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Christian Purpose?

Before answering this Theological question, we should consider purpose at the human philosophical level. Aristotle was the premier philosopher of purpose, which in Greek is telos. He wrote of four ‘causes’ of things: the material cause (which is the matter out of which something is made), the formal cause (which is the form that makes a thing what it is rather than something else), the efficient cause (which is what makes the thing), and the final cause (which is the thing’s purpose). Using a house as an example, the material cause would be the wood and the bricks, the formal cause would be the house shape, the efficient cause would be the builders who construct the house, and the final cause would be the family that will live in the house. Human beings develop a sense of purpose gradually. Young children act without purpose. They run around aimlessly because their bodies have energy and they instinctively desire to move. It could be said that nature has purpose for them; it pushed the to move, grow, and develop, but they do not have individual personal purposes which they have chosen and of which they are aware. As children grow older, their increasing sense of purpose is manifested in their questions and in their games. They ask “why?” because they have begun to grasp the existence of purposes and they desire to know the purpose of everything. In their games, winning becomes important. Very young children do not care about winning; their games do not have winners and losers; they just play. Older children, on the other hand, want their actions to have some purpose, so they play games with goals. Victory is the goal. In school, grades are a goal, and for many children high grades are the purpose for studying, but that is great foolishness, because the real purpose for studying is to learn. Grades are just the arbitrary opinions of the teacher. Children sometimes have purposes given to them, as in school where they are told that grades are the purpose of studying, but since that is foolishness, there is something very wrong. Folks often have the wrong purposes, such as the Nazis whose purpose it was to conquer land for Germans, eliminate the people who were living on the land, and then occupy the land with Germans. Some Nazis were admirably purposeful, yet morally very evil. As individuals mature into adulthood, some choose their own purposes and order their entire lives to achieve their purpose. My greatest professor, the late Marie-Dominique Philippe, often said that though there are billions of human beings, there are very few human persons. He said that because according to him a person is someone who has chosen one great purpose and ordered her or his entire life to achieve that purpose. For most people that great purpose will be family. The sexual instinct pushes men and women to have sex with each other, and that sex causes the conception of children. After those children are born nine months later, the maternal instinct pushes the mother to take care of her baby. All that is instinctual and therefore not personal. Human beings have sex and have children. Human persons, on the other hand, consciously choose to have a family. Human persons choose their spouses intelligently, not because of instinctive sexual desire. Human persons raise their children, which involves much more than just taking care of them. And human persons order all their activities to achieving this purpose. A father, if he is a person, tries to have a career which will allow him to raise his children well. A mother, if she is a person, tries to control her emotions so that she can always do what is best for the children rather than attacking them when she is angry or ignoring them when she is sad. Both husband and wife, if they are persons, remain faithful to each other because having sex with other partners would harm their family. There are some individuals for whom the one great purpose in life is not family but rather religion. Priests, nuns, monks and some hermits choose to sacrifice family so as to be completely devoted to God. In Protestant Christianity, celibacy is not required of anyone, so none have to sacrifice family for religious reasons, yet many Protestant Christians make religion their ultimate purpose, and their family life is ordered to religion. In other words, God is most important to them, and their families are a means of doing the will of God. I asked Marie-Dominique Philippe if art could be someone’s ultimate purpose. He responded “I do not think so.” He did not say “no”, so it might be possible for someone like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, or Vincent van Gogh to devote their lives entirely to their art work. I mention those three men because each was a great artist without a family. Philippe thought, however, that art could not be a person’s ultimate purpose because the art is inferior to the artist and a person should never devote his or her entire life to something inferior. Religion is ordered to God, so the person who ordered her or his entire life to religion is ordered to something superior. A family includes multiple individuals, so it is superior to the one person who is the father, or the mother. Even if the couple has only one child, there is something potentially superior since the child is younger than either parent and therefore has more time left to live. If there are no children, then each spouse can devote himself or herself entirely to the other; this would be very imperfect, because the other spouse is not superior, but rather equal, but at least the spouse is not inferior as a work of art would be.

