Kyle Chu is a senior politics and international relations major (American politics concentration), with minors in music and statistics.

This post is the sixth of our new season of the From the Field student blog series: For Times Such as This.  If you have not yet done so, please read this post  for some brief context. 

Deep sea divers are brave souls. They, on their own volition, search out the innermost bowels of the earth. On the way, they behold the nightmares of the deep, the horrifying motley crew of uncanny, unwieldy, disproportionate, and plain old ugly creatures that reside solely in the darkness of deep waters. Deep sea diving aptly resembles the individual human quest for finding life’s purpose. The journey is meandering, long, and murky, and the underwater sojourner must be ready to face the leviathans of one’s own character. Fortunately, a group of Yale professors, Miroslav Volf, Matthew Croasmun, and Ryan McAnnally-Linz, have written a book to guide brave purpose-seekers in the depths of their own souls. In Life Worth Living, Volf et al. effectively use dialectical tension (albeit at a third remove from the reader) throughout a series of questions to facilitate the reader’s idiosyncratic struggle in answering life’s deepest Question: “What, for me, is the life worth living?”

Questions begin the process of finding one’s life purpose. Unless one faces good probing questions about values, intent, and application, he or she will most likely remain in shallow waters. Volf et al. call the shallows “Autopilot,” wherein “We simply do what we do because that’s what we do” (5). Instead, the authors desire to push the reader to the very “bedrock” of purposive living, where he or she must transcend self-evaluative questions (such as “What do we really want?”) and face the ultimate qualitative conundrum: What is worth wanting (12)? Volf et al. do not simply ask this question, however. They ask a series of proximal questions that manifest different aspects of the Question. For example, they ask the question of authority (Who do we answer to?) in Chapter 3, the question of goodness (How does a good life feel?) in Chapter 4, and the question of desires (What should we hope for) in Chapter 5. These questions serve as a helpful structure for synthesizing one’s response to the comprehensive Question.

While Volf et al. effectively employ sub-questions as the pedagogical structure for answering the Question, they employ dialectical tension to secure the structure with substance. For each sub-question, the authors place side by side answers from a variety of worldviews, some being quite compatible with and others being fundamentally opposed to one another. For example, in discussing the question of inescapable suffering in the world, Volf et al. present a smorgasbord of four worldviews: that of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddhism), of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (Islam), of Friedrich Nietzsche (Nihilism), and of Job (Judaism)(Chapter 11). Volf et al. use the tensions and compatibilities in these worldviews to begin the process of synthesis in the reader. For example, Nietzsche claims that inescapable suffering is intrinsic to growth, and thus intrinsic to happiness and heroism (195). For him, the solution to suffering is to realize that suffering is not a problem (199). On the other hand, Job protests his sufferings and demands an answer from God. Job believes that God is all-wise, all good, and sovereign over evil. Job also believes that God relates to humans and is accessible to human cries. For Job, then, the solution to suffering lies in petitioning God for the solution. The fundamental tension between Nietzsche and Job pushes the reader to make a value judgment: either all suffering is an inherently good problem (Nietzsche) or all suffering is an inherently evil problem that only God can solve (Job). In making this judgment, the reader must synthesize the proposed worldviews with his or her own experience and knowledge. In this way, Volf et al. employ dialectical tension as the method of answering the Question via the synthesis of answers to proximate questions.

While Volf et al. explicate the answers of others to the Question, they do not share their own answers to the Question. The absence of their idiosyncratic answers leaves a subtle gap between their purpose for the book (to aid the reader in developing his or her own answer to the Question) and the book itself. The gap lies in this: the information from which the reader derives his or her idiosyncratic answer must be learned from a third remove. For example, Nietzsche writes his experiences down, Volf et al. read and summarize Nietzsche (second remove), and the reader reads Volf’s account of Nietzsche (third remove). Life Worth Living will become all the more effective if Volf et al. input their own experiences in answering the question. The reader can then learn at the first remove and be closer to the action of answering the Question.

In Life Worth Living, Volf, Croasmun, and McAnnally-Linz effectively aid the reader in answering the Question. To this end, they utilize dialectical tension, set in the framework of proximal questions. Although the authors leave a gap in their book due to the absence of their personal stories, the book’s mode of teaching remains effective, not just for answering the Question but also for navigating other life experiences, including politics. Politics forces its participants to address terrible tensions, shifty nuances, and outright contradictions. However, if one is in the habit of diving deeply into value judgments and balancing the complexity of ideas and worldviews, he or she will have an advantage in the political arena by being more readily able to find common ground between clashing interests. What I am trying to say is that deep sea diving, as an analogy for deep evaluative introspection, is the ultimate transferable skill.


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