Film still from Soul, showing Jow and 22 talking to pan-dimensional beings in the Great Beyond

In Review

Without Why: Religion without Purpose in Pixar’s Soul


By Matthew C. Kruger

I do not believe there is a purpose or meaning to life, at least not one we could ever articulate. Yet I do believe in God and serve God as a priest in the Episcopal Church. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have not found many within my own ministerial and teaching contexts who share my worldview of a religious existence without purpose. Those who do often understand these ideas as a source of great tension within their lives. For many, religion is about meaning and purpose, about providing a direction to life and weight to our actions, about things mattering. To say anything which might challenge that notion is to immediately move to the “irreligious” category.

To my great joy, I have found a kindred spirit in Pixar’s recent movie Soul. The movie asks the big questions about the meaning of life while clearly challenging the idea of a specific purpose to our lives. Soul is about the idea that life is not reducible to purpose, success, or contribution to the world. It is, instead, in the words of the hero, Joe Gardner, about “just regular old living,” or, to build from the title of the film, about living with soul. These words, so plainly put, turn out to be the hardest to live by. The resonances with philosophers old and new are deep, and these are matters I would like to explore briefly, with reference to a few different figures: Friedrich Nietzsche and Nishitani Keiji, Meister Eckhart, Angelus Silesius, and Martin Heidegger. The question is: If we do not live for a purpose, how are we supposed to live? More specifically, how are we supposed to live religiously?

First, you might doubt that this Disney Pixar movie, a cartoon ostensibly made for children, is actually about the fundamental questions of our existence. Yet this is precisely what writer and director (along with Kemp Powers and Mike Jones) Pete Docter indicates, when placing the origins of the story in his own personal questioning, saying, “At the very beginning it was a very personal story of trying to figure this out for myself: What are we going through? What’s the world about? What am I supposed to be doing with my life?”1

It is within this framework that the movie takes shape. Joe Gardner, a jazz musician on the brink of success, falls through an open manhole and dies. He is taken to the Great Beyond, a giant escalator heading toward what appears to be a big bug zapper at the core of existence. Seeing this before him, and instead craving more life, he jumps off of the escalator and ends up in the Great Before. Much like a creative reinterpretation of Neoplatonist preexistence, this is where billions of souls are assigned personalities before birth and given a chance to find their spark prior to making the leap to earth and to life. Here Joe meets “22,” a soul who is not ready to live. Assigned as her mentor, Joe is given the task of filling in the last hole on her personality punch card, the completion of which will lead to 22’s readiness to be born. In a momentous error upon which the plot rests, Joe misunderstands the last spot on the punch card. It is explained by the pan-dimensional beings who govern the Great Before as the “spark.” Joe understands the spark to be a matter of the soul’s specific and assigned purpose, and thus sets out to find 22’s telos so that he can return to what he understands to be his own: music, piano, and, most especially, becoming a successful full-time jazz performer.

Thus far, the movie has rather conventionally explored life and passion and, for that matter, religion. Everyone, it seems, has a purpose in life, and they need to find that purpose and fulfill it, and then everything will work out. A wrench, however, is thrown into the mix. Towards the end of the film, after 22’s punch card has been mysteriously filled out, Joe and one of the pan-dimensional beings (most of them are named Jerry) have this exchange:

Joe: We never found out what 22’s purpose was . . .
Jerry: Excuse me?
Joe: You know, uh, her spark, her purpose, was it music, biology . . . walking?
Jerry: We don’t assign purposes, where did you get that idea?
Joe: Because I have piano, it’s what I was born to do, that’s my spark.
Jerry: A spark isn’t a soul’s purpose. Oh you mentors and your passions . . . Your purpose is [said satirically] . . . your meanings of life. So basic.2

Pan-dimensional being Jerry is surprisingly dismissive of purpose and meaning, and I think he is right; every human attempt to explain meaning or purpose is inherently reductive, narrowing to the point of misleading humans in their quest to live. Joe, believing his purpose in life is to be a jazz musician, has spent his entire life in pursuit of this goal, putting aside relationships, happiness, and life itself. As the mystic character Moonwind repeatedly warns us, there are lost souls, and this is how you become one: “Some people just can’t let go of their own anxieties and obsessions, leaving them lost and disconnected from life, and this is the result.” This brings us to Nietzsche.

