belief … the meaning of life (RJS)

Francis Collins, in the brief stretch between stints as head of the Human Genome Project at NIH and, now, Director of NIH, put together a book, Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith, an anthology of readings he finds helpful in discussing rational reasons for belief in God. The anthology is, in some sense, a supplement to his book The Language of God. The essays  and excerpts in this book will not provide a proof for the existence of God – no such proof is possible. But they do provide arguments and reasons for belief.

Not all of the essays contained in the book are by Christians – but all pertain on some level to the reason for faith. One of the excerpts is from Viktor Frankl (1903-1997), an Austrian Jew, prisoner in German concentrations camps, lost his wife and parents in the camps. Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, reflects on the will to meaning as a dominant human driving force.

Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning. There are some authors which will contend that meanings and values are “nothing but defense mechanisms, reaction formations, and sublimations.” But as for myself, I would not be willing to live merely for the sake of my “defense mechanisms,” nor would I be ready to die merely for the sake of my “reaction formations.” (p. 251-251)

Frankl cites a statistical survey of American college students … 78% said their first goal was “finding a purpose and meaning to my life.”

This is a question worth considering…

Is the search of meaning the primary motivation in life?

Is the quest for meaning a defense mechanism? Is it a quest for an attainable goal? Does it provide a reason for belief? What kind of belief?

Frankl discusses the detrimental effect of what he calls an existential vacuum. According to Frankl, 25% of his European students and 60% of his American students were impacted by a marked degree of existential vacuum. Mankind has suffered a twofold loss since becoming truly human.

At the beginning of human history, man lost some of the basic animal instincts in which an animal’s behavior is imbedded and by which is it secured. Such security, like Paradise, is closed to man forever; man has to make choices. In addition to this however, man has suffered another loss in his more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed his behavior are rapidly diminishing. No instinct tells him what he has to do and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not know what he wishes to do. (254)

Will to power, will to money, and will to pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, are vicarious substitutes for the will to meaning.

Specific, not abstract. Frankl does not see ultimate or abstract meaning to life. In fact he cautions against a search for an abstract meaning to life. Rather the will to meaning is distinctly individual. Everyone has a specific mission – a mission that makes him a part of a greater whole.

Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it. … In a word, each man is questioned by life; and can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. (p. 256)

He continues in the essay, reflecting on the meaning of love and the meaning of suffering. If suffering has no meaning, life itself has no meaning. As he thought he would die in the German concentration camp he recalls:

The question which beset me was, “Has all this suffering, this dying around us a meaning? For, if not, then ultimately there is no meaning to survival; for a life whose meaning depends on such a happenstance – as whether one escapes or not – ultimately would not be worth living at all.” (p. 258)

Meaning and purpose. I had not read Frankl before coming to this excerpt. However, I have long thought that meaning and purpose – a deep need for meaning and purpose provide a significant reason for faith. We trust our senses and our reason to tell us about the world around. Science as a discipline is made possible only by trust of sense and reason. This isn’t a simplistic trust – sometimes the answers to scientific questions are counter-intuitive, quantum mechanics as a case in point. Nonetheless we trust our reason as tested by empirical observation. The deep need for purpose and meaning – in suffering and in prosperity – is also a trustworthy sense. The deep need for purpose and meaning is a consequence of creation with a purpose and a mission as “co-creators” in the image of God.

The Christian Story provides a meaning and purpose to life but the meaning and purpose is only realized in commitment and action. The answer to the search for meaning and purpose found in Christ requires discipleship. How this has been cast in different times and places colors our perception of Christians and the Christian gospel. The Christian story as fire insurance is, it seems to me, a parody of the real thing; yet Christians have found meaning and purpose here – a drive for evangelism.  The social gospel provides meaning and purpose for some – yet again a shadow of the whole. Calvinism, in some forms, provides an answer to the existential question – but lacks any real purpose for our life today.

On the question of reasons for faith:

Is the search of meaning the primary motivation in life? Does this search for meaning provide a pointer toward God and a reason for belief?

We can take this a step further though:

How does the Christian story provide meaning and purpose to the individual life?

Is this different for the “next Christians?” If so how and why?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • Michael W. Kruse

    For most of us most of the time, there is not search for the meaning of life. I’ll expand.

