How to Find the Meaning of Life

“I’ve never met someone so concerned about doing something meaningful,” someone told me the other day. He was surprised by me, but I found myself surprised by the comment–how on earth do so many people go through their day without constantly facing this question? Isn’t this the most obvious thing to be asking–what should I do right now, and why?

It’s true that obsessing about the meaning of your actions can catch you in a trap. You may spiral into doing nothing at all because nothing clears the hurdle of ‘meaningful’ for you. But there’s something strange about not even thinking of the meaning of our actions.

Life is not meant to be accepted as it comes to us, unquestioned. We must shoulder the responsibility of living for God’s glory, and this includes examining our mundane activities. We may be doing things because that’s just what people do, and not noticing what really should be done. So while it’s challenging for me to wrestle with this question, I think it’s worth wrestling with.

I’m not sure how other people go about their day, but here’s an example of how this question comes up daily for me. For example, I come home from work (or more accurately right now–school). What should I do? I’m faced with hours of time, time which is not empty time since there’s always a certain number of things that need to be done at some point in the near future, but there really is no indication of what to do when. I need to eat, but that could happen immediately or several hours from now. I could educate myself by reading a stimulating book, but I could always do that later. I could clean my house or do other chores, but I could always do that later. In fact, every activity could be done later, and is in fact nonessential in the moment. How, then, do I decide what is a priority? Certainly not on the basis of necessity.

This is the modern difference. In the past, our ancestors never faced this decision. Everything was necessary. Every action mattered for survival, so they wrestled less with the existential angst of the meaning of their actions. They didn’t have time to wrestle with it anyway, even if the thought occurred to them. And if the thought occurred the immediate answer was: my actions matter because otherwise I’d die.

Now, many of you may be Christians and therefore are now saying to me–yes, but don’t you know the ultimate meaning of life? Isn’t it to glorify God and to enjoy him forever? To which I wholeheartedly agree. Does this then mean my priority in every decision should be what is most spiritual? Not if you have a good understanding of a Christian life. A Christian life is not fundamentally a life of reading the Bible and doing nothing else. It is living in God’s creation. This involves deepening our knowledge of God, but also using his gifts and interacting with our environment. So it’s very hard to say anything in particular is not glorifying, unless it is of course obviously against God’s will.

In other words, while this clarifies my ultimate aim and puts urgency into my ability to choose well, it still leaves the decision about what practical actions I take moment-to-moment in my hands. And what I’m actually looking for is a relatively reliable method of making moment-to-moment decisions about what to do without having an existential crisis every time I need to decide.

In psychology they talk about heuristic techniques, which are simple shortcuts our mind takes so it doesn’t have to make a decision every single time. You don’t have to decide what you’re seeing with your eyes, because your mind has already decided it’s an apple. And so on. What I need is a decision-making heuristic, one that will give me a relatively good answer most of the time. And in fact, this is probably what most people have. This is probably why so many people around me don’t seem to worry about this very often. They’ve decided: fulfilling my role in my family makes my life meaningful, therefore I will do what’s expected of me in that role (clean the house, shovel snow, have fun as a family). Or, if I achieve this one thing in life, I will have achieved something recognizable and memorable that contributes to the world (becoming a doctor or starting a business). However, the difficulty comes in when you have the limitless ability to choose roles, but no requirement to choose any.

Another concept in psychology is the tyranny of choice. As mentioned above, in the past people may not have worried so much about what to do moment-to-moment. However, once we were presented with endless freedom, we did not in fact become happier. We became more anxious, because we constantly had to choose.

This is where I’m at–constantly facing a choice. Does this help to explain how a person could become obsessed with understanding meaning?

No one is given a free pass to do nothing (think of the Parable of the Talents–the one who buried his talent in the ground was chastised). We’re can’t excuse ourselves from action because we’re bewildered about what, precisely, we ought to do. That by itself is not reason enough. At the same time, we are charged to use our wisdom and not to choose our actions at random merely for the sake of doing something. Making a random choice is not really better than making no choice. Yet making a wise choice does not imply we’re responsible for making choices that avoid all possible pitfalls. We do have the ability to live free from the judgment of God after a choice does not go so well. However, this does not give much direction beforehand.

All the same, I don’t think it is useless that I am in this position. There is an idea that whatever problem annoys you the most may be a problem that you ought to work on. So I’m pondering this question–really, I have been working on it for years now. It seems to be one worth answering: when one is faced with an endless array of choices in one moment with no requirement to choose any of them, how does one make a wise choice? I do feel as if in general we tend to vanish into the “no choice” option, where we never attempt to progress (for example, remaining in our parents’ basements). But I believe life can be much richer than that.

 

Appendix: Priorities I’ve Tried to Use as Heuristics, Which the Book of Ecclesiastes Also Addresses

Social:

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” – Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

In practice, I tend to prioritize activities that involve other people. This obviously meets my social needs, but I also think it is upbuilding in that it helps me take the focus off myself and attempt to contribute to others’ lives. However, I’m not sure this should actually be the primary standard for prioritizing. I could always try to do activities that impact the greatest number of people for the better, but then I would never cook for myself or clean my own house. No, there is some value in doing menial chores even if no one knows you do them.

Pleasure:

“There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” – Ecclesiastes 2:24-25

Another approach is to just enjoy the goodness God has given to you in your life. Enjoy good wine, nice food and amazing sights. Pursue your interests with all your enthusiasm and see where they take you. This is a valid consideration in making a decision, but it can’t have the highest priority in absolutely every case. I’ve certainly been blessed through it though.

Achievement:

“So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot.” – Ecclesiastes 3:22

This one gives me the greatest sense of meaning and purpose. When I have a goal, such as teaching someone some aspect of English, or finishing a course in Theology, or leading a summer’s worth of camps, and then I achieve that goal, I feel fulfilled. I’m not entirely sure that just because I feel fulfilled it means I ought to continue use this as a priority, but it is worthwhile in life to have a goal. I’ve attempted to apply this in bigger areas of my life, such as my career, and achieved success, but the feeling of fulfillment does not last forever. In addition, failure is a common result as well, and meaning can come out of failure though we often try to avoid it. Lastly, deciding what goals to pursue is perhaps the most existential-crisis-inducing thing of all, because it is hard to justify one goal versus another.

Ecclesiastes is certainly about what to do with your limited days on earth, and whether human beings truly can choose one better way of living over another (especially in the face of the futility of life!)

 

It must be a combination of all these things. First, what you do must strengthen your life with God. Second, it will involve work–either a necessary work for survival, or the most obvious chore in front of you, or a task of such worth it outweighs the obvious chores (as many of us get caught up wiping spots off our kitchen cupboards rather than taking on bigger projects). Lastly, the joy of giving of ourselves to other people and interacting with other people will come into it, as well as the pure pleasure of living and enjoying the blessings of God. Perhaps this heuristic can be simplified, but it’s a start.

