The Heart of It All (Part 1): The God Question & Our Search For Meaning
Christian claim #1: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.”
When Tom Wright was a chaplain at the University of Oxford, he would conduct a welcome service for “freshers,” newly arrived to the iconic city. One by one, each student would file out, greeting the speaker. Every year, a handful of students would say something to the tune of “well, you won’t be seeing much of me because, you see, I don’t believe in God.” Wright got so used to this line, he developed a stock response: “Oh really?,” he would say; “which God is it that you don’t believe in?”
Got some vague notion of an old man in the sky, disconnected from our world, setting up a fear-based, antiquated system of penance to appease the unappeasable, whose chief job these days is waiting to send the goodies to his heaven and the baddies to a furnace?
As Tom Wright would tell his shocked inquisitors: “I don’t believe in that God either.”
The question I would like to ask each reader (believers and non-believers alike) is this: which God is it that you oppose, support, or dismiss? Because the God we meet in the person of Jesus Christ just might surprise you.
I’d like us to start with one sentence recorded in the ancient Gospel of John, and placed on the lips of Jesus of Nazareth:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6).
Packed into these ten words are five remarkable claims, which lie at the heart of our deepest longings.
In a world of fading dreams, and plastic people, we long for something real—and Jesus says, “I am.” Philosophers will tell you the most basic question in existence is this: “why is there something rather than nothing?” But to even ask that question assumes we agree there is something real, crying out for an explanation.
There have been people, historically, who have tried to deny that anything real exists. These people are called solipsists. According to them, everything you experience is simply a fantastic dream…a mental projection that we falsely assume is real. I always find it interesting when solipsists get married, have children, hold jobs, write books, get paid, and use their money to accomplish (limited) things they wish to imagine. These people engage in relationships, in conversation, and act as though life held meaning of one sort or another. It seems patently absurd to live consistently with such a view. Ask any solipsist who is standing in the middle of the road when a truck is bearing down on them. Do they ponder their existence, and describe the imaginary car before them, or do they get out of the road? I wish I could say the solipsists are alone in dismissing reality. Sadly, there are others who say that something as fundamental as morality is just an illusion.
But our experience says otherwise. We see our opponents cheat in the midst of competition, and we say “that’s not fair.” We hear about cyber bullying, and we say “that’s not right.” The history of warfare makes us recognize man’s inhumanity to man. We experience real, genuine happiness, and face the cold chilling prospect of death. These are not games, pipe dreams, or imaginations. It is truly tragic anytime a person takes their own life; but the fact that the vast majority of people do not commit suicide testifies to the fact that we believe life is something; that we are experiencing something real—not to be taken lightly. People might do all sorts of kind gestures in ways that are actually advantageous to themselves (like giving a dollar to a homeless man in order to feel generous). But how do we explain the enlisted army private who jumps on a grenade, exchanging his life for theirs? How do we explain it…unless we agree that our deepest assumptions tell us that life is real? We search and we question…because we want to know what is real. The idea that our experiences are real is the basis of every discipline of science—including philosophy and psychology: so solipsists have no ground to stand on (or, ironically, they DO have the ground they so much deny!). When the philosopher Descartes wished to separate fact from fiction, he imagined the possibility that everything was a lie. Pick anything you think to be real. “Ah”, says Descartes, “there could be a demon whispering into my ear, telling me that is real.” But there was one irreducible minimum from which Descartes could not escape. “I think”, said Descartes, “therefore…I am.”
If you are still skeptical about my claim that deep down we all long for something real, consider the thought experiment known as the “experience machine” invented by Robert Nozick. Imagine if there was a machine that, once you were hooked up, would immediately send you into a deep sleep in which you could experience anything you wish! If your highest dream is to write that great American novel, you will experience being a great American novelist. Doubt your own creativity? From inside the dream, you can consult the greatest libraries to compare everyone’s ideas of true happiness, and experience any or all of them. Now here is the catch: if you enter the experience machine, you must stay there the rest of your life. You will not ‘know’ that you are in the machine, of course. So there will be no pain or regret or sense of loss, since all your family and friends (or the one’s you wish to retain!) will be in your dream life. Would you do it? Would you enter the machine for the rest of your life?
