The Meaning of Life in 3 and 43 Minutes

This three-minute video from Stephen Fry is doing the rounds on Social Networks at the moment.

In it he explains how he can be happy and how it is possible to find meaning in life without belief in a transcendent God or over-arching purpose to the universe. For what it’s worth, I think it’s a fairly nicely expressed, hope-giving video. And I appreciate the fact that Stephen Fry does not adopt an unnecessarily hostile tone towards those whose faith he disagrees with in this video, unlike some of his atheist counterparts. But I can’t help but feel his video only tells part of the story…

Last week I watched this talk by Tim Keller on ‘A Meaning that Suffering Can’t Take Away.’ I’m a big Keller fan anyway, and even though I was familiar with all of the ideas expressed here, I found it a fascinating (if a little shambolic and under-polished!) place to start a series designed for sceptics who are ‘Questioning Christianity.’ You can find out more about Keller’s series hereand his Pascalian approach to apologetics here

Without replicating Keller’s argument in full, I think he makes a helpful distinction between different types of ‘meaning’ that videos like Fry’s fail to account for. He frames the talk around the question ‘can there be meaning in life without God?’ and his answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’

He observes that there has been a shift in thinking about meaning that is unique to Western Culture at this point in history. That shift is to see meaning as being ‘self-created’ rather than ‘discovered.’ In previous generations and cultures, meaning was thought to exist objectively and could be discovered by us through religion, intellect, experience… etc. But now, many thinkers – and Keller cites examples from the likes of Thomas Nagel, Bertrand Russell, Stephen Hawking and Stephen Jay Gould – deny the existence of objective, discoverable meaning. However, they argue, this should not be a problem. In fact it is a freeing thing, for we can decide what our own meaning is. We can find meaning through living the best life possible in accordance with our passions and values. Hence Fry’s video.

Now, in a sense I find this quite compelling. Not the ‘there is no objective meaning’ bit. But the ‘we can derive meaning from living well’ bit. I know that there are certain things I can do, certain ways I can live, that create an enormous sense of purpose; like I’m achieving the things I was put here to do. People of all faiths and none can find an enormous sense of happiness and purpose from doing their work well, giving to those in need, building life-giving relationships etc.

But, says Keller, the problem with these self-created forms of meaning is that they are less durable than their ‘discovered’ counterparts, because they can be easily destroyed by suffering – and all of us are, at one point or another, bound to suffer.

He cites Tolstoy and Viktor Frankl, both of whom reflected deeply on the difficulty of maintaining hope and meaning in the face of death and/or suffering. In his Confession, Tolstoy famously asked, “Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?”and when faced with enormous suffering in the death camps, Frankl noted that the people who were best-equipped to maintain hope were those who believed that there was something beyond this life.

Keller puts it like this,

‘Every single civilisation or culture before our own always said your meaning in life is something outside of this life. And therefore even though suffering hurts, suffering can actually help you get to your goal. Suffering is terrible, but it can actually make you a better person. But if the meaning of life is here and it is something the death camp can take away from you then you’re not durable.’

Now clearly a statement like that is hardly the final word on the matter, and one might easily respond that belief in the afterlife amounts to little more than wishful thinking. (For evidence and further arguments, continue listening to Keller’s series and examine the claims about the historical evidence surrounding the resurrection of Jesus.) But I find it to be a helpful clarifying distinction, and one that explains the continued attractiveness of religion even in a highly secularised age such as ours.

By all means, derive joy from moments of a job well done; a deed kindly offered; a life changed through generosity. But know this: unless these moments and sources of meaning are undergirded with something more durable, external, and eternal, then they may not be able to withstand the inevitable pressure that comes with unexpected suffering.

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