Rev. Peter E. Bauer
People have wondered, throughout the ages, what is the purpose of life? There have been many different answers. The Westminster Confession of 1646 stated that the purpose of life was to believe in God and to live out the glory of God in the world.
Now, that is one answer. Others have argued that the meaning of life, acquiring the good life, embraces the cultivation of friendship, and finding purpose in one’s work. Still others have mused that success and satisfaction in life entails how much of a financial fortune can be obtained and how many toys one collects before one dies.
Still, you can hear from some people a nagging sense that somehow “I just didn’t get it right “about life. Like Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront “when his character Terry Malloy says:
“I could have been a contender! “,
some of us may be mulling the same question. Did I do enough? What could I have done differently?
Miroslov Volf, the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology and Founding Director Of The Yale Center for Faith And Culture, Yale Divinity School, has noted :
“What is the good life ? Is it where there are no secrets ? Alexa can create algorhythms. Alexa can answer where do you go for vacation ? What do you buy ? But Alexa can’t help you regarding what you ought to desire; what kind of person you ought to be.“
( Lecture “ Flourishing Of Life And The Crisis Of Theology “ 02/05/2018 Austin Theological Seminary Austin, TX )
Striving to achieve the good life extends itself beyond religious systems. According to the Pew Research Institute: “ 52% of the people surveyed believed you can have good morals without belief in God. ‘
The search for knowing the flourishing of life appears to be a universal ideal- one that transcends theism, non-theism, belief, non-belief.
So, are there any buoys that can guide us in our navigation of the waters towards the flourishing life?
First, it’s always helpful to remember who you are and where you have come from. “A wandering Aramean was my father “ states the writer of Deuteronomy. (Deuteronomy 26: 5 ) Knowing who you are and where you have originated can help set the maturational GPS in our human development.
You may be able to say to yourself:
“I want to be able to help others versus I want to be able to rob a bank. “
Our identity helps us to determine who we are, what we will do, what we will accept and what we will reject.
Years ago, when I attended Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, N.J., there was an old bridge that crossed the Delaware River in Trenton, N.J. The motto carved on the bridge read:
“What Trenton makes, the world takes”.
I found out that locals in Trenton reframed this motto as they observed:
“What the world refuses, Trenton uses. “
The nice thing about identity, and especially with age, is that you can learn what you will accept and what you will reject.
I know that I am not good being content with people who do not want to make an investment in a relationship nor express any concern for my welfare.
Again, that’s a “What the world refuses, Trenton uses “ moment.
Instead, I know now to spend time with people who truly have my best interests at heart and who want to pursue a mutual investment of time and talent.
Second, it’s important to know what you can commit yourself to- either as an ideal or as a mission. It’s fine to say you want to be a good person but what will that mean when its actually translated into human action? Booker T. Washington said that his goal in life was:
“ doing common things in an uncommon manner. “
Harriett Tubman was also someone who was able to achieve a remarkable goal in an extraordinary manner. According to General Stanley McChrystal in his book “ Leaders: Myth And Reality“:
“Tubman had spent the entire decade beginning in 1850 guiding slaves from the confinement of Maryland’s Eastern Shore to the relative freedom of the North. The trek would culminate in St. Catherine’s Ontario, Canada.
By one estimate, between one thousand and five thousand slaves escaped annually from 1830 to 1860. In the 1850’s then, Tubman freed between 0.14 percent and 0.80 percent of escaped slaves and a higher percentage of all slaves who escaped from Maryland during that same time (a very rough estimate is around 3 percent). (P.P. 223 & 226)
Harriett Tubman also served as a field nurse, scout and spy for the Union Army. For Tubman, living a life that would be meaningful and satisfying meant that there needed to be action in response to injustice, in this instance the inhumane cruelty of slavery.
Third, living a flourishing life means that people are willing to share their talents and gifts with others. Here the notion is that the individual thrives when the community develops further in its resources and its stability.
Early Christianity was aware of this ideal. Certain groups of followers affiliated with the Way (the first reference to those who followed Jesus) believed in holding all assets in common and what was their characteristic contribution was practicing hospitality to all, with complete impartiality, something that would put them at odds with the imperial Roman empire.
John Shelby Spong in his book “Unbelievable “writes:
“For Paul and for the Early Christians to whom Paul says Jesus “appeared “, resurrection was rather a moment of new revelation that occurred when survival driven humanity could transcend that limit and give itself away in love to others, including those who wish to do us evil. “ ( P. 182 )
For Spong, “
“resurrection is not about an empty tomb, nor is it about resuscitating a dead body. Rather it is God whose presence and power calls us into our essential oneness, our universal consciousness, our interconnectedness.
Spong further advocates:
” God is a verb that we are invited to live. “ ( P. 188 )
I find a lot of power in this concept of the divine. Life that is flourishing can be grounded in personal identity, being committed to a particular ideal or mission, being willing to share one’s talents and gifts with others.
Can a flourishing life be accessed for all of us? I believe it can happen but it will require that we choose to live fully, love wastefully and become all that we are capable of being. May it be so