Life is not about us. My life is not about me. Your life is not about you. We are part of a web of relationships that shape us in ways that we often find difficult to analyze. The shaping influence of family, neighborhood, friends, and culture is profound. Tradition already shapes the way we live our lives. These relationships become part of us. They embed themselves in the way we reason, the things about which we become emotional, the beliefs we hold, and the values by which we live. Truly, if we view ourselves as solitary and isolated individuals, possibly fulfilling nothing other than a biological function, I grant that such questions do not arise. However, is it not self-evident that we are interdependent and interconnected?
Further, we are part of whole web of relationships with people whom we know intimately and with people whom we do not know. Using a computer will involve parts developed in
Japan and Korea, shipped to the , assembled in this
country, placed on trains or trucks, and eventually to stores and to home. Each
individual depends upon others having an interest in doing what they do, taking
responsibility for it, and doing their roles reasonably well. When others do
not fulfill their roles, as when defective products cause death or when some
choose stealing, lying, and murder, we have awareness of the slender threads
that hold community together. United States
Yet, as much as such forces provide the context of our lives, they do not determine our lives. The interconnections of relationships are not a prison. Rather, they provide the context within which we reason about our lives: its goals, purposes, ambitions, and dreams. Here is a clue to one of the most profound of human predicaments: fulfilling a task in our families or communities, even to the best that any human being has ever done, does not leave us with a sense of fulfillment. We still want to know, in the context of the various struggles, obstacles, sufferings, and evils that occur in a human life, if our lives make sense. A word makes no sense apart from a sentence. A sentence makes no sense apart from a paragraph. A paragraph makes no sense apart from the total work. A word makes no sense without the language of which it is a part. We make sense of our lives by constructing stories about them that have a point. Our individual stories occur in the context of a web of relationships of others telling stories with their lives. How our lives fit into the web of relationships that result from past and present, as well as how our lives affects the future, is a question of ultimate ends. We want to be good spouses, good parents, contribute to work that we find meaningful, and even serve in our communities. Yet, the meaning of our lives is a question dealing with a sense of wholeness and completeness of our lives. As much as our lives may feel fragmented and compartmentalized, we sense frustration with that. Although this human problem is perennial, life in a modern society tends to encourage us to live compartmentalized lives. We separate values and beliefs from business and friendships. We lead secret lives. We isolate the various fragments of our lives quite intentionally. Yet, that is our frustration. Something in us rebels against such lack of authentic living. Something in us longs for integrity and wholeness that holds together the various dimensions of our lives. We want our lives to tell a story. We want the story of our lives to be part of a story larger than we are. We want to know that our lives contribute to something larger than we are. We are aware that our lives are part of a whole that will continue beyond death. We want our lives to contribute to the wholeness of the human quest.
Therefore, although our lives are not about us, the question of how our lives fit in to this larger whole of which we are only vaguely aware is an important one to us. We discover the uniqueness of the gift we have to offer in life in the context of our relationships with others. This set of genes has never existed before and will never exist again. We value this life for the uniqueness it is, for the treasure it represents, and for the responsibility we have to discover the gift and offer it. We rightly make goals for this year, for this decade, and even for our lives. We rightly reason about such goals and the steps it takes to fulfill them. Success in setting and achieving goals at various stages of life is important for the building of self-esteem and self-confidence. Yet, these goals are of such a nature that, once reached, we simply devise new goals that we sense will bring us greater fulfillment and happiness. Success encourages us to move on to the next level of achievement. Healthy individuals do not find success a resting place, but an encouragement toward setting other worthy goals.
The question I want to propose is this: To what end and for what purpose. I doubt if any question is more simple and complex, basic and highest order, than such a question. Such a question helps us to focus our lives upon what matters most. I consider the following dimensions of our lives especially important as we reflect upon such a question.
