Searching for God knows what
The extent of the search
The collective imagination of our day is filled with the stories of those who have done elaborate or extreme things to find the next level for them. The Beatles all travelled to India to study under a Yogi, and behind them was a long trail of young people who hitchhiked across the world. They are not alone. Winston Churchill chased after glory by reporting for the English newspapers as a war correspondent in the wars and revolutions of his day as a young man. Still others have had the search thrust upon them. J.R.R. Tolkien, and many thousands of other young men in his day, was thrust into the first World War in the British Army. What he saw caused him to search to understand the depths of the depravity and heroism in men. People of all stripes and religions make pilgrimages of one type or another. Some go to great extremes to show their faith and devotion, doing such things as fasting and praying for days, weeks, even months at a time. Others go to holy sights and perform rituals that involve ritual suffering and self mutilation, called asceticism. Some seek to escape the trials and temptations of life and escape to caves and monasteries. The Stylites, a monastic movement from the fifth and sixth centuries, lived on the top of pillars several stories tall. Simeon, the most well-known of them, was visited by many great leaders and was known for his spiritual insight and wisdom. People from all over the surrounding area would come to seek the advice and prayers of this great spiritual leader. We are all seeking something. Today the bizarro world lives of people are fodder for hundreds of hours of television programs. From becoming a finalist on American Idol, to being a subject of a show on teenage pregnant moms, many are seeking their "fifteen minutes of fame." By the way, they call this "reality TV."
Something to live and die for
But is fame or fortune enough to satisfy the longing of our souls for a meaningful life? Philosophers have pondered the question "What is the good life?" for thousands of years. While they have not all agreed on what the good life is, they all have agreed a priori that the question itself is worthy of serious thought and consideration. From the Humanist Manifesto (the quest for the good life is still the central task for mankind) to the Westminster Confession (The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever) there have been countless affirmations of this desire to know the who, what, and why of life. The real desire is to name the things for which we will live, and even die. Do we have a life purpose so grand and compelling that we would not only live for it, but would also be willing to die for it if need be?
Open mindedness and the search
Socrates stated that "the unexamined life is not worth living." While there are those who are bold and nihilistic enough to deny this statement, most of us in the West would agree to it. It is not unusual to see a bumper sticker on the car in front of yours that says "Question Authority." Here in the U.S. we pride ourselves on our independent thought and attitude, and look to our Founding Fathers as examples of great men worthy to emulate because of their strong stance against the tyranny of Britain's King George. We are forever stretching the bounds of the Manifest Destiny into areas never even conceived in the minds of the early pioneers of our nation.
One value that is much vaunted today is that of open-mindedness. Just what do we mean when we say we are open-minded? The positive sense is that of a person who is willing to consider new ideas, alternatives, or concepts. On the other hand there is the person who is "so open-minded that their brain is in danger of falling out when they reach down to pick up a pencil off of the floor." A certain intellectual flexibility is necessary when considering a search as daunting as meaning and purpose in the universe. In fact it is absolutely necessary. Rigidity in thought, lack of intellectual curiosity, and plain, old-fashioned laziness are road blocks we must overcome before we attempt the journey towards a deeper understanding of our place in history, life, the universe, and everything.
The God question – one, many, or none?
Is there a God? Are there many gods? Or, is the answer simply that there is no God to be found at all? According to multiple polls over the last few years, most of us believe in a God of some stripe. The number ranges between 90 to 95 percent of us who believe. Interestingly, 1 in 5 people even those claiming to be atheists, say they pray on a daily basis. So even amongst those who don't believe in God, there is still a desire for a spiritual meaning and experience of the transcendent side of life. There is, of course, no shortage of material and good books on this subject, ranging from ancient texts and scriptures to scientific studies.
The general ideas associated with gods, or a god, or no god at all, give us a few choices. First there is the ancient concept of many gods. Still remaining of this idea in the world is the religion of the Hindus. There are lots of gods in this religious stream. There are small ones and big ones, tall ones and short ones. Gods for every activity and every person even. The one aspect of this system that still has a lasting benefit for us is that there is at least an acknowledgment of the spiritual side of life. In our very secularized and materialistic world, this one aspect of the many-gods take on things is that there is a very acute awareness of deep need for some sort of spiritual approach to life. A belief in one God was first proposed by the Patriarchs of the Old Testament. Later on, the Platonists would join in the the chorus of those who saw that there must be one God that ruled all of the other so-called gods. In fact, Plato's thoughts still inhabit much of what is Christian in the West, particularly the dualism between the physical and the ephemeral and spiritual.
