Veritas Forum: Satisfaction and the Good Life
I don’t know what Dr. Tim Keller and Professor Mark Lilla were discussing as they emerged from stage right to take their seats, but it didn’t look like mere cordiality. The earnest expression on Dr. Keller’s face told me that Columbia’s Fall 2016 Veritas Forum had begun long before an audience joined the interlocutors. It reminded me of being a kid and catching the tail end of those furtive, serious conversations that adults seemed to have had only when kids weren’t listening: your teachers’ discourse on politics on the sidelines of the playground or your parents’ discussion about finances. When you first walk in on such a conversation, the adults only subconsciously recognize you, their brows unfurrow, they finish their sentences, and then they officially recognize your presence. That’s how I felt last Tuesday night [November 15, 2016] at the start of the discussion, almost like we, the audience, were interrupting something. In retrospect, though, I think that sincere conversation—whatever it was—set the tone for the whole night. I came in expecting a contentious debate from the authors of such provocative titles as The Prodigal God and The Stillborn God, but their general simpatico led to an intimate look at just how these thinkers differed and resembled each other in their conceptions of the evening’s topic: satisfaction and the good life.
The Veritas Forum is an international organization whose individual campus chapters organize forums to place the Christian faith in dialogue with other worldviews to address life’s big questions. In this particular forum, Dr. Tim Keller, prolific Christian author and founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, represented the Christian faith, and Professor Mark Lilla, intellectual historian and Professor of the Humanities at Columbia, represented a secular worldview. The main question of the evening was, “what is the good life, drawing on the examples of Socrates, Augustine, and Montaigne?” Professor Lilla answered the question with a pluralistic, Republic-style account of society, where the good life varies depending on your class: soldier, citizen, sage, and saint. The choice for us as citizens is whether to allow the saint or the sage to inform our choices and our conceptions of the good life. In his closing, the first glimpse at how he might think about things in his personal life, Lilla confessed that his heart lay with Augustine but that his mind lay with Montaigne. In Dr. Keller’s opening, he expressed full-throated support of Augustine’s conception of the good life—one in which your loves are ordered properly, with God above all the rest. Getting those loves in the proper order, Keller said, leads to the maximum satisfaction of our deepest desires here on Earth.
“Boy, did you surprise me,” Lilla began in the unmoderated discussion following the opening statements, “You’re a stoic! You’re a Christian stoic.” What Lilla meant was that Dr. Keller had given his entire response in terms of the satisfaction and happiness that believers themselves receive when they have properly ordered loves, similar to the old stoic maxim, “virtue is sufficient for happiness.” 1 Professor Lilla replied to this notion as we should, “That’s very special, but that’s all about you. What about God?” This is an important point, one that Christians like me do not engage with as much as we should. We aren’t used to being this specific about our reason for loving God. Dr. Keller clearly realized the inadequacy of his first explanation, saying, “I feel stripped naked.” He recovered, though, explaining that of course the search for God begins with selfish intentions and that we can never love Him perfectly, but we eventually realize that we should love God irrespective of what we get out of our love for Him. 2
In many ways, Professor Lilla’s worldview resembles this statement. When asked by the discussion moderator what is worth submitting to, Professor Lilla answered that we should submit to that which we can determine and otherwise figure out how to comport ourselves in the face of uncertainty. That, Professor Lilla said, is the human condition. In a way, Dr. Keller would also endorse this view. The difference is, of course, the degree of uncertainty that these two would recognize. If we correctly order our loves, we can be certain that God satisfies our deepest desires, consequently making us certain of both our earthly and eternal destinies. This difference reared its head most notably in a question that Professor Lilla posed to Dr. Keller: if it turns out that God doesn’t exist, would you have to revise your good life at all? Professor Lilla seemed under the impression that it would not need revision. If ordering your loves in the right way leads to deepest satisfaction, what does it matter if God is there? You still successfully ordered your loves and had a happy life, after all. But Keller disputed this assertion, citing Romans 5: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” 3 We don’t simply believe in God’s love; we experience it. And more than that: our love for God can’t be our love of God for Himself—as opposed to love that results in our happiness—if God doesn’t exist. If we correctly place God as our highest love, we directly experience Him and thereby close the door to the type of uncertainty that characterizes Professor Lilla’s conception of the human condition. However, God doesn’t give us the answers to everything, so in many ways our human condition is figuring out how to use what God does give us to comport ourselves in the face of uncertainty.
We also have to deal with suffering, which both speakers pointed out in the discussion. Dr. Keller stipulated that modern secular society fails to provide its members with the proper resources for suffering. Suffering is important, he argued, because it drives God like a nail into our hearts. If our marriage, family, and career are all perfect we run the risk of idolatry. A great husband, wife, or job competing with God for the top spot among our loves makes it very easy to misorder them. In many ways, suffering enhances our dependence on and desire for God. Professor Lilla corroborated this praise of suffering, saying, in a direct address to the audience, “if you haven’t suffered, your ability to love is paper-thin.”
In the beginning, Professor Lilla confessed that his mind lay with Montaigne’s conception of the good life as one that pursues simple and sensational pleasures. Something tells me that Professor Lilla’s mind doesn’t sit well with his heart’s Augustinian position on suffering and love, as his emphasis on the latter suggests that ultimate satisfaction is satisfaction of the heart. With respect to the evening’s topics, both men’s hearts pointed to the Christian understanding of satisfaction, even if Professor Lilla’s mind seemed to want for a little more. Together, Dr. Keller and Professor Lilla painted a picture of the good life that was clearly more than a conversation between two minds.
1 Baltzly, Dirk, “Stoicism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stoicism/
2 It’s important to note that the specific nature of this happiness and the motive for loving God are the sources of debate among Christians. See John Piper’s Christian Hedonism (http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/christian-hedonism) for an interesting take, and look out for Chris Bolton’s article in the upcoming print issue of Columbia Crown and Cross.
3 Romans 5:5 (ESV)