At the heart of the courses I teach at Wycliffe College is the question of how to communicate Christian faith to people who are exploring their spirituality but know very little about Christianity. Of course, there’s a limit to how much you can learn about this in the classroom, so from time to time, I send my students out onto the campus to talk to “normal” people. One question that’s been especially fruitful has been to ask people: “If you could ask God one question, what would it be?” At the University of Toronto, the number one question was: What’s it all about? Why am I here? Is there any point to life? In other words: What is the meaning of life?
I guess if you asked people in their 30s or 40s, this would likely not be the main question. By that time, people are caught up in jobs and mortgages and even thinking about finding a partner and settling down, and they’ve stopped thinking about the meaning of life. Which seems to me a pity because the question is always an important one. And it’s not that they solved it, or came up with a working solution to it—it’s just that life squeezed it out of their heads.
But while you are a student is actually the perfect time to try and figure out what you believe about this—partly because of the stage of life you are at, but also because you’re in an environment that actually encourages you to think about these things—which is not true for most.
Let me tell you what I’m going to do and what I’d not going to do. My main interest, as you might guess, is in Jesus’ view of the meaning of life, so I’ll say most about that. I do this partly because I suspect for many people who are trying to figure this out, they don’t even put Christianity on their list of options. They tend to think of it as a religion, and a discredited one at that. Which is unfortunate—but then (I confess) I could be a little biased.
What I’m not going to do—and I’m not qualified to do—is a full comparison of what different religions and philosophies have said about the meaning of life. But there are lots of resources out there for doing that, and I hope you’ll pursue them. (One of the best is James Sire’s classic, The Universe Next Door.)
The five examples I’ve chosen to think about the meaning of Life are not philosophers in the strict sense. But I would say in another sense, everybody who has ever thought about ultimate questions of life and death is a philosopher. And strange as it may seem, Monty Python, Douglas Adams, Samuel Beckett, the X-Box, and Jesus have all done that. And—guess what?—studying their works can actually be more enjoyable than reading the professional philosophers—though that’s good to do too.
So let’s begin.
Most philosophies and religions actually answer (or at least try to answer) five fundamental questions:
Where are we?
What kind of universe is this? Friendly or impersonal? Meaningful or a sick joke?
Who are we?
Are we “higher” animals? Fallen angels? Soft machines? Gods in disguise?
What is the problem?
A failure in evolution? Inadequate education? The violence of men? Religion?
What is the solution?
A drug to correct evolution? Universal education? Matriarchy? A secular state?
Where are we going?
Annihilation and extinction? Life after death? Reincarnation? Utopia on earth?
I’ll refer to these five from time to time as we go through.
1. Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life
In spite of the title, if you watch the movie hoping it will help, you’ll be disappointed.
What it does is help formulate the question, show why it’s difficult. I think the most helpful part in some ways is the Eric Idle song at the beginning. The words are a clue to the movie.
The Meaning of Life by Eric Idle
Why are we here? What’s life all about?
Is God really real, or is there some doubt?
Well, tonight, we’re going to sort it all out,
For, tonight, it’s ‘The Meaning of Life’.
What’s the point of all this hoax?
Is it the chicken and the egg time? Are we just yolks?
Or, perhaps we’re just one of God’s little jokes.
Well, ça c’est ‘The Meaning of Life’.
Is life just a game where we make up the rules
While we’re searching for something to say,
Or are we just simply spiralling coils
Of self-replicating DN– nay, nay, nay, nay, nay, nay, nay.
What is life? What is our fate?
Is there a Heaven and Hell? Do we reincarnate?
Is mankind evolving, or is it too late?
Well, tonight, here’s ‘The Meaning of Life’.
For millions, this ‘life’ is a sad vale of tears,
Sitting ’round with rien nothing to say
While the scientists say we’re just simply spiralling coils
Of self-replicating DN– nay, nay, nay, nay, nay, nay, nay.
So, just why– why are we here,
And just what– what– what– what do we fear?
Well, ce soir, for a change, it will all be made clear,
For this is ‘The Meaning of Life’. C’est le sens de la vie.
