- Kavin Rowe is Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School. The following interview revolves around his latest book, One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions
Note to Jesus Creed Community: I am fortunate to read many good books and interview several authors each year. Every so often a truly seminal book crosses my radar. One True Life is one such book. I made over 200 marginal notes in my copy. It is not a fast read, but wonderfully clarifying on the uniqueness of the Christian faith. [SMcK: Scot McKnight totally agrees!]
Moore: What or perhaps who was the impetus for writing this book?
Rowe: What interested me was the question of a true life. Our understanding of truth is so thinned down today: we reflexively think of “facts” or arguments for the historicity of this or that or avoiding lying or of particular politicians who cleverly tell half-truths, and so forth. These are all important things, of course, but what I’m after is something much more comprehensive and involves the New Testament’s claim that true life is to be found in devotion to Jesus of Nazareth. What would it mean to take seriously the sense that our existence is to be true? That we are to live truly? How does one live a true life? Moreover, I was and am struck by the fact that the societies of advanced modernity are societies whose basic patterns often pressure human life toward fragmentation – and precisely through such fragmentation actively contest the chance you have to live an integrated true life. By contrast, both New Testament Christianity and ancient philosophical traditions such as Stoicism present a “scheme of life” in which the self is positively pressured toward unity and given a trajectory toward death in which that unity is lived out. These trajectories are what truth is understood to be. To live according to these traditions is to live truly. What this kind of claim does, of course, is to position truth in relation to different kinds of lives in the world. The exemplars of each tradition (and others like them) say with their lives, here is what truth is. This is a true life.
Moore: You label Stoicism and Christianity as rival traditions. Why?
Rowe: The reason is that both traditions are claims to the truth about all things, and both traditions are claims that the truth about all things is a lived truth and can be known only through the living – i.e., a practice of a way of life. The rivalry occurs because the traditions conflict and it is impossible to live them both simultaneously (what philosophers have called noncompossibility). Both traditions are “complete,” at least in the all-important sense of total ways of being, but they also “compete.” And what they compete for is the life-shape of a human being. You can live this way or that, but not this and that at once. This doesn’t mean that these traditions touch every little thing in your daily life – you can presumably still play a round of golf whether you’re a Christian or a Stoic or something else – but it does mean that they are extensive, focused patterns within which your existence gets what existence comes to be. (Existence, let it be clearly noted, is in my way of talking about it a becoming, a trajectory that is the thing which your life is at every moment and on its way to death.) The Stoic and Christian traditions are rival accounts of all things, and you choose with your life, not just with your opinions/thoughts/etc., what you make of them. To opt into one of them is to opt out of the rival. Here the ancients were more serious than we moderns often are about the need to choose among the answers to the questions of how to be in the world—and to wager with our actual lives on what happens to us when we die, when our time’s up.
Moore: Stoicism in its modern forms is pretty sexy. Businessmen are reading books like the popular The Daily Stoic: 366 Daily Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday. Also, Christians frequently trumpet the breakthrough help of “detachment” that they glean from an author like the Roman Catholic Jesuit, Anthony de Mello. Why are so many attracted to various aspects of Stoicism?
Rowe: Good question. I think the answer is probably complex, but my sense of the heart of Stoicism’s attraction is that – along with Nietzsche – it is the deepest and most philosophically serious form of dealing with a straightforward recognition of the world’s out-of-controlness, the randomness of life, the vulnerability, fragility, and frailty of being human. We pretend to ourselves and to others that we can master the world—the Stoics know we can’t. They do not, however, throw up their hands in despair but instead cast a weighty vote for humanity’s ability to achieve contentedness in just such a world. Their conviction is that we can master ourselves within a world we cannot master. Which is to say that human mastery applies to only one thing, but it turns out to be the only thing that really matters: ourselves. If we can master ourselves, we can forthrightly acknowledge that we live within a world that we cannot master. Of course, they go on and use language of “divine providence” to affirm the final rationality of the cosmos in the attempt to say that the out-of-controlness of the world is only as it appears to us (when we’ve yet to undergo the Stoic disciplining of our understanding). But there just beneath the surface of this affirmation of divine providence is the frank admission that we have to make our way through a world that can overtake and ruin us—and the remarkable confidence that we can.
In relation to this question, I would point out that Christians would argue that their account of the problem of being human runs even deeper: the Christians claim that we cannot master even ourselves, and when we try to do so we inevitably turn in upon ourselves and reproduce the very problems we’re trying to escape through self-mastery. We are caught not only in a world that is far, far beyond our control but in ourselves. The self is itself so riddled with contradictions and distortions that even it is beyond our control. There is no help from within the immanent frame (=a world devoid of belief in the supernatural); all of creation is finally in bondage and can only receive the redemption wrought for it from God’s side of the difference between Creator/creature, the difference between being eternally, finally free and being in bondage.
