You may recognize the article’s title as borrowing from the title of the second-best selling non-fiction book in American History, The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Are You Here For? (November 2002) The author is Rick Warren, the now-famous pastor of a mega church in California. Selling millions of copies, the Bible is the only book it has not outsold.
I bought the book. At the time I considered myself an evangelical Christian. The first line of the book reads “It’s not about you.” I asked, if it’s not about me then why am I reading it? The more I read the more I felt I was being manipulated. The disparity between the book’s title and its contents reminded me of the old bait-and-switch trick.
The book never answers its own question unless you see it for what it really is, a book teaching you how to be a good church member. This explains its commercial success. Churches bought them as fast as the publisher could print them. For someone expecting more, the book could not have been more deflating.
I bought another book, The Reason Driven Life (2006) by Robert Price. Price began his career as a Baptist minister and has a PhD in systematic theology. He says he never quite bought into the traditional church. He has even gone so far as to become a crusader against the traditional church and has authored a number of books. This book is a point-by-point, chapter-by-chapter rebuttal to Warren’s book
In the introduction, Price writes “for Pastor Warren, the purpose of all human lives is to be a fundamentalist Christian. That, he says, is why God created you. Pardon me for wondering if the many fans of The Purpose Driven Life are like the Israelites rebuked by the prophet: ‘Why do you spend money for what is not bread and your wages for what does not satisfy’ (Isaiah 55:2)?”
Like many others I’ve asked myself questions like the one posed by Warren’s book. “What is the meaning of life?” “What is my purpose in life?” “Why does God let bad things happen?” Many turn to their religions for answers. Most of the time the answers from them aren’t answers at all. Others may try the latest New Age guru’s flavor-of-the-month spirituality. After the buzz wears off we’re right back where we started. We still are left empty and yearning.
To the above questions, here are some traditional replies with the follow up questions I have. “The meaning of life is to be saved and go to heaven.” To that I ask, “That’s all there is? ““Our purpose is to serve and please God.” To that I reply, “We were made to be God’s slave? To what end?” “God allows bad things to happen because we are sinful.” To that I protest, “What kind of loving God is that?”
Perhaps we can all agree that no answer is better than a wrong answer. The rational mind we have been given, if we are trying earnestly in our humanness to reconcile these things, may give up. The stubbornly religious may decide to hope for the best, while the disillusioned may become agnostic or atheist. I’m not judging. I get it. And none of us have all the answers. To paraphrase Lao Tzu from the Tao Te Ching – the know-it-all knows nothing. I also quote our gnostic apostle Paul, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)
When the New York Times bestseller [g]od is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (November 2007) by Christopher Hitchens was released, the provocative title got my attention. I wanted to see what he had to say. He said a lot. One of his lines made me stop and think. “Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.” I had never looked at it that way before.
Hitchens had a brilliant mind and was a successful journalist, activist, author and speaker. Hitchens saw the world’s religions, all of them, as co-conspirators against the human race. He saw wars, racism, poverty, greed and all kinds of injustice as proof there could not be a God as described by the religions. If the religions are wrong, the rational mind thinking inside the box says there must be no God at all.
If we’re honest most of us are empathetic with this reasoning if not the conclusion. Hitchens chose the cynical path, and perhaps he never saw an alternate path. Hitchens passed away from cancer in December 2011. Though I disagree with his view there is no God, which he threw out with the bathwater, I hated to see such an earnest genius go. Challenging the status quo can reveal the ‘truth’ or at a minimum expose a lie.
On one extreme we see a faith turned commercial enterprise with its mega churches, vapid bestsellers and rock star evangelists. On the other extreme we have people, like Hitchens, either not tuning in or tuning out God or some notion of God entirely. This is a serious matter if we are going to participate in the healing of our race and our planet. We must participate. This is why you and I are here – our purpose on planet earth.
