What should you hope for? What’s worth investing your life in? How do you define and create a flourishing life? Matt Croasmun, co-author of Life Worth Living, joins me to discuss:
- How to ask life’s big questions
- Why pursuing those questions matters
- How to disagree with respect, friendship, and kindness in the midst of those questions
Matt is the Director of the Life Worth Living program at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.
“Matt Croasmun is an Associate Research Scholar and the Director of the Life Worth Living program at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School and a Lecturer of Divinity and Humanities at Yale University. He is also a staff pastor at the Elm City Vineyard Church, a dynamic, diverse, urban church.”
On the Podcast:
- Life Worth Living: A Guide to What Matters Most by Miroslav Volf, Matthew Croasmun, and Ryan McAnnally-Linz
- Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life by Anthony Kronman
Season 6 of the Love Is Stronger Than Fear podcast connects to themes in my latest book, To Be Made Well, which you can order here! Learn more about my writing and speaking at amyjuliabecker.com.
*A transcript of this episode will be available within one business day on my website, and a video with closed captions will be available on my YouTube Channel.
Note: This transcript is autogenerated using speech recognition software and does contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
You know, what, what should I hope for? What’s worth investing my life in, in? What does the worthiness of our shared humanity consist? Right? How do I, how do I lean into what’s really worth investing in in life? What if our most fundamental place to build from actually shared questions rather than shared answers?
Amy Julia (24s):
Hi Friends, I’m Amy Julia Becker, and This is Love is Stronger Than Fear A podcast about pursuing hope and Healing in the midst of personal pain and social division. I’m really grateful for today’s guest, Matt Croasmun. Matt is the director of the Life Worth Living program at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. He has so much to offer wisdom and humility, and just a great, he’s just a really friendly, wonderful guy. I’m really grateful for him. And you’ll get to hear more about Matt and about the Life Worth Living program throughout this conversation, because Matt has co-authored a book on that very topic. So this is a book about big questions and about why it really matters that we learn how to ask those questions.
Amy Julia (1m 9s):
The questions like, what is worth hoping for? What is worth living for? Does my life matter and why? Those types of questions. So this is a book about those questions and how to pursue the answers to them, and how to learn How to disagree with respect and friendship and kindness in the midst of those questions. And I will add here in this introduction that Matt and I talked about something before we started recording that I don’t think came up again in our conversation. And that is that there’s a mental health crisis in America right now that seems to be particularly acute among young adults. And for me, as the mother of three adolescent kids, as someone who’s lived on school campuses for the past 20 years, I am paying a lot of attention, and I’m feeling particular concern about this situation.
Amy Julia (2m 4s):
And I think there are a variety of factors at work. There certainly is more than one answer to the question of why our kids are in this, this place of distress, anxiety, depression, you know, on down the list and the experience they had during C O V D. The rise of social media over the past 10 years certainly is part of that explanation. But I also believe that our teens are experiencing a mental health crisis because we are experiencing a spiritual crisis and a crisis of meaning and purpose, and of knowing whether our lives matter and how to approach those questions as a society.
Amy Julia (2m 44s):
And I think the teens are feeling that. So I commend this book and this conversation to all the people who are not just looking for easy answers or for a life on the surface, but for, for all of us who want and who want to give to our children a courageous, thoughtful, accessible, hopeful way to pursue a meaningful life. So I hope this conversation is just one step along that journey, and I hope you’ll enjoy it. I’m sitting here today with my friend Matt Croasmun. Matt, thank you so much for being here.
Matt (3m 23s):
Thanks so much for having me.
Amy Julia (3m 24s):
Well, I am excited for many reasons to have you here, but especially because of this new book that you have co-written that is called Life Worth Living, A Guide to What Matters Most. And I happen to know some of the backstory because I’ve been paying attention to the course that you and others have been teaching for, I think almost a decade now at Yale University called Life Worth Living. And so I thought we, maybe we could start with just a description of that course. Who takes it, how did it start, what is, what is it? And then that’ll lead us into the book that is coming out of that course.
Matt (3m 59s):
Sure. Well, you know, this, this course in many ways sort of began as our answer. I say our, my colleagues and I, Ryan McAnnally Linz and Miroslav Volf, actually the two of them taught the course the first time around this course sort of began as, as like our answer to a, what we think is a sort of false choice that we often encounter in Universities like Yale, where, you know, one of our colleagues at the law school, Anthony Croasmun, wrote this book about 12 years ago, probably now, called Education’s End Why, Our Colleges, and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of
Amy Julia (4m 36s):
Choice, which I literally have like flagged on my bookshelf. It’s in my two B red pile right now. So we’re, we’re tracking with each other already. I guess I’m 12 years late, but go on.
Matt (4m 45s):
There you go. Well, between you and me, I think his diagnosis is, is like half halfway, right? But in his diagnosis in part, you know, he talks about sort of the development of the university, you know, more and more specialization. We can’t think about the big questions anymore, these sorts of things. I think that’s quite right. But then he, he then he himself sort of falls into a trap that I think is, is this sort of false choice where he, he sort of suggests, you know, well the problem these days is he’s, is the language I think he uses in the book is his multiculturalism. you know, basically the, the problem is he sees it as a sort of a, a, a preference to have a sort of diverse and inclusive community.
Matt (5m 26s):
Why is that a problem? Well, because it means we don’t all have our sort of shared, a shared set of values on the basis of which we can talk about life’s really big questions and with some sort of basis of agreement. And so I, you know, I think there, he’s, he’s sort of fallen into this false choice that I think we’ve seen in many, many places in our Universities and in our culture at large, where we sort of think that either we can have, on the one hand, a homogeneous community where we all basically agree on some sort of foundational principles about, from which we can sort of answer life’s big questions. How should I live? Whom am I responsible for? Croasmun? That’s the, the secular modern Western liberal tradition.
