A Dog’s Purpose
First, to get the obvious out of the way, the movie teaches animal reincarnation. This dog keeps dying and coming back in a different dog body. The movie doesn’t imply any sort of reincarnation for people, so this isn’t really a fully orbed eastern religious view of death. Bracket the dog reincarnation, I think there are bigger fish to fry.
Second, while I really enjoyed the movie, I would advise parents about some mature themes in this PG film. Beside the obvious topic of death, the movie includes some scenes of suspense with a police officer, alcoholism, and references to an abusive relationship. The movie really is dark in parts.
The Powerful Point of the Film
This isn’t a spoiler as it’s clear in the trailer, the movie is about this reincarnating dog trying to figure out his purpose in the world. If you are talking with your children, or even a friend who might not be a believer, I would focus on this point. I found this theme in the movie to be quite powerful and even moving at times.
I’m in the middle of writing a book review for a journal on Tim Keller’s most recent book Making Sense of God. A particular passage in Keller’s writing is really helpful in making sense out of the perennial search for purpose. This movie, at least on this point, will resonate with viewers because we can all relate to it. We all need purpose, some meaning around which to structure our lives.
But what exactly is purpose in the natural world? As Keller says, “Meaning is not a property of anything in the world—it’s just how humans happen to feel about it at the moment.” We will find our meaning within, some might think, based on how we feel about things. But is this kind of created meaning really sustainable?
It’s clear we won’t find purpose simply in nature. The moon isn’t going to tell us what should matter. The animal world isn’t producing any guides on how to know what we’re here for. That’s because natural history tells no moral tales. It’s more interested in survival than soul satisfaction. So looking within might be our best shot.
So What Kind of Meaning Can We Hope to Find
Keller gives a helpful contrast between the kind of meaning we might create for ourselves and the kind that might exist if God is real. Regarding the impulse to just make our own meaning that fits with the way we feel, Keller asks a couple questions about what he describes as a “remarkably sunny approach to a meaningless universe.”
First, “is this a cogent, consistent position?” For example, do the values of purpose and meaning fit within an ultimately purposeless world? Second, “does it work, practically, for living your life?” In other words, is it a meaning you can sustain and apply consistently?
Is it the kind of purpose that will weather the storms of life and your changing feelings?
Keller contrasts “created meanings” that come from within our perspective, hopes, and feelings with what he calls “discovered meaning” that comes from the outside. Keller makes these pointed observations: (1) Discovered meaning is more rational than creating meanings; (2) Discovered meaning is more communal than created meanings; (3) Discovered meaning is more durable than created meanings.
A Meaning That Discovers Us
I think A Dog’s Purpose can foster some really good conversations on created and discovered meaning. Don’t get sidetracked by the reincarnation of man’s best friend. The sweet spot for this movie is in its illustration of searching for answers to the big questions of life.
But even Keller’s category of “discovered meaning” could be limited. Discovered meaning is only helpful if we can discover it. But is that even possible? And why would the meaning I discover be any better than the meaning you discover? Doesn’t this kind of discovered meaning really just end in the same problems as created meanings?
Not if this meaning is in some way objective, outside of us, and discoverable in a way humans can actually get to it. Or better yet, as Keller points out, this meaning would change everything if it actually came to discover us:
“Christians believe that Jesus is the Logos that the Greeks intuited—the meaning behind the universe, the reason for life. But unlike the philosophers, Christians believe that the Logos is not a concept to be learned but a person to be known. And therefore we don’t believe in a meaning we must go out and discover but in a Meaning that came into the world to find us. Embracing him by faith can give you a purposeful life that is death camp proof.”