The purpose-driven life

Every summer, I come down with a case of existential angst. As the immediate demands of the school year slow down and the space for some self-directed work opens up, it seems that broader questions inevitably open up as well — what is the point of all my work? I eventually get over it as I become absorbed in whatever project, but this time around I’ve been reflecting on the claim that religions faith gives people meaning and purpose and that they are somehow to be envied because of that. What strikes me as I look back on my own religious upbringing is that the meaning and purpose provided had no actual content. “God’s plan” or “God’s will” was a purely virtual reference point, which was applied very selectively to what happened to people. Aside from very broad moral guidelines — it was obviously never going to be God’s will that I murder someone, for example — it seemed that the reference to God’s will provided no actual guidance. All it added was the idea of a purpose, a kind of purposefulness without purpose.

It may seem unfair to pick on popular piety like this, but actual theologians aren’t much better. As Agamben points out, the post-Pauline church reversed Paul’s notion of the “economy of the mystery” — his improvisational attempt to fulfill his (more or less unambiguous) calling to play a role in the plan of salvation — into the “mystery of the economy,” indicating that what is most mysterious about God is precisely what affects us most directly, his interaction with the world. The question always became exactly how tautologous God’s will was going to be — whether there was room for human freedom (as a rule, this meant room to mess things up) or whether the actual state of things was God’s “revealed preference,” to use contemporary nomenclature.

A related problem is the relationship between God and goodness. Does God will good things — meaning things that are recognizable as good “independently” — or does the fact that God wills something make it good by definition, even if it does not appear good to us? Broadly speaking, the patristic writers tended toward the former solution, while medieval theology gradually shifted ever more radically toward the latter. It seems to me that we can find an analogy in recent economic history. During the postwar era, capitalism was supposed to provide benefits that were independently verifiable — higher quality of life, greater freedom, etc. — and in the contest against communism, it seemed relatively clear that it was actually delivering. Under neoliberalism, however, things become much more tautologous, so that the outcome of market forces must by definition be good. Interfering with the natural outcome of those forces is increasingly unthinkable (at least “officially” — in reality there is constant government intervention, the aim of which is to create conditions that ever more closely approximate a “pure” market). We hear all kinds of counter-intuitive arguments that giving poor people money will actually make everyone poorer, etc., but I don’t think anyone’s heart is in that anymore. At a gut level, we don’t dare interfere with market forces because it’s tantamount to defying God’s will.

Our economic piety thus corresponds closely to the everyday piety surrounding “God’s will,” which enthrones it as a purposefulness without purpose, a meaningfulness without content. The economy giveth, and the economy taketh away — blessed be the name of the economy!

13 thoughts on “The purpose-driven life

  1. “Our economic piety thus corresponds closely to the everyday piety surrounding “God’s will,” which enthrones it as a purposefulness without purpose, a meaningfulness without content.”
    Excellent. Thanks for this post.

  2. Once we stopped seriously asking God what God’s will was, what God’s purpose in our existence was, and listening attentively for the answer—which has been pretty much always, as it’s a rolling system of admissions—we needed a way to systematize that to get reliable answers. We needed a way to give ourselves answers, and to give other people answers to what their purposes ought to be. So of course you’re looking at a “purely virtual reference point” with no content. The question isn’t pointed in the right direction. Religion does in fact give people purpose and meaning, but it isn’t to be envied because of that; it’s one of a number of such systems. Open-ended purpose and meaning for some, foreclosed purpose and meaning for others, depending much on social location and status markers.

    References to God that aren’t actually referring the question to God are inevitably empty, waiting for someone else to fill them.

  3. Matt,

    You answer gives the secular perspective, whereas I took Adam to asking the question from within a religious perspective. Hence, while an enlightened Christian, for instance, may recognize that there are other systems of meaning, there is a struggled to justify the particular privileging of Christianity as source of meaning. The question of whether Christianity or no is not on the table, but what that privileging means, what is required, etc. Hence, the question of God’s goodness and obedience are paramount, because if the relation is strictly obedience, than even asking these questions is dangerous: cue the Euthyphro problem to which Adam alludes. But then, Adam’s points about the virtuality come to the fore, and I love the allusion to Kant’s Critique of Judgment. One recent common response to this is to provide a theological basis that can be shared by both the secular and the faithful, e.g., Josiah Royce’s philosophy of loyalty, which I also happen to teach in my ethics course as a response to Nietzsche, an early response to moral and theological problems posed by nascent modern psychology, and example of agent ethics.

  4. Jason, It’s hard for me to understand your last comment. I thought Matt was passing judgment on secular attempts at purpose (under which he would include “religion”) — we’ll get nothing but false answers unless we really direct the question at God! In short, Matt is a Barthian.

  5. Adam and Matt,

    I interpreted, perhaps mistakenly, Matt as giving a secular response to your post, which appeared to address the question of God from within a religious perspective. Whether either of you are of faith is irrelevant, as that is not a requirement of taking the perspective for this conversation. I understood Matt to then ask, “why pick religion as a primary system of meaning amongst others” after having noted the socialization and institution of the “right answers” about God and their effects. Yet, if I correctly interpreted you, Adam, I understood you to be discussing the issues while trying to keep religion on the table. The discussion of economices I took to be an example of what happens when one blindly follows an “empty signifier” (God), but perhaps I have the argument confused. Regardless, I generally concur with Matt’s contribution, but I thought that it might trivialize the point you were making if we switched from religious to secular viewpoints.

