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Unpacking Human Tragedy & The Competing Responses (Christian, Stoic, & Liberal) — With C. Kavin Rowe

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In this Book Discussion episode of the Share Life podcast, I’m excited and grateful to be speaking with C. Kavin Rowe PH.D., an author, John Templeton Prize winner, Fulbright Scholar, a Lilly Faculty Fellow, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and a George Washington Ivey distinguished professor of New Testament at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.

In February 2020, per the direction of my good friend, I read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius as my first serious dive into stoicism. Wanting a systematic understanding of the stoic tradition, I stumbled across Kavin's book, One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions. It not only gave me what I was looking for but opened up a new world to me. I quickly picked up a copy of his previously published book, World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age, before finding out he secretly (and surprisingly) published another book at the end of last year called Christianity’s Surprise: A Sure and Certain Hope.

World Upside Down by Kavin Rowe
One True Life by Kavin Rowe
Christianity's Suprise by Kavin Rowe

Discussion Highlights

In this discussion, we dive into questions regarding all three works as well as the connections between them. Here are some of the book discussion questions and highlights.

  • The value and complications of the Christian tradition, our relationship to it, and the modern movement towards revisiting it.
  • The distinctiveness of Christianity compared to the traditions it encountered, particularly the strength of Stoicism.
  • In World Upside Down, Kavin states that the book is about the “inextricable connection between an irreducibly particular way of knowing and a total way of life”. God is the “generative” source of all, Christians are, at the same time, great Roman citizens and the practical means of its indirect and peacefully driven demise. It certainly seems like a great deal of western Christianity fits the profile of the then-Roman Empire. Where can we American Christians see and learn about ourselves from the threatened Roman Empire? On the flip side, how can the early Christians inform and inspire us today?
  • There is a cost of going public with the truth, in a counter-cultural way. We’re not prepared or ready for it, and in many ways, it seems we’ve got it backward.
  • In One True Life, Kavin goes through the deliberate exercise of sketching the Christian and Stoic narratives and how those shape their way of life and then comparing these against each other in the most effective and generous way possible (as if he were an adherent to either point of view). In an America with countless and competing points of view, what can this written work model for us in the fragmented world we find ourselves in? How can the model of thoroughly codifying two opposing narratives/ways of life provide a better way forward for us to understand those that are so different than us?
  • In the modern world, we have numerous and competing agendas clamoring for what is true. Underlying many of us in America is one story about the human being, that we are free to make the choice between these choices (philosophically this is known as lowercase l liberalism - the story of the autonomous individual).
  • How does modern stoicism differ from its ancient roots?
  • To summarize and emphasize the premise of Kavin's latest book, Christianity's Surprise, I point to J.R.R. Tolkien's quote about the “Eucatastrophe”, a sudden turn of events preventing the seemingly inevitable tragedy. “The Resurrection [of Jesus] was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story — and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.” 
  • Is the fact that we are not as surprised as we ought to be due to our failure of recognizing the scope and scale of tragedy we humans are facing and the severity of which was required to rectify that tragedy? Are Christians too far removed from those events as beneficiaries of redemption that we miss “the shoulders of which we stand”?

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Additional Resources from C. Kavin Rowe

Unedited Transcript

Jason Montoya 00:00:00 In this episode of Share Life, I'm grateful to be speaking with C. Kavin Rowe. Say hello, Kavin.
Kavin Rowe 00:00:06 Hi, <laugh>.
Jason Montoya 00:00:08 Um, Kavin is an author gen John Templeton prize winner, Fulbright Scholar, a Lilly faculty fellow, and a George Washington Ivy distinguished professor of New Testament at Duke University Divinity School in Dham, North Carolina. Now, how did we get connected? So, in February of 2 20 20, per of the direction of one of my close friends, I read meditations by Marcus Aures Aurelius as my first dive into stoicism. So wanting a systematic understanding of the stoic tradition, I stumbled across your book, one True Life, the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions. Sorry, one True Life. Yeah. Um, it not only gave me what I was looking for, but opened up a new world to me. I quickly picked up a copy of your previously published book, world Upside Down Reading Acts in the Greco Roman Age before Finding Out you had secretly published another book at the end of last year called Christianity Surprise Assure And Certain Hope.
Jason Montoya 00:01:05 So in this disc discussion discussion, we'll dive into all three works, uh, as much as we're able to. Um, but I'd like to actually start by talking about the connection between the three. So your three books, world Upside Down, one True Life and Christianity Surprise All have an organic, um, unfolding from one to the next. So, what are the connecting threads between these books? Did you choose to publish 'em in that particular order? And am I missing any threads by any work that you've done prior to that or that I'm not aware of? So let's start there.
