What’s The Point?: Part Two

I wanted to get back to the question I asked a couple days ago. Do we even need “purpose” anyway? The whole notion is awkward to me. As is often the case when people ask questions that force you to interpret your experience in their framework, it feels like trying on clothes that don’t quite fit, no matter how you put them on. The question of purpose doesn’t “fit” me any longer, although it was imperative for much of my life. Knowing my purpose meant knowing everyone’s purpose: to serve God. Everything else was just details. This is a handy evangelization tool because you already know the point of everyone else’s life too; you don’t even need to know their circumstances.

The question of purpose is often connected to the notion of servitude. The unspoken dichotomy for many within the monotheistic traditions, particularly Christianity, is that you are either living for God, or living for yourself. One commenter on this blog referenced a Bob Dylan quote that epitomizes this idea perfectly. It runs: “You’re gonna have to serve somebody / It may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Sadly, for much of Christianity, the devil and the self are essentially the same thing, so if you are serving yourself, you are serving the devil. This goes some way to explain why “sins” involving bodily ingestion or sexual practices are so stigmatized and why the Christians I grew up around were often so obsequious when it came to a sense of self. Down with self means down with the devil. If you give someone a compliment, like a star at an award acceptance speech, she looks up to the ceiling, points a finger and says, “It’s not about me.” Hmmm…

A decade or so ago my church read through the Purpose-Driven Life by rockstar Christian pastor and author Rick Warren. The book is a forty-day devotional reading plan packed with Scripture verses and uplifting quotes designed to help you find your life’s purpose. There is much that could be discussed in the text, but the gist is simple. To the first question he rhetorically poses, “What am I here for?”, he responds that it’s not about you in the first place. Don’t be so selfish! Warren notes Bertrand Russell’s quote, which suggests the question of life’s purpose is meaningless without presuming the existence of God, as proof that God gives life meaning. Therefore, the reason for everything, as he titles the seventh chapter, is God. Everything is by God and for God. Simple, right?

I titled these posts “What’s the Point?” because “What’s my Purpose?” doesn’t mean much to me now. That in and of itself is surprising to me, and to many others who believe that their purpose defines each and every thing that they do. Tell most religious folks that you don’t need a purpose, and you are likely to get an incredulous look. It’s not comprehensible as a Christian that you can live without one focused and primary goal. You think life would immediately cease to have meaning. Of course, “what’s the point?” is an oversimplification as well. We seem to want principles or ideas that are as singular and simple as we can make them, but life rarely if ever complies.

My argument is that this singularity of purpose that looks so organized from the outside can serve as a façade for inauthentic living, living that is dominated by conforming to social (or spiritual) norms in order to look the part. Lemme finish. If we take the example of life’s purpose as commitment to God, that purpose must be reinforced among a group of people united around it. This group of people creates a set of practices or routines that are signifiers of that purpose. This is necessary, of course, because dedication to God as a purpose is singular but not specific enough to show how to live. Given that purpose, one can refer to texts and traditions, but the most immediate source of its enactment is the practices of others who share it. As I’ve mentioned, this is why community is important, to reinforce the importance of this purpose. So there are a set of arbitrary practices that gain meaning inside a particular context and give the sense of purpose fulfillment. Participation in the Eucharist, singing songs, and standing and kneeling together are all rituals that express to the participants that “we are living according to our purpose.”

For many Christians, however, the enactment of purpose does not extend beyond the gathering of the community. It is as if putting on an elaborate play in which everyone is cast, but also in which the goal is for the participants to fool themselves into thinking that they are the role that they play. There is a positive element here. If I want to be a good basketball player, for example, there is practice and repetition involved, and there is also an element of seeing myself as a good player, or as being able to become one. However, this scenario is operative within a limited context. A life purpose, if it is to be authentic, should extend to all areas of life.

Particularly in the American Church, however, one’s purpose is much like the purpose of everyone else: raising kids, making money, looking good in front of your friends, and so on. There is nothing wrong with engaging in these activities, but if you engage in them by telling yourself it is not your “true” purpose, you do so hypocritically. If I do the things I do because “that’s how it is,” and on top of that tell myself that my “real” purpose is serving God rather than myself, I engage in an elaborate self-deception about who I really am and what I really do. The man who goes and gets drunk on Friday night intentionally because he wants to forget himself after a hard week is more authentic than the man who does the same while denying that he is a “drunk.” The former owns his actions and their identity-forming capacity while the latter separates his behavior from an ideal, nonexistent self.

It might be possible to fully live out the purpose of “living for God” if one did so in a comprehensive way. The consequences of such a commitment, however, are greater than most want to deal with. Because this is the case for me as well, I’ve found it easier to admit that my purpose is not living for God, nor is it a singular purpose at all. It is rather purposes, goals that are dynamic and shift as I change. And although the number of choices can be overwhelming, I can fully embody my choices instead of dissociating them from my identity.

2 thoughts on “What’s The Point?: Part Two

  1. Very Ayn Rand, but let me add something: really “seeing” yourself is impossible. How can you see yourself fully when you are on the inside? You must imagine your outer self and thus you see through a prism. Can others truly see you? No, they can see your actions but cannot see your thoughts. You see a part of your self, others see a part of you, but nobody sees fully. So, if you are to be honest with yourself, which part must you be honest with? Your internal self? The way in which you imagine others seeing you? The actual way others see you?

    I’ve often read about living an “authentic life” which I think is to secular philosophy as living with a purpose is to Christianity. If you were to classify my philosophy, I would fall strongly into the category of absurdism (Marti has a photo of me reading Kierkegaard while nursing Maya). I remember a professor summing up absurdism and Camus: “Absurdism is the idea that any philosophy, meaning or purpose that keeps you from killing yourself is the right one.” I still love that quote and that idea, and found it freeing – after all, it allows me to retain those gems of wisdom from Christianity and the other cultural traditions I grew up with, while still seeking meaning and purpose elsewhere and adding them to the reservoir of things that make my life beautiful and worth living.

    Ironically, the professor who taught that course was a Catholic priest. Or maybe not so ironic, as we all have to find our reasons to go on. He was partially disabled, with a leg twisted from polio as a child, so who am I to assume that Catholicism would have given him the meaning he sought?

    • Missy,

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t think that I necessarily have the controlling view over myself or the ability to nail down my self-vision. In terms of being honest with myself, it intend a willing commitment to where I am at the moment with the full knowledge that it will change over time. I think of Walt Whitman’s well-known quote about self-contradiction; if you contain “multitudes,” your vision will change. So authenticity is a balance between accurate momentary self-assessment and the courage to commit with less-than-perfect knowledge.

      I share your sympathies that the legitimacy of any system is in a sense self-validating. If it works for people, who are we to criticize it? Yet I cannot just rest there. If people are committed to a particular view, I also want to make them aware of its potential consequences and show that, as a member of the institution, they bear some responsibility for the assessing the actions of its members as well as the ideologies it espouses. My critique, then, does not have a goal of “illegitimizing” a system, but exposing its self-deceptions. If after that they wish to continue in their position, I can say little else.

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