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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.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Re: “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.”’

    Which are these circles?

    My own doubts (and uncertainty) are quite real and are evidence that my faith is small. They represent no virtue. Anger, I don’t have.

    re: “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.”

    I think so.

    I think of Aristotle, in Nichomachean Ethics, as being quite successful in using philosophy to describe a good life. The good life he described is best lived in ancient Athens, but much of it applies in the West today, is still good, if one has enough education and wealth to enjoy it. Elements of it: the friendships, the practice of virtues in public life, and the enjoyment of leisure or contemplation, can be enjoyed by anyone, even if not wealthy, and they do enhance life. It represents a way that is compatible with Christianity, even while it is probably routed in a heroic (or warrior) ethos that is quite different from the Hebraic ethos of faith in God seen in the Bible.

    January 28, 2011
    • Re: which circles? Conversations in church, articles and books I read, interaction with people inside and outside my denomination, etc.

      I agree with your assessment of Aristotle’s description of a good life. I don’t think the article was addressing the philosophical description as much as it was the gap between this description and the actual lives of philosophers. That’s the sense I got, at any rate—I haven’t read the book the article was referring to.

      January 29, 2011
      • Ken #

        At the seminary I attended, and among the ministers in the PCUSA, I do remember a certain pride that some took in expressing doubts or disbelief. It occurred among former evangelicals or former fundamentalists who felt like their open expression of doubts set them apart from the Christians they despised – evangelicals and fundamentalists. They mistook it as a sign that they were now liberals.

        The same people tended to be quite doctrinal when it came to espousing connections between theology and left-wing politics. That may have also been, in part, a reaction against the right-wing politics they associated with evangelicalism or fundamentalism. Such certainty was a way of condemning conservatives.

        But that is not the phenomenon I hear you referencing.

        I imagine that the circles you have seen are evangelical, and I just don’t have the same exposure to such circles. I have never seen anyone use talk about doubts as “evidence that your faith is honest and “real.”’ Perhaps those who do that have an understanding of faith that involves weighing options and making a rational decision in favor of faith. In that context, acknowledging doubts might imply careful thought before making a rational commitment to faith, a struggle in the wilderness that they overcame. It would be a kind of apologetics. It could amount to boasting among those attempting to emulate Christ. A piety forged in the fire of disbelief.

        January 30, 2011
  2. EDH #

    Maybe I’m missing something, but I think the article was pretty unfair to blame Augustine for the intellectual tyranny of the Catholic Church. But in my own experience, I find that if I study without prayer or I’m always inhaling information without being able to exhale in some form, it seems to be damaging to faith/life. So in that sense, I think the sentiments of the article can be true for Christian thinking. But I think, with the Holy Spirit, we have this reflux that kicks in that tells us to breathe if we hold our breath for too long.

    January 28, 2011
    • You’re not missing anything. Based on the comment in the article, it seems to me that the author is speaking out of a fairly profound ignorance of St. Augustine’s life and thought.

      Your comments on prayer are well-taken. I think prayer can properly locate our thinking and reflection, and provide a space for God to guide, direct, enliven, and sometimes chasten our thinking.

      January 29, 2011
  3. Tyler Brown #

    I’d be curious to read the actual book.

    But, from personal experience, if it wasn’t for stumbling across some of the ancient Greek writings I’d truly be lost. Can they answer all the questions I have? No, they cannot and will never be able to. But thanks to Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Jesus, Marx, and now some if the indigenous tales of many ‘primitive’ cultures around the world I am finding completion. Not completion in the sense of having the answers to existence, but rather questions of ontology. Who do I want to be? How do I want to be? How does one cross the gap between who they are and those other two questions? These are questions that can be answered,

    One of the problem with western philosophy is it views reason as the only way out – even when it questions the foundation of reason. Therefore, reasons sole task is to rescue itself and build its self up. It seems this is something Nietzsche, Jesus, and to a lesser extent Aristotle tried to tell us. Part of being human is the spirit. Just as part of being human is to exercise reason. To deny one is to deny the human endeavour.

