Now in a being which has reason and a will, if the proper object of nature were its conservation, its welfare, in a word, its happiness, then nature would have hit upon a very bad arrangement in selecting the reason of the creature to carry out this purpose…there lies at the root of these judgments the idea that our existence has a different and far nobler end…
–Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals
The “far nobler end” to which Kant refers in this excerpt is this: the cultivation of the good will. There actually seems to be a resemblance between this idea and the idea expressed in the film Stranger than Fiction (which I discussed in my last post). The point of life is not fulfillment in the satisfying of our inclinations. For Harold Crick, it was not about living longer to laugh, love, and eat pancakes. Instead, for Crick, his life’s purpose became one of cultivating and acting in accordance with his good will.
What I did not realize previously is that this idea can do a lot more work than I originally realized. Living this kind of life is not only the paragon of Love. It is also a potential solution to the problem of evil. Moreover, it can assuage some of my anxiety regarding the efficacy of actions.
John Hick‘s “soul-making theodicy” is, in part, motivated by the above idea. Why does suffering exist? Hick’s answer essentially involves a Kantian conception of the meaning of life: Because suffering is an integral part of the process of forming our soul, and this could easily be interpreted as “cultivating a good will.” This is by far one of more beautiful theodicies out there. The image of a deity teaching its creation how to Be, how to walk, how to talk, how to love, evokes such reverence and Love in me (for the Divine) that it is difficult not to assent to such an idea.
Recall, that there is a second problem that this conception of the meaning of life can solve: my anxiety regarding the efficacy of my actions. I often find myself hoping that I do not die before I can accomplish certain things. No doubt, my anxiety is likely born out of a selfish desire to live a fulfilled life, but even on the days that this is not the case, I am still anxious that I will not get to participate fully in ushering in the Kingdom.
There is a related problem here: this concern for acting effectively can easily eclipse my concern for the Divine. I often become so engrossed in, for example, getting into graduate school because I recognize that it is a necessary step to get to the PhD and then to teaching and then to annexing the towers of academia into the Kingdom. However, if the cultivation of a good will, a Loving will, a Soul, is the goal of my life, the point of my existence, the thing which the Divine desires me to desire, then I can see the motivation for not letting these concerns come between the Divine and my desire for It.
If all of this is true, the Way is even narrower than I thought, for we are not only called to identify and subvert the death-dealing conventional wisdom, but also to die to our attachment to the efficacy of that subversion insofar as that attachment distracts us from the Divine.
So even if our Kingdom ushering is frustrated, even if I am “crucified with Christ,” I ought not fret. There is life in finding a meaningful life-story in this chaotic universe. There is life in knowing God’s goodness (and subsequently knowing Life’s goodness).¹ There is life in freedom from anxiety and freedom to love Love.
If this is indeed what we are doing here, may I be given the wisdom to see it. May I have the courage to shed my teleological conception of life, and to life with the difficult consequences, the narrow way of life that follows.
1. Some work still needs to be done about God’s goodness. Supposing that the there is indeed an afterlife could solve this problem. Perhaps I am willing to take this leap, for, as Socrates notes in Phaedo, it is a “noble risk to take.” May I be given the faith and desire and wisdom to take this leap if it is the will of the Divine.