A friend of mine has a fridge magnet that reads “the meaning of life is to give life meaning.” It is a neat summation of twentieth century philosophy, the centrepiece of which was existentialism; the idea that humanity was itself responsible for finding meaning. Existentialism was an unprecedented break with prior tradition – both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were “rebels from tradition” (as Hannah Arendt puts it), albeit in markedly different ways. Kierkegaard strived to regain the deeper meaning of religion, while Nietzsche hoped to break free of traditional religion.
One of the problems of the modern Western world is that having made a philosophical break with tradition, we now struggle to address this problem of meaning. In fact, we still tend to turn to the traditional ways of finding meaning more often than we attempt to carve our own meaning from the raw substance of our lives: religion remains the principle means by which most people explore or acquire meaning in their lives, although there is considerable strain between traditional religion and the modern world.
Tolstoy, writing in 1879, neatly summed up the importance of religion to the question of meaning:
The essence of any religion lies solely in the answer to the question: why do I exist, and what is my relationship to the infinite universe that surrounds me? It is impossible for there to be a person with no religion (i.e. without any kind of relationship to the world) as it is for there to be a person without a heart. He may not know that he has a religion, just as a person may not know that he has a heart, but it is no more possible for a person to exist without a religion than without a heart.
A century later, Raimon Panikkar (an exceptional Catholic Priest whose perspective combines the Hinduism of his father with his mother’s Catholicism) stated:
The essentials of the religious teachings could be summed up in three ideas: the relinking of onself with the rest of human beings, with our neighbours, with the community, with our true self; the relinking of humankind with Nature, with all things, with the environment, including machines; the relinking of humanity with the Divine, with Mystery, the Sacred, the Numinous, the Absolute, Transcendence.
These are the three central themes of religion: our relationship with humanity and each other, our relationship with Nature, and our relationship with the infinite, which some refer to as God. Whether we are looking at the Abrahamic faiths with their focus on surrender to the infinite, or the Dharmic religions with their focus on uncovering the individual path we must follow, these same themes emerge from diverse sources. The meaning of our lives depends upon these three relationships.
Is it possible to give life meaning without religion? Certainly. But in Tolstoy’s terms, any attempt to do so still implies a religion. Most twentieth century attempts to create meaning resulted in ideologies (such as Marxism or Humanism) that deal very much with the issues traditionally handled by religion. What, if anything, do we have to gain from denying that these modern attempts to create meaning are functionally religious? It is as if we believe that ceasing to use the word ‘religion’ will somehow change human psychology so that the problems that can and do emerge from thoughtless slavery to an entrenched ideology (religious or otherwise) will miraculously vanish.
Whatever we choose to call those beliefs that give our lives meaning, we all either have such beliefs or we seek them. Some reject traditional religion, others embrace it, still others work to help mediate traditional values with the modern world. But whatever you choose as your inspiration, the meaning of life is something we each must discover for ourselves as individuals. If you cannot find it within traditional religion, as many people in the West struggle to do, you must strike out and find your own path – you must, in effect, create your own religion. This is not an easy road to travel, but the rewards are more than commensurate to the challenge.