The meaning of life is a subject that has drawn a significant amount of commentary — from Hellenistic ethicists to twentieth century British satirists. In my experience, none of the wretched souls that drape this earth can give a very interesting ‘meaning’ for life. It is perhaps odd, then, that ‘the meaning of life’ is waved around by zealous evangelicals like some locked away treasure to which only they have the key. Of course, when you ask to see their treasure they have nothing but a few decontextualised philosophies and several centuries of dust. So why do they make such grand boasts?
Religious faiths have been making boasts for as long as people have had the time to listen to them. Christians have been boasting of the resurrection for a long time indeed. The resurrection story is the central Christian motif. It can nowadays be found packaged as an intensely psychological, vaguely sexual, somewhat bestial narrative about Jesus’ blood-drenched love for mankind. This motif shapes the songs, carves the hearts, and adorns the necks of billions. It is perhaps one of the few common threads uniting Christians across this ever diversifying world.
This is an impressive feat of sociological evolution: the story of how one man was tortured at the hands of the state has been processed into a deeply personal and intensely real experience for billions of people (adults and small children, alike). Nevertheless, the resurrection of Jesus is a stunningly mediocre story for uninitiated heathens.
A scholastically experienced reader of the gospels could be forgiven for not finding the disciples’ resurrection testimonies overly convincing. The accounts contradict each other and were written in less incredulous times. Even the majority of Paul’s credulous contemporaries were not convinced by the story of one man’s unlikely resurrection. And those guys were otherwise able to believe all kinds of stuff.
In the absence of the people (and books, and churches, and television programmes) obsessed with Jesus’ blood, it would be difficult to make a reading of Mark into an arresting spiritual experience. (Especially given the wealth of literature and poetry available to the modern reader.) Nevertheless, one hears stories of born-agains who have felt ‘something special’ whilst reading the gospels. These Christians are, on the whole, not experienced readers of Greco-Roman literature. Instead, their expectations of the bible are formed by a full inoculation of contemporary Christian language and songs. A new member of a Christian community can expect to encounter a full cocktail of such motifs and imagery. They should also expect to meet countless individuals who have felt something special from Jesus and are more than happy to talk about it.
This effect goes both ways: not only do Christian communities coerce people to believe God is risen, the boast of Jesus’ resurrection also helps to make Christian communities strong. The resurrection is a far-fetched claim — it’s the sort of thing one could not believe without reinforcement from others. As such, if you do somehow manage to believe it in the resurrection, this ferments an incredible social bond between you and other believers.
More than that, belief in the resurrection defines outsiders: variously known as ‘the heathens’, ‘the unbelievers’ or ‘the pagans’. These are all the people who don’t believe in the Christian boast (and, depending on who you ask, they might be going to Hell). In other words, Christianity has managed to moralise the mere act of believing in the resuscitation and subsequent levitation of a first century Jewish man tortured at the hands of the Roman state.
For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; (1 Cor 1:22-23)
Why did the Christians push to make their resurrection boast so important in the first place? Well, as Paul instructed the Corinthians, “the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” No matter how unreasonable the gospel narrative may seem to the modern reader, at the time of Paul’s writing, belief in this narrative had an immediate and stunning value: access to the power and wisdom of God. By believing Paul’s story, second century seekers could imagine themselves as beyond the wisdom afforded to even the most intelligent Greek scholars. What an opportunity! And this is to say nothing of the most pernicious promise of all: never dying.
But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain […] (1 Cor 15:13)
To the pagan, it often seems as if Christians seek their biblical assurances because of fear or solipsism: they do not wish to die. This account would make Christianity into a pathetic system whose sole purpose is to allow the faithful to deceive themselves into ignoring death. However, God fearing people tell me that Christianity is more than just a macabre deal with heaven’s gate-keeper. They claim that Christianity is about something deeper. There is something in there that gives Christian lives meaning. So where does meaning enter the picture?
I recently attended a Christian outreach evening called “does life have meaning?” As you might expect, the evening concluded with the assurance that God gives our lives meaning. But how does he do that? And are there any reasons for why God decided to give our lives meaning in the first place? Or was his choice arbitrary? (In which case the meaning that God gave our lives is not ultimately very meaningful.)
