The Meaning of Life: Five Great Religions

A number of different methods have been used to test the validity of a belief.

One method is to check a belief, and its implications, by its correspondence with objective facts. One might call it the test of actuality… There is much in the field of religion that does not seem to lend itself readily to this kind of check. The belief that God exists is hardly amenable to verification by observation…

A second method … is the test of logical coherence within the whole system to which it belongs, a method which is very natural to philosophy, and which plays a big part in the development of scientific theories. One might call it the test of truth… However … the most logically coherent system can be no truer than the premises on which it is based.

A third method … might be called a test of their reality… When one asks about the reality of religious beliefs, he is in effect asking: how well do these beliefs help one to face up honestly, courageously and creatively to the inescapable facts of life? … How well do religious beliefs help one to avoid comfortable fantasies in favour of a mature realism? … Religious beliefs which are unreal are beliefs which encourage misinterpretations of reality in accord with personal desires, building up a system that effectively insulates one from the impact of the unchangeable necessities of life…

Real religious thinking must be what the scientists call open-ended thinking, that is, thinking which always has arms open to welcome new truth even when it seems to undermine established truths… It does not often happen that a theologian leaps for joy when some other theologian upsets his theology.
W.S. Taylor, “Encounter”, The Meaning of Life in Five Great Religions, R.C. Chalmers, John A. Irving (editors), 1965

Let’s face it – religion utterly fails all three of these belief validity tests: actuality, truth, and reality. Probably because religions are unverifiable, illogical fantasies, which are often at odds with reality rather than helping improve reality. Also, open-ended religious thinking is very rare, in my experience. Probably because theists are far more interested in defending to death their One True Religion rather than finding out new truths, which may – gasp! – contradict some of their precious religious beliefs, clung to with the tenacity of Gollum. Despite many of his own arguments to the contrary, Taylor makes it plain that he thinks his version of Christianity passes these tests. Right, when pigs fly – or perhaps when theologians leap for joy. But I digress.

On to the meaning of life, as explained by Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Surely at least one of these popular religions must know the secret to the meaning of life!

HINDUISM

The meaning of life for man is to realize his full and immense potentialities and bring them out, in his moral and spiritual life…

The Spirit in man is not satisfied with physical fulfilment or intellectual excitement. The Spirit in man seeks to make life a perfect instrument and vehicle for the purpose of realizing the immense potentialities of man. The realization of the true nature of the self is the destiny of man, the aim of existence and the purpose of life…

The meaning of life … is the realization of the unity of existence and translation of it into one’s life.
P. Nagaraja Rao, “Hinduism (The Advaita View as Expounded by Sankara)”,  The Meaning of Life in Five Great Religions, R.C. Chalmers, John A. Irving (editors), 1965

Spoiler alert: Among the five religions here, this is the best attempt at defining a cogent and comprehensible meaning of life (ignoring the last sentence, which is vague and useless gobbledygook). I think this can be summed up as “Do the best you possibly can with what you have and the circumstances of your life”, and possibly “Know thyself.” Again, it’s not the meaning of life, but it’s a way to find meaning in life. And I think “physical fulfilment and intellectual excitement” can actually be quite satisfying at times!

BUDDHISM

The meaning of life is to realize that it is only possible for one to live in this present world through innumerable direct and indirect causes which came from all others. And the purpose of life is to live everyday, or even every moment, in the consciousness of how I am happy to be born a human being and that every deed will be the indirect cause for others in the future. That is to say, to live in the state of real happiness through the realization of the impermanence and non-substantiality of existences and phenomena  of this world, and to live in the hearty gratitude to all other existences is the purpose of life: and to live in this present society as a human being itself is the meaning of life…

There is no other way to live in this present world than to follow the way of life in which one tries to find real happiness in the midst of sorrow, suffering, pain, agony, and worldly pleasures and happiness…

There is no other meaning and purpose of life than to live as a human being seeing all existences and phenomena as they are.
Shoyu Hanayama, “Buddhism”,  The Meaning of Life in Five Great Religions, R.C. Chalmers, John A. Irving (editors), 1965

Life is short so: live it, face up to reality, be happy, be grateful, and be mindful of the potential effects of your actions on others and the future. Is that the core message buried in this needlessly verbose and jargony advice? It would seem so. That’s a lot of words to express something so simple and, dare I say it, trite.

