Sean Major-Campbell | Faith and philosophy at thanksgiving
ON THURSDAY, November 23, I had the privilege of sharing with students in a philosophy class at The University of the West Indies. Our topic was the meaning of life and existence from a Christian perspective.
Now, this is a course in which Professor Balaganapathi Devarakonda has covered much regarding the meaning of life and the existence from the perspectives of psychology, philosophy, science, religion, and ethics.
It was so beautiful to see young Caribbean students learning to appreciate that they are free to think and explore without having any obligation to follow another’s view. It was also an ongoing lesson in the value of listening and sharing with others without the need to impose one’s views on others at the table of conversation.
The context of academia builds capacity for respectful discourse and regard for one’s own position in a post-colonial context where we were socialised to see wisdom as some foreign import from empire.
The conversation facilitated a peep at the word ‘life’ within the context of the Christian text of the New Testament. We noted that like the word ‘love’ in the Bible, the word ‘life’ also translates from various Greek words with different emphases. Three Greek words illustrate this reality. They are bios, psuche, and zoe. Readers will readily get that bios is the root word for biology. It refers to physical life. Psuche is soul-life which many often refer to everyday talk. Especially when speaking about “salvation of soul”. Psuche gives us the word psyche and psychology. Then zoe refers to the divine life of God or a particular quality of life known as eternal life.
The liturgical season of Advent will see carol services in which is a popular reading is John set in John 1. A well-known verse is John 1:4 where the teaching is, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.” In fact, John 1:1-14 informs the Nicene Creed which notes that Christ is “begotten not made”. In other words, Christ shares the uncreated nature of God.
The professor encouraged thinking that explored how meaning, life, and existence, are appropriated in a Jamaican or wider Caribbean context. Do Jamaicans for example have a way or particular ways for making meaning of life for themselves? Interestingly, this lecture was happening on the day of American Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving Day is actually a sad time for American natives for whom the day recalls the ugly truth of genocide … When Caribbean people in the United States “celebrate” thanksgiving, they are certainly not doing the politics and history of the event. Instead, it is an opportunity for family and friends to get in on the festivities and also get a break for time with loved ones. I do not miss turkey. If I cooked it, I find it much better with Jamaican jerk seasoning. I made some cranberried brown-stewed chicken.
Our people of the Caribbean have come to do life and culture and religion in ways that are not exactly like those from whom certain practices and traditions were inherited. We do not have to be enslaved to theological traditions. We have rich ancestral histories which were informed by various ideation and spiritualities. We are also able to critically assess inherited religious approaches.
The UWI students were being empowered to appreciate that philosophy is much more than studying what others have said and then producing an academic representation. Instead, it is about everyday life and how we draw on our own ways of thinking. For many Caribbean folks, meaning is determined by a religious perspective informed by bios, psuche or zoe.
It is important for us that we beware of any emphasis that is only focused on life in the hereafter. If one is only directed to think of other-worldly joys in the “next life”, then there is no need to change current situations. One would just focus on getting milk and honey while walking streets of gold. In some traditions, one may focus on being a suicide bomber since there are virgins to be had in the next life.
Life is also like now. We must therefore engage Karl Marx’s conversation regarding oppressed people in his observation of religion as the opium of the people. Too often, the powers that be have depended on religion to pacify troubled people.
A healthy view of life is inclusive of such values as recognise the importance of equality, equity, and justice for all now. Theology is therefore more than a literal preoccupation with “some glad morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away.” Instead, such thoughts are balanced with God’s will for the oppressed now. It is not that they die and fly away. It is that they have life abundantly. Abundant life is much more than the physical circumstances of life. It is informed by values that come from deep within.
Advent points to this life offered in the Christ who though incarnated, is eternal. This Christ of God inspires, since in Christ is light and life and love. Christ consciousness represents universal values which inspire life in its various manifestations. May we keep philosophical thinking alive as we explore the meaning of life and existence in our own context and experience in the quest for a fulfilled humanity marked with abundant life for all.