren’t sure where they stand?
“The distinctive fingerprint of BC allows for certain kinds of openings and closures, possibilities and pressures,” says Robinette. “Its Catholic tradition can provide students with a certain companionship through these questions, and it can act uniquely as a catalyst for such students in their searches for meaning.”
He adds, too, that the classroom is a wonderful space in which to further explore these ideas and questions. When engaging class texts and materials by way of inquiry and genuine open-mindedness, Robinette notes that “you can be stimulated by the questions without thinking that Christianity has satisfied them.”
Robinette, of course, makes sure to fully integrate this into his teachings. “I find that when I teach theology, I very much want to be attuned to the open nature of theological inquiry,” he says. “I want to ask questions with students and try to help them with the articulation of their own questions, rather than saying, ‘here are some ready-made answers to fit the God-shaped hole.’”
There is, then, a common space in this sense of seeking that transcends the boundaries between secularism and religion, between what is established tradition and what is still unknown. We all, to differing extents, are struck by the beauty, by the awe, by the nagging of these deeper questions.
“I think it’s fair to say that human beings are meaning-making animals,” he says. “The question of meaning—nobody owns the property rights to that.”
Sometimes it’s that breathless glimpse of Gasson at sunset, or a moment spent staring into a vast and starry nighttime sky, or the cheers of celebration that follow a legendary, game-winning touchdown. This intimation with meaning can be felt in even the tiniest of moments in which we feel alive, in which we feel that we are a part of something inherently bigger.
“I think most of us have a hard time asking that question of meaning, and we tend to shelter ourselves from it,” he muses. “It takes a certain degree of courage and humility to put yourself out there in the void, in that uncertain space, and ask about our fundamental purpose.”
This question is at the essence of our human nature. We carry a certain responsibility, then, to ask where our enduring question comes from—to ask what it means to live. Thankfully, this journey is nothing new, and we do not have to embark on it alone. We can consult and learn from the great religious and spiritual traditions that have come before us, and we can commit ourselves to journeying in community with others.
“That incessant tug, that question of meaning that we feel—I like to call that God, but names are just one identifying part of the matter,” says Robinette. “Being bugged by your own aliveness—that is key.”