Category Archives: Meaning of Life – Religion – Classics

John Hick: “The Religious Meaning of Life”

John Hick

John Hick (1922 – 2012) is a world-renowned authority and an advocate of religious pluralism. He is often described as the most significant philosopher of religion in the 20th century.  He has taught at Cambridge, Birmingham, Princeton, Cornell, and Claremont Graduate School, and is the author of more than twenty-five books.

His article “The Religious Meaning of Life” (2000) claims that religious meaning concerns itself with the question of the nature of the universe and our part in it, as well as whether the universe is ultimately hostile, benign, or indifferent to our concerns. His hypothesis is that the great world religions are characterized by cosmic optimism. “That is to say, the meaning of life is such that we can have an ultimate trust and confidence, even in life’s darkest moments of suffering and sorrow.”[i]

This cosmic optimism means that our current state can be replaced by a better one and in the limitless good of nirvana, for example, meaning is found. Similar claims can be made for other great religions. The Christian gospels present the good news (the notion of eternal punishment undermines cosmic optimism but is not a biblical doctrine according to Hick), Judaism’s optimism derives from the special relationship between God and his people, Islam affirms that the universe is benign and our lives will be fulfilled in paradise, and Hinduism teaches that we move toward liberation. Cosmic optimism provides the means by which various religions answer the question of life’s meaning. Hick concludes:

the meaning for us of our human life depends upon what we believe to be the nature of the universe in which we find ourselves. The great world religions teach that the process of the universe is good from our human point of view because its ultimate principle…or its governor…is benign…This is basically a very simple and indeed…obvious suggestion—though not necessarily any the worse for that.[ii] 

Summary – The world’s religions advocate a cosmic optimism which is characterized by the belief that the universe is benign and thusly meaningful. 

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[i] John Hick, “The Religious Meaning of Life,” in The Meaning of Life in the World Religions, eds. Joseph Runzo and Nancy M. Martin, (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2000), 275.

[ii] John Hick, “The Religious Meaning of Life,” 285-86.

Huston Smith: “The Meaning of Life in the World’s Religions”

Huston Smith (1919 – ) is one of the world’s foremost scholars on world religions and his book The World’s Religions is the best-selling book in its field, having sold over 2 million copies! He has served on the faculties of Washington University in St. Louis, MIT, Syracuse, and the University of California-Berkeley.

In his article, “The Meaning of Life in the World’s Religions,” (2000) Smith specifically addresses the question of how the generic religious standpoint supplies an answer to the question of meaning. He begins by asserting: “That life is meaningful is religion’s basic posit, and the claim can be elucidated both subjectively and objectively, the difference being whether we are thinking primarily of life’s meaning for us or, alternatively, trying to determine its meaning in the total scheme of things.”[i] Human life is objectively meaningful because it expresses god’s infinity; that is, without us god would not be god.

Smith explains this cryptic notion by saying that we are part of a great chain of being which extends down from the heavenly world to the physical world. The distinction between these two worlds is an essential element of the world’s religions. We encounter the physical world with our senses aided by our technological instruments while we encounter the heavenly world with our intuition, thoughts, and feelings. We begin with our human traits and elevate and extend them far enough and we encounter gods. This archetype of human beings is more real than actual humans, ultimately being transpersonal and ineffable. Our purpose from God’s perspective is to complete God’s infinity by including us, creatures who can flesh out that infinity. And what could be more meaningful than making god, god? And if such an answer is too esoteric, one can meditate or serve god to experience meaning.

Smith asks whether the basic posit of religion is true, but he grants that there is no way to decisively know. Life and the world come to us ambiguously, so we have no conclusive ground on which to assert its meaning. Nonetheless, there are some considerations that weigh in favor of religions’ basic posit. They are that the phenomena of life typically present themselves as problems in hope of solutions which call for human effort and the support of others. Religion corresponds well to this with the concepts of suffering, hope, effort, and grace. Thus, while the religious view cannot be shown to be true, its vision describes the phenomena of life quite well. It maps categories of reality that appear embedded in our experience of that reality.

Summary – Religion posits that there is a meaning to life and there are good reasons to think that the religious posit is true.