    I’m fairly sure I have a partial interpretation of both of you at best, and hence I am feeding back how I interpreted it.

    I am not too familiar with (Roland?) Barthes. I am, however, familiar with Adam Smith in more than passing detail. He intended free-market economics to be a morality, which goes hand-in-hand with being a system of meaning, and thus the connection is very appropriate.

  6. I’m not trying to keep religion “on the table,” nor am I trying to take it off. I’m not offering a formula for finding meaning and purpose, nor trying to offer up a range of options. I’m observing that an oft-proposed way of finding meaning and purpose does not appear to deliver what it promises, and the same failed structure can be found in the economic structures of our lives.

  7. I’m no expert on Kant, but as I understand it Kant basically says that we derive pleasure from organizing the world into useful and comprehensible things that fulfill our needs; “beautiful” things like flowers appear to be structured and organized but do not fulfill a clear human need, so they are “beautiful” but not useful — this purposiveness without a purpose defines beauty. What’s interesting is that this “purpose-driven life” is then a twist on the old “purposiveness without purpose.” In Kant, we see something like a purpose but can’t find a use for a flower, so we put it in the “beautiful” category. In modern Christian piety, they know there is a real purpose — it’s just hidden, or not filled in yet, like Benjamin’s messianic open door. It’s a messianic purposiveness that is always about to be revealed. In economic terms, this would be the faith in the power of the market to solve problems like global warming or financial crises — “I don’t know what an answer would even look like, but it will come into being because that’s what markets do.”

    I think a Christian thinking in terms of actual purposiveness without purpose would be quite intriguing. If it was admitted that there was no specific purpose for anything, but rather a seeming purpose… If one proclaimed that the world was determinable but not determined, etc.

    This is of course contrasted to the sublime, which is a principle of disorder — when one encounters something that cannot be organized, which is purposive-less. This seems also like an interesting way to think about Christianity, especially if one ignores Kant’s stuff about how reassuring it is when your understanding exercises rational control even over disorder.

    In the Hebrew Bible, these three positions seem to align with the three wisdom books: Proverbs teaches that the world will sooner or later sift out into the righteous and the unrighteous, but it might be a long time until that happens and there’s no telling exactly how it will come about (or what the outcome will be — it’s hard to distinguish righteousness from unrighteousness sometimes). That seems like what I’ve called messianic purposiveness above. The book of Job, in the end, seems to argue that the world is shaped with a basic ordering principle but there remains an openness to change and newness, new orders of things that may emerge (one can see this in Job 38-42, which outline the orderly creation of the world but in which God allows a space for the chaotic sea, and which ends with the paean to chaos monsters who are allowed to frolic within prescribed bounds). And Ecclesiastes seems to imagine that the world is founded on a lack of order, and that everything exists — the natural world, the human libido, culture, and so on — because of this basic inability to organize the world. And it’s interesting as well that economics plays a large part in Ecclesiastes — it uses the metaphor of the inability to square one’s business ledger to describe the fundamental (and constitutive) lack at the core of the world.

    That’s kind of a long way of saying, “yeah.”

  8. Hilarity ensues. But usually the confusion for Roland Barthes (of whom I am also enamored, albeit I haven’t worked on him in an age) comes in an aural rather than a textual setting. Otherwise, there’s just so much here that I’m not going to touch.

    Jason, for the record, Adam is nearly always asking every question from farther outside of the “religious perspective” than I am. That’s where we are. Being a Barthian means being an insider critic, among other things, pushing back towards fidelity. It is not “secularist” to denounce the failures of religion; it is “secularist” to therefore abandon the cause as incorrigible.

    And as a Barthian, I’m all for agent ethics, non-determinism, etc. It’s worth noting the fact that Barth’s own ethics respond strongly (albeit often also silently) to Nietzsche. (And worth noting how significantly Altizer responds to Barth for his failures at it.) If the signifier is empty—or doesn’t have the contents we presume it ought to—perhaps the problem isn’t the absence of what it signifies. If we have used that piece of our vocabulary to signify other things, the problem is us.

  9. The invisible hand of the market is the secularization of the claim of the invisible yet interventionist god. Neo-liberals are market fundamentalists.

  10. Good post Adam, your thinking here reminds me of a great book by the British historian Boyd Hilton, Age of Atonement. To brutally oversimplify, Hilton makes sense of the role of evangelicals in the early development of “political economy” in the first half of the nineteenth century by pointing out that Deistic Christians denied the necessity of intervention in the market economy because they saw it as an expression of God’s will in the world as worked out through natural laws. On the other hand, the most radical and charismatic evangelicals, who thought that God was directly involved in everyday life, saw no problem with interventions in the economy because they did not view it as a perfect and providential system (like a wound up watch, etc). Thus they could make more sense of catastrophes like the Irish potato famine.

    Of course, contemporary evangelicals are much less consistent on this matter, as they tend to oppose economic interventionism while at the same time believing that God is actively making interventions in the world all the time. This Baylor survey is interesting on this topic:

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