    Os Guinness talks of humanity living between a rock and a hard place. The rock is that we are mortal and apart from God there is no ultimate meaning to our existence. The hard place is that we are cut off from God’s presence with no way of coming into his presence. God sends Cain out of his presence to “settle” in the land of Nod, the land of “wandering,” an impossible feat. That is the human dilemma. So what does humanity do? Diversion.

    Human cultures are about giving a plausible sense of meaning. Cain has a son and starts a city, he starts a family and he begins civilization. He names both the son and the city “initiate” (Enoch). The civil authority and the family were the two societal institutions of the ancient world, religion inseparably interwoven throughout the two. They provided the meaning for life. Cain is initiating a life of meaning apart from God but it is an illusion. Cain’s project has been our project ever since.

    Press human constructed meaning too far and it will collapse. But all society needs is for most of the people most of the time to have a sense of meaning to their lives. The meaning need merely seem plausible. Peter Berger talks about plausibility structures, sets of institutions, rituals, mores, and behaviors that we communally enter into, reinforcing to each other what seems real. At any given moment the great majority of us are not seeking meaning in our life. The diversion of plausible meaning is sufficient.

  • Ray Ingles

    Michael – why would a meaning that God imparted be an ‘ultimate meaning’?

    From here:

    To say that some event means something without at least some implicit understanding of who it means something to is to express an incomplete idea, no different than sentence fragments declaring that “Went to the bank” or “Exploded.” Without first specifying a particular subject and/or object, the very idea of meaning is incoherent.

    Yet too often people still try to think of meaning in a disconnected and abstract sense, ending up at bizarre and nonsensical conclusions. They ask questions like: What is the meaning of my life? What does it matter if I love my children when I and they and everyone that remembers us will one day not exist? But these are not simply deep questions without answers: they are incomplete questions, incoherent riddles missing key lines and clues. Whose life? Meaningful to whom? Matters to whom? Who are you talking about?

    Once those clarifying questions are asked and answered, the seeming impossibility of the original question evaporates, its flaws exposed. We are then left with many more manageable questions: What is the meaning of my/your/their life to myself/my parents/my children? These different questions may have different answers: your parents may see you as a disappointment for becoming a fireman instead of a doctor, and yet your children see you as a hero.

  • DRT

    I must say I am a Camus fan on this point:

    “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

    I still question whether the absurdity of life is solved by faith or whether it is just another, as rjs said, vicarious substitute for our will to meaning, or as Michael said, another diversion. In the end faith and religion could just be insolvable diversions, projects or problems that have the opportunity to be life long pursuits. The god project is inherently a pursuit that we cannot attain. The ultimate absurdity.

  • Scot McKnight

    On meaning:

    Meaning emerges out of our ability to narrate a Story of the world and our place in it. I would contend that we are Story-telling creatures, and this is a central dimension to our being Eikons of God, and so searching for meaning is the search for the Story that makes most sense of our life in this world.

  • Michael W. Kruse

    #2 Ray

    I think the question here is transcendent meaning. How does my particular existence with transcendent realities of space, time, place, and other lives? How am I integrated into the larger reality? My answer to this question will then shape the multitude of penultimate questions that affect my sense of meaning and purpose.

    I am mortal. Everything about me dies when I do. Only derivatives of me exist in the form of artifacts I leave behind or in the memories people have. But soon the people die who knew me well and the significance of whatever artifacts survive will be lost. Eventually, entire civilizations are forgotten.

    Was Shakespeare right?

    “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more: it is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.”

    And to quote Woody Allen, “I don’t want to become immortal through my work. I want to become immortal by not dying.” If I am not immortal, and there is no sense-making being that is immortal, then Shakespeare is right. Beings that try to make sense of things are unfortunate anomalies in the universe.

    I’m suggesting that human culture presents us with plausible answers that integrate us with a transcendent world. Peter Berger called it the sacred canopy. The canopy shields us from meaninglessness by offering a plausible reality. Steven Colbert might say it has a truthiness to it. All that is needed is for most of the people most of the time be content with the truthiness of the sacred canopy convey.

  • Michael W. Kruse

    I mentioned Os Guinness above. The context for his remarks was a presentation on apologetics, a discipline usually defined as defending God and the Bible. Guinness argues that apologetics is not defensive but subversive. It is not about defending truth but unmasking untruth.

