In a personal way, students tackle the question of what makes ‘life worth living’

Before taking part in a conversation on “Character, Flourishing, and the Good Life” with New York Times columnist David Brooks (see related story), Yale Divinity School professor and long-time associate faculty member in the humanities Miroslav Volf shared with YaleNews his thoughts about the undergraduate seminar “Life Worth Living,” which he co-designed and launched in 2014 with Ryan McAnnally-Linz, then a Yale religious studies graduate student and now an associate research scholar in the school’s Center for Faith & Culture.

In the seminar, undergraduates discuss and reflect on “the good life,” exploring deep theological and philosophical questions to discern for themselves what makes for a life worth living. Volf, the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology and founding director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture, taught the course in its first two semesters and will do so again next year. This semester, the seminar is co-led by McAnnally-Linz and Matthew Croasmun, an associate research scholar and director of the Life Worth Living Program at the Center for Faith & Culture. Volf’s many books include “Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World,” newly published by Yale University Press.

YaleNews posed some questions to Volf about the “Life Worth Living” seminar via email. Here’s what he had to say.

Why did you decide to offer “Life Worth Living” and what is the mission of the course?

The central question we are pursuing in the course is the very question that got me to read and study philosophy and theology when I was a teenager, and it is the question that to this day motivates my academic work. It is the biggest of all questions a human being can ask, namely: How do I succeed, not just in this or that endeavor I undertake, but in the endeavor that is a human life itself — how do I succeed as a human being? The mission of the course is to provide students with resources to help them find their own answer to this question. The course is about what it means to be human and to lead a flourishing human life, about the art of living — an indispensible, and historically the most important, dimension of education.

What are some of the themes — or big questions — you explore in the undergraduate seminar?

Here is a set of questions we ask of each tradition we study: What does it mean to lead one’s life well? What does it mean for life to go well? What does it mean for life to feel right? What motivation — what reasons — does this tradition provide for this vision of the good life? What help does it offer (given that one can share the vision and reasons for it but find it too difficult to live it)? What happens when you fail to live the good life? To whom are you responsible — to yourself, to family, to community, to God?

These questions help us focus on the topic of life worth living as we study great religious and philosophical traditions. By giving us a consistent set of questions to carry with us, they help keep the class from becoming a very brief and inadequate introduction into world religions and influential contemporary philosophies.

Does our modern culture — specifically consumer culture and the barrage of social media in our daily lives — make an examination and articulation of “a life worth living” especially important today in your view?

Contemporary culture tends to both trivialize and marginalize the question of life worth living or, as it was classically formulated, of the good life. It trivializes it by treating it as a matter of mere preference. We tend to treat accounts of the good life like dishes in a cafeteria: We choose from available offerings and create a dish of our own based on however we feel at the moment.

Having freedom to choose among consumer goods and capacity to act on preferences is, on the whole, a good thing. But a vision of the good life is not a mere “preference.” Instead, it articulates the “reflexive standards by which we evaluate our preferences,” to borrow a formulation from the sociologist Hans Joas.

We ought to deliberate carefully about the reflexive standards by which we judge our preferences, expose them to scrutiny in the light of available options that have been tested through many centuries; the character of our entire lives is at stake. When we treat accounts of the good life as preferences, we circumvent just such deliberation. We circumvent it also by being too distracted to engage in it. The way market economies are currently shaped, whether we are poor or rich, we fill our lives with work — often running faster and faster just to stay fundamentally in the same place. We escape into mindless entertainment and superficial social exchanges, and important things in life get squeezed out, including sustained reflection on the good life and nurturing of our very selves so we can actually live lives that are truly worth living.

A course like the one we are teaching can be a way to wake students up to the importance of rigorous engagement with the question and give them basic tools for such engagement. In recent decades, university education globally has been increasingly about what some philosophers have called “instrumental rationality,” about sophisticated means to achieve our ends. The danger is that students become experts in means but remain amateurs in ends, immensely adept in accomplishing discrete tasks, but lost when it comes to the art of living.

How popular has the course been?

Interest in the course has grown each year. The first year we offered it, 43 students applied. The next year, 66. This year, 153 submitted an application and dozens more inquired about the course after the deadline. This has posed a real challenge, given our commitment to teach the course in the small seminar environment. This year, my colleagues, Ryan McAnnally-Linz and Matt Croasmun, are between them teaching three seminars in order to try to close the gap between supply and demand.

In admitting students to the course, we seek to make the composition of the class reflect the pluralism that characterizes the student body at Yale. We have religious and a-religious students, students from a variety of cultural and geographical backgrounds, and students who espouse specific traditions and those who don’t think they belong to any tradition. This diversity of student voices is a key element of the course.  

Do you know if other universities offer a similar course?

The kinds of questions we are exploring used to be at the center of university concern for many centuries. It is only in the last 50 years or so that they have gradually slid to the margins. At many universities you will still find such courses offered — for instance, a course on the meaning of life taught by Mathias Risse at Harvard. And indirectly, these issues are explored in programs like Yale’s “Directed Studies” as well as in many courses offered under the rubric of humanities. Our course is housed in Yale’s Humanities Program, which is the most proper home for courses that seek to ask and answer these big interdisciplinary questions, engaging a variety of human traditions. What is unique about the course we are offering is that we pursue the question of the good life by exploring great and, in some cases, millennia-long religious and secular traditions of reflection on this question; we take seriously the truth claims they all make, incompatible as these often are; we seek to imagine how our lives would look like if these claims were in fact true; and we engage in respectful and rigorous critical examination of these truth claims.