Matt (6m 9s):
Yeah, the sort of great books of the Western cannon, or we think on the other hand, are the only other option is to have a diverse, inclusive community, but one in which, because it’s diverse and inclusive, we’re just gonna have to privatize the big, our answers to the big questions of life. And so a question of the good life of what actually is a life worth wanting for ourselves, for our communities, for people? We care about that question, you know, this, this false choice suggests that question. If we’re gonna have an inclusive community, we’re just gonna have to, I’ll go think about that question on our own and on our own time and in private spaces, then to whatever extent a college classroom is something like a public space, at least public for the folks that are in the room, then we can’t take up life’s big questions in that space.
Matt (6m 57s):
And really in certain ways, like this course has been a sort of tenure project to demonstrate that that is a false choice. That in fact, we can have a conversation that leans into the sort of diversity and plural, pluralistic sort of context that a place like Yale College offers as a tremendous sort of resource in place in which to precisely asks like last life’s big questions. And not just in some sort of anthropological sense, like, I don’t know, like what have people thought about these questions, but to wrestle with the truth of these questions for ourselves.
Matt (7m 37s):
And so we like to say that in Life Worth Living, we’re inviting young people to sort of marry their most, like the, the best of their intellectual energies with their most profound existential questions. And when you allow students to put those two things together and to do that around a, a table with people very much unlike them interacting with texts from all around the globe and across human history, ah, there’s actually, there’s a really, really sort of dynamic conversation that’s possible there.
Amy Julia (8m 13s):
Yeah, absolutely. I can only imagine the book itself. Well, I gotta tell a story. So I was sitting at a bar, I don’t think I’ve ever said that on this podcast before. But I was, I was eating lunch on a trip alone at a bar, and I was reading your book, and a guy who’s also eating lunch down the row from me or whatever, a couple stools away at some point, tries to start a conversation with me. And he says, oh, so you know, what, what are you reading? And I said, oh, I’m reading a book called Life Worth Living. And so he is like, oh, is it fiction? And I said, no. And I’m like, I don’t wanna talk to you about this But I. Then he’s like, oh, well, okay, so what’s it about?
Amy Julia (8m 54s):
And I said, said, well, it’s basically a primer on moral philosophy that’s based on a course taught to undergraduates at Yale. And I was like kind of laughing at myself as I’m telling him this, like, I can’t believe this is what I’m reading over my lunch alone at the bar. And then he was like, so do you just feel terrible about yourself the whole time that you’re reading it? And it was one of those things where I was like, well, no, I really don’t. But also the fact that that’s where he went immediately in the idea of like philosophical questions about life and the idea of really wanting to engage those deep questions, being an exercise and feeling terrible about yourself, which I, I mean, and, and that was the end of our conversation for perhaps a lot of obvious reasons.
Matt (9m 44s):
You just experienced a little taste of what it’s like when someone asks you, like, you know, what do you do for a living? And you have to answer, you are a theo Oh,
Amy Julia (9m 52s):
Matt (9m 52s):
To that. And you just like, you’re a pin drop. And they’re like, they’re like, oh, no, what have I done? Why did I ask that
Amy Julia (9m 59s):
Question? Pretty much. So, so that leads me back to my question, which is like, why, who is, who’s taking this class? Who’s read? I mean, people aren’t reading the book yet because it’s just about to come out, but like, who will be reading this book? And, and why, why do we ask these questions? Because I really don’t think we ask them in order to feel terrible about ourselves.
Matt (10m 20s):
Yeah. Well, so first thing, you know, at, at the, for the course, we have students from all across the college, and every once in a while, some management students who are really good at negotiating, negotiate their way into the course. You gotta be aware of those management students. They’re sneaky. But mostly it’s, it’s undergraduates and, and they really, you know, we’ve done some, you know, we tried to like tabulate the data, like basically it, the spread of majors in our classes about the same as the spread spread of majors among the undergraduates, which is to say a lot of psychology majors, a lot of economics majors, a lot of biology majors Yeah. Of various sorts. So we’ve got, this is not, yeah, it is not specialists, you know, students who are just studying philosophy or religion.
Matt (11m 6s):
And I think that speaks to, you know, what you’re saying about, you know, why we ask these questions. I think we ask these questions because we’re human beings and because we, and we don’t often ask them, let’s be honest. I think that’s part of what we’re trying to do with this book is actually like prompt folks to stop and ask. Because I think most often we just do what we do because that’s what we do. And, you know, life is busy and parenting takes a lot of time. I mean, I guess our undergraduates aren’t dealing with that. But you know, for all of us in, you know, in the world, we got a lot of, we got a lot of things that are, that we gotta think about. But the fact is, is human beings, we do things for reasons, or at least we invent reasons after the fact, or we have them beforehand or whatever it might be.
Matt (11m 57s):
We aim at certain sorts of goals we want to, and, you know, pausing and thinking about those goals, I mean, that’s, that’s really what we’re, I mean, one of our chapters, right, just called What Should I Hope for? And I think that’s a lot of what we are after in this book is, is those sorts. Like, what’s worth hoping for? Not Yeah. Not that sort of self-flagellating sort of like, oh no, what a terrible screw up I am, or whatever. But you know, what, what should I hope for what’s worth investing my life in, in what does the worthiness of our shared humanity consists? Yeah, right. How do I, how do I lean into what’s really worth investing in in life?
Matt (12m 38s):
Those are questions that maybe we’re forced to ask. That’s actually maybe part of what we mean when we say we come to like quarter or midlife crises where like big transitions in our lives, we’re sort of forced in moments like that to, to ask those questions. But they’re, they’re worth asking, maybe not, maybe before we get into those crises crisis moments, if we can like be intentional and deliberate about it, it can serve us well for later when we inevitably do come into those crises. And it’s a, it’s a, it is a great privilege to be able to do it, but it’s at the same time, we always say we’re living answers to these questions, whether or not we could give those answers.
