(Ps, this song is on my mind at the moment – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pWC8v-evDyQ. Listen to it while reading if you want.)
‘God is dead… Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?’ – Friedrich Nietzsche.
‘Your inability to understand stems from a failure of imagination.’ – J.R.R Tolkein.
It seems to me, that as a whole, our society lacks a great, motivating purpose. Perhaps this is a symptom of a bigger problem.
I have a feeling that in the past more people looked outside of themselves to find purpose. Purpose, on the whole, was discovered, rather than created. The meaning of life was not optional, it was not a preference that each person expressed, it was an external, immutable law, as incontestable as gravity.
Today purpose seems to be seen as an internal thing. A choice. The meaning of your life might be different to the meaning of mine. We each have opinions. Neither of us is right or wrong. Purpose is subjective, like someone’s taste in fashion. One person may find purpose in work. Another may find it in family. Others in entertainment or in comfort.
The ancient world, if I can continue with my crass generalisation, saw purpose as something which existed outside of us, in the universe itself, an objective reality.
The modern world disagrees.
Why the change? Surely there are many reasons.
Philosophical materialism is the belief that the universe consists only of matter. It is the belief that there is no super-material, or super-natural realm. It is a belief that excludes Gods, heavens, hells, souls and whatever else. It is a view that sees the universe as consisting, ‘entirely of mindless, meaningless, unfree, non-rational, brute physical particles’ (John Searle). This of course means that we humans consist only of matter. We are biological machines, which exist because we have succeeded in winning the battle of natural selection.
Philosophical materialism leads to practical materialism – the pursuit of the accumulation of material possessions. If the universe is all there is (philosophical materialism), then why not seek to acquire as much stuff as we can before our time runs out (practical materialism).
If our mortal lives are just a pre-show event, then we should prioritise whatever stands us in best stead for the immortality to follow.
If our mortal lives are it, if there is no world to follow, if death is the end of the story, the final full-stop, then eat, drink and be merry.
Of course philosophical materialism will produce the firm conclusion that we have no real objective purpose in existing. The universe does not celebrate our achievements, or mourn our passing. It did not create us with an end in mind.
So perhaps the affluenza of our present age is a product of the fact that deep down, we don’t believe that we were created for any real purpose. The basic pattern of life in developed countries today seems to be people spending money they don’t have, to buy stuff they don’t need, to impress people they don’t like. Debt is at record highs, as are our standards of living, as are our rates of depression.
The average Australian has eight times as much after inflation income as he or she did a hundred years ago. On average our houses are twice as big as they were in the 1950’s, and our families are forty percent smaller, but we still don’t have enough space, self-storage as an industry is growing at ten percent per annum. Australians work longer hours than any other country in the developed world. The first word of one in four children is now a brand name. The average Australian receives around nine thousand advertisements per day. The human race currently requires around one point five Earths to supply current consumption levels.
I am not saying that all of this is a result of philosophical materialism. Not even close. There are other problems. But it is a contributor, in my opinion. The belief that the universe is just matter, results in a belief that we have to create our own purpose, which results in people trying to find purpose in career, in possessions, in pathetic status games. And perhaps that explains much of our societal dysfunction.
The alternative is that our task is not to create purpose, but rather just to uncover it. This would be the conclusion if someone believed that we were created, by a creator, for a reason. Now this cuts strongly against our cultural values. It seems to constrain our freedom. I can no longer say that the purpose of my life is whatever I choose. This is one of the very biggest emotional barriers people face in choosing to believe in a personal God. People don’t want to submit. The existence of God would seem to restrict our freedom.
I don’t buy this argument at all.
I would love to be a professional footballer. I would love to make millions of dollars playing a sport I love, in front of thousands of fans. But at the end of the day, the reality is that I am not nearly at that level of skill. By submitting to the truth of the matter, I in fact enhance, rather than constrain my freedom. Freedom is found in alignment to reality.
So it is with purpose, and perhaps that is our problem. We were made for a purpose, a great and mighty purpose. Instead we are off seeking to create our own purposes, purposes that don’t fit our nature. Purposes that flatter to deceive but never deliver. Following God sounds constricting. It isn’t. It is a call to be who you were born to be. To live your full potential. To stop trying to be a professional footballer when you can’t even shoot with your left foot.
We were born to do more with our lives than gather possessions, impress our neighbours, and die with impressive resumes. We were born to do more than have a good time, collect a string of fun travel adventures and then fade away to dust.
The bible teaches that every human being is immortal and that we were created with an end in mind.
What’s more this end is not something that we have to painstakingly discover, like a needle in a haystack, or figure out through advanced reasoning. Our purpose is as clear as day, hidden in plain view, the elephant in the room. Our purpose lies in front of us, and all around of us. The only thing that stops us from seeing it is our self-obsession, our rebellion, our relentless passion for autonomy. ‘For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.’ (Romans 1:20).
If we ever opened our eyes, really opened them and looked, we would see the truth – God exists. He created us. He injects purpose, meaning and value into an otherwise colourless universe. We can stop trying to find purpose in things that don’t satisfy. We can find it in the source of ultimate satisfaction.
We were not born to spend our lives staring into the mirror, impressed at the view. We were born to stand at the foot of an infinite mountain. We were born to gaze up at endless white-topped peaks, running beyond the sun. We were born not to gaze inwards, but to look outwards, not to reflect always upon what we do, but to be astounded at what He has done.
But we all know that this is how deep happiness works right?
When the bride walks down the aisle, the husband is at his happiest. Is he happy because he is impressed by the suit he is wearing? Is his joy motivated by the fact that his hair is perfectly combed? The husband is happy because his mind is on someone else. He is happy because for just an instant, he has stopped being self-centred. I contend that our greatest moments of joy are found in looking outside ourselves.
And isn’t that the problem of our age? This Western world is the very epitome of individualism. The self is king. But don’t we yearn for those traditional Eastern values? Don’t we yearn for better community, for the end of this stifling self-centredness? Don’t we yearn for fathers that serve their kids? For husbands that care for their wives? For politicians who think not of themselves, but of the greater good? For sports stars who remember their public obligations? Deep down this self-centred, ‘I create my own purpose’, ‘I will be the captain of my destiny,’ ‘I have responsibilities only to myself,’ rhetoric is nonsense, and we all know it.
We were born to find full contentment in a perfect relationship, not with ourselves, but with God. It is not selfish of God to desire this relationship, it is His greatest gift. He is the purpose of existence. He is the meaning of life. So, ‘whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.’ (1 Corinthians 10:31).
That is joy, and that is what our struggling society so desperately needs.
‘Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.’ – C.S Lewis.