Kavin Rowe 00:01:35 Sure. Uh, first of all, Jason, thank you so much for inviting me. I'm delighted to be with you and, and to have conversation together. Um, I, um, there is one book before that that actually I should mention. Um, my first book was called, uh, early Narrative Christology. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, the Lord in the Gospel of Luke, and it was a revised version of my dissertation. Okay. Um, and the reason that I mentioned that is because there is a kind of trajectory that emerges from that book through the the next three, and is in a way, um, something that I'm trying to do, which is to follow, uh, belief about who Jesus was and is as it moves from a kind of internal focus, uh, in the earliest Christian text to a kind of, um, situation with respect to the external culture. Okay. Um, and not that Christians were isolated from the external culture, but what is it that they believed that then made them distinct as a group, so that when you looked at something you thought, Hmm, what is that? And eventually they get the word Christian for what they were mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So, and
Jason Montoya 00:02:48 Would you, would you say that that, like, what comes to my mind is the fact that Paul was, um, essentially isolated for three or four years before he actually went out into ministry? Is that kind of an example of, of what you're describing?
Kavin Rowe 00:03:01 Uh hmm. That's a good question. Um, well, let me, let me try, try it this way and see if this helps. So the, the first book focused on, um, how did the Christians think about Jesus as Lord? Yeah. And when they thought about that, what other implications were there? So the, the, the second book then went to the Implications. This is the one you read called World Upside Down. Yeah. And that was really a book more about implications for kind of daily life in the Greco Roland world. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, if you were neither Christian nor Jew and you became a Christian, what sorts of attachments would you have? What sorts of attachments would you lose? What kind of cultural disruption would be there? What kind of new bonds would be created? Um, if you suddenly stopped worshiping all these other gods and started worshiping just one, what would that do?
Kavin Rowe 00:03:58 Um, and then from there, the, the next book, the one True Life book that focused on stoicism was really more about how does the Christian intellectual tradition as it gets going interface with another very, very strong intellectual tradition. And in the first, uh, century, um, stoicism around the time of the testament was the most powerful philosophical, uh, current. Yeah. And one other thing, which is it philosophy in the ancient world was not, uh, armchair discipline. You didn't find professors just thinking about, you know, what if you do, if you're behind a closed door and some bad guy comes and forces you to make a choice between A and B? Yeah. Um, it, it was really a, a style of life, and it was wisdom. It was the love of wisdom. That's what the word means. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it's the love of wisdom for how to live.
Kavin Rowe 00:04:51 And so in intellectual tradition also meant back then how you live in the world. Yeah. And so that's what that book was about in intellectual, the sort of, if, if you have one group saying, this is how you do it, and another group saying, no, this is how you do it. Yeah. Then how do you think about that? And then the, the little book that you mentioned, um, Christianity's Surprise is really a, a summation of a lot of that stuff written in a more popular idiom. And, and, and sort of the question, you know, <laugh>, what's Christianity? Yeah. I mean, what, what, where'd it come from? What, why is it so surprising when it first emerges in the world? Why were people attracted to it? Yeah. You know, what, what do we owe to it? Even if we don't like it, uh, today, if we're, if we're the sorts of people that, that find that there's more wrong with it than Right. You know, what, what is it that still that, that came into the world with Christianity that, that we need to pay attention to?
Jason Montoya 00:05:46 Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So, so
Kavin Rowe 00:05:48 That's a surprise question. Yeah. Go ahead, please.
Jason Montoya 00:05:49 Yeah. So the, um, I guess there seems to be a, a, a sense or a spirit of interest in the, in the ancient Christianity, early Christians, more so than, than when I was younger, although I'm only 36, so I'm not that old. But, um, but I am curious if you've seen that or if that's just a, a blip and, uh, if that has anything to do with, with, with that particular, um,
Kavin Rowe 00:06:10 Great question. It's a great question, Jason. And I mean, there's a, a formal answer, which is you never know whether something's a blip or a rise in general interest until much later. You need a broader perspective on history to know that. But my, so just anecdotally that my experience in classroom and with talking with other teachers and other people is that there is a renewed interest in tradition. There's renewed interest in stuff like liturgy, even, I mean, where, uh, we have for a long time been kind of rootless, uh, at least in, in America. Yeah. Uh, and in some ways that's part of our dna. I mean, if you think of our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, when you've got that as you're kind of guiding star, you're throwing a lot Yeah. To the side. And so a lot of younger folks are saying, yeah, but how do we find roots?
Kavin Rowe 00:07:01 And where can we dig down and go deep? And, and where, where can we find a place we can call home? Um, if we're always moving and, and all, and we're so mobile and everything's fast and tech and all that, there, there has been a kind of resurgence and, and a hunger for, for an old, wisdom for stuff that has lasted mm-hmm. <affirmative> and made it through the VAs of human life. Um, and in that sense, I would say there, there has been a, a, a longing, uh, that's been awakened, uh, for a deeper and more ancient wisdom. Yeah. Again, it's, it may not last, but that's what I've experienced.
