A Christian Philosophy of Life - Part 1
Introduction: The Love of Wisdom
In ancient Greece, the first schools of philosophy flourished. They were called academies, or colleges, and their goal was to prepare young people to lead the State by giving them instruction in morals and ethics, mathematics, dialectics [or logical reasoning], and the natural sciences. The crucial aspect of this education was not simply to gain knowledge but to build wisdom and character. A greedy, corrupt, and selfish person could not be a good leader of the State. Citizenship and virtue were requirements for a true education.
The schools established by Socrates and Plato were not started simply because they had a desire to know facts. Facts by themselves do not reveal ultimate meaning, nor do they reveal the purpose of life. Socrates, Plato’s teacher, was interested in discovering truth. The very meaning of the word philosophy is the “love of wisdom.” This pursuit of truth is not a dispassionate and disinterested inquiry into the nature of things. Philosophy is a journey of ultimate importance, a journey whose purpose is to discover the meaning of life - the ultimate meaning of all things - the reason “why.” No one can enter such a pursuit dispassionately and still be a genuine philosopher. You cannot treat casually that which matters most. To pursue wisdom is to consider the value of the most important things in all life.
It is a tragedy that most colleges today have no interest in truth, but a great investment in knowledge. Matters of ultimate importance are discarded as either fanciful opinions or unobtainable and unproven, or, worse, as irrelevant. The headlong rush to learn facts for the sake of career, jobs, and money makes a mockery of the original purpose of the academy. This method of education teaches the technology of how, but not the reason why. For you see, the only way you can come to a true knowledge of your subject matter is to know its purpose, its meaning, and its ultimate end. Why is a job important? Why are ethics important? Why should not one cheat his way to success? If death comes to all, what difference does it make how one lives? Will money satisfy all things in life, or is there an inner need in all for something more?
If one has a hammer, but does not know its purpose, and tries to saw a piece of wood with it, that person may have the right tool for its purpose, but not the wisdom of when to use it. Wisdom gives meaning and purpose to facts, and it makes knowledge able to fulfill its ultimate purpose. Without wisdom, the chaotic accumulation of facts will not give one balance in life. The just measure will never be reached, and that person will never be satisfied or fulfilled in life. He may succeed in business but fail in the things that matter most. He may miss his destiny and the ultimate purpose for his existence.
Therefore, if one is to be engaged in philosophy, he should be engaged in the pursuit of wisdom, ultimate truth, and the meaning of life. Any lesser motivation betrays the cynic and the dilettante: the critic who will not invest himself, nor risk himself, in the pursuit of meaning. One who views from the sidelines, but who refuses himself to play the game, has no right to criticize those who are out on the field making the best of it.
The Realm of Forms - a Concern for the Ultimate.
Plato believed that this corrupted world was but a shadow of the pure, the ideal, and the ultimately real. He believed there was a higher World of Forms - ideal, pure forms or archetypes that were the pattern for all material objects. This World of Forms was a spiritual, metaphysical realm, like heaven, where there was no imperfection or decay. In it, there were ideal natural objects like horses, flowers, and men; ideal mathematical designs, like circles, and squares; and a hierarchy of intangible forms like Beauty, Justice and the Good. The Good was the supreme Form from which all other goods derived. From these ideal forms, all material copies were designed. Our material world consists of imperfect replications of these eternal and perfect ideas.
The Greeks viewed the material world has inherently corrupt and unredeemable. The Jews however considered the material world as inherently good because it was created by God to be good [Genesis 1]. The Fall of humanity caused sin to corrupt an otherwise good creation. So, unlike the Greeks, for Christians and Jews, the world is the realm of God’s redemptive action. God is seeking to redeem and restore the creation to its original intent: to be a paradise that reveals the glory of God and which brings joy to the creatures who live in it.
Nevertheless, the philosophers did understand one thing: there is a greater Good than is visible to the naked eye. This world is corrupted and the uncorrupted beauty and the perfect good are hidden in this fallen world. This perfect good can be intimated and deduced, but it cannot be demonstrated because all our examples are likewise corrupted either morally or by time and decay. Even the best of intents are subject to a mixture of motivations in helpless, mortal, and self-centered creatures.
Because this good is intimated but not seen, the philosophers sought to uncover the truth that they deduced. They sought to demonstrate by reason and logic the reality of the unseen Good. They were engaged in the pursuit of the ultimate truth, the meaning of life, and the wisdom that would give purpose to life. This idea of the Forms was their attempt to give substance to their intuitive sense that there is an ultimate Good in the universe. Socrates was even put to death for insisting that there is but One God and calling the belief in Athen’s gods into question.