In addition to reading about the thoughts of noted philosophers, the course examines the perspectives of a variety of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist religious traditions. Is religious faith important to having a “life worth living”?

Whether you are a religious person or not, if you are interested in exploring what it would mean to have a life worth living, you ought to explore religious traditions. Arguably, the question of the good life is their central question. For thousands of years, they have guided the lives of millions of people, and they continue to do so today. In fact, today a growing number of people and an increasingly larger percentage of the world population is seeking guidance about the good life from the great religious traditions. Given that they have survived the test of time, they are likely to have a thing or two to teach us about the good life — even those of us who do not embrace them.

There is another reason why religions like the ones you mention matter as we reflect on life worth living. As I have argued in my recent book “Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World,” common to these traditions is the stress on the primacy of the transcendent realm over the mundane realm. What’s more, they all, each in their own way, insist that the primacy of the transcendent realm helps make life in the mundane realm truly good. This seems counter-intuitive to those of us shaped by modern sensibilities. For us, nothing seems to be more important than ordinary life — indeed, for many of us nothing can be the case except the world — and the primacy of the transcendent realm — of God — seems to distract us from life in the here and now. Great religious traditions challenge this frequent and basic assumption. They are important if for no other reason than that they disrupt deeply ingrained ways of thinking about the good life and alert us to alternative possibilities.

There is a student retreat offered as part of the seminar. What is the purpose of the retreat and what happens there?

In “Life Worth Living,” we ask our students to invest themselves in the course, to engage deeply with the subject matter on an intellectual level but also personal level and to let that engagement show. That involves quite a bit of risk on students’ part, and it demands an especially deep, resilient academic community at the seminar table. Especially in a course committed to fostering conversation about the central question of life across important and enduring lines of difference, it is crucial that students and instructors trust one another, have patience for one another, and are committed to extended dialogue with one another. For those who choose to attend it, the retreat is one of the central ways we seek to foster that sort of inclusive community. Bonds of that kind develop especially well over the course of an intensive community experience like a retreat. At the retreat we share meals together, listen to one another’s stories, and reflect on how those stories have shaped our implicit visions of a life worth living. Each year, the retreat has been a pivotal moment for the class, really galvanizing the students and catalyzing our process of exploration of the great traditions we discuss and the big questions we ask.

By the end of the course, do students leave with their own sense of a life worth living, and is it deeply personal? In other words, are there many answers to the question “What makes a life worth living?” or is there consensus among your students about what constitutes a worthy life?

As I noted earlier, each tradition we are studying in the course claims that the answer it gives — or rather a cluster of rival answers that a tradition makes available — is the true answer to the question of the good life. Some versions of these traditions impose their answers on humans with cookie-cutter rigidity; fundamentalisms of various sorts, religious and secular, are a good example. Still, in one way or another, many of these traditions presuppose that each person will embrace the answer they give in freedom and that each person will live this answer in their own specific ways, given their temperament and their circumstances.

The course invites students to explore these traditions, assess them with regard to intellectual plausibility and practical “livability,” and embark responsibly on a path toward a life of meaning and fullness, toward a life that is worthy to be called good. The final assignment for the class is to write one’s own account of life worth living. The goal here is not necessarily to come up with something original, but to formulate for oneself, at least provisionally, how the “truth of one’s existence” might look like, what would it mean to have succeeded as a human being. In the end, each student’s vision is as unique as the student herself.

Do you share with your students your own views about what makes for a worthy life? And how would you define a life well lived?

We start the course by coming out, by sharing with students the perspectives from which we tend to approach these questions. No one engages questions of the good life from nowhere, hovering in some drone above all circumstances and all positions. It seems to me more honest to let students know where I am situated from the outset.

What is my account of the good life? As a Christian theologian, it will come of no surprise to you that I make my own the central injunction of Abrahamic traditions, originally formulated in the Hebrew Bible, that we should love God with all our being and neighbors as ourselves. I see the identity of God and nature of love of neighbor disclosed in the person Jesus Christ. But my role in the class is not to advocate for my position, but to champion and impartially moderate a rigorous and respectful engagement with the issue — and I take on this role not just because I am fortunate to be a professor at a pluralistic university but equally as much because of my Christian commitments. My goal is to help the diverse traditions — those originating with Buddha, Moses, and Nietzsche no less than those originating with Jesus Christ — to disclose to students the strength of their claims; and furthermore to watch over the intellectual integrity of a dialogical search for truth in the classroom, and to ensure that a diverse and engaged group of students respect one another in the process.

What do you most enjoy about teaching the course?

It is an extraordinary privilege and great intellectual pleasure to examine major religious and philosophical traditions with respect to their visions of the good life. I also enjoy seeing students discover, some for the first time, that these kinds of questions are a worthy subject of the most intense intellectual endeavor, and to come to formulate for themselves a vision into which they will seek to live. There is here some faint echo of a Socratic kind of pleasure in this, I suppose.

To hear students speak about their experiences in “Life Worth Living,” visit the Life Worth Living Program website.