The author also reiterates the standard Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Right Path of Buddhism as well, neither of which illuminate the meaning of life, but merely suggest ways of living life on your way to attaining ultimate enlightenment. Good luck!

JUDAISM

The core of the religious reality is a meeting between the Divine and the human; and religious meaning is found in and through this meeting and nowhere else

Primordial meaning, however, lies in the meeting itself. This meaning is of human life; for the Divine accepts and confirms the human in the moment of meeting. It cannot, however, lie in some finite human purpose, supposedly more ultimate than the meeting and merely established by it. For what could be more ultimate than the Presence of God? …

Revelation has initiated meaning in history: it points to a Redemption which will complete it

A primordial Divine commanding Love has endowed history with meaning, in that it calls for meaningful human action.
Emil L. Fackenheim (1916-2003), “Judaism”,  The Meaning of Life in Five Great Religions, R.C. Chalmers, John A. Irving (editors), 1965

What the Fackenheim? This essay is by far the worst in the book. It was mind-numbingly boring, frustratingly nonsensical, and largely pointless. An endless string of content-free pretentious theological bombast couched in sham academia.

Apparently the meaning of life lies somewhere in the meeting of God and human, infinite and finite, ultimate and not-so-ultimate, imaginary and real (OK, that last bit was just me heckling). If this is the most practical advice that Judaism can offer on the meaning of life, then this religion has completely lost contact with reality. There are much better writers on this subject – Harold S. Kushner comes to mind. Of course his is not the orthodox view, but at least he’s worth reading.

CHRISTIANITY

“What is the chief end of man?”

We believe as Christians that it is in the reply given to this question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism that we find the key to life’s meaning and purpose. That reply is: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” All that any Christian can say about life’s meaning and purpose will be by way of explication and elaboration of that famous answer…

The purpose of life, therefore, is something revealed to man, not something conceived by man’s intellect. Man is able to discover life’s purpose when he has the gift of faith. He can apprehend the meaning of his existence when he has first been laid hold of by God. He is given insight about the chief end of human living when God makes a divine disclosure about his own nature and purpose. In other words, man’s purpose for living can only be know when it is seen to be part of God’s purpose for the world. Man of himself, separated from his Creator, lives in the darkness of meaninglessness…

Man will find life’s meaning and purpose, therefore, by identifying himself with this divine purpose and by realizing that he is a part of this universal plan…

From the Christian standpoint it is utter nonsense to think that a secularist or an agnostic can come to know what the meaning and purpose of life is according to Christianity. Spiritual things are spiritually discerned. It is only by faith in him who gives light on life’s meaning that we can understand the majestic will of God for man. In his light we shall see light…

According to Christianity, the meaning of life is love. To live is to love…

The Christian maintains that it is love that gives life its true purpose and worth…

In Jesus the full meaning of the life of man, and of the purpose of God for the universe, has been made known.
R.C. Chalmers, “Christianity”, The Meaning of Life in Five Great Religions, R.C. Chalmers, John A. Irving (editors), 1965

Whew! Well, I agree with the love part, but that’s about it. This is an exercise of beating around the burning bush, in an attempt to avoid the embarrassing fact that Christians don’t have a clue what the meaning of life is, and instead sidestep the entire issue by assuming that at least God knows what the hell is going on and will eventually, somehow, in his own good time let them know. Don’t hold your breath.

