Christianity Faith Religion Spirituality

A Book and a Conversation

One of my issues with the liberalism of someone like Peter Rollins is that I feel like it doesn’t create anything positive. Doubt is a powerful solvent, which is good and right, and some things need to be dissolved. The whiteboard needs to be wiped clean before something new can be created. But something new does need to be created, if you are to have any right to call yourself a Christian. I have a fundamental belief that everything, in the broadest possible sense, is going to be All Right, that we should choose life (to coin a phrase.)  That God is, in fact, with us, and that faith is the great “and yet” to all the awfulness and mess of life . Of course, there is lots of good stuff in life as well, it’s just that it seems to me to be in less urgent need of explanation.

This doesn’t pretend to be a fully thought out theology. It’s hesitant, halting story, conveyed through the informal, impressionistic mechanism of a blog post. But perhaps that doesn’t matter. We are, as J.D. Hall points out, broken people, and theology is always going to be broken. So, with that caveat, here goes.

My starting point are two ideas which I stumbled across back when I was an undergraduate, studying Philosophy and Classical Civilisation at the Unversity of Newcastle. One was from a conversation, and one was from a book.

The book was by Aldous Huxley, which I read when I was supposed to be frantically reading for some essay or other, which I have long since forgotten. It put the question that he raised in Brave New World rather succinctly: if you could find a drug that just made you happy, no matter what was going on, you had a secure supply of it, and it would do no damage to your health – would you take it?  If the purpose of life is to pursuse happiness, as I have been implicitly taught, then why not? Why not cut to the chase, skip over all the boring bits, and get on with the happiness thing?

There are a lot of versions of this sort of choice. In the Matrix (one of my favourite films,) Neo, the Christ-figure is given a  choice by Morpheus.

This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember, all I’m offering is the truth – nothing more.

Of course, Neo takes the red pill, and finds out the disturbing, but liberating truth. Of course he does – he’s The One. But why not take the blue pill? Why not go back to cozy, safe, illusion? Of course, his illusion is the world in which we all live, so Aldus Huxley’s question would then apply to him as well.

The existentialist Camus puts it in the most extreme way:.

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.

Why should we carry on living at all? That would appear to be one way to free yourself from the problems and contradictions of life – to push the door marked exit.

In a way, I think Camus is wrong: this is almost a pre-philosophical question. How can you reason your way to whether life is worth living or not? It’s considered a foundational truth in Christianity that it was better for God to create the universe than not to: that it is better to be than not to be. I’m not sure you could ever logically argue to one of them or the other; it seems to be a pre-logical intuition. Surely it is something to be caught up in, seduced by, to celebrate? That seems to be the way to approach this – through myth and music and fine wine and good conversation and love and laughter, not through attempting to convince someone of it logically.

Huxley’s drug question seems to be to be answerable only the same way. To take a drug so that you only experience happy emotions is to turn part of yourself off. It’s a kind  of selective suicide. So perhaps the idea that life is about “being happy” is itself problematic, limited? I find the language of existentialism helpful here: how should I orient my life at the deepest level possible? If “being happy” is inadequate, then what exactly am I chasing after?

The conversation was at an Australian Council of Churches youth conference of some sort, back when I was involved in more formal expressions of church. I remember talking to this guy, who was a proper honest to God Trotskyite (because Communists still walked the earth in those days.) He was due to go to court at some point over the next few months because of some full-on act of civil disobedience like setting light to a police car. He was entirely sold out on not just the importance, but the possiblity of making a truly just society on earth. If only we could get the systems right, he seemed to be saying, then everything would be OK. It seemed attractive to me, at first. He had the glamour of the reveloutionary, a kind of Melbourne based Chez Guevara, and he really made me think. I believed in the importance of a just society – why I aren’t I out there with him, sticking it to The Man?

Having given it a little thought though, it occurred to me that, while it was important to have a just society, and that Jesus really does seem to have to prefer the poor to the rich, was it really enough? Let’s just say, I thought to myself, that it was possible to create a truly just society. So everyone would grow up with financial security, a roof over their heads, enough to eat, the chance to develop themselves and experience the good life. Well, I had all these things, and I wasn’t all that great. I wasn’t some joy filled wonder-child, I had girl problems, I worried about death, about meaning. And, ultimately, I wasn’t really all that great a person. Even though I’d had a pretty good upbringing in a very lucky culture, I was still somehow broken inside and unable to live up to my  better self.

To look at it another way, I thought, and still think, that the attempt to restructure the world, even if was possible to do that, would be inadequate. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is important to work for a just society – though I’m not convinced that any of the options currently on the table work amazingly well. I just don’t think it would solve some issues which are pressing to me personally.

The first issue is sin – our alienation from ourselves, each other, the world, and God. No matter how good the system is, people will always (always!) manipulate it for their own selfish ends. Even if we could come up with some universally approved system, it would still require people to run it, no matter what tools they use to do it. Paper forms or online system, it’s all the same.

And even if by some miracle, that didn’t happen, it wouldn’t address what is inside of me. It isn’t that I don’t know what I should do – I just don’t do it. No precisely calibrated rules will solve that  situation. I need transformation – I need an entirely new self which is somehow the real me, the me I was created to be, and I really can’t see how any legislative structure could possibly do that for me. Queen Elizabeth was right when she said that she “would not open a window into man’s souls.” External structures can only do so much, important as they are.

The other issue for me is that of meaning, purpose, art, love – all that good stuff. People can be transfixed  by the beauty of what they are trying to achieve, and make good art, find meaning and purpose. But they seem like side effects of the quest. If you actually got there, then all striving would be at an end. Shouldn’t I base my life on something which works no matter what the situation is? Do I really want to base my whole life on some quest which might very well turn out to be flawed? I feel bad for all those people who had devoted their lives to Communism, say, only to see the Soviet Union invading Czechoslovakia to put down the Prague Spring. And anyway, see above: if I want to dedicate my life to the ultimately worthwhile, then, important as justice is, I need more. Even members of an optimally just society will face Victor Frankl’s tragic triad of suffering, guilt, and death. Surely that is the ultimately important scenario I should be focussed on?

I think those two questions have focussed my search for how to live my life the most worthwhile way possible ever since. However, I wouldn’t want you to think it was all plain sailing. Next week I’m going to write about the existential crises in my life which are just as important as this more cheerful stuff, if not more so. It’s all very well to say stuff, it is how you live when it gets tough which is really interesting.

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

3 replies on “A Book and a Conversation”

Nice read mate. A couple of thoughts:
When I read Brave New World for the first time a hundred years ago, I was disturbed by Huxley’s descriptions of the Utopian society in his books. Soma (the drug you mention), wasn’t the only mechanism for creating happiness. It was the conditioning and one’s set position in society, and being repeatedly told that one’s role was the best role to have….and so on.
Interestingly I read the book again recently and actually found something a little attractive and compelling about such a society, don’t judge me. However, as you say, what do we lose or are we prepared to give up when we accept happiness in that shape?
On the note of accepting the status quo (my words:) ), I still choose to look for change. Hopefully not just wiping the white board. The world needs changing.

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