Jason Montoya 00:07:41 Well, and, and we can dive into this more a little bit, but, um, and I think that's part of also why I, I see a resurgence in Cism Yeah. Um, in the modern, modern realm. I guess the other part of it though is, is, um, not just an American Christianity, but also, and, and I don't know if this is a product of the reformation or just, um, modern, uh, interpretation of it, but they're, I just know growing up there was a distinct, uh, disconnect from the tradition of Christianity, um, from the point of reformation that essentially a, as a young person was like, well, they were wrong. They were always wrong. We are Right. And, and so we almost just amputate half our body <laugh> in that tradition. Um, and so, you know, I don't, how does the reformation actually play a part in that? Or, or does it, and it's just been twisted over the years?
Kavin Rowe 00:08:34 It's a great question. Um, so, uh, um, a kind of caricature of the reformers is that they thought there wasn't anything really worth paying attention to between Augustine mm-hmm. <affirmative> and them, or between Augustine and Luther. Once you get past Luther, or between Augustine and Calvin, as you get past Calvin, um, it, it's a caricature in that it does capture some sentiment that emerges out of the reformation. That they had this watch word or slogan of ad infante's returned to the sources, to the sources returned to the sources, and by which, uh, they meant principally scripture, of course, but also patristic, uh, theology. And in that way, once it, it sort of got rolling in a, in a very advanced sense, there did tend to be a kind of overlooking <laugh>, uh, of, of a long history of stuff between, uh, the fourth or fifth century and, uh, what came in the modern world.
Kavin Rowe 00:09:40 Mm-hmm. But it's not intrinsic to the reformation. The, the reformation really isn't about casting stuff. Yeah. That is worth ca worth having a way. It, it's about making sure that there is a, a Christian life that is accountable to scripture. Yeah. And to the way that scripture, and this part wasn't said quite as clearly because it wasn't seen quite as clearly for a while, but in the way in which scripture was rightly read in the early church mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, as we've moved past Vatican two, um, in the, in the Roman Catholic Church, that conference in, in the middle of the 20th century, there has been a realization, you might say, um, that you, you have more in common with each other than you do with the wide rest of the world that has nothing to do with Christianity. Yeah. And therefore, a, a willingness to work together on some basic issues like the sanctity of life or Yeah. You know, I mean, just whatever it may be. So, so all that is to say there is that tendency and reformation based churches, and, and you can watch for it, but it's not necessary as a feature of a, a reformed Christian to be polemically said, against all tradition that has come from the church. In fact, you can't be. Yes. Um, so, yeah.
Jason Montoya 00:11:03 Yeah. So I guess on the, on the flip side, then, what, I'd be curious to know where you, where you kind of run with it mm-hmm. <affirmative> when Al, you know, when I look at the work of Alito McIntyre, he seems to make the argument that that the tradition of which we all should, um, uh, attach to is Catholicism and, and Tom, Tom to Tomism. So, you know, how, or at least a tradition that that integrates into that more specifically, uh, what are, what are your thoughts on that and how does that manifest, um, more, more mod in, uh, in, in today and practically speaking?
Kavin Rowe 00:11:36 That's a great question too, Jason. You have a lot of good ones. Um, that one's harder to answer without getting pretty technical. So let me not do that. I don't think that'll be that helpful. But, um, McIntyre, Allister McIntyre, uh, for me is one of the most significant philosophers that Christians can read and really anybody could read and profit from. Yeah. Um, his basic argument about Traditioned inquiry that you can't think in the world without thinking within a certain kind of tradition strikes me as exactly Correct. I think he's right. That that means for Christians, we think within the Christian tradition, does that mean that we need to be Thomas? Uh, not yet For me, <laugh>
Jason Montoya 00:12:29 Yeah.
Kavin Rowe 00:12:30 It's something I think a lot about. Yeah. But, uh, but not yet. Um, I, I don't know that it has to get that specific Yeah. Um, within the broader argument that to me is both compelling and, and significant of McIntire. Yeah.
Jason Montoya 00:12:47 Okay. So let's, let's jump into world upside down. So that's, uh, that's the, um, diving into the Greco of warming, kind of looking through the Christian's eyes at the world in which they did it. Now you state the book is about the inextricable connection between an irreducibly particular way of knowing mm-hmm. <affirmative> and a total way of life. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, God is the generative source of all Christians are at the same time, great Roman citizens in the practical means of its indirect and peacefully driven demise. So, ironically, when I was reading the book, it had a, it had a unique mirroring connection for me. It certainly seems like a great deal of Western Christianity fits the profile of the then Roman Empire. Um, so I'm curious, you know, what can we, American Christians, see and learn about ourselves from that threatened Roman Empire flipping the paradigm? Um, and, and how can those early Christians inspire us and, and nested with inside of that <laugh>?