    ” Thinking hard about ourselves as we are and the world as it is might just lead to despair.”
    It can for sure. But, it can also lead to hope. “I think, because goodness and grace are the things we most desperately need and are most unable to produce on our own.”

    If we cannot produce on our own then we are clearly not at fault for producing the other.

    January 29, 2011
    • Tyler Brown #

      Was thinking more about this central question:

      “Can philosophy inspire a way of life?”

      and thought yes it can because it demands engagement with that an idea that is either accepted, rejected, or judgement is suspended. So even if a certain theory isn’t subscribed it still creates growth of ideas.

      January 29, 2011
      • Absolutely agree here, Tyler. Well said.

        January 29, 2011
    • There’s certainly a lot that philosophy can contribute to a good life. You’ve identified a number of these things here. I actually enjoy philosophy immensely, and would say that my study of it has contributed and continues to contribute in many positive ways to my own life. I’m actually a big fan of thinking hard about life!

      I suppose the reason the article struck a chord with me is that it acknowledged, however awkwardly, that there is a shadow side to philosophizing, too—one that pops up throughout history. I’m thinking of one younger person I’ve been talking to lately, in particular, who is prone to thinking pretty deeply about things, and who is now in a pretty dark place (spiritually, intellectually, emotionally). This person wishes they could stop thinking the way they do, but they don’t seem to be able to.

      Of course one story is just that—one story. It certainly isn’t a universal principle or tendency. And in the case I just mentioned, there is obviously more going on than just this or that intellectual tendency. But thinking deeply about the world can be painful.

      Re: If we cannot produce [goodness and grace] on our own then we are clearly not at fault for producing the other [despair].

      I took the liberty of filling in the blanks for you here—I assume this is what you were getting at. I’m not sure… I think there is a “givenness” to the pain that we are born into. There is an element of human existence that simply is tragic. Of course goodness and grace precede our arrival as well, and we learn and grown into these as well. It seems to me, though, that a purely logical examination of our world and our existence in it could very easily lead to a fairly bleak interpretation of reality. I really do think that the logical end of materialism is nihilism. Goodness and grace point beyond the world as it is—they locate us in the world of “ought” rather than “is.”

      January 29, 2011
  4. Tyler Brown #

    “one younger person I’ve been talking to lately, in particular, who is prone to thinking pretty deeply about things, and who is now in a pretty dark place (spiritually, intellectually, emotionally). This person wishes they could stop thinking the way they do, but they don’t seem to be able to.”

    Completely resonate with this (a good few years of my life) and it is my belief that this stems from an incomplete view of reason. It is hard to workout fully here, but reason seems to have become disembodied from humanity, it operates on its own and of course it produces cold and dark places. Reason is part of humanity but not all of it.

    “I really do think that the logical end of materialism is nihilism. Goodness and grace point beyond the world as it is—they locate us in the world of “ought” rather than “is.””

    Just as much as Goodness and grace point beyond the world so does evil and despair.
    They locate us in the world of “could be” rather than “is.” But both are also in this world. Goodness is and was. Evil is and was.

    February 1, 2011
    • I think that reason can very easily become detached from human experience. I don’t know if that is going on in this particular situation, but I am all for an understanding of the limits of reason and how this can contribute to a more healthy view of life.

      Re: goodness, grace, despair… You are right—”Goodness is and was and evil is and was.” I am still convinced that there is a vision of goodness and peace and wholeness and security (shalom, to use biblical language) that pulls history along, from the cosmic level right down to the level of our own personal histories. I think it’s in our DNA—we long for more than we could reasonably expect given our understanding of the past and present.

      February 1, 2011
      • Ken #

        Re: Ryan’s last paragraph

        Just want to note that here Ryan and I concur.

        February 1, 2011

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