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The Meaning of Life is…Jazz?

Philosophers today are, by and large, not too bold. The same is only more true for theologians, that’s why when quite literally any sort of theological writing that is bold comes across the radar everybody is all in a tizzy. Terry Eagleton is fairly bold as philosophers go. This is seen in his willingness to write a book detailing what he thinks is the meaning of life. His conclusion however, is not that original. Rather it is simply good Christian theological thinking that he likely learned from Herbert McCabe. Ultimately the meaning of life is love, defined in a very particular, very Christian way.

“Take, as an image of the good life, a jazz group. A jazz group which is improvising obviously differs from a symphony orchestra, since to a large extent each member is free to express herself as she likes. But she does so with a receptive sensitivity to the self-expressive performaces of the other musicians. The complex harmony they fashion comes not from a collective score, but from the free musical expression of each member acting asthe basis for the free expression of the others. As each player grows more musically eloquent, the others draw inspiration from this and are spurred to greater heights.  There is no conflict here betwee freedom and the ‘good of the whole’, yet the image is the reverse of totalitarian. Though each performer contributes to ‘the greater good of the whole’, she does so not by some grim-lipped self-sacrifice but simply by expressing herself. There is self-realization, but only through a loss of self in the music as a whole. There is achievement, but it is not a question of self-aggrandizing success. Instead, the acheivement–the music itself–acts as a medium of relationship among the performers. There is pleasure to be reaped from this artistry, and–since there is a free fulfillment or realization of powers–there is also happiness in the sense of flourishing. Because this flourishing is reciprocal, we can even speak, remotely and analogically, of a kind of love. One could do worse, surely, than propose such a situation as the meaning of life–both in the sense that it is what makes life meaningful, and –more contoversially–in the sense that when we act in this way, we realize our natures at their finest.” (p. 172-73)

A bit whimsical perhaps, but quite insightful. What Eagleton sees is that the meaning of life must, in some sense come from outside of life. Music, as in this example always exists in some sense over-against us even as we participate in it. It is, in some sense greater than we who, empirically seem to bring it into existence. And so it is for the Christian experience of life’s meaningfulness, as Eagleton also hints at:

“Is jazz, then, the meaning of life? Not exactly. The goal would be to construct this kind of community on a wider scale, which is a problem of politics. It is, to be sure, a utopian aspiration, but it is none the worse for that. The point of such aspirations is to indicate a direction, however lamentably we are bound to fall short of the goal. What we need is a form of life which is completely pointless, just as the jazz performance is pointless. Rather than serve some utilitarian purpose or earnest metaphysical end, it is a delight in itself. It needs no justification beyond its own existence. In this sense, the meaning of life is interestingly close to meaninglessness. Religious believers who find this version of the meaning of life a little too laid-back for comfort should remind themselves that God, too, is his own end, ground, origin, reason, and self-delight, and that only by living in this way can human being be said to share in his life.” (p. 174)

Whether or not this is truly the fullest expression of the meaning of human life, it certainly gets at something quite important. It also strikes a chord quite similar to the thought of Robert Jenson, particularly in this quote, which R.O. Flyer recently posted from Story and Promise which perhaps makes the Christian articulation of the meaning of life most explicit:

“Play is meaningful action that does not need to seek its meaning in some achievement exterior to itself. It is what we do because we do not have to. It is action to which the future opens as gift rather than as burden. The life of the Trinity is sheer play. As play with the Trinity, liturgy is anticipation of life in the Fulfillment–-the closest we get to freedom. It must be admitted that liturgy-as-play is a rather rare occurrence in America’s recognized churches.” (p. 184)


  1. dcrowe wrote:

    I was thinking about this in reverse, in a way, last night when I put up my latest post on my blog: how play in our society is being bent to a dominating program antithetical to the mind of Christ.

    I love the jazz analogy because, well, I love New Orleans and I enjoy jazz.

    Nerdy reference: your post reminds me of a scene from Tolkien, where the Valar are invited by the creator to participate in the transcendent music of creation that brings the world into being. Something about that has always rung true for me re: free will and the relationship we have with God, and this post gets closer it.

    Friday, September 5, 2008 at 7:58 am | Permalink
  2. Hill wrote:

    David Hart’s section about Bach fugues seems apropos as well.

    Friday, September 5, 2008 at 10:15 am | Permalink

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