Kaimi refers us to a well-written and interesting piece by Chris Walton. In that piece Chris refers to one of his favorite Unitarian sayings, “An unexamined faith is not worth having.” That is an obvious re-writing of Socrates’s claim, “An unexamined life is not worth living” (Apology 38a). Few sayings are as well-known as the latter one; it can be found in any book of quotations and in the beginning sentence of many graduation addresses.
In context it is obvious what Socrates means. He explains it: “To talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to human beings.” Literally Socrates says that an unexamined life [bios, a way of living, rather than zōē, biological life] is not life for a human being. Most of the meanings of anexetazō (“unexamined”) have to do with questioning something or someone, and the context makes clear that is what Socrates means: human life requires that we consciously question the way we live.
In spite of the popularity of the quotation, however, I am skeptical. If we take the word “examined” as Socrates intends it, I think he is wrong, which implies that I think Chris is also wrong if he is using the word in the same way.
Let me start, however, by explaining the senses in which I think Socrates (and so, I assume, also Chris) is right. The ability to ask questions is at the heart of what it means to be human, and I think that the ability to find oneself in question is especially important. The 20th-century French-Lithuanian philosopher, Emmanuel Lévinas, argued that human being is defined and made possible by the fact that others bring us into question (“interrupt us” in his terms), and I am persuaded by him. Among the most dangerous and inhuman people in the world are many who are cocksure, for whom their world is the world. King Benjamin insists that we come to know our own nothingness, worthlessness, ignorance, powerlessness, and unworthiness if we wish to receive salvation (Mosiah 4:5-11), an insistence that exquisitely questions me, interrupts the way I live ordinarily. Christ did nothing if he did not bring into question those whom he taught, whether Pharisees or disciples. So there must be some sense in which it is right that human life requires examination.
However, even though I see the wisdom of Socrates’s claim and I find myself agreeing with a certain way of understanding it, I think it and its Unitarian paraphrase—at least in the way I suspect most of us understand that paraphrase; I make no claims about what Chris thinks—is mistaken. It makes what I sometimes call, imitating Nietzsche, “the professor’s mistake”: We believe that we are primarily mental beings and, thus, that our mental powers define us. Believing that, we believe that those who engage in mental activity are superior to those who don’t. The farmer who plows his field probably doesn’t live the examined life. The professor who argues with his colleagues and questions things probably does. We forget that we are not only minds, but stomachs.
That forgetful view is common. As a branch president in the MTC, I saw it in missionaries who feared that they didn’t have testimonies because, unlike many of their companions, they had never questioned whether they did. We see it in the strange “appreciation” that many people have of philosophy: they assume that because someone studies philosophy (or law or . . .), she or he must be at least smarter than they are and perhaps even wiser. We see it in the common assumption that those who think about life and faith, at least reflecting on them and, we hope, asking tough questions about them, live better lives or have better faith than those who do not.
The problem with that view is that there are too many counterexamples. My favorite one is my paternal grandmother. She was a simple woman with little education. I am sure she didn’t go to high school, but I don’t know how much formal education she had. She read her Bible and believed what it said. She didn’t read much else—perhaps Reader’s Digest. She sang of Jesus and heaven, and she meant what she sang. She didn’t worry about how to explain the things she sang about. During the spring and summer, she made sure that the cemetery at her church was kept up. At that same church she took part in the women’s group, had the itinerant preacher to dinner occasionally, and taught children in Sunday School. She praised her Dunkard neighbors, even marveled at them, though she didn’t understand them. She was dirt-poor and Rockefeller generous. I find it impossible to believe that her life wasn’t worth living or that her faith wasn’t worth having or that either would have been made a whit better had she reflected on them consciously. Though I love philosophy, I don’t think it is necessary for the good life or for real faith. Perhaps it is necessary for my life and my faith, but that may be something that I ought not to brag about. In fact, I think my life and faith would be much improved if there were more about them like her naive life and faith.
So, I’m willing to say that the unexamined life is not worth living or the unexamined faith is not worth having only if the examination of each is something that happens in our encounters with others rather than in the interiority of reflection. To the degree that reflection is part of the examination of faith and life, it is that as an encounter with something beyond myself—ultimately a person and the Person—rather than a turn into myself in introspection. It is a question someone asks, my friend’s difficulty that I cannot explain away, someone’s need that I cannot meet. Accurate consciousness of self is not the Christian ideal.