A series on the most basic questions of life.
Who am I? Why am I hear? What’s the point of it all? And does Christianity even have answers to these questions?
Why am I here? What is my place in this great big world? Do I have one? Do I matter at all?
Inside each of us throbs a desire to live a life that has meaning—to reach the end of our days, look back, and know that our life filled some important hole or finished some important work. Like George Bailey and his Building-n-Loan, we need to believe that the world would be at least a little impoverished if we’d never existed. We don’t necessarily need A Wonderful Life, but we do need a meaning-filled one.
This is a longing common to all people everywhere, and that universal longing is a key to something important. No, not a key… it’s a lock. The key is what we need—a key to reveal that deeper truth that our longing points to.
Welcome to the Homilies of St. Asinus, the recycled saint.
Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? These are questions so basic that there are only two sorts of responses. Either we push them into the back of our minds as mere “philosopher’s puzzles” and ignore them, or we stare fixedly at them and enter a bit of an existential crisis.
Now we may choose the first approach and just refuse to think about questions of ultimate meaning because we don’t think there is an answer or worse, maybe there is and we won’t like it. And you can live a great deal of your live not thinking about such things. But eventually, life has a way of pushing back. Sooner or later, something or someone happens to you and the question of what it all means becomes so important that it begins to trump your activities of daily life.
You stop eating or sleeping, you worry, you lose weight (or maybe you gain it). And in a moment like that, all the simple answers go out the window, and we can’t hide from those simple pressing questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?
A lot of our fear comes because whatever had happened to make us start asking—that death or sickness, that destructive choice or crushed dream, that abandonment or cruelty we endured, whatever it was—we start to suspect that the universe really doesn’t care. That it really has no meaning. That all this is just “stuff that happens,” planets go round the sun, rain falls, and life just happens.
Now some people respond to these fears by embracing them as the truth. People like Nietzsche or Camu’s Stranger. Yes, the universe is just absurd and we with it. So embrace it and be strong. Shake your fist at the heavens and embrace the joke. Use your short time here to make a fury, cry at the moon, and with Dylan Thomas, refuse to go quietly into the good night.
Some might call that a brave response, but I think it’s self-deceiving—like a child stuffing his fingers in his ears and singing the Star-spangled Banner at the top of his voice so he can’t hear his mother telling him to go to bed.
If you feel an inexplicable need for the universe to have a meaning, and with it a deep longing to be part of that meaning—to have whatever is the basic truth of the universe applied to your particular life. I’d suggest, rather than being a sign of weakness, it’s an indication of a particularly useful sort of clarity and bravery. It takes a lot of courage to look at the chaos of the universe and demand that it submit to some meaning greater than itself. It takes courage to say that of one’s life.
No, it’s not a weakness, but a sign. To possess a longing that is nearly universal to humanity is not a sign of weakness, any more than a baby’s universal cry for milk is.
We all have a longing to be well-thought of by someone that matters to us—a spouse, a child, a friend, coworker, mentor—society in general. We all want the universe’s validation that our arrival here wasn’t a mistake or an accident. Because, if we don’t have it, things are random enough and messy enough in life to persuade us that in the end we really don’t matter.
Perhaps what we’re looking for, whether we’ve thought of it these terms or not, is a single picture or story that makes sense of all the things we meet in the world. If we could see the world through the right lens—ones that actually makes sense of all the happiness and sorrow we meet — put it all into a common frame, then I think we’d have a better chance of understanding our own place in that picture. Like looking at one of those hidden pictures. When you’re standing at one angle, it’s just a riot of color and lines, but when you move a step to the left, the image jumps out at you.
Let’s be honest, there are some pretty basic questions about life that if Christianity can’t answer with anything like a satisfying answer—meaning an answer that allows us to make sense of our experiences — then I’ll be the first one to say it: Convert to something else. If there’s no angle at which you can stand that will resolve the chaotic lines and colors of our lives into anything like beauty, goodness, and truth, then why are we kidding ourselves?
Here’s an example of how our answers to these basic questions change our actual life: Who is in charge here? Is the universe ultimately ruled by chance, fate, human will, or God? When some awful experience shatters your life, doesn’t that question matter a whole lot? Isn’t your response to that pain or grief very difference if you think you’re just a victim of fate? Or if individual human power is the final end of all things, then you just a victim of some stronger person. Why not strike back and become the strong person yourself—that’s sort of Nietzsche’s view?