Matt (13m 23s):
And so taking a moment to really think about it and consider, and maybe talk about it with some trusted friends or neighbors, that’s, it’s just, I think it’s part of taking ourselves seriously. Yeah. And, and your, you know, your, your, your bar mate is not, it’s not wrong that there, there are moments where that’s uncomfortable, right? Yeah. You take a look at like who you, who you want to be and take a look at who you are at the moment. And there’s a gap there. And, you know, that can be uncomfortable, but at the same time, you know, having standards is not far from having hopes, right?
Matt (14m 4s):
Having, having moral aspirations. Yeah. And, and those can be good and really motivating and orienting to our lives.
Amy Julia (14m 12s):
Well, so can you give an example? You just said something about like, we’re living the answers, whether or not we are conscious of that or, or thinking about it. Like, can you give examples? Cause I think you all do this well in the book of some of the ways that we live out those questions, perhaps without even knowing, oh, we’ve all been drinking the same water and it results in the same, you know Yeah. Growth happening or not happening. Yeah.
Matt (14m 37s):
Yeah. So, so one thing we do early on in the book is, so we have, we have exercises throughout the book and, and one thing we do early on, maybe even the first set of exercises, we sort of ask, ask you to ask the reader to take a, take an inventory. Where are you investing your time, your money, and your attention? And I think that’s one of those places where, man, if you look at those three things Yeah. You’re gonna get, especially if you can be honest about it. And you know, we even think about like, look, no, we don’t mean like, just think about it. We mean like, look at your calendar, look at your checkbook or your mint.com or whatever it might be. Look at your, you know, browser history or your most recently used apps or whatever it might be to think about attention and, and yeah, you’re gonna get some truth back there.
Matt (15m 27s):
And, and we think that, you know, one of the things that you might find, one of these really sort of prominent visions, we think is sort of out there in the water Yeah. Is what we call the Walgreens vision long, happy and healthy, right? So Walgreens used to have the slogan at the corner that Walgreens was at the corner of happy and healthy. We add long to that, you know, who would wanna have a happy and healthy life, if wasn’t all also a long life. That’s probably part of why we want a healthy life. But these are some of these things that we just sort of live for, which is to say that we, we live for sort of bear life and you know, I’m not sure anyone’s gonna stand up and advocate for sad, you know, what is it short, sad, and sicky.
Matt (16m 12s):
But, but surely there’s more to it than just living for just bare life itself. And we, you can see that and lives that we admire who for the sake of something more valuable are willing to put their lives at risk and maybe their lives aren’t as long as they could have been put their health at risk, maybe they’re not as healthy as they might’ve been, put their certainly, like their enjoy, you know, put their enjoyment of life second. And in some at least thin sense, their happiness, they, they readily sort of compromise on. I mean, but those, anyway, those obviously aren’t the only places. We also seem to, we seem to live for, you know, sort of career accomplishments, right?
Matt (16m 56s):
Instead of, you know, meaningful relationships. We live for reputation instead of for character. We, you know, just like we’re constantly sort of driven, especially in our social media environment, right? To to, to live for reputation in ways that probably aren’t, aren’t worth it if we take a moment to, to pause and consider. So yeah, those are, those are some, some of those things where like, well shoot, like, you know, you sit down, you look at your, you look at your checkbook, you look at your calendar, you look at what you’re reading and watching and you’re like, oh, shoot, maybe I’m, I’m living for some things that aren’t maybe in the final accounting really worth being quite so central to my life.
Amy Julia (17m 40s):
Yeah. And I think you all do a great job in the book of just sharing short anecdotes that do cause a reader to say, oh, right, okay. you know, Martin Luther King is an kind of an easy example of someone whose life involved suffering and ended prematurely, you know, and was also one that was even in his own reckoning, knowing that what he was doing was probably leading him to that and was, was worth it. And it’s hard to imagine someone looking back at his life and saying that it was not a Life, Worth Living, whereas if you compared it to someone who was probably in a safer or happier or healthier place, right.
Amy Julia (18m 21s):
you know, you can ask a lot of good questions from that. And you all do that, I think, well, in the book, and I guess to kind of, to this point, one of the things that I really appreciated, and this also goes back to your original thought about there being a false dichotomy to say, we can either privatize this if we’re gonna, if we’re gonna be diverse, then we have to privatize this. And what the book does, and I imagine the class doing, is weaving together religious, philosophical, moral traditions. And you do that without pretending that they are different versions of the same message. Because at least for me, I feel like growing up in like the eighties and the nineties, I got a lot of like religions, all different religions are paths up the same mountain.
Amy Julia (19m 4s):
And so yes, they might look different, but you’re all going to the same goal or you know, everyone’s blindfolded and their hand is on a different part of the elephant. And so you’re feeling the tail and I’m feeling the trunk and we think we’re feeling different things. It’s actually the same.
Matt (19m 18s):
Why does this poor elephant keep getting groped? I don’t understand. It’s someone’s gotta stand up for the poor elephant.
Amy Julia (19m 23s):
Well, let’s stand up for the elephant and make it clear that, that, you know, what you’re trying to do is say, actually these are, there are some questions in common. And actually I would love for you to talk a little bit about why having questions in common matters and the way that, but then also there are different answers and I thought maybe we could explore a topic and just get an example of like, here’s some different answers to a common question. So yeah. So I’m gonna back myself up here and just ask you to speak a little bit to the significance of having common questions, but then I’d love to talk about having diverse answers. Yeah,
Matt (19m 59s):
Yeah. I mean, you know, our, our world would be a lot simpler and we’d have a lot less conflict if at the end of the day we really did all want, you know, exactly the same thing. Or if we did really sort of all have the exact same set of values and it was just some sort of, you know, yeah. Blind men feeling the different parts of the elephant or whatever sort of analogy you’d want. I mean, that would, that would, that would be convenient. But I think like, you know, conflict in our world makes it pretty clear. I mean, I mean it’s, you know, I don’t know, just mean like, you know, war and con, I mean like even in our ideologies and in our, in our political disagreements, I think some of our political disagreements are disagreements about visions of a good life. Yeah. Right. We’re not having political arguments these days.
