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The Meaning of Life

by John M. Phelan

John M. Phelan, Ph. D., is Founding Director of the McGannon Communication Research Center and Professor of Communications and Media Studies, Fordham University, New York City.  He came to Fordham as Chairman of the Communications Department to redesign the curriculum when Marshall McLuhan was Professor of Communications there.  He is a media reform activist who works with many public interest groups.  Phelan's writings include:

Communication Control (ed.)  New York: Sheed & Ward, 1969.  Readings on the structures and motives of censorship from psychoanalysis to Chinese thought reform to the First Amendment.

Mediaworld:  Programming the Public.  A Continuum Book.  New York: Seabury, 1977.  Essays about the effect of modernization and industrialization on politics, leisure, art and religion through the media.

Disenchantment: Meaning and Morality in the Media.  New York; Hastings House, 1980.  Essays on censorship, ethinic programming, pornography, popular religious practices, media criticism, effects research, ritual and transmission models of communication.

Commercial Television Campaigns and the Public Interest.  New York: McGannon Communication Research, 1991.  Monograph on the genesis and ethos of public service campaigns; principles and case studies. This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 19-26, 1997, pp. 1075-1078. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.

Early in 1984 a former student of mine from the sixties called me from Washington, where he is now working as a dedicated and notable labor lawyer. It was to give me bad news. He had been and remained an extraordinary person, having sailed around the world numerous times in the Merchant Marine both before and after a hectic politically active college career. He had put himself and his first wife through professional school (she, a Ph.D. physiologist; he, a law student on the law review) by working as a Customs Inspector, a droll occupation for a political radical. His news was indeed bad; he had a rare form of cancer-like tumor that would in all probability necessitate surgical removal of his tongue. He would like to see me for one of his "last conversations." During it, I found out that the tongueless can neither talk nor eat, because the root of the tongue is required for swallowing.

Some weeks later, after radiation therapy that was designed to limit the extent of the surgery, he wrote to tell me that the doctors were astounded to learn that the tumor had been stopped cold by the radiation and that surgery would not be required. He talked with a faint lisp - the only reminder of the bizarre and terrifying episode. He then put to me an embarrassing question. Did I pray? Was there a meaning in life? This experience had brought him, a typically modern sceptical intellectual, quite literally to his knees. Abashed but in earnest he wondered if he had experienced a miracle? What, really, was the meaning of life?

 I realized he had asked the one question that sophisticated professionals of our time and place don't ask. It is in bad taste. Only hopelessly ignorant fundamentalists ask such questions and then only to provide a triumphantly simplistic answer. Once in a while a scientist or novelist would offer a lyrical paean to the "evolutionary process" as though it were a personal god. But generally the question was not broached.

 The following letter, sans some personal references, represents my reply.


Dear X,

 The news about your cure is overwhelmingly welcome, but as you will recall from our "last conversation" it is, like all good news within the human condition, in the form of a reprieve.

 It is strikingly coincidental that you asked me the Big Question just when you did, because it is the question my age and the age have been prompting me to ask myself of late. I'm heading into senior citizenship: it seems that most of my temporal hopes will not be fulfilled; the flesh is sad, and I have read all the books. In the world, there is terrorism, agonized death among infants, spectacular greed, bangs and whimpers. And, as Woody Allen might add, there is always the rush hour traffic to contend with as well. Does it make sense? Is it worth it? (Whatever "it" signifies.) Is there a pattern or is it just a pity?

 First off, let me say that asking the Big Question, worrying with some consistency about the meaning of life and final ends is only for certain kinds of people. Freud confessed he was mystified by the trouble some personalities took to unravel the ineffable purpose of the universe, which is irretrievably beyond our ken. In my own case I have always experienced profound philosophical unease (a condition that might be triggered by some body chemistry imbalance, perhaps). It is just when problems are settled, books are finished on time, love is made with some rare finesse, that I get the sunny-sky blahs, offended by the pointlessness of joy. "Nothing is so sad as to see Englishman about their pleasures." This drawing room witticism for me is a universally valid critique of human culture. The adolescent Stephen Dedalus living with his father, Simon, in the Victoria Hotel reflects: "Victoria and Stephen and Simon. Simon and Victoria and Stephen. Names."