Kavin Rowe 00:13:48 Well, I mean, I think in a lot of ways, I mean, the first thing to say is, is that any, um, direction from the biblical text that we take, which is the point of having a biblical text <laugh>, um, in a sense, uh, is to connect us with the, the truest source of direction, of course. But, um, the, the way in which God would shape us through the Bible is not, um, devoid of the history that came between the Bible's emergence and, and us. So it's, it's not as if you can just jump seamlessly and easily from the first century to the 21st and, and not have 20th centuries of development in between it. So all the political questions and so on are complicated and worked out in different ways, in different times and places. But nonetheless, we keep reading scripture because we're convinced that, um, God speaks to us through scripture mm-hmm. <affirmative>
Kavin Rowe 00:14:48 And directly, and then and now for now. So, um, part of the, the task is to discern, excuse me, the analogies and, and the, the typological connections. And with respect to politics, it's complicated, but there's some basic things you can learn from the early Christians that would help at least give us better footing and a, a better sense of where to make good, uh, prudential judgments. And one of them is that Christians have their own political ground. Um, we, we don't emerge, uh, into a world that sets the terms for us that we have to take, um, Christianity at the beginning. Um, for example, just to take a an example, uh, did not have, uh, their officials chosen for them in the church by local governments or city councils or anything like that. They had their own independent authority and were gen bishop's, elders, and the rest were generated out of Christian's own sense of who should lead them. And that gave them right from the beginning, a kind of independence within the larger Roman world of politics. And remember, back in the ancient world, it's true for us today too, but we have a grammar that teaches us otherwise. But we just have to remember, politics, religion, all that stuff was bound up in one thing. There, there weren't, you know, politics, religion over here, all that. And that's true today too. But in the ancient world, I didn't even try to pretend. Yeah.
Jason Montoya 00:16:25 You separated. And in fact, it seems like that's more, the pretending is less now than it, than it was five, 10 years ago. Yeah, that's
Kavin Rowe 00:16:32 Right. Yeah, that's right. We're, we're learning very quickly that the ancients were right. That those things, uh, were blended together for better and worse. Uh, but, um, so, so the Christians did not have, in other words, for them, politics determined ahead of time. And in that sense, they were very free. Uh, and they were free to be Christian <laugh>. Yeah. Which meant at any given moment they could be, um, supportive of some particular thing, or as the Romans called 'em obstinate and refused to do Yeah. What was asked of them, for example, to sacrifice to the Roman emperor, the Roman, the Romans could not understand why would these people not <laugh> worship the Roman and Empire? What's a, why is that a big deal? I mean, you just do that and then you can have your life and whatever, and, and they just wouldn't do it. Um, so in that way, part of what we learn is, um, the choice is often presented to us as sort of Democrat or Republican or X or Y or what, and we're not bound to those choices. Yeah. What it would mean to be free of those choices is something the church has, has sort of forgotten, and it's what we're trying to relearn. Yeah. Um, but in, in the 20th century, we, we got pretty hooked to some of those choices in America, and now we're starting to see that maybe, maybe that marriage of, uh, particular political party and Christianity one way or the other was, was a mistake. Yeah. Um, and we're trying to get our own free political ground again.
Jason Montoya 00:18:05 Yeah. I, I think of pilot who's sort of caught between the religious leaders and mm-hmm. <affirmative> and, and Caesar, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative> his two allegiances, and he doesn't have an allegiance beyond those to be able to, um, to, I guess shed them both <laugh>. Yeah. And so he, he crucifies Jesus. So, um, and, and I guess in a sense, I, I see that with a lot of leaders that are also Christian and, and their allegiances. Um, I guess I long for what you're describing, and I hope to see more of that as we go forward.
Kavin Rowe 00:18:37 Me too. Me too, Jason. Yeah. It's not just writ large at the moment. I mean, but there, there are, there are pockets of it and, and places where in the world where it's life or death to realize you have your, your own intrinsic set of goals and concerns and so on as a, as a set of, uh, Christian communities.
Jason Montoya 00:18:58 And I think that was, yeah. One of the other things that was, I guess with the book, you know, when you talk about truth and people of the truth and, and you even spoke of Bon Hoffer and Nazi Germany mm-hmm. <affirmative>, and just to recognize how prominent Christianity was in Germany as cri Nazim rose, and, and to see maybe not in and manifest to the same degree, but in, in, in the heart level, some of those similar dynamics, um mm-hmm. <affirmative> in ourselves. And, and I guess trying to, um, to reconcile that, um, you know, what are, what are the ram the poli, you know, the last part of the book is the politics of truth. And it's not just politics in the sense that we think of it, but the, the, the reality of, of action and, and consequence. So what would you speak into on that dynamic and that facet?
Kavin Rowe 00:19:51 Well, I mean, your first comment about how many Christians there were in Nazi Germany, uh, has al I mean, it's, it's always a question, well, post Nazi Germany, it's a question of, of several things at once. Um, Christians have been complicit with all kinds of evil, and in some ways it's not surprising, um, because wherever human beings show up, there's gonna be a lot of sin. That's one of the things you learn from Christianity, at least at what we say is true about ourselves, and that we can go utterly blind to our own destruction. Um, seems to be pretty, pretty deep in scripture
Jason Montoya 00:20:44 <laugh>.
