Four Minutes of Meaning

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.


  1. Eagleton lost me when he dissed Santa Claus.

  2. So is love a good of zeroth intent, as it were, lying even beyond duty, happiness, etc.? Faith, hope, and charity all seem to lie in the same category which might help answer the question.

  3. Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life” was released in 1983. Probably most memorable for the song ‘Every sperm is sacred’.

  4. Eagleton came to Utah in the late 80s to lecture at BYU. As part of the trip, he was escorted to various Utah tourist attractions. Temple Square was one of the spots, and I’m guessing he saw the movie then.
    Those who read BYU’s off-campus newspaper Student Review in the middle-late 1980s might remember Willa Murphy, the “Campus Life” editor (and fine humorist). She was Eagleton’s tour guide on that trip. They married in around 1997.

  5. Is the meaning of life happiness? I know we talk about the plan of happiness and so forth. But making the meaning into happiness always struck me as turning me into rather uninteresting Utilitarians of a nearly nihilistic stripe. I always thought of Mormonism as tied to a more Nietzschean view of eternal progression. Meaning = growth. That is tied to happiness of course.

    I always saw happiness and misery as presented as polar opposites but this was more tied to the issue of the atonement and salvation rather than meaning. That is happiness is a property of our salvation but not the aim of salvation.

    On the other hand we have passages like Alma 28:12 where we encounter the “truly peenitent and humble seeker of happiness.” Even Abraham seeks for what he does because he found there was “greater happiness and peace and rest…” So I can see the Utilitarian angle to everything.

    Anyway, I tend to see growing relationships of love as being the meaning of life.

  6. Stephen, please forgive the way I am going to try to answer your questions, but it simply is the way I think about these discussions.

    1) There is a difference between meaning and purpose, and I think the answers we normally hear (that you summarized) deal with purpose. My own answer to the purpose of life would be “to perpetuate the species of ‘God'” – or, on a personal level, “to become like God”. I then would clarify that the purpose of this mortal life is to learn lessons toward that end which only can be learned in this type of setting – to experience things only this sort of world can provide.

    2) Otoh, the meaning of life, I think, can be summed up similarly as something like, “a state of existence that allows for change and growth”. Humanity simply is one of the manifestations of life – more advanced than intelligences and spirits and animals and plants, but less advanced than resurrected beings, ministering angels and exalted beings. The main distinction, therefore, in the “meaning” of life for mortal (wo)man, is our place in the evolutionary process of becoming godlike – that we literally are spirit children of God , whereas other forms of life observable to us are not. (Whether they ever will be is open to debate, since we know absolutely nothing about the actual process used to create spirit children other than that they are created from “intelligences”, but in their current state they are not “children of God”.)

    3) I think the Mormon take on these questions is radically different than any other Christian take on them explicitly because our very view of “life” (including Godlike life) is so radically different. The Mormon perspective is much closer to the Buddhist concept of a reincarnative journey toward universal oneness than the isolated and stagnant condition taught elsewhere – and that fundamental disagreement makes our answers to your questions incomprehensible to most who view life itself in such starkly different terms.

    4) I don’t think we have a four minute answer; I think we have about a four second answer. It’s the explanation of the answer that takes exponentially longer, imo, since the answer itself is so counter-intuitive and illogical to most people.

  7. Mommie Dearest says:

    (Please forgive my brief and not very thorough comment.)

    I have long suspected that faith, particularly our understanding of it, and the development of our ability to put it to work is one of the primary goals of this earthly existence. Faith is really what makes the world go round, love is what makes it worthwhile.

    Faith in God requires revealed knowledge, but plain old ordinary faith will get even the atheist through the day.

  8. Love is a powerful convincer. I think it leads people to do many things that we typically wouldn’t. I think that would be the only thing that would cause us to want eternal life. Yes, like you said all the other reasons are great, but maybe not eternally great. Or maybe they are. I think my puny mortal mind cannot grasp nearly the importance of God’s plan. I think a lot of progression has to deal with trust. And trusting that we will be happy. Which with my puny mind, I cannot see being happy. Or at least I can’t see being as happy as what is promised. Still… great post SteveP!

  9. Louise Lewis, author says:

    Personally, I find nothing wrong with asking the question as is: what is the meaning of life? :-) (You see I spent the past six years interviewing folks on that very question…) So I love it!

    I could throw out the old saying: It’s the journey (asking the question) not the destination (coming up with the definitive answer to the meaning of life.) But for me, smiles appear just knowing folks are still asking the question (in whatever format…)

    Love? Giving and receiving? Yes indeed!

    take care,
    Louise Lewis, author
    “No Experts Needed: The Meaning of Life According to You!”

  10. Stirling,

    Those who read BYU’s off-campus newspaper Student Review in the middle-late 1980s might remember Willa Murphy, the “Campus Life” editor (and fine humorist). She was Eagleton’s tour guide on that trip. They married in around 1997.