Matt (20m 41s):
Have you were, and fewer, I think, political arguments these days about just simply the, you know, different strategies for achieving the same ends. You’re having disagreements about what ends are actually worth achieving. Right. And I think many of those conversations really matter, actually. I think they’re, they’re sort of moral questions at stake. And so anyways, to me that’s just a sort of patently obvious that, that we, you know, we, we there are genuine disagreements Yeah. Here and not just apparent disagreements, but that does point to just what you’re saying, that well then what is our common ground? If our common ground isn’t some sort of, you know, lowest common denominator of like, oh, somewhere, way, way down there we share, you know, sort of common commitments to freedom or kindness or something like that.
Matt (21m 29s):
And I don’t, you know, there are, there are places of agreement. Yeah. But what if, what if our most fundamental place to build from actually are shared questions rather than shared answers. I, I think, you know, my, one of my great sort of disappointments or regrets, I don’t know about my college, my, my time in college that maybe in certain ways I’m trying to sort of make up for now in my role in the college classroom as a teacher is, you know, when I was a college student, my life was completely upended by these big questions. Yeah. I came in actually oriented, I think, sort of unbeknownst to myself, I wouldn’t have ever wanted to say it this way, but sort of like my life was, was oriented around reputation in, in certain ways.
Matt (22m 13s):
And it took a, a lot of very kind people and a sort of persistent, in my case faith community to, to help me gradually sort of get a picture of, of what that was and to help me come to the conclusion that, you know, in my case, you know, the some sort of pursuit of, of fame or a particular sort of reputation wherever just wasn’t worth being the center of my life. But that was, that that all happened largely within a pretty relatively homogeneous religious community. Right. And as much as that was, and it was absolutely revolutionary in my life and really, really important, and I’m still invested in Christian communities to this day.
Matt (22m 57s):
At the same time I found I was completely inarticulate, unable to even talk about what it was that I was learning or the questions that I was asking with my, my friends that weren’t part of that community. I had tons, tons of those friends, But I didn’t know how to bring these questions into those relationships. And I have been sort of, I’ve been sort of wrecked over the last 10 years and in the best sort of way for, you know, for anything less than a conversation that involves people who genuinely see things differently, right. Where what we share in common are shared questions rather than shared answers.
Matt (23m 37s):
And to be able to, yeah. To say to my, you know, my secular humanist friends, you know, like, let’s, let’s consider this question together to say to my Buddhist friend Buddhist friends, like, let’s, let’s, let’s consider, you know, this, this question Yeah. Together that I think there’s just like, you know, there’s, there’s still, as I said, I’m, I’m a, I’m a ordained Christian pastor for goodness sake. I’m still very much invested in religious communities. I’m especially for what it’s worth invested in those communities when they’re able to center questions at least as much as they do answers. But, but, but I’m also like, I, I just think it’s an important part of our lives to be able to, cause that’s actually when we have to do that difficult work of articulation.
Matt (24m 26s):
Cuz I think at the end of the day, my undergraduate self not only was unable to articulate my answers or even my questions to folks that weren’t part of my religious community, that also just means that I didn’t really, I wasn’t articulating for myself very well, my questions and my sort of evolving answers not as well, not as well as I could have. So does that make sense? It’s not just a matter of like, oh, interfaith conversation or dialogue or, you know, I mean those do have value just in and of themselves, but they also have value for us as individuals because they actually require us to, to like know what we’re talking about and not sort of fall back into whatever kind of religious or philosophical or cultural jargon Yeah.
Matt (25m 7s):
Happens to work and are sort of, again, important but, you know, sort of smaller, more heterogene, more homogeneous spaces. So yeah, I’m, I’m a big proponent these days of communities built around shared, shared questions.
Amy Julia (25m 23s):
Yeah. I mean, that really resonates with me as well, because I do think there’s a safety in homogeneity, but there is also can be without even intending to like a shallowness or a a lack of rootedness, and there’s an expansiveness that can come for me as a Christian, I remember when I first was really introduced to and ha and developed respect for Divergent, whether it was divergent views within the Christian tradition or outside of it, that was scary at first. And yet over time it actually expanded my own commitments as a Christian actually, as well as my respect for people who did not share those commitments and enabled a, a richness of learning and growth for sure.
Amy Julia (26m 11s):
So I have two other thoughts. One is also just, this is backing up a little bit, but you know, in that whole idea of maybe we just need to keep this all private so that it doesn’t offend anyone. And yet I think one of the places where we’re seeing that wreak havoc in our culture is in the political realm because the whole point of the political realm is that it’s public and we don’t have the same commitments necessarily. And so if we can’t learn how to talk with one another about disagreements, whether that’s disagreement over the means, the ends, what the question should be, I don’t know. It seems like this has implications outside of even just being able to develop those friendships and have those conversations on the kind of religious and moral and spiritual level, which seems really important to me.
Amy Julia (26m 59s):
But it also seems like it’s a primer for some of those Yes. Conversations that really we’re not doing well as a society right now. And I think this might be part of why, because we’ve said, well, the things you really care about need to be private. And it’s like, well actually they can’t be. And so we need to remember or learn if we’ve never known how to do this in public without simply not listening to each other, cutting each other down, you know, et cetera. So anyway, that was just a thought I had while you were speaking But I wanted to ask if you could give an example of a topic. These come up in the book. So the question of purpose, the question of suffering, the question of what to do after we fail any of those or something else.
