The Meaning of Life

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British author and theologian C.S. Lewis once suggested that human lives are like ships on the high seas. 

Every ship has to address three issues.  The first issue is how not to sink.  That’s integrity.  The second issue is how not to bump into other ships.  That’s the domain of human relationships.  The third issue is the most important:  Why is that ship out on the high seas in the first place?  Where is it going, and why?  That’s the question of purpose

According to Lewis, humanity has been especially haunted by the third question since the dawn of the 20th century.  Is there a meaning to life – one that we can possibly know?

If we were to take a survey of various philosophers, teachers, and spiritual voices, some of the answers to that question are hopeful and inspiring:

“Life is a fairy tale.  Live it with wonder and amazement.”  (Welwyn Wilton Katz, children’s author)

“Learn to light a candle in the darkest moments of someone’s life.  Be the light that helps others see.  It is what gives life its deepest significance.”  (Roy T. Bennet, motivational speaker and author)

“In order to lead a meaningful life, you need to cherish others, pay attention to human values, and try to cultivate inner peace.”  (Dalai Lama)

Other voices sound ambivalent:

“I don’t know the meaning of life. I don’t know why we are here. I think life is full of anxieties and fears and tears. It has a lot of grief in it, and it can be very grim. And I do not want to be the one who tries to tell somebody else what life is all about. To me it’s a complete mystery.”  (Charles M. Schulz, cartoonist and creator of Peanuts)

“We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”  (Novelist Kurt Vonnegut, when asked by his son, “What are people for?”)

“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.” (Joseph Campbell, author and mythologist)

Some observers are whimsical: 

“The Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything is…42!” (Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

“Energy is what I believe all of us are. We’re just conscious awareness dancing for itself for no other reason but to stay amused.” (Jim Carrey, comedian and actor)

Those who embrace a materialist worldview – the conviction that the only realities are what biologists can see under a microscope and physicists can study in a particle accelerator – aren’t shy about asserting that human life is meaningless:

“Life has to be given a meaning because of the obvious fact that it has no meaning.” (Henry Miller, novelist)

“The literal meaning of life is whatever you’re doing that prevents you from killing yourself.” (Albert Camus, existentialist philosopher)

“As far as we can tell from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning. Humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose. Our actions are not part of some divine cosmic plan, and if planet earth were to blow up tomorrow morning, the universe would probably keep going about its business as usual… Hence any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion.” (Yuval Noah Harari, scientist and philosopher)

Then there are the perspectives that are just plain dark:

“Human beings are so destructive. I sometimes think we’re a kind of plague, that will scrub the earth clean. We destroy things so well that I sometimes think, maybe that’s our function. Maybe every few eons, some animal comes along that kills off the rest of the world, clears the decks, and lets evolution proceed to its next phase.”  (Novelist Michael Crichton, as expressed by one of the characters in his book TheLost World)

So many voices, so many choices. 

What we know for sure is that we all have to make a decision.  Which of these voices – or which of the myriad other opinions expressed through the centuries – is spot on?  Even if we say, “I don’t know,” or “I believe there is no meaning,” we’re making a choice.  We’re choosing to trust our own perceptions.

If we’re all like ships that have gone to sea for no discernible reason – if there’s no port we have to reach, and no time schedule we need to honor – then we will probably end up inventing our own purposes.  We will either assign meaning to whatever gets us through the next 24 hours, or numb ourselves in the face of meaninglessness with work, sex, substances, or trivial pursuits.

Or we can ponder another possibility.

Instead of merely listening in on the never-ending debate concerning the meaning of life, or fashioning a custom-made meaning for ourselves, we can assess the claim that Someone has actually declared the answer to life’s greatest question.  Jesus said, “And this is the real and eternal life: that they know you, the one and only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent.” (John 17:3)    

The Westminster Shorter Catechism, which was written in the 1640s as a kind of crash course in Christianity, is composed of 107 questions and answers.  The most famous question, the first one, has been recited from memory by generations of children (with the understanding that “man” stands for “humanity”): 

“Q: What is the chief end of man?   A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

These days, such words might sound a bit stilted. 

But if you’re in the middle of a storm-tossed sea, and you’re straining to hear someone – anyone – who can make sense of it all, it’s hard to improve on a voice that’s been found trustworthy for a very long time.

The voice of Jesus.