On Purpose

How We Create the Meaning of Life

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Paul Froese
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Paul Froese’s On Purpose is not a book about religion. Its scope is broader and its intentions more intensive. This work seeks to unravel purpose and Truth—note that capital t—in terms of formation, formulation, and their role as guide-posts for the religious and secular alike. Froese is ambitious, seeking to make sense of religion, political difference, drive, new religious movements, time, and the Self Help industry, all through the lens of purpose.

The work stands on its assertion that both purpose and Truth are “made, not found, and find dependence on factors external to, and beyond the full regulation of, the individual including history, culture, community, and language” (178). Froese claims that while one’s purpose can be, “anything,” he “believe[s] it to be” that we are limited, and our imagined purpose is limited also. Indeed as he states our sense of purpose is “inextricably tied to our place in history, our position in a community, our cultural temple, and the cruel and calculated assessments other ascribe to our sense of self” (177). This, he stresses, does not diminish its role or standing. He notes, repeatedly, the positive corollary relationship between a sense of purpose and general wellbeing, even pulling from Martin Seligman to argue, “A healthy life’s purpose must extend beyond pure self-interest to focus on something that is bigger than the self” (3).

Indeed, one of the greater webs untangled in this work is the profile of the nihilist. Froese notes that wealthier countries seem to show the clearest “signs of existential despair,” and poorer nations seem so “focused on their will to survive” that they “still cling to a meaningful life” (45). Modernity, he says, does not create—but seems to exacerbate—meaninglessness, giving us the “time and intellectual space” for, if not full nihilism, as he phrases it, “to be wracked by despair” (48). However, running counter to the stereotype of the stuffy nihilist sipping a cappuccino outside the lawn of some private liberal arts college, the plight of purposelessness falls primarily upon “the poor and the elderly within wealthy countries” (45). In other words, purpose, as with other privileges, finds itself “unequally distributed within advanced societies” (45).

In our contemporary space, purpose and Truth are highly individualized, Froese argues. The age of Peter Berger’s so-called “sacred canopy,” which was all at once “expansive” and “immobile,” has—like the Roman Empire and the horse drawn carriage—fallen to the ancients. Pulling from sociologist Christian Smith, Froese envisions a “sacred umbrella” that can be held by the individual, not the community (59). These “sacred umbrellas” are “small, handheld, and portable—like the faith sustaining religious worlds that modern people construct for themselves” (59). Humans, he argues, “construct sacred umbrellas from the tools [that] culture supplies” (59). For the modern person these “tools” include self-discovery, a rather modern innovation Froese seems to argue, made possible by “the psychologists of the twentieth century” who, despite having “no use for religion,” created “a new language and system from which to understand individuals, beliefs, and reality” (59). The cultural of self-discovery makes purpose individual, but as Froese seemingly implies, there is not one objective Truth. To that end, Froese states, Truth is felt rather than reasoned. It is dependent on faith rather than objectivity. Meaning, to point to one of many examples given, political debate will not sway the fervent believer, for their ideology is built on what is felt, rather than upon what is understood.

On Purpose, totaling a mere 178 pages, is short, but it is not a quick read. The broadness of this intellectual endeavor is met only by the nuance of its claims. Its thought provoking and, perhaps audacious, attempts to make sense of this ubiquitous yet paradoxically personal-notion of purpose is well researched, and deserving of deep reflection by the reader. This book seems to perform the impossible. It is both a splendid academic work and wholly relevant to any person, regardless of academic training or interest. Every human being experiences the phenomena of purpose, perhaps through an introduction to religious piety, exposure to the secular—yet wholly religious—Self-Help craze, or by the mere fact of human existence. This work is especially timely in an era of increased political division, when ideology has become near-synonymous with identity. While unintended, this book speaks to the lines that divide us, and understanding its proposed anatomy of purpose and Truth may well provide a more productive route to superior interparty understanding. Indeed, what may be most ironic about this work is that it is surely a product of its time, made by the same limitations that, it argues, inform our subjective understanding of purpose. On Purpose is surely a reaction to this moment of Self-help, political misunderstanding, increased pluralism, and globalization. In a time when bestsellers boast to know how to help you find your path in two weeks or less, political leaders speak in moral absolutes, and more and more claim to find meaning without God, Froese stops to ask: what does that all actually mean?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taylor Kerby is a graduate student pursuing concurrent Masters' degrees in education and religious studies.

Date of Review: 
March 15, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Froese is the Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Baylor Religion Surveys. He is the co-author of America's Four Gods: What We Say about God--and What That Says about Us (OUP, 2010).


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.