This is super, super important.
As a heads up, I’m going to use some pop culture references and theological ideas to explain a philosophical concept that is of immense and critical importance to the day-to-day lives of everyone in the world. This will take several minutes to develop. You may want to bookmark this article and grab a coffee before diving in.
Telos is the concept of an end goal or ultimate aim. It’s a Greek word that means the purpose or end goal. Thus, teleology is the study of the purpose or end goal of everything.
The question: “why are we here?” has numerous different answers, but for an answer to be satisfying, it must answer the question in teleological terms. Put another way, a non-teleological answer to the question “why are we here?” is a non-answer.
Telos is super important. Here’s a basic example. While talking with a friend tonight about Star Wars (yes, I do this because I am a dork, also SPOILERS ahead), we realized that there is no end goal for the saga, and this is the major problem in both the prequels and the new movies. It will continue to be a problem until Disney starts rethinking their teleology and hiring directors who can tell stories that matter. The original Star Wars movie was an epic battle of good versus evil, of the scrappy Rebels versus the evil Imperials — the Empire that threatened to subjugate all people under their regime. The story sold very well in the 70s and 80s with the Cold War, but it still sells well today because it touches on a transcendent and teleological question: “does good win in the end?” The answer in Star Wars’ original trilogy was “yes.” In the first movie (Episode IV: A New Hope), the Death Star is blown up and evil is crippled, and by the third movie (Episode VI: Return of the Jedi), evil is vanquished with the demise of the Empire, the redemption of evil Darth Vader, and there exists the realization of a new life for Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie and the rest of the saga’s beloved characters. The problem with teleology in the prequels (Episodes I-III) is that it doesn’t address the question in clear terms. It tells an origin story for the villain in the original movies (Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker) and shows how things got to be as bad as they were at the start of Episode IV: A New Hope. Yet the prequels also hint at the new non-satisfying teleology of the saga: “Star Wars” is just an age-old struggle of the light versus the dark and the only resolution is a continual balance — light doesn’t win in the end. In the most recent movies, there’s no teleology at all (and not even clear and consistent storytelling). Episode VII: The Force Awakens just rehashes the original trilogy with some new characters and Episode VIII: The Last Jedi ties up a couple loose ends (who were Rey’s parents? Who is Snoke?) and kills off another major character from the original trilogy. Where is it headed? The apparent answer is: nowhere. J.J. Abrams is directing Episode IX, and he has a penchant for starting things and leaving them shrouded in mystery until you discover there was no end planned whatsoever (Lost, anyone?). Where is Episode IX headed? The answer is: it doesn’t matter. The movie might be enjoyable because of a fun space battle and lightsaber duel, but it won’t speak to the real questions we’re asking about life, the teleological question. Put another way, Star Wars is broken, at least until it fixes its teleology and comes up with a satisfying reason for why its stories matter. “Where is this headed?” is important, without an answer, it’s hard to argue that the stories matter at all.
Star Trek is in the same genre (science fiction) but has a teleology: to explore the universe and go where no person has gone before. That kind of exploration means that though there’s always more to learn, the characters are always doing something new and interesting, and the goal of the saga is to explore the entire universe. Will it be completed? No, but that’s okay, the point is that the characters are constantly learning new things about something that’s bigger than themselves. This echoes our reality in our universe and so we identify with their story.
Wonder Woman has a teleology. (SPOILERS) When Diana leaves her island, she is embarking on a mission to end the conflict of man vs. man. By stopping her brother Hermes, she believes she can help mankind revert into the loving people they were before Hermes’ warlike influence — people who support and care for one another instead of wage war (it’d be nice, right?). This concept resonates with us because we’re likewise interested in the answer: will humanity achieve world peace, and if so, how, at what cost, for how long? It’s interesting that Wonder Woman goes back to the World War II era, which seems to be an easier era where storytellers can create describe an epic battle between good and evil, with good winning in the end.
J. R. R. Tolkien does something very similar with his popular trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. (SPOILERS) Frodo sets out on a journey to throw a powerful ring he’s inherited into the only place it can be unmade. The stakes are high: if he doesn’t destroy the ring, all Middle Earth will be covered in total darkness and all the good in the world will be extinguished forever. If he does destroy the ring, though it costs him everything, he will have saved the world by destroying the evil demi-god Sauron, whose life force is connected to the ring. By destroying the ring, Sauron will be unable to reincarnate and unable to bring his dominion over the entirety of Middle Earth, setting Middle Earth free and saving his home village of Hobbiton.