Amy Julia (27m 42s):
But where, can you just give us literally like, okay, here are three or four different ways that people think about that question and they don’t agree, and that would be good to explore.
Matt (27m 53s):
Yeah, I mean, so I, the first question that we take up this way in, in the book is this question of responsibility. And here we mean not just who are you responsible for, but actually mostly we’re trying to think of who are you responsible to? Who do you answer to for the shape of your life? We used the image of Smokey the Bear pointing his, his paw at you, telling you that only you can prevent forest fires and or sorry, wildfires. Smokey the bear has changed his fear of concern
Amy Julia (28m 25s):
Since I was good
Matt (28m 25s):
To know. Good. I was informed, I was informed of this by the, by the Forest Service while we were trying to get permission to put in a picture of Smokey the Bear in the book. We did not get permission. Oh my goodness. It’s okay. But yeah, so, so we, we think about this question on responsibility and you know, one, you know, so, so what’s, what’s Confucius’s answer? you know, who are you responsible to for Confucius? You’re responsible to your sort of community of origin, first of all, right? And this sort of first and foremost, your responsibility is to your parents. Your responsibility is to your family, to your close community, your town.
Matt (29m 10s):
And it sort of emanates out in sort of concentric circles of responsibility for many Muslims. The answer. And for many, you know, adherence of Abrahamic traditions, the, the answer is you’re responsible to God. Yeah. But many Muslims will tell a story that’s quite striking on this point and sort of say like, all of us, before we entered this world, we stood before aah. And we promised to live by his commands. And we call it in the book the most important promise you don’t remember making, right? I mean, this, yeah. This is this sort of account of like, it doesn’t matter whether you remember it, you, you made this this promise.
Matt (29m 52s):
And so you have this responsibility to God, not just because God created you, but also because you’ve, you’ve made a commitment to live as God requires. Emmanuel Cont thinks that we’re responsible, most of all, perhaps to reason to this sort of standard, this natural moral law that is in a very important sense, sort of outside of us, in that it, it’s like it is a standard that we have very much in anybody who knows much about cont knows just how high that standard is or how difficult it is to achieve.
Matt (30m 33s):
But we access it through, through reason. It’s not because it’s a tradition handed down to us. It’s not because God said, so con has plenty of ideas about God, but he doesn’t think you need them necessarily for morality. You, you simply, you, you, you’re responsible to, to reason, which then also makes you in a certain way responsible to all reasonable people. Mm. You have to answer to them and give, be able to give an account for your course of action. And that course of action needs to be a course of action that you could recommend for everyone. And, and then finally, we have sort of the possibility advanced these days by many folks that maybe we are ultimately, truly and only responsible to ourselves.
Matt (31m 20s):
Right. We’re, we’re a bit dubious about that last one. It carries with it the worries about arbitrariness. Hmm. We’re responsible only to ourselves. There can be a sort of unbearable lightness of being as it were, a sort of sense that it’s all, yeah, it’s all arbitrary, it’s all, it’s all just arbitrary preference. All all the way down. There are more robust ways of thinking about a responsibility to oneself, including what it’s worth, theistic versions of that maybe we’re responsible to become our most authentic selves.
Matt (32m 1s):
but Right we answer not to our authentic selves, or at least not directly or not ultimately, but we, we answer to the God who created us or the God who has given us a particular vocation to become particular selves. But anyway, you can see in all of these different ways that you get very different sorts of answers. And maybe like, just one more like concrete sort of piece of this is, it’s always striking to me in the annex, in, in the annex of Confucius, yeah. It’s 1318 Confucius tells, or is told a story by, by someone who, who comes in and says, ah, you know, Confucius, you have to understand how, how righteous people are, how, how morally upright people are in my, in my country, in my country with when a father steals a sheep, his son turns him in.
Matt (32m 50s):
Hmm. And, and, and, and Confucius says, oh, you know, in my country, people do things differently. A a son covers for his father and a father covers for his son. And there is also, there is also justice in what they do. And so you get this sort of, this really striking sort of different, and again, you gotta be careful with that computer certainly believes in sort of some, in a universal sphere of moral responsibility, confusion isn’t suggesting, you know, help your father get away with murder, you know, but there is a, a different sense of responsibility and answerability.
Matt (33m 30s):
So anyway, so it gives you, gives you a sense and, and as you say throughout the book, every question that we could possibly take up. Yeah. We find multiple divergent important differences, not just sort of like, ah, look, you know, this is, puts a slight emphasis here versus a slight emphasis there. No, these are sending us in often in if not polar or opposite in, it’s still in very importantly different directions about how we might think of our lives, what we might do again, where we might look for the, the hope of, of, of what is most worthy in, in our lives.
Amy Julia (34m 4s):
Thank you so much. Just for yeah. Taking the time to, you know, give us one. And as you said, that is just one example of what is really a rich tapestry of different lines of thought and places of overlap as well as of real divergence between these different traditions that are both ancient and modern in different ways. One question that came up for me in reading the book, and this comes particularly because of my own experience as the mother of a child with down Syndrome and with disability. So the question of kind of Life Worth Living comes up a lot in the context of disability circles and it obviously comes up outside of them as well, whether that’s talking about, you know, people with terminal illness or who are elderly or who are just undervalued by society for all sorts of different reasons.
Amy Julia (34m 54s):
But it seems to me that there really are people who are deemed not worthy of life in different ways and for different reasons across different traditions, et cetera. But I’m just wondering how you would respond to just the question of people having unworthy lives or Yeah. And it seems to me again that the different traditions would come at that differently. So Yeah. Yeah. I just would love to hear your thoughts on that.
