Christian Philosophy of Life
Everyone has a philosophy of life. That seems a bold claim, since most of us are not in the least bit philosophical. But everyone has a philosophy of life. In an informal sense what that means is that everyone has some basis for their character. There is something that makes each of us who we are. There is a set of ideas, a basic outlook, which shapes everything we think and everything we do. It is how we look at the world. It is how we decide what is good and what is bad. It shapes our aspirations and our longings. Mostly we are unaware of it. Mostly we don’t pay attention to it. It just works in the background making us who we are. It is the self-appointed task of philosophers to worry and talk about such things. But, Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Trust a philosopher, especially an old Greek philosopher, to think that philosophy is important! But maybe the ancient Greek had a point. If we don’t examine the map from time to time how can we be sure we are still headed in the right direction. And indeed, how do we decide what the destination should be in the first place. Presumably we are all trying to live a life worth living, a good life. A philosophy of life, consciously or unconsciously, whether we are aware of it or not, defines what that good life might be. It is how we decide where we are going and the map which helps us to get there.
A philosophy of life has two parts. And here we do start to sound philosophical, if by that we mean, using Greek words. But bear with me. Every philosophy of life consists of metaphysics and ethics. Metaphysics is a properly philosophical word. Literally in means “in addition to physics.” It is an attempt to describe what lies behind the world as we experience it. If physics asks, “what?” and “how?” Metaphysics asks, “why?” Again we may be mostly unaware of this. We are happy to let philosophers worry about such things. But in the end everything we do, to some degree, grows out of what we believe about the world and how and why it works. And that leads us into ethics. Our ethics are the principles which govern our actions. Our actions and the decisions that we took before them are shaped by what we think is good and bad. The thing is, discipleship is nothing more than the process of giving us a Christian philosophy of life. As Christians, if we were to do as the old pagan Socrates suggested and examined our lives, we would hope to find that they were shaped by a Christian philosophy of life.
Paul very helpfully and very succinctly offers us a Christian philosophy of life. And he includes, though we might not notice it, a Christian metaphysics. Paul says:
We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
And later he says:
God proves his love for us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Those are two decidedly metaphysical statements. They are an attempt to point beyond the material reality of our lives to what really determines the meaning of our existence. And first of all a Christian philosophy of life, of course, includes God. It is God who stands behind what is real. God, above all, is the reason why there is something rather than nothing. God is the ground of our being. It is God who gives us life and offers us the possibility of that life being good.
There are plenty of philosophies of life which include the idea of God. And almost none of those philosophies are Christian. And the god of many of those philosophies hardly resembles the true and living God of Christianity. For the most part Christianity is surprisingly disinterested in metaphysics. For the most part we don’t want or need to speculate about what lies behind reality. And it is clear why not from what Paul says here. For Christians all that can be said or known about God, certainly everything that needs to be known about God, has already been shown to us in Jesus Christ. A Christian metaphysics says that what lies behind reality, the true nature of the universe, and our place in it, is shown to us in the life, death, resurrection, ascension and promised return of Jesus Christ. Put bluntly: Jesus is God. This is the same idea that John tries to express at the beginning of his Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . And the Word became flesh.
Which is just about the most metaphysical that the Bible ever becomes. Many of those who accept, or reject, God as part of their philosophy of life do so on the assumption that God is angry or at best indifferent. For many people whose lives are motivated by the idea of God, their picture of God is a scary one, and their lives always reflect that picture. Others of course, reject God on the basis that that picture of God could be the only one available, and they reject the life that grows from it. And even those atheists who reject metaphysics altogether, by default place the cold indifferent “laws of nature” in place of God, and find themselves with metaphysics whether they like it or not.
But Christians make a quite different and startling claim about God. The metaphysics of Chrsitianity is that what lies behind reality is a profound love and an absolute goodness. The Christian picture of God, the one shown us in Jesus Christ, is that God loves us and is profoundly and intimately involved in our history and in our lives. Indeed God loves us so much, that in spite of our hostility towards God, God died for us. The underlying assumption that Christians make about the nature of reality is that what moves the universe is the God who makes himself known in Jesus Christ and who wills only good for us.
