Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 7

chapters PHILIP L.

QUINN
The Meaning of Life
According to Christianity

In the heyday of logical positivism, philosophical discussion of the meaning


of life fell under a cloud of suspicion. When I was younger, more than once
I heard the reason for suspicion put this way. The bearers of meaning are lin
guistic entities such as texts or utterances. But a human life is not a linguistic
entity. Hence attributing meaning to a human life involves a category mis
take. To ask what a human life means is therefore to ask a pseudoquestion.
In our own postpositivistic and postmodern era, this argument is apt to
seem too quick and dirty to produce conviction. It is possible to define
with tolerable clarity and precision several concepts of the meaning a
human life might possess. Two such definitions are of particular importance
in the discussion of religious views of the meaning of life. . . . They are as
follows:

A human life has positive axiological meaning if and only if


(i)

(AM)
it

has positive intrinsic value, and (ii) on the whole good for the
is
it

person who leads it; and


A human life has positive and only
(i)

(TM) teleological meaning


if

if

it

contains some purposes the person who lives takes to be non-


it

trivial and achievable, (ii) these purposes have positive value, and
(iii) also contains actions that are directed toward achieving
it

these purposes and are performed with zest.

think the axiological and the teleo


it,

Though do not know how to prove


I

logical are logically independent kinds of meaning, and so hold that


a
I

human life can have more than one sort of meaning. To me seems possible
it

From "How Christianity Secures Life's Meaning," in the Proceedings the 1997 Chapman
of

University Conference on The Meaning Life in the World Religions, edited by Joseph Runzo and
of

Nancy M. Martin. This essay lightly revised version of the third section of that paper.
is
a

35 •

Philip L. Quinn

that a premortem human life should have positive axiological meaning and
lack positive teleological meaning and possible that a premortem human life
should lack positive axiological meaning and have positive teleological
meaning; it also seems possible that a human life should lack both sorts of
meaning and possible that a human life should have both sorts of meaning.
To explicate the last of these possibilities, I propose the following definition:

(CM) A human life has positive complete meaning if and only if it has
both positive axiological meaning and positive teleological meaning.

In this essay, I propose to discuss some Christian views of the meaning of life
in these three senses.
What is more, though a human life is not itself a text or an utterance, the
events of which it is composed can be narrated, and narratives of human lives
are meaningful linguistic entities. The history of the human race is also at
least the potential subject of a meaningful linguistic metanarrative. Of course,
not all narratives of human lives exhibit them as having positive meaning in
any of the senses previously defined. A narrative might, for example, por
tray a human life in terms of "a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing."1 Or a narrative might depict a human life as lacking
positive meaning of the three kinds previously enumerated. Nevertheless,
some narratives do present human lives that have these three kinds of mean
ings. Because Christianity is a religion in which history is important, nar
ratives loom large in its traditions. The gospel stories of the life of Jesus
are, for instance, narratives of a human life that has special significance for
Christians.
Adopting a suggestion recently made by Nicholas Wolterstorff, I think
the gospel narratives "are best understood as portraits of Jesus, designed to
reveal who he really was and what was really happening in his life, death and
resurrection."2 And like the part of Simon Schama's recent Dead Certainties
about the death of General James Wolfe on the plains of Abraham, what they
assert at some points is "not that things did go thus and so but that, whether or
not they did, they might well have gone thus and so."3 The importance of the
portrait of Jesus thus narrated for his Christian followers is that it furnishes
them with a paradigm to which the narratives of their own lives should be
made to conform as closely as circumstances permit. The idea that the lives of
Christians should imitate the life of Jesus is, of course, a familiar theme in
Christian spirituality; it is developed with particular cogency in Thomas a
Kempis's The Imitation of Christ. Soren Kierkegaard discusses it in terms of a
striking contrast between admiring Christ and imitating Christ in his Practice
in Christianity.
According to Anti-Climacus, the pseudonymous author of Practice,
"Christ's life here on earth is the paradigm; I and every Christian are to strive
to model our lives in likeness to it."4 The demand is stringent because the
likeness is to be as close as possible. "To be an imitator," he tells us, "means

36
Philip L. Quinn

that a premortem human life should have positive axiological meaning and
lack positive teleological meaning and possible that a premortem human life
should lack positive axiological meaning and have positive teleological
meaning; it also seems possible that a human life should lack both sorts of
meaning and possible that a human life should have both sorts of meaning.
To explicate the last of these possibilities, I propose the following definition:

(CM) A human life has positive complete meaning if and only if it has
both positive axiological meaning and positive teleological meaning.