The Just Measure
Plato writes of the “just measure” of things. In it, he uses the example of measure and rhythm and tune. If one plays an instrument that is out of tune, the sound is not pleasing. If one plays a tune, but not in time with the beat, then the sound is not pleasing. To be pleasing, the melody has to be played in tune and in time. That is the just measure or meter of music. In the same way, he argued, that if one was to be happy in life, one had to know the just measure of things. To be ruled by one’s appetites, for example, would cause one to never be happy or fulfilled. If a person is a glutton, then no matter how much they eat, they are never full. They always want more. If they are greedy, no matter how much money they have, they are never satisfied. If they lust for sexual encounters or fame, no matter how many encounters they achieve or how much fame they gain, they still are never complete. To be happy, he argued, a person had to know the just measure of things. He has to know how much food is enough, so that he eats that much and is satisfied. If he knows his own just measure, he will be full and content. If he never learns to govern his appetites, then he will remain dissatisfied and never content. He will be unhappy.
The idea of the Just Measure is the idea of achieving balance in life. It is a balance achieved by learning to take what is needed. It does not rule out pleasure or enjoyment of life; it only rules out excess. “Wine gladdens the heart of man,” the Bible says, but it also says, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery.” It tells us to, “Be fruitful and multiply,” but it also says, “Be content with the wife of your youth. Do not commit adultery.” In Hebrew the words “desire” and “lust” are the same word. It isn’t desire that makes something bad, it is inordinate desire. It is desire for what is wrong, evil, or forbidden. For example, the desire for love, for marriage, for sex is good, but to lust for another man’s wife or another woman’s husband is not. The enjoyment of wine is not wrong, but the addiction to unmeasured drinking is something which violates balance in life. It is lust or gluttony that leads to bondage. And what is that bondage? It is a bondage to unsatisfied desire: always wanting more but never having enough. It is slavery to appetite and it prevents happiness and contentment. For who is a slave but him who has more than he can use but is not happy with what he has? He is a slave to unhappiness, being perpetually ruled by his cravings for “more.” He lives to serve his desire. He does not rule over his desire to create pleasure. He is always dissatisfied because he is always looking to what he does not yet have. He can never stop to enjoy and take pleasure in the things he already possesses, because his lust to have “more” is ruling his life.
If one does not find the just measure in life, then you are bound by your passions and appetites. You are ruled by unsatisfied desire, or lust. If you have not found the just measure with money, then your need for possessions rules over you. Rather than using your possessions for the enjoyment of life, you are enslaved by the “need” to always be accumulating more. But what is the point of accumulating more if you cannot enjoy the more when you get it?
When my wife and I visited Italy, we saw balance in life. That balance was revealed in table fellowship. While this may be a generalization, we witnessed a pace of life there that was more humane. People worked so that they could spend time together in the evenings, eating meals together and enjoying each other’s company. Dinner would last from 9pm to midnight. They worked to pay for the food and for the fellowship and pay the bills, but work did not consume them. Work was part of the rhythm of life, but it wasn’t a grind. People do not work as hard, but they enjoy life and each other more. Work is a means, not the end of existence. People complain about how nothing gets done in a hurry or on schedule in Italy, but there is a good reason for that. The reason is that people matter more than paychecks, and friendships more than business. In other words, people work there so that they can enjoy life, not so they can accumulate possessions and spend their lives in pursuit of material goods. In our Western, “Protestant” work ethic world, we don’t value the people anymore. We only value what they can produce. We’ve warped our humanity to serve the gods of commerce. We’ve put things on pedestals and we’ve crushed people beneath our feet in order to achieve our goals of a bigger bottom line. In the West, this is a clear case of not knowing the just measure or the meaning of things. It betrays a life out of balance.
Telos- Alignment with Purpose
I said before that in order to use a hammer you have to know its purpose. The Greek word for the ultimate purpose of a thing is “telos.” Telos is a thing’s reason for being. The reason so many lives are out of balance is because we’ve lost sight of the meaning of things. We don’t understand our purpose or the purpose of material creation. Without a knowledge of telos, we can’t use things properly, nor can we find the just measure in life. We cannot align ourselves with our own reason for being because we do not know the meter or the measure. If we know the meter and the rhythm, the proper tune and scale, then when we play an instrument. We can create beauty with our hands or lips. To know the measure of the music allows us to align ourselves with the purpose of the song and to sing it. Without knowing the measure, we cannot align ourselves properly and we will miss the mark.
