Archives For Philosophy

Right off the bat, I’ll own that this title is pretentious. But I just had this realization, and I think it’s profoundly true. I’ll need to improve my titling skills, because while this post should be broadly relatable, I’m sure the title scared most people away. But not you, dear reader. Thanks for giving me a chance here.

The 19th Century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard is one of the most influential thinkers in history. If that statement surprises you, it’s because his thinking comes to most of us indirectly through many currently-influential voices. He’s the philosopher equivalent of the bands who influenced the Beatles, who in turn influenced every musician you’ve ever enjoyed.

But he doesn’t do much direct influencing of modern readers because it takes a lot of work to dig into. (Follow me on this—I promise it will pay off.) For one thing, he wrote a ton of books, and those books tend to have many hundreds of pages. But to make matters exceedingly irritating, many of Kierkegaard’s books were written under numerous pseudonyms (Victor Eremita, John Climacus, Anti-Climacus, Hilarius Bookbinder, etc. etc. etc.). And some of these works claim to be compilations of writings from still others. Some of these pseudonyms seem to represent more nearly than others what Kierkegaard himself believed, but it’s impossible to be sure.

Kierkegaard would play games with these pseudonyms. He would release two books by two different pseudonyms on the same day, or within a couple of weeks of each other. While he was producing these works, he would be sure to be seen in public frequently so that no one would suspect him of being the author of these works (a bit of theatre that worked for a time, but not for long). These books would offer different points of view on Christianity, philosophy, ethics, and society. Kierkegaard also published several books under his own name, but it still takes a lot of brainpower to untangle the relationship between this Kierkegaard and the pseudonymous authors of Kierkegaard’s other books.

Because of these bizarre methods, there’s no consensus on what Kierkegaard himself actually believed, no universally agreed upon “theology of Soren Kierkegaard.” I’m tempted to think of that as a frustrating loss. But I’m realizing that it’s not. It’s actually a gift.

How can I possibly claim that this quirky, controversial, confusing philosopher could save our world? Because the kind of reading that his books require would make us all better citizens and dismantle our biggest hurdle to mutual understanding.

When I first started reading Kierkegaard’s works, I read them as I read any book. I was in search of “Kierkegaard’s theology.” I wanted to know his views on things. When I do this with any author, I get a feel for their positions, and then I decide whether or not I agree with Calvin or Keller or Wright or Lewis. When I think about it, it’s extremely binary. But this is actually unhealthy. Because I actually agree with and disagree with all of these authors.

What is this pull I feel to identify with some authors over others, as though I need to check [favorite author]’s views before I know what I believe? Wouldn’t it be healthier to learn from each author and pull the most helpful parts from each? Isn’t it most important to walk away with deeper understanding and inwardly transformed as a result of wrestling with an author’s arguments? How does it help me to be able to claim to “agree with John Piper” or whomever, as though it’s all or nothing? Are we not perpetuating the problem by relying on a few individuals to do our thinking for us? Really, it just makes us all that much more divided. Encamped. Partisan.

But Kierkegaard’s bizarre style won’t let us get away with this. You have to think for yourself. When you read Kierkegaard, you have to engage with his actual arguments, because you never really know what it means to “agree with Kierkegaard.” You have to decide, to “judge for yourself,” to use a Kierkegaardian phrase. With each pseudonym; each book; each paragraph, sentence, and argument, you must weigh and decide what you think.

It’s infuriating. And exhausting. And healthy.

Kierkegaard was extremely controversial in his day, and cartoons like this were often printed in newspapers, where he was mocked for his pants and curved spine. People tend to be uncomfortable with those who challenge the norms.

Our political climate is so polarized. You’re republican or you’re democrat. You’re pro or anti whomever. You’re pro this or anti that. We deal in sound bites, in memes. And your response has to be instant. You have to be outraged or impressed within seconds, and if you don’t make a social media statement right now then you’re siding for or against someone or something bad or good. IT’S US OR THEM! RIGHT NOW! Our figure head has made this or that statement, so fall in line!

Don’t you hate it? Isn’t it ugly? Don’t you feel in your bones that we need something better, something more sustainable?

What we need, I submit, is a Kierkegaardian way of reading things. Take your time. You’ll have to decide, but don’t simply follow the party line. Do your homework. Weigh each comment, each argument, each moment on its own merits. It’s not about blind adherence, it’s about the journey.

Judge for yourself.

