Review: The Great Quest

The Great Quest, Os Guinness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.

Summary: An invitation to the examined life in the pursuit of a meaningful existence, a well-lived life.

The meaning of life. It sounds like one of those discussions for a first-year intro to philosophy class as we are challenged by the dictum of Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In response, we often joke about it. Or we make it an absurd joke, as in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in which the supercomputer Deep Thought computes the answer to the Ultimate Question of the Meaning of Life, The Universe and Everything, as 42.

Os Guinness believes the absence of meaning in modern life of significant concern. Citing the statistics of rising suicide rates and falling birth rates in the modern world, he believes the quest for meaning to be pressing:

The truth is that the urgent need of our times is a fresh seriousness about human existence and a renewed openness to ultimate questions. Answers to ultimate questions are not only vital to each of us as individuals but to whole societies and civilizations. Indeed, there are no great societies or civilizations without confident answers to ultimate questions, and such answers need to become vital again in our schools, our universities, and our public discussion as well as in our families.

Os Guinness, The Great Quest, p. 4

Guinness contends that one needs meaning as one needs oxygen and his plea as he introduces this book is that if we haven’t thought these things through, that we do so. He also identifies some of the reasons we fail to do so: distraction, bargaining that we’ll do it later, and the noise and interference of our busy lives. But for those serious about asking the questions and reaching the conclusions that come of an examined life, Guinness offers to be a guide on the journey.

Guinness lays his cards on the table. He is a convinced Christian, while respecting other religions and worldviews. He proposes to be as fair as possible because he wants people to think things through. He also asks of his readers a personal engagement in their search, ready to say, “here I am” if the transcendent comes calling. While welcoming reason, he eschews the ability of proofs to do anything more than suggest that a belief is reasonable.

With these preliminaries out of the way, he outlines four phases in our search

  1. A time for questions. Warning of the psychological objections to our questions and belief in finding meaning as “bad faith,” he notes the insatiable capacity of humans to ask and some of the perennial big questions: Where did we come from? What can we know? What are we? Where are we going? What can we hope for? The questioning may reveal the inadequacy of the beliefs, the view of the world we have embraced. We may find experiences in the world that shatter our conceptions, signals of transcendence that encourage us to look deeper.
  2. A Time for answers. We begin with conceptualizing, weighing different ideas and how they address our questions. We critically assess the differences and compare different “answers.” How would each shape the way we live if we thought the world that way. For Guinness, there are three main families of answers, those of the Eastern families of faith, those of secularists, and those of the Abrahamic faiths. As we work through these possible answers to the great questions, Guinness concludes, “Does any faith that you as a seeker may consider answer your questions? Does it do so in a way that switches on the light in the darkness and fits like a key in the lock…?”
  3. A time for evidences. One might think answers are enough. He contends that the only reason to believe anything is on the basis of reasonable evidence that it is true–Does it align with reality? Do the facts fit? In detail and as a whole?
  4. A time for commitment. Finally we must commit ourselves to whatever we believe is true. Guinness frames this in Christian terms of discovering “that loving and being loved [by God] is the very heart and soul of faith and the meaning of life” and saying “Here I am!” to that God. Whatever the “faith” one commits to, Guinness warns against the myth that it is about the search and not the destination–equating this to the legend of the Flying Dutchman, doomed to never dock but to sail forever.

Some may object to the Christian framing of this work. While there are statements by those of other “families” throughout, the preponderance becomes increasingly Christian in the progression of the phases. Guinness has warned us and certainly speaks in the terms he knows best, particularly when it comes to commitment where he speaks warmly of entering into loving relationship with God in which one finds meaning and purpose.

So, the reader must decide how far to go with Guinness as guide. Strictly following his four phases without being guided by the Christian examples, I could well see a person ending up in any of the three main “families” and any of the branches of those families. And to do so would certainly be to live an examined life rather than the muddled life of distracted modernity. Guinness can offer further guidance for someone wishing and willing to consider a thoughtful account for how one may embrace Christian faith. The illustrations from both his own life and others may well ring true with one’s own journey and help make sense of it.

