Meaning Without God

August 31, 2008

EDIT: Preface – If you’re ever going to approach the question of “the meaning of life,” it is only fair to admit that life may be the sort of thing that has no “meaning.” I don’t think that is the case, as you’ll see, but we shouldn’t blow past this assumption unannounced.

I’ve been asked how I find meaning in life apart from God. This is a really interesting question and could go several different ways. Assuming that we don’t mean “definition” when we use the word “meaning,” I can think of two other senses that one might find meaning in life. One is the purpose of life—the “intentional meaning.” The other sense of meaning is like a moral of a story—the lesson to be learned.

When it comes to purpose in life, I used to be wholly dedicated to “the cause of Christ.” As a seventeen-year-old, I remember considering the path of my life and thinking that I could either contribute to this world and follow my interest in the sciences, or I could do something that has eternal value. There was a single moment I still remember when I decided that people’s souls were the only thing that would last forever and thus, the best object of my efforts. So I dedicated my life to the cause of Christ and became a pastor.

This worked for a while until I finally concluded that this story wasn’t true. Jesus wasn’t the son of God, didn’t die to take us to heaven, and there is no heaven (in the traditional sense) which is open only to those who believe in Jesus. Then I was beset with a strong sense that I had wasted so much of my time trying to persuade people to believe those things. In fact, I had wasted my life.

Taking my new beliefs to heart, a strong awareness fell on me of how short life is if there is no pot-of-eternal-life at the end of the rainbow. I have only a few dozen years left to have whatever impact my life was to have. After that, there is nothing more. This came as a very strong feeling and shook me out of a complacency I didn’t realize had set in. While assuming my real life was the one yet to come, there isn’t much sense of urgency or value to what we do here—other than saving as many souls as possible. Giving up my blind belief in a life yet to come, I found the time I have left to be of ultimate importance. I must use it well! But what can I do if there is nothing that lasts?

My answer came in the way that it has in so many myths throughout history, from Gilgamesh to Genesis. We do have a kind of immortality in this life. It’s not to be had for any one person but for our society as a whole—the human society is immortal. C. S. Lewis had it exactly backwards, when he said “Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.” But rather, what Hamlet said with irony, I would echo with distinction: “What a piece of work is a man[kind], how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” For the marvel that is each single person, what a truly magnificent thing we make when all together. Look at the heights to which mankind has soared through the brilliance of his creation and even in overcoming the undercurrent of evil that rears its ugly head. If I can contribute to this society, I will have played my part and made my eternal mark. So to the extent that my life needs meaning, I see no greater thing to gain than the contribution I can make to this grand society.

As for the last sense of meaning I suggested, that of a “moral to the story,” I think this is something we never have under our control or even for our own use. My life may or may not be of interest to other people at other times for various reasons, but it’s not for me to say. I can indeed look at the lives of those who have gone before me and gather meaning of all sorts—lessons to be learned—but for the final analysis of my own life, only the history of a further society can be my judge.


God Cannot Care About You

August 27, 2008

Is this world arbitrary? Christians almost always feel compelled to say no. If we believe this world is arbitrary—if it just as well could have been some other way—it seems to undermine the very thing we come to the religion for: meaning in life. If God might just as well have made the world a different way—say, without you—then it seems to imply that you’re not a very important part of the world, or at least not significant in God’s plan. In fact, you are arbitrary.

So instead, Christians want to say that the world isn’t arbitrary. God had a very good reason to make it just the way he did. In fact, this is the best world that could possibly be. (We’re not talking about evil here. See earlier posts.)

If this is the best world that could possibly exist, then making a lesser world when this one is possible would not be fitting for so great a god as He of the Christians. In fact, He wouldn’t be a very great God at all if he choose to create a world that wasn’t as good as another one He might make, right? So by God’s very nature, he would have to create the best of all possible worlds.

So before God ever sets out to create this world (universe, etc.), he has been handed a blueprint for universe building. It is directions for the best world that is possible. Since God didn’t arbitrarily pick this plan, but it was in a sense, chosen already since it’s the best possible plan, God simply functions as the force behind putting it into practice. God is, in a sense, carrying out orders. At best, He is middle management.

So if the plan is already determined (being the best one possible), and God is the force which brings it about, we might look for God from our own point of view and meet him half-way. Is there any force in the universe which carries out its task and formed the world as we know it? One might easily say: the laws of nature. Between the speed of light, Planck’s constant, the law of gravity, etcetera, we have found an omnipresent and omnipotent force which is responsible for the creation of the world. Have we not found “God?”

The other alternative is to say that God picked this world from a really long list of other possible worlds for no good reason at all—completely arbitrarily. Any other world would have been just as good as this one—including one where you don’t exist. But a religion of this God wouldn’t really provide much meaning for life, now would it? If God didn’t care, but arbitrarily chose to create this world, and it just happened to have you in it, it doesn’t communicate very well that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, does it?