Fetching article, this. In a recent edition of the The Chronicle Review, philosopher John Kaag asks whether life is worth living. 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.
 John Kaag, “The Making of a Philosophy Professor,” in The Chronicle Review (Nov 30, 2012), B16.