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[i] Huston Smith, “The Meaning of Life in the World’s Religions,” in The Meaning of Life in the World Religions, eds. Joseph Runzo and Nancy Martin (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2000), 255.

Summary of William James’ “Is Life Worth Living?”

William James (1842 – 1910) was trained as a medical doctor, was one of the most important figures in the history of American philosophy, and was a pioneering psychologist. He is the brother of the novelist Henry James, and friend of numerous intellectuals including: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sanders Peirce, Bertrand Russell, Josiah Royce, Ernst Mach, John Dewey, Mark Twain, Henri Bergson and Sigmund Freud.  He spent his entire academic career at Harvard. The following is a summary of an address James gave to the Harvard YMCA in 1895 entitled: “Is Life Worth Living?”

James began by noting that some answer this question with a temperamental optimism that denies the existence of evil—for example, the poet Walt Whitman and philosopher Rousseau. For both of them to breathe, to walk, or to sleep is joy or felicity itself. According to James, the problem with this approach is that such moods are impermanent, and the personalities that experience them are not universal; if they were, the question of whether life is worth living would not arise. Instead, most of us oscillate between joy and sadness, between ecstasy and despair, and therefore for most of us the thought that life is not worth living occasionally arises. Almost anyone in the midst of some merriment and suddenly confronted with death, disease, and suffering, would find that their unabated exuberance about life quickly dispelled.

Suicide is evidence that not all individuals are temperamentally optimistic, and many more experience despondency after philosophical reflection. If such reflection about the ultimate nature of things breeds despair, how can reflection combat that gloom? James provides a preview of his answer: “Let me say, immediately, that my final appeal is to nothing more recondite than religious faith.”[i] The reason for this is that pessimism results from a religious demand that has not been satisfied. The chief source of this pessimism is our reflective grasp of the contradiction between the facts of nature and our desire to believe there is something good behind those facts. For the credulous such reflective pessimism does not surface, but for more scientific minded there are only two possible solutions to the apparent discord: 1) forgo a religious or poetic reading of reality and accept the bare facts of nature; or 2) adopt new beliefs or discover new facts to reconcile a religious reading of reality with the hard facts of science.

But what new religious beliefs might hasten this reconciliation? James claims that the essence of religious supernaturalism is the view that the natural order is part of a larger reality which in turn gives significance to our mundane existence and explains the world’s riddles. These are the kinds of belief that might aid us in our search for meaning. James now presents a preview of his conclusion: “that we have a right to believe the physical order to be only a partial order; that we have a right to supplement it by an unseen spiritual order which we assume on trust …”[ii]

To those who claim that his approach is mystical or unscientific, James responds that science and the scientifically minded should not be arrogant. Science gives us a glimpse of what is real, but its knowledge is minuscule compared to the vastness of our ignorance. Agnostics admit as much but will not use their ignorance to say anything positive about the unknown, counseling us to withhold assent in matters where the evidence is inconclusive. James accepts such a view in the abstract, but neutrality cannot be maintained practically. If I refrain from believing in the supernatural, I express my refrain by acting as if the supernatural is not real; by not acting as if religion were true, one effectively acts as if it were not true. But science has no authority to deny the existence of an invisible world that gives us what the visible world does not. Science can only say what is, it cannot speak of what is not; and the agnostic prescription to proportion assent to evidence is merely a matter of taste.

The benefits of believing in an unseen spiritual world are practical and if we remove this comfort from human beings, suicidal despair may result. As for the claim that such belief is just wishful thinking, James reminds us how little we know of reality relative to omniscience. While such belief is based on the possibility of something rather than its confirmed reality, human lives and actions are always undertaken with uncertainty. If the only way off a mountain is to leap, then you must trust yourself and leap—if you hesitate too long the outcome is certain death. Although we cannot be sure of much, it is best to believe in the practical, in that which helps us live.