This is ‘The Meaning of Life’.
Now, even though it’s light-hearted, actually underneath, Eric Idle is addressing the five questions.
• Where are we? The big divide when you think about this question is: was the world made by God or not? Because if there is a God, it makes a huge difference. Hence the song rightly asks: “Is God really real?”
• Who are we? There are two options in the song: on the one hand, are we “Simply spiralling coils Of self-replicating DNA?” Or, on the other hand, “Are we just one of God’s little jokes”? Is God a cosmic sadist who made us just to torture us? Neither is very encouraging: neither helps us feel we have dignity or importance. Maybe we don’t.
• What is the problem? Many people find this one is confusing because there are so many answers to choose from. The song points out that for many, “this life is a sad vale of tears.” So suffering is part of the problem. But it also asks: “Is life just a game where we make up the rules / While we’re searching for something to say?” Part of the problem is that we don’t know the rules for living a human life (we have to make them up), and we’re searching for something to say because we don’t know what is right and true and reliable.
• What is the answer? The song doesn’t offer any answer because there is no clear question. Hence the irony of the whole song: “This is ‘The Meaning of Life’.”
• The song does make an attempt at the fifth question: Where are we going? Again, it gives us a scientific option and a religious option: “Is there a Heaven and Hell? Do we reincarnate? Is mankind evolving, or is it too late?” Can we affect our evolution so that we can just perpetuate the race indefinitely?
So Monty Python makes us aware of the problem, but really not much more. I suppose if we can laugh about the fact that we don’t know what life is all about, maybe we can feel better about not knowing . . . at least till the movie is over.
2. Douglas Adams
For those who don’t know, Douglas Adams is the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a trilogy in five parts, about the adventures of Arthur Dent, a hapless Englishman who has all sorts of adventures in space that he didn’t want.
Like Monty Python, The Hitchhiker’s Guide is light and funny, but at the same time raises some serious questions about Life, the Universe and Everything. In the end, Adams’ conclusion is the same as that of Monty Python: we can’t know. But he deals with it more directly. Maybe the most famous sequence is the one where people actually try to discover the meaning of life, with the help of a super-computer, Deep Thought, who informs them (after seven and a half million years consideration) that the meaning is “42.”
The computer they build is called by the strange name of “earth.” If you wonder why the world is here, there’s your answer. Unfortunately, after a further ten million years, earth was destroyed by a construction crew of Vogons, who are building a hyperspace bypass, just five minutes before earth came up with the question. Later on, we discover that the Vogons were hired by philosophers and psychologists who were afraid that if the question to which the answer was 42 was really discovered, they would all be out of a job.
So like Monty Python, Adams makes fun of our desire to know what life is all about. But along the way he also knocks some of the most common answers people give: some people think religion holds the meaning life, others think its technology that is the key; and old-fashioned romantics will always believe love is the answer. Adams debunks all of them.
• Religion is not the answer for the simple reason that there is no god. There is a man who rules the universe, but he’s senile, lives in a leaky hut, and has a cat he calls “the Lord”; there’s a prophet Zarquon, whose followers always believed he would return at the end of time and give meaning to life. To the amazement of the skeptics, Zarquon does indeed return at the end of time, but he is a doddery old man who has no idea what is going on, so this really doesn’t help.
• Technology isn’t the answer: by the time of The Hitchhikers’ Guide there have been lots of technological advances, but many of the things that go wrong in the galaxy do so because of technology: even though it’s so advanced, it still goes wrong and creates as many problems as it solves
• Love is not the answer: In The Hitchhiker’s Guide, love can be wonderful, of course, but it comes rarely and briefly. In fact, Arthur doesn’t find true love until the fourth book of the “trilogy”, when he falls in love with a woman with the unlikely name of Fenchurch (the name of a train station in London, England). Before long, however, he is separated from her (through a random technological accident, naturally) and never finds her again.
(The movie softens this: at the end, Arthur decides the real question is, “Is she the one?”—a truly romantic and Hollywood-ish kind of ultimate question—and he decides that Trisha McMillan is indeed the one. But it’s a lot less interesting than the book, and an answer I suspect Adams would disapprove of.)