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Top Ten Works of Christian Fiction – What Are They?

The other day my fellow seminarians and I were discussing the lists of top ten Christian books you so often run across online, and how far too many of them feature only really recent books published in the last ten years—not to mention how these lists tend to skew towards whatever theological tradition the compiler is from. Many suggestions could be made to improve these types of lists, but here’s one: why do most of them neglect to list any Christian fiction?

The unfortunate implication of mostly-nonfiction lists is that Christians shouldn’t waste their time reading fiction. That Christian art does not matter. That while Christian fiction might be interesting, it never rises to the level of “classic.”

We agreed that if Christian art is to be rehabilitated from the sentimental trenches it has fallen into, good Christian art should be celebrated. So we set about to compose a list of the top ten works of Christian fiction.

However, we quickly realized why so few people attempt to create this list.

The Trouble with Defining Fiction

First, what is fiction? In the few Christian fiction lists that do exist, the list is filled out by poetry and allegory—for example, see this list which includes The Faerie Queen and Pilgrim’s Progress. Poetry and allegory are great forms of art, and Christian artists certainly have made great use of them. However, if someone asks you for a recommendation for good Christian fiction nowadays, they’d be very taken aback if you gave them poetry. Perhaps Christians should also work at rehabilitating the genres of poetry and allegory—but that’s an issue for another day. What works of Christian fiction exemplify greatness according to our modern expectations of what fiction is?

Google defines fiction as: “literature in the form of prose, especially short stories and novels, that describes imaginary events and people.” Okay, let’s stick with that definition.

Defining “Christian”

The next question is—what makes a work Christian?

If you look at the current state of Christian publishing, you’ll see the struggle to pinpoint what Christian fiction is. In order to make it abundantly clear a novel is Christian, Christian fiction tends to feature conversions, sermonizing, and praying. In addition, Christian publishers have a very strict list of what will not feature in any of their publications, a list that would surprise many authors in other areas of the publishing industry. All of these are strong signals that define “Christian” novels, and make these works more easily marketable to a general Christian audience.

There is nothing wrong with standards, or even some of the common Christian tropes—however, very little of what modern Christian publishing produces falls into the realm of “art.” There are perhaps a handful that are recognizable to a somewhat broad audience—Redeeming Love, by Francine Rivers, and Love Comes Softly, by Janette Oke, but beyond that most are quickly forgotten. If Christians are serious about producing art that brings glory to the name of God, it is worth considering what precisely is the gap between the current Christian fiction being produced, and what might be called classic Christian fiction. What could be promoted, or should be promoted? What areas of our storytelling need elevating?

A deeper exploration of modern Christian fiction would need another post.

The main point behind all this discussion is that these concrete Christian signifiers so common in mass-market Christian fiction are not the only way to define Christian fiction, and perhaps not even the best way. Does a Christian work need to be about Christian characters? If it involves, or features, non-Christians, do these non-Christians have to convert by the end?

Take Lord of the Rings, for example. While widely accepted as a Christian novel today, it is understandable why Christians were hesitant to embrace it at first. Its Christian themes are not displayed at the surface level, the gospel story merely reenacted by its characters. No, in fact the closest equivalent of ‘God’ in Tolkien’s world is not even mentioned in Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit.

Well, let’s look at another angle. Should a Christian work be required to mention the name of God?

It seems pretty clear a work does not have to say the word “God” to speak of God—think only of the biblical book of Esther. Esther clearly demonstrates the power of God and his ability to turn all events to the good of His people, without explicitly spelling out its message in a little sermon at the end. Now, Esther is a biblical book by an inspired author, so fiction authors should hesitate before attempting to replicate such a feat. However, it does indicate strong Christian messages can be brought across without sermonizing.

This, by the way, is part of the reason I would argue Pride and Prejudice counts as a Christian novel, but I’ll leave that argument aside for today.

I’ll hesitantly point to Christian themes as a necessary ingredient, with full recognition of the difficulty involved in describing the Christians themes of a particular work. In addition, we should avoid lumping just any story where someone sacrifices themselves for another person as “Christian,” even though it parallels Christ’s sacrifice for believers. There’s got to be a deeper understanding of Christianity present than that.

So, if a work of Christian fiction need not feature Christian characters, reenact the gospel, or mention the name of God, what makes a work of fiction Christian?

“Christian” Authors

Well, maybe the author does. This is a good question—should Christian art be made by Christians? The answer is usually, of course! But think a little more. First is the difficulty of discerning a particular author’s precise beliefs. Take, for example, the debate over precisely how “Christian” Charles Dickens was (or really, any author who does not specifically spell out their beliefs). Or take George MacDonald, a strong influence on Lewis and Tolkien but who held some views that many Christians would declare unorthodox (at the very least). Determining the level of Christianity is difficult, and perhaps is beyond what the compiler of such a list should really be doing anyway.

Second, there is the recognition that non-Christian works of art can echo similar themes. If two works both condemn the folly of pride, for example, and point to man’s inability to improve himself, what difference does it make that one is written by a Christian and one is not? Well, I’d argue it does make a difference—in order to fully interact with a Christian worldview an author must understand it intimately. However, while drawing up a list many people will certainly put forward general works that agree strongly with a Christian message, and a compiler would have to consider what precisely the difference between Christian and non-Christian is.

I’d argue Christian themes discussed in the above section matter more than authorship—if an author’s level of commitment is doubtful, his work should be judged on its merits and his faith given the benefit of the doubt (especially if strong and theologically rich Christian messages come through his work). However, since we are looking for Christian themes that are not merely surface-level but deep, we want the authors to not describe themselves as unbelievers. To work with Christian themes at a deep level requires strong knowledge and some level of commitment to the faith. So this is my suggestion towards a solution here.

A Few More Issues:

There’s three more issues that occur to me when coming up with a list of Christian fiction:

First, there is difficulty of reading all the potential works to decide on the list. This takes time, but is essential to do a proper job. Preferably this would be done by more than one person, so it does not dissolve into merely one’s personal preferences.

Second, there are many theological traditions in Christianity, and sometimes great works from one tradition are essentially unknown in other traditions. For example, I know there have been many Roman Catholic fiction authors besides Tolkien, but I have never read any. This feeds into the related question of how well-known a work should be to be included on a list for all Christians everywhere.

Third, should Christian fiction be comforting or troubling? Should it pose issues without answering? I think here of the well-known novel, Silence by Shūsaku Endō, which I have never read. Its conclusions are perhaps more troubling than uplifting. But to narrow Christian art to merely what is uplifting does run the risk of throwing us back into sentimental territory again.

In conclusion, I think much of the above issues would be cleared up if we had a good of idea of what “art” is, and what makes art “Christian.”

