For the better part of the last year, I've been working on a book with a young man who grew up in a Lutheran home but now identifies as an atheist. The book is intended to be a dialogue, to explore what we each believe, why, how we came to those beliefs, and how we bridge our differences in an increasingly pluralistic world.
It's been an incredibly fun project, as Ryan and I have a fair amount in common, both love candid and challenging conversations, and because, frankly, he's a really great person to work with. But it's also been quite challenging, as he raises questions for me that I haven't, quite honestly, had to think about at great length.
To understand his positions and beliefs more fully, and to be a better conversation partner, I've been reading books and watching videos from various atheists. One of the questions that keeps coming up is whether or not the universe has a purpose. The smaller-scale but more immediately relevant correlate for most of us, of course, is whether we have a purpose.
The more I read and listen, the more I am aware of what a challenging question that is to answer - to answer it, that is, a) in light of all we have discovered about the world and b) taking into account how differently various people might answer the question instead of just assuming my answer is the only one.
As I think about my own life, it's difficult for me to imagine not believing that life - in general as well as my own - is not wrapped up into some larger purpose. And, indeed, one of the great gifts of the Christian faith in which I was raised is the promise that there is indeed a purpose. Christians may express that purpose in different ways, I know, but for me it often boils down to the world's most famous Bible verse, John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. We are, that is, created to know and share God's love in word and deed.
I can't prove that, of course. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium, says in the following video, to claim to know the purpose of the universe is to lay claim to knowledge that none of us have. And so we're called, I believe, to confess - to share what we believe is true and, just as importantly, to share how that belief has shaped our lives.
But no matter how fully I believe this, there are times that I wonder two things: First, is it simply that I can't handle the thought of a purposeless life that keeps me believing - that is, is the route that DeGrasse and folks like my friend Ryan takes somehow both more realistic and courageous? Or, second, might it be that whether we can prove there is a purpose or not, whether we believe there is an "ultimate purpose" or not, yet each of us is called to claim one, to act as if there is a purpose. If so, I suspect the purpose you claim makes all the difference.
If you have the time, I'd invite you to watch the following video, reflect on the challenge it presents, and share in the comments your own sense of purpose, either for yourself or for all of us caught up in this wide and wonderful universe. Thanks for sharing.
Note: Tyson's answer was given in response by an invitation given by the Templeton Foundation. It is one of a number of answers given by various scholars in a variety of fields to the same question. If you are interested in learning more, click here.