In Terry Eagleton’s new addition to Oxford’s, A Very Short Introduction series, The Meaning of Life, he adds a footnote to the following sentence, “Many of the readers of this book, however, are likely to be as skeptical of the phrase ‘the meaning of life’ as they are of Santa Claus. It seems a quaint sort of notion, at once homespun and portentous, fit for satirical muling by the Monty Python team.” The footnote reads:
There is another, non-Pythonesque film called The Meaning of Life, which I once saw in the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City. Unfortunately, I have completely forgotten what it claimed the meaning of life to be, partly because of my surprise that it only lasted about four minutes.
Let’s forgive him most of this. Obviously he was not in the Mormon Temple. And I don’t think there is a Mormon film called, The Meaning of Life, at least I know of none (although I’m willing to be corrected). I think rather he’s gotten, Man’s Search for Happiness muddled in his memory and it is, as every missionary knows from my era, thirteen minutes long (If pressed I think I could still quote it verbatim from the hundreds of times I watched it—and I mean literally hundreds).
While the details of his memory are confused, I think what he came away with about our message is likely an accurate impression of that encounter—we had a four-minute answer to this very complex question.
But what do we believe the meaning of life is? It’s a strange question because we don’t ask the question that way, usually. It typically has this flavor: What is life’s object and design? Happiness. Why did we come to earth? To get a body, get tried, and get some ordinances done. We want to build eternal families. Even Christ’s atonement seems largely placed so we could go through this grimy Earth life and still have a way back. That’s our four minute answer.
Is that accurate? Is that all life (both this one and eternal) is about? What is the meaning of life? To be happy doesn’t seem to go far enough. I mean, a dose of heroin given eternally would accomplish that. Somewhere in the back of my mind I remember someone (it might have been Eugene England) pointing out that God cannot look down at this mess and be happy as such. He knows the pain and ugliness of this world deeply. Intimately. All the ugliness. Unimaginable ugliness. Sometimes when I’m exposed to just a taste of it (like a recent documentary I saw on street children) I’m stunned with its horror and come away shocked and staggeringly unsettled. He must find something deeply meaningful in existence to put us and himself through all this. What is it? What gives all that long span of eternal life meaning? We read that God’s work and glory is to ‘bring to pass the eternal life of man.’ But why? Is it satisfying? Is it an eternal duty and we join in doing it because it is something we just ought to do? He wants us to be like him. To share in his glory and intelligence, says the Prophet. Are glory and intelligence intrinsic goods that ought to shared? If so why? (Just to be honest, I’ve never figured out what ‘glory’ is. Naively, I think of it as a kind of bright glow that should to be paid attention to and worshipped, but I’ve not got a good handle on that one. Obviously.)
Is it out of love? Ah . . . something seems right out about that. Could it be that meaning at its root is derived in both giving and receiving love? I find love meaningful now. We often mention the Pure Love of Christ as if that were a commodity we should strive for. Another, box to mark on life’s check list. But maybe that is the reason both God and we go through all this. It’s the only thing I can think of that as a source of meaning does not seem derivative or cheaply utilitarian. Duty, happiness, glory, intelligence all seem useful and important, but not truly meaningful enough to push me through the eternities ahead. Only love. God is Love. The Beatles were right. Love is all we need—there’s my four-minute answer.