I’ve had several conversations around religion and a sense of “purpose.” I talked about this last week, but it was mostly in terms of the obligations that come with Christian affiliation; namely, the obligation to evangelize. Affiliation with an all-encompassing institution, as most religions are, provides a complete system, within which one is given explicit or implicit purpose for living. But what does purpose mean in this context? And, perhaps more importantly, do we really “need” purpose anyway?
What do people mean when they talk about purpose? In terms of religion giving purpose to the individual, purpose entails a task or set of duties, usually ones protracted over the person’s lifetime. These could include evangelization, sanctification (becoming more godlike), striving to eliminate self, charity, and many others. But when we say we need purpose, we don’t really mean we need something to do to keep us occupied for a lifetime. What we are usually talking about is not the purpose itself, but the feeling that comes from it, the “sense” of purpose that comes with certainty.
Not having a sense of purpose might be like playing a game of basketball without knowing the rules. You are told to put the basket through the hoop, but aren’t given any parameters for doing so. That might be fine, but you keep getting the whistle blown on you and the ball taken away without knowing why. Over time you figure out some of the basic mistakes and avoid them, but you always question whether you’re doing it right, and if something doesn’t work, you wonder if it’s your fault or someone else’s, or both. If you expand this to the game of life, it gets much more complicated. You usually aren’t sure if you made a mistake, or if someone else is breaking the rules. Unless you can put together a system that a group can agree on. You impose your own rules to define the game.
So what does this give you? Satisfaction, or happiness, at least in theory. The conflict comes when it doesn’t. Let’s say you have a group of people who decide on a set of rules to interact with each other, and it works very well, and as a result the people in the group are happy. Then a few years or decades past and outsiders join the group and younger generations are added to the mix. Some of these are not happy with the group’s interaction, or the way the game is set up, or they’re just not satisfied in general. Since the system worked in the past, however, fault is laid not on the rules themselves, or even usually on the game, but on those who are unsatisfied with it for somehow doing it wrong. “You have no reason to be unhappy,” these people are told. “You must not be doing it correctly.” Some will accept this blame, taking it on themselves and trying to follow the rules; others will blame the rules and set up a group of their own or switch groups. The cycle, over time, repeats itself.
There’s a gray area between the benefits of the system and a sense of purpose or meaning they purport to provide. They work very well…until they don’t. I think that many, or maybe most, people are unsatisfied with the systems they participate in, be they spiritual, political, or social, but they (mostly) keep quiet. However, there are also many that are, for all intents and purposes, happy with their institutional relationships. So how does one go from being satisfied to unsatisfied, or vice versa? We like to express it in terms of truth: “That turned out not to be true,” etc. But in this case truth is measured only by alliance to your current values looming large in your mind, and not any set standard.
Those who have excelled, those who seem to have had great purpose, have clashed, rather than harmonized, with institutional norms. These are the ones we celebrate. Be they thinkers, artists, scientists, politicians, they stand out for their distinction from the norm, not their adherence to it. Interestingly enough, if and when we try to standardize their successes, they fail to live up to the original. We rightly blame ourselves and not the original for the failure, but is our failure because of insufficient adherence to the system, or is it that we sought greatness in imitation or reproduction? In other words, was their purpose a formula we can plug in and get the same result?
I am not saying that the correct answer is endless rebellion against systems for its own sake; we all imitate before we can create, and our creations are always in some way reliant on what has come before. However, if we seek purpose in molding ourselves completely to the institution, we gain a “sense” of purpose only by deadening our senses until they are imperceptible.
This all leads up to the question that goes something like this: “Without God, what’s the point?” The amplified version is as follows: “God is the reason I have meaning, purpose, and happiness in my life. If you don’t believe in God, how can your life be meaningful?” This can be a sincere question, but it can also be a defense mechanism. I wonder what I would have said if someone had asked me the opposite version when I was a Christian:
“You believe in God? You’re a Christian? Then what’s the point of living? All you do is follow other peoples’ rules so that you can die and live forever sitting on a cloud listening to angels play harps and stuff?”
“Uh, it’s not about harps. It’s gonna be awesome. We’ll be hanging out with Jesus all the time.”
“All the time? Won’t that get kind of boring?
“No. Besides, we’re also going to be walking on streets of gold and living in our own mansions.”
“Okay. But if that’s what its all about, why aren’t you enjoying yourself right now? What’s the point if you have to give up your life to get it?”
“I am enjoying myself. I just don’t like things that don’t last. I want things that last forever, things you can’t get here on earth.”
“So you don’t want money, or a good job, or happiness, or love, or a fun time, or any of that?
“Oh no, I want that stuff too, I just know that it’s not important compared to the real stuff I get later.”
“Well, good luck with that…I’ll enjoy myself now. See ya!”
“That guy doesn’t get it. Hopefully he gets his priorities in line, or else…”
Maybe it wouldn’t have gone quite like that, but the point is that the logic of systems is coherent from the inside, not necessarily the outside. Members of religious traditions often can’t understand how people could live any other way and so construct scenarios in which people aren’t really living with purpose.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in your sense of purpose and want to share it with other people, especially if you enjoy it or think it will help someone. But when your motivation is dependent on someone else’s belief in it, it becomes problematic because you will go to great lengths to convince or demonize those who don’t agree. If the Christian system is true, it is true regardless of the number of adherents it has, right? The fact that it has a great number of adherents, and that those adherents tend to group together, is beneficial, but can also produce a collective refusal to acknowledge the innumerable ways of living beyond their worldview.
There is also the possibility that we don’t “need” any purpose at all…I’ll get back to that.