By Roshan Shah, New Age Islam
20 November 2018
Fr. Sebastian Athappilly (b. 1949) is an Indian Catholic priest and theologian. He is a member of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI), a Catholic religious congregation. Presently, he is hospital chaplain at the University Clinic, Graz, Austria, and visiting professor at the DVK. He is the author of several books and articles.
Q: What do you see as the fundamental purpose of human life?
A: It depends on the meaning of the term ‘fundamental’. It ordinarily means basic, in the sense of being the basis or fundament. In this sense, the fundamental purpose of human life is the same as its final or ultimate purpose, namely, to reach God, to give glory and praise to Him. Just as the moon reflects the light (“glory”) of the sun, the creatures reflect the glory of the Creator. While the sub-rational creatures reflect the glory of God automatically, the spiritual creatures can and ought to reflect the glory deliberately, with intellect and will, by knowing, loving, thanking and praising God.
Q: All religions believe in the Hereafter and insist that life does not end with the death of the body because human beings are not their bodies. This is in contrast to all materialistic ideologies that, despite their differences, claim that everything ceases with the death of the body.
How do you think this basic distinction between religions, and all materialistic ideologies is reflected in how they see the purpose of life?
A: For the religions in general the purpose of life is envisaged in terms of a blissful situation beyond the material level and hence beyond the limits of physical death. On the other hand, the materialistic ideologies see the purpose of life exclusively in terms of a happy life in this world. This includes justice, welfare, peace, wealth, health, job, power and position, enjoyment and all kinds of pleasures. All this is, however, only for the time until death. After death, nothing is to be expected any more. Such a vision has nothing to offer to those who have only misery in this world and to those who die at a very young age.
Similarly, such materialistic ideologies have no provision for any kind of sanction, positive or negative, for deeds of selfless love and service or malice and cruelty, as the case might be. With death, saint and sinner, victim and oppressor, all become alike, without any difference at all—because they are believed to remain no more. The only possible sanction would be that which can be meted out here on earth, by the state or the society. But this is realistically not guaranteed on this earth.
The materialistic ideologies do not also know forgiveness and reconciliation; their vocabulary is filled with violence, retaliation, revenge, punishment, bloody revolution, despair, disappointment and suicide. At the same time, since they envisage a ‘paradise’ on earth, they are under a big burden of stress and strain in attempting to realize this by human efforts alone.
Q: What difference do you think belief in the Creator God makes in our understanding of the purpose of life?
A: Faith in the Creator God implies that God is the Lord of nature as well as of history. If God has created this universe and us human beings, then He has a good plan behind it. The ultimate purpose of human life cannot be exhausted in living a few years here on earth, since the soul, being spiritual, cannot be dissolved in matter. The ability of human beings to make universal ideas by abstracting their essence from concrete material particular things is evidence of the spiritual faculty or power of the human being and, with it, also of the presence of a spiritual entity, called the soul or spirit. Although the material body will corrupt and be dissolved, the spiritual soul survives death and craves for a higher end.
The presence of love indicates that the purpose of life is attained only in the highest form of the realization of this love. So, too, the thirst for life deposited in humans can be satisfied only in eternal life. This has to be a life with and in God, which God wants to offer us in love. Where there is no faith in God, there cannot be any such hope for a meaning of life as a gift of God’s love.
Q: Many people just don’t want to talk or even think about death. This reluctance to face the reality of death shapes their worldviews in a very fundamental way. It might, for instance, lead them to try to build up ‘heaven’ on earth (as, for instance, Marxist utopians). Or, it could lead them to become cynical and think that life is ultimately meaningless because death, they claim, puts a final end to everything.
How do you think these people’s reluctance to think of death might shape how they look at the purpose of life?