In this essay, I propose to discuss some Christian views of the meaning of life
in these three senses.
What is more, though a human life is not itself a text or an utterance, the
events of which it is composed can be narrated, and narratives of human lives
are meaningful linguistic entities. The history of the human race is also at
least the potential subject of a meaningful linguistic metanarrative. Of course,
not all narratives of human lives exhibit them as having positive meaning in
any of the senses previously defined. A narrative might, for example, por
tray a human life in terms of "a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing."1 Or a narrative might depict a human life as lacking
positive meaning of the three kinds previously enumerated. Nevertheless,
some narratives do present human lives that have these three kinds of mean
ings. Because Christianity is a religion in which history is important, nar
ratives loom large in its traditions. The gospel stories of the life of Jesus
are, for instance, narratives of a human life that has special significance for
Christians.
Adopting a suggestion recently made by Nicholas Wolterstorff, I think
the gospel narratives "are best understood as portraits of Jesus, designed to
reveal who he really was and what was really happening in his life, death and
resurrection."2 And like the part of Simon Schama's recent Dead Certainties
about the death of General James Wolfe on the plains of Abraham, what they
assert at some points is "not that things did go thus and so but that, whether or
not they did, they might well have gone thus and so."3 The importance of the
portrait of Jesus thus narrated for his Christian followers is that it furnishes
them with a paradigm to which the narratives of their own lives should be
made to conform as closely as circumstances permit. The idea that the lives of
Christians should imitate the life of Jesus is, of course, a familiar theme in
Christian spirituality; it is developed with particular cogency in Thomas a
Kempis's The Imitation of Christ. Soren Kierkegaard discusses it in terms of a
striking contrast between admiring Christ and imitating Christ in his Practice
in Christianity.
According to Anti-Climacus, the pseudonymous author of Practice,
"Christ's life here on earth is the paradigm; I and every Christian are to strive
to model our lives in likeness to it."4 The demand is stringent because the
likeness is to be as close as possible. "To be an imitator," he tells us, "means

36
Philip L. Quinn

does not discover that what is admired involves a claim upon him, to be or at
least to strive to be what is admired."14 The difference is to be seen most
clearly in their contrasting responses to the stringent practical demands of
discipleship. The mere admirer is only willing to pay them lip-service.
According to Anti-Climacus, "the admirer will make no sacrifices, renounce
nothing, give up nothing earthly, will not transform his life, will not be what
is admired, will not let his life express it—but in words, phrases, assurances
he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christianity."15 Unlike the
mere admirer, the imitator, who also acknowledges in words the truth of
Christianity, acts decisively to obey "Christian teaching about ethics and obli
gation, Christianity's requirement to die to the world, to surrender the
earthly, its requirement of self-denial."16 And, Anti-Climacus adds wryly,
mere admirers are sure to become exasperated with a genuine imitator.
Not all Christians will accept this radical Kierkegaardian view of the
demands of discipleship. There is, however, a lesson to be learned about the
meanings of a distinctively Christian life if we take it to approximate the most
demanding interpretation of what is involved in the call to Christians to con
form the narratives of their lives to the portrait of Jesus embedded in the
gospel narratives. There seems to be no difficulty in supposing that the life of
a successful Kierkegaardian imitator of Christ, devoted to willing and
endeavoring to do the good, will have positive teleological meaning, despite
the suffering it is likely to contain. But there is a problem in supposing that
every such life will also have positive axiological meaning if it terminates in
bodily death, because some of these lives appear not to be good on the whole
for those who lead them. But, of course, the earthly life of Jesus, which ended
in horrible suffering and ignominious death, gives rise to the very same prob
lem. It is part of traditional Christian faith, however, that the life of Jesus did
not terminate in bodily death but continued after his resurrection and will
continue until he comes again in glory; hence it is on the whole a good life for
him. Like the life of Jesus himself, the lives of at least some successful
Kierkegaardian imitators of Christ will on the whole be good for them only if
they extend beyond death into an afterlife of some sort. Hence survival of
bodily death seems required to secure positive axiological meaning and thus
positive complete meaning for the lives of all those whose narratives conform
as closely as is humanly possible, as Kierkegaard understands what is
involved in such conformity, to the paradigm or prototype presented in the
gospel narratives of the life of Jesus.
Christianity also tells a tale of the destiny of the human race through the
cosmic metanarrative of salvation history. It begins with the creation of
humans in God's image and likeness. The Incarnation, in which God the Son
becomes fully human and redeems sinful humanity, is a crucial episode. It
will culminate with the promised coming of the Kingdom of God. Christians
have been divided over some questions about the details of salvation history.
Will all humans ultimately be saved? If some will not, did God predestine
them to reprobation? But the broad outlines of the story make manifest God's
loving concern for humanity and the providential care in which it is
• 38 •
The Meaning of Life According to Christianity