Moore: Throughout your book you underscore that Christianity and Stoicism are “ways of life.” Why is that central to the argument of your book?
Rowe: In the ancient world, philosophia was a way of life, as Pierre Hadot et al. have made clear. Christianity, too, was a way of life. “To understand” meant to live inside the way of life that allowed you to understand. Somewhere along the long march toward the present – and exactly where is debated – our understanding of understanding changed, and we began to think of philosophy or theology primarily as thinking about thinking, as ideational through and through. We lost the sense that philosophical/theological understanding was inescapably tied to living. It seems to me that this is one of the critical points of recovering and representing early Christianity (and ancient philosophy) for today’s world. One cannot simply “grasp” Christianity – or any other philosophical tradition – with the mind and understand what it is. One is summoned to live and then and thus to understand. Trust (pistis) is, as it turns out, a conditio sine qua non for Christian understanding. Academics often behave as if the religious/philosophical traditions we study do not speak back to us, challenging us in our very marrow, calling us to be in the world in their way of life rather than another. But this is to treat traditions of life as something like sets of ideas rather than what they are—existentially thick ways of being in the world.
Moore: I was involved in a church where controversy was either handled by bludgeoning one another to death, or by avoiding that person at all costs. Justin Martyr and Trypho the Jew better model how to debate substantial issues. What can we learn from their exchange?
Rowe: Well, of course, Justin writes Trypho’s part. But the way he does so is extremely significant for what we make of arguments. People often forget that it is actually an achievement to have an argument. For the word argument to describe what you’re having, that is, you have to have agreements that make your disagreements intelligible. Otherwise, you are simply talking past one another. Finding out what your disagreements are, then, turns out to be a way of discovering how you also agree. And this, in turn, can lay some foundation for constructive disagreement/argument about substance rather than just shouting at another (metaphorically or in reality). Paying close attention to the argument between Justin and Trypho reveals that they presuppose an extensive range of agreements within which or over against which they can articulate their major difference (whether Jesus is the Jewish Messiah or not). The very texture of their argument, in fact, is the text of scripture: they share scripture, and they agree that whoever the Messiah is, scripture is the matrix that yields his identity. A crucial question, then, in light of recognizing that there are agreements that couch your disagreement is this: what kind of disagreement do you have? Is it resolvable? Irresolvable? Able to be lived with? About final things? Penultimate things? Indifferent things? Ultimately irrelevant things? There is, moreover, something important about friendship: Justin and Trypho apparently grow to be friends through their argument. This suggests that the best sorts of arguments are those where the virtues needed to become friends are developed at the same time that you’re arguing. We regularly tend to take arguments as intellectual problems; they can be this type of problem of course but they are also – and in some ways more importantly – humanly dense ways of relating to each other. Justin and Trypho display what it’s like to have an argument about something of utmost and final significance while pursuing the good of friendship in and through the way they argue-relate.
Moore: What are a few things you would have your readers to take from your fine book?
Rowe: I would want Christian readers to gain a deeper awareness of the inseparable link between being a Christian and thinking as a Christian. Thinking as a Christian is learning to think within the patterns of pistis/trust that shape your life over its span toward death. And I would want Christian readers to understand that the words you use are the thoughts you have, which is to say that if you want Christian thoughts use words in the way that Christian grammar helps you to learn to use them. This truth about the unity between words and thought does not, however, mean that you can just use words. In Christian understanding, words are much denser things than simple instruments to be used: they need to fit with your life. The meaning of Christian words, that is, is existential through and through. Using words in a Christian sense is living them. This is in fact why hypocrisy has the critical weight that it does: your life gives the lie to what you say; or, what you say is true exposes your life as a lie. Conversely, to live the words you use – to exhibit the congruence we call faithfulness – is to present to the world the truth of Christianity.
I would wish non-Christian readers to take seriously the claims of both the Christian and the Stoic traditions as life-shapes, to see in these rivals a challenge not only to one another but also to other ways of being in the world. And I would wish such readers to take seriously the claim that words mean what they mean in relation to the narratives and lives in which they are employed. And I would, further, wish them then to reflect on the narratives and lives that are currently theirs. That is finally to say I hope that they could take the book as a whole to reflect and re-present the point that traditions of life such as Christianity and Stoicism question those who study them as much as such students question them.