Meaning, Purpose & Getting in the Zone

in the zone…

One of the sources of a general sense of frustration in American culture flows from our attempt to give our lives meaning & purpose rather than finding the meaning & purpose which they already have. It is the latter which ultimately gives us the sense of fulfillment and focus… of being “in the zone”.

Let me unpack that a bit…

In Saturday’s post I talked about the attractiveness of the Judeo-Christian take on meaning & purpose, as opposed to atheism’s position on the matter. It’s not just atheists, though, who attempt to give meaning & purpose to our lives… doing so is a very common American approach to life, probably the dominant one, in fact.

The ideas of the “self-made man,” of “making something of yourself,” of “being all you can be” are all deeply embedded in our culture, and they all hinge on the idea that meaning & purpose are something we give to our lives.

As I mentioned in this opening of this post, I propose that much of the underlying frustration which many Americans feel — and which manifests itself in many ways — flows from this idea of giving purpose to our lives. Why? Because of what I said in the previous post: you can’t give meaning & purpose to your life (or to anything, for that matter)… you can only find and discover the meaning & purpose which it already has.

Recognizing this is not a bad thing, however, but just the contrary: discovering why I exist and what I exist for is freeing and exhilarating… it allows me to thrive, to live life abundantly.

How do we do this? How do we find meaning & purpose in our lives? The same way you’d find the meaning & purpose for, say, a machine that you don’t know how to use: you ask the Maker…

Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam, 1511-1512
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Meaning: Either it’s there or it isn’t

One of the most appealing aspects of the Judeo-Christian understanding of reality is the idea of meaning and purpose: everything — including my life — has both meaning and purpose. Unlike an atheistic understanding of reality, my worldview doesn’t require that I live a fiction: instead, I get to live my life exactly as it is: with a meaning and a purpose.

Let me unpack that a bit.

One of the great tragedies of contemporary American culture is that despite the abundance of material wealth and leisure time which the vast majority of us have, many of us are profoundly unhappy. There are many causes for this malaise, among them a sense of purposelessness and a lack of meaning.

To overcome both, some people try to maintain a state of perpetual distraction, while others throw themselves into their work, hobby, or something else which at least gives their life the appearance of meaning.

The conundrum is this: if the atheist is right and there is no God, then life has no meaning, and any attempt to give it meaning is fictitious. While the average atheist may not have thought this through, the more intellectually-serious and -coherent atheists have (e.g. the twentieth century British philosopher Bertrand Russell, as I discussed in this post).

On the other hand, the Judeo-Christian account of reality says that yes, my life has meaning, every circumstance I encounter has meaning… indeed, everything in existence has meaning.

Instead of living either a lie — pretending there is meaning where there isn’t — or a life of “heroic despair” — acknowledging there is no meaning and soldiering on anyway — I get to live an adventure: first, discovering the meaning of my life, and then living it to the fullest.

I’ll take the latter option, and twice on Sundays, thank you very much.

So… what’s the meaning of your life?

Additions to the Q&A

an angry sky god?

I’ve made some additions to the Ultimate Q&A outline (see the entire work-in-progress here). Additions are in italics…

  • 1.1.2. Are you open to the possibility that God might exist?
  • No.
    • 1.1.2.1. Why not?
      • I don’t want someone telling me what to do
      • I don’t like the idea of someone always watching everything I do

Again, feel free to propose additional questions and/or answers in the comments…

The Ultimate Catholic Q&A

Raphael, Transfiguration, 1516-1520

One of my long-term projects for Cruciform is an outline of sorts laying out the reasonable case for Catholicism. I’d like it to be in a flowchart format, but for the time being, it’ll have to be an outline. I’ve made this a Page that you can click on in the upper right as well.

Here’s the beginnings of the outline… feel free to add any questions in the comments.

  • 1. Do you believe there is a God?
    • What do you mean by “God”?
      • Great question! In short, by “God” I mean the Creator of the Universe spoken of in the Bible who is also the Uncaused Cause written about by the ancient Greek philosophers.
    •  Yes, I believe in that God.
      • Great, proceed to question 2.
    • No, I don’t believe that that God exists.
      • 1.1. Do you believe that any gods exist?
        • Yes, but not that one.
          • 1.1.1. Which gods do you believe in?
        • No, I don’t believe that any gods exist.
          • 1.1.2. Are you open to the possibility that God might exist?
            • No.
              • 1.1.2.1. Why not?
            • Yes, but I don’t believe that that God exists because…
              • there is no proof that that God exists
              • belief in God contradicts science
              • pain & suffering prove that that God doesn’t exist
  • 2. Do you believe that Jesus of Nazareth is God?
  • 3. Do you believe that Jesus founded the Catholic Church?

