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The meaning of life?

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 10 April 2013

I am told that our time of late modernity is a time in which we lack any idea of the meaning of life. All of the old verities have been swept away, God, heaven and the angel of the annunciation. We live in a world in which we have to find our own reasons for living.

While there is no doubt much truth in this idea we only have to look at the book Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament to find a tradition that puzzled over the meaning of life. Indeed the book is unrelentingly negative about discerning any meaning in life other than enjoying the fruits of ones toil in eating and drinking. The book is a barrier to easy piety. We would expect it to condemn the love of money or power but it also understands the quest for wisdom as vanity.

Thus it is not the case that a world existed in which the meaning of life was known and acknowledged before the fragmentation of traditions brought about by the modern age. We can similarly go on about the ultimate meaningless of toil and accumulation and experience and the end of it all in the grave.


The insistence that we must forge for ourselves meaning that will drive us towards some goal and a fulfilled life is the source of idolatry that will end in anomie because we now see behind the attempt. We see that it is manufactured and dead. The transcendent is lost to us and all of our attempts to make it for ourselves eventually are lame. Despite all of the positive rhetoric about "making a difference" or even living for others we are finally at a loss as to what our life means and how to live it.

Many of us trust that science and technology will bring about a new world. But even if that world does come into being, even if poverty is eliminated and wars cease the big question remains. And as long as it remains it will be the source of idolatry. We will continue to seek an answer in things that are not able to provide.

As the book of Ecclesiastes maintains, there is no easy answer. By the very nature of the question no one can give an answer that will suffice and we begin to ask whether it is fruitful to ask. But, I repeat, as long as the question hangs, it will generate insufficient answers that often distort our life.

I want to suggest, Quixotically, that the purpose of our lives, according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, is to "glorify God and enjoy him forever." Now I know how offensive this is to professed atheists and scoffers of God. But wait a minute before you turn to more rewarding reading.

Firstly, as I have often insisted, we must avoid the god the atheists love to hate. When we deal with the category of the supernatural from which the transcendent may issue, we, as people of late modernity who think in "scientific" terms, automatically think about the spooky, the immaterial intelligent power who can move the material in unspecified ways. It is true that much of Christian belief in the past has relied on this understanding; the idea of divine providence being a prime example.

However, if we think of the supernatural not as a different kind of nature but as culture that may not be found in nature, then things begin to make more sense. When we say that Christian faith is supernatural we mean that it may not be found in nature but may be found in the historical, in culture and art and literature and worship. We can then talk about the supernatural and avoid the criticism much bandied around by the atheists that we are superstitious, childlike, believing in things that do not exist; demonstrably.


Now, if God is rescued from being a superior bit of nature and becomes the truth and wisdom of ages, the accumulated experience of peoples, the Holy One of Israel who is hidden in deep darkness, and lastly personified in the man Jesus, we may begin to see how we could place an answer to the question of the end (telos) of human life. It is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

This is a lovely answer because it places at the centre of our lives something that is out of the reach of humanity, not manufactured by it. For who does not simply receive it? This cannot become an idol because it is transcendent, no person can define it and it is never ending. It also acknowledges our deep desire to have at the centre of our lives something we enjoy, something we love and which encompasses all things while leaving us free.

This is why worship and salvation go together. When we worship we are saved from idolatry, the self-made thing into which we put all our trust. In our time idolatry is legion because the worship of god is absent from our lives.

Take for an example of our time the modern university. I remember our lecturer in systematic theology always began with prayer. This reminded us that our intellectual endeavours could not be separated from worship. The soul aim was to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Of course such an idea has been banished from the modern university except, in Australia, those sponsored by the Catholic Church. In the absence of a unifying idea we have no real ground for understanding what education is. Knowledge is fragmented into departments and each department has the limited aim of teaching students to become doctors, lawyers and what have you.

Universities have their mission statements that are useless because they are limited and blindingly obvious. But when asked what is education for, they have no answer. What would happen if prayers were said before lectures in chemistry, English literature, physics and maths? What would happen if prayer was said before lectures in business and commerce? Students would be introduced to the idea that they are not there simply to obtain credentials so that they could command high salaries and prestige. They would learn that learning was a way of glorifying God and their lives were not defined by immediate goals of professional attainment. Their learning would gain a transcendent meaning that would transform their understanding of themselves and their practice. Now that would be something.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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