For James the issue of whether life is worth living is similar. You can accept a pessimistic view of life and even commit suicide—you can make something true for yourself by believing it. But suppose instead you cling to the view that there is something good beyond this world? Suppose further that your subjectivity will not yield to gloom, that you find joy in life. Have you not then made life worth living? Yes, we can make our lives worth living with our optimism. So it is our faith in an unseen world, in a religious or spiritual world, that grounds our belief in this world’s worthiness. Courage means risking one’s life on a mere possibility, and the faithful believe in that possibility. James concludes with the following exhortation:

These, then, are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact. The ‘scientific proof’ that you are right may not be clear before the day of judgment … is reached. But the faithful fighters of this hour, or the beings that then and there will represent them, may then turn to the faint-hearted, who here decline to go on, with words like those with which Henry IV greeted the tardy Crillon after a great victory had been gained: “Hang yourself, brave Crillon! We fought at Arques, and you were not there.[iii] 

Summary – We need to be optimistic and have faith in an unseen spiritual world for life to be meaningful.

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[i] William James, “Is Life Worth Living? in The Search For Meaning In Life, ed. Robert F. Davidson (New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1962), 240.
[ii] William James, “Is Life Worth Living? 241.
[iii] William James, “Is Life Worth Living? 245.

Reinhold Niebuhr: The Self and Its Search for Ultimate Meaning

Reinhold niebuhr.jpg

Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 – 1971) was an American theologian and commentator on public and political affairs. He was the archetypal American intellectual during the Cold War, and one of the best-known theologians of the time. His views dismayed both religious conservatives and religious liberals alike.

In “The Self and Its Search for Ultimate Meaning,” (1955) Niebuhr argues that the religious inclination derives from “the freedom of the self over its rational faculties.” [i] This freedom rejects certain solutions to the problem of the meaning of life—going beyond mere considerations of causation—to discern a creative mystery at the heart of existence. Our attempt to penetrate to the heart of the ultimate mystery invites three basic responses.

The first posits the self as wholly significant, as the ultimate mystery and source of meaning—either the individual or collective self. Niebuhr maintains that this is idolatry that disproportionately elevates the self or debases it by reducing it to a collective. The second response is what Aldous Huxley called “The Perennial Philosophy.”[ii] Here the meaning of life is found in the underlying unity between self and all being. But even this approach is limited by the finitude of living beings.

The third response finds meaning and mystery in the personality of a god. Niebuhr admits that the notion of a personal god is problematic, but so is the idea of personality. A god judges humans harshly, as too pretentious and prideful, but the severity of his god’s judgment is assuaged by his god’s mercy. Only this third alternative recognizes the discontinuity of self and the ultimate reality that makes faith indispensable. In contrast, the first response is futile—we cannot create our own meaning—and the second is pretentious—introspection reveals that we are not identical with ultimate reality. Therefore the third alternative is best, above all because it does not explain the self away as does naturalism or mysticism.

In the end, we must have faith in the mystery of “a power and a love beyond our comprehension…”[iii] He admits that “there is no way of making this faith or this hope ‘rational’ by analyzing the coherences of nature and of reason.”[iv] Yet we do have a pragmatic justification for believing that such power exists and will ultimately satisfy us because “it answers the ultimate problems of the human self.”[v] We must commit ourselves to having this faith. The religious response which recognizes the distinction between self and a merciful god is the most satisfying response to the question of the meaning of life.

Reflection – This is a better attempt at relating religion to the meaning of life than others I have read; primarily because Niebuhr’s conception of God is amorphous. But we can have faith in the future and hope that life is meaningful without any conception of the supernatural at all. In this sense Niebuhr’s view was limited.

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[i] Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Self and Its Search for Ultimate Meaning,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 41.
[ii] Niebuhr, “The Self and Its Search for Ultimate Meaning,” 43.
[iii] Niebuhr, “The Self and Its Search for Ultimate Meaning,” 50.
[iv] Niebuhr, “The Self and Its Search for Ultimate Meaning,” 51.
[v] Niebuhr, “The Self and Its Search for Ultimate Meaning,” 51.

Summary of Leo Tolstoy’s, “A Confession”

Leo Tolstoy (1828 –1910) was a Russian writer widely regarded as one of the greatest novelists in all of literature. His masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina represent some of the best realistic fiction ever penned. He also was known for his literal interpretation of the teachings of Jesus. Tolstoy became a pacifist and Christian anarchist, and his ideas of non-violent resistance influenced Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Near the end of his life, he finally rejected his wealth and privilege and became a wandering ascetic—dying in a train station shortly thereafter.