Christian Theology is founded on The Bible, so we should look at what it says about ‘purpose’. In The Gospel According to Matthew 5:48, Jesus tells the crowd, and us also I assume, to “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect”. Every one of us, however, is flawed and therefore imperfect. Some Protestants say that He said this to make us humble, because everyone who tries to be perfect fails and failure makes men and women humble. This is a valid interpretation, but I am not convinced that Jesus told us to do the impossible so that we fail and then feel bad. I think, rather, that the correct interpretation is found in the original Greek text of The Gospel According to Matthew. The Greek words which are translated into English as ‘perfect’ are telieioi and teleios. The word teleos is included in those words, meaning that there is a connection. From a merely linguistic point-of-view I am not qualified to dispute the common translations which transform the Greek into the English word ‘perfect’, but from a Theological point-of-view it seems that the meaning is more likely ‘purposeful’ rather than ‘perfect’. If we must all be perfect, then we can all fall into despair because we cannot do it, but if we are called on to be purposeful, then we have hope, because it is possible. Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that “God does nothing in vain.” If nothing is in vain, then everything is purposeful. God acts purposefully, and He wants us to also act purposefully.
Christianity is divided into many different denominations, of which I will ignore Eastern Orthodoxy simply because I do not know enough about it to say much.

Roman Catholic Theology emphasizes the importance of purpose for the spiritual elite, while giving myriad rules which the common folks should simply obey. Living a fully purposeful life requires much practical intelligence and great strength of will. Prudence is the virtue of the practical intelligence which discerns how in real situations we can achieve our purpose. Many folks dislike thinking; they prefer to obey rules. Aristotle taught that such individuals are natural slaves. To be truly free a person must be able to govern his or her own life, making decisions based on reason rather than emotions. Someone dominated by emotions is not truly free. The Roman Catholic Church recognizes the willful lowliness of most folks and makes rules to govern their lives since they are incapable of governing their own lives. They need not understand; they need to only obey. For the spiritual elite, however, obedience to rules is rarely necessary, because such persons order their lives to achieve their purpose, and that ordering takes the place of the many impersonal rules imposed by the Church. Take the example of a married person. The commandment “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery” is unnecessary for a married person whose purpose in life is his or her family. Adultery is harmful to families, therefore a person whose purpose is family would not commit adultery, no matter if there is a commandment or not. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest Catholic Theologian, wrote in the Summa Contra Gentiles that much of the moral law of the Church is good for lowly commoners but unnecessary for the spiritual elite who are prudent enough to realize what is right and so do not need to be told. Of course, people sometimes do what is wrong even when they know what is right. That is why a strong will is important. Achieving a purpose requires not only that we discern how, but also that we actually do what we have discerned to be necessary.

Protestant Christian Theology is not unified; there are hundreds of Protestant denominations with unique teachings, each differing slightly from all others. As I cannot write about what each of the hundreds of denominations teach, I shall mention the two extremes. The anti-purpose extreme is represented by the Lutheran Bishop Anders Nygren. The pro-purpose extreme is represented by the German sociologist Max Weber.
“Modernity exhibits an overwhelming commitment to goal oriented action,” (Roger Smith, The Fontana History of the Human Sciences 1997, page 561).

