Recently I gave a short talk at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, as part of their Wisdom Forum series.1 This particular forum concerned “the good life.” My portion concerned longing for God in connection with the good life. I share that talk with you here. This foray concerns a matter ever so close to who we are as human beings. You will see that the good life involves integration centrally. I venture to suggest that integration is the movement of the good life, as well as the movement of knowing (as in Polanyi) and of reality (as we will see in subsequent papers).
My life has been a philosophical quest for reality. I have over the decades moved from skeptic to exuberant realist. Finally to have broken through to a joyous intoxication with reality, I cannot help but describe the good life in these terms. I propose that the good life is, at its heart, loving, intimate, epiphanic, encounter and communion with the real. As I am conceiving it, the good life simultaneously is, and essentially involves, longing for and encounter with God.
Now, this life quest of mine may seem eccentric; however, I do believe that we live in a deeply anti-realist age. If so, attaining the good life as I describe it may well require preliminary metaphysical and epistemological therapy. Rhythms of the good life will need to include a deep philosophical remediation of the bad life.
The modern era of thought and culture in the West views the world reductivistically as meaningless material bits in meaningless causal connections. As such, it remains to us to contribute meaning, once we have arranged the bits however it suits our pragmatic needs. One might think that this outlook is a realism. So it may be, but it is a brutal realism. A realism that denudes the real displays a misdirected orientation, an implicit rejection, which deserves the prefix, anti-. What is more, modernity’s rejection of reality has spawned the widespread outlook that, first, reality is indifferent to or against us, or that I make my own reality, and you make yours. Finally, in our age we have shifted our focus in “knowing” to the myriad of conditions and presuppositions which “limit” our contact with the real—sociological, political, religious, psychological, and so on. While there is merit to exploring these things, preoccupation with the limits of knowledge remains a form of anti-realism. Thus, reality has become something we deny, do not connect with, and do not trust. In losing our sense of the real, we also lose our sense of ourselves and each other—and God.2
If this is the situation, then seeing the good life as intimate encounter with the real calls for philosophical therapy. But it also indicates that for our era such encounter, in its stark contrast, might well be good life indeed. Plus it suggests that actual encounters with the real will themselves heal us of our antirealism and metaphysical isolation. And further, this suggests that what needs to change is the way we see things, our attunement to behold and enter into actual encounters with the real. Finally it suggests that the good life is initiated, in a critical sense, not by ourselves and our pursuits, but by reality itself.
What may be said about the nature of reality itself? As a Christian believer, it is evident to me that reality is God, and his stuff, we might say—God, and his “let there be’s.” What does it mean to take this seriously? –Not, I feel, the matter of evolution or no evolution. It is more the question of ontology—what reality really is. Created reality is integrally connected to God: it is his very word, his gracious self-revelation. Created reality is thus profoundly there, pregnant with meaning. And we must deal persons in from before its origin: in creation the triune Lord throws a cosmic party borne of love for one another and overflowing love for the party, for creation itself. Reality is gift, love—every last quark of it.3 Reality is this wonder-filled might-not-be which nevertheless is, which never ceases to overflow in new creation.
To employ the vision of early Church Fathers, creation is the exuberant overflow of God’s absolutely generous goodness and desire toward the other, toward created reality itself.4 And this includes the implication that we ourselves are a tissue of God’s excessive desire, a desire rich enough also to render us a tissue of reciprocating desire for God. Thus, reality is God’s desire for the other, including us; and we ourselves are desire for God. I suggest that these desires meet in our epiphanic encounter and communion with the real. The good life, so conceived, is what it is our essential nature to desire and receive. And it just is our longing for God.
What do I have in mind by epiphanic encounter and intimate communion with the real?
Epiphanic: I have in mind something that is less a status and more an event. Reality shows up, displays itself suddenly (often in beauty), draws me out beyond myself and into its depths. Reality graciously engenders the opening of my eyes in delight and understanding and love as I gesture in response toward it. I’ll give examples presently.
Encounter: The event is a kind of face-to-face, self-and-other, meet-up, as we say. There is a mutuality about it, a mutuality that transforms and dignifies and enhances both. It is an encounter that opens a world of possibilities.
Intimate: This event is deeply “interpersoned”—whether the other is a person or a plant. Accessed in a self-giving mutual indwelling, it requires trust, pledge, regard for the other, consent, surrender.
Communion: Obviously a “binding together,” it is free and mutual, and does not reduce the other to myself or I to it/him/her. It also awakens me to attunement with the other. This invites, and will require, our consent. It invites us into mutual belonging, indwelling, and delight. In the world that opens in this love, good knowing and acting proceed in the tenor of mutual personal presence and sacrificial self-giving.5
Communion: The goal is not achieved, nor the relationship terminated, in a single epiphany. Encounter with the real opens out into friendship—“the continual freshness of the other,” according to Philip Rolnick.6 We find that we have been claimed and have lost our hearts to it, that we will follow it where it leads in loving service, expectant that it will lead us deeper into the endlessly delightful heart of reality.