 Of course suffering and death forces the Big Question on everyone at times: Why this? Why me? Why now? Why? Even if there were no suffering or death, the Big Question can still be asked: Why life? Why anything?

 The classical Greeks, who seem among the first to ask these kinds of questions, came up with three attitudes of response to life: The Stoic, The Hedonistic, The Epicurean. All three presume that life is short and death final.

 Because life is short, say the Stoics, do not take its passions seriously. Strive for a dignified passage of cultivated indifference to the demeaning demands of fear, lust, ambition, jealousy. Many Christian moralists, by the way, such as some of the early Fathers and Thomas A Kempis, adopt this attitude wholesale. More about Christianity later, but for the moment let me say that I abominate this view as a voluntary death of the spirit; a slap at the Creator, if there is one.

Hedonism offers an almost diametrically contrary attitude prompted by an identical assessment of the human condition. Life is short, the Greek poet writes, and the night of the big sleep comes, so why wait for the lighting of the lamps? Break open the wine now! Enjoy! Madison Avenue and credit cards are the current exponents of this not unappealing fatalism. Yet there is something vulgar about it that repels the aesthetic, if not the moral, sense. And so in response the Greeks cooked up Epicureanism, which urges that we strive for the exquisite pleasures of difficult masteries, "going for it," as we say today, through the techniques of "self-realization," from TM to aerobics, from theoretical physics to Japanese tea ceremonies. As in so many areas, the Japanese are the best modern bearers of the classic ethos and Yukio Mishima, the existentialist novelist and master of many arts, offers a spectacular episode of Epicureanism in his bizarre seppuku, which he trained for as an athlete, so that his body would be at its peak precisely when he would have done with it. No degrading slow decay for him. Epicureanism offers the fundamentally sad satisfaction of wresting a moment of disciplined control from a finally doomed chaos. The brown bread and white wine folk of Georgetown and Cambridge are the American heirs to this approach.

Although since then a legion of philosophies of life have come and gone, I do believe these three fundamental attitudes, in some combination or in pure form, exhaust the range of emotional responses to the human condition. None of them, of course, explain it.

The Greeks may have invented the word politics, but it was the Jews who brought to social life a positive passion for justice. Not believing in an afterlife, early Judaism developed a theodicy of a pact with a Great Father, who sternly but fairly guided the fate of his chosen ones. While this does have the disadvantages of ethnocentrism, it did introduce the notion of the Big Picture in personal terms. This or that piece of life may be absurd and horrible, but taken as part of the cosmic mosaic it would make perfect sense. Faith, in the sense of a blind trust so alien to the Greek ethos, would transcend experience, perhaps contradict experience, in order to give meaning to life.

The anomie of antiquity at the turn of the first millennium put all religious faiths and intellectual positions to a test they failed. Magic, drugs, cults, mystery religions, and the lure of the irrational were at a high boil when Christ showed up. The simple story of the perfect man crucified yet triumphant was a real life enactment of mythical themes that took the ancient world by storm (in three hundred years or so - a blitz campaign for those times.) Christianity, as the intellectualist elaboration about Christ's meaning provided by Paul and John, was a brilliant recipe of given ingredients: a mystic doctrine of personal survival was combined with Stoic earthly disdain and Epicurean aestheticism wrapped up in hope for ultimate justice from a newly close God, Whose long view of the Big Picture would someday be revealed to the most lowly confused slave.

As an historical movement, Christianity has always been like an avalanche, its massive momentum ripping up and assimilating previously established customs, beliefs, and practices -- the best and the worst of the human heritage energized by an irresistible vision that can and has justified every cultural posture. I have no reason to believe that the other world religions are much different from the Graeco-Judaeo-Roman melange in this regard, bearing in mind that the Jews, Greeks, and Romans influenced one another and that all were deeply affected by still earlier Asiatic world views like Zoroastrianism. West and East have always borrowed from one another. Thus, Zen artfully embodies Epicureanism-Stoicism; Confucian morality is much like the tribal code of Moses, and so on.

All of these world views and the syncretistic Christian combination of them had long been peppered with pithy slogans, golden rules, words of wisdom, etc., which range from Socrates' Know thyself to Christ's If you lose the world, you gain it and on to Nothing in excess and Treat every human as an end in itself. Most of these moral herbs and spices do improve the flavor of life, but they never add up to a coherent view that explains life.