Nietzsche’s later work is deeply engaged with the fundamental questions of life. As Nietzsche defines nihilism, it is about the question “why?” and the problems of answering it. He writes: “What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; ‘why?’ finds no answer.”3 Later, he expresses a similar idea:

The nihilistic question “for what?” is rooted in the old habit of supposing that the goal must be put up, given, demanded from outside by some superhuman authority. Having unlearned faith in that, one still follows the old habit and seeks another authority that can speak unconditionally and command goals and tasks.4

This is Pete Docter’s question in a slightly different form—“What am I supposed to be doing with my life?” And the way in which it is conventionally answered, according to Nietzsche, is to look to some “superhuman” authority for an answer. One of the problems, in Nietzsche’s diagnosis, is that God is dead; it is perhaps telling that there is no appearance from God in Soul, either. But the pan-dimensional being named Jerry plays the part well enough, and Jerry tells us there is no specific purpose assigned to you from the beyond: so, given that we are without purpose, what do we do now?

Nietzsche’s answer to nihilism is particularly complicated and thoroughly debated, but with that caveat established, I will focus on two themes that I believe to be at the center of Nietzche’s response, and which also happen to connect beautifully with Joe’s situation: world-denial and the Eternal Recurrence.


Soul, directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, Disney/Pixar.

One of Nietzsche’s core concerns is that, in our attempt to make sense of our existence, we find it necessary to deny the world as it is, instead of engaging with what is happening here and now as it is.

One of Nietzsche’s core concerns is that, in our attempt to make sense of our existence, we find it necessary to deny the world as it is, instead of engaging with what is happening here and now as it is. We theorize a world behind the appearance of things where truth resides (Platonic thought), an orderly universe of scientific reasoning and laws (scientific rationalists of the nineteenth century), a divine realm superior to this world (Christian). Nietzsche lists several methods of avoiding reality through seemingly harmless means:

Deep down: not knowing whither. Emptiness. Attempt to get over it by intoxication: intoxication as music; intoxication as cruelty in the tragic enjoyment of the destruction of the noblest; intoxication as blind enthusiasm for single human beings or ages (as hatred, etc.).—Attempt to work blindly as an instrument of science: opening one’s eyes to the many small enjoyments; e.g., also in the quest of knowledge (modesty toward oneself); resignation to generalizing about oneself, a pathos; mysticism, the voluptuous enjoyment of eternal emptiness; art “for its own sake” (“le fait”) and “pure knowledge” as narcotic states of disgust with oneself; some kind or other of continual work, or of some stupid little fanaticism. . . .5

We begin in the place of questioning, not knowing where to go or what to do next, and we feel empty in this place. Not liking this empty feeling, we attempt to get over it by any means. We turn to intoxication: we distract ourselves from our feeling of being lost by “blind enthusiasm” for any number of things—by continual work, by convincing ourselves we actually love that feeling of emptiness, that it isn’t really so bad.

This intoxication is described in Soul as “the Zone.” It is the place where artists go when they are at their peak; but it is also the place where hedge fund managers and office slaves lose themselves. The movie shows us glimpses of musicians and athletes at the height of their craft, but also stockbrokers reduced to a life of muttering “trade . . . trade . . . trade. . . .” The Zone is a place that enables incredible talent and expression but also maximizes the risk of detaching from the world. This is the place that Moonwind warns us about: “The Zone is enjoyable, but when that joy becomes an obsession, one becomes disconnected from life.” Moonwind’s work is to restore some of these lost souls back to their lives, performing a ritual on their soul that results in a moment of clarity—the hedge fund manager is startled awake from his slumber, becomes aware of his surroundings (the world), and realizes what is happening: “What am I doing with my life?” he shouts as he trashes his office and runs outside, presumably to something more in tune with his spark.

Joe is guilty of this same intoxication; he has pursued it endlessly, throughout his life, chasing perfection on the piano in hopes of performing with a band and being a successful musician. And, after a zany series of events, he gets his chance, making his way to his gig and getting his moment in the sun. He plays, it goes beautifully, but at the end of the night, as he steps out of the bar, and all of the crowd and the rest of the band have gone away, he is struck. Something feels off. He turns to the bandleader, the semi-famous career musician Dorothea Williams:

Joe: So . . . what happens next?
Dorothea: We come back tomorrow night and do it all again.
Joe: It’s just that I’ve been waiting on this day for my entire life. I thought I’d feel different.

