A teleological question: Why do we exist?

Lent is a good time to reflect on the mystery of the meaning of our lives, our telos

By Bob Hunt

The Greek telos, from which is derived “teleology,” is a word packed with meaning. It is used to signify the end goal or purpose of something, an action or mission, or even the goal of one’s life. In Catholic thought, the telos has come to mean the end or purpose for which something strives, the ultimate meaning of something, the reason it exists in the first place.

Philosophy defines teleology as “the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve rather than of the cause by which they arise.” Teleology, then, is less concerned with how something came into being than for what purpose it exists. Humankind has long sought an answer to the teleological question: Why do we exist?

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychologist and survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. He lost most of the members of his family in the camps and suffered terribly himself. After the war, he wrote of his experiences in his 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Dr. Frankl reflected on the difference between those victims of the camps who were more likely to survive and those less likely. Those more likely to survive were those who held on to hope and to the idea of a future. Those less likely to survive were those who fell into despair, judging their suffering meaningless. From his experience, he developed logotherapy, a method of psychological analysis based on the idea that finding a meaning in life is the primary motivational force for each person (as opposed to Freud’s search for pleasure or Adler’s search for power). For Dr. Frankl, it is essential for humans to find meaning in life. We need to know why we are here, that our lives serve some purpose in the grand scheme of things. Another of Dr. Frankl’s insights from his time in the concentration camps is that suffering cannot be avoided in life, so we must find meaning even in our suffering.

Lent is the time in the Church’s liturgical year when we prepare for Holy Week, celebrating the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross and His victory over death in the resurrection, which is our victory over death. Jesus, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, became one of us, one with us, for a purpose, a telos. That purpose was to communicate God’s great love for us and to reconcile us with the Father. The sin of Adam was the cause of a great rift between God and humanity, an alienation from our Creator. We lost our confidence in God’s love, the purpose of our lives, our telos, which is to glorify God by sharing in His divine life. Jesus restored all of this. He restored the dignity of what it means to be human by becoming human Himself. He restored our relationship with the Father by living a life in perfect obedience to the will of the Father, even unto death. And He restored our ultimate purpose, our telos, by making it possible for us to share in the divine nature. Jesus’ last words from the cross announced the fulfillment of His mission: “It is accomplished” (John 19:30).

Lent is a good time to reflect on the mystery of the meaning of our lives, our telos. Baptized in Christ, we share in His mission of priest, prophet, and king. As priests, we sanctify the world by embracing God’s grace that sanctifies us and offering all we have to Him. As prophets, we proclaim His good news to all, both in word and deed. As kings, we share in the promise of eternal life, co-heirs with Christ to the kingdom of God. Baptized in Christ, there ought to be no lack of meaning for our lives. Our lives are filled with meaning! If Dr. Frankl is right, and I think he is, and finding a meaning in life is our primary motivational force, then we ought to be motivated each day to find new ways of living the life of Christ, of dedicating ourselves anew to our mission as priests, prophets, and kings.

In uniting our lives to Christ, we can find meaning each day. Even our sufferings can be united to the sufferings of Christ for the salvation of the world. What grander purpose could there be than to share in the mission of Jesus Christ? That is what we are called to. Our meaning, our purpose, our telos, is to be one with Christ in all things, even His sufferings, so to share in His glory.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.


Bob Hunt is a husband, father, grandfather, and parishioner at All Saints Church in Knoxville and is a candidate for the permanent diaconate.

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