To recapitulate: Human beings live, think, and feel. To do each of these things "meaningfully" they need codes to guide living, creeds to organize beliefs, and socially approved attitudes to legitimate private feelings. From this premise, we can see that the "MEANING OF LIFE" can be an unconscious assumption about the value of our own lives that guides behavior, the sanction for a code; or it can be what you think history, or geology, or physics, or biology "means" — the rational underpinning for a creed. Finally, the meaning of life can be your emotional response to experience, your fundamental attitude. Codes, creeds, and attitudes can be mixed and matched in virtually any combination. There are Hindu hedonists, Islamic Stoics, Jewish Epicureans: Savonarola and St. Francis of Assisi shared the same creed.

Recall that each of the Greek attitudes presumed that life was short and death final. It is interesting that believing Christians, who hope for an eternal life of unimaginable bliss, have neither discarded nor added to the Greek triad. They have just elaborated more reasons for whatever choice they make. Christ died on the Cross, how can we frivolously waste time in shallow emotions? Christ rose from the dead, how can we not rejoice in the beauty of nature, knowing it will be eternally renewed? And so forth.

The "meaning of life" is thus the suppressed premise underlying emotional attitude, fundamental belief , and moral behavior.

When it comes to our attitudes, scores of profound thinkers and superficial self-help specialists alike have promised us that we can change them, learn to think positively, pull our own strings, and so forth. I can’t add much to this flood of advice except to submit, with humility, that in my view we don’t have much choice about our fundamental emotional attitude; it is a matter of personal character (body chemistry and the close culture of family and schooling), but this need not affect our choice of creed and code if we have independence of mind.

It would seem that creeds should be judged by their truth value and codes by their social consequences. After some little thought on the subject, however, we are left with a tangle of codes and creeds, so tied to the large cultures and their ethnic embodiments that they are hard to judge objectively. In any event, I feel that we cannot achieve sufficient distance from the human condition to judge creeds for their truth value; as for codes, modern industrialized society has so isolated individuals that the social consequences of most private decisions, beyond either the grossly immoral or the notably heroic, are difficult to imagine, let alone trace.

Practically speaking, therefore, we are left with judging creeds by their beauty, elegance, and transcendence of narrow ethnic origins. Codes we can judge by the sort of people we associate with them after some experience of life. Believe me, I spent a long time looking for a creed that would ineluctably lead to a code that in turn would produce peace of mind, serenity of spirit, and dreamless sleeps followed by hearty breakfasts without a trace of acid indigestion later.

As you might expect, I have thus far failed. But I would like to describe my position with regard to creed and code in the context of Christianity, the tradition we both share.

Before I can tell you what I think, I have to give you some idea of how I feel.

Years ago I did voluntary work in a number of hospitals, mostly for the terminally ill. I have stood by and watched scores of people, young and old, die. Some died in agony, some in their sleep, some of them with the pathetic consciousness of drugged children, a few with awesome self-control, faith, and love. One-vignette: a dying cancer patient, a man in his forties, demanded to be placed on his feet (he was in great pain) and was obeyed because of his moral authority. Standing, he embraced his wife passionately, mentioned the name of each of their children (all adopted and all handicapped), and then simply died on the spot. Others, of course, just want to piss or drink a glass of water. But in all the cases I witnessed I was left with the overwhelming impression that something "leaves" when people die that is qualitatively different from your dog Rover dying. The act of knowledge, the act of perception, even the act of despair are all so much more than the mere sum of their neurological components.

There is spirit. And our minds share in this spirit, experiencing vague intimations of permanent perfection which are not reducible to blood sugar levels.

Something, I deeply feel though I could never demonstrate, does survive physical death. I doubt that that something would be me at thirty-five, without a speck of acne, strolling down a clipped green lawn with my long gone Mom and Dad in their Sunday best. But I also doubt that it is my atoms, immensely diffused, joining the flowing matter of the expanding universe. (One might as well form a mystic attachment to the vast quantity of bodily wastes three score years and ten have strewn over the planet from each of us. while we still live.) This romantic transformism is just as nonsensical as kindergarten fundamentalism and both visions are equally alien to the spiritual sense of the survival of the self.

Man's mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells
[but]... meadow-down is not distressed
For a rainbow footing it,
Nor he for his bones risen.