Joe is disappointed. This is supposed to be the moment of fulfillment, but instead he feels exactly as he did before. It is this moment that truly makes this movie so profound—its willingness to take on this most unpleasant of epiphanies. What happens when you realize the thing you love the most isn’t all that you thought it would be? Before the gig, Joe says: “Once I get on that stage tonight, all my troubles are going to be fixed. You’re going to see a brand-new Joe Gardner.” After, he says: “I thought I’d feel different,” because none of his troubles have been fixed. Joe returns home and sits alone with the life he has made for himself; an empty apartment with nothing but a piano. Yes, he loves the piano, but it is not the solution to his life, it is not the meaning of his life. There must be something else.

Joe sees that he has been misled . . . in thinking that life was about some singular thing you were put on this earth to do, when there was no purpose, only an opportunity to live in this world and have this life.

The danger at this point is that, upon finding disappointment in something that we deemed our purpose, we begin to search for another. Joe’s mind turns to 22, and he continues to puzzle over what it was that filled out that last hole on her punch card. His memory turns to a series of moments experienced by 22: to the whirligig (Maple tree samara) spiraling down to her hand, basking in the full flavor of pizza for the first time, giving the bagel to the busker after being struck by his music, and so on. He turns then to his own moments, remembering his mother washing him in the bath as a boy, listening to records with his dad, riding his bike and seeing the sun flickering through the leaves, eating pecan pie in a diner alone, writing his name on the chalkboard on his first day as a teacher, introducing a student to drums, playing piano with his dad, the ocean waves running over his toes at the beach with his mom, riding the elevated train as the sun sets. Moments in time; beautiful moments. These are the very same moments that 22 had earlier identified as things she thought might be her meaning in life, but that Joe dismissed: “Those really aren’t purposes, 22, that’s just regular old living.” Now Joe sees that he has been misled and that he misled 22 in thinking that life was about some singular thing you were put on this earth to do, when there was no purpose, only an opportunity to live in this world and have this life.

This brings us to the moment of the Eternal Recurrence, a key component of Nietzsche’s answer to nihilism. It is described in a few different texts across his oeuvre, but the seminal example is Aphorism 341 in The Gay Science:

What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”6

The demon’s proposal that life will repeat forever leads to the moment of decision or disposition: Is this good news? Or is this bad news? Do you affirm your life and the world as it has occurred? Or do you deny this world in hopes of a better one? These words resonate with what Dorothea tells Joe outside of the bar after the show: “We come back tomorrow night and do it all again.” Repetition. Is it a promise or a threat? In that moment, it is the worst possible news for Joe, but it does not remain that way. For Nietzsche, the answer to nihilism lies here: The person who hears of the recurrence of their life, in all its joy and sadness, in all its failures and trials, and who loves this fate (amor fati), and thus affirms life, desiring nothing more than to live over and over, is the one who has answered nihilism.

In this moment of the loneliest loneliness, Joe realizes that the only potential source of meaning in his life—success—has been shown to be meaningless, too. But in this moment, he realizes that 22 needs this experience as well; 22 needs the opportunity to live. So Joe returns to the afterlife (via the Zone) and after some complicated maneuvering, fixes the situation with 22, who makes the leap toward Earth and toward life.

The question is, then, will you live this life without purpose again, this life of disappointment, loneliness, and crushed dreams?

Following this resolution, Joe is resigned to his fate and returns to the escalator to the Great Beyond. Before he gets there, however, Joe is visited by another Jerry and given the choice: go back to earth and live, or go on. The question is, then, will you live this life without purpose again, this life of disappointment, loneliness, and crushed dreams, where even when you achieve your goals you are left feeling unsatisfied? As Nietzsche says, “The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ ”7 Joe realizes that he craves more life. It is not that he has merely, as Nietzsche puts it, been successful in “opening one’s eyes to the many small enjoyments.” Nietzsche, 22, and Joe all know life, in its ups and downs, fully, and want more. Just regular old living. Now that he is without purpose, he is free to exist, to really be here in this world as it is, and to “crave nothing more fervently” than life forever and again.

