Committing to grad school means time, money and, for most of us, anxiety. An early graying head is a sign of a PhD candidate. Despite the cost, many of us enter into this commitment without much deep reflection on the function of grad school. Sure, we consider the end result—a higher pay rate, power to help those who can’t help themselves, accomplishment of our dreams, and so on—but questions of real, ultimate purpose often go unanswered. Why is a higher paying job more desirable? Why should we want to help the poor and oppressed? Who cares about accomplished dreams and success?
To begin to answer these questions we need to ponder purpose. That is, “Why am I here?” If we can answer the quandary of fundamental human purpose and meaning, then answers to all the other questions will begin falling into place. But again, many of us never really think about the “big question.” For some it’s just too overwhelming. For others, the day-to-day routine doesn’t allow time for such consideration. Or maybe, if you’re like me, the question of purpose is always lingering in the background, whispering at every turn, nudging every decision. Whatever the case may be, I hope the following discussion aids in the pursuit of an enriched and satisfying human life.
I’ve done a bit of digging and come up with several “purpose statements.” The following is an assortment of today’s (and one of yesterday’s) most prominent voices in the question of human purpose: the Dalai Lama XIV, N. T. Wright, Albert Einstein, Christopher Hitchens, and Pope Francis I. These quotes are only snapshots—they don’t capture fully the philosophies they represent, but they do, I think, offer clarifying windows into their respective worldviews.
The Fourteenth Dalai Lama (From the Speech of His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the “Forum 2000″ Conference, Prague, Czech Republic, September 1997. http://www.dalailama.com/messages/compassion).
I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy. From the very core of our being, we desire contentment. In my own limited experience I have found that the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being. Cultivating a close, warmhearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the principal source of success in life. Since we are not solely material creatures, it is a mistake to place all our hopes for happiness on external development alone. The key is to develop inner peace.
N. T. Wright (From After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. Understand that, for Wright, Christians are “royal priests”.)
Royal priests are, in short, to work at revealing the glory of God to the world. That is the task of the renewed Temple. But if, as in John’s gospel, the glory of God is revealed when Jesus of Nazareth goes to the cross as the supreme act of love (John 13.1; 17.1-5), then we should expect that God’s glory will be reflected out into the world when Jesus’ followers learn the habits of mind, heart, and life that imitate the generous love of Jesus and thus bring new order, beauty, and freedom to the world. . . . We are given . . . the promise that the earth shall be full of the knowledge and glory of God, as the waters cover the sea; we are given the resurrection of Jesus to be the start of that project; and we are given the Holy Spirit to enable us to anticipate the former by implementing the latter. To begin on those tasks does not mean we know all and can see exactly what needs doing . . . It means that we are committed to taking the difficult first steps toward acquiring the corporate habits that will be justice-generating, beauty-producing, and freedom-enhancing, and to continuing the many-sided debates as to what exactly those phrases will mean. And, once again, every follower of Jesus will have his or her own unique and interestingly different vocation within this complex overall project. . . .
The task of being God’s royal priesthood in the present, then, is all about worship and mission—a worship and mission which share a heart, the heart that is learning to love God the creator and God the recreator and discovering how to develop the habits that will reflect God’s love into the world and the world’s grateful love back in return. (pp. 234-235)
Albert Einstein (From The World As I See It)
What an extraordinary situation is that for us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose we know not, though we sometimes think we feel it. But from the point of view of daily life, without going deeper, we exist for our fellow man—in the first place for those on whose smiles and welfare all our happiness depends, and next for all those unknown to us personally with whose destinies we are bound up by the tie of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving. I am strongly drawn to the simple life and am often oppressed by the feeling that I am engrossing an unnecessary amount of the labor of my fellow men. . . . The life of the individual has meaning only in so far as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful. Life is sacred—that is to say, it is the supreme value, to which all other values are subordinate.
Christopher Hitchens (From The Portable Atheist)
The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.
Note: For Hitchens, life has no universal overriding purpose, and needs none for a satisfying existence.
Pope Francis I (From his recent exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel)
8. Thanks solely to [the] encounter–or renewed encounter–with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others? . . .
267. In union with Jesus, we seek what he seeks and we love what he loves. In the end, what we are seeking is the glory of the Father; we live and act “for the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph 1:6). If we wish to commit ourselves fully and perseveringly, we need to leave behind every other motivation. This is our definitive, deepest and greatest motivation, the ultimate reason and meaning behind all we do: the glory of the Father which Jesus sought at every moment of his life. As the Son, he rejoices eternally to be “close to the Father’s heart” (Jn 1:18). If we are missionaries, it is primarily because Jesus told us that “by this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit” (Jn 15:8). Beyond all our own preferences and interests, our knowledge and motivations, we evangelize for the greater glory of the Father who loves us.
What about you? Which of these resonates? What is the purpose of the human life, and how might that practically inform decisions toward grad school? Please, do comment. Your input is the most valuable part of this conversation. Without it, there is no conversation.
About the author:
My wife and I live in South Hamilton, MA where I'm pursuing an MDiv at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and she's serving as Intervarsity staff on campus at Northeastern University. I study Theology and History and Philosophy "as ends in themselves" (in the Aristotelian sense), as well as for a further, more complete end: a deeper understanding of my King and, thus, a more dynamic relationship with him.
I graduated this past spring (2013) with BA in Religious Studies (Hinduism and Buddhism concentration) and a minor in Classical Greek (Homeric/Ionic/Attic/Doric/Koine, appx. 8th BCE - 5th CE). The study of the ancient world in its original context and language fascinates me, especially that of the Early Christians, Ancient Jews and Hellenes.
For more of my writing, see my blog @ www.philotheology.com