I suspect this book may work best as something two friends, who trust and can be candid with each other, may discuss, even if one believes and the other is seeking. I could see a process of working through the phases together that would leave neither unchanged. Indeed, one of my thoughts on reading was that reaching a place of commitment ought not end the living of an examined life, and it has often been the dialogues with seekers, skeptics, and those in deep pain that have driven me deeper into the questions, the answers, the evidences, and my own commitment.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advanced review galley of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Leading Lives That Matter, Second Edition

Leading Lives That Matter (Second Edition), Edited by Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2020.

Summary: An anthology on what the well-lived life looks like exploring four important vocabularies and six vital questions through a range of religious and secular readings.

How might we live lives that matter? To whom or what will I listen as I discern my vocation. With and for whom will I live? What obligation do I have to human or other life? How shall I tell the story of my life. All of these are important questions for anyone who wants their lives to matter. This collection of nearly ninety readings, forty-seven new to this edition help to explore through a variety of genres these questions. Both religious and secular resources are included. The book is organized around four “vocabularies” used about the well-led life, and six important questions. Here are the vocabularies and questions along with a reading that particularly stood out (although the overall selection is outstanding).

Vocabularies

Authenticity: Charles Taylor’s “The Ethics of Authenticity”. Taylor argues that authenticity is not just a matter of doing one’s thing, but an identity formed by wrestling with deep questions of truth.

Virtue: “On Love” by Josef Pieper is one of the best and most concise essays on the different types of love, what we mean by the love of God and love for God.

Exemplarism: To understand the importance of exemplars, what they are and how we might observe them, I could not do better than Linda Zagzebski’s reading “Why Exemplarism.”

Vocation: The readings here were some of the strongest with contributions from Lee Hardy, C.S. Lewis, Denise Levertov, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I choose the one by Charles D. Badcock on “Choosing” who argues that vocation is not finding the one “right” job, but living for the will of God and doing what we please.

Questions:

Must My Job Be the Primary Source of My Identity? The essay by Dorothy L. Sayers, “Why Work?” is marked by her clear thinking and the idea of serving the work, serving God in our work.

To Whom and to What Should I Listen as I Decide What to Do for a Living? The selection from Lois Lowry’s The Giver in which each young member of the community is assigned their work by the elders explores the role of others in our choices of work and captures why this book is so well-loved. Among other good selections are those by Albert Schweitzer and James Baldwin.

With Whom and For Whom Shall I Live? Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” explores the encounter of two orphans, one black and one white, later in life and the choice of whether childhood friendship or race would determine their relations. The essay by Martin Luther King, Jr., “The World House” is also powerful.

Is a Balanced Life Possible and Preferable to a Life Focused Primarily on Work? Perhaps the most thought-provoking is the article by Karen S. Sibert that answers that for some professional jobs, the answer is “no.” The reading is titled “Don’t Quit This Day Job.” Perhaps offsetting this is the concluding reading of the section, a selection from The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel

What Are My Obligations to Future Human and Other Life? Larry Rasmussen writes a fictional letter to his grandson, “A Love Letter from the Holocene to the Anthropocene” on the failure of his generation to conserve the environment for that grandchild in terms of options, quality, and access. He raises profound questions about our failures to future generations. The section also features portions of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si.

How Shall I Tell The Story of My Life? The section begins with the marvelous poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost and ends with Michael T. Kaufman’s “Robert McG Thomas, 60, Chronicler of Unsung Lives.” This last is the obituary of the New York Times noted obituary writer whose obituaries were stories that captured and honored the essence of generally unknown people. It makes you think about what stories will people tell of our lives.

I suspect the primary audience of a work like this is a capstone-type class still offered by many undergraduate colleges, reflecting on vocation and life’s big questions. But it is worthwhile for anyone examining their lives and sense of calling, not only for the vocabulary and the questions but for the excellence of the readings that hold up a mirror to our lives.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.