As you might expect, the trilogy has no happy ending: Arthur dies. For some readers, this undoubtedly confirms the suspicions they already had about the nature of the universe: it’s a nasty, cruel place where comfort doesn’t last and there are no ultimate answers. Like Monty Python, in spite of the wonderful humour, the big story underlying The Hitchhiker’s Guide is actually a deeply pessimistic, even nihilistic, one.
3. Samuel Beckett
Some people might be offended to see the name of Samuel Beckett in the same line-up with these other names. He has been said by many people to have been the greatest playwright of the twentieth century, and perhaps that’s right. He is most famous for the play Waiting for Godot, which is still performed quite often.
But to me his philosophy of the meaning of life is summed up most succinctly and poignantly in a very short play called Breath. It only lasts 30 seconds, and it has no visible actors or spoken lines. As the curtain goes up, the stage is in semi-darkness, and a large pile of garbage dominates the centre of the stage. The cry of a new-born baby is heard. Then there is the sound of a long breath being drawn in, and, as that is heard, the lights slowly go up on the garbage. Just as slowly, the breath is then exhaled, and the lights slowly go down, we hear another cry of a newborn. Curtain. End of play. Thunderous applause.
So what is all that about? Would you applaud if you saw that on the stage? It seems to me it would be more appropriate to weep. If you could answer the questions from the play, the answers would be something like this:
• Where are we? The world is garbage
• Who are we? We are born, we live, we die, our lives have no meaning
• What is the problem? We don’t know who we are or why we are here
• What is the solution? There is no solution: life is an unending cycle of futility
• Where are we doing? To death, to darkness and to silence.
Now that is a very clear-cut world-view. If it has a name, the name is nihilism, from the Latin word nihil, meaning nothing. You can see why. The New York Times’ obituary for Beckett in 1989 quote a conversation he had with a friend on a beautiful spring day. They were walking across a park in London, England, and the friend said, “Isn’t this just the sort of day that makes you glad to be alive.” To which Beckett responded, “I’m not sure I would go as far as that.”
It’s difficult to live consistently as a nihilist, particularly when there is beauty in the world—and if there’s one thing you want in a philosophy of life, it’s the ability to live with it. Maybe this is why Douglas Adams, who’s also a nihilist, is so funny (if funny nihilist isn’t an oxymoron). Maybe it is the only way of coping with such an overwhelming reality.
I suspect there are many people who give up on the meaning of life because it seems so elusive and the options seem so challenging. And of course because there’s so much to enjoy in life, as long as it lasts and even if we don’t know what it’s all about. There is an X-Box commercial which sums up this point-of-view quite brilliantly. It was banned in the UK as too offensive. (Actually if you Google X-box commercial, you’ll find a number of them.) I think it’s very clever, though not exactly subtle.
4. The X-Box
The video opens with a woman in the last stages of labour. As she gives birth, the baby (a boy) leaves her body at high speed, breaks through the window in the delivery room, and shoots off into the sky. The camera follows the baby’s arc, and, as he flies so he ages—from small boy to adolescent to young man to middle aged man, and then (as he begins to approaches earth again) an old man. Finally, he crashes into an open grave, just waiting for his arrival. Then the caption appears: “Life is short. Play more. X-Box.”
Like Beckett, the commercial says life is short: you’re born, you live, you travel fast through space and time, and then you die. Like Monty Python and Douglas Adams, it makes it funny. But the conclusion is quite different from Beckett’s: he says life is meaningless, so how can you enjoy even the beauty of nature? The commercial says, life is meaningless, so play more. That’s hedonism.
Is hedonism more logical than nihilism? Obviously one is more fun, but I’m not sure there’s logic in it. Bear in mind too that those who made the commercial don’t really care whether you have more fun in your short life. They may not even be nihilists themselves. The only thing we can be sure of in their philosophy of life can be summarized in the words: “Please buy our product and make us rich”—which is related, I suppose, but not exactly the same.
So where do we go from here?
Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says this:
I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question, “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?” (After Virtue 216)
If we want to know the point of life, we have to know the story of life. Monty Python and Adams say: We can’t know the story, and all our efforts to find it out are ridiculous. Samuel Beckett says: The story is that there is no story. (Although to me there is an irony in the fact that in order to convince us of this, what does he do? He tells a story.) And the X-Box commercial says: The story is that life is short and meaningless, therefore we should have a good time.
This is hardly a survey of all the options! It’s just to whet your appetite. If it inspires you to begin searching for the meaning of life in more serious place, I’ll be happy.
I want to end by looking at Jesus, and by asking: What is the story that Jesus teaches? The basic answer is that Jesus buys in to the story of the Bible, and adds some very significant pieces to it.
The Bible consists of 66 books, written by different authors over a period of centuries Yet there is an overarching story that unites the books, in spite of their diversity. The story goes something like this:
In Act 1, God creates an incredibly beautiful world. It’s intricate and diverse and colourful. It’s full of vitality and it’s full of love. It’s a great place to be. And at the heart of it are human beings, male and female, made to reflect like a mirror image the character of the Artist who made them, with love and creativity. They live in a dance of perfect harmony with the Creator and with one another, and with their environment.
In Act 2, however, things go horribly wrong. Human beings try to play God. They behave as though they’re the centre of the universe. They treat the world as though they were the landlord, whereas of course they’re only the tenants. They step out of the dance and get out of step with one another and with the environment—and, most importantly, they get out of step with God. Instead of love being the thing that binds the world together, now the loudest voices now are those of self-centredness and anger.
At this point, a lot of artists would simply give up on their work of art and start over. Bill Mason was a film-maker with the National Film Board of Canada. In his last film, Waterwalker, we see him painting a picture of a Cascade Falls up on Lake Superior. When the painting is finished, Bill stands back to admire his handiwork. To his artist’s eye, however, the painting is less than perfect, and, to the horror of everyone watching the movie, he takes it off the easel, crumples it up and throws it into the campfire. Many artists are like that, easily dissatisfied with their work.
God, however, is a different kind of Artist, and, fortunately for us, more patient than Bill Mason! God decides, instead of trashing this world, to restore his work of art to its original glory and—what’s even better—God invites human beings to co-operate with him and become his apprentices in the project.
God starts with one couple, Abraham and Sarah, and tells them “Through your descendants I’m going to create a great nation and their job will be to bring my healing to the whole world.” The story of this nation—the Jews—is told in the book often called The Old Testament. This is Act 3.
In Act 4, God’s restoration project reaches a crucial stage. God writes a part for himself in the drama of human life, and he’s called by the name Jesus. (I said Jesus adds something unique to the Bible’s story.) It’s as if Shakespeare should write himself into the script of Hamlet to be one of the characters in his own creation. That way we can see what God is like in a way we can relate to, and we can learn what God’s dreams are for us and for the world.
And there is Act 6: the Bible doesn’t tell us a whole lot, but it does give tantalizing glimpses of the end of the story, when Jesus will return, the earth will be restored to its original beauty and then some, and God will set everything to rights. Tolkien made up a new word to describe this. (This was his philosophy too.) Since it was the opposite of a catastrophe–not so much turning the world upside down as turning it right way up–he called it a “eucatastrophe”—a good catastrophe. This is the final act—although, as C.S.Lewis says at the end of the Narnia series, this is “only the beginning of the real story . . . the beginning of Chapter One of the Great Story which no-one on earth has read.” But we’re jumping ahead.
What is the meaning of life? According to Christian spirituality, each of us is called to play our part in this story.
I deliberately missed out Act 5, and the reason is a simple one: Act 5 has not been written. It is being written, in our time, by every choice we make, every action we make, every word we speak. How come?
One writer, Tom Wright, explains it like this: suppose a previously unknown play of Shakespeare’s was discovered, but with one act missing. What could you do? He suggests that what you could do is get together the world’s most experienced Shakespearian actors, get them Shakespeare’s text until it is second nature to them—and then set them loose to act out the play—and when they came to Act 5 they would improvise! If they are going to do that well, they would have to be true to Acts 1 through 4, and it would have to connect with the start of Act 6.