The Start of a List

After stating all these problems—I still think such a list should be made! I’m open to suggestions for what to put on it. Here’s a few obvious ones to start:

Lord of the Rings

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

The Brothers Karamazov

This is a sad-looking list that I hope will greatly expand over time. Drawing up such a list would be a multi-year process that would take serious study. However, if Christians are serious about glorifying God with the works of their hands, I believe such a study is worthwhile to do! Let us celebrate Christian art that points us towards our Creator.

 

Note: We also agreed that filling a list of ‘top ten’ with books all by the same author is not especially fair or helpful.

 

 

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Augustine on a Drunk Homeless Man–Augustine Again

I’m so glad I’ve been able to pick up Augustine’s Confessions again, and came across this passage of Augustine’s reflections on his encounter with a drunk homeless man. I love how it doesn’t go in the expected, modern direction (why is the man homeless? should the man be drunk?), but swerves into profound spiritual reflection instead:

My heart was panting with these anxieties, and boiling with the feverishness of consuming thoughts. For, passing through one of the streets of Milan, I observed a poor beggar, then, I suppose, with a full belly, joking and joyous: and I sighed, and spoke to the friends around me, of the many sorrows of our frenzies; for that by all such efforts of ours, as those wherein I then toiled dragging along, under the goading of desire, the burden of my own wretchedness, and, by dragging, increased it, we yet looked to arrive only at that very joyousness that the beggar-man had arrived before us, who should never perchance attain it.

For what he had obtained by means of a few begged pence, the same was I plotting for by many a toilsome turning and winding; the joy of a temporary happiness. For he verily had not the true joy; but yet I with those my ambitious designs was seeking one much less true. And certainly he was joyous, I anxious; he void of care, I full of fears.

But should any ask me, had I rather be merry or fearful? I would answer merry. Again, if he asked had I rather be such as he was, or what I then was? I should choose to be myself, though worn with cares and fears; but out of wrong judgment; for, was it the truth? For I ought not to prefer myself to him, because more learned than he, seeing I had no joy therein, but sought to please men by it; and that not to instruct, but simply to please.

Away with those then from my soul who say to her, “It makes a difference whence a man’s joy is. That beggar-man joyed in drunkenness; you desired to joy in glory.” But even as his was no true joy, so was the glory I sought no true glory: and it overthrew my soul more. He that very night should digest his drunkenness; but I had slept and risen again with mine, and was to sleep again, and again to rise with it, how many days, Thou, God, knowest.

But “it doth make a difference whence a man’s joy is.” I know it, and the joy of a faithful hope lies incomparably beyond such vanity. Yea, and so was he then beyond me: for he verily was the happier; not only for that he was thoroughly drenched in mirth, I disemboweled with cares: but he, by fair wishes, had gotten wine; I, by lying, was seeking for empty, swelling praise.”

  • Augustine, Confessions, Book VI*

I started Confessions last year and look forward to finishing it! This ancient man has a reputation for a reason, and his words hit us in the heart even today.

*Note: I simplified a few of the more difficult phrases in the translation I happened to find, so look up the full version if you want to quote this 🙂

 

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Contentment Vs. Ambition–Let’s Examine Each More Closely

This is the second post examining ambition vs. contentment, or, in other words— If there’s something we really, really want, should we teach ourselves contentment because we don’t have it, or develop our God-given talents in order to achieve it? I promised I would examine both contentment and ambition in more depth today. But before I start I’d like to emphasize my exploration should in no way be authoritative, though I hope it’s helpful.

Contentment

First, let’s look at contentment.

If contentment is something you struggle with, there are thousands of resources out there to help you develop a spirit of contentment within yourself. If man’s purpose is to glorify God, as mentioned in the previous post, then we obviously won’t be content if we focus on anything other than him. What I want to explore here is whether, knowing that we are required to be content, we should ever try to achieve anything. After all, doesn’t the drive to achieve (or ambition) stem from discontent? Usually ambition is an attempt to fill our lives on our own without God’s help.

Besides this, we must take seriously the well-known biblical passages on contentment. There are of course Paul’s well-known words about being content in all circumstances, but there is also this little gem from 1 Thessalonians 4:

“Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters… to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”

This is a very modest aim!* All a Christian needs to do is live a quiet life and work with their hands. This should be very comforting for anyone who feels guilt over not running a mega-ministry, or giving up everything they own to go to the ends of the earth to spread the gospel. It’s quite clear that not every Christian is required to do the same thing Paul did, and that in fact the vast majority of Christians are just supposed to be ordinary. In other words, despite our culture insisting big ambitions are absolutely necessary, and even some well-meaning Christians trying to spur you on to do ‘great things for God,’ it is ok to live a quiet life.

This is a great relief to me, when I consider all the big, world-changing things I am not achieving.

So it is ok to live quietly–but it is ok to want to do more than that?

Well, one step to figuring this out is to recognize that too much emphasis on contentment leads to determinism.

You’re still single? God must not want you to be married. You’re poor? God must not want you to be rich. Don’t try for anything. Just wait peacefully. Don’t try to change. Everything you’re meant to have will just fall into your lap.

Clearly this is an unbiblical message.

There are a few caveats to the idea of contentment that help us avoid determinism. When Paul talks of being content in all circumstances, he was working towards a goal, and the circumstances occurred while he was attempting to achieve it. Perhaps it is not the goal you’re supposed to avoid having, but the discontent over the difficulties that spring up on the way to the goal. It may in fact be that the goal is not one you’re meant to achieve, but contentment in all circumstances includes contentment during the deep disappointment that hits when you don’t achieve your goal. In other words—strive! Keep striving! But be ready to be content with what the Lord brings you.

Choosing what to strive for still involves difficulties, especially when the striving involves sacrificing time or money, but I’ll discuss this under ‘ambition.’ But no one needs to be ashamed over a little goal. And there must be some big goals that can fit in a Christian life as well.

Another caveat is that contentment in Scripture, including contentment in the passage in 1 Thessalonians 4, is mentioned in relation to suffering. It is an approach to situations that are not in Christians’ control. When life is hard, especially when life is hard as a result of being Christians, Christians are to be content. So the intent is not to say, ‘don’t be ambitious,’ but rather, ‘I know you’re suffering, and this is where you can find comfort.’ These passages also emphasize that no circumstances of life ever prevent us from being saved by God—whether in chains or free (1 Corinthians 7), whether rich or poor—no one needs to be discontent because their circumstances prevent them from truly being Christians. If such circumstances did exist they would surely be reason for despair—but thanks be to God there are none!

We can be content because our circumstances do not prevent our salvation.

We all suffer in some way, but in comparison to many Christians in the Bible we are faced with an endless array of choices—we can choose a career, we can choose a spouse, we can choose where we want to live, we can choose to travel, we can choose our level of education. It’s not a surprise the Bible doesn’t predict that we in the future would be faced with this array of choice, and advise us on how to wrap our minds around the dizzying display. And therefore it is not a surprise when we try to apply biblical principles to our choices instead of our sufferings, and end up at the conclusion that we should never desire anything, and never try to achieve anything.

