Reflections on the Purpose of Life: Catholic theologian Fr. Sebastian Athappilly

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. He studied Philosophy (Bachelor’s and Master’s) from Jnana Deepa Vidya Pitha, Pune and Theology (Bachelor’s from the Pontifical Athenaeum Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram [DVK], Bangalore, and Master’s and Doctorate from the Austrian University of Graz). His doctoral dissertation was on Karl Rahner’s theology of the relationship between welfare and salvation.. From 1985, he was Professor of Systematic Theology at the DVK and visiting professor at different faculties in India.

Fr. Athappilly served in the DVK as Registrar, Controller of Examinations, Dean of the Faculty of Theology and the President of the Athenaeum. He was a member of the Office of Theological Concerns of the Federation of the Asian Bishops’ Conferences and theological expert at the Asian Synod of Bishops (Vatican). 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. This glory of God is at the same time the highest bliss of the spiritual creatures in that they become one in God in ecstatic love in a kind of mystical marriage.

Q: What does your faith tradition say was God’s purpose in creating the world and human beings?

A: According to my Christian (Catholic) faith tradition, God’s purpose in creating the world and human beings was to share His love. It was neither to increase His happiness nor to acquire more perfection, but to share His goodness that He freely created this world. It is a kind of overflow of abundance of His love, for the nature of love is to share. This happens, however, in full freedom. He wants that the creatures in their own way attain to Him, for He Himself is their end. God does this in purest generosity.

Q: Despite their differences at the level of dogma and ritual, 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 sharp 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, on the one hand, and all materialistic ideologies, on the other, 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. This happy state of perfection is described in various terms, such as, union with God, seeing God (the beatific vision), merging with God, sharing in the glory of God, partaking the life and nature of God, liberation of the soul from material bondage, eternal life, heavenly bliss, etc.

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 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: 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 question is whether this message corresponds to the truth as envisaged by the Creator.

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 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: Some people say that life is a gift and that we ought to be grateful to God for it. On the other hand, faced with enormous sufferings or finding life meaningless, some others might think that life is a burden, that it is something that they may not feel the need to be grateful to God for, and that it is something that they long to escape from. If you think life is a gift which we should be grateful to God for, how might you seek to convince someone who thinks life is a burden or a curse of your view?

A: It is a sad fact that for some people life can turn out to be a burden or curse on account of misery in various forms. At this moment they may not be able to be grateful to God for the gift of life. They may then even try to escape from it. But that our life is a gift is evident from the fact that none of us has come to be born of one’s own will. We are all born. Being born is a passive process. Each one has received life as a gift. Nobody is able to question or doubt this. The question is, if life is a gift, whose gift is it ultimately?

One thing is sure: I am not the source or author of my life and existence. Is it my parents? But they themselves in turn were not the authors and sources of their life. I will not be able to trace the source of my life in the rows of all my ancestors. There must be some other Source for it, which is beyond this level of mere biological parents. That Source must be not again a receiver of life and existence, as I and my ancestors have been, but the Source of life and existence who is Himself life, or who has life in Himself. This Source and Author is called God.

In so far as our life is God’s gift, we are accountable to God, and in so far as life is something good and beautiful, we have to be grateful to God. Strictly speaking, we cannot say that we have received the gift of life, for in order to receive life, we should first exist. Therefore, we can only say that we came to exist because God called (created) us from nothing to life in its totality. Only so we come to exist at all!

What if the life we happen to live is miserable and full of suffering? Does this give us the licence to terminate it? To actively put an end to our life is an affront against the Creator. It is protest and rebellion against God. It is in a sense returning the gift to the donor with angry words. This does not mean that one is not morally permitted to do whatever possible to alleviate one’s own pain and suffering and that of others. I can try to convince others of my view only by pointing to Jesus, who suffered and promised eternal joy to those who undergo or bear unavoidable and inevitable suffering.

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: Related to the above question: It is said that we should seek to do God’s will, not our will. This could be said to be the way to lead a truly meaningful life and to fulfil its 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.

Q: Many people might say that we should not bother about God and the Hereafter and that we should focus only on what we can know for ‘sure’—i.e. dimensions related to the physical world. They might argue that God and the Hereafter are unknown, unknowable and speculative and so might claim that we should focus only on this world and seeking to gain ‘fulfilment’ here. That alone, they may claim, is the way to fulfil the purpose of life or lead a truly meaningful life. How do you see this view?

A: God and the Hereafter are certainly unknown in the sense in which we know the things of this material, physical world. At the same time, they are not totally unknown! The sublime beauty and splendour of this universe, the craving of the heart for something beyond what this world can offer, the inexpressible sense of gratitude and joy at certain moments of life, the feelings of awe, wonder and mystery, the sense of vacuum or void even after one has achieved everything in this life, and the reality of death as final blow to everything material all give us an inkling about the Hereafter and the incomprehensible majesty of God. To think of human life as having sense and meaning only till the grave agitates against the greatness and nobility of the human spirit. Those who think so low of human destiny and purpose of life are to be pitied.

Faith in God provides us with dignity also in old age, when we are not able to contribute as we were doing until then through our physical efforts and efficiency. Faith in God tells me that I as a person am honourable, not based on what I can do and what position I occupy, but merely because of what I am, namely, a creature of God, loved and willed by Him, a child of God called to be His partner in love, life and glory. Faith strengthens and consoles me that there is a life that is awaiting me after and beyond my death, that what good I have done in my life in terms of selfless love for others and deep love for God will have its positive effects on my Hereafter. Faith in God assures me that injustice suffered on earth will be compensated and the victims will be vindicated. Faith in God encourages me to face death in the hope of meeting my Creator, the merciful Heavenly Father, in love, gratitude and eternal adoration.

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