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Meaning of Life

August 22, 2011

I went to lunch with a co-worker and a student who’s helping out in the lab this summer. The question of Orthodox food rules came up and my colleague told the student: “If you ever have any questions about Christianity, just ask Joshua. So he asked “What is the meaning of life?”

I didn’t answer at the time but I thought it was worth answering adequately so I’d organize my thoughts.

First, parsing the question itself: I imagine the two simple interpretations are either what lens do we use to think about our impact on the universe, or what should we make the goal of our lives? Perhaps a more pedantic version is “What does God want from me (or humanity)?

I submit the goal of any such notion is to settle a number of curious contradictions in human thought. One is the idea that we all are really special. We write countless stories where the protagonist is nurturing a hidden power that demonstrates whatever their sad superficial guise beneath the surface is heroism and strength! They must only discover their supernatural/mutant/psychic powers. We all see ourselves in this. So we imagine we all are one accident away from becoming the great guardians of humanity. Yet how many wish the whole world to be so empowered? It is only the asymmetry in power that attracts us.

This leads to the second contradiction. We imagine our increasing power to come only with the increase in the good we do. How many of us hesitate to stop when we see a car stranded on the side of the road yet imagine if we could fly we would be out stopping terrorists and rescuing kittens out of trees? Yet we know that evil exists. Hence the need for us to battle those bullies (once we’re bullet-proof, of course).

We desire power. We easily see evil in others and imagine there is infinite goodness within our own breast. Furthermore, we imagine so much meaning in all we do. We join teams to save the earth, to get the government to spend more on our cause or less on other’s, to shift the paradigm in our growth sector. The epitome of this is our bizarre fixation on relationships. We imagine all sorts of mystical power in who we sleep with and how we deal with them. We write all sorts of nonsense about the power of true love stopping all contention and bringing world peace. Surely the mystical musings of our mind are nobler and truer than that of our parents and those with “power” who run things.

We are a miserable failure of Kantian ethics. Everybody sees themselves as the hero of all creation and one of the Universe Noble Souls.

Why do we build ourselves and our cliques up as heroes and our ideologies as epic tales of our part in ending bringing a kingdom of eternal peace and prosperity to the earth? Who can live up to our expectations for ourselves, our leaders and our friends? We openly or naively contend that out there exists heroes and epics and an eternal kingdom. We’re just not honest enough to admit we are not the heroes, our lives are not epics and our good deeds are far more impotent and our simple slights far more devastating than we’d ever feared.

Where is the hero? What is the epic tale? This is why we ask “What is the meaning of life?” in hopes of discovering the fact that we were the nice ones. By recycling/helping others/donating to a non-profit or not being a total douchebag we shall send ripples of good vibes through the universe that would produce good and lasting change.

This is the modern delusion of “progress.” There has been less war, more growth and more harmony among people connected only by watching cute cats on YouTube (in Japan!) Surely we have surpassed our fathers!

But we are not the heroes. Do we truly suppose only ignorance kept our grandfathers from peace? What are the constraints that bind us to this shaky modern peace? What if robots fight our wars for us and we find a renewed bellicose bully voice in our throats?

There is a hero and it isn’t any of us. There is an epic tale yet none of us are so possessed of wisdom that we can do better than incremental improvement in the circumstance of the suffering. Yet this noble desire that beats in our breast is not fiction. The hope that humanity is intended for much more than we’ve achieved is not the cruel trick of paleolithic natural selection. To imagine ourselves as good, just and righteous individuals (despite the contrary evidence provided by our conduct) is merely a shadow of the truth for us.

Humanity is a broken thing to be redeemed. We are poor, broken and lost, but there exists a searcher who comes to find us, fix us and imbue us with greatness. This is Jesus. That is his frequent message: You are to be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect. Your righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees if you are to enter the kingdom of heaven. Look at those who died tragically: are they any better than you? You must become better, lest something worse happen to you.

And so how should so lofty a goal work? If our efforts at perfection are failures, we must abandon all hope in ourselves. If we don’t submit our life plan and quest for meaning to God and forge ahead on our own, we make ourselves God in His place. That was Satan’s sin, to ascend to be like God. And so the sin he instructs Eve to commit: eat of the tree and you shall be like God!

Look at Jesus. He, though God become a simple, humble man. Everything he did was not his own will, but that humble, noble task set out for him. He did not seek to reveal that divine within as so many of us our eager to show always our best face that others might see our inner grace. He instead entrusted all his energy, all hope for satisfaction and justice to the God who begat him and directed his path through shameful, painful persecution.

That is our God. As Paul says, He has set eternity in our hearts. For us, if we live like Jesus, we know how God will respond to all our shame, pain and embarrassment as we stop trying to look good and just trust in God’s power to in fact make us noble, just don’t pure.

This is how we ought to live. And what of the grander questions? God’s great purpose for humanity and the meaning to be found at the end of all things? It is a demonstration of His wisdom and love, his right to rule over all things as all others are dismal heroes in comparison (He’s given us plenty of time to try). We are here to make a decision: is God true or false? Trustworthy or flaky? Our jailer, constrainer and stifler or the one who enobles us and makes us free? If we agree with Satan that he keeps the Good wonderful thing from us which would release our inner God, how could we live forever with God? That thought spread throughout the world once Satan thought it: God is keeping this from you. With what power could God prove otherwise? He will ever as God be to large and vast for us to look into his mind and comprehend all His thoughts. We must trust God. The quantity of information is irrelevant. We either look at what we know of God and trust Him or no amount of evidence will convince us.

God made one final argument for His goodness. This is Jesus. In spite of the asymmetry between God’s power and ours, he closed the gap and God showed up and showed us who he is and let us treat Him as pleased us. We proved ourselves to be the shoddy Gods you might imagine and we murdered Him out of envy at how cheap and empty all our vain efforts looked in comparison. This was not the end of God, obviously. But how can we argue he does not love us? If this is not convincing enough, nothing is.

So we live as a demonstration of either God’s goodness or our emptiness apart from him. This is not something simple for us to judge here but instead a hope for the future. God promises to make us his sons and all those who believe shall become one with God. If that inspires no hope and will not satisfy the craving in our hearts to live larger than life, we will always be prone to rebel in our dissatisfaction and God will constrain our rebellion in chains.

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