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Reflections on purpose of life: Catholic Theologian Fr. Athappilly, Sebastian

Pope Francis Sebastian Athappilly is a priest and theologian of Indian Catholicism. 

Reflections on purpose of life: Catholic Theologian Fr. Athappilly, SebastianPope Francis Sebastian Athappilly (born 1949) is a priest and theologian of Indian Catholicism. He was a member and theological consultant at the Asian Synod of Bishops (Vatican) of the Office of Theological Concerns of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences. He is currently chaplain in hospital at the University Hospital, Graz, Austria, and visiting professor at the DVK. He is the author of many publications and books. 

Q: What do you think of basic purpose of life as a human?

A: The sense of the word ‘fundamental’ depends on that. It usually means basic, in the sense that it is the foundation or the foundation. In this context , human life’s fundamental purpose of life is the same as its ultimate or final purpose, namely to attain God, to offer glory and honor to Him. Even like the moon represents the sun’s light (“glory”), so the creatures mirror the Creator’s glory. Whereas the sub-rational creatures naturally represent the glory of God, by knowing, loving, thanking and praising God, the human creatures may and should represent the glory deliberately, with intelligence and will. Around the same time, this grace of God is the greatest happiness of human beings in that they become one in Christ in a kind of divine union, in ecstatic love.

Q: What does your tradition of faith suggest was God ‘s intention in creating the world and people?

A: Abundance, According to my (Catholic) Christian tradition of faith, God ‘s intent in creating the world and human beings was to spread His love. It was not to increase His happiness or acquire more perfection, but to share His goodness which He created this world freely. It is a sort of overflow of His love ‘s a for it is to express the essence of affection. That, however, happens in complete freedom. He needs the creatures to attain Him in their own way, for the end is He Himself. In the purest goodness, God does so.

Q: Despite their dogma and ceremonial variations, both religions believe in the Afterlife and maintain that life will not end with the body ‘s death because human beings are not their bodies. This contrasts strongly with all materialistic philosophies that say, in spite of their differences, that with the death of the body all things cease.

Why do you think, on the one hand, the fundamental difference between religions and all materialistic philosophies, on the other, is expressed in how they see the meaning of life?

A: For religions in general the meaning of life is envisaged beyond the material level and therefore beyond the limits of physical death in terms of a blissful condition. This happy state of existence is represented in different words, such as union with God, seeing God (the beatific vision), merging with God, sharing God’s glory, sharing God’s life and nature, freeing the soul from material slavery, eternal life, heavenly bliss, and so on.

At the other hand, the materialistic philosophies see life’s meaning only in terms of a good existence in this universe. It includes justice, education, harmony, wealth , health, jobs, power and place, enjoyment and pleasures of all kinds. Nonetheless, all of this is just up to death for the moment. Nothing is to be found after death any more. Such a dream has little to say to those in this world who only have suffering, and to those who die at a very young age. Similarly, these materialistic philosophies have no provision for any sort of punishment, whether positive or negative, for acts of selfless love and service, or, as the case may be, for malice and cruelty. Both are alike with death, saint and sinner, victim and oppressor, without any distinction at all — because they are supposed to remain no more. The only punishment imaginable will be that which can be placed here on earth, by the state or by society. Yet that’s not expected actually on this planet. Forgiveness and reconciliation are often not related to materialistic ideologies; their language is packed with violence, vengeance, retribution, punishment, bloody revolt, depression, frustration, and suicide. Around the same time, as they imagine a ‘paradise’ on earth, they are under a great burden of tension and pressure in trying to understand this through human efforts alone.

Q: What difference do you think belief in God the Creator makes in our view of purpose of life?

A: Faith in God the Creator means that God is both the Lord of nature and of history. If this world has been formed by God and us humans, then He has a good purpose behind it. The true purpose of human life can not be lost in living here on earth for a few years, because in matter the soul, being divine, can not be dissolved. Human beings’ ability to create universal ideas by abstracting their meaning from specific concrete material objects in confirmation of the human being’s spiritual faculty or force and, with it, often of the existence of a divine being called the soul or spirit. But though the outer body is going to die and be destroyed, the divine soul survives death and finds a higher life. The presence of love means that life’s meaning is only achieved in the highest level of understanding this love. So also, only in everlasting life will the hunger for life found in humans be fulfilled. This must be a life with, and in, God willing to give us in love. Where there is no trust in God, allexpectation for a purpose of life as a gift of the love of God can not be present.