As Nozick points out, (and as one survey reported 80% agreement), most all of us would say “no.” And why is that? Because, says Nozick, what we want is not merely to take pleasure in our experiences; we want them to be so. There are religions—just as there are philosophies—that are intended to take you into dream worlds and visionary states, to help you escape reality to feel better about it all. But deep down, we all long for something real. We want a worldview that makes sense of that reality. And Jesus says, “I am.” The God we meet in Jesus will not deny or run from reality, but rather make sense of it.
In a shallow culture that takes pride in glamorizing senseless activities, we long for meaning—and Jesus says, “I am…life.” It’s perhaps the most famous question around: “what is the meaning of life?” But to even ask that question assumes that meaning and value are sensible topics.
Jean-Paul Sartre didn’t think so. His 1943 work, Being and Nothingness, launched a movement known as existentialism. On this view, there is no purpose or meaning for existence. We are born into nothingness—born free of meaning. Bertrand Russell, the great Cambridge philosopher, laid out the ultimate conclusion that must result from a worldview devoid of meaning. After laying out his case for a “purposeless” existence completely “devoid of meaning,” Russell sums up with these words: “Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” Cling, says Russell, to the firm foundation of unyielding despair.
But our experience says otherwise. We don’t live that way. And, according to Viktor Frankl, we can’t live that way. Frankl was a neurologist and psychiatrist, but also a Holocaust survivor. In his book Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl shares this penetrating insight which led him to invent logotherapy. What allows us to survive even in the most barren circumstances depends on whether we can find meaning in all aspects of our experience. It’s meaning that gives us a reason to continue living. And before we imagine any number of hypothetical and fanciful tales we might tell ourselves in order to make it through the difficult times, we must remember that at some point, we will long not just for a temporary purpose, but a real one. After all, we can’t even define “good” and “evil” without a clear sense of purpose. We long for meaning…and not just any kind; real, genuine meaning. And Jesus says, “I am…life.” You want to understand what life is? What life means? The God we find in Jesus invites us to discover meaning in Him.
Justice And Objectivity
In a world full of atrocities and unfairness, we long for proper rules of fairness and procedure—a standard of right by which to judge all things. In short, we long for Justice—and Jesus says, “I am the way.”
Alex Voorhoeve likes to point out that humanity faces three ethical puzzles. First, we sense that some things are “right” and some things are “wrong.” We may disagree among ourselves about what belongs in each category, but we all hear that voice within ourselves saying “I ought to do this, and I shouldn’t do that.” This is a puzzle, says Voorhoeve, because it’s not clear where this sense of oughtness comes from. But the plot thickens. Second, we sense that some of our moral judgments are objective: that voice not only says “I ought to do this”, but “you ought to do it too!” We sense that there are some things that everyone ought to call ‘right’, and some things everyone ought to call “wrong.” Third, we sense that some things we think of as objective moral values are so strong that they ought to override everything else! That is, we hear that voice inside us say “It is never, ever, ever ok to rape a child—no matter what the situation, no matter what arguments you might try to use to justify it. It’s just plain wrong.” When anyone, anywhere, violates what we sense to be an overriding objective moral value, we cry out for justice. But this is, indeed, a puzzle.
The only justice that will truly satisfy is real, meaningful justice. But that implies that our deepest senses correspond to reality: that there is a universal, objective standard of right and wrong, to which everyone and everything is accountable. And that is where our deepest senses run up against our present cultural lies.
