The Unexamined Life

“The unexamined life is not worth living”, said Socrates. Socrates was teaching the need to live a life where all things are parsed for their meaning. A life lived on auto-pilot, following the great mass of humanity, takes most of life for granted. It is a life lived without reflection, without much meditation, and consequently, without much understanding. Life is reduced to a set of tasks to be completed. As reflection and contemplation wither, inevitably wonder, awe and worship suffer as well. Examining life for its meaning sets us apart from animals, who also eat, sleep, mate, get food, build shelter. Animals do not look at the sky and simply ask, “Why?”, nor do they contemplate beauty.

Since Christians believe we live in an ordered universe that was designed and created by an Intelligent Being, it only follows that we should examine all of life for meaning. The Examined Life, however, is not popular amongst many modern Christians. Begin urging Christians to examine the meaning of their music, or the impact of clothing on our moods and manners, or the uses of technology, or the values of pop culture, or the frivolity of entertainment-based living and they will go through a range of emotions.

First, amusement. “You’re kidding, right? You don’t seriously expect me to believe that God has an opinion on my [fill in the cherished idol], do you?”

Second, disbelief. “You must be some kind of cult. I’ve been listening to very conservative preachers all my life, and I’ve never heard anything like this. You’re going off the deep end.”

Third, anger. “I can’t stand all this nitpicking about how I live my life. Who are you to say that my [fill in the cherished activity] is incompatible with Christianity? Show me a chapter and verse!” Strange, as Kevin Bauder has pointed out, how some people are very attached to, and very defensive of, the things they claim carry no meaning.

For many people, a “conservative” Christian church equals a generally biblical theology, some expository preaching, and corporate worship that is tame in comparison to the rock-fests passing for Christianity everywhere else. This is ‘conservative’ to most Christians today. However, what is clear about such churches, judging by the members that come to us, is that no attempt was made to insist upon an examined life outside of the Sunday sermon. The pastor was too squeamish to touch the ‘hot-topics’ that get Christians all defensive, so he never did. Or, he was schooled in an environment which conveniently did a hop, skip and jump over such things, lest they be branded as fundamentalists. This is why people are puzzled by the Examined Life. Few Christian leaders seem to practise it; the chances of the average Christian knowing it are slim indeed.

Should these leaders be called on their unexamined living, the stock response is that such talk is legalism. Legalism is the easiest and most popular smear-word in modern Christianity. Not many people who use it to blackball their opponents would be able to define it if they were pressed. In most people’s minds, it means something like, “I’m being told what to do in very specific areas of my life, and it feels constrictive!” By that definition, simple obedience is legalistic.

True legalism, or better, Pharisaism, is turning from a Spirit-empowered walk in loving obedience to Christ’s Word, to an externalised, flesh-empowered conformity to please man. Despite what evangelicals will tell you today, it is not the specificity of the rule that makes it legalistic, it is the motive and the means through which it is performed. If you think legalism is getting down to the nuts and bolts of everyday life, I’d encourage you to read church covenants and rules of church membership from the 17th and 18th century. You will brand the whole Christian church of the era as legalistic.

The Examined Life is not legalism or Pharisaism, though living the examined life can seem demanding at first. We are not, as a rule, a reflective culture. Forcing people to think about things that are taken for granted seems burdensome and onerous.

But Socrates’ comment is meant to have the opposite effect. The Christian who embarks upon the Examined Life finds he or she was missing the wonder of living when living an unexamined life. The mystery of the world, the wisdom and power of art, the fragility of the conscience, the worth and dignity of the human soul, the revelatory power of nature, the ongoing analogies of faith all around us, the preciousness of living life as the image of God in a universe made by God and for God – these come alive to the one willing to simply examine the meaning of all things.

So when called on to examine yourself or the meanings of things in your life in all areas of life, don’t see it as the invasion of crabby Pharisees into your personal freedom. Realise it is the entry point into the Christian life worth living. “For in Him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28 )

  1 comment for “The Unexamined Life

  1. August 5, 2020 at 8:57 am

    While teaching at Princeton in 1898, Abraham Kuyper said that the “Rubicon that no true Calvinist could cross” is made up of three things: Dancing, theater attendance, and card playing.

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