Q: Most people either do not want to talk about death, or even think about it. This inability to confront the truth of death gives very basic form to their world views. For example, it could lead them to seek to create ‘heaven’ on earth (like Marxist utopians for example). Or, it may lead them to become pessimistic and think that life is pointless in the end because, they say, death puts an end to all.

How do you think the reluctance of these people to think about death could shape their way of looking at the meaning of life?

A: Either way it can be true: their worldviews are influenced by the inability to confront the truth of death and, conversely, this worldview makes them pessimistic about life and the perception of death. To one who is materialistic and leaves no space beyond and outside the tangible world of the senses for any greater truth, death is the final blow to the meaning in and in existence. Death, in this sense, is the most agitating and annoying danger no one can escape from. All human being does is doomed to vanish with death. There is no stable ground for any happiness and hope in materialistic worldview if one is constantly aware of this almost certain fate which sooner or later destroys everything we accomplish in this world fully. Therefore, it is easier for followers to this philosophy not to speak to death! These people are driven to avoid contact with death primarily because they feel frightened by the prospect of death.There is no meaning in life for these people other than to ‘enjoy’ life as much as possible before death pulls the curtain at an uncertain moment, or perhaps, for some, to commit suicide when there is little hope of any change in one’s condition. Despair is the conceptual and psychological consequence of confronting death from solely immanent world-views. 


QDo you believe that the meaning of human life can only be grasped by bringing into the nature of death and the idea of the Hereafter (which is something that all religions talk about, albeit in different ways) and that only then will we grasp the larger picture of what life is for and about? 

As believer in God and the Hereafter, what difference does faith in the Hereafter — life after death — could make in the way we think about purpose of life? 

A: It’s true we can only grasp anything from a broader view of its environment and meaning. Likewise, life’s essence and intent can only be understood from a wider viewpoint. Through restricting life within the limits of this material universe, strictly metaphysical and immanent worldviews arbitrarily close to transcendence all doors and windows and thereby thus close space for a deeper understanding of the meaning of life.

Conversely, faith in the afterlife gives a better understanding of the true meaning of life.It also encourages a virtuous view of every human being, to the degree that every human being is seen as being called to a higher vocation to attain Heaven, and not merely as a mass of body to decompose and dissolve 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.

Righteousness and morality lose its meaning without this sanction.

Q: Growing up, no one ever talked to me about the purpose of life—not my parents, nor my friends, nor any of my teachers (even in college and university). Do you think this is a fairly widespread phenomenon? If so, do you think it is a relatively recent development?

A: Not talking (verbally) about the purpose of life can be a widespread phenomenon everywhere. At the same time, all of us are indirectly expressing, through our actions and lifestyles, a lot about what we implicitly regard as the purpose of life. 

The problem is whether this message is in line with the reality the Creator envisages. 

God the Creator has intended us for some purpose. In the case of the creation, God created not to gain anything, but to share His love and life with the creatures. The purpose of the created beings, the purpose inherent in them, is attaining God and sharing in His life. This will bring the creature to the fullness of life and love and joy precisely because it reaches its final goal towards which it has been created. 

The phenomenon that you refer to—of the issue of people not talking about our ultimate purpose—seems to be a recent development, when for many people materialistic and purely secular concerns of human beings are thought of as of ultimate value. They tend to forget about the ultimate truths about human life, such as questions like why we are here, from where we came, and where we are going. 

Q: While the purpose of life may not be explicitly talked about, many (most?) 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. Do you agree?

If so, and if you think that this is not really what the purpose of life is, how do you think we could become more aware, and also help make others more aware, of what the true purpose of life is?

A: It is real, as you have noted, that the dominant view of the implicit lived message in society is that the object of life is to secure a relatively well off situation in terms of income, health , employment, place, influence, etc. Yet while these ideals are good they are not the primary ideals. Through reminding ourselves and others that all material things are perishable, and that our own death will end our possession of all those good things, we can support ourselves and others. We shouldn’t be on the side of the loser when death takes away all we’ve earned. We need something to survive and resolve this suffering at the hands of death that transcends death itself. The belief that God has made for those who live according to His will an indestructible state of affairs does not make us helpless in the face of a sure death. We must store “treasures in heaven where there is no eating of month or rust and thieves do not break in or steal” (Bible: Mt 6:20).

Q: Some people say life is a blessing and we should be grateful to God for that. On the other hand, faced with huge sufferings or considering life pointless, some others may think that life is aburden, that it is something they do not feel the need to be thankful to God for, and that it is something they hope to escape.

