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An article I read the other day said that Rick Warren is resigning as pastor of Saddleback Church for health reasons. Some people may not recognize his name, but there was a time when he was the most famous religious leader in America. His book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” was released in 2002 and became a runaway bestseller. It sold an estimated 50 million copies by 2020. Apparently a lot of people are looking for purpose.

In 2005 I wrote an essay that criticized atheist Sam Harris for turning disbelief in God into its own narrow-minded belief system. I ended the piece by saying that Harris “apparently wants to become the Rick Warren of atheism.” A couple days later I received an email from an unfamiliar address that said, “I enjoyed your article on Sam Harris. And when I got to them end, my wife will tell you, I nearly fell out of my chair laughing.” It was signed, “Rick Warren.”

Nice of him, considering that it wasn’t necessarily a flattering reference.

“The Purpose Driven Life” is a very Christian book, as you might expect, grounded in a religion I don’t share. But there’s a reason the book sold 50 million copies. People are desperate to give their lives meaning and purpose, and they don’t feel that sense of purpose today. Why should they? Most people struggle at unfulfilling jobs to make ends meet, with very little time or energy for activities that give them a sense of meaning.

Warren’s twist on the self-improvement genre was to invert the idea that purpose comes from reaching your personal goals. He used a biblical quote in his introduction that reads, “Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self.”

The wording seemed too modern to be true, but it’s really from the Bible – at least one version of it. It’s Luke 9:24, from a translation I’ve never heard of called “The Message Bible.” Wikipedia calls its translation “highly idiosyncratic.” Judging from the above quote, that’s about right. But if you take that quote out of its theological context and consider the crises we face, it’s pretty sound thinking. Self-help won’t save the planet. Self-sacrifice will. It will also help us find our true selves in the higher purpose of saving the best parts of this world.

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In big and small ways, doing what’s needed can also make us healthier. A case in point is a new study which shows that bicycling dramatically reduces carbon emissions. As one of its authors writes, “emissions from cycling can be more than 30 times lower for each trip than driving a fossil fuel car, and about ten times lower than driving an electric one.”

He adds that “urban residents who switched from driving to cycling for just one trip per day reduced their carbon footprint by about half a ton of CO2 over the course of a year, and save the equivalent emissions of a one-way flight from London to New York.”

If we don’t dramatically reduce carbon emissions, we’re doomed. But that’s not as simple as it seems. Take bicycling. When I lived in downtown Washington I was able to walk or bike almost everywhere. I didn’t even own a car. But in Silver Spring MD, where I live now, that’s impossible. My cul-de-sac of small roads opens out to a six-lane, north-south thoroughfare that in many places doesn’t even have sidewalks. I can’t travel east or west unless I first take my life into my hands by traveling north or south to a connecting road. Each time I do, I feel like a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger in Running Man and Dennis Weaver in Duel.

Too often, we think of issues like biking vs. driving as matters of personal morality. But civic morality matters even more. We don’t just need purpose-driven lives. We need a purpose-driven society. It’s hard to live green lives unless we live in green communities.

If we had a collective sense of purpose, more people would have bikeable environments. And we would do so much more. We would build up mass transit to the point where electric minivans summoned by publicly-run apps would cruise side streets. Workers would have more influence over their workplaces, and – if polls are accurate – would do more to make their workplaces socially accountable. We would change the way we live – not as an exercise in individual moral ambition, but through a shared sense of mission.  We would see our sacrifices, not as personal losses, but as steps toward meaning.

People have valid criticisms of Rick Warren, but I wish him good health. That’s the point, isn’t it? We should all be wishing each other good health, and then doing something to ensure it. That would be a purpose-driven society.

Crossposted from Absolute Zero