We can’t talk about purpose and the meaning of life without at least mentioning happiness. Our wish in this lifetime for ourselves and for others is to be happy. I don’t mean happy as in Disneyland magic kingdom happy or perfect life without worries and cares happy. I mean happiness as contentment in a deeper spiritual sense. Can we ever be happy when we are left wondering is this all there is? Knowing our purpose and being happy go hand in hand. We cannot be truly happy until we know our purpose.
Happiness, or contentment, can have its ups and downs. Returning to our gnostic apostle, Paul said he had learned to be content both in times of plenty and times of need (Philippians 4:10-20). Is he speaking of ‘plenty’ and ‘need’ only in material terms? No, he also is speaking in spiritual terms. At times we feel close to God. Other times we feel very distant. This is only natural in the predicament in which spiritual beings find themselves. It is part of the growing process.
For the spiritual Christian influenced by Paul and the Gospels, contentment, even joy, is in knowing ourselves, our inner Christ, and knowing God, the Father of All. It is the contentment of knowing our beginning so that we know our end (Gospel of Thomas saying 18). This is a good topic for contemplation. Do you know your end? Do you know your beginning? Are you happy?
In our tentative existence here on planet earth there are opposites; good and evil, light and darkness, love and hate. The opposite of contentment is anxiety. No one likes feeling anxious. Not knowing our true self and separation from God leads to the kind of despair the 19th century existentialist Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) called the “Sickness unto Death.” The greater the distance between self and God the greater the anxiety we feel, even despair.
Kierkegaard’s psychological introspective as I understand it was that our anxiety and feelings of despair are the result of a conflict between our human nature and striving for moral perfection over against our innate inability to be perfect. He wrote: “in all despair there is an interplay of finitude and infinitude, of the divine and the human, of freedom and necessity.” Kierkegaard concluded in ironic fashion, “The cure is simply to die, to die to the world.”
We understand the words ‘world’ and ‘worldly to mean the people and institutions that place self-centered demands on us. These demands are ego driven. The world is the ‘collective ego’ in all of its expressions; political oppression, religious intolerance and social injustice, etc.
Dying to the world, or ego if you will, opens up life in the spirit. What can separate us from life in the spirit? Sin can. Paul writes “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) On one level sin is allowing the ego to rule over us. On another level, sin is unconsciousness of the Christ within. These cause separation from God. Separation from God is spiritual death, for God is Spirit. Contrary to the traditional definition of sin, sin is not an act of disobedience to God. Sin is the terminal condition of ego-rule over against the eternal condition of Christ-rule. Dying is living in the world without Christ. Living is dying to the world with Christ.
“For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)
“For you have died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3)
“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds….(Romans 12:2)
“If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as one of its own. You do not belong to the world. Because I chose you out of the world, the world hates you.” (John 15:19)
When we die to the world and begin living in Christ, we become members of the same mystical Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-14). In the Body we each have a part in bringing the created order back into harmony with the Divine, as it was in the beginning. We become woven together as fibers into the fabric of cosmic reintegration.
As Paul wrote about the end-of-time consummation in which we will participate, “God in Christ will be All and in All” (1 Corinthians 15:28). Our purpose isn’t to be a good church member. Our purpose is to be One in Christ, regardless of religion with or without church. It is about you, me and us. This is the answer to “What on Earth Are We Here For?”
About these articles, I try to allow the Holy Spirit to lead. They seem to write themselves. I’m just the fingers on the keyboard. In subsequent articles we will explore gnostic cosmology-mythology and its attempt to answer ‘what is God’, ‘why do bad things happen’ and ‘what is our beginning and end.’ Please bear with me as finding time to write isn’t always easy.
It might appear that I am hostile toward church. Critical, yes. Hostile, no. Church, synagogue, temple and mosque have a positive function. They provide a community structure where people can support one another and share their love with others. Where there is love there is God. Many do good things for the less fortunate and uplift their communities. For many, including myself, church is where we first heard the Savior’s call. I don’t want to paint with a brush too broadly, and the number of people seeking a spiritual life is growing. I don’t want to dismantle church. I want to change it.
May Christ be in you!