At the height of his fame Tolstoy experienced a crisis of meaning.  He said that he contemplated suicide and could no longer live unless he could find the meaning of his life. He wrote about the crisis in a short work, “A Confession,” which was written in 1882 and first published in 1884. Tolstoy was one of the first thinkers to pose the problem of life’s meaning in a modern way.

Tolstoy tells us that he wrote to make money, take care of his family, and to distract himself from questions about meaning. But later—when seized with questions about the meaning of life and death—he came to regard his literary work as worthless. Without an answer to questions of meaning, he was incapable of doing anything. Despite fame, fortune, and family, he wanted to kill himself. He claimed that being born was a stupid trick that was played on him. “Sooner or later there would come diseases and death…all my affairs…would sooner or later be forgotten, and I myself would not exist. So why should I worry about all these things?” In short, why should he do anything or care about anything if all is for naught?

Tolstoy had come to believe that the essence of life was best captured by the Eastern parable of a man hanging onto a branch inside of a well, with a dragon at the bottom, a beast at the top, and the mice eating the branch to which he clings. There is no way out and the pleasures of life—honey on the branch—are ruined by our inevitable death. Everything leads to the truth: “And the truth is death.” This recognition of death and the meaninglessness of life ruin the joy of life. There is, Tolstoy thought, no reason to live.

Was the answer in science? Science provides knowledge but it does not give comfort. And the kind of knowledge which gives comfort—knowledge about the meaning of life—doesn’t exist. This left him with the realization that all is incomprehensible. Yet Tolstoy noted that the sense of meaninglessness disturbs the learned more than it does the simple people. So he began to look to the working class for answers, to people who seem to have answered the question of the meaning. Tolstoy saw that they did not derive meaning from pleasure, since they had so little of it, and yet they thought suicide a great evil.

It seemed then that the meaning of life was not found in any rational, intellectual knowledge but rather “in an irrational knowledge. This irrational knowledge was faith…” Tolstoy says he must choose between reason, from which it follows that there is no meaning, and faith, which entails rejecting reason. What follows is that if reason leads to the conclusion that nothing makes sense, then reason is irrational. And if irrationality leads to meaning, then irrationality is really rational.

Tolstoy essentially argued that rational, scientific knowledge only gives you the facts. It only relates the finite to the finite, it does not relate a finite life to anything infinite. So that “no matter how irrational and monstrous the answers might be that faith gave, they had this advantage that they introduced into each answer the relation of the finite to the infinite, without which there could be no answer.” Only by accepting irrational things—the central tenets of Christianity—could one find an answer to the meaning of life.

So one must have faith, but what is faith? For Tolstoy “faith was the knowledge of the meaning of human life…Faith is the power of life. If a man lives he believes in something.” And he found this faith, not in the wealthy or the intellectuals, but in the poor and uneducated. The meaning given to the simple life by simple people … that was the meaning Tolstoy accepted. Meaning is found in a simple life and religious faith.

Reflections – While I understand and sympathize with Tolstoy’s sentiments, I can’t accept his solution. I have written extensively on this blog about why I reject the religious solution to the problem of the meaning of life. Rather than reiterate what I’ve said many times before I’ll let that great Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis speak for me.

Nietzsche taught me to distrust every optimistic theory. I knew that man’s womanish heart has constant need of consolation, a need to which that super-shrewd sophist the mind is constantly ready to minister. I began to feel that every religion which promises to fulfill human desires is simply a refuge for the timid, and unworthy of a true man. … We ought, therefore, to choose the most hopeless of world views, and if by chance we are deceiving ourselves and hope does exist, so much the better. At all events, in this way man’s soul will not be humiliated, and neither God nor the devil will ever be able to ridicule it by saying that it became intoxicated like a hashish-smoker and fashioned an imaginary paradise out of naiveté and cowardice—in order to cover the abyss. The faith most devoid of hope seemed to me not the truest, perhaps, but surely the most valorous. I considered the metaphysical hope alluring bait which true men do not condescend to nibble. I wanted whatever was most difficult, in other words most worthy of man, of the man who does not whine, entreat, or go about begging.