Philip Quinn: The Meaning of Life According to Christianity

Philip L. Quinn (1940 – 2004) was a philosopher and theologian who earned his PhD in philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh. Quinn was on the faculty of Brown University, and in 1985, he assumed a position as the John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

In his 1997 piece, “The Meaning of Life According to Christianity” Quinn dismisses the claim that the meaning of life question is meaningless. He argues that we can define two sorts of meanings that life might have: 1) axiological meaning (AM)—human life has AM if it has both positive intrinsic value and is on the whole valuable for the person living it ; or 2) teleological meaning (TM)—a human life has TM if all of the following are true: a) it contains some non-trivial, subjective, purposes; b) such purposes have positive value; and c) actions performed to achieve these purposes are done with zest.

A life might have AM and not TM; it might have TM and not AM, it might have no meaning, or it might have complete meaning (CM)—both positive AM and TM. In other words, such a life would be subjectively valuable, objectively purposeful and done with zeal.

Quinn notes that we can tell narratives of individual human lives or of the human race which contain complete meaning—for Christians the narrative of the life of Jesus reveals such meaning. Quinn considers some problems with living as an imitator of Jesus, for instance, that it might lead to TM meaning but not AM meaning. Such concerns lead him to add something else for complete meaning: “survival of bodily death seems required to secure…positive complete meaning …”[i] Turning to narrative of the entire human race, Christians have the narrative of salvation history which reveals some of their god’s purposes, and we can find meaning by aligning ourselves to these purposes. But what of those who do not align themselves with their god’s purposes? Are they condemned or does their god save them? Quinn leaves the question open.

Quinn then addresses Thomas Nagel’s claim that from an objective point of view our lives have little significance—a view that the Christian narrative of world history repudiates. Still, humans need to remember that from their god’s point of view there are other things besides humans that are important. Moreover, Christians should be humble about the meaning they derive from their narratives, as there are many narratives and interpretations of narratives, not to mention that other religions have reasonable things to say about the meaning of life. So Christians should be modest about claiming that they know life’s complete meaning, even if they think Christian stories are best at providing insight. “When Christianity secures life’s meanings, it should not offer Christians so much security that they acquire the arrogant tendency to see their story apart from and above all other sources of insight into life’s meanings.”[ii]

To summarize, a human life has complete meaning if and only if it: 1) has both positive intrinsic value and is on the whole valuable for the person living it; 2) contains some non-trivial, subjective, valuable purposes that are engaging for that person; and 3) we have immortal souls. From a Christian perspective the world does have complete meaning, although we cannot be certain of exactly how it does.

[I  like the humility that Quinn brings to his analysis. Surprisingly I also agree with his basic idea of what makes a meaningful life. Of course I don’t think we need Christianity to make sense of life. And of course the basic Christian story is for the most part obviously unscientific and untrue and thus irrelevant. Still I did enjoy reading Quinn.]

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[i] Philip Quinn, “The Meaning of Life According to Christianity,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) 38.

[ii] Quinn, “The Meaning of Life According to Christianity,” 40.

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