I believe Hopkins is saying something more true than Dickinson's

Once the ivory box is broken,
Beats the golden bird no more.


Henri Bergson in his lyric paean, Elan Vital, said that the universe is a machine for making gods. By this he meant that although inorganic matter was inevitably subject to entropy, (all the structure of peaks and valleys puddling out into a flat line of cosmic death) organic matter, life, had a reverse drive for higher and higher complexities, from the amoebae to the whale brain. I find it easier to accept this process as being started by Spirit, with all the potentials achieved so far — and infinite more to be achieved already within it — than to see Plato and the Pleiades as the result of blind chance or some impersonal "force." We are going somewhere because we come from someone, someone unimaginable yet certainly with the attributes of all the goodness we aspire to, as well as, in some darkly terrifying way, of all the evil and waste that make us cower and may defeat us.

 One may choose to call this Spirit, God, so long as one realizes it is a vague idea at the end of emotionally profound gropings, not a Cartesian clear and distinct idea, let alone a crystalline concept from Scholastic logic-chopping. And should God exist, I doubt he is concerned with our controversial issues or that he shares the ideas of Bill Buckley or the Ayatollah Khomeini, of Mary Poppins or Virginia Wolff, or of you or me. Staying on the same plane of feelings, I can say that I believe this Spirit knows me and is letting all sorts of things happen to me that present me with decisions to make and courses of action to take or reject — life is sort of a training program for the next step in existence (not unlike bizarre Mishima's preparation for seppuku).

 As Pascal pointed out long ago, if this wild guess is wrong, I have lost nothing; but if the truth in some way resembles this vague intimation, something is gained. (There is also the possibility that the Spirit is what we would call evil, but it is a possibility fruitless to entertain for the same Pascalian reasons.


Mark Twain, who did entertain the possibility, presents in his later despairing writings a powerful illustration of this fruitlessness.)

Now we come to the hard part. If this is what I feel, what do I think about it? Above all, what do I do about it? Christianity claims to offer The Way.

As I said earlier, Christianity, as a movement, was born from the ashes of late antiquity's social malaise, gobbling up the philosophical attitudes and cultic practices that were lying about, offering ultimate meaning to the Greeks, ultimate justice to the Jews, a City of God to the Romans. But Pauline and Johannine theology advertised something new as central to the Good News: the flesh is redeemed, the body will see God; the risen Christ is not just a redeemer, he is an exemplar, the first fruits of the eternal harvest. This is a crude belief and most sophisticates either laugh it off or, like not a few clerics, explain it away as an allegory. But it is the heart of Christianity as a belief system. Paul said that if Christ were not risen we are the saddest of men, because it would mean that we would not rise. The real flesh and blood you have now, not the disembodied wraiths of later Hellenism, will be transformed and live forever. It is no use having refuge in our modern concepts of matter as the mysterious energy of quantum mechanics nor of living cells as the constantly shifting embodiment of the essentially "spiritual" software program of the genes. However you explain your body, the body you experience is the body you are promised, renewed. In your flesh you will see your God, not in your quarks or genes. This insistence is unique to Christianity.

A second unique character of Christianity is its constant advocacy of sheer altruism, utterly gratuitous self-sacrifice, modeled on Christ, who chose freely what for us is fate. Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, all have admiration for the self-sacrificing hero, but there is always some justifying practical end in view: the survival of the tribe, the avoidance of re-incarnation, and so forth. Thus Alyosha Karamazov, precisely because he takes Christ literally, is a fool, even by the standards of organized church practices. In this sense Christianity, the belief, is at fundamental odds with Christendom, the set of organized churches. The former is otherworldly, ludicrously impractical, wacky; that's why Popes, Bishops, and professional holy men are such worldly wise and down-to-earth marriage counselors and politicians: they have to keep this huge Zeppelin from just floating away. You have to look to extraordinary individuals, like Mother Teresa, or non-Church movements, like Amnesty International, to catch this altruism in action.

In fact, looking around the world today, the most hopeful sign I see is the human rights movement, which operates from the unprovable and, on its face, improbable moral conviction that all humans are equal and that no human should be abused by any other for any reason whatsoever.

Like Christianity, this movement does not try to show how practical in the long run human rights observance would be for governments. The stand is moral and extra-rational, but recognized to the extent that violators feel they must excuse their torture policies or hide them.