    He explains that most evangelistic efforts have little lasting success. We say “Jesus is the answer” when 99% of the population isn’t even asking the question. They are content the answer they have. He proposes that we begin by asking questions, telling subversive stories (like ones about good Samaritans and people who are last moving to the front of the line) and behaving in subversive ways (like worshiping together as free persons and slaves, jews and gentiles, males and females, and wealthy and poor to the utter consternation of Roman authorities; or when plague hits the city, staying joyfully behind to care for the sick and dying while those who worship the Roman gods flee in panic.) It is by lovingly poking holes in the sacred canopy that people will come to ask the question to which Jesus is the answer. And I add that once knowing the answer they must become part of community that lives under God’s canopy.

    But DRT #3 is right . God’s people are very prone to re-fabricating a God’s canopy into one that is full of diversion as well. And sometimes God uses those outside the church to do a little apologetic work on the church.

  • Ray Ingles

    Michael W. Kruse —

    If I am not immortal, and there is no sense-making being that is immortal, then Shakespeare is right.

    If you follow that link, you will see that it also addresses the relation of permanence and meaning. Devotes an entire clearly-labeled section to it, in fact.

    I didn’t write that essay, by the way – I simply find it a well-written and brilliantly clear elaboration of the point.

  • rjs


    I don’t really understand the point that you are trying to make. Perhaps you could elaborate (well in a concise fashion).

    I see a connection between the ideas in this post and many of the issues in the church regarding the next generation. Specifically the issues brought up in many of Scot’s posts over the last few days. I would say we are looking for meaning – and the biggest problem with faith, Christian faith to be specific, arises when it is revealed as a diversion rather than a mission coupled with a transcendent purpose.

    Jesus as messiah is a call to a life that is coupled with mission and purpose; not a me and God purpose, but a communal purpose.

    A life that is kept separate and pure is ultimately devoid of meaning and purpose.

  • Michael W. Kruse

    RJS #8

    In ancient cultures you tended to have a monolithic canopy and considerable energy was invested in protecting that one canopy. As British sociologist Tony Walter wrote thirty years ago (“Sacred Cows: Exploring Contemporary Idolatry,” Zondervan, 1979), we in the modern West have a menu of idols to choose from in our canopy. One idol fails, no worries. There is another that will work. Romantic love fails, I’ll move to the idol of success. Wealth fails? I’ll become an ascetic. Asceticism fails, I’ll be an environmentalist … and so on. All are legitimate altars at which to worship and we just keep shuffling folks around as disillusionment arises.

    We intellectuals come to places like Jesus Creed to talk among ourselves about the meaning of life but this is not what is preoccupying the daily lives of the vast majority of people. For most of them, most of the time, the menu options from the sacred canopy work well enough. It is only at moments of great transcendence (the loss of a loved one, the birth of a child, the loss of a job, a fortuitous windfall, an unrealized dream) that the sacred canopy can strain and crack under the pressure.

    What I hear next generation Christians saying is that the canopy as constructed and offered by recent generations of Christians is not effective. It doesn’t answer the questions that they encounter and it doesn’t provide a plausible response to others in the culture. It is a diversion, as you say. They want to remodel or replace the canopy that the church has offered. But for their canopy to succeed in any transformative sense … to have plausibility … it must have broad acceptance.

    And what many next generation Christians are doing (and please keep in mind I have not said all) is not so much asking a question of meaning but trying to make the canopy come into compliance with what they already experience as plausible. And that sense of plausibility often comes from the culture’s sacred canopy, not from the work of the Spirit. So intending to replace the diversion of traditional Christianity they end up unwittingly substituting a new diversion Christianity that feels more plausible.

    I’m not singling out this generation of Christians. I’m suggesting that this is the ongoing challenge of the human predicament that dogs every generation.

  • rjs

    Thanks Michael,

    That helps – but I disagree somewhat. The diversions work, even the diversions of Christianity because there is a search for meaning. Sure it isn’t conscious most of the time for most people – but that makes it no less real and no less a powerful a force or urge.

    I think you are right – the next generation is rejecting a canopy with deep flaws, and replacing it with a more palatable canopy, palatable in part because of changes in culture. Is it simply another diversion?

    But I also think that the urges that drive are universal, transcend time and place, and these are the urges that should be reached by the gospel through the power of the Spirit.

