Ethics and Existentialism

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Is this the world you want? Because you’re making it, every day you’re alive.

This refrain forms the chorus of Switchfoot’s song, “The World you Want?” Give it a listen. Sure, right now. I’ll wait.

Later in the song, lead singer Jon Foreman proclaims, with the help of the Kuyasa kids,

“What you say is your religion
How you say it’s your religion
Who you love is your religion
How you love is your religion
All your science your religion
All your hatred your religion
All your wars are your religion
Every breath is your religion”

Putting the song in other terms, we are always already incarnating our beliefs, lending a living form to our moral maxims, imprinting our philosophy on the world. Each act of love or hate, unity or division, charity or greed, spells out in perfect time what we value. Or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.” I believe that the truest revelation of our character is simply what we do on a day-to-day basis. Do you believe that love is the greatest thing of all? Then how do you talk to your mother on the phone? You get my point; I’ll belabor it no further.

As the pragmatic philosopher William James pointed out, there are some matters in which it is simply no good to remain agnostic to the question at hand. So long as we stick to theoretic conversations, we may honestly and fairly allow agnosticism to metaphysical questions. Does God exist or does he not—we may not be able to say with certainty. Is it better to serve than to be served—either answer may be correct—at least when we confine ourselves to academic conversation. But time itself, the endless ticking away of seconds and minutes, calls us into account. We wake up in the morning—are our ears inclined to hear God’s voice amidst a thousand distractions? Yes or no, we’ve answered in part the question about whether or not we believe that God exists. Twenty minutes later, we’re driving to work. An elderly man is struggling to change his tire on the side of the road. Do we pass him by? We’ve answered in part the question about whether it is better to serve or be served.

William James writes, “[Religious faith] is a forced option, so far as that goes. We cannot escape the issue by remaining sceptical and waiting for more light, because, although we do avoid error in that way if religion be untrue, we lose the good, if it be true, just as certainly as if we positively chose to disbelieve. It is as if a man should hesitate indefinitely to ask a certain woman to marry him because he was not perfectly sure that she would prove an angel after he brought her home. Would he not cut himself off from that particular angel-possibility as decisively as if he went and married someone else? Scepticism, then, is not avoidance of option; it is option of a certain particular kind of risk.”[1]

Our existence not only illuminates to ourselves what we believe, it also serves as a testimony to others. So much of what we know, or what we think we know, involves applying the particular to the universal. By this I mean, we think we know what a tree is based on the trees we see in our neighborhood, that sampling of roughly .0001% (a tree is a lot bigger thing if you live near the Redwoods of Northern California compared to the Joshua Trees of the state’s Southern half). Or, we know what the GOP is based on the Republicans we come into contact with. We know what Christianity is, or Islam is, or Hinduism is, based on the Christians and Muslims and Hindus we come into contact with.

What are your three biggest values, your pillars, the foundations of your mission statement? I’ll give you space to think and answer. I want mine to be Jesus, adventure, and simplicity. I believe that those three truths or values represent the unique fingerprints of God on my soul, who he uniquely made me to be.

But then I examine my present life closely and it seems like my three biggest values are Jesus, sports, and the statistical analysis of sports—and sometimes not even in that order! So at the very least, if I’m the spokesman for the banners of ADVENTURE and SIMPLICITY, I’m not doing a very good job of making those things compelling to others. Someone could look at my life and think that “Adventure” means surfing the internet with three tabs open at once!

Are you making your values compelling to others?

Picking up another strand of thought, I think about the people that have had a big impact on my life. I think about a guy like Charley Carpenter and the words “loving service” come to mind. No one in the world—I say this without hyperbole—has influenced my understanding of what service means more than Charley Carpenter. He is the banner for that value.

