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[Chalice] The Spiritual Path of Living Without a Why [Chalice]

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Presented October 5, 2008, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

Someone once said Western philosophy is just footnotes to Plato, so we could see this talk as simply footnotes to Frieda's talk last week and Ellen Taylor's talk last year, the one about bumper stickers. Last week Frieda discussed other churches and what you might see as bumper stickers on cars in the parking lots of other churches. If you went right now to the huge parking lots of the Crossing and churches like it and Assembly of God churches and even more mainstream Christian churches like Methodist and Presbyterian you may well see one bumper sticker more than any other. The bumper sticker doesn't make a statement but ends with a question mark: "Is Your Life Purpose Driven?"

The ubiquitous bumper sticker is inspired, of course, by the book The Purpose Driven Life. This book by the evangelical minister Rick Warren is nothing short of an amazing phenomenon. How many people here have read this book? Did you know this book has sold more than 25 million copies? That it is according to Publisher's Weekly the best selling hard cover book in the history of American publishing? Equally stunning is the fact that around the world more than 400,000 ministers and priests have received training in teaching the book and its principles of The Purpose Driven Life to their congregations. Don't worry. I am not one of them.

This was a real surprise to me to learn of the stunning popularity of this book. I guess I should not have been surprised because one of the places I saw this book was in my brother-in-law's briefcase. Now I have known my brother-in-law Mark, married to my sister Lauren in Phoenix and father to my 3 fabulous Phoenix nieces-since 1978-and if you don't count roofing manuals, I have never seen the man with a book. But there it was in his briefcase. I immediately thought that odd not only because it was a non-roofing book but because it was this particular book with this particular title: The Purpose Driven Life. I immediately thought to myself: Why would Mark have this book? My brother in law is a great person, a great father, and he is very purpose driven. He grew up in a roofing company family and he all by himself expanded the company westward and started the Phoenix branch, something he probably wanted to do since he was a little boy growing up in this roofing family. He has expanded the family roofing empire with such dogged determination that he makes Thomas Sutpen look like a lazy lout. If Mark's life is not purpose driven, no one's life is purpose driven.

Reading through this book bought by 25 million people, it seems clear that it appeals to at least two different but apparently vast groups of people. First, it appeals to people who are just plodding through life with no real motivating aims or purposes they are striving to accomplish. Now I am a college professor and as such am very familiar with young people who are in college because "well, you know, I really don't know what I want to do, and no I really don't want to study anything. This college thing is just kinda' what you do after high school, you know." There are plenty of young people out there who should be excited about their lives, their careers, the future world they will live in whose favorite thing to do is play computer games, and if they could make a living doing that, then that would be great. Sometimes a college professor is just trying to channel and deepen the energy and enthusiasm and talents of students, but with other students and too often, we are really trying to awaken the dead. So clearly this book that has become a sensation has spoken with power to the plodding, the just going through the motions, the dead before their time, and talked to them about really thinking about having a purpose in their lives. I never really thought to put it in a quick slogan like this-I'm just not clever enough for that honestly-but really I have wanted to ask students sometime something like "do you have a purpose in your life yet, a reason why you are pursuing higher education?" Is your life purpose driven? Is not a bad question to ask and sometimes it is actually a good question.

Beyond the plodding, the just going through the motions, the dead, the other group the book is clearly appealing to is the apparently vast group of people who have been and are purpose driven, have accomplished and done things, but who are still left with a vacant place inside of themselves and ask what it's all for, ask if there is not a higher purpose to life. The book makes direct appeal to people who are asking about the meaning of life beyond their own accomplishments, beyond making partner, or being financially secure, or getting tenure. The book makes a strong appeal to precisely this second group of people, these purpose driven people who after accomplishing their purposes are asking out of something like a dark night of the soul, is this all there is? Isn't there a higher purpose to my life? A deeper meaning to my life?

If this book appeals to people who feel like this and who crave for a deeper meaning, a higher purpose, what does it mean, the 25 million copies? What does it mean, this fact that this book is the best selling hard cover book in the history of American publishing? Is this a sign that we are living through a period of our culture now where may people feel a profound existential crisis of a lack of meaning in their lives? A previous generation when they felt a lack of meaning in their lives, an existential crisis, reached out to Tillich and Niebuhr, Erich Fromm, Rollo May, Victor Frankl. Today, now-and what does this say about who we are now, what our culture is like now-we have 25 million copies of The Purpose Driven Life.

If you turn to The Purpose Driven Life in a state of existential anxiety about the meaning of your life, you will be quickly soothed and comforted. You will be reassured to know that you don't have to find your own purpose within yourself because God already has a purpose for you. You will be reassured to know that "you are not an accident" and that there is nothing random or accidental about you. Your race, your gender, your skin color, and every other feature has been carefully planned by God, so there' no real need for understanding genetics. The time of your birth and how long you will live is also planned by God, so I guess there's no real reason to go to the gym, or jog, or eat healthy food. The Purpose Driven Life functions as a great delivery system of relief. Your life is not purposeless and meaningless. God is the purpose of your life and its meaning. God is your true, real, and profound why. God in this book serves as a great provider of why. Each person who in existential anxiety and dread asks why? Must understand, the book insists, that God gives you your why. The book serves as a very simple-minded sedative to those who ask why. It says: don't worry about the why. God has your why. God is your why.

