Purpose of Human Life

I have often said that religion is one way of making meaning in life.  And I do believe that.  Religion offers a perspective on the world and on life that paints a picture to show how we understand ourselves in that world.  Of course not everyone has a religion or shares a religious perspective.  It is very easy and quite acceptable today for someone to be an atheist.  Atheism also is a way of making meaning in life.

Sometimes that bothers a few of my religious friends.  They do not think atheism is a way to make meaning in life.  Simply because they are religious, they cannot imagine any other way to do it.  With this perspective, religion is the only way to make meaning.  I understand that perspective; I don’t share it.  I don’t share it, in part, because I do not think I can be the one who defines what counts as meaning.  For example, if I am to assume that you have to be religious to have meaning, then I am going to tell an atheist that he or she cannot possibly have meaning---even if they think they do have meaning in their lives.  Somehow it strikes me as odd to tell someone who thinks they have meaning that, in fact, they don’t!

I am pretty sure there are many non-religious persons who are quite sure they have a life of meaning and life of meaning does not have God in the middle.  Far be it from me to tell them they are lying to themselves.  If they think they have meaning, I am willing to say, “Yep, you probably have meaning.”  I would also add, “and the way you have meaning is different than the way I do it.”

I am happy to talk about religion.  That should not be surprising since I teach it!  Indeed, I have a great deal of fun teaching religion.  I don’t try to convert anyone.  I figure that is God’s job!  My job is to talk about the various ways religion makes meaning.  And I can also talk about how various religious traditions make meaning in somewhat different ways.  Who is to say a Buddhist or Hindu makes meaning in the same way I do as a Christian and Quaker?

All this led me back to some words I once read from the late novelist, Kurt Vonnegut.  Vonnegut was a native Hoosier, so perhaps that made him important to me.  He died in 2007, but before that he wrote a number of novels and other things.  He was not your typical kind of guy.  He often had a biting way of describing the world, but he made you think.

It was his one-liner about meaning that caused him to come into my mind again, as I am reflecting on the purpose of human life.  He offers an alternative to religion or atheism.  Vonnegut says, “A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”  There are a number of things in the one-liner to be noted.

The first thing to note is the lack of arrogance on Vonnegut’s part.  He says “a” purpose of human life.  He does not say, “this is the only purpose of human life.”  He allows other purposes.  I like that.  Who’s to say how many purposes in life there might be?  And cannot any one human being have more than one purpose?

The phrase in Vonnegut’s quotation that is a bit puzzling is the phrase that says, “no matter who is controlling it.”  I doubt that Vonnegut meant God in this instance.  Perhaps God does control things, but that is a theological assumption.  In my theology God is not a controlling divinity.  I believe human beings were created with free will.  Of course, there are some things in life that we cannot change---regardless of how much free will we have.  But basically we have choices.  And I think God is a respecter of our choices.  Of course, our choices have consequences.

The last part of Vonnegut’s quotation is the heart of it.  The purpose of human life is to love whoever is around.  I think God would love this perspective.  It represents how God acts in the world.  Whoever is around, God loves.  What if we took this seriously?

We could not have enemies!  We could not hate people.  It means our intentions would need to be creative and not destructive.  Everyone knows that loving somebody or something does not always mean, “liking” them or it.  But love builds up; it does not tear down. 

I am convinced if I could begin to commit to loving whoever is around, then I clearly would have purpose to my life.  And if some others also make this commitment, the world would get better.  And if we all could commit to this purpose, paradise would be built!

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