The Meanings of Life

I fail to understand why people talk about “the meaning of life” as if there is a simple answer, monolithic and one-size-fits-all to such questions.

My own theological conclusions lead me to propose that we seek to regard the question “What is the meaning of life?” with a two-fold or perhaps even multi-part answer, because I believe that there are really (at least) two interrelated but separate answers to the question.

On the one hand, the example and teachings of Jesus Christ present us with an objective meaning of life—fulfillment through relationship. We are told to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

I think that we ought to treat this statement not simply as a command but as a revelation of the way existence works. Christ is telling us that, in seeking right relationships, we will find joy and fulfillment because God has created all things in such a way that relationships naturally and inexorably create joy and meaning while isolation and selfishness create unhappiness and pain as a matter of cause and effect. In other words, this is not just good advice, and Jesus is not simply preaching morality—he is telling us about the fabric of existence itself. This, I think, makes good sense—an omnipotent God does not need to resort to meting out hyper-specific rewards and punishments when God controls causality itself. Which is not to say that God could not hand out consequences to mortals specifically and directly, but my own experience leads me to believe that God is subtler and more elegant than that.

This understanding is necessary, but not sufficient, to fully answer questions about what meaning is to be found in life. Unfortunately, I think that we Christians often miss—or at least fail to communicate—the rest of the message. Worse, we sometimes suppose that the meaning of life is about us worshipping God—and nothing more. As I’ve argued elsewhere (and will likely continue to do), that explanation reflects poorly on our beliefs about God’s character and purposes and saps meaning away from human existence. Worship is good and right, but it is not the sum total of Creation. Relationship fills the universe with eternal meaning, but our loving God doesn’t stop there.

Look at the diversity of existence—of people, of things, of situations, of feelings, of thoughts, of interests, of possibilities—and one cannot help but find that our God is not reductive. So why do we treat the meaning of life in such a way?

That second part of the equation for the meaning of life is much tougher and is, more often than not, what people really mean when they ask about the meaning of life. What they’re asking is, “What does my life mean?” or “What is the personal meaning of my life?”

Those questions are not to be disregarded; God purposefully made us as individuals. The scriptures are full of passages reminding us of the importance of our individuality, our “selfhood.”

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul expounds on the goodness of differences between us and how, through both diversity and unity, we create something beautiful. This idea is important enough to Paul that it bears repeating—he first discusses differences in spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-11) and follows with the analogy of the parts of the body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31).

But Paul is far from being the first in the scriptures to describe the gift and wonder of individuality. The psalmist in Psalm 139 praises God, saying, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well” (Psalm 139:13-14).

Here also is the reason that marriage is used as a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and the believer (or Christ and the church). In marriage, two individuals become something greater together, at once maintaining their individuality and yet also creating a unity with a meaning and wonder all its own, the frustrating and inspiring “both/and” we so often find in Christian theology.

If you have read much of my other theological musings, you know that I take a distinctly existentialist approach to theology, borrowing much in my own thought from Paul Tillich. Tillich, and particularly some of his students, emphasize that humans are storytellers, that that is how we rationalize and assign meaning to our existence. While not denying the existence of absolute truth established by God (I would rather vehemently affirm it), I am convinced that most of our understanding of any topos is formed by relating that thing to all other things—by organizing categories and understandings in relationship to one another and thereby creating (or, perhaps, inferring) meaning based upon observation of those arrangements.

This state of being results in the situation I described in my recent post “The World and the World.” The idea plays into our discussion of the grand meaning(s) of life like this:

I have two major meanings in life—the meaning of my relationship with God (and by extension all of Nature, Creation and other Creatures) and the meaning of my own individuality. A macrocosmic and microcosmic meaning in close relation to one another.

There are some things that we ought to consider in our approach to the meanings of our individual lives.

We ought to consider the importance of free will. God gave us free will to use it. He gave us a macrocosmic meaning of life so that we might simultaneously enjoy free will and use it well. We ought also to consider the great space and freedom God has given us for personal definition within that larger and divine meaning of existence.

Considering these things, I believe that it becomes evident that the individual meaning of life is a conversation, not a question and answer. Within the bounds of the greater meaning of life to which God calls all of us is near-infinite space for positive and beneficial expression of self. While God has certainly created us with certain personality traits, preferences and dispositions, we also have a thorough hand in creating and defining ourselves through the use of our free will.

As a student of early modern literature, I frequently encountered the Renaissance idea of “self-fashioning,” what we would call “fake it ‘till you make it.” Even modern neuroscience tells us that our brains are more plastic than previously thought and that it is not just functional brain states that influence the mind but that the activity of the mind can, over time, “rewire” the brain.

This is why the personal meaning of life is a conversation—it’s a back and forth (as I’ve argued all free will is) between the ways God is calling you and the places God wants you to become yourself, whoever that specific self may be (provided that it is within the bounds of what is good and true).

The space here (and may own ability, I’m afraid) is woefully insufficient to even scratch the surface of these ideas with much depth. For now, I’ll content myself with the following proposals:

Our theology ought to revel in our relationship with God, the profound diversity of Creation, and the wonder of our call to be active, participatory and individual within Creation. We need a “theology of self” that uplifts humanity and inspires while still acknowledging the (matter of fact) reality of God’s ultimate sovereignty. We ought to continuously praise God for such amazing gifts bestowed freely upon us—and the redemption God has given us for when we (inevitably) misuse those gifts.

We ought not to look outward to the lives of others to find meaning in life. We ought to look upward to God and inward to the core of ourselves to participate in the eternal creation of meaning in the Kingdom of God—both the present reality and the promise to come.

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