The Telos of Sex is Love
No place is purpose more missed and the telos more distorted than in sex. Sex was created “good.” In fact, the first commandment is to “be fruitful and multiply.” Before the creation was marred by evil, sex was part of a well ordered life. It expressed the beauty and the joy and the good of creation. But sex is only one aspect of our sacrosanct identity. Sex is not the purpose of life but part of the fruit of a good life. To elevate sex to the purpose of life is like using a hammer to drive nails through a board, but miss the wall. If you miss a stud when you nail in a nail, the board will not be attached to the wall. Sex without telos in human beings is like driving nail after nail into a board but driving each nail through to empty air. Each act misses the mark.
Sex, you see, was created for more than just the satisfaction of the body’s desire. The body is indiscriminate in its appetites. If it is hungry, any food not poisonous will satisfy the stomach, even if it’s taste is bland. Hunger is indiscriminate and the body ruled by hunger may feast on foods that are bad for the body. We were all taught as children to finish our supper before we ate our desert. Our parents knew that proteins were more important for our health and welfare than were sugar and sweets. Yet an undisciplined appetite will feast on potato chips and sweets and neglect the meat. The body will grow fat and die prematurely. Yet with hunger as the master of the mouth and the mind, the body will be ruled by the appetite, and ruled to its own demise.
So, to find the balance in life, indiscriminate hunger cannot rule the mind and the will. The appetite must be ruled over and the body made subject to wisdom for the welfare of the person’s body and mind.
In a similar way, we need to understand the telos of sex in order to align ourselves with its purpose and find in it our greatest fulfillment. Like the body with hunger, the body with sex is indiscriminate. The desire can rage and the passion be released in a myriad of ways that give pleasure to the physical organs, but like the nail missing the mark, such an indiscriminate life will not provide satisfaction to the soul and the heart. To find satisfaction and fulfillment, to find the just measure and the balance, one must know the purpose of sex.
Sex is meant to be the expression of love for another human being and the increase of love in the bounty of children, who share in that love. Immediately, sexual intercourse is a cry of the heart for intimacy and union with another human being. It is the desire to be loved and completely accepted in return. It is the giving away of self to another and the receiving of another self in like kind. With such a great purpose behind the physical desire, all casual ejaculations of indifferent appetite will fail to provide the deep fulfillment and satisfaction that the soul truly craves. Sex with many and sex often will distract the body with physical pleasures but will rob the heart and the soul of what it desires most: to love and be loved and to lose one’s self in love for another. Like many nails in the board by hitting empty air, so are the myriad of sexual encounters separated from the telos of intimacy and affection. It is interesting to note that the definition of sin is to “miss the mark.” A good desire missing the mark of telos, of its purpose, is a sin. It isn’t evil in itself, it is evil because what was created good was turned away from its intended and best purpose.
It is a strange irony that the deepest satisfaction in sexual union comes not with many partners but with the one, because only when one entrusts oneself completely to another can the true sacrifice of unselfishness free the soul from guarded reserve. Only when that ultimate surrender has taken place can sexual love meet its deepest expression and provide the greatest fulfillment to the heart. We see a hint of this great purpose in Genesis 2, when the man sees the woman for the first time, he shouts in exaltation: “Wow! She is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!” Or translated in the modern tongue: “Wow! No more beautiful thing can my eyes behold than her naked form! She is my completion!”
The telos of sex is subjected to the telos of love and intimacy, just as the body’s desire for food is subject to what is healthy for the body. If this is not done, then one’s life is out of order and one misses the mark. One is condemned to accept the substitute for the best and the counterfeit for the genuine. Such a distortion of sex leads to unhappiness and an abiding sense of loss. Why else do movie stars divorce so often and jump from partner to partner? Because they have been deceived into thinking that the desire for intimacy can be satisfied by outward beauty, multiple sexual partners, and physical acts separated from selfless surrender. Their missing of the mark of a well ordered life leads to their continual unhappiness with others. What satisfaction they are seeking they cannot find, so they flit from new partner to new partner, thinking in the new they will find what they could not find in the old. It does not work for them, neither will it for you. It is a sign of a life that has not understood the just measure nor understood the telos of life.
Why is this all so? Because we were created in a certain way by God. We were created to love one another and to love God. We were created for relationship with God, intimacy in marriage, and honorable love towards others. It is strange to the world’s ears, but we were created to be fulfilled in marriage not with many but by one. With one person we can yield ourselves, gain trust, and risk the most vulnerability, so that we are lost in the embrace of another to the point where we forget about ourselves. Sex separated from this telos of love is bound to be unsatisfying and compulsive. And those deceived by this appetite are enslaved by always wanting “more,” but never finding enough. They want new partners and more partners, think that will satisfy, but in the end, it only increases the sense of alienation from love.