expressed. The story's emphasis on what God has done for humans also
makes it clear that they are important from a God's eye point of view.
The narrative of salvation history reveals some of God's purposes both
for individual humans and for humanity as a whole. Christians are expected
to align themselves with these purposes and to act to further them to the
extent that their circumstances permit. Such purposes can thus be among
those that give positive teleological meaning and thereby contribute to giving
positive complete meaning to a Christian's life. We may safely assume that
every Christian and, indeed, every human being has a meaningful role to
play in the great drama of salvation history if Christianity's view of its shape
is even approximately correct.
But what are we to say about those who refuse to align themselves with
God's purposes? Mark 14:21 quotes Jesus as saying, "For the Son of Man goes
as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is
betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born." If it
would have been better for Judas not to have been born, then his life is not on
the whole good for him and so lacks positive axiological meaning. This will
be true of Judas on the traditional assumption that he dies fixed in his rejec
tion of God's purposes and so suffers everlastingly in hell. On the universal-
ist assumption, however, even Judas will eventually turn to God, align him
self with God's purposes, and be saved. Were this to happen, even the life of
Judas would ultimately have both positive axiological meaning and positive
teleological meaning. In that case, it would not be true that it would be better
for Judas not to have been born.
In a stimulating discussion of the meaning of life, Thomas Nagel argues
that from a detached, objective point of view human lives lack importance or
significance. He says: "When you look at your struggles as if from a great
height, in abstraction from the engagement you have with this life because it
is yours — perhaps even in abstraction from your identification with the
human race — you may feel a certain sympathy for the poor beggar, a pale
pleasure in his triumphs and a mild concern for his disappointments."17 But,
he continues, "it wouldn't matter all that much if he failed, and it would mat
ter perhaps even less if he didn't exist at all."18 Christians would do well, I
think, to resist the seductions of this picture of the objective standpoint. For
them, the objective standpoint is the point of view of an omniscient and per
fectly good God. Their faith informs them humanity is so important to such a
God that he freely chose to become incarnate and to suffer and die for its sake.
The snare Christians need to avoid is assuming that humanity is the
most important thing or the only important thing from a God's eye point of
view. Such assumptions would bespeak a prideful cosmic anthropocentrism.
Nagel claims that "the most general effect of the objective stance ought to be
a form of humility: the recognition that you are no more important than you
are, and that the fact that something is of importance to you, or that it would
be good or bad if you did or suffered something, is a fact of purely local sig
nificance."19 Christians have reasons to believe that facts of the sorts Nagel
mentions are of more than purely local significance, but they should have the
• 39 •
Philip L. Quinn

humility to recognize that such facts may well have less cosmic significance
than other facts of which God is aware. Within a balanced Christian perspec
tive, in other words, facts about what it is good or bad for humans to do or
suffer have some cosmic importance because God cares about them, but
Christians would be unwarranted if they supposed that God cares more
about such facts than about anything else that transpires in the created cos
mos. Human lives and human life generally are objectively important. Their
importance should, however, not be exaggerated.
Nor should Christians exaggerate the certainty about life's meanings to
be derived from their narratives. The gospel narratives permit, and histori
cally have received, diverse and often conflicting interpretations. When rea
sonable interpretations clash, confidence in the exclusive rightness of any one
of them should diminish. What is more, other religions have reasonable sto
ries to tell about life's meanings, as do some nonreligious worldviews. Con
fronted with the twin challenges of reasonable intra-Christian pluralism and
reasonable interreligious pluralism, Christians ought to adopt an attitude of
epistemic modesty when making claims about life's meanings. They can be, I
think, entitled to believe that Christian narratives provide the best story we
have about life's meanings. But claims to furnish the complete story should,
I believe, be advanced only with fear and trembling. When Christianity
secures life's meanings, it should not offer Christians so much security that
they acquire the arrogant tendency to set their story apart from and above all
other sources of insight into life's meanings.20

NOTES

1. William Shakespeare, Macbeth V. v. 26-28.

2. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,


1995), p. 259.

3. Ibid., p. 257.

4. Soren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, ed. trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna
H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 107.
5. Ibid., p. 106.

6. Ibid., pp. 34-35.


7. Ibid., p. 173.
8. Ibid., p. 39.

9. Ibid., p. 43.

10. Ibid., p. 46.

11. Ibid., p. 48.

12. Ibid., p. 81.

13. Ibid., p. 241.

14. Ibid.
15. Ibid., p. 252.

16. Ibid.
• 40 •
The Meaning of Life According to Christianity

17. Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (New York and Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1986), p. 216.
18. Ibid., p. 216.

19. Ibid., p. 222.

20. I am grateful to Bill Wainwright and Kate McCarthy for helpful comments on the
material in this essay.

41

Оценить