    You’ve got to be kidding me. That is far out. I remember Willa from my freshman year on Student Review (1987-1988), and I think I even remember a piece or two that ran in the paper on Eagleton’s visit. I’m not sure I ever bumped into her again after I got back my mission in the fall of 1990; maybe she came by the SR offices once or twice. They married, huh? Wild.

  11. Sterling, wow that’s a wild connection. Thanks for sharing that.

    Clark, I think I could see that (Nietzschean view of eternal progression. Meaning = growth) as long as we don’t add his ‘eternal recurrence’ to the idea–which really really scares me (the idea that we repeat this time sequence over and over for eternity).

    Ray, I’m a bit confused how the meaning of life could be a ‘State’. Meaning has to imply and existential relation with self, I think. A state just ‘is’, meaning implies a ‘why’.

    Cap, adding trust to the equation is an interesting move because love and trust require each other to be fullfiled in some ways, I think one can love someone without trusting, but mutual love ==> trust.

    Mommie Dearest like Cap I think Faith comes in as well but I understand less well what Faith is. I see it opposed to fear rather than doubt, but agree they are linked. In fact they form the great triad of Love, Faith, and Hope which I’m just beginning (like much) to understand.

  12. I had a very powerful internal physical feeling that life was completely meaningless back when I was an atheist. Now I have the opposite feeling deeply in my bones, that every situation, every tiny act and every fleeting moment have meaning far beyond my ability to comprehend. Somehow since developing a partnership with God, this has happened to me. It’s not something I chose. It’s as physical as an adolescent’s developing sexuality. As physical as suicidal depression. It just happened.

    I think the meaning of life, rather than being any sort of intellectual left-brained thing, is just this physical feeling, the joy of drawing breath, of looking, of being alive.

    How I ache for those who don’t feel it.

  13. Tatiana, That was beautiful.

  14. Steve, I apologize for the confusion. Let me try to say it differently.

    To me, human life has a purpose, but human life also has a “meaning”. They are connected but different things. Phrased differently, I would ask, “What does it mean to be alive as a human?” Perhaps, “What is unique about human life? What does ‘human life’ mean as opposed to a simple definition of ‘life’?” I think once we define what human life “means”, we are able to see a “meaning” for life – which leads to a “purpose” in life.

    To me, “human life” means “life as a spirit child of God in mortality” – which gives a “meaning” of a stage of potential progression toward godliness – which gives a “purpose” of becoming like God. What I am saying is that “meaning” usually is discussed in terms of “purpose” – but that our Mormon purpose is influenced by the very way we define human life (the meaning we assign of that life). Others who define life differently (assign it a meaning without a direct, evolutionary link to God) naturally reach different purposes for life. “Becoming like God” never enters the picture for them, since it isn’t connected to the meaning they assign to their lives.

    So, in a nutshell, I also reach the conclusion that the meaning of life is change – with the purpose of a specific type of change.

  15. Tatiana, that really is beautiful. Thanks.

  16. Tatiana, I sure like you. Thanks.

  17. Thanks, SteveP, Ray, and Steve Evans. I like all of you, too.

  18. re (12) Wow, that just summed up everything.

  19. Steve, I think Nietzsche’s version of Eternal Recurrance is justifiable as an ethical point. (i.e. live so that if life was endlessly repeated it would be a positive and not a negative) However in the collection questionably edited by his sister he has a more robust version that is explicitly metaphysical ala the old Stoic notion. That seems deeply problematic and is tied to a naive and erroneous view of infinity.

    I kind of like the ethical view of the eternal recurrance as both an affirmation of life as well as recognizing a fulfilling life as the selection of high powers. Going beyond that is kind of far fetched in my view.

  20. Clark, I agree. Some people still talk about it as if it were his belief, but knowing the rest of his work I suspected he was just making a metaphor of how one should live life. And as that I’ve found it useful. What if we had to live this again and again? We would certainly take our choices seriously, have way more fun, and live a little more fully. I worry sometimes when I hear members make comments as if this life were just a way station and it’s the next life were all the action is. A little Nietzschean recurrence would do them some good.

  21. As I said I think the more Stoic notion is attributed to him because it is in Will to Power. However as I noted this is a deeply problematic text for numerous reasons not the least of which being how much creative editing his sister did. It’s also mainly notes which while interesting to careful scholars is anything but a completed work reflecting his conclusions.

    Most people I know are pretty leery about buying into Will to Power as reflecting Nietzsche’s thought. Even those who do use it use it carefully. On the other hand the Heideggarian reading of Eternal Recurrance and Will to Power (the concept, not the book) are interesting here. I’m not sure I buy them as reflecting Nietzsche’s thought but they sure make me think.

    I do agree though about folks waiting for the next life to make everything nice. I think the whole theme of Joseph’s teaching is that heaven is what we make. There’s a very Nietzschean element in Joseph Smith. I used to joke that Nietzsche is what you get if you made Joseph an atheist. Not entirely true of course but there’s a strong element of truth to it.

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