    I am also not so sure the canopy was monolithic in ancient cultures – and I am don’t think that it was monolithic in the 1st century Roman world, including Palestine. Part of the flawed thinking of any generation is an oversimplification and broad generalization of prior generations. They were as complex and varied as we are.

  • DRT

    I do a bible study with people from a company that typically has rather high achievers. There are a few recent grads in the class and when talking to them they each have expressed the idea that they don’t know what they are doing in life and the whole job thing is not much of a starter for them. I have been shocked since 1) most of my friends and I wanted to rule the world when we were young and 2) I don’t know how they made it through the screening process with that attitude.

    In a way it is better to be young and dumb and just throw yourself at work and career and family. It was obvious to me when I was young what I had to do. They just seem lost….

    BTW, they believe they just need to believe to go to heaven…………and they think I must be on drugs.

  • Michael W. Kruse

    RJS #10

    It would take to much time to unpack historical differences I see here and that is tangential to the post. But let me be clear about one issue. I think we may be talking past each other a bit.

    One modern idol that provides a sacred canopy: Achieving high economic and social status. A person who lives under this canopy who has not achieved high status may indeed feel his life is meaningless. He sets out to achieve meaning through success. This person is most certainly working to give meaning to his life, he is seeking to achieve transcendence.

    However, he is not asking “What is the meaning of life?” He knows what the meaning is and he is pursing it. Others also share his belief in this mission toward transcendence and live in pursuit of it as well. They create a plausibility structure where they represent the legitimacy of this meaning to life back and forth to each other. It is their sacred canopy.

    “How can I best pursue a known meaning of life?” is a different question from asking “What is the meaning of life?” I’m saying that few at any given moment are asking the latter question at any given moment.

  • rjs


    Don’t you think that the prevalence of jokes in our culture about such things as pursuit of wealth, the stories we tell in movies and books, tend to suggest that such knowledge of the meaning we seek is not so satisfactorily widespread? Some know – or know at a given time and place – others not … for many it isn’t an active quest or a conscious quest, just an underlying unease. Even the rather slapstick Green Hornet movie I saw a month ago taps into this.

    Look – I am not claiming that most walk around in a fog. I am saying two things: first, this need for meaning and purpose as a feature of human existence is a signpost, whether one has found purpose or not. That is really the point of this post.

    The second thing I am trying to say as I think through this is in conjunction with Scot’s post(s) … this need for meaning is a feature of human existence that is central to the gospel message. The command to go into all the world and make disciples is command to orient and teach others to orient in line with the mission of God. A gospel message that is Sunday only, or fire-insurance only, or even that chief purpose of man is to worship God only, will have little impact on anyone other than the “full time worker” because it is irrelevant to life and to practical purpose. But the kingdom gospel undermines and subverts all of these “diversions.”

  • Michael W. Kruse

    #11 DRT

    I’ve had similar experiences myself with Bible studies but I remind myself that people who have come to Bible study are not a representative sample of the whole group. In fact, they are most likely to be outliers. Part of what drives them to Bible study is their disconnect with ethos they are living in … the sacred canopy … an ethos that most of the cohorts in their field embrace. It is precisely the fact that so few question the ethos that makes it feel oppressive.

    Now here is the interesting question. How many of the disenchanted will believe that a switch to a more satisfying job will bring meaning to life? In other words, we trade the idol of high financial achievement for the idol of a “meaningful” job. It is a variation on achieving meaning through work. (Another menu option.) They aren’t questioning what gives meaning (i.e., a fulfilling job). The are questioning whether they have made the correct tactical decisions toward what they know will bring meaning.

  • Michael W. Kruse

    RJS #13

    I fully embrace your second paragraph. The issue I trying to press is that I think there are precious few who are just waiting for us to show up with the “good news.” They don’t have an acute enough sense of “bad news” to think they need good news.

    And as to many having doubts about success through achieving status, absolutely! That is why there are alternate idols, like achieving meaning through romantic love and marriage, or becoming one with the environment, or devoting yourself to patriotic movements. Again if one fails, society offers another. It isn’t simply a matter of showing up with the gospel to answer people’s questions. There competition and deception that the gospel has to proactively penetrate and unveil. The soil has to be broken for the seed to be planted.