But rather than arriving at this conclusion and then ignoring it, we should think about whether this is really correct.

It’s one thing to be content when we don’t have a choice in our situation. But should we be content when we do?

I think when we recognize our desires, we can at least try to approach them in a good way, and perhaps that can work within our overall contentment. This might be one way to approach them:

When we face desires, the first thing to realize is that every single desire in us is not a pure desire, but rather stained with sin. Even the desire to preach God’s word has a selfish inclination running through it. Yet when we examine our desires we can see many of them are not good or bad on their own. If we desire more education, for example, knowledge in and of itself is a gift from God. So after recognizing our desires and evaluating their appropriateness, we can separate out our own sinful impulses. What is wrong about our desire for this thing? And do we in fact possess any impulse to using this to glorify God, or is it only for ourselves? Obviously if it is a good or neutral thing but we really have no inclination to use it for God, we should reconsider before pursuing it.

Next, we must consider the desire in the light of the reality that we will never be satisfied. If this desire is fulfilled, we still will not have enough. Does that change how much we want it? If once we have achieved this thing we still find the same discontent bubbling up inside, will the thing we achieve still be a worthwhile thing?

Lastly, passivity and contentment are not the same thing. I’m not sure how much ambition is acceptable, but the solution to wrong ambition is not passivity. Keep this in mind, and we’ll move on to exploring ambition.

Ambition

Next, let’s examine ambition.

Ambition can be defined as trying to fulfill your life on your own, but I think it’s a very limited definition if you define it only in that way. You can have “a strong desire to achieve something” while still knowing your ultimate fulfillment comes from God. But there is still a problem.

Often when we have ambition we look at what we’re good at and what we really enjoy doing. We’re incredible hockey players, or skilled artists, or wonderful musicians… or we have a real touch for soothing little babies or something and would love to have a family. And our ambition becomes doing it ‘professionally.’ Using what we’re good at in order to survive, rather than using a skill we have very little passion for in order to survive.

But is that what God calls us to do?

On one hand, we have the parable of the talents, where servants are given talents in order to use, and one is punished for not using it. We often cling to the idea that we’re given our incredible artistic skill, or entrancing musical ability, for a reason. It would be wrong not to use it. And it probably would be wrong to look at one of our gifts and pretend not to have it.

However. We know that in order to live off our painting or singing or athletic ability we must be very good. We need to devote time and energy, and often money, to getting to be very good. And even if we are very good, we may not achieve what we desire. And we are not blind to the fact that our time and energy and money can very easily achieve other worthwhile things for God if only we just became accountants. So should we chase our ambition, or try to reorient our desire?

A few people do have the assurance in their hearts that painting is what they have been put on this earth to do, and this assurance gives them the confidence to make the sacrifices. But most of us are not sure. We look at the poor as we buy expensive paint brushes and wonder if we should be donating to charity instead. Or if we should be earning a higher income so our families don’t experience so many financial problems. Or if we really should be living off the kindness of others as we pursue our dreams.

What are we justified in sacrificing when we choose one path of life over another?

It is true that the word ‘ambition’ is often paired with the word ‘selfish’ in Scripture—see James 3:16, Philippians 2:3, and 2 Corinthians 12:20. This does not mean ambition is always selfish, but it surely indicates selfishness frequently accompanies ambition. And we all have seen people treat others horribly in their drive to what they want. More than that, we know ambition often stems from our comparison with others, instead of focusing on God, and the selfish ambition the Bible refers to is often competition between people to raise themselves over each other. We fail to recognize our measurement is not ‘beating out’ other people, but rather figuring out what matters to God. So any desire we have to achieve must not stem from a desire to be superior to other people (or a fear of falling behind them).

There is actually at least one time ambition is used positively (in the English translations, at least). It’s in Romans 15, where Paul says, “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel.” And of course ambition to spread the gospel cannot be viewed negatively. But if that is the only kind of ambition that is ‘okay,’ then it is really only pastors and evangelists who should have any drive for anything at all. Or perhaps ordinary people who share the gospel in their spare time should view that as their ‘real’ work. But again, this seems too limiting.

One reason why vocations such as minister, evangelist, missionary, etc. start to look so attractive is because they simplify this question so much. You’re doing your work for God. Of course any sacrifice is worth it. However, Protestants have historically emphasized the worth of the work of ordinary believers—we are all working for God. We don’t need everyone doing only one job, but rather we need many different types of people for both the church and the world to function. In addition, someone can desire to be a pastor out of selfish ambition just as easily as someone might desire to be a painter. But it is much harder to justify your sacrifices for painting than for preaching. Christianity hasn’t really developed a framework for choosing vocations other than the spiritual vocations.

If Protestantism is serious about the worth of ordinary vocations, it would be helpful to devote more time to develop this sort of framework.

Now, we saw above that striving for something is not necessarily contradicting contentment, and most of us would agree that we can have ambition for a wider range of things than only spreading the gospel. When God put man in creation, he did intend for man to do more than just preach. Man was to work in creation, and enjoy creation as well. So less practical ambitions do appear to fit into Christianity better when you keep this in mind.

To sum up ambition, I’d argue that while it is easy to cast ambition negatively it is not always negative. More work needs to be done on what gives value to certain ambitions and not others, and this goes a long way to explaining why, when an ambition seems hard to justify, we fall back on ‘be content.’ But rather than just falling back on ‘be content,’ we need to seriously judge all the ways humans are meant to live in creation and use creation.

Putting Ambition and Contentment Together

Contentment does not require passivity. Contentment does not require living life without a real-life, non-spiritual goal. But contentment is the required response in the face of suffering, in the face of disappointment when we don’t reach our goals, and in the face of our continual dissatisfaction.

Ambition is a negative thing when it is centered on self-fulfilment and becoming greater than others around us. It is not always negative. A good ambition should fit in with our central goal to bring glory to God, but this does not automatically mean we must all only aim for spiritual goals. However, more exploration should be done on the worth of earthly goals, and how to choose which earthly goals to pursue—especially as each one involves sacrificing other things.

All of these considerations I’ve gone through above will not give us an easy formulaic answer every time. I wish it could. But perhaps it narrows the perimeter of the problems, and removes a few of the pitfalls that are easy to fall into.

I hope each one of you does manage to chart that narrow path between ambition and contentment as you go through life.

 

Two Questions for Further Consideration:

These are two questions I was not able to answer, which either someone else can study more, or I will revisit if I come to new insight 🙂

1.) How contentment can fit with our modern opportunities to change things for the better—how are they compatible?

2.) How does one know when an ambition is worth pursuing and sacrificing for?

 

*(Though I must admit it is still very intimidating to not be dependent on anybody, and to win the respect of outsiders. These are hard enough things to achieve, and I am with all of you struggling to stand on your own two feet.)

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Contentment Vs. Ambition–Should Christians Be Content or Ambitious?

