God and the meaning of life, part 1 of 2 parts.
This is the first of a two-part post. This first part criticizes a book by Tom May, A Significant Life. Much of the book concerns why God can’t be part of the answer. The second part is a list of things that contribute to a meaningful life. It follows this part.
Todd May can’t imagine that God can be part of the answer to a meaningful life because God only provides objective meaning, which doesn’t exist. His is a common error about God and the meaning of life, but it takes a philosopher to really make it confusing. May is a philosopher.
May’s idea is that an objective answer to the meaning of life can only come from the outside, given to humans by God. A subjective answer, on the other hand, is one which humans come up with themselves. The distinction doesn’t work. In fact, the whole distinction between objective and subjective meaning doesn’t work.
Aristotle and God
Aristotle held that eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία), often translated as happiness, but better translated as human flourishing, is the telos or goal of a good human life. To flourish you must have virtues such as being a good friend, practicing generosity, possessing courage, and so forth (N. Ethics, book 2). To do this you need a group of people like yourself with whom to practice these virtues. You can’t be friendly without friends, or generous without money or time. Aristotle figured all this out by looking at his wealthy, aristocratic friends and observing who seemed to be flourishing and the way they lived. But May isn’t wrong to say that Aristotle believed the good human life was embedded in nature, or what May calls the cosmos (p 77). It is an objective, given fact, not just a choice.
One reason I mention Aristotle is to be clear how unchristian Aristotle’s virtues are. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, but an observation. Faith, hope, and self-giving love, central to Christianity, play no role in Aristotle’s list of virtues. What Aristotle shares with Christianity, says May, is the belief that the virtues are written in the cosmos, or in Aristotle’s case in nature.
For Christians, says May, God is the cosmos. He tells us what a good life is, and if we follow him our lives will have meaning. For a thoughtful man, May has a remarkably stunted view of religion, including the meaning of objectivity. Recall that for even such a religious man as Søren Kierkegaard, religion is a subjective truth: true because we have decided to believe in God, because we have made the “leap to faith.”
God doesn’t give meaning; he allows humans to find it
God doesn’t give or grant meaning. He allows humans to find it. Through Jesus Christ, God gives humans instructions on how to live the most meaningful life, one filled with the presence of God. May recognizes that humans need instruction in how to live a meaningful life. May just can’t find a place for God in it.
And isn’t that really what the longing for meaning desires? Not a ready-made justification for who one happens to be at the moment, but a guide for becoming someone whose life embodies or expresses a larger significance. (p 57)
God doesn’t give us a meaningful life; he provides guidelines by which to practice it. These guidelines are in accord with human nature, but do not always fit easily with it. Greed, envy, and spite are also in accord with human nature, and living a meaningful live means overcoming these tendencies. Christ shows us the way, but it is up to us to choose to follow, and to continue to follow even when tempted by other goods.
These considerations may seem obvious, but they play little role in May’s account. May’s is a bumper sticker view of religion: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” In fact, belief isn’t as important as it is sometimes made out to be, even by Christians. Practice is more important. It is good to believe in God. It is better and more important to act as a good Christian, in order to make this belief a reality. Christianity (all religion really) is a practice even more than it is a belief system. We make Christianity true by living as Jesus would have us live. God may be master of the cosmos, but it is humans who make Christianity real. We are the hands and feet of God.
Grounding and guarantees
May, like many philosophers, thinks that the issue is whether a statement about the meaning of life can be grounded or guaranteed. God provides these grounds, but since God cannot be proven to exist, these grounds are worthless. Therefore, a meaningful life cannot be based on God. I think the situation is analogous to the question “Which is more important, to know that you will be saved, or to live a life worthy of salvation?” Which is more important, to live a meaningful life, or to know what a meaningful life is? Living well almost always beats knowing.
We cannot know that God exists, though we can have faith that he does. In a related fashion, we cannot know that a meaningful life exists, but we can try to follow what the wise and inspired have said about a meaningful life and practice it. The proof is in the practice. We aren’t given a meaningful life; we create it. Not all on our own, but with the help of others, from friends to family to community to the great religious and philosophical thinkers and traditions.
Some of these people and traditions will disagree with each other, though less about the big things than many people suppose. We must make choices. This is true even if we are born into a tradition. For some it is the wrong tradition and they stick with it anyway; others have the courage to break away. And who decides whether it is the right or wrong tradition? We do. No one else can do it for us, certainly not God. God may have chosen us first, but we still have to choose God.
Involvement and practices
A meaningful life is an involved life. I cannot be a spectator; I can’t just go through the motions and the rituals (a particular danger for a religious life). Religion can be thought of as a practice. We practice religion in a way loosely analogous to the way a dedicated doctor practices medicine. It becomes a way of life. About this May is correct.
For a human life to be meaningful, it must be one in which I am not a spectator but a real participant, and a participant in something that matters to me. That something can be any number of engagements: relationships, social change, work, athletics . . . . (p 51)
The only trouble with May’s definition is that it includes examples of activities too small to be practices, what he calls projects. Social change might be a practice if it is based on a religious commitment, or an ideological one, such as Marxism once provided. Athletics can’t. Life is meaningful when I help create the activity of value that I participate in, and so make it real.
For my life to be meaningful, those projects have to feel like my projects: not in the sense that I own them, but more in the sense that they own me, that they have captured my focus. (p 51)
Conclusion: how made up values can be objective
We create what we subsequently discover. An encounter with God is created by our desire to encounter God, and a decision to live in a way most likely to make that possible. Does this mean that we invent God? No. God is there, but he cannot exist for us unless we participate through our beliefs and actions in making him.
This is why the distinction between objective and subjective meaning doesn’t work when we talk about God. The most objective meaning is the one we help create through our imaginative encounters with what is already there. And the most meaningful life is the one we create through our imaginative elaboration of human practices, such as religion, or art, that have been established by our predecessors.
If all this seems a little abstract, see part 2 of this post (the post immediately following this one). It lays out the activities and practices that make for a meaningful life.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics.
Todd May, A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe. University of Chicago Press, 2015.