Kavin Rowe 00:20:44 Yeah. Um, and in the church's experience, um, it doesn't absolve anything. It's just to say that, that the background of that surprise that Christians can be complicit with such evil is already the notion that we're not supposed to be. So we're, we're already looking at the world Christianly when we see Christians in hypocrisy mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, and so that prior vision to see what we would call hypocrisy, is already determined by the gospel. And that's critical to see, because it gives us something to return to and to repent of having not been, and to try to steer our lives better by, um, so that, that's to me really important to, to, to frame the whole question. Um, it would've been amazing. It didn't happen, obviously, but had Christians in Nazi Germany been tutored well enough politically in their own independent ground, that even 60 or 70% of them would've just said, no, we're not gonna do this. We can't do this for Christians. It would've made a tough, I mean, it wouldn't have gotten off the ground in germs. So, um, but obviously that, that, that didn't, that didn't happen. Yeah. It's, it's tragedy.
Jason Montoya 00:22:05 Well, I, I, what comes to mind, I guess, is the, what you said earlier about the, the early Christians, um, you know, sort of being incubated to some degree for a while there, there was an aspect of, and I don't know if this is the right word, earned. Like they, they worked through mm-hmm. <affirmative> their salvation, and, and it grew from there. And, and I guess in perhaps a lot of modern Christianity, people are Christians, um, almost by default or, or through maybe superficial or shallow means mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so they're not, I dunno if maturity or redemption is the right word, but there, there's something lacking in us, if that makes sense.
Kavin Rowe 00:22:43 It does make sense. Uh, Bonhoeffer wrote this famous book called The Cost of Discipleship. And there, there are a lot of things, and they make good sense, uh, to us to hold onto. And if Christianity gets in the way of holding onto those things, we, we might just prefer to keep our stable lives. And I don't mean just material stuff, but I mean, just the, the stability of, of mm-hmm. <affirmative> life, some of that is possibly coming undone in America, but, but by and large, we're still in the wake of the dissolution of a Christian America. Um, and, and therefore have this kind of strange time of both kind of knowing what Christianity is and having entirely forgotten what it is.
Jason Montoya 00:23:37 Yeah.
Kavin Rowe 00:23:38 Um, and the book, the book you mentioned that, that I've written most recently called Christianity Surprise, is just a tiny thin, and, and as I say, for regular, uh, folks to read. Yeah. That, what I say at the beginning of that is something like that, that we're in a strange time in which we're utterly saturated in our culture by Christian images mm-hmm. Vocabulary, scriptural references, on and on and on. Uh, people at the top level of the government praying, talking about the Bible, you know, all sorts. I mean, usually wrongly, but still <laugh>, it's out there and on the other hand, so we feel like we know what it is. And on the other hand, the prof more profound and stronger philosophical currents have from a long time been carrying it like a riptide and carrying us away from central Christian commitments. So we're, we're also very, uh, much distance from those and don't really know what it, what it is actually to encounter authentic Christianity. And it's kind of this confusing time where we're sort of both ant Yeah. Um, and, and that's part of where we are politically. It's part of where we are culturally. So it's kind of a mishmash, uh, Jason is, is what I'm getting round to.
Jason Montoya 00:24:49 Yeah. Yeah. Lots that come to mind. Um, I guess I do wanna jump to one true life though. Sure. So, um, you said earlier just the strength of the stoic tradition and, and the strength of the Christian tradition kind of going intersecting, and that was, yeah, that was interesting. And, and I, I think there's a, I guess a respect and a, um, an appreciation for that strength that you approach with in, in the book itself and comparing the two ways of life, um, as if you were in adherent to either one, although you're not inher of, of socialism, you went as far as you possibly could in, in, in that sense. So in America, we, I think what we have is perhaps not these two dominant traditions as we had then, but really a, um, countless competing ones, um, of different varieties, um, that are in, in a fragmentation in that sense. And even within Christianity, probably a fragmentation. So I'm curious how your model, um, of codifying the two opposing ways of life can point a better way forward for us and how we navigate the current landscape.
Kavin Rowe 00:25:58 Great question again. Um hmm. So let me say a couple of things, um, about what I take to be the way that traditions that claim truth for their way of life interface mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, one of them, there's, there's a technical word called non-com impossibility. It's not one anybody needs to memorize unless you, you need to use a job or something. But what it, it actually has a couple of different meanings, but the one that, that I, um, mean is that you can't live in mutually incompatible styles of life at one and the same time, and that's true for human beings, period. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so we actually find ourselves in a world that competes for our allegiances with the form of our lives. Yeah. And, um, when you have, uh, traditions that say, um, here is the truth, and the truth will set you free <laugh>, and what they mean is if you live according to the things that we claim are true, you will discover in the course of that living in your life the truth that we claim actually is true, and that you actually are free.
