Briefly Noted: Is the Examined Life Worth Living? Because of the Resurrection, It Is.

Fetching article, this. In a recent edition of the The Chronicle Review, philosopher John Kaag asks whether life is worth living.[1] Anyone even remotely acquainted with the history of philosophy knows that Socrates purportedly said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Kaag’s point in the article is “What Socrates failed to tell us is that the examined one isn’t a whole lot better.”

In the article, he describes how, as a twelve year old, he found his older brother’s copy of Plato’s Apology on the back of the family toilet (TMI, no?), read it, and rather soon thereafter decided to become a philosopher. As Kaag describes it, his philosophical turn was accompanied by a sort of melancholy as he began to think critically about life in this world. In the course of the article, he mentions the various sorts of pain that we humans experience in life—unhappy marriages, failed expectations, and so forth.

He cites Albert Camus, who said, “There is but one truly serious philosophical question, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” As Kaag sees it, the person who can easily answer that question clearly is not a philosopher. Kaag concludes “But here’s the thing about not being miserable. Life is still a pathetic ruse: either too painful or too short. You pick.”

I’m grateful for philosophers such as Kaag (or Sartre, or Camus, or Nietzsche) who raise such serious questions. In the end, only theology can point the way forward in answering such a question. And, as I see it, only Christian Scripture’s “dramatic narrative” can provide proper existential situation (and empirical reality) to which Kaag points.

Christian Scripture opens with a dramatic account of God’s creation of the universe. He endows his imagers with manifold capacities—spiritual, moral, rational, creative, relational, and physical—and provides them an environment in which they can flourish. God the King has created a shalomic environment for his imagers, who are to serve as his under-kings and loving stewards of his good creation. In the third chapter of the Genesis account, however, Adam and Eve reject God’s kingship and grasp for kingship themselves. In their desire for autonomy, they transgress God’s command, and in so doing they become idolaters. Adam and Eve’s sin marks a dark and haunting turn in the biblical narrative. In the aftermath of their sin, we seek that God’s good shalom has been broken, with the result that humanity now experiences a broken relationship with God, with each other, with the created order, and with self. The painful existential reality that Kaag describes is a result of this Fall.

In response to the Fall and its pervasively painful consequences, Scripture promises a Redeemer who will save us from our sins and set creation free from its groaning. That Redeemer is Christ Jesus, and one day he will return to defeat evil finally, and to bring a new heavens and earth, in which we will live together with him eternally. In this heavens and earth, there will be no more pain, tears, or death, and we will flourish eternally together with Christ.

This narrative is the true story of the whole world and it alone can make sense of the mind-numbing pain that we often experience. In other words, this sprawling, capacious narrative possesses great explanatory power. In addition this narrative is a dramatic narrative. As church father such as Irenaeus showed us, and as modern theologians such as N. T. Wright or Craig Bartholomew remind us, this narrative is a drama into which we enter and participate. Only as we enter into this narrative can we understand and experience the fact that this world is not the way it’s supposed to be; and only as we enter into this narrative can we find hope for the day when the coming King will renew and restore it, so that we can dwell in it forever with him.

In a nutshell, our certain hope is that “When the world’s present history is over, Christ will be there. As a consequence of the resurrection, the world has a deeply joyful ending.” Here in the West, we are (rightly) suspicious of fairy tale endings. We prefer something more “realistic,” because we have tasted realities of living in a fallen world. But this fallen world, and its pain and suffering, is less “real” than the resurrected cosmos.

In his essay on fairy tales, J. R. R. Tolkien charts the difference between dyscatastrophe (stories ending in sorrow and failure) and eucatastrophe (stories ending in triumph and deliverance).

He concludes by asking “which is actually the more true?”  In summary, because of the resurrection, it’s the latter.  There is such a thing as a happy ending. To borrow a phrase from Lord of the Rings, “Everything sad becomes untrue.”  Human evil and pain, in other words, cannot deligitimize happy endings—they cannot because Christ’s resurrection has hallowed them.

[1] John Kaag, “The Making of a Philosophy Professor,” in The Chronicle Review (Nov 30, 2012), B16.

Briefly Noted: On David Cooper, Roger Scruton, and Green Philosophy

For those of our readers not yet acquainted with Roger Scruton, allow me to serve advance notice: Dr. Scruton is not a pony-tailed tree-hugger seeking to lead the world into an embrace of yoga mats and tofu wraps. He is politically conservative writer and philosopher whose work is unfailingly stimulating, and whose recent book, Green Philosophy calls for a conservative environmentalism. Scruton’s book is reviewed by David E. Cooper in a recent edition of the Times Literary Supplement (March 2, 2012).[1] Cooper interacts with Scruton’s proposal, which puts political realism, reason, and care for one’s home at the center of its environmental care paradigm.

