Professor Owen Strachan, Bowdoin Class of 2003
It’s odd, isn’t it? Of all the places you could have ended up at college, you are at Bowdoin. You go to school amidst pines that speak more to the unsettled eighteenth-century American frontier than the modern urban technopolis. To get to class many months of the year, to do the most basic of activities like eating and exercising, you must wear the equivalent of an ultra-down sleeping bag on your person. To go to a mall, you must do the truly unthinkable, and drive for 45 minutes.
Yet the whole experience of Bowdoin is strangely magical. For starters, you’re on one of the most beautiful college campuses in the world. You are surrounded by hyper-educated men and women who have mastered their field of study. On an hourly basis, you eat like a king or queen. And most significantly, you have the privilege of asking the great questions of life, and of having the time to think them through. In fact, that is precisely what you are supposed to be doing: thinking about life, about the deepest and highest things, about the purpose of your existence.
But here’s what is odd about that, at least for many Polar Bears: you’re asking those metaquestions at a time in which your life has yet to settle. You’re still young. You don’t have it all figured out. Life, in other words, has not necessarily made its claim on you. The world can seem in such a situation like an endless dream. You have won the academic lottery, and now you may embark upon your intellectual idyll. Reality can seem a long ways away.
If you identify with this perspective — and I certainly did, with many of my friends and classmates — it can be difficult to see that life will not always remain this way. Surely you know that. But though a simple proposition, it’s a true one. All of a sudden, in a blink, life can change, and you can find your youth suddenly and unalterably behind you.
Let’s get this out in plain terms: death is real. Suffering is real. Heartbreak will happen. Not every dream comes true. In these and other ways, all of us find, eventually, that life intrudes. This is why I mentioned earlier that it is odd that it is now that you are encountering and asking the great questions of life. To answer those questions well, you really need to have tasted bitter fruit. Otherwise, you risk answering these queries superficially, partially, from a book, because someone else said so.
So what am I suggesting? Are you supposed to take some sort of miracle-maturation pill and then, in a couple of minutes, address the existential realities before you with a kind of timeless sagacity? No, you need not do so. Here is what I propose instead. As you consider different worldviews, different ideologies, ask a simple question: is this morally realistic?
In other words, does this system of belief speak truly about the world? Or does it offer you a convenient fiction?
Let’s flesh this out. I don’t want to go after hard-and-fast worldviews here. Instead, I want to target certain mindsets people might adopt as they make their way through college and, beyond it, adulthood.
Hedonism. Not that any college student would embrace such a mindset, of course. That’s unthinkable.
In all seriousness, hedonism is a fun way to live. You get to shuck off morals and constraints and rules and do whatever you want to do. As a young person, this is easy to pull off. You don’t have much in the way of responsibility. No one is dependent on you.
And so you can lose yourself in whatever indulgence suits your fancy. As Tom Wolfe showed in I Am Charlotte Simmons, for a good number of modern students, this means a lot of drinking, partying, and sex (or at least pretending to have a lot of each). It’s easy to feel entitled to this kind of life today. You worked hard in high school, you’re just out to have a little fun, no one’s getting hurt, that sort of thing.
But here’s what hedonism doesn’t prepare you for: life. Specifically, its difficulty. When you have some assignments to do and you want to blow off some steam, it works well. But hedonism fails miserably as a worldview, a way-of-life, when your mother is dying of cancer, when you fall into terrible legal trouble, when you get laid off from the job you fought hard for, when the guy you recently hooked up with inexplicably starts ignoring you in the dining hall. It’s fun to lose yourself in pleasure with someone, but when you confront the physical, psychological, emotional, and moral reality of an abortion, you find that your hedonistic choices, so effortless in the making, have surprisingly rough edges.