The original Star Wars trilogy (the good one!) borrows from the Christian story, as do the rest of these epic stories. If you’ve read my other posts on Medium, you’ll know that I talk about the teleology of our universe, though perhaps you didn’t see it in those terms. Where is our world headed, our cosmos? You can read my article on the Son of Man, but I’ll summarize it here in teleological terms. You need only look to the Old Testament, the book of the prophet Daniel, chapter 7. One like a son of man (a human being) who comes with the clouds (a signal of divinity) is presented before the Ancient of Days (God the Father) and receives “…dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him.” If you want a one sentence summary of the purpose of the created order, of where this spacetime continuum is headed, that’s it. The Son of Man, Jesus Christ, receiving the rulership over the created order, being recognized by the entire created order as supreme, and continuing to rule over that kingdom, which encompasses everything, for all eternity. In answer to the question: “why are we here?” the Bible answers: for the fame and pleasure of Jesus Christ, the God-Man, that the Triune God might be worshiped as He deserves. In answer to the question: “where are we going?” the Bible answers: you and everyone else will bow the knee before Jesus Christ, willingly or unwillingly, and your eternal destiny depends on whether or not you’ve met God’s standard of complete perfection, something no one can do unless they trust that Jesus earned it for them through his perfect life and substitutionary death on the cross.
Now of course, as that is my answer to the questions teleology poses, you don’t have to agree with me, but you should figure out 1) what you believe this universe is coming to and why, and 2) check to see if your teleology maps to reality, the best you can tell. In other words, can you explain what you think about the end goal of both this universe and your life, and is your view the accurate one or is it a pleasant fantasy and at best, a half-truth? My understanding of what the Bible explains as the teleology of this universe is — all our teleological positions are — either accurate or inaccurate. If wrong, then I need to find the right view of reality or I won’t be headed into the future knowing what is going to happen to me, a little bit like driving a car at top speed over a ledge and hoping there’s not a sheer drop beyond that which will kill me. If I’m right, well then hopefully I can help others to see the truth of it, so they don’t drive off the cliff with eternal consequences. Believing that other people will exist in torment forever and then doing nothing to warn them that they can change their future is, at best, cruel.
There are lots of teleological positions. The postmodern, naturalistic, atheistic view, as I understand it, says we just decompose and nothing happens to us after our death. The implications of this are great until you stop to think about it for a minute. This means there is no ultimate consequence for our self-sacrificial actions and bravery, and likewise no ultimate consequence to actions like murder, rape, incest, bestiality, slavery, and physical and emotional abuse. You might get put into prison for your lifetime, but why does that matter? You will close your eyes in death, never to open them again, never remembering the pain you caused or experienced. I find this teleology pleasant on the surface (no consequences for my injurious behavior!) but deeply unsettling when I consider the ramifications of it. It means my life is meaningless and your life is meaningless. Yes, we can call a person brave staring into the deep abyss and accepting it without fear as reality, but it’s funny, celebrating the courage of such an act is meaningless, because ultimately, nothing means anything. Any meaning you put to something in the brief, random experience that is your life won’t count for squat after you die, never mind the heat death of the universe. I find this teleology unsettling — there’s something in me that longs for there to be meaning in the end, something in me that insists that my life matters. We can call that wishful thinking, and it is, but it’s something beyond that too. Even the desire for “meaning” and “purpose” suggests that there is purpose and meaning to be had, in the same way that a feeling of hunger means there must be food and a feeling of thirst means there must be water. Sure, we can chalk up all our desires for justice and love and kindness and goodness to be wishful thinking, but that seems to me a far bigger stretch than the alternative: there is a Source of justice, love, kindness and goodness. In short, a teleology that says there is no teleology (or the point of view that there is not ultimate meaning in the universe) is a hypocritical and illogical statement because it demolishes the very ground it stands on. You can’t say nothing has any meaning, then insist on your claim “nothing has any meaning” has meaning.
Religions, whatever you think of them and for all their faults, at least attempt to address this question of where we’re headed. The problem is that most of the religions come back to the same thing: for God to accept you, you must be a good person. Bad people get judgment in Hell, good people are judged as good and go to Heaven. Islam has a Day of Judgment, I understand that Mormonism has a Day of Judgment (or at least ultimate destinies for people after they are judged, including Godhood), and presumably other religions have a judgment day as well. The idea is compelling: one day, some big referee in the sky is going to set all things right by giving the bad people what they deserve and bringing all the good people into the life they always wanted but couldn’t get here on this Earth. All of history is rocketing toward this Day, this decision point by the Sovereign Over the Universe who will separate the good apples from the bad. I’m not arguing against this concept, I happen to believe it, albeit in the qualified sense I alluded to above. The point is: this idea of judgment day makes a claim about what will happen in the future, and it gives significant consequence to our lives. It creates a sense of purpose (with obligations), but at least it gives our lives meaning because it anchors them to a fixed point beyond ourselves.
