Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Jesus and “The Meaning of Life”

Tonight a friend introduced me to a philosophy discussion group. I’d call it a philosophy book club, except that no books were read. Instead, we watched a half-hour lecture in the Great Courses series “Great Ideas of Philosophy, 2nd Edition.” All sixty lectures in the series are given by a professor emeritus at Georgetown University, a nominally Catholic place.

The syllabus for the course includes a couple of Christian segments, including “Augustine on Human Nature,” but tonight’s chapter was “Nietzsche at the Twilight.” This followed last month’s topic, “The Hegelians and History.”

You might ask: Don’t I have something better to do?

To which my answer is basically, Yeah, but I always thought I should know something about these guys. They are key elements of the received Western philosophical tradition. And but anyway my friend is a good fellow.

This is what I learned tonight about Friedrich Nietzsche (pictured above):

He was born in 1844. He was more interested in firing off aphorisms than building logical castles in the air. (Call him a philosophical bomb-thrower.) He revered Schopenhauer, and then he didn’t. Ditto Richard Wagner. He considered Christianity a “religion of servitude,” and opted instead for the Ubermensch, or Over-Man, of which he thought he was a prime example. He had only fourteen productive writing years, 1872–1888, before succumbing to a syphilitic infection and needing care, in his last years, from his anti-Semitic sister. He became a terminal nut case—who influenced Sigmund Freud, the French existentialists, and at least one card-carrying Nazi philosopher, Martin Heidegger.

After we had kicked Superman around for 45 minutes, group members discussed what to read next. There was dissatisfaction with this Great Courses series and a strong sentiment in favor of switching to another, entitled “The Meaning of Life.”

That sounded good to me. Then I looked at the syllabus for the new course, which someone had printed out. Let me share it with you.
  1. The Meaning of the Meaning of Life
  2. The Bhagavad-Gita—Choice and Daily Life
  3. The Bhagavad-Gita—Discipline and Duty
  4. The Bhagavad-Gita—Union and Purpose
  5. Aristotle on Life—The Big Picture
  6. Aristotle—The Highest Good
  7. Aristotle—The Happy Life
  8. Job's Predicament—Life Is So Unfair
  9. Job's Challenge—Who Are We?
  10. Stoicism—Rationality and Acceptance
  11. Human Finitude—The Epicurean Synthesis
  12. Confucius—Order in the Cosmos and in Life
  13. Daodejing—The Dao of Life and Spontaneity
  14. Daodejing—The Best Life Is a Simple Life
  15. Daodejing—Subtlety and Paradox
  16. Zhuangzi on Daoism—Impermanence and Harmony
  17. The Teachings of the Buddha
  18. Santideva—Mahayana Buddhism
  19. Santideva—Transforming the Mind
  20. Zen—The Moon in a Dewdrop and Impermanence
  21. Zen—Being-Time and Primordial Awakening
  22. Taking Stock of the Classical World
  23. Hume's Skepticism and the Place of God
  24. Hume's Careless and Compassionate Vision
  25. Kant—Immaturity and the Challenge to Know
  26. Mill's Call to Individuality and to Liberty
  27. Tolstoy—Is Everyday Life the Real Thing?
  28. Nietzsche—Twilight of the Idols
  29. Nietzsche—Achieving Authenticity
  30. Gandhi—Satyagraha and Holding Fast to Truth
  31. Gandhi—The Call to a Supernormal Life
  32. Lame Deer—Life Enfolded in Symbols
  33. Lame Deer—Our Place in a Symbolic World
  34. HH Dalai Lama XIV—A Modern Buddhist View
  35. HH Dalai Lama XIV—Discernment and Happiness
  36. So, What Is the Meaning of Life?
OK, true, there are only 36 lectures instead of 60. To which I say, Phew. But there’s something else about this list, something missing. I brought it up to the group.

“I don’t know if anyone else noticed this,” I said. “Everything’s here but Jesus Christ. I mean there are two chapters on the Book of Job, and believe me,” I said, with a knowing nod to the Jewish member of the group, “I would be very interested in studying Job.”

Our hostess agreed that she, too, would really, really like to study Job.

“But how can you discuss the meaning of life,” I asked, “and leave out the entire Christian tradition?”

The very knowledgeable Jewish fellow asked, “It doesn’t even include Thomas Aquinas?”

“No,” I said. “No Augustine or St. Paul, either.” Then I said, and it was not my finest moment, “There’s even a frickin’ Native American on the list, and the Dalai Lama, of course—but no Jesus Christ!”

I had farted in a crowded elevator, and over the next five minutes there was a slow, embarrassed group movement out of the elevator—away from “The Meaning of Life” and back to “Great Ideas of Philosophy.”

And so next month we will not be discussing the Bhagavad-Gita, a book which, incidentally, I would be happy to read again after 40 years. Instead our topic will be “Marxism, Dead but not Forgotten.”

I’ll be there. If they’ll let me in the door.

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