Today’s Question: Is the Goal of Existence an Epiphany?

Is the goal of existence, the end, an epiphany—a vision, as it were of God—as in “I see you”? Or is the goal of existence rational coping with passing appearances, seeking to enjoy one’s existential freedom and independence from the (opaque and non-talking) Ground of Being for however long one can manage to stay alive?

It seems to me that the global capitalist economy is devoted to servicing the latter goal, and people, even as they try to enjoy consumer hedonism as best they can, find this way of being in the world essentially chaotic and unsatisfying, and so turn to religion, at least once a week, as a port in the storm. There is a sense in most people that there simply has to be more to life than news, weather, and sports—and the freedom to switch the dial between them. 

I share this intuition, though I can’t say that I trust it.

Still, I think that undirected existential freedom focused on individual preference and aversion is probably not the last word. There is almost certainly some Ground of Being—some ultimate source for existence and love—that it wouldn’t hurt human beings to daily remember and orient to. And this orientation carries the hope that at the end is some sort of culminating vision, a dropping away, as it were, of a curtain, as when Paul famously says in 1 Corinthians 13: 

For now we see through a glass dimly, but then face to face.

Do you ever orient your mind—in meditation, reflection, prayer, or gratitude—toward the ontological mystery and love, or are you satisfied with the idea that the universe appears to have no purpose at all?

 

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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17 Responses to Today’s Question: Is the Goal of Existence an Epiphany?

  1. andrewclunn says:

    Personally, I see these greater purposes as something real, but not as a reflection of the universe around us but as a reflection of the self. For a professor to find their greatest meaning in the realization of thought and the novel idea or understanding is not surprising. That said, there are other purposes found within other sorts of people.

  2. JCR says:

    I have been thinking about this since our last exchange here. I still believe that, for now, the purpose continues to be the advancement of the species. What you make me think about is whether that is enough. Is there a higher purpose – although one can always ask if there is yet another, higher purpose. Why not seek a purpose beyond the vision of god if that is what someone believes?

    I say for now, because as we grow to understand more of the universe, perhaps we learn more of a purpose. As a species, we are infantile. And like any infant, we see things differently as we grow and our knowledge expands.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erikson's_stages_of_psychosocial_development

    I would say, that for now, we are somewhere between Hope and Will. Unfortunately, we are unlike an individual as our knowledge is cumulative as a species and can be lost. We have periods of advancement and regression. Maybe, in the next 1000 years, we can advance to Purpose. I continue to see my purpose as advancing the species so that someday, we can mature enough to understand more of the universe and, as a species, find wisdom.

  3. Mike says:

    This too shall pass… Someday gone…

    You will find no fulfillment or satisfaction in this life, only longing, until you connect with the infinite and eternal. 1 Corinthians continues:

    “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

    You can’t know God until you know love. When you seek love, you will find God.

    It you want to find God, ask Him:

    “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

    • santitafarella says:

      Mike,

      How lovely if it were that simple (“ask and it will be given”).

      And your confidence comes from where? An intuition that the Bible is true?

      I don’t dispute the plausibility of your formula, but I do question your confidence concerning its correctness.

      —Santi

      • Mike says:

        Like you, I spent many years longing and searching for more. One late night I was drawn to a bible and flipped to Ecclesiastes, supposedly written by Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived. What was his answer to it all? “Meaningless! Like chasing after the wind…” The only advice I gained was “it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him–for this is his lot.”

        The book ends “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” I remember feeling this was the answer I had been seeking, but it was so empty – it could not help me. I had no idea what it meant to fear God and keep his commandments. Of all my childhood growing up in church, I could see little difference between those in church and my neighbors who never went to church.

        So I just prayed, “God, I don’t know what it means to follow You. I don’t even know what a real Christian looks like. Show me.” And then my whole life changed. A year later I had a new job in a new town with new friends. We were about to catch a late night movie with some friends after dinner, when they decided to call it a night so they could get up and go to Sunday School the next morning. Not their daughter. Them. They were in a class they really liked about marriage, and invited us to join them.