Who Worships False Idols These Days?

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In yesterday’s post I referred to doctrine, morality and piety as (potential) false idols. One might have rightly asked, “Really? Who worships false idols these days? I haven’t seen any golden calves around in quite some time.”

That’s certainly true: we no longer build statues made out of precious metals and worship them as deities. But that doesn’t mean that idol worship has gone completely by the wayside… it’s simply become more subtle and sophisticated.

I’d like to take a short post to briefly explain.

In short, we commit idol worship anytime we place at the center of our lives anything but God. Yesterday’s post was focused on some of the ways that those who are striving to follow Him can unwittingly fall into idol worship by placing some good things at the center.

And that gets to an important point: a false idol isn’t necessarily a bad thing that we “worship”: it can be a good thing, too. It’s simply giving anything — good or bad — greater centrality in our lives than we ought to.

So idol worship could be drugs, alcohol, pornography, etc., but it can also be good things that we actually overvalue: our work, our hobby, or even our relationships… it’s possible to replace God at the center of our lives with our friends or family, even our spouses or children.

We are both called and empowered to live an integrated life, in which we give everything its due. When we fail to do so, when we over- or undervalue anything significant… we run into problems. And that’s not to say that an angry old guy with a white beard “up there” is going to shake his finger at us… it’s to say that when we misprioritize anything of significance, the result is dis-order in our lives… dis-integration.

Like it or not, we are hardwired by God, for God. In the oft-quoted words of St. Augustine, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” When we get the center right, everything else falls into place. But when we don’t…

Yesterday I mentioned that one of my temptations is to overvalue doctrine; another of my temptations is to overvalue technology, to give it greater due than I ought. I tend to do this by having my cell phone at hand and obsessively checking my email — work & personal — when I might be spending that time being fully present to my wife and my children.

I find it helpful to reflect regularly on this: what are the things in my life that I overvalue? What are the things that I’m giving more time or effort to than is due them? In short… what are my personal false idols?

Good News, Not Good Advice

Christians in the First World today have a serious image problem, one which cripples our attempts to share our faith with others, and — sadly — one which is in many ways our own doing. As the Anglican scholar N.T. Wright has noted, the unfortunate reality is that many people — including many Christians! — have fundamentally misunderstood the Gospel of Jesus Christ as Good (or Not So Good) Advice.

To put it another way, many people — again, including many Christians — see the essence of Christianity as a moral code, as a set of rules and regulations which require certain behaviors and forbid others, as a bunch of “Thou Shalt Not’s”.

 

We’ll dive deeper into this topic in other posts, but for now I simply want to note that while Christianity certainly entails a morality, it is not, at its heart, defined as a morality. Rather, it is the proclamation of Good News: of something that has happened, that is happening, and that will happen.

 

What are these things, these events, that have happened, are happening, and will happen? They are

  1. the coming of Jesus Christ into the world 2000 years ago and the redemption which He accomplished and initiated then;
  2. the encounter with Him which is offered to each and every human being in the midst of their lives, and encounter which has the capacity to slowly but surely transform them and their lives; and
  3. He return at the end of history, at which point the transformation which began 2000 years ago will be fulfilled, completed and accomplished.

Let me conclude this “teaser” post which this quote, describing the essence of Christianity: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Google the quote… you might be surprised at who wrote it.

The encounter with the Risen Jesus can transform your life now… today.

Do you believe this is possible? Why, or why not?

 

It Looks Better on the Inside

 

At the Easter Sunday Mass one of the options for the reading from the Gospels is John 20:1-9, in which we read about how Mary Magdalene told Peter and John (the disciple whom Jesus loved) that Jesus’ body was missing from the tomb and about their response: they ran to the tomb.

We’re told that Peter and John both ran to the tomb, and that although John reached the tomb first, he did not go in until Peter arrived.

Note what happens after Peter has arrived, entered the tomb and examined the scene: “Then the other disciple [John], who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed” (verse 8).

John — who’d reached the tomb first — goes into the tomb, sees, and believes.

He goes in, and then he sees and believes.

It is only when he has entered in that he is able to see and to believe.

In the experience of many people who’ve embraced Christianity in general or Catholicism in particular, there comes a point at which further investigation “from the outside” yields diminishing results: a decision has to be made to “enter in,” and once that happens… seeing and believing.

Have you had that experience? Are you in that position now? Enter in, that you might see and believe.