In addition to inventing and answering questions about an afterlife, religion presumes to answer questions about purpose. We've seen that we can meaningfully reframe afterlife-focused questions as "How do I live in such a way that I'll be satisfied with the influence I have in the world and with the legacy I leave behind?" We can also phrase questions of purpose without religious assumptions, and answer them more legitimately.
Believers who assume the existence of a supernatural seem to find it perfectly acceptable to ask, "What purpose does God have for my life?" or "What is God's plan for me?" Asking the question in this way accomplishes a few things. First, it suggests that our activities are part of a larger intentional scheme, coordinated by a better-than-human benevolent intelligence. It also removes personal responsibility for determining purpose, since it becomes the responsibility of a supernatural. In addition, it can provide a false sense comfort during challenging experiences to believe that everything is part of a larger plan or purpose that is beyond the individual's ability to perceive.
Before we consider whether framing the question of purpose differently can accomplish more for us, it's worth acknowledging that most people who believe that a supernatural has a secret plan for their lives are also susceptible to influence by religious leaders -- people perceived to have some spiritual authority. For some reason, it's acceptable to think that you are too ignorant to understand what purpose a supernatural might have, but that a professional minister somehow has special insight about what that supernatural wants for your life. This is just another way of abdicating responsibility. As long as someone else is taking responsibility for telling me my life's purpose, I don't have to worry about that. This might benefit some people if the spiritual authority they listen to has their best interests in mind, but it is far too easy for a unscrupulous spiritual authority to manipulate believers who aren't willing to take personal responsibility for their decisions.
There is something appealing about the whole concept that God has a plan, and your life fits into it in some unique and special way, even though you are just one small piece of the puzzle. It's rather like destiny or fate, but more personal. Thus, when people experience difficult circumstances, they can fall back on this idea that a warm and loving destiny-weaver has a plan, and that everything is going to work out alright. They may even quote a scripture that promises that "all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28). That can really make a person feel special and comforted, even if it doesn't seem to connect in any way to practical reality.
Just as everyone searches for hope, everyone searches for purpose. We've seen that the question of hope can be addressed in terms of how we live and how we influence the world toward wholeness. The question of purpose can be directed at us as well, rather than at some unreal external force. This might mean a little more work that just letting someone else tell us what to do, and it might mean a little more honesty when we experience challenges.
Ultimately, we are the only ones who determine our purpose, whether we recognize it or not. If we listen to a religious leader when they tell us what we should be doing, we are still personally responsible for our decisions. We make a choice, even though it seems easy because someone is telling us with authority what a god wants from us. If we just sit at home with a sacred text and derive from that what our purpose must be, we are still the only decision-makers involved in that process. There is no supernatural guiding us. We have just become so unused to hearing our own inner voice that we think it must come from outside of us. Whether we are honest about our responsibility or we pretend that it's beyond our choosing, we determine our purpose.
This is scary for a lot of folks, especially if they've been taught that they aren't enough. Churches often teach that human beings need some supernatural aid because we aren't enough on our own. They say that we aren't wise enough, or we aren't good enough, or we aren't powerful enough to live purposeful, meaningful lives. They say that we need help from something better than us if we're going to find real meaning and purpose. This degradation of human capability is poison. It prevents people from recognizing their authentic power to make decisions that are personally satisfying and that nurture the world around them. The truth is that human wisdom and goodness and power is all we have, and it is more than enough.
We find purpose when we take personal responsibility for our decisions -- understanding that we don't control other people, we only control ourselves. When we take the time to determine what is meaningful for us, what we really care about, we can define our purpose with clarity. When we are willing to risk the vulnerability of stepping out of our comfort zone and living into a more ambitious purpose for ourselves and for the world, we nourish our hope as well. This involves asking the question of ourselves, "What do I really care about?" thoroughly enough that we get to a powerful personal statement of purpose. To get there, we have to dig through our irrational fears and the lies that we've accepted about ourselves and other people. This takes some work, and it takes claiming our personal responsibility for our lives. And it has the potential to give us a more authentic sense of meaning and wholeness than abdicating the question of purpose to a supernatural or its representatives.
What about the idea that we are just one small piece in a bigger plan? That idea actually has some truth to it. There isn't a plan per se, but our actions do take place in a larger system. What we do in our lives can contribute to nurturing the world toward wholeness, but we don't do it all ourselves. Other people who have tapped into their purpose also find meaning in contributing their own piece. We don't have to feel overwhelmed by the amount of work to be done in the world. We can recognize the opportunity to take meaningful action in an area that's important to us. We don't have to feel ashamed that what we do gives us personal satisfaction. Purpose and meaning are not supposed to be self-sacrificial. The point is to do something we find personally satisfying and that nurtures the world around us toward greater well-being.
The question we can ask then becomes, "What purpose do I have for my life?" and "How do I live into a personal life dream that creates wholeness and increases the well-being of others?" We don't need supernaturals to tell us what inspires us, or to point out to us what the world needs. We don't need "sacred" texts to set us on the right path. We do have to be honest about our own biases and our own fears, and we need to dig deeper than answers that seem designed to keep us safe. Having a purpose isn't safe. Living into a personal creative life dream is powerful and satisfying, but it requires some vulnerability and risk. That's why we need people around us who can support and encourage us, which leads to another important question about community. We'll learn how to ask that question meaningfully next time.