I’m going to try a different type of article today, and perhaps a few more times in the upcoming year. I’m going to explore the tension between two valuable concepts, and see if there’s a way to reduce the tension a little. There are two opposite messages our culture tells us, and which Christianity repeats without much additional judgement being applied to these messages. First, we’re told to be grateful for everything we have, since no one gets everything they want anyway. Christianity attaches Paul’s words to ‘be content’ to this idea. Second, we’re told to run after our dreams, and try everything to achieve them. Christianity then attaches the idea of ‘using our talents’ to this concept. But the trouble comes in when you need to decide which one outweighs the other. When are you justified in abandoning one blessing to reach for another?

Actually, the fundamental question is this: If there’s something we really, really want, should we teach ourselves contentment because we don’t have it, or develop our God-given talents in order to achieve it?

In practice, we answer this question in all sorts of contradictory ways. If someone longs to get married, we don’t usually insist that they must be content to be single, but rather encourage them to keep trying to meet someone. But if someone is bored with their job, we talk about how no job is perfect and even if someone has their dream job they still have very boring things they have to do. Now, there are people who would approach these situations with different advice, but the point still remains—we don’t consistently value ambition over contentment, or contentment over ambition. But what criteria should we use to apply one of these concepts in one situation, but not another? This not a question I’ve ever seen a detailed answer to yet.

When we identify something we want, what practical ways should we approach our desire?

Let’s explore a few ways of answering this question.

First, the goal of our lives, as Christians have declared over and over again, is to glorify God. “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever,” as the Westminster Shorter Catechism says.

But how does this answer our question? We can reply in two ways: first, that it is glorifying to God to work for something and achieve it, or second, that God has already given us more than we’ve ever asked for, and that to ask for a different life is not glorifying to him. So let’s agree on the central concept that whatever way we take must be glorifying to God, but understand that from a human perspective we can be utterly confused as to what precisely is most glorifying.*

Second, some desires are easily identified as good or bad, but the vast majority are not, at least not at first glance. Both marriage and singleness are approved of in the Bible, so both choices can be glorifying to God. And if someone wants to become a policeman instead of an electrician, there would be no grounds to argue one job is more good or evil than the other.

In other words, the most knee-jerk responses to the question of contentment vs. ambition do not provide much direction. This is frustrating. However, like in most life situations, there is not an easily applied formula to use, but there are certainly principles that help us navigate the foggy paths of life.

Another way to answer this question is to look at each of these concepts—contentment and ambition—and evaluate their value. I will do that in Part 2. This post is already lengthening quickly!

I’d like to end this post by pointing out the right balance between ambition and contentment matters to me personally. I’m sure it is directly practical to many others as well. As the New Year approaches, you start to wonder what you should direct your energy and talents towards. And to be honest, I struggle with ambition. So much of what culture tells me I should be doing with my life—earning lots of money! changing the world by campaigning for something or starting an organization! proving women’s value by becoming powerful and prominent!—I struggle to summon up much enthusiasm for.

However, I struggle with contentment too. Lack of ambition does not equal contentment, because you do want your life to be meaningful. You think if only you could change a few things in your life, you would be happy, because your life would be directed to something bigger than just satisfying yourself. But lack of contentment is not a good thing—it is undeniable that we are commanded to be content.

Beyond that, when I examine my desires for what I would have enthusiasm to pursue, it is something either outside my control, or something that is rather unwise to pursue. This little summary makes ambition sound rather negative, and I am sure it is not in every case. So I look forward to tomorrow when I will explore contentment and ambition more deeply! UPDATE: Part 2 is here.

 

*This is not to deny that as one grows in their spiritual maturity, they gain a better understanding of what is glorifying to God. Spiritual maturity helps enormously in life choices. However, I just mean to say this is not a trump card that makes everything clear in every situation. It is deeply frustrating to be told you should know what to do when you actually don’t. Especially when no further advice is provided on what you should supposedly already know.

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Is Science Superior to Art? (Is That Why Kuyper Wants Theology to be ‘Science’?)

It’s easy to bemoan the fall of Theology, from being the ‘Queen of Sciences’ to merely being a subsection of the Religious Studies department (if it has a place at universities at all). For example, R. C. Sproul laments, “in the classical curriculum, theology is the queen of the sciences and all other disciplines are her handmaidens. In the modern curriculum man is king and the former queen is relegated to a peripheral status of insignificance.”*

Now, why lament this? Is it because ‘science,’ as we conceive of it today, is so distinguished that we want to associate theology with it, and more than that, assert theology’s dominance over it?

No one should assert theology as the queen of science because they want to rescue theology from falling into the realm of ‘art.’ ‘Science’ is not superior to ‘art.’ It is of a fundamentally different character. Theology falls into the realm of science (according to the older, more full definition of science–science as ‘knowledge orderly arranged’) not because science is superior, but because of the character of theology.

Obviously, Kuyper has a quote on this: (Yep, still reading his Principles of Sacred Theology):

The theologians who, depressed by the small measure of respect cherished at present by public opinion for theological study, seeks favor with public opinion by loudly proclaiming that what he studies is science too, forfeits thereby his right to the honourable name of theologian.

Suppose it were demonstrated that Theology is no science, but that, like the study of music, it is called to enrich our spiritual life, and the consciousness of that life, in an entirely different way, what would this detract from its importance? Does Mozart rank lower than Edison, because he did not work enchantments, like Edison, with the data of the exact sciences?

The oft-repeated attempt to exclude Theology from the company of the science, and to coordinate it, as something mystical, rather like the world of sounds, was in itself entirely praiseworthy, and has commanded more respect from public opinion in general than the scholastic distinctions. If thus it should be shown that Theology has no place in the organism of science, it would not lower it in the least, even as, on the other hand, Theology would gain no merit whatever from the fact (if it be proved) that it has its rank among the sciences.

In no case may Theology begin with renouncing its own self-respect. And those theologians who are evidently guilty of this, and who, being more or less ashamed of Theology, have tried, by borrowing the scientific brevet, to put it forth in new forms, have been punished for their cowardice. For the non-theological science has compelled them to cut out the heart of Theology, and to transform it into a department of study which shall fit into the framework of naturalistic science.

Hence we definitely declare that our defense of the scientific character of Theology has nothing in common with this questionable effort. No Calvinist takes part in the renunciation of our character as theologians. And now to the point.

Oh, Kuyper! Wasn’t that already your point? 😀

In other words, we can bemoan the demotion of theology to a lowly sub-discipline in academia, but not because it has been categorized under the heading of “the arts.” The heading is not the problem. Arts are not less important.

For Kuyper theology is science because science is the study of order, and the very character of theology is knowledge of an orderly God. That’s it. Art uses materials–words, clay, paint, etc–to generate something new. This is legitimate and absolutely wonderful, and human beings were created to do this. But the character of this art is incredibly different from the character of theology. In theology you study what’s already there.

