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.