Here are some examples of such an epiphanic event. Have you ever witnessed the blooming of a night-blooming cereus? The ugly, shy, exotic vine births an odd little bud in an untoward node on the side of a leaf. Coming on to bloom, it erects, and its outer sepals start to stand out. You drop your plans toward evening, and grab your lawn chair and camera. You sit in front of the bud and wait for the show. As the summer night darkens around you, the most spectacular, huge, exquisitely beautiful white bloom gradually opens and fragrances the air. Your heart goes out beyond you to dance in the wonder and beauty of that bloom. You promise to love, honor and obey that ugly vine till death do you part.
You are a scientist in pursuit of understanding a curious physical phenomenon—or a philosopher trying to make sense of the good life. Or you are a chemistry student desperately trying to understand red-ox equations (as I was in high school). You experience a moment of insight, a discovery, a sudden reconfiguration of the situation that more than solves your puzzlement; the insight goes well beyond that to solve you somehow, to catch you up into a richer reality that opens out into vistas of possibility. You sense that reality has broken in graciously from on high. This 11th grader could be seen dancing around the chemistry classroom in that moment of epiphany.
You are a parent, or grandparent, and you behold the face of your newborn gazing intently on your beaming face. You watch a first little smile spread across that wee face, and are caught up in a rapture of mutual recognition and eternally heart-binding belonging.
You are a great artist, such as Makoto Fujimura. You pulverize precious minerals, or you liquidate ashes, and brush or drip them across a canvas. Something larger happens: Mako says, “When I paint, God shows up.”7 He senses that his creation, an epiphanic event, is essentially the new recreation of the Great (perhaps the only) Artist.
At church you encounter Christ in the Eucharist. Once again he enters you and you enter him in mutual encounter and, of course, communion. This is your life, and it is your life with God. The Eucharist, the Gospel, is the encounter of all encounters. You may not yet know Christ and still be caught up in encounters; but having been found salvifically by Christ, from then on we can see that all encounters are implicitly the descent of God.
You can identify such encounters, and their unfolding trajectory, in your own lives. The more you see, the more you’ll spot; there is no corner of God’s real where epiphanic encounter may not come. The more you undergo, the better you become attuned to reality, the richer your life, and the more ongoing your sense of the presence of the Lord.
Two final comments. First, epiphanic mutual encounter and communion with the real integrates the fragments of our lives, puts reality together, and binds us together in friendship and peace, binds us more deeply in the depths of the real. Integration, the gestalt-like phenomenon that catches up the seemingly valueless pieces into a simple, transfiguring wholeness, is the orienting movement toward the world characteristic of encounter and communion with the real.
Second: The fragments of our lives can include the deep suffering of our lives. People around the world mostly do not have access to the commodities and devices we enjoy; their suffering is often appallingly more grievous than our own. Yet in a reality that integrates beauty from ashes, they are not excluded from the good life.
And our own lives are deeply scarred by betrayal, shame, grief, sickness—not to mention the philosophical myopia of modernity. The good news is that even the wrongs may be redeemed (not erased), transfigured in the gracious descent of the real. Even in our sorrow—especially in our sorrow, it can seem—reality comes, bringing a healing in no way reducible to a methodical manipulation of any material components.
This is the good life: a life into which reality breaks in to find us, bring us into belonging with it, and open us to inexhaustive depths of future prospects. It satisfies our deepest desires in the “continual freshness of the other.” Humans were made to be sought by and to respond to the real, in mutual desire. The good life just is to be fully human. This whole dynamic also just is the joyous delight of longing for God. To long for God is to long for the heart of reality, and vice versa.
We must confess our blindness to reality’s coming; confess our denial of our own desire for God and His real. Reality manifests itself persistently around us; we must consent to open our eyes and see.
Esther L. Meek, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Geneva College, as well as a Fujimura Institute Fellow Scholar. Her books include Contact With Reality:Michael Polanyi’s Realism and Why It Matters; A Little Manual for Knowing; Loving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology, and Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People.
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|1.||↑||“The Good Life,” Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Wisdom Forum, Wake Forest, NC, March 16, 2018. http://intersectproject.org/faith-and-culture/esther-meek-longing-for-god/ and http://intersectproject.org/faith-and-culture/esther-meek-friendship-and-the-good-life/ .|
|2.||↑||This is a claim of D.C. Schindler in his forthcoming Love and the Postmodern Predicament (Cascade, July 2018).|
|3.||↑||Philip Rolnick, Person, Grace and God (Eerdmans, 2007); Meek, Loving to Know; Schindler, Love and the Postmodern Predicament.|
|4.||↑||D.C. Schindler, The Catholicity of Reason (Eerdmans, 2013), esp. his discussion of Dionysius the Areopagite’ Divine Names, 203-19.|
|5.||↑||Schindler, Love and the Postmodern Predicament, 125.|
|6.||↑||Rolnick, Person, Grace and God, 174.|
|7.||↑||“From Creation to New Creation: Culture Care Summit” a week of talks with Makoto Fujimura in his studio at the Brehm Center, Fuller Seminary, Pasadena, CA, February 2-7, 2018.|