But if a God or even the gods are ultimately in charge, then a whole different set of questions arise, like where were these gods when the bad thing happened? Did the gods cause it, allow it, or just not know about it in time? Suddenly these “philosopher’s puzzles” become of central importance.
And whether you’re a abstractly-philosophical person or a common-sense, concrete, “don’t sweat the details” kind of person, your answer to such questions known or unconscious makes a difference to how and even whether you weather the storm.
Now Christianity has a particular set of answers to these questions. Some aspects of them are unique and in other places they’ll overlap what others say. Because, yes, there are other answers. Buddhism answers these questions differently, modern atheism differently again, Celtic druidism another set of answers. And of course you want to know which one is true, and by true I assume
you mean which one is actually the way the world is outside our own heads.
I mean I could develop a whole set of answers to the basic questions of life that rested on the assumption that gravity didn’t exist. And it all might be internally coherent and make perfect sense inside my head, but if I went and jumped off the Sears Tower, I’d discover in a hurry that the universe has a way of pushing back against the ideas in my head, no matter how firmly I assert them. It is almost as if the universe has a particular quality—it is what it is—and we can either conform our thoughts and experiences to it and get along in a tolerable détente with it, or insist on the picture in our heads and splatter on the sidewalk.
For what it’s worth, here’s my take on it—the one that will govern the Homilies. I believe that the God of historic Christianity has explained accurately what the world is really like, and as such I ought to entrust myself to those answers.
But in all honesty, these answers don’t always explain my experience perfectly. There is never a 100% match between my experiences and the “thus sayeth God.” Why is this so? I can suggest two reasons…
First, I confuse my doubt with “my reasons for doubt.” If I’m feeling strong doubt, I’m tempted to think that the doubt, on the grounds of its intensity, must be legitimate. Note I said “feeling” strong doubt, because I do believe a great deal of doubt is an emotional response. I don’t belittle an emotional response. They can be strong and proper indicators that something is right or wrong. But that’s the point, the emotion of doubt points to something else. It is not itself the reason to say something is false. Doubt is a natural indicator that we’ve run into something we can’t account for in our current framework; it does not tell us by itself tell us that our framework was wrong. Doubt is not a reason to chuck it all as false, but an prompter to begin a search for reasons and explanations. If I “doubt” that a certain tree branch will bear my weight, that is not a reason call all branches frauds and swear off ever climbing trees again—this is true even if you’ve had a branch break under you before. Rather the doubt you now experience about this branch is a reason to begin thinking really hard about the nature of sturdy branches versus flimsy ones. Doubt is meant to be a cause of renewed and deeper confidence… but we must not confuse an initial event for an end goal.
Doubt is not a reason to chuck it all as false, but an prompter to begin a search for reasons and explanations.
If we actually let the doubt itself be the reason we disbelieve, the doubt can reinforce itself to the point it causes the failure it’s trying to foresee. Like the reason the child sinks in water isn’t because her parents are lying to her about swimming, but rather the child’s own tense reluctance is causing her to sink—thereby appearing to reinforce her ideas that everyone is lying to her about being able to swim. Because of course, part of what it means to entrust myself to God’s answers is that when there is a mismatch between what I’m experiencing, feeling, seeing, thinking, then the problem is on my end, not God’s. Again, back to St. Anselm—faith precedes understanding. In short, I often use my own experience of doubt as the justification of my continued doubt. As Descartes might have said, “I doubt… therefore I doubt.”
The second reason for the mismatch between my experience of the universe and God’s declarations about it is reserved for those moments when I really have gone out on the limb and trusted, and then the branch still breaks. What do I do then? Now the solution is NOT to say this doesn’t happen—that God is too big or too good or too wise to ever let a branch break. And I don’t think the Christian answers the question to why bad things happen to good people is to say that God never lets such things happen. A statement like that is destined to go splat on the next sidewalk gravity brings you do. Bad things do happen. God does not always stop them. How many bad things God does prevent, by definition we can’t know, and even though the unknown evils God prevents are surely greater than the evils allowed—a point I am often too slow to acknowledge—the question remains. In what remains of this Homily, I can only hint at an answer from my own experience that will point toward other conversations we’ll need to have later.