Of all the appetites, sexual desire is the hardest to discipline and control because it represents the deepest longing of our soul for love and affection, to be loved and accepted. That universal cry for total acceptance will search for satisfaction, and because the need is so great, we will be most tempted by counterfeits and substitutes as we wait to find the one meant for us. Because the desire is so great, and because it represents the inmost vulnerability of heart and mind, it is also the makes it the hardest to wait for the genuine, because until that longing is fulfilled, we carry within an emptiness that causes pain.
In like manner, until we find ourselves in God, loved by him and accepted by him, we also carry the pain of an unfulfilled life: a telos not reached. We were created such as this: to never be satisfied with anything less than God himself as our friend.
In Greek, the word “logos” is often translated simply as the “Word.” In the beginning was the “Word” and the Word was with God and the Word was God - says John’s Gospel, [John 1]. However, the meaning of the word “logos” is far more profound than that. The word “logos” means the logic of existence; the Reason and Meaning of the Universe. The Logos is the reason for all things and the meaning of all things. It is the ultimate Telos. So John says, “In the beginning was the Reason for all existence, and the Reason was with God, and the Reason was God. All things were made through this Reason and without the Reason was not anything made that was made. And the Reason for all existence and the meaning of all life became Flesh and dwelt among us.” The very nature and purpose of the universe took human form and lived among us. John modeled his first chapter on the first chapter of Genesis, where God “said” let there be light, and light was! The Hebrew word for said is Dabar. It is the creative and active power of God being released through a spoken command. It is this Dabar, this Word, this Logos, that became flesh and lived among us. God’s creative and universal power, his purpose and reason for all being, the meaning behind all existence, took on human flesh, became a human being, and lived among the creatures He created.
“He [this Logos] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together,” [Colossians 1:15-17].
Why Did the Logos Become Flesh?
Why did the reason for all life become a human being? Why did ultimate truth have to take a singular human form? Why couldn’t this God just have spoken an ethical principle and written a mathematical truth in stone? Why couldn’t God have sent a philosopher to teach us the way? Why did he have to come himself as a man? The reason he had to become a man is because the reason for all existence could not be expressed any other way. It could not be written as an ethical principle or a mathematical truth. For you see, the reason he had to become human is because the greatest truth of all is Love. “God is Love,” it says [1 John 4:16]. God’s very nature and being is Love. It isn’t an attribute. God doesn’t just ‘have love.’ God is love! Love is the reason for our existence. It is the reason for the created order. It was created and we were created for the telos, for the express purpose, to love and be loved in return.
There is no higher principle or truth than love. Love motivates God and moves him because that is who he is. Love is why he created us and why he created all things. Love, however, is not an abstract principle. It is not a mere ethical truth. Love only exists as a relationship between two or more people, or between God and a person. Love is expressed through relationship. As such, it cannot be taught as a mere idea of the mind; it must be lived and shown by example in its relationship to others. Love is the highest principle of all, but Love is not abstract, nor can it exist only as a philosophy in the mind. To have the idea of love but not to love others is the death of love. So God, to teach us about the highest truth of all, had to become the example of love to show what love looks like in a human being; for only in a human being in his relationships to others, can the fullness of love be revealed. Outside the context of this relatedness of one human being to another, love is only an idea. Love, to be true, must be enfleshed and expressed.
So God became perfect love clothed in human flesh to show us what the ultimate truth is, not by mere words of intellect, but by example. There is no other way we could have understood the centrality of love. The principle had to be lived and be shown to be authentic and completely revealed. And only God could live it and show it perfectly; for all men, oppressed by fears and selfishness, cannot do it. No philosopher, no matter how self controlled could do it. For love is not simply a matter of self control. Love is a matter of self sacrifice - complete and total sacrifice of self for the sake of another. So God showed us the supreme love in the sacrifice of himself. He gave his life away to reconcile us to God and to heal our fears of death and loss. He gave away everything, even his very life, to rescue us and redeem us from the prison of selfish fear. And only God, by his love and in love, could do that for us. He was innocent, but he loved us so much, he was willing to die in our place for the crimes we have committed against ourselves, against God, and against one another.
He became love enfleshed to teach us how to love one another. And he gives us the Holy Spirit of God to enable us to love; for God’s Spirit with us is Love, the power of divine love dwelling in our flesh.