        We did, and bit by bit, began to meet people who not only claimed the name “Christian,” but whose lives reflected the life of Christ. They were different than my neighbors. They possessed a sunny optimism towards life. They seemed to have an endless supply of love to share, a bottomless hope in the darkest of situations, and a faith in an unseen God that I had never known before. They offered me a book called “Peace With God” by Billy Graham. By the time I was done with that book, not only did I finally understand what it meant to be a Christian, I was one!

        I’d like to say my life has been perfect ever since, but God’s not finished with me yet. I still fail and struggle in many ways the same as I did before. I still am no happier in my job as I was back then. But the difference is the hope I have inside me. I know someday all the things of this life will pass away, and then I will see Jesus face to face, and everything will be right. Nothing can separate me from the love of God.

        So I have confidence in “Ask, seek, knock.” because it worked in my life. It didn’t happen overnight. God had to move me to where He could reach me. But He answered that prayer. Worth a try, isn’t it?

      • JCR says:

        @Mike

        I am happy that Christianity works for you. From the perspective of finding what makes one happy, good for you.

        But what you have come to is entirely based on faith, without evidence at all. That is a hard sale. The sole source of what you use as the basis for your faith is something I find contradictory, falsifiable, and in some ways immoral. That makes it incredibly hard for me to take it as anything other than just one more mechanism people use to get by.

        I see the same sunny optimism and vast love in folks of varying faiths, or none at all. It might be worth a try if one is faltering and cannot find the balance and fulfillment they need. But there are many personal philosophies or faiths which can offer this. It really depends on the individual.

      • santitafarella says:

        Mike,

        If you had met me at the age of sixteen, when I too was a born again believer going to a charismatic evangelical church, I would have spoken in similar terms. And I, too, loved the Book of Ecclesiastes—one of the first books I read in the Bible. But, of course, the dark and unconcealed side of such testimony is no doubt familiar to you, as well. These include the following (just as examples): (1) anxiety about the tensions between science and reading Genesis literally; (2) anxiety about “once saved always saved”; (3) anxiety about sexual energies, especially as a teenager, and managing them; (4) anxiety about one’s relationship to material existence—money, school, career—and maintaining a “spiritual” life.

        How, for example, does one read the Sermon on the Mount and conclude that anybody living in the United States is seriously a Christian? If you pay taxes, for example, you are already ignoring the unambiguous admonition to nonviolence (“resist not evil”) because part of your money goes to the military budget.

        And I don’t know any “Christians” who have internalized Jesus’s command to sell all you have and give it to the poor.

        In other words, there are lots and lots of tensions that are sublimated in Christianity that are frequently masked by the “happy Christian” narrative.

        Here’s one more: spiritual pride (the assumption that, as a Christian, God thinks of you as among the chosen, and non-Christians are to be pitied for their hell-boundness and inability to see because they have a closed heart—unlike you).

        —Santi

      • Mike says:

        @JCR

        My faith only came after evidence and reason. I think I am every bit a skeptic as you and Santi. I am not suggesting that you believe because I do. I merely am professing my satisfaction with what I’ve found to someone else looking for the same kind of thing.

        I can understand how your experience with the Bible could lead you to perceive it as “contradictory, falsifiable, and in some ways immoral”. As a former skeptic who has spent a lot of time studying the Bible, I strongly believe it is none of these things. But that didn’t come from learning about what the Bible is. It is more from learning the things the Bible is not. It is not a 20th century newspaper. It is not a science textbook. Most of the Old Testament that troubles so many people is not meant to be God’s permanent, unchanging rulebook for all people on earth until the end of the world. Unless you can see the Bible as a love story written by the Creator to His creation, you are going to miss the whole point.

