Christians, those of us who are, have a worldview that is defined by the Christian story as told in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation and through the church (the community of Christians throughout the ages). Unfortunately, articulating this story is easier said than done.
About two years ago N.T. Wright participated in a Veritas Forum dialogue at the University of Cincinnati with Philosophy professor Heidi Maibom. (You can find the whole conversation here.) Prof. Maibom presented a point of view quite common in our world today. Put briefly, she holds an immanent worldview. All that exists is the world we experience. We are human animals, part of a great chain of being. We live and die. A brief summary of the purpose in life is given in the middle of her introduction:
I agree with Aristotle that the ultimate good is happiness. … But the flip side of that, of course, is that there is one thing that is really terrible and that is suffering. … If we are going to in a very few minutes, talk about the good and bad in life: Good is happiness, bad is suffering. However, if something is good, like happiness, it is not just good for me; it is good for every creature capable of happiness. The same thing is true of suffering. And so to put things very briefly, I think that what we ought to do is that we ought to increase the happiness for all creatures, all living creatures, not just those that we like, that we hang out with, not just our fellow humans, but all creatures capable of happiness and suffering.
You can listen to Prof. Maibom’s full statement from 4:20 to 9:40 at the link above.
N. T. Wright followed with a brief overview of the Christian story. The excerpt is linked and summarized below.
Humans are basically story telling creatures and you can look at the big stories that have been told. … It seems to me that each of the great stories told by the great philosophers and the great religions is in a sense a way of constructing a narrative within which we can make some sort of sense of justice, freedom, truth, and all the others. And for me the Christian story makes an interesting kind of sense. …
… And this is the picture which we have from the book of Genesis right on through, radically renewed in the New Testament: that God made a sort of temple called heaven plus earth, called the cosmos, the creation, and put into that temple an image, namely human beings, so that we are supposed to be reflecting God into the world and reflecting the world back to God. And in the Jewish story this is a project in search of an ending and in the Christian story the climax to that, not a conclusion exactly, but certainly a climax, comes with Jesus of Nazareth, who is the true image, the truly human being, and who in mysterious ways is also the living embodiment of Israel’s creator God. And when Jesus does what he does, particularly his launching of God’s kingdom, his death and his resurrection. and his sending of the Spirit, then people are energized in a new way, not so much for Aristotle’s happiness, although that is really important as kind of a byproduct…. We are energized to be genuine human beings, which is to reflect the living God into the world and in terms of praise and worship to reflect [the world back to God].
As I reflect on that larger story and see how it relates to or bounces off the other story that people or stories that people have told from time to time, I find a deep satisfaction, both in being a part of that narrative myself and in observing the way in which at least it reframes and points toward an answer to those questions about justice, spirituality, relationships, beauty, freedom and truth and power.
Here are two contrasting approaches to life. In Prof. Maibom’s view there is no overarching narrative beyond the immanent world of our lives. However, the greatest good is happiness and we ought to pursue a path that increases happiness and decreases suffering for all creatures capable of experiencing happiness and suffering. Because we are part of the great chain of being we have an obligation to make it better in so far as we are able. The challenge is to work this out in practice.
In Wright’s telling of the Christian story we have a vocation as image bearers to reflect God into the world (which will certainly include such elements as increasing happiness and reducing suffering). This world is not the sum total of reality and life does not end with death. God “will one day call time on the whole thing by producing a renewed creation in which justice and truth and peace and freedom and all those other things will actually be enhanced and completed in some sense which is actually hard for us to describe.” Our hope rests not so much in heaven after we die, as in the consummation of God’s plan resulting in a new creation.
Day-to-day life and choices may not differ much (depending on circumstances), but the motivations for actions and the ultimate hope differ greatly.
What is the story that shapes your life?
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