First published in the Bridge Magazine October 2018
Is there a purpose to my life?
I was a teenager when I first thought about whether my life had a purpose. I blame the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life for that. It promised so much in its opening song:
Why are we here? What’s life all about? Is God really real, or is there some doubt? Well, tonight, we’re going to sort it all out, For, tonight, it’s ‘The Meaning of Life’.”[i]
Yet an hour and a half of sketches later, all it delivered was,
Well, it’s nothing very special. Uh, try and be nice to people. Avoid eating fat. Read a good book every now and then. Get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”
Really? Is that all there is to it?
I had a similar feeling about The Hitchhikers Guide the Galaxy, in which the ultimate super-computer Deep Thought spends 7.5 million years trying to answer the question of life the universe and everything, before concluding that the answer is “42.” The problem it seems is we hadn’t properly understood the question.
So is there a purpose for our lives? Well if there is, it would be enormously helpful to know what it is, because, as the Ancient Roman senator Seneca put it,
When a man does not know what harbour he is making for, no wind is the right wind”.
So let’s think about if there is a purpose to life, and how we might know. Certainly, experience leads many people to think they have a purpose in life. Self-help books are full of techniques to discover your purpose or “true north” as the Americans like to call it. Interestingly some of those techniques tell you that you can choose for yourself what your true purpose is. Author Justin Gesso claims this is “hugely empowering”, an “awesome revelation.”[ii]
Yet it also begs the question: if I can choose my life purpose then I can also change it, and keep changing it: so which life purpose is the right one (if there is indeed a right one)? This is especially frustrating when you then go and talk to someone who claims that rather than choosing their purpose in life, their purpose in life seems to have chosen them!
Then at the same time, the newspapers are full of tragic stories about people who have lost all hope in life, who feel like they have no purpose. So what’s going on? How do we make sense of this? Well, it might seem like I’m arguing semantics here but it seems to me that some people are calling a purpose in life what would be better called a cause or a passion.
- A PASSION as an intense desire or enthusiasm for something. So for example, (and please forgive the gender stereotyping) Samantha is passionate about netball. John is passionate about hiking. Passions like this are internal; they’re things we can choose because we can choose the causes we invest our time in.
- A PURPOSE, in contrast, is The Reason for which something exists, and is by definition “external”. So a purpose can never be something we choose, instead, it’s something that some agent outside of us has chosen for us, and shaped us for. So for example, the purpose of Upton Bridge[iii] is to connect two banks of the River Severn. The bridge didn’t choose this purpose, instead, it was chosen for it by the people who created it. In the same way, we would never say that the purpose of Samantha is netball or the purpose of John is hiking. That’s just something they’ve chosen to do; it’s their cause, their passion, their reason to get out of bed in the morning.
What all this means is that once we define purpose as the reason something exists, then any attempt to talk about the purpose of our lives is, whether we realise it or not, a god claim. We’re implicitly stating that something bigger than us (god, fate, the universe, whatever) has a plan for our lives!
This, of course, means an atheist can never really claim their life has a purpose. They may well have passions and causes that motivate them to do extraordinary things, but to claim that an external force they don’t believe in, has a purpose for them, is bad atheism!
So where does this leave us?
First, it means that for all the same reasons you can’t prove the existence or otherwise of god using empirical means, you can’t prove you have a purpose in life.
Second, it means that if we are comfortable with the idea of god, we should also be comfortable with the idea of a purpose for our lives. At which point the question becomes which god, which purpose, and how we can know. More on that another time.
Finally, it leaves us with the problem of experience. Even though many people deny the existence of a god, they still feel a deep sense that they have a purpose in life. It gets labelled in various ways: fate, karma, destiny, providence, kismet, but I’d argue it’s something more. St Paul says,
we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10).
If that’s true, then our yearning for a purpose is really God’s way of getting us to re-examine our presumption that he doesn’t exist! Our longing for meaning implies that there is a giver of meaning, and should cause us to seek him out!
[i] Cited from http://montypython.50webs.com/scripts/Meaning_of_Life/intro.htm
[ii] Cited from https://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/7-ways-create-your-life-purpose.html
[iii] I’ve intentionally chosen an inanimate object here, as it’s a lot easier to be certain about it’s purpose. Had I chosen a human example, I could not have spoken with any certainty about his/her purpose as I’m not their creator!