Al Gore once called for “rescue of the environment [to be] the organizing principle of civilization.” Cooper states, “Scruton’s response to this call is that the real ‘natural bedfellow’ of environmentalism is conservativism, for ‘conservativism and conservation are two aspects of a single long-term policy.’” (10) By chronicling the failures of non-government organization, the EU, and the US Environmental Protection Agency, Scruton argues these organizations display a “total lack of realism” on what works in caring for the environment. Scruton wants a more rational, realistic approach to the environment than those associated with traditional environmental (i.e., liberal) policies.

Hence, Scruton’s thesis is that “environmental protection comes from the Oikophilia of people.” “Oikophilia is Scruton’s coined term for “a family of motives at whose centre is love of one’s home.” Environmentalism often fails in its futile call for one to love everyone and every place, even the whole planet. Scruton’s “oikophilia, however, is a sympathy and concern for those who handed down to us the home we love and those to whom, in turn, we shall hand it down.” Basically, the more one cares for his/her home and passes that care and concern on to others, the better the community will care for the environment. This proposal, Scruton believes, is more realistic than traditional (liberal) environmentalism. The question Cooper asks, however, is can this realism called “oikophilia” actually be a realistic answer for caring for the environment? (see p. 11)

Scruton’s proposal is more compelling and reasonable than its liberal competitors, and yet it falls short precisely because it does not take its starting point, trajectory, and parameters from God’s revelation in Christian Scripture. In order to build a robust framework for environmental/ecological ethics, one must take into account at least four Christian doctrines. These four doctrines are in fact the four plot movements of the biblical narrative—creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. These doctrines are central to the Christian faith and indeed can be seen as the four major plot movements in the Christian narrative.[2]

The first movement is Creation, in which we find a created world shaped and formed by the uncreated Triune God; further, it is a good world that God has filled with his image bearers, who are to be stewards of it. If God’s world is good, we ought not to trash it. If God created the world so that we could flourish with it in mutual interdependence, then we should not consciously do anything to harm that. The second movement is the Fall, in which God’s image bearers rebelled against him, alienating themselves from him, each other, and the entire created order. As a result, God’s good and beautiful creation was marred by the ugliness of sin, sin which has deeper and more pervasive consequences than we might typically imagine. Our relationship to the cosmos is no longer one of perfect mutual interdependence. The third movement is Redemption, in which God speaks of One through whom he will redeem his image-bearers and indeed the whole creation. The entirety of the biblical drama points to this One, the Messiah, and the salvation that he will accomplish. We are told that he will redeem not only his image bearers but also the entire cosmos. This brings us to the fourth and final movement, Restoration, in which God restores his good creation. He establishes a new heavens and earth, inhabited by his image-bearers redeemed from among every tribe, language, and nation, who will dwell eternally with him. At this time, we will again flourish and live in perfect harmony on a renewed cosmos, in the glory of God himself.

This narrative provides the framework for a Christian theology of ecological stewardship. Without this framework, humans tend to either enthrone or denigrate the cosmos. In the United States, many political liberals tend to enthrone the cosmos, even creating an alternative soteriology and eschatology with Mother Earth at the center. On the other hand, many political conservatives tend to denigrate the cosmos, mocking any ecological or environmental initiatives. But both of these tendencies are wrong. We are not to worship the cosmos, on the one hand, or trash it, on the other. The cosmos is not ultimate, but neither is it to be denigrated. It is not God, but it is God’s good creation. For this reason, we are to be loving stewards of God’s good creation, looking backwards to God’s creational design and forward to the restored cosmos on which we will dwell eternally and in which we will experience eternal shalom.

For a more extensive essay on a Christian view of the environment, see “Creation Care Founded on the Biblical Narrative (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration).”

[1] David E. Cooper, “With Nature,” in Times Literary Supplement (March 2, 2012): 10–11; Roger Scruton, Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet (Atlantic Books, 2011).

[2] More than a few recent theological proposals have argued that Scripture contains one basic and overarching narrative within which Christian doctrine finds its home. These proposals are written by a diverse array of scholars, including theologians N. T. Wright, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Michael Goheen, philosophers Albert Wolters and Craig Bartholomew, and biblical scholar Christopher Wright. However, this essay differs from those theologians in two respects. First, whereas Wolters tells the story in terms of three acts, Wright in terms of five acts, and Goheen/Bartholomew in terms of six, this essay sees four acts: creation, fall, redemption, restoration. See N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992), 139-43; Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005); Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004); Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005); Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006). Second, of the authors above, only Christopher Wright makes extended application to ecological matters.