        If there is a Creator, don’t you hope that He would want you to know Him? If He did, don’t you think He’d make His message easy to find? I submit to you that no other person than Jesus Christ and no other book than the Bible could fit this description of a message from God. Any true exploration of purpose and meaning demands a thorough investigation of the claims of the Bible. That type of investigation and faith is not a crutch or a way to get through your day. It is a logical response to truth.

        Santi posted a wonderful video today of a busy market with an unexpected opera performance. The amazing part is that the performers are walking around in the crowd, indistinguishable until they begin singing. And all of a sudden you realize there is a hidden reality, a truth that was there all along, but you just weren’t able to see it. And the longer you watch, you realize there is a pattern to it. The members are all wearing badges identifying themselves as part of the opera. Why didn’t I notice that before? Can I find others in the crowd before they begin to sing? Spiritual truth lies hidden in the same way, waiting for us to discover it.

        Do you remember the people in the video too embarrassed or put out by this flagrant display of opera to accept the reality of the performance? They would stare in shock and then quickly turn away, not willing to embrace the beauty of the song? Or the people who would point and laugh, and just see the whole thing as a joke? But my favorite were the people so caught up in the beauty of the song that they wanted to become a part of it, even if that meant singing a song they didn’t know in a language they didn’t understand. Don’t miss the beauty of God’s song playing all around you. It is strange and unexpected and not what you are accustomed to, but a beautiful message meant just for you to discover and enjoy.

      • Mike says:

        Santi,

        I agree the Christian worldview has many “tensions” as you put it. I am glad it does, because life does. Love does. Love can be the best and happiest feeling in the world. It can also break your heart. It can cause you to do great things. Or to commit murder. Is love to be avoided? Not in my worldview. Love involves risk, to manage these tensions. But the rewards are worth the risk. Is imperfect love better than no love at all? I think so.

        The Sermon on the Mount contain some of the most challenging words of Christ. They paint a picture of perfection beyond human capability. Why would Jesus give us that picture? I don’t think to frustrate or condemn us. If you look at the tone, it is very much encouraging us to high ideals. Maybe your kids are too young yet to see this like the instruction of a father to his child. Our inability to reach these high ideals does not question our sincerity to follow Christ, perhaps just question our resemblance to Him enough to give us the right to be recognized in His name.

        As far as giving all our money to the poor, this was not a command of Jesus to all His followers. It was an answer to the rich man who asked how to have eternal life. He was to sell everything and “then follow Me.” For this wealthy man, money was an obstacle to following Christ. We all have things that we hold more dear than knowing God and following Jesus. Are we willing to see those, and when asked, set those things down and follow Him? In my life, rarely have I felt called to set everything down to follow Jesus. More often it is changing my priorities to put the right things first. As a musician though, I was called to set aside secular music. I don’t believe that is a requirement to be a Christian. But it was, and is, a “requirement” for me. Secular music is an obstacle for me. Music makes me tick. It stays with me all day. It directs my thoughts. Secular music took me away from God. And I had to give it up. But money isn’t an issue for me. It doesn’t control my thoughts. But it did for the rich man talking to Jesus.

        Stay away from “happy Christians.” They are usually shallow and when trouble comes, have no idea of where to turn. Seek out Joyous Christians. They are amazing people. They can get through life with certainty because they understand how the story ends, and how they fit into picture. They see today through the eyes of eternity. They can be annoying because they always seem to know a secret that you don’t. But when you watch them long enough and see the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control evidenced in their lives, you will do anything to learn their secret. It is a shame that so few Christians fit that description.

        It is an awkward thing for a believer to speak to a non-believer. If you are sincere, and truly believe that a person needs to have a personal relationship with Jesus to avoid an eternity of torment, would you not be the most cruel person imaginable to keep this knowledge to yourself? But to also know that through your words and actions, you could also drive people away from God? It is a terrible weight at times.