Kavin Rowe 00:27:37 Yeah. Um, but they say it in ways that mean you can't discover that at, you can't live both of those things at the same time. Yeah. Then you're confronted with a kind of, of choice. And, um, in the modern world or the, the current world, we have a lot of things clamoring for our attention and claiming that they're true. But, but underlying many of those in America is a, is one story about the human being, which is namely that we are free to make the choice <laugh> between these choices. Yeah. And, and that itself is a competing tradition and the name of that tradition philosophically not culturally cultural war. Yeah. But the name of that tradition philosophically is liberalism. Yeah. And, um, it, it suggests, it argues, it believes very strongly with the faith that is like any other faith, like the s stoke, faith of Christian faith or whatever, that we are inherently free to make the choices and nothing impinges us.
Kavin Rowe 00:28:46 We inherently free to make those choices between all the choices that we have to make. Yeah. That's a prior story. That's the strongest tradition that I know of in America that is current mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, of, of, and and it's often at in, in competition with the Christian tradition. Absolutely. Absolutely. Christianity does not think that you are inherently free, originally free, that you emerge in the world with freedom like Gods to make your choice. Yeah. E even even the farthest down the road B free wheel Baptist, Baptist, Baptist, that you can get, don't actually think that they still think it's the Holy Spirit that works in you in a way that enables your freedom to make the free choice. Yeah. Um, and that's a very different account from what you get in liberalism or stoicism, stoic. I mean, the stoics were in, in my understanding of them, them, anyway, they, they have the deepest outside of Christianity, the deepest view of the human problem. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, uh, they, they think it is absolutely an extreme amount of work to get yourself under control
Jason Montoya 00:29:56 Yeah.
Kavin Rowe 00:29:57 <laugh>. And, and that if you don't do that, you will likely wreck your life.
Jason Montoya 00:30:01 Yeah.
Kavin Rowe 00:30:02 Um, that, that you can't find a way through all these passions. You're kind of just at the mercy of, of stuff like love and anger and hatred, and you, you don't know you're like a dog on a leash to all these different passions, but you've got 20 different leashes, so you can't figure out where to go. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and your desires are diffuse. Yeah. And if you don't organize all that, you're gonna, you're gonna pretty well make a, make a mess of it.
Jason Montoya 00:30:25 Yeah. So, well, and, and on that note, I mean, my, my stoic friend would much like I would lament how, um, modern Christianity is, is, um, is a, is a shadow of it's former self in some ways he would, he would say the same thing about modern stoicism. So what would you say to the, the difference between ancient and modern stoicism and, and, and what you see going forward in that regard?
Kavin Rowe 00:30:49 Well, the first thing I'd say is, I mean, a big difference between ancient and stoicism and any modern forms of it is that there are no, that I know of strong analogies between the stoic school, which was a really formal movement. I mean, a half a millennium of disciples and movements, it became more diffused, but by far, but really, and, and a modern sort of stoic school that would be a globally connected or even a, um, and that's for a strong sense. I think there are people that are interested in stoicism, but it, there's no reason it can't become that or reformed to be that or whatever it would be. And maybe I'm underselling it. I don't, I don't know. Um, but there, there wasn't the sense that stoic philosophy could just be used. There was a sense that you had to apprentice yourself to teachers. There was a sense that you had to be with other stoics in order to develop your stoicism, which is a kind of paradox in their tradition, because in the end, you're, you're <laugh> as I understand it, you're, you're inside your inner fortress and, and you're, you're yourself.
Jason Montoya 00:32:02 Yeah.
Kavin Rowe 00:32:03 So you don't really ultimately need these other stoics. You just, you need them to get to a certain place in, in your journey of wisdom mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, so there, there's that. Whereas, I mean, the, the Christian claim about church and the body of Christ and all that is, is a stronger socio, I'm not even saying which one's. Right. Just a sociologically or demographically obvious set of community. Yeah. Catholic church has a billion members. It's, it's kind of hard to avoid not noting them around the world. Yeah. <laugh>. Um, so there are, are differences that way, but surely the, the point of being a people of the book for Christians, uh, and, and in the stoic, uh, tradition in the ancient world of, of being adherence of a tradition, is to return again and again to the generative sources, uh, and to be around the people who, you know, to exhibit the, the truth of those sources in their lives.
Jason Montoya 00:32:59 Yeah. And I think that's what's interesting about the book and, and also the two traditions in their strongest form is that, um, and, and, and one of the things that you did that I, I never really cared much for Pascal's wager until I read your book <laugh> <laugh>. And that really, it's like when all things are kind of at a point where you can't sort of one up the other, and it comes down to one or the other, and, and the wager is your life, which wager will you make? Um, so that, that's really, really interesting to me. Um, and, and, and perhaps that's, that's what ha what it unfolded in Rome was, it was life against life. And, and when the Romans Soic saw the Christian's life and what they were doing, it, it was that next level. Um, so I'm curious, um, you know, in, uh, you know, in, um, the three rival versions of Moral Inquiry by Alistar McIntyre, he's, he talks about, you know, the encyclopedia, the genealogical and Atomics tradition. Um, is there one way that these rivals might prevail over the others? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, one possible answer was, was supplied by Dante, that moral narrative prevails, which is able to include its rivals within itself, not only to retell their stories as episodes when they're in its own story, but to tell the story of the telling of their stories as such episodes. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So I'm curious, when you, when you look at Christianity and socialism, is, is that possible to do with either of them or both?
