The Painfully Examined Life
A short article from The Economist has me thinking about thinking this morning. The article offers a brief review on James Miller’s Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, and asks the question, “Can philosophy inspire a way of life?” The answer, at least in the book, seems to be, “not really.”
Miller’s book presents a picture of some pretty impressive thinkers—from Plato and Augustine to Aristotle and Rousseau—whose lives offer not-entirely-convincing proof that philosophy is much of a guarantor of a life well lived (or even much consolation). Indeed, says the author, “if one wanted to compile a charge-sheet against the great philosophers, to show that they were unfit to lead their own lives, let alone inspire others, this book could provide some useful evidence.” Following the call to philosophy, it seems, leads more often to trouble and uncertainty than it does to the good life.
I wonder if there are parallels in the experience of “thoughtful Christianity” (which is not, incidentally, an oxymoron, the bizarre assessment of Augustine in this article notwithstanding!). One occasionally hears that it is virtuous and admirable to be a “thinking Christian” as opposed to all those “faith-heads” who just reflexively and unthinkingly believe (as if there were such a creature). In various circles it is fashionable to be open and transparent about doubt and uncertainty and anger at God, etc, because this is evidence that your faith is honest and “real.”
I have been a part of many such conversations and, truth be told, I have often interpreted on my own journey of faith in something like these terms. You know, “faith seeking understanding,” “loving God with your mind,” and all that… I have spent a decent amount of time studying philosophy and theology in an attempt to deepen my faith and understanding. Like Dostoevsky, I have been pleased to think, my “hosanna is born out of a furnace of doubt.” After all, whether true or not, that kind of intellectually fearless faith sure sounds impressive, doesn’t it?
But does it lead to a better life? Maybe… I’m not sure. I think that, like the philosophers briefly described in the article, an examined life—and an examined faith as a part of it—can have downfalls as well. Thinking too much about things can exacerbate the chasm between one’s ideals and one’s behaviour. Deeper understanding does not always, or even often, translate into deeper love or selflessness or compassion. Sometimes it just produces people—whether philosophers or “reflective Christians”—who are arrogant and condescending, and unable to even approach consistency between belief and behaviour.
And then, there is the possibility that people prone to thinking can experience the pain of the world—from the existence of cosmic evil to the wrong they do themselves—a bit more deeply than others. This can, at times, lead to a rather unholy cocktail of melancholy, paralysis, and cynicism. This is not always the fruit of deep thinking, but it’s not uncommon.
I suppose this is the part where I am supposed to get to the cheery and optimistic “however.” Alas, my “however” is a bit muted today. There are, undoubtedly, a number of important benefits to be gleaned from an examined life and examined faith—the joys of learning, the wonder that comes with deeper understanding, the intellectual satisfaction of honesty, etc. These are surely not to be ungratefully spurned. But I suspect that this article is on to something… Examination can certainly be part of a good and happy life and a rich and vibrant faith, but it does not inevitably lead there. Just as often, I suspect, it can lead to a prolonged and painful engagement with the broken world in which we live, and the conflicted and ambiguous selves that contribute to its brokenness.
The article concludes by musing that those who philosophise do so because they cannot help it. Perhaps the same is true of “thoughtful faith.” Maybe it’s just inevitable for some people. Maybe the burden, such as it is, is handed to us by God or our biochemistry or both to make of it what we will. I suppose, on one level, everything depends on how much we allow into the intellectual soup. Thinking hard about ourselves as we are and the world as it is might just lead to despair. Thinking hard about these same things under the umbrella of a good and gracious God changes the equation, I think, because goodness and grace are the things we most desperately need and are most unable to produce on our own.