As J. Aaron Simmons was writing a chapter near the end of his new book, Camping with Kierkegaard: Faithfulness as a Way of Life, he got a text message from his wife telling him that an eighth grader at their son's middle school had committed suicide.
Immediately Simmons, who is heartbroken by the news, wonders how to "find the words to say to my son because I want him to know that it is ok not to have answers, not to understand, not to think that it all works out in the end. It might not."
He quickly concludes that he must help his boy understand that "death is not something we would be better without. Without the fact of death, of finitude, of aging, of vulnerability, of limitation, we would not be us."
It was another way of emphasizing Simmons' primary point in this engaging -- even kicky -- book, which is that we must commit ourselves to thoughts and actions that are "worthy of our finitude." Otherwise we risk wasting the precious gift of life.
That may not seem like an original insight. And, of course, it isn't. But Simmons -- who teaches philosophy at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., and who (surprisingly, at least to me) identifies as a Pentecostal Christian -- draws on some of the great philosophers, including Søren Kierkegaard, to help us understand this old lesson in new ways. Some of that comes through his writing about his love for mountain biking, camping and trout fishing.
When I say I was surprised to find that Simmons is in the Pentecostal Christian tradition, I mean that I didn't quite expect him to include something of a critique of that tradition. But, indeed, he calls out any people of any tradition, including his own, whose "'faith' led them to be so 'holy' that they were unable to get their hands dirty in the messiness of the human condition. . .Religion becomes their sole focus and faith, for them, names a rejection of worldly living. These folks are often recognizable because they always have a critical word on their lips and a judging look in their eye. They take themselves to be so religiously virtuous that they alone know what is right.
"Those people suck."
See what I mean by my earlier word "kicky"? I didn't expect this final phrase. But he's right. (And his description of such people sometimes rings true about me in my Presbyterian tradition. Sigh.)
When Simmons insists that we should engage in matters only "worthy of our finitude," he says that another way of thinking about that is to ask ourselves, "What are you becoming?" In other words, we must remember that what we are doing and thinking is creating the future us.
"The goal," he writes, "is not to have this or to do that in order to make our lives significant, but rather constantly to live toward what we think is worthy of our finitude, our time, our life itself. In this way, we avoid the temptation to be done with living before life is done with us."
So should we, like Simmons, spend a lot of our time fishing, mountain biking, camping, hiking? Well, not necessarily (I certainly don't). But, he writes, "when I read Kierkegaard and the other existential philosophers, I can't help but think that their frequent use of mountain metaphors, their references to rivers, their mentions of hiking, etc., are not simply coincidental but essential aspects of their reflections on lives well lived."
He has discovered that "finitude is both the reason for the human condition's impermanence and also the condition of finding meaning as human beings. But time is not a thing like money, cars and trophies. It is not something that we can show to others as a sign of our significance. It is, instead, the great equalizer."
As a writer myself, the only thing that annoyed me about this book is that Simmons seems to ignore a few basic points of grammar, such as when to use "whom" instead of "who" and when to remember that "none" is singular, so it's ungrammatical to write "none are. . ." instead of "none is. . ."
But those small irritations are not reasons to avoid this book, which can help its readers remember what is important about life and what isn't. (My focus on the rules of grammar may be among the latter.)
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DID THE RECENT CATHOLIC SYNOD HELP?
The recently completed gathering of Catholics at the Vatican -- the Synod on Synodality -- has disappointed many people who wanted the church to adopt such major changes as allowing women to be ordained as deacons and priests. But as this RNS column argues, the purpose of the synod wasn't to tackle all the hot-button issues in Catholicism but, rather, to learn how to listen to one another again. That, surely, is a worthy (but big) goal. But it lacks the sort of boldness found in the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and, thus, seems unlikely to change much. At least in the short run.
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P.S.: As if the world needed more expressions of hatred, this CNN analysis details the recent rise in antisemitism around the globe. Yes, it's certainly in part a reaction to the Hamas-Israel war, but "it is also a reflection of destructive forces tearing at American and western European societies, where stability and democracy are already under pressure." Those challenges take up much of the time on the evening newscasts by the major networks. And political figures around the world contribute to the unrest. It's another reason to be registered to vote and to use your vote for the healers, not the destroyers. Speaking of resurgent antisemitism, law enforcement authorities arrested someone this week suspected of making antisemitic online threats against members of Cornell University's Jewish community. I thought colleges were supposed to educate people. Maybe the suspect never took a history class.
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ANOTHER P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted Sunday -- about special training of hospital chaplains -- you can find it here. And for free, too.