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Finding Purpose. Charles W. Allen. Talking about purposes (plural) is easy. We have lots of them, and we can tell people what they are without feeling puzzled. “What’s the purpose of this course?” “To help me get my degree.” Talking about “Purpose” (singular) is trickier.

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finding purpose

Finding Purpose

Charles W. Allen

Talking about purposes (plural) is easy. We have lots of them, and we can tell people what they are without feeling puzzled.
  • “What’s the purpose of this course?” “To help me get my degree.”
  • Talking about “Purpose” (singular) is trickier.
  • We talk about “Purpose” when we start moving toward the big questions—
  • from the purpose of this course
  • to the purpose of this degree
  • to the purpose of this career
  • to the purpose of this life
  • to the purpose of life itself.
  • Those last two are among the big questions: Does your life have a purpose, a meaning? Does life itself have a purpose, a meaning?
  • The big questions are tricky questions, because responsible and informed people disagree about a) how to answer them and b) whether they can be answered.
Here are my biases:
  • One bias is that everybody has a bias.
  • Another is that our biases don’t keep us from learning from one another.
  • I think these big questions can be answered.
  • They can be answered because we already do answer them, at least in practice.
  • But I think the answers are more elusive than most of us usually realize.
  • And I don’t think there’s any fool-proof way to go about answering them—no fool-proof answer-books, no fool-proof experimental methods.
  • If the answers are elusive, we can’t afford to ignore people who answer the big questions differently; we need to listen and learn, and we need to be OK with that.
  • If I answer the big questions in terms of sharing in God’s life, and if I find the Bible to be a unique (though troublesome!) source of wisdom, that’s also a way of acknowledging that I do not and could not have all the answers myself (that would be idolatry).
  • So if you answer differently, I don’t draw any automatic conclusions about you, except to assume that, like me, you’ve only begun to glimpse an answer, and that we both might learn more by finding ways to work together.
  • But this is my bias, or my hunch, about the big questions. It’s not beyond question, and that’s why you need to know what it is.
What’s the purpose of your life? What’s the purpose of life itself?
  • When people answer these questions in practice, two contrasting temperaments seem most influential: the purpose driven temperament and the purpose seeking temperament.
  • A temperament is your “default” or your “comfort zone.”
  • You can act outside of it, but it drains you to do that.
  • These two temperaments are extremes, “ideal types.”
  • In practice, we have to stretch and twist them to get them to work.
  • But they are recognizable, and worth recognizing.
the purpose driven temperament
The Purpose Driven Temperament:
  • The big questions canbe answered once and for all.
  • We don’t need to waste time asking about our purpose.
  • We already know it, or at least we know how to know it in a few quick and easy steps.
  • Maybe we can deduce it from a few self-evident truths (“We know these truths to be self-evident…”).
  • Or maybe we have a quick and easy answer book—the Bible, the Qur’an, Das Kapital, The Wealth of Nations, A Course in Miracles, …
  • Or maybe it’s a bit of both: self-evident truths plus a quick and easy answer-book.
  • Instead of asking about our purpose, we need to name it, live by it and, above all, never question it.
  • Recent Example (obviously!): The Purpose-Driven Life, by Rick Warren.
  • “God has not left us in the dark to wonder and guess. He has clearly revealed his five purposes for our lives through the Bible. It is our Owner’s Manual, explaining why we are alive, how life works, what to avoid, and what to expect in the future” (p. 20).
  • But do note that there are secular versions of this temperament: in many companies, if you question the ideal of unregulated markets, don’t expect a promotion.
the purpose seeking temperament
The Purpose Seeking Temperament:
  • The big questions cannot be answered once and for all.
  • We need to “live the questions,” not the answers; it’s not a waste of time.
  • There are no self-evident truths.
  • There are no quick and easy answer books.
  • If you do answer the big questions, keep the answers to yourself; don’t let them influence how you treat others.
  • A quotation you should know: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue…The point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer”—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Fourth Letter.
  • Recent example: Yvette Flunder’s “I don’t know!”
  • Note again that this temperament has both religious and secular expressions.
strengths weaknesses of the purpose driven
Strengths & Weaknesses of the Purpose Driven:
  • Strength: You have a clear identity and sense of direction.
  • Strength: If more questions arise, you know where to go for quick answers.
  • Strength: You are motivated to start righting the wrongs you see around you.
  • Strength: You know when you’ve done well and when you haven’t.
  • Weakness: You may not be able to adapt to novel situations.
  • Weakness: You may overlook obvious ambiguities in your quick-answer sources.
  • Example from Rick Warren, slamming self-help books: “The Bible says, ‘Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding your true self’” (Matthew 16:25). But Warren is not quoting the Bible; he’s quoting a paraphrase based on the Bible. Matthew 16:25 actually reads: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (NIV). When Warren says, “The Bible says…,” he is usually quoting a paraphrase based on the Bible, not the Bible itself. (I counted.) Why does he do that? Because the Bible really is not a quick-answer book. It doesn’t even look like one. You have to ignore most of what it says, and how it says it, to make it into a quick-answer book.
  • Weakness: What if you’re wrong about the wrongs you right? (“One person’s freedom-fighter is another’s terrorist.”)
  • Weakness: You may confuse, “Am I good at what I do?” with, “Is what I do good?” They’re very different questions.
strengths weaknesses of the purpose seeking
Strengths & Weaknesses of the Purpose Seeking:
  • Strength: You are open and responsive to novel situations.
  • Strength: You are free from the constraints of authoritarian voices.
  • Strength: You are motivated to work for a multicultural society.
  • Strength: You can celebrate the standards you live by, even if they are not shared by others.
  • Weakness: You may miss the fact that, no matter how open you are, your life is still moving in a particular direction. In practice, you have already adopted certain values to the exclusion of others. There’s no way around this.
  • Weakness: You may be discounting the collective wisdom that produced and preserved those supposedly quick-answer sources.
  • Weakness: You may become a pawn for preservers of the status quo. (The Reagan administration used the language of multiculturalism to avoid challenging Apartheid in South Africa.)
  • Weakness: You may not notice how the standards you live by may deprive others of opportunities to live by their own standards.
summing up
Summing Up
  • The bad news: Either temperament, if followed strictly, can lead to disasters and atrocities.
  • The good news: We hardly ever follow them strictly, even when we think we do.
  • The bad news: We may never see a culture or society that does not produce these contrasting temperaments.
  • The good news: In the right circumstances, both temperaments can have a healthy influence.
  • The bad news: There may not be a stable middle ground between the two.
  • The good news: You can have fruitful, healthy interaction without finding a stable middle ground; you can remain purpose driven and continue to learn from the purpose seeking, and vice versa.
  • The bad news: No matter how purpose driven you want to be, you will spend much of your life in purpose seeking; no matter how purpose seeking you want to be, you will find that your purpose seeking is, in its own way, purpose driven.
  • The good news: What I just said.
  • The upshot of all this: In practice, we can combine a vivid sense of direction in life with an equally profound willingness to change course in light of what we are coming to see.
exercise 1 a pronouncement on the good life
Exercise 1: A Pronouncement on the Good Life