A: It can be true either way: the reluctance to face the reality of death shapes their worldviews, and conversely, this worldview makes them cynical about life and the understanding of death. For one who is materialistic and allows no room for any higher reality besides and beyond the visible world of the senses, death is the final blow to any meaning of and in life. In this sense, death is the most agitating and irritating threat, from which nobody can escape. All what a human being does is doomed to vanish with death. In a materialistic worldview there is no solid ground for any joy and hope if one is constantly aware of this absolutely certain fate that sooner or later completely destroys whatever we accomplish in this world.
Hence, for adherents of this worldview, it is better not to think of death! These people are forced to avoid facing death precisely because the thought of death seems terrifying to them. For these people, there is no purpose in life other than ‘enjoying’ life as much as possible until death draws the curtain at an unpredictable time, or even, for some, to commit suicide when there is no hope of any betterment of one’s situation. Despair is the logical and psychological outcome of purely immanent, materialistic world-views in the face of death.
Q: Do you agree that the purpose of human life can only be understood by bringing in the reality of death and the concept of the Hereafter (which is something that all religions talk of, sometimes in different ways) and that only then can we understand the larger picture of what is life is for and about? As a believer in God and the Hereafter, what difference do you think faith in the Hereafter—life after death—might make in the way we think of the purpose of life?
A: It is true that we can understand anything only from a larger picture of its setting and context. Similarly, the meaning and purpose of life can only be understood from a larger perspective. By limiting life within the confines of this material world the purely secular and immanent worldviews arbitrarily close all doors and windows to transcendence and thereby also close room for a better scope for understanding the purpose of life.
Faith in the Hereafter, on the other hand, provides a clearer vision of the ultimate purpose of life. It also promotes a noble view of every human person, to the extent that each human being is seen as called to higher vocation to attain God, and not merely as a mass of body to be decomposed and dissolved upon death.
Belief in a life after death can also motivate one to do good things in life and to avoid evil deeds, precisely in view of the sanction to be expected from a Judge—God—who sees everything. Without this sanction, justice and morality lose all value.
Q: While for many people the purpose of life may not be explicitly talked about at home, the school or the workplace; many of us are constantly faced with the implicit message that the purpose of life is to become materially rich. So, the purpose of life comes to be seen as getting a ‘good’ job, a big house or whatever. This is something that is pervasive in society—in the education system and the media and even in our homes. Through this subtle but pervasive propaganda, people come to define the purpose of life in essentially materialistic terms. How do you see this?
A: It is true, as you have observed, that the prevalent view in the society in terms of the implicit lived message is that the purpose of life is securing a materially well-off situation in terms of wealth, health, job, position, power, etc. But although these are good values, they are not the ultimate values. We can help ourselves and others by reminding ourselves and them that all material things are perishable and that our own death will make an end to our possession of all these good things. We should not be then at the loser’s side when death takes away all what we have amassed. To survive and overcome this loss at the hands of death we need something that transcends death itself. The assurance that God has prepared an indestructible state of affairs for those who live according to His will shall not make us desperate in the face of the sure death. We have to store up “treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Bible: Mt 6:20).
Q: God has bestowed each of us with a particular calling in life, and following that calling may be said to be the means for us to fulfil the purpose of our life. How do you think we might be able to discern this calling?
A: It should not be absolutely impossible to discern the calling of God, for it makes no sense that God calls us and yet would give us no clue to this calling! The providential turnings in our life, as long as we are on a sincere search for our individual vocation, will tell us about what God wants from us. This includes the voice of our conscience, inspirations from reading Holy Scriptures and the lives of holy persons and the messages of our life experiences and encounters with certain persons and events. Listening to the voice of God in the spirit of prayer and meditation is very helpful in this regard.
Q: It is said that we should seek to do God’s will, not our will. This could be said to be the way to fulfil our life’s purpose. How do you think we can discern God’s will for us?
A: Discerning God’s will for us has certain norms. Our God-given talents and skills can give us a general idea of the way we are expected to glorify God in this world. In order to be clearer about this we need the help of a spiritual guide, who can help us open our spiritual eyes. The discerning should take place in the spirit of prayer and openness to God.
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