Kavin Rowe 00:34:23 That's a great question. Um, I, I mean, ultimately the Christian claim is that all things are intelligible inside the story of God and his creation. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, uh, we claim that there's a story of everything that's the, the language I use in Christianity's surprise, there's God, and there's everything that God made and there's nothing else. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, that's it, God and not God. And, um, God made all that's not, not, and so there's a sense in which, yes, ultimately the rival traditions like Stella and so on, would be capable of being narrated inside the Christian story. Mm-hmm.
Jason Montoya 00:35:21 <affirmative> Okay.
Kavin Rowe 00:35:21 At the, uh, what you might call the phenomenological level, or just to kind of, if you were to set them down on a piece of pa one on this piece of paper, one on that piece of paper, and see if this one could incorporate that one or that one, incorporate this one. Um, that's, that's a little harder to see in any kind of immediate sense. The place where I think that Christianity, now I'm a, I'm a Christian, so of course I think this, but yeah, that's, that's the point about reasoning in general, is that I couldn't reason otherwise, nor do other people reason outside the traditions that within which they reason. So it's just the way rationality works. But anyway, um, I mentioned earlier this account of the self and of the human being that's so deep in stoicism. There are three things that come to mind, um, that circle around this.
Kavin Rowe 00:36:16 One is stoic, the other is Aristotelian, and the third is Christian. So, um, if, if you look at basic question like what kind of trouble are we in as human beings? Why, why is it that it seems to, to us like it's hard to be human? Yeah. You know, it's not hard for a dog to be a dog. It's just a dog. And, and there's, and there's no rational capacity. So it doesn't think, I wonder if it's hard to be a dog. It just is a dog. Um, but then it's not rational capacity that makes it hard to be a human by itself. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, you could imagine forms of existence in which it would be rationally easy to be a human. Yeah. Or for example, angel in Christianity, angels that are un fallen, there's sentient, but, but they're not sinful and not, it's not hard to be an angel who's un unfolding. <laugh>
Kavin Rowe 00:37:01 Just are that. So, uh, why is it that it's so difficult for us, and why do we make messes of ourselves and, and wreck relationships and cause wars and, you know, all this stuff. And, um, there is telian answer, this is all very dumb down, simplistic, et cetera. But the basic answer was that the way to be in the world fruitfully to find joy or happiness, all that stuff, they, they sought after you, uh, sort of wellbeing in the world, uh, was to moderate your passions and your desire. So you find this kind of golden mean you don't love too much, or you might get hurt too much, or you might get outta control too much, but it, it's okay to love some Yeah. Folks come along and say, no, that's a vast underestimation of the power of the passions and of the power of your desires.
Kavin Rowe 00:37:52 Yeah. You think you're that strong. You think you're that self-control, but you're not. Yeah. If you, if you give it an inch, it'll take a mile. Yeah. Uh, if you think you can be just a little bit angry, you wait till you know something you have and you will. And, um, they, they came along and said, actually, the problem with the self is deeper than your aristotelians think. Yeah. It's not simply reformable by finding a kind of balance you've got to amputate. Yeah. And you're only gonna be safe in the world and safe inside yourself to the degree that you can cut off those passions and those desires and master them. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And once you've mastered them, you can actually discover a profound freedom and a way to be in the world that will lead to your joy and your happiness. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Now, Christians say it's actually an illusion that you can get mastery over those things.
Kavin Rowe 00:38:50 The stoics are right. You're not powerful enough to control yourself with moderation. You can't just kind of try to be moderate because there's this problem in there called the will. It's not just desire, it's not just passion, it's not just knowledge. Um, it, it is, there's a fundamentally screwed up thing in there that you can't untwist by means of your best self-control. What you actually need is to be set free by an external power. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> something that can set you free, um, that can change your allegiance for you Yeah. And then get you going in a way that you can then become mm-hmm. <affirmative> what it is to be in the world and be joyful.
Jason Montoya 00:39:36 But it's also a frightening revelation to recognize that my redemption is outside myself and, and the reliance of which I am for that. Yeah. Right. Yeah. Yeah,
Kavin Rowe 00:39:48 Yeah. Absolutely. So in that way, I do think the Christians give an account of the, of the human levels, of the, of the self and the problems we see that can include that, that does include the stoic insight into the, the power of fact.