When you think life is a blessing for which we need to be grateful to God, how do you try to persuade someone who feels life is a burden or a curse from your point of view?

A: It’s a sad fact that life will turn out to be a burden or curse in various ways for certain people because of suffering. Perhaps they can not be grateful to God for the gift of life at this moment. Instead, they can also attempt to flee. Yet it is clear that our life is a blessing from the fact that none of us has come to be born out of our own will. We ‘re all born together. Birth is a passive operation. Each one received life as a reward. No-one may challenge this or doubt it. The question is, if life is a gift, whose gift, in the end?

One thing is certain: I am not the source of my life and creation or the creator. Are they my parents?
Yet in addition, they themselves were not the writers and sources of their lives. I won’t be able to trace the rows of all my ancestors to the origins of my origin. For that there must be some other Source beyond this point of pure biological parents. The Source must not be a source of life and creation again, as I and my ancestors have
been, but the Source of Life and Existence that is life itself, or that has life inside itself. The Source and Author is Allah.

We are responsible to God in so far as our life is the gift of God, and in so long as life is good and beautiful, we must be grateful to God. Strictly speaking, we can not assume that we have received the gift of existence, for we should first live in order to receive existence. So we can only say we came into being because God called us (created) from nothing to life in its entirety. Only in that way do we come to life!

What if the life we lead is wretched and full of suffering? Gives us the permission to terminate it? Bringing an successful end to our lives is an affront to the Maker. It’s anger and rebellion against Nature. In a sense it is returning the gift with angry words to the donor. It does not mean one is morally not able to do anything to relieve one’s own pain and suffering and that of others. Only by referring to Jesus who suffered and offered everlasting joy to those who endure or bear unnecessary and unbearable suffering may I try to persuade others of my point of view.

Q: God has given each of us a common calling in life, and after that calling can be said to be the means for us to fulfill our purpose of life.Why do you think we should distinguish this vocation?

A: It shouldn’t be utterly difficult to distinguish God’s calling, because it doesn’t make sense that God will call us and yet give us no sign of this calling! As long as we are on a serious journey for our individual vocation, the providential turnings in our life will tell us what God wants from us. It includes our conscience ‘s voice, inspirations from reading the Holy Bible and the lives of holy people, and the messages from our personal experiences and interactions with other individuals and events.Through this way listening to God’s word in the form of prayer and meditation is very beneficial.

Q: Similar to the above question: We are said to try to do the will of God, not our will.

It could be said that this is the way to lead a genuinely meaningful life and to achieve its purpose. Why do you think we can determine the will of God for us?

A: There are some standards to discerning the will of God for us. Our God-given gifts and abilities will give us a general understanding of how we in this universe are supposed to glorify God. We need the help of a spiritual guide, who can help us open our spiritual eyes, to be clearer on this.The discernment will occur in the spirit of prayer and honesty towards God.

Q: Some people would suggest we shouldn’t worry about God and the Hereafter and focus only on what we can learn for ‘sure’—i.e. Similar aspects of the physical universe.

They might argue that God and the Hereafter are unknown, unknown, and speculative, so they might argue that we should focus solely on this world and try to achieve ‘fulfillment’ here. This alone is the way to fulfill the purpose of life, or lead a truly meaningful life, may they say. What do you think of this view?

A: God and the Afterlife are definitely unknown in the sense that we know the things of this physical material universe. They ‘re not absolutely unknown, at the same time! The infinite beauty and splendor of this universe, the longing of the heart for something beyond what this world can bring, the inexpressible sense of appreciation and happiness at certain moments in existence, the feelings in reverence, wonder and uncertainty, the sense of void or loss even after everything has been achieved in this existence, and the truth of death as the final blow to all material things. To think of human life as having value only before the grave agitates against the goodness and dignity of the soul of man. To be pitied are those who think too low about human fate and the meaning of life.

Confidence in God gives us dignity even in old age, even through our physical effort and productivity we are unable to contribute as we have done until then. Faith in God tells me that I am noble as a human, not based on hat I can do and what place I hold, but merely because of what I am, that is, a creation of God, loved and desired by Him, a child of God called to be His partner in marriage, life and glory. Faith strengthens and consoles me that after and after my death there is a future that awaits me, that what good I have done in my life in terms of selfless love for others and deep respect for God would have its positive effects on my Hereafter. Trust in God tells me there will be redemption for the injustice suffered on earth and the victims will be vindicated. In the expectation of finding my Maker, the merciful Heavenly Father, in love, gratitude and everlasting adoration, faith in God enables me to face death.



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