Furthermore, hedonism has nothing to say about the terrible realities of life in this broken world. Oppression of women by dictatorial religions? Water shortages in Africa? Terrorists blowing up marketplaces and killing two-year-olds? What does hedonism have to say to moral quandaries like these? Essentially, it urges you to just forget about them, lose yourself in your privilege, your safety, your protected life. When it comes to moral realism, hedonism offers you none. It’s the buddy who always wants to party and never wants to think about real life. Yes, it seems now like the party will never end. But it most assuredly does, and will.
Success. Maybe you don’t incline toward partying. You don’t make a sport of debauchery. You’ve got bigger things on your mind. You’re looking at the long term. Here you are at Bowdoin. If you hit your marks and keep your head down, you’ll end up with a great job out of college, and before you know it, you’ll be on your way to big money, and you’ll never look back. You’ve been groomed to perform, you do perform, and you will perform. That’s what drives you.
That’s all well and good. There’s nothing wrong with making money, or even lots of it. But this is the worst-kept secret in the world: success does not in itself fill you up. You can be the best in the world in your field, make the equivalent of a small country’s GDP, and live with a gnawing sense that you haven’t proved anything. Tomorrow you have to wake up and do it all over again.
One of the more fascinating illustrations of this reality is Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time. Michael Leahy, a Washington Post sportswriter, interviewed Jordan in his retirement before he came back to play for the Wizards. Jordan had no peace in his post-playing years. “Nothin’ compares to bein’ it,” he told Leahy. It was as if he was saying, in Leahy’s mind, “that he regretted ever having left it, that what he had in its place was not nearly enough.” In other words, here was a man who had everything — hundreds of millions of dollars, a guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Famer, immense power and influence — and yet had nothing at all.
Success as a mindset, a driving life force, will fail you. You don’t have to chase big money or celebrity, though. Perhaps you want to be the top scholar in your chosen field. It will still fail you. Why? Because life is inescapably hard. The sacrifices you make in order to be successful will have real consequences. You are more than a machine. You are more than a mere producer or achiever. Furthermore, your life is given you not merely so that you can invest your gifts but so that you can help others. It is easy to miss this on the path to success. Sure, maybe you give some money to a cause, a charity. Maybe you volunteer a little time here and there. But that won’t fire you up like the drug of money or power or achievement. And that is how you know that success as a mindset ultimately fails.
Goodness. This might seem odd on the heels of the previous mindset, but it’s a powerful draw for many. Some who would never dream of chasing wealth or fame, and who have no strong taste for uninhibited excess, will instead devote themselves to good causes. They’ll labor toward that end, toiling to bring justice, healing, and hope to the world. On the face of it, this is a good thing.
But there is a problem with this worldview as well. The pursuit of goodness in itself addresses the world beyond us. It does not, however, address us internally. We are not good people, you see. We think we are. And many of us aren’t terrible, relatively speaking. Inside ourselves, though, in the quiet of our own counsel, we know that we are not good. We are impatient. We are unkind to those who disagree with us. We hate them. We are jealous of those who have what we do not. Even if devoted to the welfare of others, we are aware at times of a deadness within us, a lack of caring for those we serve.
If we allow ourselves to see it, furthermore, we realize that we are proud. We may generally want to unleash goodness in the world. But even as we pursue that noble end in our heart, we pat ourselves on the back. We congratulate ourselves for not being like other people who don’t sacrifice as we do. If we are not careful, we can easily make serving others about serving our own egos. We can lose sight of our frailty, our own brokenness, and think that we are better than other people, and that we don’t need them—they need us. We may not start out this way, but it’s shocking how easy it is to end up like this. The Aristotelian ethical mean can be hard to find when it seems like you’re accomplishing so much and others are accomplishing so little.
Apathy. Perhaps all this intensity and activity is not really your thing. Your life is characterized more by apathy than anything else. That’s not to say that you’re uninterested or lazy about everything. Perhaps you’re actually quite successful in your core pursuits. You’re not, however, particularly interested in diving in the world, getting your hands dirty, improving yourself or others.
You have pastimes that you like to do, maybe a hobby or two. You may not be unkind; you might not be unpleasant. But there is no real gravitational center to your life. You do what suits you, generally, and that’s pretty much it. You see some sort of vague path in your future but don’t get stressed about its lack of definition. You don’t really do a lot for anyone else, but neither do you go out of your way to harm anyone.
