18 Morality, Purpose, and Meaning: Life’s Ruby Slippers

Dorothy’s lesson in the movie The Wizard of Oz (1939) is a lesson we may need to learn. Just as Dorothy’s ruby slippers had been able to grant her wish all along, morality, purpose, and meaning have always been ours to define, not God’s to impose.

Near the end of the movie, after the wizard was exposed as a fraud, he still tried to grant the requests of Dorothy and her friends. The Scarecrow wanted brains, the Lion courage, and the Tin Man a heart. To the Scarecrow, the wizard gave a diploma; to the Lion, a medal labeled “Courage”; and to the Tin Man, a heart-shaped pocket watch. The wizard didn’t give them what they wanted but instead gave them an acknowledgment of what they already had.

Throughout their journey with Dorothy, her friends had developed the very traits they said they wanted most of all. Though the wizard no longer stood behind a curtain pretending to be what he wasn’t, he still got credit for giving everyone what they already had.

Does that sound like Someone we know? Christians tell us God gives us morality, purpose, and meaning, though this is the same morality, purpose, and meaning that non-Christian believers might say they get from their god(s) and that atheists get from nature and reality.

The Christian may respond that objective or absolute versions of these traits must come from a supernatural source, but until the Christian shows that there are objective versions, this is an empty claim. Look up the dictionary definitions of morality, purpose, or meaning to see that none require objective or supernatural grounding. We can get through life just fine by dropping the pretense that they do and finding within ourselves our best versions of these traits.

These are human traits, not Christian traits. For proof, look at non-Christian cultures that have developed similar versions. These are traits we have always had. They’re borrowed by Christianity, and much is made of God’s giving back to us what we already had.

Christianity’s most generous gesture would be to drop the pretense of its gatekeeper role. Draw back the curtain to show that the power to improve or destroy society is (and has always been) ours, not God’s. It could help people grow and reject their dependence on the supernatural.

Want a better society? Only our hard work, not God’s miraculous intervention, has ever improved it. Want a healthier environment? We made the mess, so let’s admit our responsibility and work on it ourselves. Want to improve yourself? There’s no higher power helping you pass tests, kick bad habits, or get promoted at work—it’s just you, with other people to help.

At the end of The Wizard of Oz, it’s Dorothy’s turn. Glinda the Good Witch tells Dorothy that her ruby slippers, which she received at the beginning of her adventure, can return her home. She had been able to get her heart’s desire all along.

And so it is with us. We’re like Dorothy with her ruby slippers. Morality, purpose, and meaning don’t come from outside our world but have always been ours to define.

Continue to chapter 19.

Image credit: Wikimedia (public domain)

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