Now, says Wright, that is where we are in relation to God’s story as Christians understand it. God has given us a framework for our lives in Acts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6. All the clues for how to act out Act 5 are right there. And God says to us, Do you want a part in my story? I would love for you to be a part of it.
This blending of stories is illustrated very powerfully in the movie, The Neverending Story:
The boy hero Bastian has been reading a book called The Neverending Story in the deserted attic of his school. As he reads, however, little by little he finds himself drawn into the story. When the hero, Atreyu, stops to eat, Bastian pulls out his lunch and eats too. When Atreyu meets a monster, Bastian screams, and then reads in the book, “Atreyu looked around to see where the scream had come from, but no-one was in sight.” At the end of the story, the Childlike Princess explains to Atreyu that her kingdom of Fantasia can only be saved by a human child from another world–and Bastian realises that she is talking about him. When he gives her a new name, he finds himself transported to the world of the book and Fantasia is saved.
As people begin to discover the Christian story, often they have the same experience. Little by little, they have the sense that this story is “about” them, that they have a part to play in it—indeed, that God is inviting them to play a part in it—and that they are being summoned from another world beyond the visible one.
Let’s go back to the question: what is the point of life?
Christians can answer it this way: “The point of life is to play your part in the Great Story God is writing about the world.”
How do you do that? By offering all that you are and all that you have to God, and saying: God, help me this day, wherever I may be, to live as your person in your world in your way. It’s as simple and as challenging as that.
Where does Jesus come into this? He once said this:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am humble and gentle in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
In the middle of that saying, he says, “learn from me.” Jesus is many things, but one of them is that he is a teacher. He is gentle and humble teacher: not pushy, not sarcastic, not asking the impossible, not impatient with our failures.
Who does he teach? Those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens. Maybe weary from trying to figure out the meaning of life! Or weary of trying to live by a philosophy that is really not giving you life. One translation says, “those who are burned out on religion.” He offers to teach them too.
And what does he teach? He doesn’t teach the meaning of life as an academic subject: but he does teach what it means to live as God’s person in God’s world in God’s way. He teaches you who God created you to be: he teaches you how to become that person. He chips away at the things in your life and your character that prevent you becoming yourself, he nurtures those things which can help you play your part in God’s world.
So in that saying, he begins by saying, Come! And he really meant it. In my imagination, when had finished speaking that day, and people were looking at their watches and rounding up their children and thinking about supper, there were some who didn’t leave. They went against the crowd, and came up to Jesus, perhaps rather sheepishly, and said, You know what you were saying, about being your student and learning from you? I’d really like to do that. Could I hang out with you some?
And whoever that person was, and wherever they’d been and whatever they’d done, I imagine him smiling and saying, “Of course. You’re very welcome. Come and meet the others.”
And Jesus hasn’t changed. And his invitation to come and learn from him still stands. He just waits to see if we will say yes.
Have we got away from thinking about the meaning of life? Not really. That’s precisely what this is about. In Christian philosophy, you learn about the meaning of life by following Jesus. And that’s what I invite you to do.
Smith College MA
- He later wrote of this scene, “About the halfway mark between Marathon and Wawa you round a point and are confronted with one of the most beautiful sights to be found along the rugged north shore of Superior. Here Cascade Falls drops straight into Superior in twin plumes.” Bill Mason, Canoescapes (Toronto: Stoddart, 1995), 122.
- Genesis chapter 12 verses 1-3
- J.R.R.Tolkien “On Fairy Stories” in Tree and Leaf (London: Unwin Books, 1964), 60.
- C.S.Lewis, The Last Battle.
- He suggests that it is Act 5, the final act. I prefer the modification proposed by Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh in Truth is Stranger than it Used to Be, that the missing act should be act 5 of a six act play. (Shakespeare did not actually write any six -act plays, but, apart from that, their proposal is helpful.)
- N.T.Wright The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 140-141.
- Michael Ende The Neverending Story (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1983).