For many people in the 21st century the search for some transcendent meaning is futile, a mere chasing after rainbows. The meaning of life is simply what you make of it – relationships, pleasure, achievement, accomplishment (which can include sacrificial service) – in the limited time available. Certainly this has been the response of many commenters when I’ve delved into the questions of purpose and meaning in the past. In ch. 3 of his new book Making Sense of God Tim Keller argues that, ultimately, this isn’t enough. He admits that such “subjective, created meanings do serve human life well,” (p. 74) but these can weaken under adversity or on close examination.
But what are we actually asking when inquiring about the meaning of life? In common usage the term “to mean” has two overlapping senses. The first sense has to do with purpose. … The second sense has to do with significance. …
So to have meaning in life is to have both an overall purpose for living and the assurance that you are making a difference by serving some good beyond yourself. (p. 58)
The psychological need for meaning or purpose is intrinsic to humanity. It isn’t enough to simply exist – we need to do. But perhaps the subjective created meanings are enough. Keller notes that moving from modernity to post-modernity it is claimed that the loss of Meaning is liberating. After all, if there is no transcendent Meaning, then we are free to create our own meaning.
In the modern era we mourned the loss of the Meaning of life, but in the postmodern era, an age of freedom, we say good riddance to the very idea. (p. 61)
The very idea of submission to some transcendent Meaning of life is submission to a life of bondage … to that transcendent Meaning.
Created meaning vs. discovered meaning. Keller suggests that while a secular life is not meaningless, there is something missing.
If you decide that the meaning of your life is to be a good parent, or to serve a crucial political cause, or to tutor underprivileged youth, or to enjoy and promote great literature – then you have, by definition, a meaning in life. Plenty of secular people live like this without being tortured and gloomy in the manner of Camus. It is quite possible to find great purpose in the ordinary tasks of life, apart from knowing answers to the Big Questions About Existence. (p. 65)