Article
Change
Character
7 min read

What’s the point of purpose?

We need a wider understanding of our purpose – grand or small.

Emerson writes on geopolitics. He is also a business executive and holds a doctorate in theology.

A white arrow on tarmac points towards a setting sun and people walking by a silhouetted lamp post.
Chris Loh on Unsplash.

In his 2009 book Start With Why, the leadership speaker and consultant Simon Sinek encourages leaders and businesses to think about their purpose. He encourages them to answer the question ‘Why?’ before moving to ‘How?’ Sinek’s book is part of an industry, with no shortage of self-help books, executive coaches and university programmes assisting individuals in finding purpose. Surely Sinek is right that a sense of mission (the ‘Why?’) needs to come before the development of a strategy (the ‘How?’ as well as ‘Who?’ ‘What?’ ‘When?’ and ‘Where?’). Yet working out our purpose is not easy. It takes time, effort, listening and crucially, an open mind.  

In a ‘purpose economy’ (to use the term coined by writer Aaron Hurst), we risk arriving at fast, superficial, or inflated purposes disconnected from the unique vocations to which we are actually called. Several years ago, I undertook a project, of which elements were shared in the Harvard Business Review. One interviewee stated ‘We are a generation that is ruthlessly comparing ourselves with those around us and our role models at the same time. And if we are not doing something exceptional or don’t feel important and fulfilled for what we are doing, we have a hard time.’ In an age dominated by social media and its emphasis on presentation of superficial images inviting us to compare ourselves with others, these are words worth dwelling on. 

This reflection struck me at the time, implying that many people believe that their purposes must be significant. Without grand purposes, we tend to struggle. That interviewee was right. Many of us value purposes involving high levels of excellence if not notoriety, whether pursuing elected political office, climbing the ranks in prestigious industries such as finance or consulting, or entering professions that are well-known and whose value can be readily explained to others (such as medicine, law or accounting).  

The problem with an idea of purpose focused on excellence is that only some people will be seen to have worthy purposes. The consequence is more ‘ruthless comparison, in which we all look over our shoulders to what our peers are doing, wondering whether their respective purposes measure up or not. Of course, this issue could be dismissed as little more than a case of early-career angst, in which ambitious self-starters seek to outdo their peers in climbing the career ladder, but I doubt this is a good explanation.  

Her calling is not as impressive in the world as the more publicly recognised calling of a profession, but surely the calling is of equal value. 

After all, modern workplaces are full of people, across all generations, searching for purpose. More generally, rapid industrial transition over recent decades – whether the loss of the shipbuilding or coal mines (not to mention important parts of the steel industry in recent months) in the UK, or the recent loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States – and waves of technological change leave countless thousands of people feeling lost at sea. A sense of aimlessness is amplified when personal dignity is connected to work rooted in local communities. When this industrial work vanishes seemingly overnight amid shifts in government policy and technological change.  

These examples suggest the need for a wider understanding of purpose, which makes room for many kinds of excellence, whether grand or small. Consider the example of a single mother. In comparison to the high-flying politician, business executive or university administrator, her purpose is anonymous. A paid job in the workplace is unlikely to be the source of the single mum’s purpose. Rather, the raising of a family is almost certainly the driving purpose in her life, a purpose which is nevertheless no less significant than those occupying more esteemed, high-status roles.  

In the eyes of God, the single parent is called to the vocation of parent (I don’t think there is a difference here between a vocation or purpose), possibly through an unexpected event such as a divorce or passing of a spouse. Her calling is not as impressive in the world as the more publicly recognised calling of a profession, but surely the calling is of equal value. Indeed, from a Christian perspective, the lone parent fulfills a vital role of service in raising children who can help to approximate the Kingdom of God on Earth. Martin Luther pointed it out well: every person has a divine calling providing them with purpose, whether they are aware of this or not.  

The idea is that a sense of what we are becoming matters more than the circumstances we find ourselves in. 

How then can we define our purpose when elements of culture, technology and other forces tempt us to identify clear purposes as rapidly as possible? To start, it helps to resist the urge to form large and lengthy purposes. Our purposes are often revealed gradually. Even the most profound events altering the landscape of a person’s life must be digested slowly. Tom Wright, in his biography of Saint Paul, writes that after Paul’s encounter with Jesus while on the Road to Damascus, he returned to Tarsus for ten years to meditate on what he had learned. In all likelihood, Paul spent this time working as a tentmaker, working within a ‘small, cramped workshop,’ in which ‘he prayed, he studied, and he figured out all sorts of things.’  

