The Good Life and the Crisis of Meaning

Matt Croasmun ’01 B.A., ’06 M.A.R., ’14 Ph.D.

“And so we’re condemned to be free.” The phrase, echoing Sartre, lay heavy on us once the student said it – a stark contrast to the bucolic setting (we held the seminar outside that day). There was an instinct to correct him – surely freedom is not something to which one could be condemned. But then we all quickly realized that he had said what he meant. And when I asked the other dozen students how many identified with the phrase, a strong majority of hands went up.

For the past three years, my Yale Center for Faith & Culture colleagues Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz and I have designed and taught a course in the Humanities Program in Yale College called Life Worth Living. Each semester, we’ve had extraordinary groups of undergraduates from different countries, socioeconomic backgrounds, and religious and nonreligious traditions. We explore a number of philosophical and religious traditions that provide answers to the central question of our lives: What makes a life worth living?

The Big Question

More than an “introduction to world religions” course, the seminar equips students to ask and answer this most important question for themselves. They write papers about the University’s explicit and implicit definitions of a life worth living and about their peers’ visions of the good life. Finally, they write a short piece laying out their own answer: How do they understand what makes life worth living?

Each time we’ve taught it, students have raved about the opportunity to wrestle with the big questions of life with all the intellectual energy they bring to organic chemistry or Russian literature or any of their most challenging classes. Year after year, student demand for the course has grown exponentially. Beyond Yale, colleagues at other universities are adapting our seminar, from Peter Anstey at the University of Sydney in Australia to YDS alumnus Kurt Nelson ’07 M.Div. at Colby College in Maine. Everywhere the course is taught, it is over-enrolled.

Unbearable Lightness

For me, as the teacher, the seminar has been an indispensable crash course on the crisis of meaning that is afflicting millennials. Students repeatedly express a fear that the world, ultimately, has no meaning – a fear that meaning has to be invented. And they have a hunch that the production of meaning (if this is indeed their task) might simply be above their pay grade. One student protested: “The world’s great traditions have been carefully crafting answers to these questions for three millennia – and I’m supposed to invent my own answers in my free time?!”

This is not what I was led to expect coming out of graduate school. I was taught that students were fundamentally held in bondage by “regimes of truth” and desperately needed the liberation that comes in the form of deconstruction and destabilization. But by and large, I find that today’s students are less afraid of the unbending hegemony of Foucault’s regimes of truth than they are of Milan Kundera’s unbearable lightness of being, a sense that the world has no meaning, no ground.

This changes what they need from the college curriculum and their instructors. And in many cases we aren’t prepared to give them what they need. As university instructors – and, I fear, as pastors – we actually contribute to the crisis of meaning when we define our calling as aiding only in the struggle against coercive ideologies. Doubtless, such coercive schemes exist – racism, consumerism, imperialism, etc. – and need to be resisted. But for a generation that understands itself as “condemned to be free,” the slogan, “more freedom!” either in its free-market or postmodern form, sounds merely like another nail in the coffin.

False Choices

Ultimately, students aren’t seeking just any old liberation; they are looking for a liberation that doesn’t come at the cost of meaning. More and more students are finding that liberation without meaning is no liberation at all. Yet we continue to present them with a false choice – either liberation or meaning. A prevailing wisdom says: Once upon a time, when our universities were fairly homogenous, they could aim to impart “values” to students, but now, when our universities reflect the diversity of our nation and our world and when the very idea of imparting values is suspect, such an education is no longer possible. But such reasoning poses another false choice to students: Either you can have meaning with homogeneity (through exclusion) or you can have diversity (through inclusion) but without meaning.

Another impediment has frustrated contemporary discussions of meaning. Conventional wisdom holds that, in the case of values, questions of truth are simply inaccessible to us: They are locked within a black box of unassailable “commitments” brought to the table by would-be conversants. In reality, genuine conversation about ultimate meaning and values rarely happens, since conversation requires a belief that one’s interlocutor is reasonable and the topic is one about which one can reason. Convinced that meaning is beyond reason, and that others cannot be reasoned with, many of us conclude that the exertion of power – shouting at each other or, at worst, committing true violence – is the only option for settling our presumably irreconcilable differences. Where persuasion appears impossible, conquest is the only option. The violent and vapid discourses of religious fundamentalisms and cable news are predictable, regrettable results.

Hard Conversations

Having lost the art of persuasion as a society, we have serious anxiety about disagreement. Pessimistic about the possibility of civil dialogue, many students describe their adoption of moral relativism as a strategy of conflict avoidance. Our culture presents them with a third false choice – truth or charity – and, perhaps to their credit, they have chosen charity. Better to compromise on questions of truth and concede, “Well, that must be true for you,” than start a hard conversation that has no hope of a satisfactory outcome.

In our seminar, we dare to put truth claims on the table and invite students to learn the art of principled, charitable disagreement. We invite students to interact with an array of moral traditions (for instance, Buddhism, utilitarianism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity) not as a smorgasbord of insights to be mixed and matched at their pleasure, but as wholes to be encountered and assessed (notwithstanding each tradition’s own internal diversity).

We ask students to identify the truth claims being made and describe how these claims shape a way of life. We ask students to evaluate them. Is this account of what it is to be a human being compelling? Is the world in fact as this tradition describes it? Many of these historic claims to truth are mutually exclusive, and we don’t shy away from that. Finally, we ask students to at least imagine what it would be like to adopt this or that tradition’s way of life as their own: If these claims were true – if they are true – how would your life have to change?

Truth on the Table

This pedagogy requires vulnerability from students and instructors. Our lives – not merely our ideas – need to be on the table. Especially in the pluralistic context, this means acknowledging that none of us stands nowhere. Each of us is located somewhere within a tradition or set of traditions. Indeed, we each come to the seminar table with particular claims to universal truth – and particular ways of reasoning about the truth.

I always begin the first session by telling students that I am a Christian pastor and that I have no delusions that I am a disinterested tour guide for the course. But precisely my commitments as a Christian are what compel me to affirm the integrity of each person’s search for truth and to be sensitive to the power that I exert in the classroom as instructor. I want to create a hospitable environment for diverse voices to come and learn from one another and from the perspectives we will examine. This mutual learning is not always comfortable. If we are to wrestle seriously with truth claims, we will find ourselves reasoning with one another, persuading one another – contending with one another.

Imperfectly but steadily, I think we’re figuring out how to heal the collective trauma of our culture’s failure to wrestle charitably with the truth. We are not aiming to discern a lowest-common-denominator set of bland “universals.” We’re holding out hope that “meaning-full” liberation is possible. In the community created around the seminar table, we are finding, I think, the education – by which I mean the formation of human beings – that we need.

Matt Croasmun is associate research scholar and 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 also serves as staff pastor at the Elm City Vineyard Church in New Haven, CT., a church he and his wife, Hannah, helped plant in 2007.