It was Socrates who said that “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Of course, being a philosopher in the 4 century B.C.E., one didn’t have Voice Mail, Email, Facebook, Twitter, and Super Bowl predictions amidst a countless sea of daily to-do’s clamoring to distract you from this special task.
But is it a luxury, examining your life, or is it a necessity?
Here is where religion and theology, fightin’ words too often, can truly have some redeeming value. Fundamentally, religion has to do with the problem of finding meaning and orientation in life, one of the most basic human needs. Psychologist James Fowler, for example, describes human beings as “creatures who cannot live without meaning.” While this need for meaning is present in each of us, it cannot be addressed exclusively-or even primarily- as an individual matter. And none of us really gets to start from scratch. We have been born into traditions, as a member of a family or as a member of the society we live in, and this has helped us to orient ourselves in the world, for better and for worse.
This means for many a total rejection of anything that smacks of organized religion. Unfortunately, there is usually no back up plan in place that helps to frame the BIG QUESTIONS and then live in dialogue with them. Questions about the meaning of life and death, how we understand our place in the cosmos, whether there is some “ultimate reality” (Paul Tillich) that we can relate to or belong. As theologian Sallie McFague argues, “The goal of theology, as I see it, is to be functional, that is, to actually work in someone’s life. It is meant to be an aid to right living.”
I have also discovered that this meaning making is only eked out in relationship with others, it is the ONLY way we gather context in order to do any kind of self-examination. Maintaining relationships, having conversations with others, and choosing to be in community with those who are also trying to live their lives with intention helps to correct the all too human tendency (this correction is exacted sometimes with a feather, sometimes with a 2×4!) to make and keep assumptions about people, places, and things.
OK. If I didn’t like a lot of the large-scale world pictures that the faith I was brought up in was painting as final truth (and I didn’t), I did discover for myself a theology that goes beyond labeling myself as a “Something.” Theology can and should be more than just a label but a resource, a grounding for spiritual practice, for social critique, even for healing. Saying that you are a Christian doesn’t by itself explain how you think of Jesus or how much authority you give to biblical teachings. Even calling yourself a humanist or an atheist doesn’t say much about you.
To understand your theology, other need to know things like: “What sort of God do you believe, or don’t you believe in?” “Do you find any directionality or purpose in the universe, in evolution, or is it random?” Equally important, as Paul Rasor asks, in his book Faith without Certainty, ” What sorts of normative claims do you make about the way society should be structured, and where do they come from?” Saying you affirm justice for all is nice, but what social arrangements count as just, and who gets to decide?”
These are individual questions, collective questions, and for each of us to answer. And over the course of a life, many of those answers will change and a rare few, I would wager, will remain unaltered. And it is worth it.