I think about a guy like Matt Mascioli and I can’t help but think: “concern for others.” I would have a much more limited view of what compassion means if I hadn’t gotten to catch of glimpse of who Matt Mascioli is and what he does. Or a guy like Pete Daniels and “toughness”. Or Joe Iafrate and “gentleness”. I could go on and on. My friends are my education. I haven’t learned 1/100th in the classroom of what truth is compared to spending time with the people I know and love.

When Jesus walked on this earth, he claimed to be the perfect representation of who God really is. The Biblical author John writes, “No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us.”

It was like God was saying, “Look, the Scriptures paint a picture of who I am, but they can be hard to interpret and appropriate.  After all, how do you transform a set of narratives and poems into a set of truths? And, if you look at universal history, it’s going to be pretty ambiguous. A lot of good things have happened, but so have a lot of terrible things. History’s not going to help you decide who is in charge of this place. So, if you want to know what I am really like, you have to look to my son, Jesus.”

The existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard explains, “Christ is the truth in the sense that to be the truth is the only true explanation of what truth is. Therefore one can ask a Christian, ‘What is truth?’ and in answer to the question the Christian will point to Christ and say; Look at him, learn from him, he was the truth. This means that truth in the sense in which Christ is the truth is not a sum of statements, not a definition etc., but a life.[2]

I love the idea of learning what truth is from a life, because I think that truth is more of an art than a science. If you asked me to pick between justice and mercy, I could never give you a universal maxim, there are a million hypothetical scenarios where one or the other might be more appropriate. But I can look to the life of Jesus as presented in the Bible and catch a glimpse of how to hold justice and mercy hand in hand. Or, you can ask me what the definition of loving service is, and I would struggle to pin down just the right words. But I can say with gusto, “Look at the way that Charley Carpenter is living his life. Try to trace his motions, re-create his actions. That’s what service looks like lived out.”

Is this the world you want? Because you’re making it, every day you’re alive.

[1] William James, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Cosimo, 2006), 26.

[2] Soren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 134.

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3 comments

  1. Brad Riegg · · Reply

    Great words, there, Andy. Thanks for sharing. You are SUCH a good writer and, from what Chris and Keelia tell me, an equally good liver of life.
    It’s paradoxical, isn’t it, that as much as Jesus is the Truth, He is also the Word.
    As much as R.W. Emerson wanted to convey his thought on the importance of living right, over and above speaking about it, he used words to tell us that.
    So, I guess in the end, we live with words (double-meaning there), and hopefully we live at least part way up to our words.
    It was the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us.
    Oh, yea, and as for sports stats, the Warriors have a 66% likelihood of repeating 🙂 Go Dubs!

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    1. Brad,
      Thanks very much for your kind words–I’m sorry for the belated reply. You make some very good points.
      I think that more and more, we are fooled into believing that to speak the truth is enough. By this I mean, the tendency is to think that we merely need to share a thought-provoking article on facebook, or say that these are the things that we stand for and these are the things we are against, to have a real impact on the world. Never before has the voice of the common man been so (seemingly) audible, what with blogs and newsfeeds and instant communication. And yet it is impossible to find a unified voice from amongst the crowd. This is why I think it is so important to incarnate our truths–in the end, it is only the person who is willing to amend their lifestyle to reflect what they believe, and also to sacrifice on behalf of their truths, that will accomplish anything of real value.
      As for the Warriors, I would’ve pegged you as a Trailblazers fan! Why do you support the team from Oakland?
      best,
      andy

      Like

      1. Brad Riegg · ·

        Thanks, Andy. Yes, the need to be ‘doing’ and not just ‘speaking’ reminds me of James 2:14 “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

        The Warriors are being given a 40% chance of winning the whole shebang by most sports analysts. I’m a Warriors fan in part because they’re winning but also cuz I grew up near Oracle Arena and feverishly followed Rick Barry, Jeff Mullins and Jamaal Wilkes in ’75-’78. Damian Willard should be an MVP again, and I guess he’s now proved that. Oh well, should be an interesting ending to the season for all. For tonight, Go Syracuse. Gotta love the underdog.

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