A cold, rainy day in Sydney's Domain gardens, June 2007. Thousands gather with their raincoats and umbrellas to listen to a short, bald man in orange and red robes share his wisdom. The Dalai Lama talks for an hour while the drenched crowd stands listening. He ends his address, and after hearty applause takes some questions from the audience.
'Your Holiness,' says the MC, 'here is one final question.' The famed spiritual leader leans his head to hear it.
'What is the meaning of life?'
Muffled giggles murmur through the crowd. For some, the question is cliché, but others wait for his reply. How would this great man answer life's ultimate question?
Does life have any meaning? Does my life have any meaning? All of us at some stage ponder such questions. And, subtly, the answers we arrive at influence everything we say and do - reflected in our stories, artworks, relationships and conversations.
As I reflect on some of those stories and conversations, it seems to me our culture offers four main answers to this question of life's meaning. How do they compare to a Christian view of life?
1. The Meaning of Life is: To_Live_in_Harmony_with_'God'
This first answer is the broadly religious one – so broad, in fact, it can be pronounced by priest, imam and New Age guru alike, even though their beliefs differ. For Islam, the meaning of life is to seek the pleasure of Allah by living in accordance with the Koran. For the Dvaita Hindu, it means achieving moksha – freedom from the reincarnation cycle – through love of Brahman and ethical living. For the Taoist, it means being in tune with ultimate Truth and the Oneness of the universe. For those in the New Spirituality movement, it is finding self-fulfilment through a reconnection with the ‘Spirit’, ‘Source’ or ‘Universal Mind’. Whether understood as a being, a life force or a cosmic principle, meaning is believed to be found when life is lived in harmony with ‘divine’ will.
Historically, most cultures have had a religious view of life’s meaning. Ours once did too, but no longer. ‘Out of more than a score of great civilisations in human history,’ writes cultural critic Os Guinness in Entrepreneurs of Life, ‘modern western civilisation is the very first to have no agreed-on answer to the question of the purpose of life.’ As a result, this view of life’s meaning has mostly disappeared from popular culture, being constrained to our worship centres or a few inches in the ‘Religion’ section of our bookshops, but it does occasionally surface in our films and novels. Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life heads in this direction, with its subtle encouragement to look for divine glory and grace in the midst of life’s pain. In Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men, eight Cistercian monks living in the Algerian mountains must decide whether to flee Islamist terrorists or stay and serve their community. In a most meaningful act, they stay in obedience to their divine calling. And in one of the most blatant portrayals of this answer in recent years, we find Bruce Nolan standing in the rain, screaming to the heavens. ‘You win!’ he cries in Bruce Almighty. ‘I want you to decide what’s right for me. I surrender to your will!’ We next find Bruce in heaven, talking to God, coming to some conclusions about what life is all about.
2. The Meaning of Life is: A_Joke
If a religious understanding of life’s meaning has been the dominant view through the ages, this second answer is a relative newcomer. For the nihilist philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries, life was a joke.
There was no divine being to live in harmony with, and no inherent meaning to the universe or our lives. The question ‘Why,’ says Friedrich Nietzsche in The Will to Power, ‘finds no answer’. We must build our lives on ‘unyielding despair’ writes Bertrand Russell. Decrying life as absurd, Albert Camus believed the ultimate question was whether or not we should commit suicide.
Culturally, this nihilistic seed has born much fruit – birthing Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in theatre, the Dada movement in art, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in fiction, punk in music, and even Seinfeld on TV (which was, after all, a show about ‘nothing’).
In Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York, theatre director Caden Cotard creates a real-time stage play re-enacting his everyday life in the hope of discovering its meaning. In a final scene, an old and ill Caden drives a golf buggy around the now defunct set of his life while a mysterious stage director speaks to him through an ear piece: ‘What was once before you – an exciting, mysterious future – is now behind you: lived, understood, disappointing. You realise you are not special. You struggled into existence and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone’s experience.’
In this dark vision, any ultimate meaning is dashed by the fact that our bodies will soon lie cold in a grave.
3. The Meaning of Life is: Whatever_You_Make_It
Following Albert Camus’ great question, very few of us want to commit suicide. If life has no meaning in itself, then meaning has to be made. ‘The proper question…’ writes AC Grayling in Thinking of Answers, ‘is not “what is the meaning of life?”, but “what is the meaning that, out of my relationships, my goals, my efforts, my talents, my various doings and interests, my hopes and my desires, I am or should be creating for my life?”’ This is perhaps our most popular answer to the meaning of life today. As the T-shirt slogan reads, ‘The meaning of life is to make life meaningful’. Having dreams, setting goals, pursuing relationships, serving others and actualising our potentials are the activities most often suggested as the means to achieving it.