Kierkegaard also rails against indecision, so you do have to make up your mind. Deciding is important, but you’re not allowed to decide by default, by blindly following your tribe’s voting guide or statement of faith. If we could all retrain our habits of engagement in light of Kierkegaard’s infuriatingly inefficient approach, perhaps we’d learn to understand each other better, to renounce the “hot take.” We would then develop wise, patiently-formed, true-to-the-depths-of-our-soul convictions, and we could hold hands and walk away from the echo chambers we’ve been told to pledge allegiance to.

[If you want to give Kierkegaard a try, I recommend starting with this fantastic biography, or this brief but helpful guide to his thought.]

Seneca

Yesterday, I introduced the topic of suffering. Specifically, I raised the age old question, “Why does God allow his children to suffer?” And although I have spent a lot of time looking into the Bible’s answer to this question, in yesterday’s post I explored one of three similes that Seneca, a first-century philosopher, gave in order to explain why the godly suffer. Yesterday’s simile was of the godly as “disciplined children.” Today I will continue by looking at two other similes: “proven soldiers” and “victorious athletes.”

 

Proven Soldiers

Seneca compares the godly who suffer to proven soldiers. Whereas the raw recruit turns pale at even the thought of a wound, the veteran warrior looks undaunted upon his own gore, for he knows that his blood has often been the price of his victory. “In like manner, God hardens, reviews, and disciplines those whom he approves, those whom he loves.” For this reason, the philosopher argues, God actually afflicts the greatest of all people with illness, sorrows and misfortune. These situations are compliments rather than curses, evidence that this child has been deemed worthy of God’s purpose. Furthermore, through suffering, God makes his children to be a pattern for others: in fact, they are even born in order to teach others how to endure hardships.

When good people suffer, then, their hardships serve as affirmation of their character and as an opportunity for growth. In a phrase that echoes Romans 5:3-4 and James 1:2-4, Seneca states “Fire tests gold, misfortune brave men.” So also, returning to the military metaphor, Seneca says that Fortune chooses to confront the courageous rather than to waste time by contesting the weak. Lady Fortune cries out:

Why should I choose that cowardly fellow as my adversary? He will straightway drop his weapons; against him I have no need of all my power—he will be routed by a paltry threat; he cannot bear even the sight of my face…I am ashamed to meet a man who is so ready to be beaten.

Therefore, while Fortune disdainfully passes these people by, she seeks worthy opponents—the brave, the stubborn, the unbending—those against whom she can flex all her might.[1]

 

Victorious Athletes

Having used the similes of disciplined children and proven soldiers, Seneca appeals to the experience of athletes.[2] He claims that the great person cannot be approved without an encounter with suffering. Those who are truly misfortunate, then, are those who have never been misfortunate. Without hardship “no one will know what you can do—not even yourself.” He continues by likening untested character to a runner who races in the Olympic Games without any other contestant. How absurd! This person may gain the prize, but he did not win the race; he may have the crown, but he does not posses the victory (coronam habes, victoriam non habes).

 

Conclusion

Finally, like a good teacher, Seneca answers his student’s questions with more questions:

How can I know with what spirit you will face poverty, if you always wallow in wealth? How can I know with what firmness you will face disgrace and ill fame…if you attain to old age amidst rounds of applause rather than through pain?

Of course, Seneca’s teaching does not serve as a substitute for the Holy Scriptures. But his examples can complement them. And without “ruining the question with an answer,” perhaps Seneca’s similes can encourage my students and even you in the midst of divine fatherly discipline, battles with hardships and marathons through suffering.



[1] Cf. Robert Service’s “The Law of the Yukon”: This is the law of the Yukon, and ever she makes it plain: “Send not your foolish and feeble, send me your strong and sane—Strong for the red rage of battle; sane for I harry them sore; Send me men girt for the combat, men who are grit to the core; Swift as the panther in triumph, fierce as the bear in defeat. Sired of a bulldog parent, steeled in the furnace heat. Send me the best of your breeding, lend me your chosen ones; Them will I take to my bosom, them will I call my sons…”

[2] Cf. Heb 12:1-3; 1 Cor 9:24-27,

A student once asked his Rabbi, “Teacher, why does the Lord allow evil in the world?” The Rabbi responded, “With such a good question, my son, why would you want to ruin it with an answer?” Despite the Rabbi’s clever response, the question “Why does God allow his children to suffer,” remains an apt one—especially in light of current blows such as crashing economies, threatening epidemics, surrounding wars and rumors of wars. My students also ask me this question in various forms. Their pain behind the question drives me to search for answers—answers not to ruin the theological question or to solve a theoretical paradox but ones to encourage them through real hardships.

