The Meaning of Life
“Would you be interested in coming to give a short talk to a group of high school/university students?” The question came a few weeks ago and, as is my customary practice, I enthusiastically agreed without giving so much a passing glance at my calendar. How hard could it be, right? “What would you like me to talk about?” I asked. “Well, we’re wondering if you can speak on the topic, ‘What is the meaning of life?’” The meaning of life. Right.
This was followed by period of awkward laughter and dumb silence on my part. Not terribly inspirational, I wouldn’t think.
You would think that someone who writes and speaks about God for a living would, perhaps, not be reduced to a kind of bewildered state of mild terror at the prospect of addressing a question like this. You would think that someone who gets up, week after week, and presumes to parse the ways of God and the world would have a nice, pre-packaged answer to such a query. You would think that someone who is invited into the most holy, terrifying, meaning-soaked moments in people’s lives would be only too eager to talk about this question. You would think someone for whom this question at least seems to be the consistent thread that runs through a good deal of what occupies daily life would be straining at the leash to bestow all the accumulated wisdom of years of study and practice upon eager young minds. You would, as it turns out, think wrong.
What is the meaning of life? Hmm, where to begin. Well, for starters, can we even speak of a monolithic, singular “meaning of life?” No, no, of course not. We are enlightened, and studiously pessimistic postmoderns, after all. We know that there is no single story that stands over all stories. We dare not speak of MEANING, only of meanings. We must not inquire about anything resembling a global imperative because we know better than this. We may only ask, what is the meaning of life for you? What do you find meaningful? What works for you? Anything less would be presumptuous at best, offensive at worst. How dare we presume to speak of universals in the land of determined relativisms! No, we must not speak of “the meaning of life.” Not here. Not now.
And what does life look like, in the barren terrain of postmodernity? Is it even possible to wrench personalized and highly relative meaning (never mind MEANING) out of this weary soil? Sometimes the most obvious interpretation of life is that there is no meaning to be found here. There are days when life seems to be nothing more than a series of unconnected morally ambiguous events. We limp along from crisis to crisis—the unwelcome diagnosis, the job rejection, the financial collapse, the relationship breakdown, the existential crisis, and, of course, the slow, grinding decay of time that leaves its mark all over us. The evidence is all around us, even if we spend so much of our time reinterpreting or ignoring it. This world cares very little for us or for our preferences. There is no formula, no strategy, no foolproof way of aligning ourselves with the grain of the universe that will insulate us from the pain of existence. There is no meaning to be found here, no narrative thread of goodness or purpose that could possibly unite the sorrow and sadness with the hope and longing and goodness that pops up now and again.
And yet… This hunger for meaning haunts our steps. It refuses to let us be. Why? You would think that we would, as a species, have come to terms with meaninglessness by now if it were the final truth about our predicament. You would think that we would never have dreamed meaning up in the first place, come to think of it. What benefit could this overdeveloped sense of longing, this desperate need for a narratival thread serve? Why would our ancestors have ever paused over that very first big “Why?” Would not a more straightforward explanation for our situation have always been, “We’re born, we struggle, we experience a bit of pleasure, we die?” Why would we ever have unnecessarily complicated things with all of our useless questions? Does not the very fact that we seem not to be able to live without meaning say something about who we are and what we are for?
What is the meaning of life? I am not sure exactly what I will say to these dear young souls in a few days. I will probably invite them to consider some of the above scenario. I will probably probe the question of why we are meaning-seeking creatures in the first place. We will consider together how odd it is that human beings should ask these very odd questions. But I will want to talk about more than that.
At the end of it all, I suspect I will talk to them about love. Yes, that is what I will do. I will talk about love. Because, in my experience, the meaning that people hunger for, whether this is explicitly articulated or not, is not a kind of abstract, explanatory satisfaction. We are not looking for the solution to a riddle or the missing equation in a formula. No, what we hunger for, right down into the deepest part of who we are—that part that peers anxiously across the postmodern wasteland, the part that staggers and groans under the weight of the world’s pain, the part that strains and grasps after experiences of bliss and wonder and wholeness—is to know and to be known by God. Yes, love is what we long for.
And, so perhaps it comes to this. The meaning of life is to come to the blinding discovery that love is not a fiction. That it is always there, lurking behind the dissonance between what we get and what we want, that it prods and prompts all of our restless hope and longing, that it somehow animates every particular human story as well as the big story that stands over them all, and that it, finally, gives us a place to rest. The meaning of life is that love is both our able guide and our sure welcome home.
The image above was taken at a recent kids’ night at our church. The kids were all given glow sticks and told to try to spell a word with them in the air while the lights were turned the off in the sanctuary. They were trying, very appropriately, to spell the word “Hallelujah.”