Before a few days ago I had never read The Purpose Driven Life. But I had seen the bumper stickers: Is Your Life Purpose Driven? And every time I ask in response: Have you never read Meister Eckhart? Yes, it is almost impossible to encounter The Purpose Driven Life craze and not think about this great Dominican mystic who died under suspicion of heresy in 1328. Especially Eckhart's sermons preached in German are sometimes daring in their use of imagery, but at the same time what Eckhart is doing theologically is riffing on the central Dominican insight into the nature of God that God's essence and God's existence are one and the same. So, Eckhart reasons, God is always joyful, creative, loving, alive spirit in the world. God freely and spontaneously lives out his essence at every moment. God is always freely flowing creative love. God just is, says Eckhart. God has no why. God has no goal, no intention, God just is, and God always is God's self as creatively giving God's self to the world. To Eckhart, if you are trying to live by God's plan, trying to do God's will, trying to take your why from God, then you are not understanding God, God's alive, creative spirit, or you are understanding the God whom you have got to get beyond to really understand the God beyond God. The God beyond God simply always lives freely and spontaneously from his own creative, loving essence.

In one of his sermons Eckhart used the simile of a horse to make himself understandable. Eckhart says God loves just being Himself, creating and poring Himself into things. This is God's freedom and spontaneity at every moment. God's joy and God's freedom are, he says, like a horse. "God's pleasure is as great, to take a simile, as that of a horse, let loose to run over a green heath where the ground is level and smooth, to gallop as a horse will, as fast as he can over the greensward---for this is a horse's pleasure and expresses his nature. It is so with God." The horse obviously has no why. It just runs freely. Now we can put a saddle on it, use it for transportation, use the horse to plow the field. We can give the horse a why, but in itself the horse has no why. It just is joyful free movement, and Eckhart says "it is so with God." God just lives freely and spontaneously from His own creative spirit. God has no why. God simply is.

And Eckhart told his congregations that they should not look to God for their why but should simply be like God in living freely and spontaneously from the spark or the spirit of God within themselves, within what he called the soul's divine core. "Do all you do, acting from the core of your soul, without a single why." This great mystic of medieval Christianity tells his congregations and us to live freely and spontaneously from our divine core like God does. Eckhart tells us we should all live without a why.

Is your life purpose driven? Do you want it to be? I have to confess that for a lot of my life I was very purpose driven. I was raised with sayings like "idleness is the devil's workshop." When I was a boy I often lived with my grandparents, and my grandfather would wake me up even in the summer at 6 AM asking: Are you going to sleep all day? Early in life I settled on a clear purpose, to get a Ph.D. and be a professor, and this was my driving purpose for years. In college I rarely left the library before it closed at 1:00, and since it closed at 10:00 on Friday and Saturday nights I would go to private study rooms that allowed me to stay later. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon I never once left the library to go to the football game. I was driven to get into a good grad school, and once there I was driven to finish as quickly as possible, and then to get a job, to write books, get tenure.

For years I did lead such a purpose driven life, had a clear why. But for the past several years in Quincy I simply enjoy so many things in life, your friendship and company, my house, the yard, mums and asters this time of year, sunset over the river, dogs, cats, golf, food, wine, driving with the top down, so many things. There are too many things to enjoy to have a driving purpose. One of my favorite things about spring is redbud trees. I have a couple in my yard, Kevin has a nice one. I could tell you where the best ones are around town in the spring. A few years ago I went back to The University of Chicago and was astonished to see on campus a lot of red bud trees. It's not that they weren't there when I lived there. I was just too preoccupied, too purpose driven, to notice them. I guess I am not much of a purpose driven person anymore. I do bike around town looking for redbuds in the spring or the most beautiful oaks and maples in the fall. If someone asks why, I guess I would tell them what Meister Eckhart said: "Life is its own why."

Someone who really understood and lived out Eckhart's spiritual ideal of living without a why was our friend who battled Lou Gehrig's disease, Maureen Hallas. Not long before she died, we talked about what she would miss most about life, and she said just getting outside and digging in the dirt, and having dinner with friends. Maureen understood in a very profound way the free and spontaneous pleasure of the horse galloping through the field. She knew that "life is its own why."

I guess it is possible that now that Dana and I are going to be parents it is time for me to get off the bicycle and to get back to being very purpose driven. Parenting is a lot of work, we have been told, and has a way of taking over your life. We sure don't want our son to show up in high school or college as one of the plodding, the just going through the motions type, the dead. We would be very disappointed if he grew up with no passions, no interests, no goals, no purposes. When his own exasperated college professor asks him what he wants to do with his life, we don't want our son to say "well, I really don't care about anything or want to study anything, and this college thing is kinda just what you do after high school, you know." Perhaps by that time 250 million copies of The Purpose Driven Life will have been sold, and professors all over the country will have been trained like the 400,000 ministers now in the purpose driven philosophy. Perhaps when our son is asked the question every professor will by that time be trained to ask of every student, "Is your life purpose driven?" Sebastian will ask in response: Have you never read Meister Eckhart?

©2008 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob. 2008. The Spiritual Path of Living Without a Why, /talks/20081005.shtml (accessed July 13, 2020).

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