Seneca

I have studied the Scriptures to see how certain passages handle problems of suffering. But I also became curious as to how those who did not know Job’s God or Paul’s Christ answered such questions.  One of my favorite extra-biblical responses to the problem of suffering comes from a first-century philosopher by the name of Seneca.[1] One of Seneca’s students put the question like this, “If Providence truly reigns supreme, then why does evil befall the good?”[2] Seneca responds to his student by employing three similes: godly people who suffer are like (1) disciplined children, (2) proven soldiers and (3) victorious athletes.

I will explore the first simile today and the other two tomorrow. Seneca’s approach to this question can help us think through the suffering we encounter. His words aren’t to be taken as Scripture, of course, but he can give us some perspective on what the biblical authors are saying.

 

Disciplined Children

According to Seneca, if Providence (i.e., God) governs the world and cares for humanity, then “evil” should be reinterpreted as divine discipline. This is not discipline in the sense of punishment for human sins, but of training for divine service. God disciplines good people because they are God’s pupils, his legitimate children who seek to imitate their all-glorious Father. Like any good parent, then, God rears his offspring for virtue and fosters character in his sons through suffering.

Therefore, the philosopher continues, rather than God spoiling his children, God parents them with severity so that they may become useful to him. Therefore, one should realize that when good people painfully struggle up a difficult path—while at the same time the wicked coast with pleasure—it is because God “does not make a spoiled pet of a good person.”[3] Rather, “he tests them, hardens them, and fits them for his own service.”

When I read this I was surprised at how similar the argument is to the one in Hebrews 12:

Have you forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons? “My son, do not scorn the Lord’s discipline or give up when he corrects you.” For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts. Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? But if you do not experience discipline, something all sons have shared in, then you are illegitimate and are not sons. Besides, we have experienced discipline from our earthly fathers and we respected them, shall we not submit ourselves to the Father of spirits and receive life? For they disciplined us for a little while, as seemed good to them, but he does so for our benefit, that we may share in his holiness. Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it. (vv. 5-10, NET Bible)

Tomorrow, I will explore Seneca’s two other similes for godly people enduring suffering: (2) proven soldiers, and (3) victorious athletes.


[1] Seneca was a contemporary of the apostle Paul. He lived in Rome and, like Paul, died by the hand of Nero. Seneca wrote a number of moral essays and epistles that have some striking similarities to statements in the New Testament. So much was this the case, that years later, someone penned letters as written from Paul and Seneca to invent correspondence between the two writers.

[2] See Seneca’s  essay On Providence.

[3] The quotations of Seneca in this article are from John W. Basore’s translation in Seneca: Moral Essays, Vol. 1 (London: Harvard University Press, reprint 2003).

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the seriesThe Light of the World

In John 7, the Jews go up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. While this festival is going on, there is nonstop speculation about who Jesus is. Everyone is talking, whispering, and accusing with regard to Jesus’ identity and intentions.

Some are convinced that “he is a good man,” and others are saying exactly the opposite: “no, he is leading the people astray” (7:12). The question of whether or not Jesus is the Messiah gets raised a few times (7:26-27, 31, 41). Others speculate that perhaps Jesus is “the Prophet” (7:40), an Old Testament figure that would rise up to fill the shoes of Moses in leading God’s people.

CandleIt’s in this context that Jesus addresses the people in John 8:12, and says simply: “I am the light of the world.”

Light is a common metaphor. It speaks of purity rather than filth. Of truth rather than error. Of knowledge rather than ignorance.

As it happens, we have many candidates vying for the status of “light of the world.” In the 17th and 18th centuries, we had “The Enlightenment,” where the wisdom of the ancient Greeks was re-embraced. Some of these enlightenment philosophers were set on escaping the darkness in which the church had held the world (during a period that came to be referred to as “The Dark Ages”), and shining the light of true humanistic, autonomous, philosophical light around the world.

Those types of thoughts are still with us. Some would say that knowledge is the light of the world. All we need is better education and we will step out of darkness and into the light. Or perhaps we could argue that science is the light of the world. As we learn more about our universe through science, we will finally be able to become the type of superhuman race that can rid the world of its evils and enter into a golden age. Others would argue that deep religious knowledge is the light of the world. We need to look deeply within and gain the type of inward knowledge that leads to enlightenment (this is the mystical/eastern/new age approach).

But Jesus’ statement is unequivocal. I—and I alone—am the light of the world! It’s fascinating to consider that Jesus made this statement hundreds of years after Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle lived and spoke their profound philosophical teachings. As helpful as those insights may be—and some have said that all philosophy is simply footnotes to Plato, these guys still have a voice in the debates—there is only one light of the world.

