How to Be a Sinner
with Author Peter Bouteneff
Practically, the course divides the question of flourishing life into seven component questions and takes up one question each week:
What does it mean to belong?
While each of us needs to answer these questions for ourselves, we do so from within networks of belonging, on the one hand, and alienation, on the other. In fact, the journey from alienation to mutual belonging may mark the path to flourishing life in important ways. So, as we begin, we’ll start by taking account of the ways our lives and our world is marked by estrangement and belonging. And we’ll begin to puzzle together about how the world should be: What is our place within the natural world? Where do we belong and with whom?
To whom are we responsible?
This is the question that frames everything else. The question here isn’t just what responsibilities do we have and to whom. Centrally, the question is to whom are we responsible for the shape of our lives? Who do we answer to? Who calls us to account?
How does a good life feel?
These first three questions together describe what we might call the “three dimensions of flourishing life.” This first question gets at the first: the emotional or affective dimension of life. For many these days, it can seem patently obvious: life flourishes when we feel a certain way—“happy,” we usually say, though we each probably mean something really different when we say it. But not every tradition has shared this intuition with us. How would it change our lives if what we were aiming at was contentment or joy—or what if we were convinced that feeling a certain way simply wasn’t the point?
What does it mean for life to go well?
This question gets at the circumstantial dimension of life. What sorts of circumstances are required or beneficial for flourishing? A healthy bank account? Love and respect? Peace? Justice? Or is true flourishing found in an ability to transcend life’s circumstances? What are we after: deep commitment and attachment to the world around us or wise non-attachment to a world that is always changing?
How should we live?
This question gets at the agential dimension of life. While each of us is constrained in significant ways, we each exercise some degree of agency in our lives; how should we exercise that agency? How should we lead our lives? Should we aim at good outcomes—helping other people, for example, feel happy or improve their circumstances? Or is leading one’s life well a matter of cultivating certain virtues or adhering carefully to a set of principles?
What role does suffering play in a good life?
This question is the flipside of the questions about flourishing affect and circumstances. Whatever we say about good (or even ideal) feelings and circumstances, we know that life doesn’t always feel or go the way we hope. Lives aimed at happiness are often full of sorrow. The best plans to secure the circumstances we take to be most valuable sometimes fail. What should we do with the suffering that inevitably comes? Is suffering a sign we’ve lost our way? Does flourishing as a human being require that we find meaning in our suffering? If so, how do we do that? What are our responsibilities to the suffering of others?
What should we do when we fail?
Life is full of failure: professional, personal, etc. With this question, we’re asking about a more profound sort of falling short. What should we do when we fail to live as we should? Shake it off and try harder next time? Repent and ask for forgiveness? Reframe our failure as something else entirely? Whatever our ideals, having strategies for managing those moments when we fall short is crucial.