I love how theology gains no rank in Kuyper’s thought from being either art or science. Neither art nor science has to prove its own worth, nor do they grant more value to theology by including theology under its umbrella. No, theology has its own self-respect.

So we have the freedom to just let theology be what it is. And the freedom to respect both art and science, without elevating the contributions of Mozart over Edison, or Edison over Mozart, as if that was the controversy that really mattered.

 

*The Heart of Reformed Theology, by R.C. Sproul

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Kuyper Encounters Difficulties – Subjectivity Weighs In…

Principles of Sacred Theology continues to fascinate me, despite the reality of heavy schoolwork weighing in.

In my last post I explained the amazing claim that Abraham Kuyper made about theology–that out of the chaos of theological knowledge, order could be found. A unified order. In fact, it is the responsibility of people to find this order, and to work out this framework to rest theological knowledge in.

The obvious objection to any claim that a study of theology would discover an objective system rising up is–well, if an objective system of theology is so obvious, why on earth do we have thousands of competing systems of theology? Hasn’t practically every church, and every era of history, come up with their own opinion on how it all ‘works’?

Now, I half-expected Kuyper to just skate over this difficulty. The system shows itself to anyone who just looks at the chaos of knowledge systematically enough, he might have said. But no. He faces it head on. He treats his study of theology with thoroughness. And as a reader, I follow him half-expecting to fall into gaping theoretical holes in his thought, and discover he has seen the holes before me and wants to build guardrails around them.

Having read too many popular theological works, the peace of mind of being guided by an experienced hand is too reassuring for me to be able to put it into words.

Kuyper grants that thousands of streams of theologies exist. He grants that subjectivity so underlies all of our ideas of what we’re actually studying that any communal One Theology is impossible.

But does this subjectivity completely remove any hope for discerning any objective truth? That is what he explores next.

Now, for any postmodern thinkers out there who believe the twentieth century was, in fact, the first one to take seriously the perils of subjectivity–well, Kuyper certainly knows what effect subjectivity has on his work:

“Every theologian, therefore, knows that neither he himself, nor the stream of history in which he moves, are able to make an all-sided and complete exhibition of the object of his investigation.”

Ah, so subjectivity does exist then? The context of the writer’s history may actually impact his work–impact any hope of finding a ‘neutral’ theology?

Kuyper then, astonishingly, goes on to describe his viewpoint. I say astonishingly because I’ve always assumed laying out one’s viewpoint was a recent development, stemming from postmodernism. To talk about one’s perspective is important because one takes for granted that one’s perspective does, in fact, affect one’s work. However, Kuyper also lays out his individual perspective right there for the reader to see, long before academics insisted it was a requirement to do so.*

What does this mean, then? Has Kuyper given up on objectivity in the study of theology altogether? No, rather, he lays it out because he wants to argue this background is exactly what leads him to discovering order in theology. What he really means is that he’s separating objectivity from neutrality.

He’s not going to try sum up every theological opinion under the sun, because to do so he would inevitably be bringing his own opinion to his summary. He’s not going to dig around in every theological system to find fundamental truths common to all of them, because whatever he came up with would not, in fact, be a common system but rather ANOTHER system (his own system), ready to continue to compete endlessly with the others. No. He believes an objective order exists, but it not to be found by remaining neutral.

So he lays out his viewpoint. And he’s not neutral about how it leads to truth.

He unapologetically believes his viewpoint–Reformed Theology–has, as one of its inherent strengths, the ability to frame theology in such a way that it can be studied systematically and ‘scientifically’:

“[Kuyper’s declaration of his viewpoint] intends to make it clearly known, that he himself cannot stand indifferently to his personal faith, and to his consequent confession concerning the object of Theology, and therefore does not hesitate to state it as his conviction that the Reformed Theology with respect to this has grasped the truth most firmly.”

Now, I know enough about Kuyper to know a little about what he’s getting at (and which I’ll need to read the rest of the book to understand more fully)–what Kuyper will argue for is the necessity of first starting from a starting point of faith when studying theology, and secondly, starting from the Scriptures as the fundamental principle for studying theology. In this quote, he is declaring that he is unapologetic about his Reformed viewpoint because he knows the Reformed viewpoint values learning about theology in faith from Scripture. And he is convinced that starting with faith and learning from scripture is the only way to find the order that must exist in the chaos of theological knowledge.

Now, there may be quibbles about these two points he makes. I still have to read more, so I’ll leave them lie there for now.

Anyway, Kuyper talks about his subjective background because he believes that this system is the one that possesses the values that will lead to objective order. Ah, maybe there’s something in that. Maybe if we believe in the existence of objective truth (out there somewhere–in our humanness incredibly difficult to find and articulate), we could also believe in the existence of an objective viewpoint. And while it might be right to say an objective viewpoint can never be achieved by a human, there may in fact be a sliding scale of ‘better’ viewpoints in contrast to ‘worse’ ones.

This sounds incredibly audacious–to line up viewpoints according to how objective they are. How would they be judged? But maybe this is an idea to wrestle with for a while.

 

Appendix: Kuyper himself on how he ended up with Reformed Theology as his viewpoint:

“The author does not hesitate to say frankly that in the writing of this work he occupies the Calvinistic view-point… He is no Calvinist by birth. Having received his training in a conservative-supernaturalistic spirit, he broke with faith in every form when a student at Leyden, and then cast himself into the arms of the barest radicalism. At a later period, perceiving the poverty of this radicalism, and shivering with the chilling atmosphere which it created in his heart, he felt attracted first to Determinism, and then to the warmth of the Vermittelungs-theologie. But if this warmed his heart, it provided no rest for his thought. In this Vermittelungs-theologie there is no stability of starting-point, no unity of principle, and no harmonious life-interpretation on which a world-view, based on coherent principles,
can be erected. In this state of mind and of heart he came in contact with those descendants of the ancient Calvinists, who in the Netherlands still honor the traditions of the fathers; and it astonished him to find among these simple people a stability of thought, a unity of comprehensive insight, in fact a world-view based on principles which needed but a scientific treatment and interpretation to give them a place of equal significance over against the dominant views of the age.”

 

 

*This assumption is based on my education–I don’t mind seeing evidence to the contrary if there’s any.

 

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Bringing Order to Chaos–Can Human Achieve Actual True Knowledge?

You may’ve expected my next post to continue with Augustine, and I certainly would like to get back to Augustine, but since I currently am attending seminary to sort out the tangle of thoughts in my head about theology, I may blog about several different Christian classics first, before getting back to dear Augustine.

Now consider theology–would you consider it crazy, or maybe presumptuous, to argue there are basic underlying principles of the subject that naturally appear if you investigate it enough?

It’s utterly outdated to talk like that in the modern world. After all, are there not thousands of denominations, each with their own strongly held beliefs that they argue are deeply rooted in the Bible? How can anyone argue for any principles of theology at all? Are we not all groping in the dark, all equally as likely to be correct about some things and wrong about others, and all equally without hope of putting our beliefs into any kind of concrete order?

