Westmont Magazine The Great Journey: A Quest to Find the Way of Life
One of my favorite writers, the great American novelist Walker Percy, talks about dreams and ambitions that get derailed by personal choices, and the long, slow road we must follow to recover. His books reflect themes such as longing to make a difference, wanting our life to count, and making sense of the challenges we face. Percy trained to be a doctor but contracted tuberculosis and was never allowed to practice medicine. So he became a novelist, combining a deep understanding of human nature with a profound, lighthearted sense of humor. When asked about the most important question in life, he responded, “There are essentially two types of people: those for whom life is a quest and those for whom it isn’t. The great question we must answer is: which one are we?”
Percy’s last novel, “The Thanatos Syndrome,” addresses spiritual reformation. The Greek term “thanatos” means spiritual death, being physically alive yet spiritually dead. Tom Moore, a medical doctor, has just been released from minimum security prison after serving two years for selling stimulants to long-haul truck drivers. He returns to his hometown and begins a quest for recovery. He discovers the value of enduring relationships, of loving and being loved. He begins to understand that his life counts as he faces his moral failings and recovers from spiritual death. Many of the revelations in the novel occur during his conversations with a priest.
Romans 8 also presents us with two choices: following the way of life or the way of death. The passage begins by saying there’s no self-contempt for those who have discovered their life with Jesus Christ. “Zoë,” the uncreated, eternal life that originates in God alone, is found along this path. Not only are we emotionally free, we are spiritually and intellectually capable of handling all that life brings.
The Harvard Grant Study, a 75-year longitudinal project following the lives of nearly 300 young men who attended the university in the late 1930s, has revealed factors that contribute to happiness and success, including coming to terms with life’s regrets and close relationships. One of the subjects, who spent his life in a miserable marriage, blamed his wife’s failings for his unhappiness. But as he began thinking about his own role and responsibility, he recognized it was the best marriage he was capable of having.
Freedom from self-contempt allows us to see our obligations and interests in a whole new light. We can take responsibility for the roles we’ve played in situations without letting them ruin us. As we come face-to-face with our own failings, either professionally or morally, we find a deeper reality in Christ that helps us get back on track.
The law of life in Romans 8 is stronger than the law of death. Throughout Scripture, there are two terms for life: one refers to biological existence (“bios”) and the other to spiritual vitality (“zoë”). We can be physically alive yet spiritually dead by participating in beliefs and behaviors that bring utter ruin into our own existence.
But we’re not stuck with or forced to endure this. Instead, life with God allows us to make peace with our deepest regrets so we can engage in purposeful activities that make a difference. The greatest joys in life come from committing ourselves to purposes that will outlive us, from striving to make a difference while answering life’s greatest questions: Why am I here? What is a good person? How can I become a good person? What will bring meaning to my life? And can I find it? At Westmont, we continue to pursue the twin rails of rigorous academics and deep love for God to engage life’s greatest questions and offer an enduring and compelling response. In an earlier novel, “Lost in the Cosmos,” Percy asked, “Why is it that as we know more and more about the universe we know less and less about ourselves?” This observation, so poignant in its accuracy and insight, penetrates every reader as it forces us to recognize the easy seduction of being so preoccupied with our external self that we never do the harder work of cultivating our inner selves.
In an earlier epistle, Paul identifies nine qualities of those on a spiritual journey: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These characterize people who come to terms with their regrets to embrace and live life more fully.
In this New Year, may we give ourselves to the life of the spirit that cultivates deep engagement while allowing us to contribute to purposes that will outlive us. Happy New Year.