It is only ‘by the end of the Tarsus decade [that] Saul had worked out in considerable detail what it meant that the One God had revealed himself in and as the crucified and risen Jesus.’ Paul’s purpose was formed over many years, ‘hammering away’ at what he learned on the Road to Damascus. Had Paul wanted to make sense of his encounter with Jesus in a single go, then his purpose would surely have been truncated, thereby limiting the fulfilment of his unique calling that transformed the world we live in today.  

Our circumstances may also limit the scope of our purposes. Our family, geography, gender, and socioeconomic situation all shape the people we become – at least in the short-term. The philosopher Robert Adams writes in Finite and Infinite Goods that ‘One’s actual circumstances condition and in various ways influence and limit one’s vocation. The vocation, however, is not the circumstances, but what one is called to do in them.’  

The idea is that a sense of what we are becoming matters more than the circumstances we find ourselves in. The question of who we wish to become is a crucial one, involving personal vision, and Adams sees this question as outweighing extensive consideration given to existing circumstances. Another idea of vocation, proposed by the theologian Oliver O’Donovan, is more gradual. He says that we come to be a certain person over time, without too much planning. Our purposes develop one day at a time. Specific events give us chances to put our purposes into action, but we do not know when these events will occur.  

With this approach, clear purposes are formed over time through constant practice, rather than revealed at the outset of an activity. 

How then can we find our purposes when they are often ambiguous, intertwined with our personal circumstances, and without too much recourse to self-help books, life coaches or university programmes recommending quick answers?  

Our purposes need to be worked out through consistent, small-scale practice of the things we enjoy. For some, this is the playing of a musical instrument, for instance the piano or guitar, two hours per day. For others, this is the constant practice of a given sport in the early hours of the morning. And for others, this is working away on a tricky mathematical problem that simply grips them.  

With this approach, clear purposes are formed over time through constant practice, rather than revealed at the outset of an activity. It is then unexpected events – as Harold MacMillan said ‘Events, dear boy, events’ – which shape us. These events may change us, setting us in entirely new directions much like Paul’s encounter on the Damascus Road, or the lone parent following a divorce or death of a spouse. But it is not only the events that create purpose. The seeds of purpose are planted well ahead of time, through practice in relation to the things that bring us joy.  

Our purposes, then, should be less a cause of anxiety requiring self-help industries – needing to figure everything out at once – than a reason for play, practice, and prayer, listening to the still small voice – perhaps the voice of God, gently leading us to a settled sense of purpose. This allows purposes we never imagined to reveal themselves to us over time, sometimes merging with – and sometimes out of – our circumstances and personal attributes that are more easily visible.  

Rather than search for fast answers to our purposes, we can take comfort knowing that we do not need to do all the work ourselves. We may begin to work out our purpose through action, but trust that our purposes will come to fruition when the time is right. 

Article
Character
Comment
Politics
6 min read

Why the Prime Minister should swear this new oath

A proposed new constitutional instrument is a hopeful recognition of the human condition.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

Keir Starmer stands in the House of Commons and recites an oath from a card held up in front of him.
Starmer swears allegiance to King Charles III, September 2022.

Thank the Almighty, the General Election is over! We have a Prime Minister. We have another cadre of MPs, some old hands and many Young Turks, all ready for the excitement of Parliamentary procedural intrigue and (hopefully) hungry to exercise their power for the betterment of their constituents. As a nation, we can all breathe a sigh of relief. We have emerged, blinking, into the sunlight of what I can only hope is five years of a milder political climate. 

What happens next? 

Well, today, every MP, new or old, will swear the Oath of Allegiance to King Charles III. This is not optional. Anyone refusing to do so cannot exercise their rights as an MP and will not receive their salary. Ultimately, the refuseniks can have the reality of their election voided. The wording of the oath excels in comprehensive brevity:  

I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King Charles, his heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.  

The Monarch is anointed as the protector of the realm, always seeking what is best for Great Britain, and so to swear an oath to be faithful to the Monarch is to swear to seek the best for their realm. It is all perfectly simple and logical. 

But is it enough? 

It would seem that swearing fealty to the Crown is no longer enough. Now the PM must specifically swear not to lie to the Sovereign and the nation. 

Some would argue not. Our political life has been marked by controversy for as long as I have been old enough to be politically aware. MPs expenses, the coalition Government, the Brexit referendum, parliamentary gridlock, Downing Street lockdown parties…Liz Truss! It’s all been like a circus, except all the animals are dead, the clowns just sit around screaming and crying, and the tent burns down. Trust in our political establishment could hardly be lower. Perhaps in light of this, a couple of constitutional scholars have mooted the idea of an extra oath - one for the Prime Minister. 