Matt (35m 22s):
Yeah. I mean, this is a really important question and it’s, it’s, it’s maybe one of the only questions that we treat differently, both in our course and in the book. In, in the course. We tell students on the very first day, you know, the title of this course, Life, Worth Living may bring up for you the question of whether your life is worth living. Right? And I just wanna tell you actually, that’s not what this course is about for what it’s worth. And we think it’s worth a lot. We want you to know your life is worth living. Every human life is worth living. And that’s not a, that’s not a question we’re gonna consider in this class.
Matt (36m 5s):
Like, whether, you know, which lives might be worth living and which ones wouldn’t be. That’s just, that’s just not how we’re gonna think about it here. Instead, this course is an exploration in, in what does the worthiness of our shared humanity sort of consist. Like where does it lie? And I think disability studies, this reflection on disability, I think really helps us sort of be, be careful as we sort of think about places where we might locate that worthiness. Yeah. It can’t be an ability. Our, our worthiness can’t be in our abilities. We say in the book, all, all ability is temporary. Yeah. It’s, it’s, and, and no ability is universal in the, in the human community.
Matt (36m 49s):
There’s what we all are, are our objects of potentially objects of love. Again, if you’re coming from a theistic point of view, we are in fact all objects of love. There are feminist approaches within disability studies that I find really compelling that, that, that begin with the thought that we are all, we were all loved by someone, by a caregiver. That’s, that that is, that has been true for us at some point in, in our lives. So I, yeah, I think that’s a, I think that’s a really, really important question. And we, and the way we deal with it in the book, we try to deal with it like, before you even get to the text, this is, this is why we say, you know, after we dedicate the book to our students, we then say, you know, to our readers, your life is worth living and we hope this book helps you more profoundly appreciate the worthiness of our shared humanity.
Matt (37m 43s):
Yeah. But you’re, you’re, you know, you’re not wrong. And you know, of course one can, and many people have sort of, you could take it up as a philosophical question and you would find voices who would want to distinguish some even human lives as not worth living. Peter Singer, right. Who’s a thinker who, whom we engage, do we you do, we certainly, he comes up on times, he comes up, you know, he has really, really, he’s, I he’s, he makes I think profound moral error in his determination or his, his arguments that, that there are some lives that are not worth living anyway.
Matt (38m 23s):
Like I said, for, for us, that’s just a, that’s a question that we, we take up almost every question as we sort of like, oh, let’s, let’s take it up and let’s see where various people land for us. That’s just a question that we don’t, we don’t treat the same way. I, we wanna appreciate that as a assumption for the question. We just wanna like, name as answered for us. Yeah. And sort of constitutive in that answer being constitutive of, of the conversation in some sort of way.
Amy Julia (38m 44s):
And would you say perhaps with like utilitarianism, which Peter Singer is at least one, you know, he’s one strand of, would the other traditions that you represent, I mean obviously you are representing a Christian tradition even though you’re doing that in, in a very pluralistic way and inviting dialogue with lots of other traditions. Would you say that the other traditions that you all are exploring have a shared assumption that life is worth living? That, but human life is worth living?
Matt (39m 24s):
That is a good question. I, I should say first of all, that I, I wouldn’t profess to have expertise enough to, to, I mean, especially phrased as a universal. Sure.
Amy Julia (39m 36s):
Yes. And I’m not trying to back you into a corner,
Matt (39m 38s):
It’s No, no, no, no, no. But I’m just, I’m just trying to, I’m just trying to be careful and think about it because I, I wanna be honest, even in my own theological tradition, of course there are, there are Christians Yeah. Who will argue, I think, in really troubling ways about trying to sort of limit the bounds of the human community. I mean, that’s the other thing, right? Like all human lives are worth living. Oh. Oh, now, now we’ve qualified it are where are we drawing that human boundary? Yes. Cuz that’s, and obviously in the history of, of Christian thought in this country, hum the boundaries of the human community didn’t al haven’t always extended across, even across racial lines. Yeah. And so, you know, I I think there are possibilities of, certainly of, of what Miroslav has has called sort of malfunctions of religious traditions.
Matt (40m 30s):
So maybe we would wanna say in some sort of normative or charitable charitably normative sort of sense. Right. We wanna say that like, at their best, it seems that these other traditions, like, like the Christian one, I think the Christian one at its best is gonna affirm Yes. All, all the worthiness of all human lives, and it’s gonna expand the circle of humanity as broadly as possible. I mean, of course like one of the things that like our, our, some of our Buddhist interlocutors will take us to ca to task on and some, some of our utilitarian interlocutors would as well is like, why do you keep using that word human and shouldn’t we be talking about the worthiness of of, of li of life.
Matt (41m 10s):
Yeah. Full stop. Right. And so yeah, I mean that, that, you know, I think there again, as in all, as in all places, we may find sort of places of overlapping consensus that are important. And like I said, this book is, is sort of built on an overlapping consensus that, that all human lives are, are worth living. And we might find that that’s, I think most of our interlocutors in the, in the traditions and the communities that we’re talking about, I think can join us in that. And like I said, some of them would even push us to, to open that circle wider.
Amy Julia (41m 46s):
Right, right. Well, so, and that leads me, I have like two more questions for you. But. I mean I have many But. I’m gonna only ask two more. One is that I’m curious for you as a Christian who has been working on, you know, in this class and on this book, what are some things that have informed how you think, how you see the world, how you understand what it means to live a Life Worth living that perhaps surprised you that came from outside of your Christian tradition? Like what are some ways in which the other ways of seeing have informed your own practice of living?
