In 1969, when J.R.R. Tolkien had grown into an old man, he received a letter from a little girl named Camilla. Children, as I’ve learned over many years of teaching catechism classes, will ask disconcertingly difficult questions if an adult is reckless enough to allow it. This particular letter is no exception. Camilla had one, simple, incredibly-difficult-to-answer question for the author of Lord of the Rings – “What is the purpose of life?”
Tolkien answered her with his own letter, and his response has been preserved. It can be found in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien and is letter #310.
Sometimes, when a child asks me a question during catechism class like When God died, did the animals cry? I have to take a moment of stunned silence to gather my wits before responding with something resembling a wise answer. Tolkien clearly also needed some time to think, as he begins his letter, “I am sorry my reply has been delayed.” But then, after marveling at what a difficult question she has asked, he gives it his best shot to answer her seriously.
So, according to Tolkien, whatis the purpose of life?
He starts small. From there, he builds a long chain of thought with each next step logically and easily connecting with the one before. The question is a massive one, so the answer must encompass all of our experience. In other words, it cannot be purely theoretical. It must make sense. It must be practical. It must be acceptable to the relentless logic of a child. Only in this way can we begin to grasp the hidden purpose of our existence that vexes us all so much.
Tolkien begins with human beings. This makes sense. After all, the question is about human purpose. He writes, “I think that questions about ‘purpose’ are only really useful when they refer to the conscious purposes or objects of human beings.” In other words, this is a question about us and about how we interact with the world, why we are here and how we should interact with everything else.
Human beings are peculiar for the fact that we even ask this question at all. Our desire to know our purpose reveals that we have a mind that works differently than any other creature. After all, ants and butterflies and wolves never question the meaning of their existence. They simply burrow and fly and hunt. In fact, to the extent that animals have a purpose to their existence, Tolkien says, it is because our intellect reveals their purpose. We are the ones who are so fascinated with what it means to be an ant, and what separates an ant from a spider. We watch them and study their actions. We classify them and write poems and morality tales about them. Without us, flora and fauna merely are. With us, they have a dignity proper to themselves.
The next step, Tolkien tells Camilla, is to seek out a mind that is akin to ours, a mind recognizable to us as the source of our intellect. And this is God. In the same way that our intellect bestows dignity on animals, so does the mind of God bestow dignity and purpose on us.
Once we begin to take the idea of God seriously, so too will we take religion and morality seriously. These are both guides to knowing our purpose because they’re guides to knowing God better. The better we know God, who bestows purpose on us, the more we will flourish. Religion and morality also strengthen our bond with other people. These bonds bring out our talents, self-development, and most importantly, self-sacrifice and love.
In one manner of speaking, Tolkien says that this is his answer. The idea of human purpose as a description of how we ought to live.
But then he expands the question. What is the purpose of our lives beyond this one? Why were we created, where are we going, and how do we get there? Tolkien, alas, is now stumped. “To the larger there is no answer, because that requires a complete knowledge of God, which is unattainable.”
The one thing he knows is that, in order to even ask the question and believe there is an answer out there somewhere, God must exist. So, in the end, he falls back on the idea of contemplating the world around us, because if God holds the key to answering the question of what is the purpose of life, then it stands to reason that our purpose, so far as we can see it, is to learn more and more about God every day. The more we know about him, the closer we’ll be to answering the question. “So it may be said that the chief purpose of life,” he writes, “for any one of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to moved by it to praise and thanks.”
A marvelous answer. As Tolkien admits, it’s both too long and too short, but for all of us a worthy goal. Our purpose is to know God, to love him, and to live every day with gratitude and praise.