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The Big Question

Does human life have a purpose?

By Bruce Sanguin

It’s probably unwise to suggest a single purpose for human life. But if I was forced to offer one, I would say that it is to transcend ourselves. By “transcend,” I don’t mean escaping to another heavenly realm. I don’t even mean it primarily in a religious sense.

American author Joseph Chilton Pearce wrote a book called The Biology of Transcendence. What he means is that at the biological level, evolution builds upon its achievements, transcending yet including them in new forms.

This process holds for human beings as well. For us, this simply means getting over ourselves, or better, getting beyond ourselves. A creative impulse animates the entire cosmic unfolding. It’s an impulse for transcendence that is relentless, unceasing and primordial. I interpret Jesus’ teachings about dying to self in this way: don’t get frozen at an obsolete version of yourself when life itself is continually trying to update the program.

Humans are manifestations of this 13.7-billion-year-old transcendent impulse. Matter emerges out of Mystery, life emerges out of matter, and conscious self-awareness emerges out of life. As the natural fruit of this evolutionary process, the human being is fired with this same creative impulse. We are the interior dimension of this process awakening to itself, feeling itself and taking the next best step into an unknown future.

The bonus is that it doesn’t require effort. We come equipped with this transcendent impulse. It’s not about wilfulness, but rather willingness. The task involves clearing away the obstacles that get in the way of fully expressing it. This is the fundamental spiritual practice, what mystic Thomas Hübl calls the “competency of becoming.” Our purpose is discovered in the commitment to never stop growing, to allow the “blessed unrest” to have its way with us. In an evolutionary universe, this is what it means to be made in the image of God — to surrender to this gracious impulse to become.

Is there a trajectory to this movement of transcendence? Is it heading in a particular direction? If so, what does it want? Where is it leading us?

In the early stages of our development, as a species and as individuals, the evolutionary impulse shows up primarily as concerns for security, status and sustenance. At some point, if the conditions are right, these are transcended (but incorporated). The impulse directs us toward a deeper, fuller and more abundant expression of love. Not the Hallmark version of love — but the presence of love itself, love as the greatest adventure of all.

In the Christian lineage, this presence wears the name of Christ. Jesus represents for us the human expression of an original and originating Love out of which a universe emerged and is continually being born anew. But Christ is also cosmic, by which I mean that this Presence pervades the entire cosmos and confers intrinsic holiness on every thing and every body. “The whole Earth is filled with God’s glory,” to use the prophet Isaiah’s image. The Christ shows up in the desire of all life for completion, and the endgame is the completion of love.

This is the mystic’s path. As Catholic theologian Karl Rahner put it, “The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has experienced ‘something,’ or he will cease to be anything at all.” The mystic is the one who surrenders to the universal longing to be completed by love and who makes an offering of his or her life toward this end.

“For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). Creation participated in this endgame by laying down the necessary cosmological and biological foundations for the emergence of love — first in some birds, later in mammals, but coming to full flower (at least potentially) in the human species. Creation, says Paul, eagerly awaits the arrival of the children of God. Creation is waiting for us to complete its implicit, but not yet fully realized, purpose — that is, to be “christified,” to quote the French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

As we embrace our vocation to consciously participate in the evolution of love, we find our deep purpose and joy. This is what Jesus called the Kin(g)dom of God.

Rev. Bruce Sanguin is a minister and author in Vancouver.


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