Matt (42m 25s):
Oh, how, how much time do you have there? I’ll give you at least two, maybe a third one. The one that’s been the most transformational for my life began actually a little bit before teaching this course, but this course has deeply enriched it, but it began in real life as it were when we moved into our neighborhood in New Haven that we live in now that’s has a large orthodox Jewish community. Hmm. And I was at that time finishing my dissertation. And so that meant working all hours of the day and the nights and all days of the week. And I remember, you know, one Friday evening as I’m trying to eek out, I mean, I don’t know what I was thinking, you know, who’s, who’s gonna have a productive thought at 11:00 PM on a Friday night?
Matt (43m 12s):
Like you, you should have
Amy Julia (43m 14s):
Matt (43m 15s):
Should have backed it in. But But I remember, you know, working, you know, working hard one of those Friday evenings and downstairs we live in a duplex and our downstairs neighbors are Orthodox Jewish. And at that point they had, there were two young girls living in the house and you know, Friday night is Shabbat. Yeah. And they have, they have to walk to, to synagogue, which means that their friends from synagogue all live within walking distance. And for whatever reasons on top of that, we would need to add on every Friday night downstairs was like a slumber party for like, after, after services. They like came back and it was like, you know, like 12 girls under the age of, you know, under the age of 12, like having, you know, having something, you know, so I’m hearing these like giggling girls downstairs and I’m just thinking these kids know something that I need to learn.
Matt (44m 10s):
Like I, you know, I’m banging my head against the wall here. Right. And these kids have a sort of joy and life and they’re receiving something as a gift. And that sort of began a process for me of coming to discover the sort of gift of Sabbath that’s actually I think part of my religious tradition as well. But one that I really saw lived out in really inspiring ways by my Orthodox Jewish neighbors. And then as I started in this course, you know, reading the work of a, you know, Abraham Joshua Heschel and of Jonathan Sachs and, and other Jewish writers reflecting on Shabbat and what kind of gift this is from God to receive the gift of limits of our, of our creatureliness, of our humanity.
Matt (44m 50s):
Yeah. By having these 24 hours a week when we just don’t work, we, we now as a family, it’s been almost 10 years now. We take, it may spend more than 10 years now we take a 24 hour Sabbath Yeah. And we do it in sync with our neighbors from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. And it has just been, it’s been a lifeline. Yeah, bet. And, and for me as a Christian, it’s made me reflect on, you know, why don’t Jesus’ famous Sabbath sayings in which he says, you know, the, the, the, the Sabbath was man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man and or the human not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for the human. And, you know, a lot of Christian rhetoric emphasis, the first part of that But I hadn’t really thought about the second half of that statement,
4 (45m 36s):
But wait, the Sabbath was like made for the human gift to you. This is a gift gift
Matt (45m 41s):
From God for me. So anyway, in our own sort of weak sauce, you know, modern Protestant, Christian sort of way, we have Sabbath service, I say weak sauce Right. In comparison to our Orthodox Jewish neighbors. The second example that it was really, really powerful was in a conversation with, or actually it was in the class. It was our, we have a, we have a sessions with guest practitioners in every unit. And it was with our, our Buddhist guest, third or fourth year that I taught the class. And his zen teacher and one of our students asked him a question.
Matt (46m 21s):
We had been reading a bunch of texts in the poly canon, these very ancient Buddhist texts. And, and, but we had also read some more contemporary zen texts about compassion. And the student was having a hard time sort of fitting these two things together. The ancient texts seemed not to be compassionate in, in ways that they, that the student had expected or hoped. Anyway, this, this, this zen guest friend of mine answered. He said, well, you know, first of all, this, a zen practitioner, zen vo aren’t all that invested in the most ancient layers of the tradition. And he’s like, eh, you know, basically like, take it or leave it.
Matt (47m 3s):
They said, but you know, if you want know, if you wanna know about compassion, I think you gotta think about the figure of the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is the one who has achieved enlightenment, but for the sake of the world, for the sake of compassion rather returns to the world, rather than sort of leaving it for nirvana state out of compassion. I said, if you wanna understand the Bodhisattva and you wanna think about ancient sacred text, I think you have to think about the gospels. Hmm. you know, he’s like, I, he’s like, I to this day, he’s like, I can’t read the gospels without weeping. Hmm. Because when I think of the Bodhisattva, the enlightened one who for the sake of compassion returns to the world, I think about Jesus.
Matt (47m 52s):
And first of all, I, you know, I told him after the class, I was like, Steve, man, you’re like, you’re killing me here. you know, these, these students know that I’m a Christian. They’re gonna think that I put you up to this, you know, my Buddhist guest, and you come in and like extolling, you know, the Christian scriptures and the person of Jesus But, I’ll tell you, as a Christian, I don’t know that I would want to give up Jesus the <unk>. I, that’s an image that helps me understand Jesus better. Right. Right. This helps me understand when, again and again in the gospels, like it just adds something else to, to those times in the gospels when we read that Jesus moved by compassion, right. Did X, Y, and Z, which is common language for the gospel writers.
Matt (48m 38s):
Yeah. I I’m not some like, you know, But I. What I love, love about, about that example in particular is that, and that’s a lot of how it’s sort of worked for me. And I sometimes, like, you know, I’ll, I’ll sort of tell on myself, my students, you know, you know, I’m like, you know, before you think I’m so open-minded, notice what has happened here. I’ve engaged, you know, Buddhist thought in and I’ve come back with some insight about Jesus. So you can see I’m, I am, you know, I’m, I am sort of recalcitrant in my, in my commitment to loving and following Jesus. Fair enough. Guilty is charged. But but that’s what it’s looked like for me. It’s not a smorgasboard of like, oh yeah, this input from this and this insight from there.
Amy Julia (49m 21s):
I’m creating a new religion out of the best or something like that. Yeah,
Matt (49m 25s):
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Like I said, my, my commitment to Jesus is, is sort of, you know, boringly un unwavering. But, but, but this engagement with these other traditions has helped me better understand the Jesus whom I follow and, and the life that, that he has offered me.