And it has to do with my ignorance, my youth, my finitude—call it what you will—that even in the greatest misfortune there is more going on than I can see. I don’t say this glibly, as perhaps Romeo does (Romeo and Juliet, II.2), “He jests at scars that never felt a wound.” No, no. I say this precisely on the basis of my experience. That is, my experience over time has often confirmed that the parts of God’s speech over which I had entertained great doubts, actually did turn out to be obviously true. It just took more time and more experience for me to see it. For example, when I went through my clinical depression, the promise of God’s near presence in trouble seemed a complete lie. God was silent. I felt alone and abandoned, turned over to the predations of great evil. And had you asked me in that time where God was, I would have said I wasn’t sure God existed at all. It is only now years after the fact that I can see all the little places that did mark God’s presence—all the evils that could’ve and should’ve happened but did not.
You can tell already that this is less an answer than it is a working theory that each of us must test by our own life. But consider if you will the darkest moment of your life, assuming that it is some distance in your past—does it look different to you now than it did while you were in the midst of it? I don’t ask you to lie. I don’t ask you to say that it now seems less tragic, less painful, or less despairing, only that it’s different—that the colors have changed. Do you feel like you know more about it than you did then? That’s all the confirmation I ask. We are timebound creatures. Things come and go. Even our perceptions of things we experience change and grow.
Time tends to increase the overlap between my experience and God’s view of things.
The past is not set. Our perceptions and understanding of it can change. In my experience, time tends to increase the overlap between my experience and God’s view of things; they slowly grow together with time. And this fact gives me the ability to believe that the parts that have not yet overlapped one day will.
Consider a final example: We tell our young children that “babies come from mommy’s belly” because that’s what they can understand. As they mature, of course, that explanation begins to feel, if not false, at least misleading at the key point. The real answer is far more provocative, and the full truth may not fit very well with whatever mess they’ve made in their minds with the first piece of information. But eventually they will understand not only the real answer to the question of where babies come from, but they’ll even understand why the original answer was satisfying at first and then ceased to be. That is, time will often clarify not only the answer, but also our own initial confusion about it.
For a long time after I understood the sexual part of a baby’s conception, I thought it was an issue of frequency. The more frequent the act the more likely you’d get a baby. Thus I couldn’t understand why more people didn’t get pregnant on their honeymoon where, presumably, they were very…active. See, I had no notion of the timing aspect because I knew almost nothing of the female cycle. When I finally understood that piece, I remember a feeling of having the “solution to a puzzle”—and ah-ha moment where not only the facts made sense, but now even my state of confusion was understandable to me. We are like that. As we grow in our life with God, we gradually come to understand not only what the world really is, but we begin to understand even our own misunderstandings—“Of course, it had to be the way because of the kind of person God is, or I am, or because of God’s
agenda, and so on.
That is the journey I want to begin in the next few homilies. How does Christianity explain what the world is like? How does it explain human history and me in it? Why does the world have the particular qualities that it does? What are the answers it invites me to accept in the throes of my sometimes conflicting experience.
I don’t ask you to believe them. You may not be ready for that. That’s ok. No matter what sort of instruction we were given, we all understood sex at our own speed. Many very sexually active adults are still trying to figure it out. How much more with something as complicated as God, the universe, and everything in it.
And surely don’t believe them just because I say them. St. Asinus is just a man with the same warped vision of the world as you have. But based on my own journey with God and the scriptures, I’m going to point. Don’t look at me. Follow my finger. I hope to point in the same direction Christians throughout history have been pointing.
For now, let’s not worry about where this journey is going, let’s just think about what it’s like to walk in a particular trusting way. Let’s focus on the journey for a bit before worrying about destinations. Yes, I know, I just asked you to trust me a bit, and that’s scary—It scares me too. I’ve let people down in my life, and I don’t want to do it again.
I think the apostle Paul felt that too. He told his followers to follow him “as he followed Christ”—someone more surefooted than he was. I think that’s wise. I’ll make the same offer. So here’s the deal. I’m going to follow Christ, just like Paul did. If you want to tag along with me, I’d sure appreciate the company. But don’t worry about getting lost. Christ doesn’t get lost, and he doesn’t lose anyone who’s following him. He’s already been all the places were going. So let’s just relax and focus on the walking for a bit, and we’ll sort out the answers as we go.
We’ll see you next time at the Homilies of St. Asinus, the recycled saint.