We are being told that universals are mundane and impersonal; literary scholars are celebrating what they describe as the “death of the metanarrative,” by which they mean that we no longer have to live with the antiquated notion of what is right for you is also right for me. Such a view holds back the creative spirit, they claim, and belongs to a bygone era before we came to realize how beautifully diverse our world is. Our culture’s movement toward denying objectivity, denouncing universals, and raising the value of perspective and circumstance over shared values and agreed-upon rules has led to more hung juries, and generations increasingly incapable of making moral distinctions. Our deepest sensibilities long for justice, and we want to know what is the real meaning of it all.
Our deepest sensibilities long for justice, and we want to know what is the real meaning of it all.
And yet…our experience tells us otherwise. In the late 1970’s, the famous atheist Anthony Flew met Christian philosopher Thomas Warren for a debate on the existence of God. Before the debate, Warren offered Flew three questions. The first question was simply this: “Are there universal truths, objective moral values, rights and wrongs that apply to all people, in all places, at all times?” Being a good (and consistent) atheist, Flew answered, “no.” Second question: “When the Nazi’s put little children in boxcars, coated with quicklime, so they would not only die, but die slowly and agonizingly…was that wrong?” Now Anthony Flew fought in the Royal Air Force. He saw the atrocities first-hand, which led him to answer the question with integrity. “Yes”, replied Flew. This left one final question. “What law did they violate?” Think about that one for a moment. If I drive on the right side of the road—in England, I will get a fine. It would be of no use to argue that I was following American law; the law of the land in England is to drive on the left-hand side of the road. In the early 1940’s, to obey the Fuhrer was the law of the land in Germany. Germans are not held accountable to American or British sensibilities. So…what law did they violate? Warren gave several options. Flew chose none of them. He checked the box labeled “other” and then wrote “International Law. See Nuremburg.” Nuremburg was the scene for the Nazi war trials, where an international criminal court declared them guilty of their heinous crimes against humanity. But Warren looked out at the crowd and cited the words of American Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who served as the prosecuting attorney at Nuremburg. His closing argument which won the day was an appeal to a higher sense of law that ‘rises above the provincial and transient’—that is, a law that is not bound by place and time. Nuremburg only works—it only makes sense, it only serves as real, meaningful justice—if we believe in an objective moral law that applies across the board.
Our deepest sensibilities longs for justice, and we want to know what is the real meaning of it all. The God we see in Jesus proclaims that he is that test of justice, that standard of righteousness. The God we see in Jesus is…the way. Not just “a” way. THE way.
In a world full of lies and make-believe fairy tales, we long for truth. And Jesus says, “I am the truth.”
Nietzsche didn’t think so. He said that truth is dead; all that is left is my perspective vs. your perspective, coupled with the “will to power” among competing interests. We speak of rights and claims, and begin to conceive of the world as a place where “justice” is determined by who barks the loudest, or who can appeal to the personal sensitivities of the jury. The idea that there is fundamental truth—that one side just may be right, regardless of how emotionally charged the appeals to the contrary—is thrown out of court. The explosion of technology in the last century, and the invention of the internet even more recently has exponentially increased our awareness of options: our shopping basket can now hold not only a myriad of competing cereals, but competing faiths. Peter Berger relates that, as a result, modern people are “conversion prone”—always thinking of the one they could have chosen, rather than relishing the one they did choose.
