What is the purpose of life? This is the most crucial question we can ask but we usually don’t until terrible things happen — until we or someone we love is sick or dying. Never the less, the way we define life impacts the way we live.
For the first time in human history, we live in a culture that says we can create our own meaning of life apart from God — a culture that denies all absolutes or norms. It says we can make up our own purpose in life, a self defined purpose.
The U.S. Supreme Court in a ruling on abortion enshrined this idea, stating: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life…”
This way of thinking is radically new in the history of humanity and impacts the way we look at sexuality, marriage and unborn babies. If we can determine the meaning of our life then we can remake ourselves into any image we like. We can remake any relationship in the image that suits us. This new cultural norm now informs much of the political arguments of our day.
But the way which most of humanity for most of history has tried to figure out life is called “discovered meaning” — meaning that transcends our life and one we must discover and align with. This view affirms that God exists and has a plan.
But discovered meaning requires us to follow universal principles and the will of God who created and sustains us.
Under this long-held view, meaning comes from outside us. We are created and called and formed for a purpose, both now and in eternity. There are objective and absolute truths which we can know and follow. Morality is not a cultural construct but a natural law — similar to gravity — that pulls us toward God.
The ideological battle of our time is this battle between belief in God versus the belief that there is no God and we may live as we choose.
Every religion and culture before our own time affirmed that the meaning of life was something universal. The Greeks believed in the logos — a rational order of life that could be known and conformed to. Buddhism has always said the material world is an illusion and the real world is a single soul and the purpose of life is to get into alignment with that soul. Christians, Muslims and Jews have always spoken about a God that can be known — a God we are to serve and obey. We need to evangelize our culture with this basic belief.
Christians and especially Catholics have a response to those who deny the reality of God and the objective meaning of life.
As Christians we live by discovered meaning. God is bigger than our problems because we are his creation — made for him and going to him. Therefore all life is sacred and intended. We are created with a purpose and we only find that purpose in God. We affirm that there is indeed an after-life. Death was an executioner but there is a Gardener.
We affirm that someday God is going to come again to resurrect us and create a new heaven and new earth where he will wipe away every tear and where there will be no suffering, pain or death.
We affirm that true justice and righteous judgment will happen one day. That which was wronged will be made right.
Contrast this with the ultimately hopeless self-defined meaning of life without God — a life where we live, die and then rot. The discovered meaning offers more life on this side of the grave and more life on the other. C.S. Lewis once said that when we aim for heaven we get earth thrown in — when we aim at earth we get neither.
The writer is pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Magadan, Russia.