Chalmers actually proposes a whole litany of meanings of life for good Christians: natural order or design, beauty, moral law, love, faith, redemption, repentance, salvation, glorifying/adoring/worshipping/praising/obeying God, and hanging out with other like-minded sheep in churches. Yep, that love part is good advice. Otherwise, if all that other extraneous stuff turns your crank meaning-of-life-wise, you’re welcome to it. However, it seems a colossal waste of time and effort, since it doesn’t get you any closer to any kind of real meaning in life, unless you’re into that whole S&M scene – servitude and masochism, that is.

ISLAM

The meaning of life for Islam is not to be interpreted simply and solely in terms of otherworldiness, or with reference only to a long past and gone set of historical and geographical circumstances. It is a philosophy which forms an integral part of the great universal scheme of Divine revelation; thus it finds the true meaning of human life only in relation to the God who created that life, and who sends down his commands for it…

This is man’s function as a deputy of God upon earth. It is so to order his acts and his life as to realize in his human community the ideals which God has made known in his revelation. It is the practice of the principle laid down in the Qur’an for the good government of the ideal Islamic society…

The meaning of life can be understood only in the context of the Giver of life and his purposes for his creation. Islam is a religion, and consequently its interpretation of life is basically theological… A society, which is still limited by the reluctance of others to yield to its authority, but which consists in moderation, regard for the rights of others, in the unity and the equality of all men before their Creator, and which is inspired by the ultimate hope that eventually its virtues and values may become universal – this is the society of Islam.
M. Rasjidi (1915-2001), assisted by J.B. Hardie, “Islam”, The Meaning of Life in Five Great Religions, R.C. Chalmers, John A. Irving (editors), 1965

Why is it that every time I read about Islamic ideals they always sound vaguely (and sometimes explicitly) threatening? Mohammad Rasjidi likes to use phrases like “Good government of the ideal Islamic society”, “limited by the reluctance of others to yield to its authority”, and elsewhere in the chapter: “subordinates his own will to the Divine Will”, “authority belongs to  the members of the religious community”, “Church and State … are one and the same”, and “It is not really possible to separate the thought of society in Islam from the thought of the state or the faith … all are based on the one source, the Qur’an.” Am I the only one distressed and, yes, frightened by these kind of statements? Are these the edicts of a moderate Muslim? Yikes! I have no desire to live in a theocracy, and doing so would pretty much quash any possible meaning of life for me. In that scenario, my primary purpose in life would be to escape to freedom.

Unity is a big theme for Rasjidi, but the choice offered is clearly unity or hell. After all, this is from the guy who said: “We do not hate the Shi’is but we do not accept their doctrine that is contrary to the pure Islamic doctrine, the Sunni doctrine.” (Apu Ita Syi’ah, 1984) Nice. Cheery. Inspirational. Once again, religion divides and separates. Some guy’s religion has always got to be purer than the other guy’s religion. In the concluding chapter of the book, this sad truth is pointed out rather pointedly:

Community is only envisaged in terms of the unity of the Islamic faith, and if the children of God are equal, it seems that Muslims are more equal than others.
C. Douglas Jay (1925-), “From Encounter to Community”,  The Meaning of Life in Five Great Religions, R.C. Chalmers, John A. Irving (editors), 1965

Could Jay be comparing religion to George Orwell’s Animal Farm? Shocking! But appropriate. An ideology is an ideology, whether political or religious.

The author also reiterates the standard Five Pillars of Islam, but they are not a meaning of life, nor even a means of attaining a meaning of life. They are religious rituals, checkmarks to mindlessly place in checkboxes, pointless in and of themselves. Ritual is a great thing for those who don’t want to put in the time and effort necessary to think for themselves.

RELIGION

Sadly, we are forced to conclude that these five religions have no more knowledge of the meaning of life than most philosophers or just moderately intelligent nonreligious people, for that matter. I suspect we can extrapolate this fact to all other religions as well. They do throw out a lot of red herrings, though, to confuse the issue. Perhaps we would be better off without such unnecessary distractions.

Our search for the meaning of life continues…

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