Jason Montoya 00:40:05 Yeah. And I guess on that note, I'll, I'll kind of ask my last question with regard to, um, your, your last book, which was Christianity Surprise. And when I read it and, and thought about it, I thought of Jro token's, uh, quote about the You catastrophe, which is a sudden turn of events preventing a seemingly inevitable tragedy. And he says, the resurrection was the greatest you catastrophe possible in the greatest fairy story and produces that essential emotion, Christian joy, which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow because it comes from those places where joy and sorrow at one reconciled as selfishness and altruism are lost in love. So is the fact that we're not as surprised as we ought to be due to our failure, as you kind of were alluding to, of recognizing the scope and scale of the tragedy we humans are facing, and the severity of which was required to rectify through the cost paid by God to redeem us, are we too far removed from those events and beneficiaries of it that we missed the shoulders of which we stand?
Kavin Rowe 00:41:08 So, yeah, I mean, um, the, the co it's complex. So in some formal sense, yes. Uh, if it's true that liberalism, uh, again, not liberals, conservatives as in the cultural war sense, but as in a philosophical tradition that teaches things about the individual being entirely free, uh, within that individual. Um, if that's a very strong tradition, then what we've learned to see is that we're basically free and good, and that it's, um, kind of up to us to be that in the world. And that makes it very difficult to understand what it is we need to be rescued from mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, and so there was a <laugh>, a famous book, uh, I think Menger was his name, but I can't remember suddenly it left. But in the, in the 20th century call, whatever happened to Sin and the book was, uh, charting the loss of sin vocabulary with the rise of kind of therapeutic vocabulary.
Kavin Rowe 00:42:10 Yeah. Um, and so it, it is the case that if, if we don't think that the problem is really that deep, then we don't need that much of a rescue mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, and so we're not so surprised to learn, uh, in a kind of gutting of the gospel, that Jesus is here to validate our desires and, and to help us get what we want, uh, in the world and make us feel fulfilled and all that sort of, uh, trash, the, it, the, that, that doesn't connect us with early Christianity or with the power of the gospel at all. Um, on the other hand, there, there's a long tradition in Christianity itself, which says that you can't see the depth of your problem until you've been given the grace to see it all. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, uh, we typically talk about that as preven grace. Grace comes first.
Kavin Rowe 00:43:05 It comes out ahead of your ability to acknowledge your sin. Otherwise you don't, you don't see it as sin. You see it as just something else, a problem or whatever you wanna overcome. So, so there is a way in which we don't see our problem and therefore miss the grace. But there's another way in which <laugh>, the, the surprise is really the, the joy. Yeah. And, and the, the liberation from self and, and the freedom to be in love, uh, with God and with what God loves. And, um, the word that you used from Toki, of course he was a master ologist, but the EU catastrophe, that eu Yeah. In Greek, that's the preface that means Yahoo, yay, joy. Good, whatever. So, um, the word for gospel is ion, which just is announcement on gallion with, with good on the front on. Yeah. Um, so that's a great word, <laugh>.
Kavin Rowe 00:43:59 Yeah. And that is part of what we're missing, is just that the, the early Christians really believed that they had absolutely wonderful tidings. Yeah. And so they weren't saying, Hey, you know how deep the problem is. That's when you get into more of the philosophical analysis of what's really wrong with humanity and why it's hard to be human. But, but when you're just announcing the gospel, they believed it was gospel, it was good news. They had great stuff to share that would bring joy. Yeah. And that's in part what I, what I think of when I think of Prince James' surprise, what we're missing mm-hmm. <affirmative> is, is that sense of the remarkable thing that we've been given in Chris Jane and that we have the chance to embrace Yeah. And to be, and it's joyful.
Jason Montoya 00:44:40 Yeah. And that's where the narrative part is so powerful. And, and I think our, our narratives, movies, books, they scream all this out. Um, but often, I guess in Christianity, we can kind of forget like what's happening on Lord of the Rings is what's happening in reality to a degree. Yeah.
Kavin Rowe 00:44:58 That's right. That's
Jason Montoya 00:44:59 Right. So I know you gotta get going. So what are your final words, thoughts, uh, insights for us?
Kavin Rowe 00:45:05 Well, Jason, first lemme just say thanks again for having me. It's, it's been great to catch up with you and, and to talk through some of these things. Um, I, I think I would just end on what I said that, that the, um, if your readers were, uh, an audience were to start with one of those books that Christianity's Surprise might be the place to begin. It's easy to read. It's, um, really about, uh, so many things that bring joy. Yeah. And, um, a recovery of a kind of, of delight in the chance we have to be Christian. Um, Christians have so much bad press and much of it deserved <laugh>. Um, but there is something wonderful Yeah. Uh, that's given in the gospel and it's given in, in, in the, uh, gift that God gave when he gave, uh, Christianity to the world. And, and so I think that's what I would end on, that there is a joy, uh, there's a wonder. There's stuff to discover. Um, and, and, and, and it can surprise us. Yeah.
Jason Montoya 00:46:09 Well, thank you so much, Kevin, for sharing. I appreciate it.
Kavin Rowe 00:46:12 It's a pleasure, Jason. Take care.

Podcast - Book Discussion

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