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A Philosopher’s Salvation

Posted on 21 June 2020, 13:47

The word salvation is seldom met in a work of philosophy, but Luc Ferry, a celebrated French philosopher with a wide following and best-selling books to his credit, thinks he has found it—but not in the usual places. Can we learn from him something new, something we’ve missed that might be helpful in these trying times?

In A Brief History of Thought, he claims that we fear death mostly because death entails losing our precious loved ones, either because they die before us or we before them. Salvation is a means of removing this fear—I should note that he says nothing about going to God. How can such fear be quashed? He considers two contenders—the two best possible, as he sees it—before developing his own soteriology (or theory of salvation). The first of these comes from Greek Stoicism, the second from Christianity.

1. Stoicism. Let us see how Stoic salvation, as Ferry defines it, stacks up. The Stoic trains himself to accept whatever happens with graceful resignation. He or she has witnessed the misery that grief brings to a parent who loses a child and has taken steps to avoid it. But how? By not permitting himself to become attached. He practices the art of living fully in the present, refusing to grieve over the tragedies of the past or to hope for blessings in a future beyond his control. He accepts, even loves, the world as it is, as it presents itself to him moment by moment, whether for good or ill. As Ferry puts it, “the good life [for the Stoic] is a life stripped of both hopes and fears.” Grateful for whatever comes, he lives his life, in the words of the great Stoic sage Marcus Aurelius, “untroubled and dispensing kindness.” When death comes, eternity follows. In the words of Ferre, Stoics acknowledge that “we lose everything that constitutes our self-awareness and individuality,” but that is all right. For we become one with and immersed in God (Logos), like a water drop falling into the great ocean. Armed with such beliefs, death is no longer frightening. Salvation is secured.

2. Christianity. Ferry is not persuaded by Stoic doctrine, for there is no escaping the sad fact that we lose our loved ones forever at death. Does Christianity do a better job? Ferry writes, “Whereas the Stoics represent death as a transition from a personal to an impersonal state of existence without consciousness, the Christian version of salvation promises us nothing less than individual immortality”—not only that, but the individual’s “soul, his body, his face, his beloved voice—as long as he is saved by the grace of God.” This, for Ferry, is an idea that “is not easy to resist.” Believing in it would be as good as salvation can get.

But he rejects the Christian solution. “Religion,” he explains, “is the prime example of a non-philosophical quest for salvation—given its assumption of God and a need for faith—rather than by means of human reason.” In our age of science, in which all authority is questioned, the Christian model of salvation, he says, ceases to be credible “for anyone of a critical and informed disposition.” The philosopher Nietzsche, he tells us, took it upon himself to smash all the “fine ideals of politics, ethics, and religion.” Nietzsche viewed Christian salvation as a fable. So does Ferry.

3. The philosopher’s salvation. At the end of his book, Ferry gives us his view of salvation—typical of the living philosophers I have read and known personally. Bear in mind that salvation for him is a system of thought that succeeds like no other in removing the bleakness and heartache of losing to death the people we love. For Ferry no one survives death—death means extinction. But this bleak fact need not occupy too much of our attention.

“We can learn to live and love as adults,” he says, “even if this means thinking of death every day. Not out of morbidity, but to discover what needs doing, here and now, with those whom we love and whom we shall lose, unless they lose us first.” To do this, to realize salvation in this sense, “is the crowning achievement of a humanism released finally from the illusions of metaphysics and religion.”

I am not one to denigrate such a worldview if it helps a person deal with the death of a loved one. But there is no denying that it would be depressing if we could do no better, especially in these times when death lurks everywhere. I believe we can do better, not on the basis of authority, not on the basis of the Bible or any other ancient scripture, but of contemporary research on transcendental states of consciousness. Forty years of research have convinced me that our deceased loved ones are very much alive and that the pessimistic conclusions of contemporary philosophy overlook this vitally important evidence. It is essential that we redefine humanism in a way that leaves intact the basic optimism of the human spirit—something that Ferry’s “salvation” does not do.

Stafford Betty, Professor of Religious Studies, CSUB

Author of When Did You Ever Become Less by Dying? and Heaven and Hell Unveiled. Stafford’s latest novel, The Afterlife Therapist will be published by White Crow Books later in 2020.

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