I end with an interesting commentary about the post-Christian world of today. Edward Rubin wrote Soul, Self, and Society: the new morality and the modern state (published in 2015). In it, he writes of the change from one moral system to another. According to him, in the Dark Ages morality was based on masculine honor, because that is necessary for warriors. Men had to be strong to survive, and they needed to know whom they could trust to fight for them. Loyalty was crucial. A person could not long survive without honor, because nobody would trust that person as an ally, and therefore he could not enter into a group of warriors under the leadership of a nobleman. Women and children were not warriors, but they needed to attach themselves to warriors for protection. The moral system encompassed everyone, but in different ways. Then, according to Rubin, Christianity influenced Europeans to reject the violence of their old honor morality and live instead according to a morality of a higher purpose. So, according to Rubin, the answer to the question posed by this essay is ‘yes’. Christianity, during the Middle Ages, did teach that human life has purpose. Our purpose is to live holy lives according to the will of God and thus make it so that we will go to Heaven after death. The Christian religion is the purpose of human life, and every person should order his or her entire life to achieving that purpose. Prudence is necessary for each person to discern how to achieve the purpose of his or her life. For most people, the purpose of life was best achieved by raising a good Christian family. For some individuals, the purpose of life was achieved by fighting to spread Christianity to Pagan lands, or by fighting to defend Christian lands from Pagans. For a few individuals like Thomas Aquinas, the purpose of life was achieved by learning as much as possible and then writing great books. The means differed, but the end was the same. According to Rubin, a new moral system has come and is replacing the Christian morality of a higher purpose. Many people today, especially the millennial generation, live to experience joy and avoid suffering. This type of life is not entirely new; it is a type of Epicureanism. Epicurus lived in Greece from 341 B.C. to 270 B.C.. He taught that people should live to experience the most joy possible, and should avoid suffering as much as possible. According to Epicurus, the universe and everything in it is composed of atoms that randomly join temporarily and then separate. Everything is accidental and there is no ultimate purpose to anything. He was not a mindless hedonist, and neither are his post-modern followers. Epicurus understood that some pleasurable activities, such as overeating or excessive drunkenness, lead to pain afterwards, therefore they should not be done. He also understood that some minor suffering is necessary to experience the greatest joys, therefore we should be willing to suffer a little when necessary so that we can afterwards experience the greatest joys. The environmentalist movement is a manifestation of the new Epicurean morality. Many in the environmentalist movement, especially Millennials, fear that the environment will change in a negative way that will reduce their future enjoyment, and might cause them to suffer. They are willing to make small sacrifices now to prevent this from happening, and they try to use their political power to force others to also make the necessary small sacrifices. The New Epicureans do not devote themselves to anything, but they do usually have regular sex partners and they often have children. Fundamental human biology has not changed, so New Epicureans desire sex just like Christians, and the maternal instinct causes Epicurean mothers to take care of their babies just as it causes Christian mothers to take care of their babies. Some New Epicurean parents go beyond just taking care of their children and try to raise them well. What they do, therefore, does not much differ from what Christians with purpose do. The reasons why they do it, however, is radically different. The New Epicureans do not have higher purposes, so they do not devote themselves entirely to their family, rather they want to experience as much joy as possible and they realize that a good family life can be very enjoyable. A single womanizing playboy might have more pleasure when he is young, but when he gets old he will suffer loneliness. This is even more true for women, since young women are extremely beautiful and therefore able to easily attain many sex partners, but age robs women of their physical beauty so that a woman who had nothing other than casual sex with many partners will end her life alone and miserable. Over the course of an entire life, there is usually more joy with a family than without. If, however, the couple is not getting along and so there is suffering rather than joy, then they break-up. Divorce is easy and common. Most New Epicureans do not get married; they live together until they feel like separating, and then they separate and find new partners. In politics, the New Epicureans want the government to take care of them, protecting them from all danger and providing medical care so that they will never suffer much. They are willing to lose their freedom in exchange for guaranteed joy without suffering. Freedom is necessary to achieving purpose. A slave must do whatever s/he is commanded to do and is therefore not able to devote his or her life to achieving a higher purpose. The New Epicureans have no higher purpose, therefore they do not mind losing their freedom.

The New Epicureans are less selfish than the Old Christians who live with purpose. The old Christian loves himself or herself and therefore wants to go to Heaven and not to Hell. The New Epicurean does not believe in Heaven or Hell and thinks that the self will cease to exist at death, therefore s/he does not care about the final state of the self. The old Christian cares about his or her unique family because it is his or her purpose in life. The New Epicureans are more altruistic; they love everybody equally because they deny that there are any important differences. According to them, everyone is equal, which requires a denial of qualitative differences. They are altruistic in that they want and enjoyable life free form suffering to be possible for all, especially because if great suffering or life without joy is possible for anyone then it might happen to them. So, to eliminate the possibility that such a calamity might befall them they want to make the world over so that it cannot happen to anyone. Abortion is one way to make great suffering and life without joy disappear. Some feotuses, if allowed to live and be born, would very probably suffer greatly and experience little joy because it is physically very defective, or because its parents are poor. By destroying it before birth, suffering and lack of joy are prevented. A baby is an extension of his or her parents, s/he is their future, so destroying it is a very unselfish act, since it is harmful to the self. A person who truly loves herself would want to have a child.

The New Epicureans want jobs doing work that is enjoyable, even if it is unproductive. The older generations that lived according to a morality of higher purpose wanted jobs that would help them to achieve their purpose in life, and if they happened to enjoy what they did it was an added bonus. The new generation that lives to enjoy life and avoid suffering demands enjoyable work and they believe that it is unjust that they are paid less for doing enjoyable work than others are paid for doing unenjoyable work. Tamara Draut writes of this in her book Sleeping Giant: how the new working class will transform America. She wants, among other things, a minimum wage of $15 an hour so that everyone can live a more enjoyable life, and she vilainizes business owners who struggle against government attempts to control them. The freedom necessary to achieve any higher purpose is unimportant to Draut; the right of all to enjoy life and avoid suffering is all that matters. I enjoy life and avoid suffering, but that is an accident; it was never the purpose of my life. If achieving my higher purpose will require me to sacrifice pleasure and endure suffering, then I will do so, because I have the beliefs of a medieval Christian, and not those of a post-modern Epicurean.