Steak on the Plate

According to John Cottingham, the Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading, meaning in life comes down to two considerations. What is good and what happens when things don't go according to plan. The search for something good takes on a multitude of expressions. For most, it is framed in moral terms—perhaps virtue, avoidance of bad behavior or living for something of higher meaning than oneself. However, the search for the good life can be the search for self-fulfillment. We might try to find something by which we can define ourselves by. We might start families, raise children, join a religion or buy into the latest spirituality offered by the Oprah Winfrey Show. It is even, I suggest, why people line up to volunteer to help feed the poor. Whichever path we choose, it is related to finding the good in life.

Secondly, to find meaning in life you have to deal with the question of contingency. This is the question of what we do when something happens which thwarts our plans. If you have worked for your whole life to be a great violinist, but your hands are maimed in an accident, how do you maintain meaning in your life? Of course the ultimate, as well as the most certain, contingency is death. Death affects how we see the meaning of life because it represents the end of our opportunity to achieve our form of good. We might ask ourselves, “When I die, will I have wasted my life?”

Christians are often accused of ignoring meaning in this life and transferring it to another. They say that we believe in “pie in the sky when we die.” They might quote a passage from the bible like this one written by the apostle Peter:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5).

So, we might conclude, Christians just sit about miserably waiting for the end when they hope everything will be better? Well, not really. True, we do look forward to being with Christ and we are waiting for an inheritance in heaven (the pie in the sky), but hoping in what is beyond death also gives meaning to us now. Peter continues by saying:

“In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:6-9).

So, far from misery, the Christian is promised great joy now when he or she places hope in Christ. You might say that we can have “pie in the sky when we die” and “steak on the plate while we wait.” Life is full of contingencies—as Peter's suffering readers could attest to—but meaning is not robbed from the life that has hope. Nor is life an inactive, meaningless waiting game. It is a life to be lived with joy. This deep joy propels a person to greatness – a family, virtue, happiness, virtuosity, service and love.

Cottingham, John. Interview. Audio blog post. Philosophybites.com. 12 June 2007. 27 Feb. 2009 .

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