This kind of life isn’t set up like a moving target as others are. If others rate captains of industry, research scholars, or superstar athletes as their avatars, the patron saint of the apathetic person is the “Dude,” Jeff Lebowski, the type who is annoyed by those who have a conscience. But that’s just the problem: there’s an innate knowledge in all of us that it’s morally problematic to cave in on ourselves. We intuitively know that life isn’t meant to be wasted. We see someone with obvious talent and there’s something in us that wants to see them use it. Few things are worse in life than to see the gifted squander themselves.
When I went to Bowdoin, video games hadn’t yet gripped students as they now have, but several of my friends, including two who were preternaturally bright, nearly lost themselves playing first-person shooter games. It was awful to watch. You didn’t need to be an uptight partisan to see that this wasn’t ideal. It was in fact devastatingly selfish. Many people today want to live this kind of life, or at least find themselves slouching into it, but they wouldn’t if they knew the terrible torpor and wastefulness that awaited them.
Skepticism. Maybe you’re not merely apathetic. Maybe you’re actively skeptical. You’re like a film critic from the New Yorker—except that you critique not merely a work dealing with life, but life itself. You have an opinion about most everything, but there is a common thread that pulls together your threads of thought: none of them measure up.
But here’s the thing: you can tear down (and perhaps you really do have a good critical eye), but what can you offer in the place of that which you immolate with a cutting phrase or a condescending sneer? Do you have a positive vision of how life should be? Do you have any solutions? You cast a withering eye at those who actually believe in something, but when it comes down to it, what do you believe in?
There is actually an answer to that. The skeptic typically believes in him or herself. That’s the end of it. I myself, the self-realized. The philosopher Martin Buber famously spoke of the central social and philosophical reality of existence as “I-Thou.” The skeptic says yes to the first and no to the second, thank you very much.
Skepticism does not measure up to cold-eyed moral realism. Sure, it comprehends that things are wrong in the world. But it fails to offer any basis for positive action in the world, despite the fact that we are all in some way inclined toward positive action, at least for a time. Skepticism is not self-sustaining. It offers no comfort for life’s great questions. It provides no foundation for moral judgment. It is made to attack, built to strip down, and that’s what it accomplishes. This is of course inconsistent with the way we live and move and have our being in the world. We are inclined to moral behavior, to structure, to hope, even if we don’t think we want to be.
Evil. Let’s dial this up. Perhaps your worldview is not merely shaded towards the dark. Perhaps your righteous cause is evil itself. You think that you should perpetrate evil against others — that’s your right and your meaning.
This sounds very gauche to say in public, I know. Of course people don’t think this way, right? Wrong. People do. Look honestly at the world. There’s plenty of needless violence and suffering, isn’t there? Many of us like to pretend this side of the world doesn’t exist, maybe because we’re able by our background to pull that off. But here’s the thing: it does.
And as I’ve said, you may not only agree with that sentiment, but you might live by it in some way. You might want to hurt others. You might live out your days trying to get back at someone who seriously wounded you in the past. That pain is real. I remember reading Jim Harrison’s Dalva, about a woman who plots revenge on a man who forced himself on her, and being chilled by how easy — and understandable in a human way — it would be to fashion one’s entire existence around anger and hatred. The problem is that this force is never reconciled. The hunger for revenge is not sated.
Evil, furthermore, does not constitute a ground for moral or spiritual action. How does devoting oneself to hatred equip you in any way to care for a dying friend? How does it sustain you when your family members are broken by a tragic life event? It might seem right for you to be able to take vengeance on others, but is that a consistent moral principle — in other words, is that how you want others to treat you when you wrong them?