        To you, my faith is an unproven theory. For me, it is certain knowledge, as certain as my knowledge of science, as certain as I can know anything. Do I expect you to accept my faith without evidence? What good would it be if you did! But if I can share my knowledge with you in a way that is helpful, I would do all that I can, including forsaking sleep and other pressing matters.

        My response to your overall objections is don’t let imperfect followers of Christ prevent you from learning who Jesus is. Embrace the tensions to find the narrow path. Keep searching. “Seek and you will find.” That is a promise you can cling to.

      • JCR says:

        @Mike

        I was a devout Christian until my 20s. I have a deep understanding of the Bible and went to church multiple times a week and read the bible constantly. I still read the bible periodically. I live by a moral code that is very close to biblical morality – of course, with 1 really major difference. 🙂

        I am a bit confused on what you believe, so it is difficult to respond to your post. You view the bible as a love story, does that mean you view it primarily as allegory? I would say that is one of the better ways to interpret it, but then it leaves open what is allegory and what is not. Perhaps Christ is allegory. You run into the same issue if parts are allegory and parts are not. Unfortunately, you MUST take the OT in this light as we know the age of the earth and universe and the generalities around how the earth formed. A great read is “The Five Books of Moses” by Robert Alter. It gives a detailed translation of the OT with historical context, Rabbi’s, Priests and Pastures, with commentary and close to co-author status on the book.

        I would ask what evidence you use for your faith, other than the bible? I see all of the intangibles in the world – love, kindness, caring, etc – but I do not see god in any of that. People of all faiths and all walks of life share these things. The bible is the only tangible. I know the bible well and I still see it as I wrote. I also know the historical detail of the works that encompass the bible and the gnostics – which makes the contents of the bible all the more questionable. Fragments of copies of copies – all decades to 100+ years after the life of Christ are hard to not have veracity questions.

        The universe is vast. For all intents and purposes, infinite. The creator you envision is even more so. We are less than a grain of sand on all the beaches of the world when compared to all the bodies in the universe. Perhaps a creator would want us to know him. Perhaps not. None of us can perceive even the infinite universe in which we live. To attempt to perceive something even more infinite than that and to know what it would desire seems the pinnacle of hubris. We barely understand what we see, much less what we do not see.

        The opera video was excellent. Your analogy of the reactions to those accepting Christ is only one possible view. I see it similarly though. Accepting the truth that we know little, embracing our flaws and the opportunity to advance humanity and make things better for the next generation is one of the most beautiful things I can imagine. Some turn from this idea in fear, the idea of our ignorance of life and any ultimate purpose is too terrifying. Some embrace it and see the beauty of the opportunity and the truth in it. We know we should advance and make things better for those to come, it has been part of humanity as long as there has been humanity. We do not yet know if there is a bigger purpose, we barely understand ourselves and our planet, how could we hope to understand much more. It takes courage to charge into the unknown and many seek comfort elsewhere. I do not criticize them for doing this, except when they use their comfort and fear to hold back the truth and our advancement.

      • santitafarella says:

        Mike:

        You wrote:

        “Santi posted a wonderful video today of a busy market with an unexpected opera performance. The amazing part is that the performers are walking around in the crowd, indistinguishable until they begin singing. And all of a sudden you realize there is a hidden reality, a truth that was there all along, but you just weren’t able to see it. And the longer you watch, you realize there is a pattern to it. The members are all wearing badges identifying themselves as part of the opera. Why didn’t I notice that before? Can I find others in the crowd before they begin to sing? Spiritual truth lies hidden in the same way, waiting for us to discover it. Do you remember the people in the video too embarrassed or put out by this flagrant display of opera to accept the reality of the performance? They would stare in shock and then quickly turn away, not willing to embrace the beauty of the song? Or the people who would point and laugh, and just see the whole thing as a joke? But my favorite were the people so caught up in the beauty of the song that they wanted to become a part of it, even if that meant singing a song they didn’t know in a language they didn’t understand.”

        You put that really well. I liked it a lot.