Ah, this is why it is so refreshing to read a book that says no, no, no. There is not chaos, only order, and it is the mission of humanity to seek it out. This is what Abraham Kuyper argues in his classic Principles of Sacred Theology, written in 1898.*

Now, the date gives a strong clue about the reason for his confidence. He belonged to the modernist era, when academics in general believed they could categorize all of human knowledge, and one day we’d achieve a full knowledge of our world. As the world revealed itself to be more and more complex, more and more people fell away from this idea. And as the disputes about the fundamental nature of reality multiplied, many people came to the conclusion that we cannot really ever know… And thus postmodernism entered the picture.

However, back to Kuyper, who was writing with confidence before postmodernism was born. He is the very exemplar of C.S. Lewis’s charge to read old books, because where can you find such confidence in humanity’s ability to gather knowledge, except in someone untainted by our atmosphere of postmodernist thought? There’s no explanations for why relativism doesn’t work. He doesn’t even consider anyone would argue for relativism. He just gets right to the point.

And his point is–humans should assume order is present in creation. If you accept a theology that states all creation is created by an orderly God, it naturally follows that we can find our way through the chaos of knowledge that lies before us. More than that, it is part of our goal as humans to bring order to chaos. Anything which first presents itself to us as chaos will possess an underlying order upon inspection.

Now, this still sounds kind of crazy, so I’ll let him expand on this thought:

“Here we merely state that in our bringing about of Encyclopedic order in the chaotic treasure of our knowledge, we are governed in two respects by a compulsory order which is separable from our thinking. First, because the treasure of knowledge which we obtain by our thinking does not originate first by our thinking, but exists before we think; and, on the other hand, because the knowledge to be arranged in order stands in relation to a world of phenomena which is independent of our thought…. Thus our human spirit is not to invent a certain order for our knowledge, but to seek out and to indicate the order which is already there.”

Astounding. As someone deeply bathed in postmodern thinking (which I truly do not regret, by the way), this is mind-blowing to hear. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is. It turns my brain around down an avenue of thinking I could have never entered otherwise. What if I did accept that we can bring a system to our knowledge? How would it change everything?

Because I have to admit, order does arises from nature, consistently. Not always the order we expect–when science discovers the planets rotating around the sun, for instance, or the crazy calculations involved in the theory of relativity (yet it can be described with equations, for some reason). Having our own previous fixed ideas about the order we should find does interfere with our ability to see what is already there, but even the craziness of what we discover fits into a framework. We can categorize knowledge of creation. We can quibbled about the interference of our subjectivity, our human bias, and its effect on categorization of knowledge, but to dismiss any scrap of information humans have ever arranged as a pretense of order is to give up on attaining knowledge entirely.

In other words, while postmodernism is incredibly useful to critique systems of knowledge, it is really only useful for tearing down, and not offering any solutions to replace what it has destroyed.

Then it occurred to me how chaotic our modern knowledge is–how Wikipedia is a maze compared to the encyclopedias of old, and how the internet (perhaps our greatest repository of human knowledge) is a sprawling mass of contradictory streams of information. Our guide through this mess is usually Google, but Google cannot be conceived as bringing true order to our chaos. We’ve allowed our enthusiasm for gathering knowledge to result in a sprawl we know how to wade into, but not how to organize it.

I’m not arguing we should return to the days of printed encyclopedias, which were out-of-date the day they hit the store shelves. However, as humanity, we should start the discussion about the nature of knowledge. We should consider bringing order to it. We reinvented how we stored knowledge, so maybe we can reinvent a new way to lay it all out. We might draw out connections between different disciplines that we gloss over right now. We might have ideas about what should be done, and start acting instead of just reacting the first search result on our screen.

Anyway. Just a thought.

 

*Note: In case you’ve never heard of Abraham Kuyper, or Principles of Sacred Theology, and do not believe it to be a classic–as far as I know, it is more well-known in European systematic theology studies, rather than North American ones, and originally was written in Dutch. Hope that helps! It’s fully available online here.

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Shocked by Augustine’s Confessions

Lately I’ve had the leisure to do some more quality reading, as I’ve been laid up with an injury, and I’ve found myself facing Augustine’s Confessions without an excuse. So I dove into it. And I was quite shocked—not by any of his confessions (so far), but how readable it is. You always imagine classics to be quite unreadable, which doesn’t really make any sense, because how could anything become a classic unless people read it? But anyway…

The best thing about the first few chapters (and I’ve only read the first few chapters so far) is all of Augustine’s questions. Instead of doing what most books do, which is pose a question (Why does a good God allow evil? etc.) and then answer it, Augustine just poses questions. Each chapter is just a block of questions directed towards God, and Augustine doesn’t even pretend he has answers to most of them. If he has part of an answer, or a thought about the answer, he’ll say it, but it’s not from a position of authority. His bits of answers are not presented as definitive. He just lets his mind go wild with wonder over God.

I’d give a few examples, but to baldly state the questions in my own words destroys his beautiful wording of them. I’ll just say one or two—for example, haven’t you ever wondered whether you have to know God first before you cry out to him, or if you can cry out to him in order to know him? And haven’t you ever wondered how a God who’s outside time, and created time, experiences time?

The unexpected thing about this is Augustine is such a revered figure in the church. He’s more or less the ancestor of most of the churches that exist. So much of Christian theology has roots that go back to his writings. So I expected him to present himself as an expert.

And it was refreshing because I haven’t read a book that admitted it didn’t have the answers for a long time. Most often people write books because they do think they have the answers. Or they write because they think people need the answers, so they cobble together some kind of explanation. They know their book won’t attract our precious divided attention if they don’t make bold claims.  Augustine shocked me because he’s not presenting himself as the pattern the church after him should follow, even though the church does. (At least, he doesn’t present that way in the first part of The Confessions.) If anyone has a right to make bold claims, it would be Augustine, of all writers.

The second really cool thing about The Confessions is that, unlike if I was the one asking the questions, Augustine is able to ask them without a trace of cynicism. He doesn’t resent God for not providing answers to them. Somehow Augustine is able to put down all his wonderment with the deepest humility, and in a fever of steadfast love. He’s asking because he loves God. He wonders because a person is obviously interested in the things they love.

I can only hope I present a similar attitude one day.

I’ve only just started The Confessions, so I might have a few different thoughts once I’ve gotten farther in I’m only on Book I, Chapter 7, so I’m sure you could easily catch up with me before I come up with anything more to say.

If someone had wanted me to read The Confessions before now (and I don’t get the feeling anyone really did, as it was rarely on recommended reading lists), they should not have described it as Augustine’s autobiography, or however else people describe the book. They should’ve said, “Here’s a guy who lived a couple thousand years ago, who has a mind that works just like yours.” It’s crazy to reach across the centuries and find a thought pattern that feels familiar.