Synthesis. In all of the foregoing, I have been pointing out what I consider obvious difficulties with several of the most common worldviews of young college students. In other words, I’m pointing out basic flaws along moral lines of several popular ways of life. If you actually engage your conscience and examine yourself honestly, it’s not hard to see that our outlook is not often morally realistic. In fact, we naturally try to dodge a fully honest perspective on life. We don’t want to think much about it, and so we busy ourselves with the inclinations of our nature — fun, achievement, goodness, apathy, skepticism, evil.
If these worldviews falter in different and significant ways, it’s important to know that there is one that offers you a powerfully realistic view of the world: Christianity. Many times when you hear evangelicals talking about their faith, they highlight things like eternal life, Jesus as the divine human, and God’s presence within them. These are ethereal realities that are quite mysterious to contemplate. But Christianity has on-the-ground import as well. When it comes to real life in this world, it is shockingly clear-eyed.
What do I mean? The Bible doesn’t pretend that everything’s great in this world. It’s not airy-fairy in that regard. It’s totally up-front about the fallenness of this place. And it doesn’t isolate certain people as the culprits for this problem, as we are prone to do in our politics or ethics.
It distributes blame evenly: “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” according to Romans 3:23. There you have it. Everybody’s off; everybody fails to live rightly before God, the creator.
The Bible, you see, starts us in the middle of things. For all the philosophical effort people have put into contemplating admittedly mindbending realities like so-called determinism, the Bible announces that we are not at the beginning of the story. Much has already happened. We’re lost, separated from God. As a result, we run away from God and embrace lesser things. We pretend that gratifying our sexual desires will complete us, make us whole, satisfy our deeper longings. We lose ourselves in our work, our vocation, imagining that work or success offer us ultimate fulfillment. We throw ourselves into a cause, zealously pursuing it, all the while ignoring our unfading penchant for selfrighteousness. We selfishly opt of the real world with its real problems, choosing instead to try and drown out our conscience, numbing it until it no longer functions but lies inert and catatonic.
This is what the Scripture teaches us. It is morally realistic, and blissfully so. It calls out everyone, whether a rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-27), a selfrighteous zealot (Luke 18:9-14), or a selfish traitor (Matthew 27:3-8). But it doesn’t stop there. The Bible doesn’t reward those who think they are naturally better than these types of people, it calls everyone to repentance in the name of the crucified and resurrected Christ (Romans 10:9).
Christianity doesn’t pretend evil doesn’t exist. We all know it does, and so do the biblical authors. What your conscience whispers to you, the Bible speaks plainly to you. Where you and I think about morality in our own terms, prioritizing certain behaviors, ignoring our own shortcomings, the Bible declares that we are all fallen. We know deep down that our worldviews have flaws. The Bible declares that in full, and refuses to let us off the hook. It won’t let us focus on our favorite value or pursuit and ignore the weighty aspects of life. In ministering reality to us, it yields the hope that we don’t really want, the truth that we don’t really want to hear, the perspective that allows us, as C. S. Lewis argued, to see all else by it.
Conclusion. But here’s the truly wondrous thing. Christianity is not only morally realistic, ethically gritty. It is also spiritually idealistic. In other words, despite the depravity of this world, our hearts still incline toward hope. We still live with purpose. We have a natural affinity for those that want to improve.
We see someone sick, and we want them to get well; we see someone trapped, and we want them to be sprung.
The spiritual idealism of Scripture centers not in an abstraction, though, but in a person. Jesus Christ descended into this world to take our sin and to cleanse us of it. Thus we are offered not only realism in the Bible, but idealism, hope, pure hope. Wherever we are, in whatever state we find ourselves, we may call upon the Lord and be saved from sin and death and hell (Psalm 91:15). We need not perish without purpose. We can live forever with God, worshipping him, released from so many earthly battles, set free to love a being who is and who deserves absolute love. Perhaps all this sounds rather out there, a bit too much to take in. That makes sense. College is, as I noted, a magical and odd season of life. But realism is not long in the offing. The hard truths of this world will soon intrude. When they do, we may well find that our worldview is lacking, that we are unable to solve the problems we face, and that we have need of something — someone — greater than ourselves.