belief … the meaning of life

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 you have comments please visit belief … the meaning of life at Jesus Creed

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