And as for the unanswered questions? This is what Augustine says about them:

“Let [people] ask what it means, and be glad to ask: but they may content themselves with the question alone. For it is better for them to find you, God, and leave the question unanswered than to find the answer without finding you.”

 

UPDATE: An updated version of this post is available at the Reformed Perspective!

 

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Is Out of the Silent Planet a Christian Classic?

Is Out of the Silent Planet a Christian classic? Its author, C.S. Lewis is certainly well-known as a popular Christian writer, but his ‘Space Trilogy’—of which Out of the Silent Planet is the first—is not mentioned as often as The Chronicles of Narnia, or even several of his nonfiction works. Is the book neglected because its quality is considered inferior to The Chronicles? Is its message too dated? Or do some of its messages, despite being delivered by a Christian author, make Christians uncomfortable?

Or perhaps it’s mere happenstance that this work is not as well-known?

I already reviewed Out of the Silent Planet on my main blog, harmamaesmit.com. But as I want to give this section of my web presence a stronger emphasis on the Christian writings out there, I thought I’d address a few of my thoughts on the Christian messages in C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet here. If you’re interested in the original review, you can read it here.

So, it is too challenging, too dated, or inferior quality? Let’s dive in and look.

Too Challenging?

How often do Christian authors tackle concepts like what ‘sinless’ creation might be like, what a pre-fall society might be like, or what might be the religious beliefs of alien peoples? No, if you briefly glance through the racks of Christian fiction today, you’ll find a lot of thoughts on the ‘moment of conversion,’ and how people get to that point in their lives. You might possibly see stories addressing how Christians live through difficult circumstances. You’ll see a lot of focus on romantic relationships, and a brief treatment of how Christianity views such relationships. But deep theological concepts, presented fictionally? No, not very common.

Of course, to present ‘sinless’ creatures is incredibly risky. Any author is, of course, sinful—so likely anything anyone writes would be skewed and inaccurate in some way. However, does this mean there is no point to be made about sinlessness, or pre-fall creation? It’s a challenge for only the best writers to take on, but Out of the Silent Planet proves that such an experiment can teach us something. It can reveal our own arrogance and sense of superiority in a surprising and powerful way.

I sincerely hope this not the main reason this book is overlooked. If so, it points to a towering problem in the modern world of Christian fiction in general—an unwillingness to tackle big idea and work out ALL of our faith with fear and trembling.

Too Dated? Its Critique of Modernism and Why This is Still Relevant

The second reason might be that its strongest theme springs from the context of the time period it was written in, almost to the point that it is ‘a product of its time.’ The theme—that cold, objective scientific study cannot describe the full joy, beauty and thrill of creation, and can even lead to outright blindness to joy, beauty and thrills if it’s too strictly adhered to—is critiquing modernism. It’s directly addressing the modernist idea that science would discover everything about the world and solve all of humanity’s problems. This impulse is still around today, but it was even stronger in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were very optimistic about the benefits solid objective study would bring humanity. But society today in general is more cynical and more postmodernist, and it’s no wonder, seeing how some scientific products (the atom bomb, for example) were not all clearly benefits to humanity.

In other words, to argue against modernist optimism hardly seems necessary, as our culture whole-heartedly agrees with cynicism.

C.S. Lewis ably critiques extreme forms of modernism here without anticipating the ways this philosophy would morph into postmodernism. It doesn’t even begin to consider the postmodernist idea that you may see space as cold and empty, whereas I may see it as full of light and life, and each of these observations depends strongly on the perspective we ourselves come from. I am not saying that C.S. Lewis should have anticipated the next challenge to the Christian worldview, only that in reading Out of the Silent Planet today, the worldview he argues against may come off as quaint and not a threat.

And really, a story arguing against the dangers of a specific philosophy can come across as less universal than a story illustrating the message of salvation (like The Chronicles), especially as many readers may not know much about specific philosophies in the first place. So perhaps it truly is a bit dated?

I’d argue, in fact, that it is important in order to understand what a threat these sorts of ideas were, and to bolster our own worldviews by working through these ideas because—well, many people who believe in modernism are still around, and the heirs of the ideas themselves still influence our society’s thoughts. How often do you hear the media advocating colonizing other planets? Saving humanity by moving away from our mess and starting over elsewhere? We still talk about these things!

Lewis’s unique contribution is to point out that we can’t just see the rest of the universe as ‘ours’ to take over as we wish. Nowadays it’s very fashionable to point out that when Europeans took that approach to other continents, they absolutely disregarded whatever existed there before their arrival as irrelevant, nonexistent (‘we discovered a country that already had people on it so it clearly must’ve been discovered before we arrived!’). It’s quite fashionable to rightly judge this colonialist attitude—other lands did not exist merely for Europeans to exploit. But when it comes to space, we all seem to turn into colonialists again.

Now, we don’t usually consider the rest of the universe as inhabited, so maybe that’s why we’re more comfortable with this idea. In Out of the Silent Planet, the other planets are inhabited, and worse, are free of all the evil and destruction that comes naturally to humanity. So in a fantasy of this sort, it’s easy to demonstrate the harm of human expansionist ideas.

But the book is more than that. It’s not aiming at expansionism alone, but beyond that to the shortcomings of the human heart—our own greed and our own tendency to view ourselves as first and most superior. Even our ‘good’ protagonist is shocked to discover not only that the other planet are inhabited, but that they’re not inhabited by monsters but by creatures who might, in fact, be superior to himself. The book provides a necessary corrective, not just to a time-bound philosophy (modernism), but also to a timeless human temptation—to think of ourselves as the centre of the universe.

Inferior Quality?

I’m not going to spend much time on this topic. It is absolutely not inferior quality to The Chronicles. To discuss the quality of the story in-depth would stray too far from my main focus on its Christian themes, but I’ll just say its lack of recognition probably stems from it being published before The Chronicles, and being aimed more at adults and therefore overlooked.

 

In Conclusion – We Need More Fiction on the Classics Lists! Could This Be One?

So my answer to the question I raised in the title is—yes, I think it should be. But thinking a work should be a classic does not make it so. I think it’s the sort of story to give someone thinking through the philosophies the story addresses.

But to be fair, there really isn’t a definitive list of Christian classics. If you search it, you get great lists of nonfiction but very little fiction, especially modern Christian fiction. So that’s one new aim of this blog—to look at fiction classics as well as nonfiction ones. Not to draw up a definitive list, but present possible candidates. And here is my first suggestion!

 

Related Book Reviews of Out of the Silent Planet:

While writing this post I discovered there were not a lot of people writing about the Space Trilogy, so I thought I’d link to a few good reviews I came across here.

The Silent Planet of C.S. Lewis – why this book counts as good classic sci-fi despite having angels in it.

The Cosmic Trilogy 1: Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – a deeper review of the books as a whole.

Out of the Silent Planet – a comparison with Gulliver’s Travels that I didn’t notice myself.

 

 

 

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