How to live well, and book recommendations

by Bernt Hillesland

What is this Christianity thing?  As Larry Hurtado points out in his book, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, to some Romans it seemed less like a religion – with a focus on ritual obligations – and more a philosophy, where the focus was on how to go about living one’s life.  These days we might associate the word “philosophy” with cerebral discussions about whether trees falling in empty forests make sounds.  But many Greek and Roman philosophers were like life-coaches or counselors.

On a recent retreat, I read William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. In reading through even the chapter titles, my thought was, “these are questions and issues people bring to church.” Examples: “Duty: On Loving Mankind, Social Relations: On Dealing with Other People, Insults: Putting Up with Put-Downs, Anger: On overcoming Anti-Joy, Values: On Luxurious Living, and Old Age: On Being Banished to a Nursing Home.”

I also read Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh’s book The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life, which comes out of what is, apparently, the most popular undergraduate course at Harvard University (aside from intro to Economics and Computer Science!).  Chapters include: “On Relationships, On Decisions, On Influence, On Vitality, On Spontaneity.”

In his introduction, Irvine questions where someone might go to find guidance on dealing with these issues and developing a basic approach to life.  “What if they …  turn to their local church? Their pastor might tell them what they must do to be a good person, that is, what they must do to be morally upstanding. They might be instructed, for example, not to steal or tell lies or (in some religions) have an abortion. Their pastor will also probably explain what they must do to have a good afterlife: They should come to services regularly and pray and (in some religions) tithe.  But their pastor will probably have relatively little to say on what they must do to have a good life.”  So, he says, whatever our religion, we end up living life as “enlightened hedonists” like everyone else, lusting “for whatever consumer products are currently in vogue.” (p.23)

The church Irvine imagines doesn’t sound very Lutheran: lots of demands, not much good news.  But what about his question?  Do we as a church help each other have a good life?

I think we at FLC are meeting this challenge.  This year, for example, in observation of the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation we hosted some conversations on a very Lutheran idea: vocation.  How do we live our faith, approach our work, seek balance in our lives?  FLC members working in the fields of education, technology, medicine, parenting and other roles (such as managing an architecture firm) shared their experiences, insights and questions.

I also think of the recent coffee and conversation about how to seek meaning, joy and purpose in the third chapter of life, of interest shown in a Silicon Valley professional’s group, and forums on church and state helping us to think of what it means to be citizens.  As we go into June, I’ll be doing a four week preaching series – “Alive to God” –  where I hope to put Paul’s writings to the Romans in conversation with approaches to the good life suggested by the Stoic and Confucian books I read.

In some of our vision work last year, we articulated our sense of calling to be a people and place where we seek wisdom for living in a complicated world.  Could God be leading us further in this direction?