This answer is the underlying belief of 1,000 self-help books, the sentiment lurking behind 1,000 hit songs, and the basic teaching of most personal development courses. It is often the essence of those sweet-and-sickly YouTube clips about ‘life’ you find posted on Facebook. (One I saw recently had a series of slogans such as ‘Help others’, ‘Face your fears’ and ‘Be true to yourself’ while a piano played a sappy tune and cutie-pie cartoon images filled the screen.) Ask someone in the street what the meaning of life is and ‘Whatever makes you happy’ will often be the answer.
4. The Meaning of Life is: A_Mystery
‘What is the meaning of life?’ asked the MC to the Dalai Lama that day in Sydney’s Domain. The Dalai Lama gazed at the ground, started to smile, looked up at the audience and gave a quiet chuckle. ‘The precise answer,’ he replied, ‘is I don’t know’.
For some, the meaning of life remains shrouded. The various theories are hard to untangle and so they are simply confused at this stage in their search. Others have abandoned a solution to life’s riddle altogether, believing the answer will forever remain elusive. The Dalai Lama spoke for many.
Popular culture reflects this answer often. Homer Simpson once asked God what the meaning of life was. As God started to reply, the credits rolled and the show ended. Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi is an extended exploration of life’s meaning, but leaves the reader with more questions than answers. In David Russell’s film I Heart Huckabees, the inquisitive protagonist Albert seeks to discover the meaning of his life by employing ‘existential detectives’ to follow him around, examining it. The film ends with Albert and his friend Tommy discussing the possibility of finding ‘magic in the manure’ of life, but not much else. Life’s meaning ultimately remains a mystery.
Human beings are meaning-seekers. We need some reason to get up in the morning. With this in mind, I wonder if those four answers really distil to just two. In practice, the person who believes life has no meaning tries to ‘make’ some – as does the person who believes it’s all a mystery. That leaves us with two main options: the meaning of life as living in harmony with God, and the meaning of life as whatever you make it.
The ‘whatever you make it’ answer has much to offer, as meaning is found in so many of life’s activities – in friends and lovers and children and nature and awards and art and careers; in goals set and talents released; in service to others and dreams achieved. But as a broadcaster I’ve interviewed many people who have had all these things yet still lacked meaning. Some have had love and success. ‘I had a husband who loved me,’ said R‘n’B legend Gloria Gaynor. ‘I had homes and cars and jewellery and furs...but I felt unfulfilled.’ Many have realised their dreams. ‘My dream had come true and I was touring the world,’ former Korn singer Brian Welch told me. ‘But when you’re on tour you miss your home and when you’re at home you miss touring. You’re never happy.’ And I’ve met enough miserable charity shop volunteers to know that even serving others only gets us so far.
The Meaning Giver
This leads us back to the beginning – to God. But what is a distinctly Christian answer to the question of life’s meaning, rather than the broadly religious one we first described? As a Christian, what would yousay is the meaning of life? ‘To worship God’? ‘To love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul’? Those are good answers, but how does worshipping or loving God actually make life meaningful? Some could read these popular phrases as religious ‘duty’ rather than the secret to fulfilment. No, a distinctly Christian answer to life’s meaning takes us beyond duty. It takes us beyond a generic ‘God’ to the Christian God; beyond mere obedience to divine laws to a gospel, and beyond duty to an invitation too good for words.
For in the Christian vision, God gives our lives meaning in at least three ways:
First, God invites us into his life. God is an abundant bounty of spiritual life. We were created to have this life inhabiting us as a spring fills a well, as a fire fills a fireplace or as God indwelt the temple (see 1 Corinthians 6:19).
But with humankind’s original rebellion, we severed this source of life. Now a vacant space lies at the centre of our hearts – the well has lost its spring, the fireplace has lost its fire, the temple has lost its God – leaving us hollow and meaningless. The New Testament uses two Greek words for ‘life’: bios, meaning natural created life, and zoé, meaning God’s eternal supernatural life. We can have bios but not zoé. We can be biologically alive but spiritually dead.
But then a man came forth from Galilee. ‘In him was zoé,’ it was said of him (John 1:4). ‘I have come that they may have zoé,’ he said of himself (John 10:10). ‘Whoever believes in me…’ he promised, ‘streams of living water will flow from within him’ (John 7:38). He would fill our souls with light and bring the Father to dwell within us (John 1:9; 8:12; 14:23). Jesus came to unleash the spring in the well, to put the fire back into the fireplace, to bring the indwelling God back into the temple of our hearts.
