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Idolatry of Experience

December 15, 2007

In the Winter ’07 issue of n+1, Mark Greif lays out part two of “The Meaning of Life.” His summary of Part I is a striking indictment of those of us who depend on experiences to find meaning in our lives:

A year ago, I wrote an essay about a modern crisis in experience. I defined experience as the habit of creating isolated moments within raw occurrence in order to save and recount them. Questing after an ill-defined happiness, you are led to substitute a list of special experiences and then to collect them to furnish our storeroom of memories: incidents of sex, drinking, travel, adventure. These experiences are limited in number, unreliable and addictive. Their ultimate effect can be a life of permanent dissatisfaction and a compulsion to frenetic activity.

Greif’s cultural criticism is incisive. He has cut to the core of heart issues and idolatries in a economy driven by experience and entertainment. Stringing the events of our lives together, we so often find significance in the collective experiences we have come to call life.

Where Greif does not fare so well is in his remedy for his experience riddled countrymen. His solution is anchored in the ancient Greek philosophies of the Epicureans and Stoics.  Apart from his simplistic philosophic summaries, Greif proffers a life predicated, not on happiness, but on detachment. Instead of holding out hope for true happiness, something that can only be offered to man from God, Greif contends that we should strive for Epicurean “ataraxia, imperturbility and mental detachment.”

Interestingly, I recently preached a sermon that deconstructed the way of the experientialist and the doctrinalist in the search for what it means to know God. I, however, proffered the gospel of Christ that quickens the affections for God, instructs the mind regarding the truth, and affects our engagement with all things. Far from detachment, the gospel calls us to significance in Christ, who accepts us wholly and compels us totally to live out the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus in the dark, fuzzy, and illuminated places of our world.

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