So, in this sense, Christianity does transcend its origins.

Although individual Christians can have the temperaments of Stoics, Hedonists, or Epicureans, unlike any of them, they do live in real hope. They have a powerful exemplar in the crucified yet risen Christ for altruistic love, which the pagans had to practice on abstract principle, and thus rarely. And they have faith, that impractical heritage from the Jews, in the ultimate sense of things, even if the immediate meaning of things now eludes them here. For believing Christians (and I do not mean simple-minded fundamentalists) there is a meaning to life because it is a prelude to Real Life.

I prefer to conceptualize Christianity in this exemplary resurrectional fashion, as did many of the Greek Fathers, rather than in the crude Roman legalistic sense of sin-punishment-vicarious expiation, so popular with the African Fathers and particularly with Tertullian, the proto-canon lawyer, God help him. This nursery morality of "you're gonna get it!" was of course the easiest to teach people fresh from the nursery, where regrettably so much religious orientation is ended as well as begun.

I believe, in many senses of all the words, that the Greek resurrectional version of Christian redemption is the best we can hope for.

This is not to identify Christianity with any one of the confessional churches or even with organized religion in general. But Christianity does seem to me to require some form of fellowship of hope, faith, and charity with others. I would like to believe (and have operated under the assumption) that "good" people, folks for whom I have felt affection, admiration, or respect, whatever their philosophies or faiths, make up such a legitimate fellowship. There is another school of thought that dismisses such personal likes and dislikes as irrelevant to allegiance to a church, the lone legitimate Christian fellowship, all the more virtuous if you find some of your fellows insufferable. Nonetheless, it seems soft-headed to me to buy into an outfit whose shoddiness you ignore, or even welcome, on the dubious grounds of an exclusive franchise from God.

So. What does one do? It is relatively effortless to wager on the existence of a mysteriously benign Supreme Spirit. It is intellectually taxing to make the same Pascalian wager on the Resurrection of Christ, although the stakes are much greater if you win, and no worse if you lose. If your creed is to place that bet, then your code becomes a bit tough to honor, since it is a very high ideal without the comfort of mechanical rules that some churches seem to offer.

What am I, then? If north by northwest is a legitimate compass heading, then I am a hedonistic Epicurean in attitude, a non-denominational Pascalian resurrectionist in creed, and a would-be Alyosha Karamazov in code with shamefully abundant lapses into short-term Machiavellianism.

Do I pray? Not very often, never for material things, certainly not to any sexed figure in a colorful ethnic costume of any kind. My most common prayer is a thank-you shot up to whomever for some beauty or joy that for a moment filled my empty heart.

When I lost loved ones, to death or misunderstanding, I don't recall praying. I have thanked God for sweet memories of lost loves and experiences of present ones, of course. In fear, fear of death, of pain, of despair, of fear itself, I have prayed for strength, for hope, for courage, but perhaps like you I have always felt it foolish to pray that the pain itself would go away, although I have been driven to my knees by the immense force of several terrible events.

I don't know whether you would call it prayer, but I often contemplate, become the sun-fired tree I gaze at, become the music while the music lasts, lose myself in the dancing lights of a wooded stream or the rosy tops of thunderclouds seen from the window of a rocketing 747. I have been transfixed at the sundered innards of a seed-packed melon I had been splitting for breakfast, quiet deer in late light, beads of red taillights stringing over the Tappan Zee Bridge. Blissed out, as the kids would say. Is this prayer?

What can I say to you, dear friend and fellow pilgrim? Life is such a cruel waste on the living, who piss away their days waiting for the night. Maybe you are only alive when your ego is so threatened by the immense evil of the Destroyer, and you fight to get back up for air, for light, for animal normalcy now grasped as ecstasy ignored. Some scripture scholars say you can derive a doctrine of independent evil from the Bible, evil that somehow God can't quite handle, the Great Negation. Although this does not at all fit with either a clear Greek concept of a Supreme Being nor with a nursery need for security, it may be the terrible truth, one that lets God off the hook of our unforgiving resentments.

That's all I can say. I have not been able to tell you the meaning of life, only what some cultures and collective experience have tried to make of it. And of course I have put these thoughts down more for my own sake than yours. Nevertheless, I hope they may be of some utility in your own blind groping with the painful and promising puzzle we call human life.



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