Why God Matters: What Gives Life Meaning?
Whether you believe in God or not, we all need to wrestle with the question: Is there meaning in life?
Why is it so hard to write about God? You'd think with monotheism being the pillar of Judaism, this topic would be a shoo-in, but it's a real challenge to talk about an abstract Infinite Being in a way that resonates with Jews from all backgrounds. God isn't a trending topic. The fact that we are stuck in a finite world means we can't fully wrap our heads around the nature of the Infinite, so the conversation can get frustrating.
Nevertheless, I'm going to try. After all, monotheism was the revolutionary discovery Abraham brought to the world that paved the way for the covenantal relationship between God and his progeny.
Knowing that God exists is the first of the Ten Commandments. As Maimonides writes in the opening chapter of the Mishneh Torah, his codification of Jewish law, "The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of all wisdom is to know that there is a Primary Being who brought into being all existence. All the beings of the heavens, the earth, and what is between them came into existence only from the truth of His being... The knowledge of this concept is a positive commandment, as (implied by Exodus 20:2): 'I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slavery..."
What actual difference does God make to my life?
What is the significance of God's existence? What actual difference does it make to my life?
A comprehensive answer to this question would require a book. This article is going to present one consequence, and it's the one that compelled me to leave my non-religious upbringing in Toronto and go to Israel to explore the issue of God's existence.
Everyone needs meaning in life. Meaning is what enables us to get out of bed and face the challenges of the day. As Nietzsche succinctly said, "He who has a why to live can bear almost any how."
This was one of the major conclusions of Viktor Frankl, the author of Man's Search for Meaning and founder of Logotherapy. As an inmate in a Nazi concentration camp, he witnessed that those who survived clung to some type of purpose to carry on living. Whether it was to bear testimony, to publish a manuscript, to be reunited with family – their drive for meaning enabled them to survive. Those who lost all hope and meaning were more likely to perish.
If life has no meaning, there are only so many parties, distractions and escapes a person can use to numb the existential pain and suffering before he decides it's just not worth the bother and chooses to opt out altogether. After all, if life indeed has absolutely no meaning, what difference does it ultimately make being dead or alive?
But is there meaning in life? How does one satisfy this primal need?
This is a question all human beings, whether you believe in God or not, need to wrestle with. The need for purpose is so great, it demands to be quieted, either through genuine satiation or escape and stupor.
If there is no God, what creates meaning?
According to this worldview, life is a random accident. There is no purpose for existence. The formation of life from atoms and electrons hurtling through space for millennia was without design and intent.
So what quells man's drive for meaning? In a nutshell, existential thought says we create our meaning. As Jean Paul Sartre said, "Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is… Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism."
We create our meaning.
Finding meaning in something that doesn’t objectively exist does not make it meaningful. It's called delusion.
But there is a fundamental problem with this solution. Finding meaning in something that doesn’t objectively exist does not make it meaningful. It's called delusion.
For example, someone calls his mother and she sounds different, more passionate and alive. "Mom, you sound different today."
"Oh I am, honey! I woke up today and I'm Angelina Jolie! I'm rich, famous and beautiful! Life has never been this good!"
If this were to happen to you, how would you respond? Would you be happy for your mother who has never sounded this happy, or would her delusions and hallucinations be a devastating blow?
Delusion, the belief in a meaning that doesn't exist, works as an escape, circumventing the existentialist's conundrum of suicide, but don't confuse it for real meaning. The stark reality in a world where there is no God is that all of life is a meaningless accident.
The existence of God resolves the issue of meaning. Life was created, by design, with purpose and intent. Meaning is not make-believe; it's real.
A profound consequence of the existence of God is that the meaning and purpose we seek from life are indeed real.
The one thing I knew when I was a young man searching for meaning before I became an observant Jew was that the moments of meaning I had experienced and yearned for with all my being were not delusions. Quite the opposite: they were the times I felt most connected to what is truly real.
I believe most people intuit this. Do you think the meaning you get from your marriage, being a parent, from your work and acts of kindness are mere illusions that we use to delude ourselves, or something deep and real?
A profound consequence of the existence of God is that the meaning and purpose we seek from life are indeed real. We don't need to resort to fake substitutes to bide our time before slipping into oblivion. Meaning is real, and we have a limited time in this world to attain it.
Explore more of these issues in Rabbi Coopersmith's course, Who Is God and Why Should I Care? Click here for more information.