For Paul putting our trust in this is what makes the decisive difference. If this is what we believe lies behind the reality of our experience, then our lives, our decisions and our actions will be shaped in a particular way. This Christian metaphysics is what drives Christian ethics. Paul’s description of what Christian living should look like starts in a rather odd place. He declares:
But we also boast in our sufferings.
Like Jesus’ beatitudes, which declares blessing on those in negative situations, this seems counter-intuitive. Why would anyone take pride in their discomfort. It seems a curiously masochistic thing to say. I think Paul recognises this. That’s why he starts his sentence, “But.” Many philosophies of life would make their aim, and their definition of good, the avoidance of suffering. Paul, in his Christian ethics, welcomes suffering. But an ethics that welcomes suffering requires a metaphysics that includes the God shown to us in Jesus Christ. The claim which a Christian philosophy of life makes is that even in bad things God is working good for us. In all the circumstances of our lives God is present and at work. The truly Christian philosophy of life rejects prosperity gospel and all philosophies which claim that the good life is defined by wealth, or success, or power or anything like them. God is present in our happy times and our positive experiences. But God is not absent in our hours of difficulty and moments of failure, sadness or frustration. Indeed it is perhaps easiest to allow God to work in and through and for us, in poverty, sickness, grief or persecution, to bring about the good life we are looking for.
Paul goes on:
Knowing that suffering produces endurance
Paul takes us up the first step of what might be called a ladder of virtues: Endurance. Life is brief, but we are in it for the long haul. The problem with philosophies of life which aim to avoid negative experiences is that they don’t work. In the end at least a little suffering must enter every life. But a Christian philosophy of life assures us is that nothing is all bad. That every experience can be a source for growth towards that good life we are aiming for. At the very least coming through suffering assures us that we can come through suffering. Little by little our confidence that what we believe to be behind the universe, God’s love and goodness, is proved to be true. Our ability to take what life throws at us is increased. Our characters are formed.We become capable of living that life that is worth living.
And character is the next step on the ladder of virtues in Paul’s Christian ethics:
And endurance produces character.
For Socrates, and other philosophers, the purpose of a philosophy of life is to produce character. For Paul the purpose of discipleship is to produce Christian character. Character is meaning and purpose we give to our lives. The reason Socrates thought an unexamined life was a bad thing was that it was liable to be blown here and there by the winds of circumstance. An unexamined life is one determined, shaped, by what happens to it. Without examination of life, life can not have meaning or direction, and therefore by Socrates’ definition it can’t be good. A Christian life is one that is examined in relation to what has been shown to us by God in Jesus Christ. It is life that is built on trust in the God who shows himself in Jesus Christ which is a life which can boast in suffering. That is a life which can endure. And it is a life which endures has the stability to build character. A Christian philosophy of life produces an ethics which enables a Christian disciple to give purpose, meaning and direction to their life.
Paul’s ladder of virtues has one more step:
And character produces hope.
Above all Christians are hopeful people. If we were looking for a one word definition of what Christianity defines as the good life: hope is that one word. In the time which we are living through now, perhaps it is more important than ever to grasp a Christian philosophy of life. In a moment where the threat of a disease has utterly changed our experience of life. Where our sociability has been severely restricted; Where our community has been closed off from us, or reduced to a simulation; Where fear and sorrow have become the companions of all our lives; A Christian philosophy of life is more needed than ever
At at time when the injustices that exists in the world have become exposed. Where, especially, the victims of racial injustice have again spoken out loudly and demanded, “if not now, when?” Where the disturbances we have seen on our televisions and even in our own town, have shaken our confidence in the peaceful complacency of our society; Where those who would lead us seem to lack the vision to answer the demands before them: A Christian philosophy of life is more needed than ever.
The life worth living which a Christian philosophy of life produces is a life of hope. A life that believes in the God who makes himself known in Jesus Christ is a life which can define the good and make the choices which lead to hope; In this moment, hope that disease, sickness and death do not have decisive control over our lives and our relationships; In this moment, hope that all the injustices that exist in the world, not least racial injustice can be overcome, and that a reconciled and harmonious society is possible. It is hope which enables us to direct our lives towards those things. And as Paul points out:
And hope doesn’t disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Christian Philosophy of Life by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.