A long time ago, and in a land very far away from here, there once lived a King. With a lot of time on his hands, and perplexed about the meaning of the life he had landed himself in, he embarked upon a quest to discover if an individual life could have any objective significance at all. After all his various musings he concluded, that in the end, we all go back to the place from whence we came, from dust we came, and to dust we return.
All of our lives will end in death, and scarcely any of us will be remembered. Which is particularly vexing if you happen to be a King who wants to be remembered. From this, the King concluded that all activity in this life is fleeting and a chasing after the wind. The only light of hope at the end of the tunnel being that we should fear God, because he's really the only one who would have any idea what is going on and grant meaning to it all.
An interesting question could perhaps be asked at this juncture. Why did the King strive for meaning that was larger than himself and his individual situation? Partly perhaps because King's want to be remembered beyond their death for their achievements.
This same desire seems to possess many of us as a part of our human nature. We all seem to strive for meaning and significance and have an obsession with remembrance, a desire for things to last, and a fear of death. It seems to be part and parcel with being 'human'. As the King said in his writings… "… He has put eternity into the hearts of man, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end." (Ecclesiastes chapter 3, verse 11).
This first story I have just given, of Solomon, the King, wasn't the end of the quest. The question of significance in life has since fascinated Philosophers who think seriously about such things throughout the scope of recorded human history, from Socrates to Sartre.
The question that needs to be answered, is, what makes an individual human life significant? How you answer this question, and if you choose to answer it, can have a large impact upon what you choose to prioritise in life, and by implication therefore how you choose to live it. My task is to explore briefly the answer to this question given by a secular thinker who doesn't believe in God, the French thinker and writer Albert Camus, and then two Christian perspectives.
Camus (pronounced ca-moo)
Camus, amongst various works of fiction, wrote a non fiction book called 'The Myth of Sisyphus' which explores the meaning of life and best distils his thoughts about it. The distinctive feature of Camus's work that makes him so attractive is he's honest about the meaning of an individual life given there is no God in his philosophy to give life meaning.
The Myth of Sisyphus Camus concludes that given there is no God to grant life an objective meaning our existence is objectively meaningless, so we are confronted with the absurdness of our own existence, and the main philosophical question we have to answer is whether we choose to live it or not. If we choose to live our life it consists in creating our own meaning and asserting it as against the objective meaninglessness of life.
He borrows a Greek myth, in which the character Sisyphus is punished by the Greek gods for putting death in chains. For doing so Sisyphus is condemned to push a rock up a mountain, and upon reaching the top the rock rolls down again, leaving Sisyphus to start over. Camus sees this as a metaphor for mans assertion of action and hate of death, even despite the meaninglessness and absurdness of existence he presses on and lives life to the fullest. I tend to agree with Camus given the assumption of no God.
Perhaps the next place to step for an explicitly theological Christian perspective is the Westminster Catechism. According to the catechism the chief end of man is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever. Although beautiful and concise this leaves me somewhat floundering as to what practical steps we can take to significanize (no that's not a real word, I just made it up) our life. Because it's so general I must ask what it means to glorify God, I think to glorify God means also to love God, because as we know from Paul (1 Corinthians chapter 13) love is above all the highest virtue. And the way we love God is to obey his commands (John chapter 14, verse 15). So what, as Christians, does Jesus command of us?
What Jesus says
In answer to what Jesus commands of us, we can look up Matthew 22 chapter, verse 36–40, Mark chapter 12, verses 30–31, and Luke chapter 10, verse 27. To quote the text from Matthew:
"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like is: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets."
So it seems the most significant thing we can do with our lives is to love God and to love others. This is both a vertical love, upwards towards God, and a horizontal love, outwards towards everyone around us.
The reason why this is significant is because by doing so we are helping to build the Kingdom of God, something in partnership with God that lasts into eternity, and is more significant given our own finitude and death.
First published July 29, 2013
Peter Rope is a Financial Economics and Theology graduate from Auckland.
Peter Rope's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/peter-rope.html