Living the Good Life: Is It Even Possible?

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“For He Had Great Possessions” by Watts. Creative Commons

We are all seeking to come to terms with the meaning and nature of the Good, the good life, and how to attain it. What is your preferred means of pursuit? A few of the options from which to choose on the ideological smorgasbord conveyer belt are moralism, hedonism, and nihilism:

Moralism: The Good is the Law of Reason. The Good life is the undaunted pursuit of moral order and reason indifferent to pain or pleasure (ex. Stoicism).

Hedonism: The Good is Desire. The good life is the unrestricted pursuit of passion, whether mental or physical. One attains it by throwing off anything that would circumscribe or limit pleasure (ex. Epicureanism).

Nihilism: There is no Good. There is no ultimate meaning in the universe. There is no law of reason or moral order, though there is indifference toward pain and pleasure (ex. Extreme Pessimism). How can anything make a difference, when there is no difference to make? Apathy is all there is. Perhaps, as the Dude remarks in The Big Lebowski, nihilism must be exhausting (Click here). Perhaps it is more exhausting than moralism, hedonism, and other options available to us.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) appears to me to be a combination of the first two options. It teaches that God will help us when we need him to live happy, fulfilled lives if we do what’s right. The ultimate good appears to be pleasure as in happiness. A remote, deistic deity who keeps score helps us pursue happiness if we play by his rules, the laws of the universe that make it hum. While the MTD terminology was introduced around 2005 and addressed a generation of youth and their view of religion and spirituality, it still has a bearing on people of different ages. Just perhaps it can prove useful for a discussion of a young person of a much earlier age or epoch.

The rich young ruler in Jesus’ day may have been a card-carrying moralist, or perhaps a hedonist in disguise (Matthew 19:1-22). He came to Jesus and asked him, “What must I do to be saved?” Given that he asked Jesus what he should do, Jesus responded in kind: keep the commandments. Been there. Done that, the man replied. But one thing is left to do to be good, perfect and inherit eternal life, Jesus added: the rich young ruler was to go sell his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor to have treasure in heaven, and. come follow Jesus.

The rich young ruler’s response reveals that he was not a diehard moralist. He couldn’t or wouldn’t do what was needed. He loved his riches too much to part with them, and so he walked away dejected. He was a weak-kneed moralist, or perhaps hedonist in disguise, as stated above, who wished to use Jesus as a deistic deity who was there when he needed him and who kept score in his favor. But Jesus wouldn’t play by this young man’s ancient version of MTD rules. Let’s probe a little deeper into the story.

The rich young ruler’s question “What must I do to be saved?” might have been an attempt at self-justification, or an indication of a nagging sense that all was not well in his moral universe. In any event, he was pursuing the good life, as he defined it. Yet, he came to Jesus, possibly remotely open to Jesus redefining the meaning of the good life and how to attain it.

Immediately, Jesus asked him a counter question: “Why do you ask me about what is good?” After all, there was no one good except God alone (Matthew 19:17; cf. Mark 10:18). Either Jesus was discounting the rich young ruler’s affirmation of him as someone who knew the good, or was pressing the young man to take the affirmation all the way to the bank: that is, withdraw his life savings, place them at Jesus’ feet by giving away all his proceeds to the poor, and then follow Jesus so that he could be saved. Only the Good—that is God—could make such a daunting call and audacious claim. I believe the latter of these two possible reasons was the basis for Jesus’ question.

I also believe Jesus wanted the rich young ruler to collide with his approach to the good life, and realize there was nothing he could do to save himself. As Jesus responded to his own disciples following this encounter, when they asked him who could be saved if a rich man couldn’t (who in their minds must have been good and affirmed by God because he was blessed with riches!), apart from God, it is not possible for anyone to be saved—especially the rich (Matthew 19:23-30). One must depend completely on God’s merciful and gracious call, respond, and follow.

Perhaps the rich young ruler went away so shaken that he became a nihilist, despairing of any meaning or hope of attaining the good life. Perhaps he realized that while he wanted his riches more than Jesus and eternal life, his riches were empty and void. As exhausting as nihilism is, perhaps it’s more honest than many other isms combined, including stoicism and epicureanism. If so, perhaps the rich young ruler and the rest of us who come to this realization are halfway to the truth of knowing what the good life is and how to attain it on the other end of despair.

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