First, such questions are the realm of religion. At its best, religion gives substance, fullness, and richness to life. It enables us to find meaning and purpose. It sets us toward home. It requires us to be more than we ever thought we could become. It raises our sights beyond self. It establishes ideals that make us stretch from where we are to where we might be.
We need to consider the place God has in our lives if we are to consider such questions. I realize the complexity of this area of life in a pluralistic and global religious community. However, I think we have good reasons to consider that if religious experience in human history has any validity, then God has sought to communicate who God is to humanity. Religion is not about itself, but about God. Further, if God has sought to communicate with humanity, it makes sense that God would have to choose some form of communication involving language, at a particular time and place. Human beings continually evaluate what believers say the realm of what the divine is like. We have access to many such beliefs only in museums. Many gods have died. They did not prove themselves in the minds and hearts of believers. Believers do not direct their attention to themselves or to their form of worship, but to the God in whom they believe. For Christians, God communicates to the people of
through Torah and prophets, and finally in Jesus of Nazareth, the Son, the Word
of God, who communicates in his person what God intends for humanity. The
history of world religion is not one in which one can assume that the realm of
the divine has a favorable disposition toward humanity. Many religions have
gods who would just as soon frustrate human endeavors as assist them. In Israel Jesus Christ, Christians believe that God has turned toward
humanity in love, grace, forgiveness, and judgment. God loves the world enough
to send his Son. On that basis, Christians believe the standard of judgment is
to turn toward the world the same love that God has for it.
Second, such questions arise out of the basic human condition. We have certain biological functions that drive and condition behavior. Yet, our brains have the capacity to interact with the world in a way that helps us to move toward reasonably happy, fulfilled, peaceful, and just lives. We can make this world increasingly like a home through the capacity we have for language. Our ability to communicate with each other now, and across generations, is a capacity that creates a space of experience more like the divine than the animal. As much a part of nature as we are, language itself creates experiences that no other part of nature has the capacity to share. We learn from each other. We learn from the past. We look forward to anticipated and improved life together. In the process, we learn our limits in our finite and temporal life. God is God; we are not. An authentic experience of God helps us approach the world with a degree of humility that we need. It saves others from experiencing our tendency toward superiority and arrogance.
Third, such questions require some awareness of the past. Of course, the past does not have authority over us, for the past has often shown itself to be quite wrong. The past consists of people who are no better and no worse than we are. Further, any present consensus, which is the result of accumulating tradition, may need correction. Yet, modernity itself has rich resources in its past from which to draw. Tradition is living in that it influences beliefs and values today. We need to learn from the past. The present has its blind spots that the past can illuminate. Tradition can constrict and bind the present from making needed changes. Yet, the present exists because of that tradition. People of the present need wise and discerning reading of the tradition within which they live. I like to think of it as a respectful dialogue, in which we today join with those of the past, who seek the same sense of truth and wholeness to life that we seek. Religious tradition becomes a map to a place no human being has gone. The path we take is our spiritual path.
Fourth, such questions take place in the context of a culture. We have the capacity to reflect upon the culture that also shapes us. We have the capacity to imagine a better culture in the future. The culture in which an individual lives intersects with the culture in which other individuals live. Cultures are not monolithic, and therefore do not impose one system upon all its members. The various groups and communities of a culture, whether as families, businesses, religions, educational institutions, have their beliefs and values somewhat distinct from the general culture. The diversity of human culture and community does not mean that all human cultures are equal. Rather, it reminds us that we have the capacity to reflect upon such diversity and learn from it. We have the capacity to see areas of needed improvement and growth. Because of the advances in technology, the matter of a global community has become increasingly important for humanity to envision.
I cannot pose the question, to what end and for what purpose is human life as if I have all the answers. I cannot pose the question as if some book has all the answers. I cannot prove anything to you. I can suggest that we reason together. I can only offer what I consider good reasons for moving down the path I suggest. Language grants us the capacity to think with others, as well as to think against others. I invite you to do both as we consider one of the most important questions any human being can consider.