        —Santi

      • santitafarella says:

        JCR:

        I agree with you that Robert Alter is an important biblical interpreter to read. He teaches at Berkeley (for those who don’t know of him).

        —Santi

      • Mike says:

        Sorry for the delay in my response. I had 2 wisdom teeth pulled on Friday and just getting back to life today.

        I admit that I have never really run into anyone who claimed deep knowledge of the Bible who rejected it. Mostly I know people who never have really studied the Bible, but know a lot about what other people don’t like about it –like criticizing a movie you’ve never seen, or walking into the middle and watching for only 5 minutes.

        My experience with scripture has taught me that most controversial issues are controversial for one of two reasons. Either the Bible does not clearly voice a position on an issue, leaving it wide open for interpretation, or it is crystal clear but doesn’t say what we want it to say.

        I would say that the age of the earth or the right way to baptize believers fall in the first category. To dwell on these issues is to miss the point. How old the earth is does not have relevance to the spiritual truths in a spiritual book. Were the Bible a science book you could argue whether research supports or contradicts it. But to discount the Bible through science is like not liking the Road Runner cartoon because it has inaccurate physics. You are missing the point. And arguments over theology miss Jesus’s desire for the church to be one as He and His Father are one.

        I would put moral judgment on divorce or abortion for convenience, or homosexuality in the second category of controversy, where the Bible doesn’t say what we want it to say. We might want to do these things, but they are outside of God’s plan for His creation. That is not how He wants us to live. Please note that I am not making any statements on public policy regarding these matters, just saying these are against God’s moral code. Jesus commented on how Moses chose to allow divorce as public policy “because our hearts are hard”. But I think these are things clearly outside of God’s plan for us.

        When I say the Bible is a love story, I am talking about the whole book from beginning to end. The whole point of the Old Testament was to show time and time again that man is enslaved to sin and in need of a redeemer. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” And the New Testament shows the love and forgiveness of God. “Yet while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” “God so loved the world that He sent His only Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” It is one connected story.

        I am not trying to say the whole book is an allegory, but that interpretation requires seeing the big picture first. I should not feel condemned by the rule if I could learn that God has already forgiven me for breaking it. I should not get caught up in difficulties of interpretation if I could know that one day I shall see clearly. There are times you need to accept by intuition and deduction without having all of the facts and evidence available. If you wait for all of the proof, you will never know anything more than “I think, therefore I am.” What else can you truly know with certainty?

        Here is some of what I consider evidence. Who would come up with a plot that an all-powerful, all-knowing creator would leave the comforts and joys of heaven, to be born in the most humble of conditions, live a life of obscurity in a place of derision and ridicule, only to live a brief life of public ministry that would result in one of the most brutal and agonizing forms of torture ever devised by man? And not only do this, but have writings for thousands of years preceding it predicting that it would happen? And having people who lived at the same time willing to die rather than denounce their allegiance to this man with no promise of status, power, wealth or any other form of earthly gain? Willing to die for their beliefs with no other gain.

        And you don’t believe this is good evidence? There are thousands of Greek New Testaments available to scholars with remarkable internal consistency, unparalleled to any other ancient text, and you think there are veracity questions? How many copies of the works Socrates or Tacitus exist, yet no one questions the veracity of these authors. Contemporary historians say nothing that would contradict the biblical account. Archeology has consistent shown the geography and cities of the biblical narrative to be accurate, even when scholars believed the Bible to be wrong up until the point of a new discovery proving the Bible true.

        Other evidence that led me to believe was the example and instruction of believers. Their advice on marriage and parenthood I heard no where else. It was true and worked. I am not sure I would have been married almost 20 years without the wise council of the Bible and my church. They have proven to me that God’s way works better than my way. Many other people I’ve known to have joy were optimists who could express no reason for their joy –kind of a “Que Sera, Sera” type of attitude. Christians who are joyful can point to blessing after blessing in their lives that have come through their obedience and faithfulness to following God’s will for their lives, no matter where that has taken them. They have a lifetime of proof that God’s way works, and it is good.