The setting in which Jesus spoke these words is also significant. John 8:20 tells us that Jesus spoke these words in the treasury, which means that he was in the Court of the Women, which was the most public part of the temple. In this court were four golden candelabras. Each had four golden bowls that were filled with oil by the priests. On the first night of the Feast of Tabernacles, which was either still going on or newly ended at this point, these candelabras would be lit. These may have inspired Jesus’ statement.

Pillar of FireBeyond that, the Feast of Tabernacles is significant here. They were celebrating God having led his people out of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness (hence the “tabernacles” or tents), and into the Promised Land. Remember that God led his people as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. It was this unique light that guided the people out of slavery and into the Promised Land.

And here Jesus stands, at the conclusion of this feast, identifying himself as the light of the world. He is the one who will lead his people out of slavery and into the Promised Land. And he will lead not only his Jewish people, but the whole world. Jesus says, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” We won’t be lost, we will know where to go. We will know who to follow. We will have the light of life within us. And as we will see in the next post, this last statement is incredible.

 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower PosterBefore Thanksgiving, my wife and I watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower. As I’ve been looking at the movie lineup this Christmas season, I’m realizing that The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while. Not everyone will agree. Viewers seem to have liked it better than critics (which surprises me a bit), but I suspect that most of the Christian community would be uncomfortable with the film. (There are a few mild spoilers below, but you’re likely to forget them by the time you watch the film, so keep reading anyway).

I left the theater feeling somewhat uplifted, but Wallflower is a dark film. Its PG-13 rating comes from sexually suggestive scenes (mainly springing from the groups’ fascination with the Rocky Horror Picture Show), heavy themes (including sexual abuse), and drug use. It’s fair to say the film’s content is less than wholesome.

But as I’ve argued elsewhere, the content alone shouldn’t determine the value of a work of art (otherwise we’d have to ban much of the Bible). It’s the way the film interacts with, speaks to, and frames that content that really matters. It is from this perspective that I think The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an excellent movie.

The “wallflower” in the story is a high school freshman named Charlie (Logan Lerman), who is aloof, alienated, and bullied. He is befriended by a complex, flawed, and wonderful group, and the film follows their struggles with growing up in their relationships with each other and with the world around them. All of the characters are broken in a number of ways, whether it be drug use, the lingering effects of sexual abuse, or struggles with homosexuality.

The most fascinating character is Charlie, who befriends all of these obviously flawed people and loves them unconditionally despite their oddities and dysfunction. Charlie is an excellent picture of love and acceptance. And though the group has its ups and downs, it ultimately finds hope and even healing.

The Perks of Being a WallflowerFor the characters in Wallflower, salvation comes through love and the conscious decision to enjoy life in the moment. Though faced with the unbearable darkness that often finds us in life, these characters find healing as they cling to the love they share and find meaning in the moments in which they feel most alive. The memorable scenes in this regard involve Sam (Emma Watson) and eventually Charlie standing up in the back of a pickup, arms spread and head back, listening to just the right music, as they speed through a tunnel. They are embracing the meaning of life as it hits them in that moment, and this meaning carries them through the dark moments.

There is much to appreciate about the hope offered in Wallflower. Love is indeed the answer. We do find deep and supernatural love through the people who accept us unconditionally. John even suggests that the love we feel from these kinds of people is ultimately God’s love for us (1 John 4:7, 11-12). Not only that, but we should also embrace the life that God has given us. Too often, we let life’s unbelievably rich moments pass us by as we focus on trivialities or get so caught up in finding a grand purpose that we miss the meaning and glory in the small things.

But we should also be cautious here. What Wallflower is presenting to us is nothing new. It’s actually a philosophical system known as existentialism, which seeks to find meaning in a defining experience in life. Who we are is determined by our experience with the world, not the essence of who we have been designed to be. Again, there are positive (biblical) elements here. But I find it fascinating that old philosophies (how many high school students have heard of existentialism?) keep popping up in trendier dress. (As a side note, there is also more than a hint of existentialism inherent in the YOLO mentality.)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Snow AngelI appreciate the humanity, the unconditional love, and the deep (non-superficial) enjoyment of life that The Perks of Being a Wallflower commends to us. But it’s important that we follow these themes far beyond the film. In the real world, these characters would remain broken. They would find these moments of healing, but they would continue break down. As we know, the only lasting solution to our brokenness is Jesus, who embodied to the fullest extent humanity, unconditional love, and a non-superficial enjoyment of life. Wallflower points us in the right direction, but as with all good things, the deepest expression of these truths is found in Christ.

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