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Construction of Purpose

By Paul So ~

One of the most common assumptions among Christians is that there is only one kind of authentic purpose which is something that is built into human beings when God designs them. If you remember the doctrine of Deus Imagio (Image of God), propounded by the theologian Irenicus, Christians believe that we all posses the image of God which means we all have the potential to be like God and the entire purpose from this image is the fact that we are meant to go to heaven. Admittedly it sounds like a nice idea but there seems to be an implicit double standard in this way of thinking: Whatever purpose God creates is meaningful, but whatever purpose human creates cannot be meaningful.

Succulent Question Mark
Image by Bill Gracey via Flickr
Why is this? Well, perhaps one plausible explanation is that Christians emphasize a lot on God’s sovereignty which involves creating authentic purposes that human beings are incapable of building. Whatever purpose that we create just isn’t good enough as that of God’s. Our created purpose will always fade into the shadows along with our existence due to its impermanence. But there seems to be another troubling assumption there: Purpose is authentic only if it is eternal, and eternal things can only be created by God but not by human beings. By eternal, I mean that when the end-goal is achieved the sense of happiness and fulfillment of it is everlasting since whatever is achieved is also everlasting. So far there seems to be two main reasons why Christians think only God can create purpose: First, because God is the sovereign creator who are legitimately in charge of what purpose things have. Second, because nobody can create a purpose that is eternal except God.

There is a specific problem related to this subject that I want to focus on: the fact that there are plenty (but not every) ex-Christian who unconsciously accept these assumptions. Because they accept it they also believe that rejecting Christianity amounts to nihilism which is that life has no purpose. They agree with Christians that the only authentic purpose is the one’s that can be created by a creator and the ones that are eternal. However, I want to make an argument against the common assumption that whatever purpose humans create cannot be meaningful.

First, what does it mean to say that the purpose we have is “meaningful”? The term “meaningful” is very ambiguous because it can mean semantic meaning which simply understands what the word means or it could mean seeing the actual existing patterns. But the kind of meaning that we are talking about here has little to do with semantics and patterns, rather the kind of meaning that we are talking about is living a flourishing life with a high quality of happiness. I don’t think believers will deny this definition of “meaning of life” because it seems to fit in with their notion of what the purpose of their life is. But if they accept this definition why is it restricted to their beliefs? Why can’t meaning be more open and broad for everyone who is either a believer or non-believer?

If meaningful life is defined as a flourishing life with a high quality of happiness then it’s pointless to ask “Is there a meaning of life” because it sounds like saying “Is there a possible flourishing of life with a high quality of happiness” which most of us agree is true. What the question should be is “meaningful to whom?” because meaning is dependent on our overall well-being. Is this is the definition of meaning that we can accept then it is possible to see how meaning of life is possible without God. Evolution has already provided us with capacities and capabilities to use them for non-evolutionary purposes: to create art, do science, do philosophy, play sports, etc.

This brings to me next point: Why can’t we construct a meaningful purpose for ourselves? All it really amounts to is creating conventions, rules, and technologies with the design to help us achieve a meaningful life. This isn’t at all unusual or totally artificial because if you study human history we do this all the time: We create cultures, civilizations, art, music, philosophy, religions, laws, science, and other things with the purpose to achieve a meaningful life. We build houses with roofs with the purpose to keep us warm and prevent the rain drops from getting us wet. We create economies so we can create jobs with purpose to help other people through services and produce enough wages to use it buy commodities. We have sports with rules, conventions, and goals and so far most of us seem to love sports even though it is created by us. Go to the sports fan (let’s say the red skins fan) and tell them that their enthusiasm for sports is meaningless because it is created by man but not by God; what would their reaction be? It would probably range from annoyance to anger, and the reason for this is because even though it was created by human beings it doesn’t mean that it cannot make us sufficiently happy. The point I’m trying to make is that just because we construct things with purposes for our welfare and happiness it doesn’t mean that they are any less “real” or “authentic” to us. The sports fan example I just gave clearly demonstrates that sports, in spite of being artificially made, is real and authentic to the sports fan. The houses we create is real to us, it holds a lot of meaning for us; when we move away from the house we live for a while don’t we feel a bit nostalgic? Is this feeling “unreal” simply because it was man-made? I don’t think so, and I think most of you would agree. We also create families through marriages, and despite the fact that there is increasing amount of divorce rates there is still plenty of successful marriages left in which couples remain content and happy. Marriages are created, but that doesn’t mean that the relationship between couples are any less meaningful; friendships are also created but they aren’t any less meaningful either.

Books and ideas are created for variety of purposes, yet many of us who love to read books (including myself) do not find these books to be any less “authentic”, “real”, or “meaningful”. These books feel very “real”, “authentic” and “meaningful” (especially fiction books!) to many readers. Even religious books give those similar feelings to religious believers and scholars alike.

But what about the fact that these purposes we created are not eternal in the sense that they do not give us everlasting happiness? The answer to that question is with another question “Is there such thing as everlasting happiness?” Like the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, I do not think that there is such thing as “everlasting happiness” because our brains are hardwired to desire more things. This may sound troubling to both believers and non-believers alike, but the only way out of this “dilemma” is that we should focus our ongoing desires on things that are most important to us. For most of us it’s going to be about our relationships with people since we are social creatures, but for some of us it will be about the pursue towards knowledge among other human activities. There are certain things in this world that we are so deeply attached to that much of what we desire is already focused on those things.

We all have different desires, plans, interests, and values so why try to fit everyone into one thing call “purpose” instead of allowing people to construct variety of purposes that fit with their context of life? It’s true that these things do not last forever, but perhaps that’s the problem: perhaps when we think about meaningful life or happiness we think too much about external goods. Perhaps we can focus on happiness from “within” by trying to interpret impermanent events a bit differently, which is a way to keep us happy. I don’t know, but I still maintain the position that overall we can construct purposes for ourselves.

Perhaps a believer may complain that creation of purpose among human beings can be abusive and not universal. That’s true, but it doesn’t mean that overall humanly constructed purpose are any less meaningful. There are many kinds of constructed purposes in variety of forms and many of them keep different people happy; why can’t purpose be like that? Why can’t we accept the plurality of purpose rather than the homogeneity of purpose? We all have different desires, plans, interests, and values so why try to fit everyone into one thing call “purpose” instead of allowing people to construct variety of purposes that fit with their context of life?

Perhaps it’s because in Christianity people are use to the idea that there is this universal purpose that everyone must partake in, otherwise they will all be doomed. It isn’t entirely clear why God prefers universal purpose over plurality of purposes, but it’s clear that even though we are all the same kind of human beings we are still different from each other because we experience life different from different perspectives. That fact alone, I think, can determine what kind of purpose we want to create which is why if you travel around the world you see that people have different purposes.

Nonetheless we all have a common reason why we create these purposes: to enjoy and secure life. So to come to a conclusion I want to point out that constructed purpose is does not mean that it is unreal or less meaningful than the kind of purpose God would create if such a being does exist. We construct purposes all the time (whether we are aware of this or not) from the most trivial to the most significant, and many times it captivates us enough to enjoy life alone. I just don’t get why there needs to be this “single formula of purpose” that makes people happy; happiness is already a complicated and varied psychological affair that varies because of culture, politics, economy, and especially religions. We are only starting to understand ourselves better through neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and political science (among other things), so it’s a bit unfair to come to some sweeping generalization on what human nature is in order to determine what single formula of purpose we all need.