Life and meaning
Do our lives have spiritual meaning? Are they for anything? If we turn to the world's two largest religions—Christianity and Islam—the answer is yes: the meaning of life is to believe in god, to abide by his commandments, and to seek forgiveness for our sins (for the Bible, see Exodus 34:14, Matthew 22:36–38, 2 John 1:5–6, Ecclesiastes 12:13; for the Quran, see 24:52, and 51:56).
Succeeding with that is thought to be absolutely critical. If we believe in god and live up to his expectations, we can hope to be rewarded with an eternity of bliss in heaven. If we fail to believe and act as we’re expected to, however, we can expect to be punished in hell for eternity.
While more than half the world's population accepts this religious vision of reality, I can't say it has ever made any sense to me. Among its many problems, the most fundamental is that it doesn't take the idea of god seriously. Just imagine waking up one day and discovering that you have god-like qualities. You know absolutely everything there is to know, you can do anything you want to, you can be wherever you want, and so on. Finding yourself in that situation, would your first thought be to make everyone worship you and torture them for the length of eternity if they don't?
If your answer is yes, I can only say that you think and feel very differently from me. While it's easy to imagine a Napoleonic character enamored with the idea of being worshipped, I tend to think about divine beings in significantly less egocentric, vain, and despotic terms. Unfortunately, religion does not.
If life has any spiritual meaning underlying it at all, then, it seems to me that it would be something far more beautiful and interesting than the traditional religious account. The question is, though, what?
An alternative possibility
I have the following suggestion to offer:
The spiritual meaning of life—if indeed it has one—is connected with three order interchangeable things: insight, understanding, and choice.
Putting it most simply, life is a way for us to “see” so as to know. It is a path to the truth, where the truths in question are ones that are relevant to us as conscious and eternal beings. Our lives are a bit like the stories of novels that unveil truths about things like love or guilt or fear or powerlessness, except that with life the story is happening to us and we have the power to shape it.
Understanding truths related to the stuff of life is important, for it enables us to grow and develop in terms of who and what we are by leading to changes at the level of our beliefs, values, and attitudes. In essence, it facilitates our spiritual evolution by placing truth before our own eyes.
It would be not be accurate to think of life as a kind of "school," for that implies the existence of a teacher directing our learning and attention. A better metaphor would be that life is a crucible of experience where truths of many different kinds rise to the surface. By throwing ourselves into the midst of life, we position ourselves to come into contact with truth and grow ever higher as a result.
Life from this point of view
Ok, you might say, but what might someone's spiritual development look like in practice? What is an example of a spiritually significant truth that, when apprehended and digested, contributes to their spiritual elevation?
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 the Filipino Catholic engaged in self-flagellation to the right. 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. After all, what good does it do?
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 spiritually meaningful and important truth, this, surely, is one of them
I can't list everything that life stands to give us glimpses towards the truth of, but a illustrative sample would 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 virtue 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 worshipping 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 nice account of the spiritual meaning of life doesn't make it true. There may be no spiritual meaning to life at all. Yet if life does have a spiritual meaning, I think it is much more likely to be something along these lines than what religion has suggested.
The unimaginable beauty of our lives
Life is clearly not an easy undertaking for most people, for it is packed full of great difficulties and challenges. 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 a motivation and a project more beautiful than I have any words to describe. True, the kind of lives we end up living may vary considerably in beauty from person to person, but that first spiritual intention would belong to all of us, and no words can do any justice to it. United in a common cause of enlightenment, if the theory outlined here is right then, from a spiritual standpoint at least, our lives are beautiful beyond measure.