The good life for man is the life spent in seeking for the good life for man, and the virtues necessary for the seeking are those which will enable us to understand what more and what else the good life for man is.

—Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), p. 204.

  • How is this statement purpose driven?
  • How is this statement purpose seeking?
  • What might be some of “the virtues necessary for the seeking”?
  • Is one temperament more obvious than the other? Which?
exercise 2 shameless self promotion a mission statement
Exercise 2 (& Shameless Self-Promotion): A Mission Statement

Grace Unlimited is an Indianapolis-based campus ministry committed to celebrating God’s love on God’s terms, unlimited by ours. Supported by Lutherans, Episcopalians and other people of faith and good-will, we believe that God’s love is already at work in the lives of everyone, moving to the Spirit of God’s common life with us in Jesus Christ, and our mission is to help all of us together grow in awareness and appreciation of where God may be leading us today. Our leaders claim common convictions, but no final answers, to remain open to what God is doing, on God’s terms, beyond our own Churches and Creeds. We welcome everyone to join us in this vital quest.

  • How is this statement purpose driven?
  • How is this statement purpose seeking?
  • Is one temperament more obvious than the other? Which?
  • This is an unofficial mission statement about the campus ministry I represent.
  • But I wrote it, and it is also a mission statement for my life (not the organization itself, but the purpose it serves).
  • Try drafting your own mission statement, combining a vivid sense of direction with a profound willingness to change course in light of what you are coming to see.