Professor Andrew Blick, of King’s College, London, and Baron Hennessy of Nympsfield have written an open letter, on behalf of The Constitution Society, inviting the new Prime Minister to swear an additional oath specifically for their office.

The oath is intended to act as a confidence booster - an extra promise that the most powerful MP in the land will abide by the conventions of our constitution: Cabinet Government, The Ministerial Code, Civil Service Impartiality, etc. In an effort to restrain the darker impulses of the PM, the oath would also mean swearing to uphold the seven Nolan Principles: Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty, Leadership. It would seem that swearing fealty to the Crown is no longer enough. Now the PM must specifically swear not to lie to the Sovereign and the nation. 

In a moment of unattractive despair, I can’t help but let out a depressed sigh.

Yet, I also have hope. This new constitutional instrument would, on the surface, be a morose admission of defeat. We can no longer assume honesty in those who wield the most power and influence. Look deeper and you see a fascinating, and hopeful, recognition of the political (and human!) condition.

The very act of swearing an oath is itself a virtue. It is an act that puts one face to face with absolute truth, goodness, and beauty. 

Yet, I also have hope. This new constitutional instrument would, on the surface, be a morose admission of defeat. We can no longer assume honesty in those who wield the most power and influence. Look deeper and you see a fascinating, and hopeful, recognition of the political (and human!) condition. 

I find this new oath fascinating, and rather cheering, in spite of all my previous electoral gloom, because it clearly speaks to the human need for the transcendent and the eternal. So often our politics seems to be mired in the drudgery of the immediate: will the economy grow in the next quarter, will NHS waiting lists diminish by the end of the calendar year, will the crime stats be favourable any time soon. We rarely hear of any ‘vision’ for our country the looks to the horizon - not even the decade, let alone the voyage into the forever. Yet this oath does just that! 

It does so in two ways.  

Firstly, by seeking to enshrine the Nolan principles, it recognises the distinction between ‘values’ and ‘virtues’. Values have the veneer of the absolute but are far too easily jettisoned when necessity dictates. Commitment to a value is good, but is in constant competition with other values: openness battles the need for state-secrecy, honesty’s sword is often broken in the face of obfuscation’s onslaught, etc. The holding of values is a static thing, which can wilt and die in the burning heat of reality. A virtue, on the other hand, is something which must be constantly practiced and nurtured. A virtue always looks to its ideal form - a universal perfection of honesty or selflessness. Swearing an oath to uphold the Nolan Principles means committing to operating by them every day, and so allowing them to grow in the individual, becoming easier and easier to live by until the practitioner of virtue struggles NOT to operate in their eternal light.  

Secondly, the very act of swearing an oath is itself a virtue. It is an act that puts one face to face with absolute truth, goodness, and beauty. The act of making an oath recognises that our lives and deeds are not simply contingent moments in the pitiless march of time, but that they resound in the halls of eternity.  

I think this is why Jesus warns people against swearing oaths in the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew. When reading this warning in the light of the serious, radical, and even hyperbolic speech that comes before, it is clear that Jesus doesn’t want us to avoid making promises, but that he realises just how bad we are at keeping them. Swearing an oath (invoking eternity, the absolute, the divine!) means that when we break our oaths we diminish ourselves in the face of God.  

“Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”  

This is not a command to avoid promises and promise keeping, but a radical call to live one’s life always in the light of eternity, so that even the simple ‘yes’ is the truest oath one can make. 

We need leaders - political and otherwise - who can offer the human soul something more than simply an uninspiring roadmap for five years of moderate economic improvement. We need leaders who can inspire the nation with a vision of eternity. We need leaders who point us to that horizon of the absolute where we do not see individual good acts warring against the forces of apathy and indifference, but see the Good itself illuminating our every moment with hope and joy.  

Perhaps an oath - an admission that there is meaning beyond our momentary finitude - is the best way to inject a bit more universality and meaning into a political system that has left this author feeling quite so cold so far. 

I shall pray for our new Prime Minister, and for all our new MPs. I shall hold them before the face of God who is beyond all immediate concerns and pray that they may have the vision of our eternal destiny ever in their minds and in their hearts. I shall earnestly intercede that they recognise that their oaths are not simply a formula of words, but a positive spur to lead us into a future that never ceases to grown brighter and brighter with the light of our eternal destiny.