And with God’s eternal, supernatural life within us, the ordinary can become splendorous. That’s what the 17th-century monk Brother Lawrence discovered – working in his kitchen, living each moment prayerfully, flipping his pancakes ‘to the glory of God’.
That’s what I discovered when I came to faith. I was 18 and had been desperately trying to find meaning as a nightclub DJ. My journey included a small amount of success in my hometown of Brisbane, Australia. But my achievements came filled with emptiness. There was no spring within, no fire, no zoé – until I surrendered to Jesus. Soon after, life started to feel different. I was surprised to feel a sense of joy while working my rather dull day job. The world started to look different too. As my friend Lily Bragge describes it in her memoir My Dirty Shiny Life, after conversion ‘the sky looked bluer, and the trees were greener than ever before. It was as though I had been living with muted vision, and suddenly everything had sprung into vibrant, deep versicolour.’
Second, God invites us into his story. This story begins with a God who creates a good world teeming with creatures, flowers and light, with his image-bearing humans as his co-workers. It continues with a great rebellion unleashing evil, pain, frustration and disorder into the world. A recovery mission is launched, God calling the nation of Israel to be his light to the world, a mission which climaxes in God visiting earth himself, accepting our taunts, ridicule and crucifixion, then rising from death to offer forgiveness of sins and restoration of life. The story ends with this restoration complete – in a new world of fulfilled longings, healed wounds, radiant beauty and restored harmony (Isaiah 35; 65:17–25; Revelation 21–22).
This story gives us context, and context helps us interpret our everyday experience. The order and beauty of the world make sense within this story, as does our longing for love and our desire to find a meaningful role in life. They are part of God’s creational design. The horrors of war, famine, greed and corruption are given some context. They are intruders and never meant to be here. Our deep desire to see wrongs righted and evil cease makes sense – and is graced with hope. This world is not as it should be, but one day will be under God’s restorative work through Jesus. Outside of this story life is a random, meaningless thing indeed.
Third, God invites us into his activity. He is on the move, pushing this story towards its conclusion – inviting people into his life, transforming them and, through them, society. We then become God’s ‘apprentices in eternal living’ as Dallas Willard puts it – learning to be responsive to God as he works in us ‘to will and to act according to his good purpose’ (Philippians 2:13).
God gives us a special part to play within his unfolding story – a role, a calling, a mission, an assignment. His life within us provides power for such tasks; his spiritual gifts give us ability. Through us he speaks, heals, comforts, reconciles, encourages, leads, teaches. Through us he feeds, clothes, plants, warns, forgives, protests, loves. It is an awesome thing to participate in God’s work. Could a finer way to meaning and purpose exist?
So with this in mind, let me suggest a revised answer to life’s ultimate question. For the Christian, the meaning of life is to live with God – a God who invites us into his life, his story and his activity.
A few months after the Dalai Lama’s speech in Sydney’s Domain, I was walking around Sydney Harbour with my uncle – a man who has tasted the worst of religion and now has a natural aversion to it. The sky was blue, the breeze sweet, the sails of 100 yachts shone in the sun. ‘You seem happy,’ he said to me. ‘You seem content.’ Actually, my wife and I had just experienced a significant crisis – one that would only get worse in the coming years.
But he was right. ‘These days I find myself deeplythankful,’ I replied, and told him why. All the beauty around us was, for me, a reflection of God’s own beauty. The fulfilling work I had – writing and speaking about things that mattered – was from God’s hand. I lived within a story that made at least some sense of tragedy and disappointment, while offering the hope of a brighter future.
Each month, around 550,000 people type ‘meaning of life’ into Google. And they’re not all looking for the Monty Python film. Does life have any meaning? they ask, perhaps in a moment of disappointment or despair. Does my life have any meaning? As a quick read of Ecclesiastes reminds us, believers face these questions too. But even the Teacher of Ecclesiastes, having trialled the very answers today’s seekers will quickly find online – that life is meaningless, a mystery, or to be made meaningful somehow (see Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:1-8) – concluded that God was the key to the riddle (12:1,13). How will you help today’s seekers discover this conclusion?
For, ultimately, the meaning of life is to live with God. This God invites us into his life, his story and his activity. He can make the mundane meaningful, the ordinary splendorous, and even work ‘magic out of manure’ as he redeems life’s disappointments.