The speaker (himself a learned and compassionate man) tentatively suggested that God gives our lives meaning by asking us to fulfil his commands. He recited that famous verse from Mark:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these. (Mk. 12:30-31)
It hardly seems to me that this verse, this paltry and uninspired commandment, is enough to allay the crippling problem of what life ‘means’. Earlier in the evening we had been repeatedly assured that no product of philosophy or science has ever managed to find a meaning for life. The meaning of life was paraded about as if it was the ‘question everyone wants to know the answer to’. After all that hype, all they can produce is Mark 12?
Many people have searched their souls and worried about what to do with their lives. I can’t imagine that Mark 12 would be a particularly satisfying consolation for these people. “What are you going to do with your life?” Asks Sarah. “Well, I’m going to love God and love my neighbour,” replies Jim. Sarah frowns, “sure … but what are you going to do with your life?” It’s hardly a satisfactory situation.
Nevertheless, let us pause to consider this command. God wants us to love our neighbour. If our neighbour is gay, loving her may involve giving her a Christmas present, or, perhaps, a 50% off voucher to a local ex-gay conversion therapist. The faithful are divided on this issue: what does God think about your lesbian neighbour? Nobody seems to know for certain — God’s voice gets a bit muffled behind the clamouring and yelling of all those pious sheep of his.
Some Christians would prefer you didn’t drill down to these sorts of details. In their attempt to legitimise themselves in front of a secular audience, liberal Christians are keen to point out how progressive God’s commands can seem. “Love your neighbour.” How could God be any more progressive than that?
Unfortunately, the bible says a little more than “love thy neighbour.” Just before that Jesus commands us to “love thy God with all thy heart.” What could that possibly mean? Once again, opinions vary amongst Jesus’ flock. From the secular perspective, however, this commandment looks ridiculous. God, on all empirical counts, is less ‘real’ than a rock — and it is very difficult to meaningfully love a rock. But rock-love is not impossible. One of the best ways to love a rock is to personify it: talk to the rock a little bit every day; take it with you on trips; be mindful of what the rock might be thinking and feeling. These are the lengths to which you must go in order to love thy rock. Unsurprisingly, this is the sort of thing Christians do all the time — except that they do it with Jesus and they do it in their heads (they leave rock-loving to the Amalekites).
Once you include all the non-biblical Christian writings, the church services and the ecclesiastical authorities, Christianity becomes much more than just “love thy neighbour.” However, I can discern no gain in meaningfulness. The impression one gets is that Christianity is a big, unjustifiable claim adorned with countless distracting ornaments (both physical and mental) that hold people’s attention. At the end of the day, what is actually meaningful about this big Christian cacophony?
It doesn’t seem to me that following a commandment is, of itself, a more meaningful act than anything else. Following rules only matters if the rules mean something — if they are there for a reason. This was the position taken by a friend of mine. He thought that our lives have meaning not because of God’s commands, but because those commands make us a part of God’s plan for humanity. Unfortunately, opinions differ about what precisely God’s plan entails. And, more pressingly, why did God decide to enact his plan in the first place? Is there any reason for any of it?
I asked my Christian neighbours why they thought God had made the universe in the first place. Did he have any choice? Did he simply want the fun of playing with us? Was he lonely? For non-Christians, these are just silly questions and not worth asking. But for Christians, these posable questions are unanswerable. For all we know, God might have a sadistic reason for making the universe. Or a very sad reason (perhaps the only way for God to commit suicide necessitated the creation of our universe). It seems, then, that the Christian is left with a story about the universe that is just as arbitrary and random as any other. A Christian can certainly ignore their existential angst by pouring their efforts into following a commandment, but it might be that this is all for nothing. God might not have had a reason for making you: He loves you very much, but you are the product of His unhinged and pointless whims.
Robbed of the illusion that Christianity makes life sacred and meaningful, the philosophical Christian may wish to abandon the contortions of their faith and seek enlightenment elsewhere. Such a person may find themselves gravely disappointed. If you merely want to know what to do with your life, I’m sure I could cook you up a few ideas. Ask around, read some biographies: there are lots of things you could do with yourself! But don’t ask me what it all means. Frankly, I’m not sure it even makes sense to ask that question. You may be discouraged by this (I think it profoundly saddening) but at least I don’t deceive myself into thinking that I have an answer.
That sort of deception is the business of contemporary evangelicalism. In fact, if there is any common purpose to Christianity it might be in the maintenance of this deception. After all, the best way to rid oneself of existential questions is to pretend that one already has the answers. Christians are very much sure that life has a meaning. They might not know what it is, but it is quite reassuring to know that it’s there. In any case, they’re too busy praising Jesus and fetishising his blood to worry about it.