Good Faith in the Age of Osteen: Epilogue (7/7)

The question I am left with is whether or not taking on this anxiety is worth it.[1] Although it would be acting in bad faith, we can just as easily ignore the facticity of our freedom, ignore what that freedom implies, and violate our Christian obligation to others. I want to briefly reemphasize the importance of the other: as we have already said, to will our own freedom is to will the freedom of others. The two are inseparable, and as Jesus shows us, love often looks like helping others to realize their potential as freely willing beings. As Christians, we cannot place our own freedom above the freedom of others unlike in Osteen’s approach which solely has to do with helping yourself. The term “self-help” gets thrown around a lot, but Osteen’s book falls neatly into this category. His teaching is purely concerned with the ways in which you can help yourself without any emphasis on the ways in which Jesus is constantly responding to the needs of others. In Good Faith Christianity, there is no denying that we are still attempting to help ourselves in the pursuit of our own individual freedoms, but, again, it cannot end there, and looking at Jesus’ life clearly illustrates that.

Back to the question at hand — would it really make a difference if we were living in bad faith? Does it really hurt if we believe our lives are not in our own hands if it helps us sleep at night? Why is it not enough to mindlessly follow traditional Christian rules if we are still accomplishing good deeds? I get why believing these things is attractive, and their being attractive is why Osteen’s Christianity is so appealing to so many people. But I cannot escape the thought that if these things were the case, then it would not matter what we did while on Earth. I already touched on this, but if we are not responsible for ourselves, we really have nothing to do, and what we do defines us.

I could not live a life defined by waiting for something better to happen, for God to take care of suffering while I sit idly by, thinking about the ways in which other people are hurting more severely than I am but resting comfortably in the knowledge that I do not have an obligation to intervene, unless it was God’s plan for me to intervene, but even if I do not, would that not also be God’s plan if it is inevitably going to be the case? For all of its anxiety-ridden talk of obligation and responsibility, at least in a Good Faith Christian framework I have an obligation and a responsibility, both of which give my actions meaning and both of which retain my agency in deciding what that meaning is.

Maybe it is just the result of a deep-seated desire for control as the result of some unconscious, masculine complex I have not fully addressed, but I like the thought of being able to decide who I am. My being a Christian has felt meaningful to me precisely because of the fact that I chose to live a life centered around an obligation to others, or have chosen to live a life where I live in such a way that I feel I must be obliged to others. It is hard to reconcile choice and necessity, but because there is no ought associated with the must, it is solely my choice how I act even if it is necessary that I do.

That is how Jesus lived, and if we are called to do the same as Christians, we sure as hell better adopt a Christian framework where that obligation is central. If that framework also includes a healthy dose of anxiety, that seems worth it if it is a framework that reflects Jesus’ life, and the anxieties specific to that framework (the productive anxieties specific to Christianity) are often the very things that spur us to action. An obligation should make us anxious. An impossible ethical model should make us anxious. Moments where we cannot speak should make us anxious. But they push us to act, to strive for the model in the face of its futility, to invent new idioms to try and speak of our experience so that maybe we can continue building common ground within our communion of anxious people. I refuse to believe that there is not progress to be made in doing these things, or else I would not choose to follow Jesus.

[1] Sartre asks a similar question towards the end of Existentialism Is a Humanism, but his answer regarding why we should not adopt bad faith has to do with the fact that ignoring you are acting in bad faith does not change the fact that you are making an error in acting that way. But this is assuming you adopt the same criteria Sartre has for what constitutes an error. It is just as easy to adopt different criteria and then you do not have this problem. Sartre even says he gets why this is tempting.

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Tommy Kessler

Chicago-based writer and musician. 1970s drug-fueled private investigator.