Dominic Gomez is a senior politics and international relations major with an international relations concentration

This post is the eighth 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. 

Theologian Miroslav Volf and his fellow academics Matthew Croasmun and Ryan McAnnally-Linz, with the help of some of the greatest thinkers, writers, and leaders in human history have come together to answer one of the eternal questions of existence: What does it mean to have a flourishing life? Throughout Life Worth Living, they break the Question into its aspects and evaluate it using multiple worldviews, ranging from Christianity and Buddhism to the classic Greek philosophers and contemporary voices. Regardless of the reader’s disposition, a flourishing life requires action to see it manifest; this has to be balanced daily with one’s obligations and not lose sight of them. However, this path to self-actualization is not something that is afforded to everyone and is highly dependent on one’s social location.

Above all, a life worth living must be lived and made reality. Upon closing the book, readers will have to evaluate the worldviews and philosophies set before them and use that knowledge to formulate how they will live out the rest of their lives. It is like the medieval rabbis emphasized “If you don’t put wisdom into practice, it will wither and die” (231).  If one comes across some profound knowledge but just sits on it, they are doing themselves a disservice and risking those precious gems of wisdom to be forgotten, as if they were never there. This principle of not letting something good go to waste also applies to life itself. One of the greatest things a person can do is to put their principles into action. Volf illustrates this by contrasting Thomas Jefferson’s writings for liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people but simultaneously holding hundreds of people in bondage, making the words ring hollow (227-9). As we pursue this vision, we have to be aware not to let our obligations and daily rhythms distract us from answering the Question, one of the biggest dilemmas from reading this piece. To do so, the authors offer the schema of layers of reflection and action, beginning from the shallow autopilot to the riverbed of self-transcendence. By alternating and transitioning through these levels of reflection and action, one can pursue their answer to the Question while still retaining proficiency in the everyday. 

The book answers the Question using wisdom from different schools of thought, allowing the reader to analyze the views presented and make their conclusion. One of the strongest points that Volf and his colleagues made was debunking the conventional wisdom of the view of a good life as one that prioritizes longevity, happiness and personal health. These things are beneficial of course, but should not be taken to be the final objective. As the authors note “the world’s greatest traditions don’t endorse a “long, happy, healthy”’ life without qualification” (19). This idyllic answer to the Question is a very short-sighted and selfish vision of life. It includes nothing of responsibility to the community and the fact that a life lived well often includes suffering, which can be a building experience. The figures that we admire in history were not defined by their easy-going comfortable lives but transformed the world, often at great cost to themselves and those around them with such examples as Martin Luther King jr, Malcolm X, and Ghassan Kanafani. The author’s debunking of this myth early in the book was an important one to include and set the tone of the rest of the work as one that expects more of its readers in how they think of and live their lives. This work is not without its flaws.

In attempting to answer a question relevant to all of humanity, it seems that this book struggles to expand from its audience of Westerners living in relative material comfort. This is especially seen in the chapters relating to suffering and how to confront it. About how one should respond to suffering, the professors point to Muslim scholar Al-Ghazali who notes “God is not merely all-powerful, but supremely wise and unsurpassably benevolent […] In the grand scope of things, everything works for the best possible good” (192). This kind of advice might work well for someone living in the relative material comfort that we enjoy in the West, but for many in the Global South and in less developed areas, suffering from situations that are truly out of their control like conflict, economic crisis or worse this can come across as tone deaf. To hear that everything is going to work out in the end sounds hopeful but fails to fully sympathize with those who already have difficulty reaching the other levels of Maslow’s pyramid.

This has been my favorite book of all the ones I have read in my college career thus far. Its attempt to answer the Question is sincere, thorough, and enlightening, urging the reader to take it as a guide to see the rest of their life as something to sculpt for themselves. Concerning my pursuit of a career in politics, this book has provided a template for discerning the trajectory of my career. In a field so influential to the real world such as this one, we must evaluate our role in it and ask ourselves: How am I making the world a better place in my role? The book provides a moral lens which can often be missing in this secular realm. In reading it, I have thought more about how I can use my knowledge and position as an educated Westerner to advocate and help those in the Global South, whether that be relating to working with refugees or doing something more broadly in terms of economic development.



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