Perhaps you have objected by this point: Nietzsche isn’t a religious thinker. I won’t take that issue up here, though there have been a few good books written on the matter recently.8 I turn instead to a thinker of less questionable religious provenance, Nishitani Keiji, who was deeply influenced by Nietzsche in all of his depth. Nishitani’s most famous work, Religion and Nothingness, takes as one of its primary concerns a renewed definition of what religion is. For Nishitani, working from a philosophical perspective informed by both Zen and continental thought, religion “has to do with life itself”; further, religion “must not be considered from the viewpoint of its utility, any more than life should.” Religion is also, in a clear connection with Nietzsche’s concern regarding world-denial, about “the real self-awareness of reality.”9 Finally, and most importantly for this discussion, religion begins with questions:

We become aware of the need for religion as a need, as a must for life, only at the level of life at which everything else loses its necessity and its utility. Why do we exist at all? Is not our very existence and human life ultimately meaningless? Or, if there is a meaning or significance to it all, where do we find it? When we come to doubt the meaning of existence in this way, when we have become a question to ourselves, the religious quest awakens within us.10

Religion begins with doubt. What is it that makes these questions come to us? Any number of things, really, but for Nishitani, it is more often than not some kind of negative experience, “the loss of a loved one, or of the failure of an undertaking on which he had staked his all.”11 It is here that religion actually begins, because the “real self-awareness of reality” starts when one sheds the unreal framing of existence as essentially teleological—among many other philosophical and religious falsehoods. The teleological framing of existence is, for Nishitani, inherently distorting of reality. It reduces existence to a game of subject and object, where we the subjects seek to make a world of meaning that revolves around us. In this game, we do not let humans be humans, or gods be gods, or the world be however it is; we reinterpret all these things so that they fit our narrative, giving us subjects a clear role, a clear direction for our lives.

This nonteleological approach is, of course, generally antithetical to most religious formulations. Ministers like myself are often trained to seek ways to make life meaningful for their congregations, to respond to crises of faith—to the difficult moments in life, loss, failure, death—in a way that restores or ensures purpose. But what if these questions are the ones that take us away from the world as it is? The form of thinking here is crucial: it is a pursuit that says, “there is an answer,” and then goes out to find it, and, in our suitably postmodern context, allows for multiple answers, or different answers for different people. Yet, it is this whole pursuit that should be called into question, just as Joe seeks to find 22’s purpose, only eventually to realize that it was never there.

In response to this form of thinking, Meister Eckhart and Martin Heidegger both employed the concept of Gelassenheit, generally translated as “releasement.” The term is not perfectly synonymous in each figure, of course, but it does label a form of thinking that is defined by its openness to things and its reluctance to engage in self-willed determination regarding these things. The person who thinks within releasement does not reduce things or life to questions of purpose; neither does that person treat things as objects to be rotated around this subject, nor reduce the world to finding one’s telos. The connection of Heidegger and Eckhart is beautifully captured in the work of Angelus Silesius, a seventeenth-century priest and poet, and a figure influenced by Eckhart who, in turn, influenced Heidegger. Heidegger comments on one of his poems, focusing on these lines: “The rose is without why, it blooms because it blooms, / It pays no attention to itself, asks not whether it is seen.”12 This approach is, for Eckhart, Silesius, and Heidegger, a guide to how we ought to live our lives. We waste so much time caught up in the questions: why? for what? to what end? what’s the use? We look for an answer that cannot be given, because the entire framework of our thinking is in error.

To live “without why,” it must be said, does not mean to live passively. This is the most frequent misinterpretation of Gelassenheit, and of Heidegger’s later thought in general.

To live “without why,” it must be said, does not mean to live passively. This is the most frequent misinterpretation of Gelassenheit, and of Heidegger’s later thought in general. It is, instead, a call to live in a middle-voiced place, to live in an openness that, in Heidegger’s words, lies “beyond the distinction between activity and passivity.”13 It is not a question of actively asserting meaning, of assigning to the world a purpose and evaluating that meaning-making through reflective thought. Nor is it a matter of residing in quiet passivity, resigning oneself to whatever happens in life in nihilistic apathy. Instead, in this middle-voiced place, life happens; being happens; the rose blooms, beautifully, because it blooms.

