Ten years ago, Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California gave us all a reason to live. That fateful year, he published The Purpose-Driven Life
. Written as a 40-day exploration of the meaning of existence (the tagline on the cover asks, "What on Earth am I here for?"), Warren strung together hundreds of Bible verses to declare that each person has a five-fold calling to worship, discipleship, fellowship, ministry and mission. Conveniently, the individual's telos
matches the same five-fold reason for the Christian community that Warren previously argued in The Purpose-Driven Church
. We were made to be churchmen and churchwomen.
Apparently America was drowning in nihilism in the period following the attacks of September 11, because Warren's book sold over 30 million copies through the next several years. It became, according to Publisher's Weekly
, the "best-selling nonfiction hardback book in history."
I've never read Warren's book. Given a general lack of existential angst, not even a twinge, I never summoned the need to pick it up. Besides, I have a good bit of history hearing Southern Baptist preachers quote the Bible and explain God's will for my life. I imagine I already have the gist without requiring access to an ink-and-paper materialization of the oft-heard message.
I don't mean to mock The Purpose-Driven Life
, even with the slightly snarky tone. At least that's my defense. But all banter aside, Warren obviously intend to have a profoundly positive impact well beyond his Sunday-morning crowd. Given the book's reception, it's fair to say he has. And if anyone hasn't thought too hard about the meaning of life, it's always helpful to read a book that begins with the words "It's not about you."
Okay, so I did
just now read tidbits of PDL. On Google Books.
Typically, we require some reason(s) to get up in the morning, to endure the struggles of living, and to refuse the pit of worry. Some seem genuinely satisfied with the answering of personal wants - life is about getting for yourself what you can while you can. Others turn toward the support of family as building the self's sense of identity. For others, identity is formed in civil engagement. The majority of human beings also see religious commitment, to one degree or another, as a necessary component of personal purpose. I am here to live according to the dictates of Allah, the example of Jesus, or the odyssey of Brahman.
The need for purpose is built fundamentally on the human capacity for self-awareness or, to put it another way, in the fact that we are
selves. Animals do not ruminate on the meaning of life because they almost entirely lack the sense of the self and even those that may do so (i.e., dolphins) probably are still quite limited in this cognitive ability compared to us. Because of the sense of the self, we not only experience the world but we experience ourselves experiencing the world
. We are fully aware of our limitations, our frailties, our range of emotional and physiological responses to various stimuli, and ultimately our mortality. The burden of our awareness imposes upon us the search for a key that allows us to accept, explain, and perhaps even enhance the self-referential experiencing that is the person.
Therefore, on average, we search for some principle or philosophy, some adequate ground that orients and justifies our attitudes and actions. We look for a reasonable Why
, or at least one reasonable enough that we can utilize in our self-conception. In typical religious convention, we are to act a certain way because God wills it, or God made us to be a certain type of person, or it would be against the love and goodness of God to act differently.
It is surprising, then, that an eminently religious person would ever abandon Why
. But that is exactly what Meister Eckhart does in his mystical spirituality as he preaches it to his fellow monastics. As a non-dualist thinker, Eckhart denies the fundamental reality of the self, and indeed of all created things, postulating instead that all is but "nothing" that emanates from, and yet resides within, God as the ineffable One. The spiritual life does not consist of enhancing, improving, or modulating the self. Rather, it is a forgetting of the self in realizing the truth of God at the center.
In "Sermon Thirteen (b)" as listed in The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart
, the Dominican preacher advises us to become "free of nothing" - that is, detached from the notion that what is not God (or more properly, the ground of "God") is independently real. He frequently extols detachment in his sermons, naming it as the chief virtue. Why this, instead of one of the traditional theological virtues, like love or faith or hope? Because, for Eckhart, the rest essentially falls into place when we look beyond the self and the world and live from the natural ground of existence, the inner truth of what we are. "Therefore, if you must be perfect, you must be rid of not
." To have a reason for our actions, whether a more self-centered desire to avoid hellfire or a more altruistic hope of spreading virtue, is to miss the summum bonum
of letting go. Step outside yourself and God comes in to fill the void that is nothing. So Eckhart claims:
Out of this inmost ground, all your works should be wrought without Why. I say truly, as long as you do works for the sake of heaven or God or eternal bliss, from without, you are at fault. It may pass muster, but it is not the best. Indeed, if a man thinks he will get more of God by meditation, by devotion, by ecstasies, or by special infusion of grace than by the fireside or in the stable - that is nothing but taking God, wrapping a cloak round His head and shoving Him under a bench. For whoever seeks God in a special way gets the way and misses God, who lies hidden in it...If a man asked life for a thousand years, "Why do you live?" if it could answer it would only say, "I live because I live." That is because life lives from its own ground, and gushes forth from its own. Therefore it lives without Why, because it lives for itself. And so, if you were to ask a genuine man who acted from his own ground, "Why do you act?" if he were to answer properly he would simply say, "I act because I act."
This should not be interpreted as some antinomian counsel - that you should do whatever "feels good" to you and defend it by claiming it is "natural." These are instructions meant for someone willing to let go of himself or herself, of being Susan or Carl. "Where creature stops, God begins to be." And God cannot be anything like the grasping, demanding self that wills pleasure at the cost of another's pain. Like any genuine mystic, Eckhart elsewhere teaches the cultivation of the virtues as a prerequisite to any deeper spiritual journey. Nevertheless, he sees the end result of diving into God as All in All as the refusal to distinguish between the needs of what is experienced as Self or Friend to Self and what is experienced as Other:
Whoever would exist in the nakedness of this nature, free from all mediation, must have left behind all distinction of person, so that he is as well disposed to a man who is across the sea, whom he never set eyes on, as to the man who is with him and who is his close friend. As long as your favor your own person more than the man you have never seen, you are assuredly not right and you have never for a single instant looked into this simple ground.
One goal of spiritual development, then, is a naturalness to the moral life that requires no justification, no argument, no assessment in terms of cost and benefit. Compassionate and charitable action simply flow
and, for the most part, cannot be otherwise. Eckhart acknowledges that this naturalness is not achieved perfectly in this life, but he insists that it is available. In the end, we can abandon purpose and simply be
. When we do so, all manner of persons and things we meet will benefit from the divine reality we actualize. As Eckhart summarizes this concept in Sermon Sixteen:
He who has abandoned self and all things, who seeks not his own in any thing, and does all he does without Why and in love, that man being dead to all the world is alive in God and God in Him.
You can't make this a bestseller, but Eckhart recommends reaching toward God until we end up "Living Without a Why," as one scholar summarized this message. Or, shall we say, when we embrace The Purpose-Absent Life.