There’s also the view that evil is an illusion, nothing is right or wrong, and that it’s all just different strokes for different folks. This is a hard viewpoint to live with, though, as anyone who has ever been seriously wronged can attest. You realize that forgiving people has a cost to you, that wrongs are real, and sometimes, even if a person doesn’t intend to do you harm, it can still be a doozy to come back from. The concept of no ultimate judgment is a teleology in a sense, but not an acceptable one to most people who have been victims of injustice.
I’m curious: is this idea of teleology new to you? Do you know what your teleology is? Do you understand the presuppositions (a.k.a. assumptions) you’ve made to get you to that understanding? Do you realize the effect that your teleology has on your day-to-day life?
When I work with individuals who are trying to figure out their career direction, many of them realize the answer rests on their view of what work is, i.e. how are they trying to change the world through their effort? To answer this, they need a sense of why they’re here and what the purpose of their lives is. And to know that “lifeview,” they (often unconsciously) source it from their teleology: “where is this universe headed?” helps answer the question “where do I fit in this universe?” To confirm their teleology accurately maps to reality, a person should understand the nature of reality itself, which, in practical terms, means being aware of their assumptions about what reality is.
Of course, this is deep. That is WAY deeper than I go with my clients, most of whom just want to find fulfilling work that pays well. But there you go, that’s a framework to understand the subterranean architecture what makes work fulfilling: are you aligned with reality and the purpose of your life? “What work is fulfilling” rests on the concept of the end goal of the universe and our relationship to that universe. If I had to build out the concept into a pyramid, it would go in layers, from top to bottom, something like this:
“Workview”/Work (Broadly defined: effort you put in to change the world)
“Lifeview”/Life/purpose of your existence
Assumptions about reality/philosophical presuppositions
Philosophy was a part of my major and I studied the “Great Ideas” in a classical/liberal arts education for over a decade. To me, it’s interesting how my understanding of philosophy — something most people think is “head in the clouds” useless — and my understanding of theology both affect my practical daily work as a career coach. Do you see? Your teleology and your beliefs about reality affect your day-to-day life too, though most people aren’t conscious of it or even aware of this pyramid I’ve just spelled out. I’m still developing my thinking around this, so if you have any ideas or recommendations, I welcome them.
If you would like to figure out what’s next in your career, I invite you to talk further with me! I don’t know of any other career coaches, save one, who go this deep philosophically or have articulated this expansive of an understanding on the nature of work (if you find such a person, please connect me with them!). In my coaching sessions, I focus on wherever a person wants or needs to focus, meaning it’s a custom fit to what they want to work on. As coaching is, it’s all very actionable and practical. More details on how I work are here.
By the way, I would be remiss not to stress the importance of a person’s teleology. If you believe that the world comes to nothing and there is no afterlife, then according to your teleology, you’ve just wasted your time reading this (as well as living your life, to be frank). But if there are eternal consequences for your behavior and that there is a judgment day coming, then it is super important that you land on the right side of that judgment. Based on my study and reflection, I believe it comes down to this: The Bible is accurate. Jesus Christ is God who came in the flesh and each person needs to acknowledge and accept His complete authority over their life or face the consequences of rejecting God Himself: an eternity of His justified and terrible anger against you. I don’t say this because I want it to be true — it would be much nicer to believe that God forgives and accepts everyone regardless of what they’ve done or not done. But that’s not reality, according to the Bible, which I understand to be accurate in its assessment of reality. Besides accepting the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, as the Lord of your life and as your God, you also need to recognize Him as your Savior. This means that you admit that you’re not good enough to be acceptable to God because His standard is moral perfection and that only Jesus’ perfect life, credited to you, will make you acceptable to God. I understand some of the objections to this belief, and if you have questions or comments about this, I’m happy to talk further with you! If this makes you angry, I’m sorry, that’s not my intent — I’m trying to describe reality thoughtfully and accurately, and I would welcome your help if you think I’ve made a mistake.
As a final note, just because I believe that God will judge everyone and that only people who accept Jesus as Lord and Savior will get into Heaven (the basic Christian position), that does not mean I judge people who disagree with me. A lot of my friends in New York and elsewhere (you know who you are!) are very anti-Christian in their ideology or lifestyle. I do not see acceptance of my belief system as a condition for my friendship or respect, so if you’re a friend or acquaintance of mine, don’t worry about where this leaves our friendship. I’ve held these views for much of my life now, and hope you’ve felt nothing but love and appreciation from me. If you’ve ever felt judged by me, let me know so I can apologize!
Bottom line: Teleology matters. If you agree, go ahead and share this article!