And yet…our experience tells us otherwise. Contrary to the claims of some, we simply can’t live this way. Os Guinness, in a speech entitled “True Truth,” relates the following two points (and the examples to support them) that are well worth your consideration. First, Guinness makes a negative argument—one meant to show that if we follow the logic of this approach, we won’t be happy with the result. Without truth, everything reduces to power games and manipulation. We can speak all we want about human rights, but pay attention carefully enough and you’ll find that Nietzsche’s predictions are right: you will find constant competing claims against any ‘human’ right that clashes with my particular group identity’s right. Do you know what this means? Followed to its conclusion, this means “there is no such thing as an ‘inalienable right’ – only power games.” Second, Guinness makes a positive argument: “freedom requires truth.” It is ironic that the ‘death of truth’ is offered in defense of increasing personal freedom. For freedom is not simply freedom from something (like addictions and oppression), but freedom for something—freedom to be “yourself” implies there is a true “you” to which you are entitled. G. K. Chesterton says that we may seek to liberate animals from their cages, but we do not ‘liberate’ the camel from his hump, or the tiger from her stripes. This would be to manipulate their identity, rather than to free them. “Freedom,” says Guinness, both “assumes and requires truth! And without truth, there is no freedom.” This is why–as Guinness points out–Havel in Prague and Solzhenitsyn in St. Petersburg could stand up to their former oppressors by describing the enemies as “people of the lie,” and themselves as “people of truth.” In his Nobel speech, Solzhenitsyn declared that “one word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.” To borrow a line from Jesus, only the truth will set you free.
Let’s engage in another thought experiment; we’ll call it the “Maury Povich experiment.” Suppose you are happily married and I handed you an envelope. “In this envelope,” I say to you, “is absolute, 100% proof whether your spouse has ever cheated on you.” Remember, you are happily married, and not knowing of any unfaithfulness (or, assuming faithfulness) has been a major component in your happiness. Here is the question: would you open the envelope? When I ask my students, 4 out of 5 say “yes.”
No amount of pleasure will satisfy our deepest longings. We still stand cold, naked, and alone—face to face with the nagging feeling that what we find pleasing can never measure up to what we find to be true. And Jesus says, “I am the truth.”
Consider The Claim
Perhaps you have been told that Christianity is a non-thinking leap-in-the-dark means of escaping reality–inventing your own meaning, and believing fairy tale lies about a God disconnected from any serious concerns of life. Nothing could be further from the truth. The claim being made is that the God we see in Jesus is the antidote to such things.
I start with the claim of Jesus for a very good reason. I can point out vagaries and longings of the heart; I can identify puzzle pieces and suggest that they fit together. But the whole project remains a guessing game until someone reveals the image on which the puzzle pieces are meant to be superimposed.
Some people tell us there is nothing—only complete subjectivity. Others tell us there might be “somethings,” but these are disparate objectives, unconnected and ungrounded. There may be rights and wrongs (so-called), but these vary from culture to culture and person to person, shaped by the values of the masses and the individual pursuits of a generation.
But then there is Christianity, which claims there is ONE thing—one uniting story, one fundamental principle which is itself true, transcendent, and the quintessential definition of beauty, freedom, and love.
Consider the God I see in Christ as the foundation of all reality, the source of all meaning, the root of justice, the ground of objectivity, and the definition of truth. Science will continue to probe and question, and people will continue to construct our own realities. But Christianity gives language to the realities we create. What we call “problems”, God calls “sin.” What we call “self-help,” God calls “seeking salvation.” What Alcoholics Anonymous has found rewarding in seeking a “higher power,” Christianity calls “finding the Living God.”
The very source of reality, meaning, justice, objectivity, and truth is not some cold impersonal abstraction in the sky. He is a living, loving God who meets us in the person of Jesus Christ. tell the world Christianity suggests that the very source of reality, meaning, justice, objectivity, and truth is not some cold impersonal abstraction in the sky. He is a living, loving God who meets us in the person of Jesus Christ. A God who became one of us, lived among us, died for us, and rose to provide a way toward ultimate happiness grounded in real, genuine, meaningful truth.
Audio (Sermon): Os Guinness, True Truth
Audio (Sermon): N. T. Wright, Jesus and God. Wright relates the story referenced in my intro.
Article: Joachim Krueger, Real Happiness. Nozick’s experience machine & Freund’s survey results.
Chapter in book: Alex Voorhoeve, Introduction, Conversations on Ethics. Three ethical puzzles.
Video: The Warren-Flew Debate (1976)
(photo: Coton, Cambridgeshire, UK. ©nathanguy)
Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. Nathan lives in Florence, Alabama, where he serves as President of Mars Hill Bible School.