By the lights of Christianity and Islam, the meaning of life is fairly straightforward. We’re here to worship God, to obey him, and to seek forgiveness for our sins. If we do that successfully, we can hope to receive an eternity of bliss in heaven. If we don’t, we’re told to expect an eternity of suffering in hell.
While this account is accepted by more than half the world’s population, it is affected by a deep philosophical problem: the way that God is envisioned is not consistent with divinity.
Imagine waking up tomorrow and finding yourself in permanent possession of divine powers. You suddenly know all there is to know, you can do absolutely anything that it is possible to do, and so on. Contemplating the best use of your new capabilities, would it ever be your plan to demand the worship of people everywhere and to threaten those who don’t with unending torture? I sincerely hope not, and that same expectation holds true for God.
Why? Because in theory God should possess only the very highest moral attributes, and threatening people with torture if they don’t bow down in worship to you stands in staggering opposition to that.
Here is the crucial point, though: the mere fact that Christianity and Islam have done a bad job presenting a plausible vision of the spiritual meaning of life does not mean that it is impossible. It just means that the two most popular accounts aren’t the best ones we should be looking to.
Ok, so if not them, then what?
A topic of some interest to me for as long as I can remember, my own answer to this question goes like this: if life really does have a spiritual purpose, it is most likely related to developing our understanding of truths that are relevant to us as consciously ongoing, spiritual beings.
An example of what I mean is surely called for, so consider self-anger. For many people, getting angry at themselves is just a familiar part of life. When we fail at something or when we fall short of our own high expectations, it can be an automatic habit for people to use self-anger as a way of punishing themselves for having done so.
The underlying logic of it goes like this: by piling anger upon the emotional costs of failure by beating ourselves up for it afterwards, we make failure into something that is horrible to experience. And of course the more unpleasant something is, the more reason we have to do whatever is necessary to avoid it. In this way, being angry at oneself acts as an extra motivation to avoid failing, and hence helps keep us safe from the pain of future failing.
Or so we believe. The truth is that while holding anger against yourself can indeed be a powerful additional reason for trying harder, it is also an intrinsically toxic emotion that not only unpleasant to experience, it is tiring to carry around inside yourself all the time. The risk is that the more anger we emotionally burden ourselves with, the more we undermine our own happiness and prospects for success by digging barbs of negative feeling into ourselves. Far from keeping us safe, then, self-anger can actually contribute to our failures, and at a great cost to positive feeling along the way.
This is just one example, but it highlights the case of a truth which, if known, would surely be relevant to us if indeed we are indefinitely ongoing spiritual beings.
There are bound to be countless more such truths, of course—truths about love, kindness, guilt, shame, integrity, hard work, self-esteem, relationships, courage, justice, powerlessness, leadership, and so on—and there is no way for me to list them all. But it is truths of this kind that would clearly spiritually matter.
We have at least two options here, then. We can choose to see life as being all about worship, obedience, and prostration before a God whose religiously-framed qualities are not consistent with divinity. Or we can choose to see life as about gaining insights into truths that, in virtue of understanding them, would enable us to grow and develop in terms of who and what we are.
If life has any spiritual meaning at all, it seems to me to be incomparably more likely that it would be the latter of those accounts than the former. Or so I believe.
~Timothy Rowe is a philosopher and writer.
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