Still, we often find it difficult to imagine what it might mean to live this way, and especially to live this way religiously. As I have recounted previously,14 I had the good fortune of meeting another kindred soul some years ago while completing my clinical pastoral education fieldwork in a hospital. On my rounds that evening, I encountered a Roman Catholic religious who was recently admitted. I asked him about the meaning or purpose of life, and he responded: “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (MacBeth, act 5, scene 5). The Shakespeare reference was unexpected and exhilarating; the summer after my second year of the MDiv program, I was already well immersed in Eckhart, Zhuangzi, and Nishitani, so not unsettled by this take on existence. Still, I indicated that I was not quite ready to embrace that sort of meaningless attitude toward life, to which he responded: “You’ll stop feeling that. You asked how things have changed since I was 19. That’s number one. I became a monk because I wanted to mean something. I’ll stay a monk because I know it means nothing.” The rose blooms because it blooms; this monk monked because he monked. We are not inactive because we are without a why. Instead, we have avoided reducing all that we are in a crude and diminishing calculation, one which seeks to establish a single grand purpose to our lives, a vocation, a calling, a single source of fulfillment that everything else rides upon.

Many of us feel that we are fading away from religion when we truly begin to ask the question, “why?” Yet, as Nietzsche shows us, to move out of this framework of “why” is a key step toward the affirmation of this world and of this life. Nishitani, likewise, reassures us that these questions—down to the fundamental level of the self, what we are and what we are supposed to do—are the beginning of the religious life. To truly open oneself to this exploration is to find for the first time the freedom of a new form of thinking, one which makes a different kind of answer possible. And Eckhart, Silesius, and Heidegger all call us to the openness of a life without why, a life outside of the active assertion of meaning or its passive denial, where the roses bloom and the lilies dazzle.


  1. Neil Minow, “It’s Like a Magic Trick: Pete Docter and Dana Murray on Pixar’s Soul,, December 22, 2020.
  2. Transcriptions are mine, as the screenplay had not yet been released at the time of writing.
  3. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, ed. Walter Arnold Kaufmann, trans. R. S. Hollingdale and Walter Arnold Kaufmann (Random House, 1968), bk. 1, chap. 1, §2 (Spring–Fall 1887), p. 1.
  4. Ibid., bk. 1, chap. 1, §20 (Spring–Fall 1887), p. 16.
  5. Ibid., bk. 1, chap. 1, §29 (1883–1888), “The ways of self-narcotization,” p. 20.
  6. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Arnold Kaufmann (Random House, 1974), bk. 4, aph. 341, p. 273.
  7. Ibid., 274.
  8. Bruce Ellis Benson, Pious Nietzsche: Decadence and Dionysian Faith (Indiana University Press, 2007); Tyler T. Roberts, Contesting Spirit: Nietzsche, Affirmation, Religion (Princeton University Press, 2001); Julian Young, Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Religion (Cambridge University Press, 2006).
  9. Nishitani Keiji, Religion and Nothingness, trans. Jan Van Bragt (University of California Press, 1982), 2, 5.
  10. Ibid., 3.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Martin Heidegger, The Principle of Reason, trans. Reginald Lilly (Indiana University Press, 1996), 39.
  13. Martin Heidegger, “Conversation on a Country Path about Thinking,” in Discourse on Thinking, trans. John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund (Harper and Row, 1966), 61. See also Ian Alexander Moore, “The Middle Voice of Releasement in Heidegger’s Lecture Courses 1928–30,” in Eckhart, Heidegger, and the Imperative of Releasement (SUNY, 2019).
  14. Matthew Kruger, The Gospel and Nothingness (Chisokudō, 2019).

Matthew C. Kruger, MDiv ’09, is Assistant Professor of the Practice in the Theology Department at Boston College and author of Spiritual Exercises for the Postmodern Christian (Cascade, 2018), The Gospel and Nothingness (Chisokudō Publications, 2019), and What the Living Know: A Novel of Suicide and Philosophy (NFB Publishing, 2020).

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