Apple recently put out an excellent advertisement—as always—for its iPad Air in which you hear Professor Keating (Robin Williams) from the 1989 film Dead Poets Society quote Walt Whitman’s “O Me! O Life!”:
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,…
What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Then Professor Keating asks, “What will your verse be?”
In other words, into this grand tapestry that is humanity, which thread will you weave? What will be your contribution to mankind’s masterful story that it is narrating?
Then there’s philosopher and author Stephen Cave who brings us topics-a-plenty in a recent TED Talk entitled “4 stories we tell ourselves about death”. In his talk, he suggests that the fear of death is understandable but irrational, since death, after all, is something we never actually experience in life. Analyzing religion and worldview on a psychological level, he says that humans have come up with four ways of dealing with death (what he calls “immortality stories”): elixir (such as the fountain of youth), resurrection, the eternality of the soul, and the creation of a personal legacy. He doesn’t only critique old-fashioned religious positions; he’s also critical toward modern reinventions of them, such as cryonics (freezing one’s body). What Cave suggests is that we give up on fearing death and simply live life. To put it in Cave’s words, “The only thing that matters is that you make [your life] a good story.”
The thing that is remarkable to me is that Cave’s solution is rather trite. It is really nothing all that different from what you hear elsewhere: #YOLO! Live life to the fullest! Quit focusing on death and just live! To 21st century Western ears, Professor Keating’s question and Stephen Cave’s proposition are announcements of freedom! At last, we may live fearlessly and with purpose! We are free to create our own tales.
But aren’t these simply the same things we have heard before? Is not the religious person who ascends to his god simply the same as the modern man who contributes his own verse to society?
Keating and Cave may be more modernized, but they are, at the heart, singing similar tunes as the ideologies that came before them: let the self be king! Whether the person must climb to the throne room of his favorite deity or whether he must tell a great life story in order to be free, then this is nothing other than living by law. In both scenarios, the self is the protagonist; god is either the minor character or no character at all; and freedom is the (hoped-for) resolution. Rather than being given an identity, humanity must create its freedom for itself. In short, the self remains in the position of actor and pilot. In this light, religious and non-religious schemes look almost identical. But such is the situation of man in the 21st century West: always wanting to be free but never quite able to achieve it. German theologian Oswald Bayer puts it this way:
By its very name, which is crafted to characterize its self-understanding, the modern age distinguishes itself as having an ‘evangelical’ character. It conceptualizes itself as a new age that cannot be outdone, standing under the banner of freedom…. But whatever the new human being of the modern age is, that is what he or she must first become. But if freedom is not promised and imparted, if instead it is characteristic of me from the outset, if I define myself in relation to it, then I am weighed down, in my individual and collective subjectivity, with having to fulfill the promise of what has been provided for me–not freed for freedom but at the same time ‘to freedom condemned’ (Sartre). It is not that I am able to be free, but that I have to free myself.
Christianity, on the other hand, is an announcement of what God does. The world is his theater, and he is the Actor. The climax of the story is when he descends to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. God acts, and we receive. Perhaps this is part of what it means when we say that Christianity—in contrast to competing worldviews—is grace, grace that frees, above all, from the prison of self and all our slavish attempts at freedom.