        I could go on about the faith of the women of the Dwight Correctional Center, or believers I know in 12-step recovery programs. They put the faith of the people of my church to shame. I could talk about answered prayers, about strings of “coincidences” that can only be the hand of God at work. But at the end of the day, I don’t think these will convince you unless you experience them for yourself.

        The path starts with asking the Holy Spirit to open your eyes to see the truth. You are stumbling over something God can help you though to understanding. Are you willing to accept His help? Or will you ignore all evidence and stand on your own before God? Do you think that you can chart a better course for yourself and your life than that in the Bible? Do you think you can improve upon it and find a better way? Life is too difficult a path to walk alone. Swallow your pride and find the answers to your objections. You don’t have to stop thinking when you become a Christian, but you do need to trust in God.

      • santitafarella says:

        Mike,

        I don’t think that a lot of your reasons for belief stand up well under scrutiny.

        But here is where I think you hit the crux of the matter: “Do you think that you can chart a better course for yourself and your life than that in the Bible?”

        Yes, I do.

        And this may be hubris.

        But the reality is that you do as well. My bet is that (for example) even as you say that the Levitical law of homosexual prohibition is still in effect for gay people, that you have released yourself of a lot of similar biblical laws (such as the prohibitions on eating shellfish or pork, or wearing clothing made of two fabrics). And I also bet that your wife does not cover her hair in church. Nor, I bet, have you sold all you have and given it to the poor. And by paying your taxes you are supporting the military in your country and so are violating Jesus’s clear command to his followers to “resist not evil.” So you have chosen your life as well.

        And I think that if God exists, that God is love, and will forgive both of us. You, however, think that you have to believe certain things and say a magical prayer with the right beliefs in it in response to the Holy Spirit’s inner working to guarantee God’s love. Thus a moment of decision in the right frame of mind is important to you. I don’t think it is. If God exists, God is going to do with us whatever (s)he is going to do. No amount of magical posturing is going to change that. The right belief, right prayer, right living memes that have hold of your imagination are just ways for reducing anxiety. They don’t change what God will do with you.

        At least that is my belief.

        Why I believe such a thing about God (if God exists) is no more grounded in evidence than your beliefs. So we’re kind of stuck: do you believe God is ultimately loving or ultimately judgmental? To which kind of God do you direct your faith?

        People who are atheist or agnostic (like me) have a faith insurance policy as well: we think that if we’re wrong, and God exists, that God still loves us (and loves you too). This may be foolish, but it is a faith exacly like your own—one on which evidence is lacking but that confidence intuitively adheres. Maybe atheists and agnostics, by clinging to this confidence, are hearing the true voice of God (and the heart of God).

        Wouldn’t that be ironic—if the least religious were more in touch with the heart of God than those professing religion?

        The first shall be last.

        —Santi

  4. No, I am not “satisfied with the idea that the universe appears to have no purpose at all?”

    That’s been the driver behind my existential quest for most of my life. Sure, if atheism is true, no big deal, what have i lost? But if I can somehow find a greater Reality, that seems worth pursuing. (My scepticism doesn’t allow me to come over to that side easily.)

    I discovered contra popular belief recently that a number of Deists pray, and do feel that g0d is still in touch with this world. They just don’t believe any extant religion has much insight. Like you, philosophically I think a Mind is more probable than not. (I only came to that conclusion recently.)

    As for the title, I’ve been reading a recent text on mystics and he points out that many mystics were highly intellectual and skeptical people, and did NOT regard an epiphany as the goal of life.

    I meander 🙂

    Jonathan from Spritzophrenia

    • santitafarella says:

      Jonathan,

      Do you know Ram Das’s documentary film “Fierce Grace”? If you can find it on DVD at Amazon, I think you might like it.

      —Santi

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