Amy Julia (49m 42s):
Hmm. That’s beautiful. Well, I have one last question and is something you’ve mentioned already as we’ve been speaking, but a phrase that comes up repeatedly in the book and that’s come up in this conversation is the living lives worthy of our shared humanity. And I Yeah. Love that emphasis that this is not only about a singular life, right. But there’s something that is shared and that our humanity itself is shared. So I wondered if we could end just with your understanding of that phrase, what does it mean, however you wanna take this question to live a life worthy of our shared humanity.
Matt (50m 17s):
I’m so glad that you picked up on that phrase. It is, we have spent 10 years trying to ask this question, and I think that’s become my favorite way of, of phrasing it. Mm. And for just the reason that you, you, you emphasized there’s this shared humanity that’s, that we’re trying to explore and better understand and sort of discover and maybe even enter into more deeply together, because this Yeah. It’s really easy for all this to turn into some sort of self-help. And like, here I am trying to live my best life. Yeah. That’s not, That’s not what gets our students so animated around the table.
Matt (51m 2s):
Right. What really gets us going is our sense that, that there’s a shared project here. And not just in the sense that like we have a political life that somehow we have to figure out how to like, put up with one another. But there’s, but in sharing these questions, we share a quest to, to try to, because we, because we share, because we share that humanity, and we’re trying to discover, you know, how, how, how to go, how to lean into the, the deeper parts of it. I forget if it was juicy or men, one of, one of the ancient Chinese philosophers talks about us, sort of like the greater and lesser parts of oneself. And I think there’s, there are these sort of greater and lesser parts of our, of our humanity that we’re sort of exploring together.
Matt (51m 46s):
My, my favorite author that we interact with on this particular point in the book is Robin Wall Kimmer of her book Braiding Sweetgrass. Yeah. Is just a gift. And, you know, she sort of has this thesis that recurs again and again in the, in the book, she’s a, an a Native American, the PhD in botany, e botanist, she, She says, all flourishing is mutual, all flourishing is mutual. And I, and I love, there’s just so many sides of that really simple thesis, right.
Matt (52m 29s):
That when we think we’re flourishing at the expense of another, maybe we’re, maybe we’re not actually flourishing at all. Right. When we yeah. When we, when we see sort of paths forward that look like, yeah, one could, could flourish at the expense of another. We’re, we’re not even really understanding flourishing. When we, When our imaginations most come alive, when we really begin to flourish, it will be because we’re participating in, in, and especially for her as a, as an ecological thinker, it’s when we participate in an entire flourishing creation Right.
Matt (53m 19s):
That we are truly flourishing. And again, to be boringly centered in my own Christian theology, you know, I I I I see that in the Christian proclamation of, of the end of all things that ultimately I don’t think we do in a certain sense fully flourish in this life. I think that’s an important part of Christian expectation is that especially if you lead your life well in this life, it won’t go well, at least not always.
Matt (53m 60s):
Yeah. And sometimes precisely because you’ve let it, well, yeah. If you stand up for what’s right, sometimes you’ll take it on the chin. But all but the long trajectory at the capital E end of all things is not Amy Julia flourishing. It’s not matte flourishing. Right. It’s not even just the human community flourishing. It’s the entire creation flourishing in this garden city or somehow some sort of non-competitive, full blossoming of both human culture and the natural world. Right. And that, that seems right.
Matt (54m 40s):
And that does, that seems like one of those things, you don’t see it everywhere, but in an that is maybe a point of, of a, of an overlapping consensus and a number of traditions at least, that if we want to imagine full flourishing life, we, we we’re, we’re not just imagining a single life, we’re imagining a whole world set. Right. What con called the kingdom of ends. Yeah. The kingdom of ends for him. Or the mutual flourishing of Robinal kimmer or the, the new Jerusalem of, of the, of the sea of the New Testament. Again, we’ll probably disagree with one another about exactly what that world looks like, but the question we’re asking is, is broader than just any one life.
Amy Julia (55m 27s):
Yeah. And I’m just thinking back to the new Jerusalem because I too have been, my imagination and hopes are shaped, informed by a biblical vision of that. And that sense of the diversity that continues to exist within that space, I think is also a part of that shared humanity. That these are
Matt (55m 50s):
Every tribe, every nation,
Amy Julia (55m 51s):
Every tribe and every nation like that. This is not something where everyone becomes the same, but actually where everyone is valued. Because in part of the, that diversity and that sense of giving and receiving to one another, and I do think that the, the relationality and the love as a grounding truth for me certainly is how I get at and have begun to get at these questions of what it means to live a life worthy of our shared humanity is to understand love in relation to God, to self, but also to neighbor.
Amy Julia (56m 33s):
And there’s, that can take us a long way. And I agree there’s a lot, not just within the Christian tradition, but within a lot of different thinkers throughout the ages, including Robin Welcomer from our own age, you know, who can, who can teach me a lot in the midst of that. Well, thank you Matt. It’s been really nice to share this time with you. I could ask you questions for hours, but I’m not gonna do that and I so appreciate the work that you all are doing.
Matt (56m 58s):
Thanks so much for this conversation. It was, it was really fun.
Amy Julia (57m 4s):
Thanks as always, for listening to this episode of Love is Stronger Than Fear. If you receive something meaningful from this conversation, please share it with others and let me know. I love hearing from you. My email is Amy Julia Becker firstname.lastname@example.org. I also wanna thank Jake Hanson for editing this podcast. And Amber Beery, my social media coordinator She does all the behind the scenes work, and I’m so grateful for her. And finally, as you go into your day today, I hope you will carry with you the peace that comes from believing that love is stronger than fear.
Learn more with Amy Julia:
- To Be Made Well: An Invitation to Wholeness, Healing, and Hope
- What’s the Purpose of Life?
- Addressing our Mental Health Crisis
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