Life and Meaning
According to both Christianity and Islam, the meaning of life is to believe in god, to abide by his commandments, and to seek forgiveness for our sins (Exodus 34:14, Matthew 22:36–38, 2 John 1:5–6, Ecclesiastes 12:13; 24:52, and 51:56). Doing this is said to be very important, for it determines what happens to us after we die.
Unfortunately, this account doesn't make a great deal of philosophical sense. After all, why would god seek worship and obedience from people, or threaten them with eternal punishment if they don't? While the most vain and egocentric examples of human beings might be enamored by such things, it does not fit with the concept of divinity to imagine god being like that.
Suppose there is actually a spiritual purpose behind life, though. What alternative account works better?
An alternative possibility
Certain truths have the potential to have a powerful—even transformative—effect on who we are. In one way or another, to be aware of them is to have one's thinking reshaped by them.
Is it possible that the meaning of life is tied in with that? Consider the following idea:
The spiritual meaning of life is connected with insight, understanding, and choice. We live so that we might expand our understanding of spiritually important truths, and through that, develop who we are.
On this account, life is a way for us to “see” so as to know. It is a path to the truth, where the truths understood are ones that are relevant to us as conscious and eternal beings.
Understanding truths is important, for it enables us to evolve who and what we are by leading to changes in our beliefs, values, and attitudes. In essence, it facilitates our spiritual development by putting truth immediately before our own eyes.
It would be not be accurate on this account to think of life as a kind of "school", for that would imply someone acting as a teacher. A more accurate metaphor would frame life as a crucible of experience where truths of different kinds rise to the surface. By throwing ourselves into the midst of this crucible, we position ourselves to grow in terms of who and what we are.
Life is a difficult question; I have decided to spend my life in thinking about it.
Life from this point of view
Consider the following: does holding onto anger typically enhance a person's life? Does it usually produce desirable in-life circumstances? Anger is certainly capable of leading to positive changes and situations. For example, anger at how a group of people are being treated might lead others to take a stand in the name of justice, and that might lead to healthy changes or restitution coming about.
The problem is that anger can also be very harmful, as fights while drunk and bursts of outrage clearly attest. Indeed, in some ways anger is intrinsically harmful, for it degrades how we feel and saps us of energy. No matter what positive steps anger might drive someone to take, then, anger has a toxicity about it, and when we hold on to it for no good reason at all—such as when there is nothing good that might possibly come from it—the only thing left for it to do is to gnaw away at us from the inside. As the Buddha is alleged to have said, “Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
Anger directed against oneself is even more problematic, yet for many people holding anger against themselves is practically a mode of living. The reason why is not hard to understand.
Being angry at ourselves, we think, helps keep us safe, for it acts as a form of self-punishment. When we try to achieve something and we fail, or when we set high standards for ourselves and fall short of them, the pain of the disappointment can be extreme. One thing people often do as a response is use self-anger as a way of motivating them to do better next time.
The logic runs like this: by making the pain of defeat even more bitter—by holding anger against ourselves for our defeats and losses—we further incentivize our future success, and therein help secure ourselves against the threat of future failure and disappointment. In this way, self-anger becomes associated with increased safety from unpleasant experiences. Far from undermining us, anger protects us.
Yet consider a Filipino Catholic engaged in an act of self-flagellation. Most of us would view his actions as both unnecessary and harmfully self-damaging. We might even try and talk him out of it if we could. The irony is that millions upon millions of us do its emotional equivalent by punishing ourselves through self-directed anger for failing or falling short. The wounds from doing so may lie on the inside, but they are wounds all the same.
Recognizing this truth—about anger and about better and worse ways of responding to failure and the possibility of it—is an important truth, and it lies with the capacities of life to reveal it to us. If there is any such thing as a spiritual truth, this, surely, is one of them.
We are far better persuaded by reasons we discover ourselves, than by those given to us by others.
—Blaise Pascal, paraphrased
In Pursuit of Truth
It's impossible to list every truth that life might give us glimpses of, but a sample might include things like:
authenticity, challenge, commitment, compassion, competition/conflict, cruelty, dependence, desire, doubt, emptiness, endurance, error, failure, faith, fallibility, fear, foolishness, forgiveness, freedom, frustration, giving up and letting go, goodness, guilt, happiness, honesty, hope, inaction, independence, intimacy, justice/injustice, limitation, loneliness, loss, love, loyalty, oppression, ostracism, persecution, power, pride, procrastination, rejection, sacrifice, self-belief, self-control, self-deception, self-judgment, self-representation, self-sabotage, self-worth, shame, success, trust, truth and truth-seeking, victimhood, wisdom, and the power of actions, feelings and ideas.
It is in more deeply understanding truths related to such things as that that I believe the higher meaning of our lives is to be found, for that knowledge allows us to change and adapt who we are for the better.
How does this compare?
This picture of life has the advantage of taking the idea of god as a divine being seriously. We aren't required to believe that god would set the entire universe into being just so that we could spend our lives on something as implausible and ugly as worshiping him. Rather, we are here to further our self-directed evolution through an deepening of our independent understanding of being. Not only is it easy to imagine a divine being viewing such a thing as profoundly good, it is easy to imagine us wanting that for ourselves, too. In this sense, it unites both the human and the divine.
Of course, having a pleasing account of the spiritual meaning of life doesn't make it true. Equally, though, if life does indeed have a spiritual meaning, this account strikes me as a more plausible possibility than traditional religious accounts.
The unimaginable beauty of our lives
Life is not an easy undertaking. For many people, and for a lot of the time, life is a difficult and challenging thing. Yet on the theory just outlined, we have each chosen to be here, and have done so because in choosing to live, we stand to grow ourselves by apprehending important truths relating to our existences.
This is more beautiful than there are words to describe. True, the kind of lives we end up living may vary considerably in beauty from person to person, but that spiritual intention would underpin every person's life. United in a common cause of enlightenment, our lives are beautiful beyond measure.