There are many different types of atheism as well. The main difference being concepts of being and conscience, etc. From a strict materialistic mindset, to a more or less scientific form of Pantheism, the idea of atheism as a simple answer to the god question is not as fixed a concept as generally thought. And then there is the not-really-sure-about-it position known in our age as agnosticism. I was an agnostic for quite a long period of my life, something I am not proud of.
If you were hoping I would sort this all out for you, I apologize. You see, the truth is that the Bible itself does not answer this question directly. In fact, it just supposes the existence of God from the beginning. "In the beginning, God..." Get it? And here's a politically incorrect fact; the Bible says that those that don't believe in God are fools! Psalm 14 says "The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”" So here is the Bible basically saying that those who deny God's existence are foolish and somehow deliberate in this. And in case you think maybe that was just the New Testament, take a look at
Romans 1:18-23: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things."
Like I said, not real politically correct. Imagine going on Bill Maher's show or showing up at a college faculty meeting and telling them that they are fools. The only person I know who can honestly speak in this way and not be mean is God. When He is telling you that you are a knucklehead, He is doing it for your greatest and highest good. Not that you are a knucklehead. I was speaking of me. I am the one who was convinced of my hardcore hard heartedness long ago and continuing to this day. Humility is something that we all need in the approach to the deep waters of theology and philosophy. It is also a great help on a journey of the soul.
Searching to find, or searching to search?
I make no apologies for being a great fan of writer, speaker, sociologist and true prophet to the modern church Os Guinness. It seems that every time I read or come across his speeches, I have an epiphany of some level or another. Years ago he wrote a great book for seekers on the way, not just Christian seekers, but all who would really be open to a journey and deep search for the truth. In his book Long Journey Home: Your Search For The Meaning Of Life, Guinness shares his great experience of having spoken with literally thousands of seekers over the years. He sees this journey for the meaning of life as having four distinct phases: Questions, answers, testing and re-evaluation, and commitment. We'll look at each of these in turn.
I am a also a fan of great questions. I like to just let a question take me to whatever end it may, being careful to check my conclusions with truth and experience. The bigger the question, the more it interests me. Perhaps you have had some experience with this as well. Often a life experience will lead to a search for understanding of that situation. I once had a friend betray me in such a way as to cause me to consider seriously the idea of what it would take to remove him from planet earth. It was a situation in which a major trust was violated and it caused me great distress. But the real distress for me was that, although my friend had really hurt me, I was more moved to understand why a person would do something so deliberately heinous in the first place, and especially to a close friend. Perhaps you are in or have been in a similar situation. Serious sickness, financial distress, divorce, or the death of a close friend or loved one can cause a major crisis of belief that causes us to rethink the very basis of our core understanding of things as they are. And so we begin to ask questions. Of course, you could just be intellectually curious in the first place.
Often we begin to ask questions of our peers, friends, family or mentors and those we respect. Following this, we begin to read and test the waters of experience, seeking to gain a deeper understanding of our dilemma. When we have finally exhausted the well of questions, we see an answer here and there that may fill the void left from the intellectual search brought on by the crises we have been through. So, tentatively at first, we begin to trust certain answers as acceptable to our mind and heart. I remember in my college days reading about various religions and philosophies and trying them on for a while to see if they were able to answer my curiosities. One by one they would all fall by the wayside, until I had reached a conclusion that I felt reflected the best of intellectual pursuit and consistency with things as I saw them in reality.
Testing or Re-evaluation
At some time one must begin to actually live out a set of beliefs as best as possible. To quote the rock band Rush from their song "Freewill," "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." But the next important thing is to test, weigh and prove your choice. This is where the great gift of doubt comes in. Doubt is a tool you use to check and re-check your decision to act or think in a certain manner that is consistent and positive. Many have had a great fear and dread of doubt, but it is the greatest gift to those who would truly seek out what Francis Schaeffer called "true Truth." This is a long process that could be life long. This process of letting the fires of life and thought come to your mind and heart brings a strength and settledness to your soul. And if you will let the testing come where it may and not back away when the challenge comes, you will become a man or woman of excellence. Don't ever be afraid to take another look at your core beliefs and values, and always have an attitude towards allowing the brilliance and light to come that is the enlightenment that comes through the honest effort.
Having finally reached a place of wisdom and conviction about your philosophy of life, the final thing to do is live according to the light that it provides. This is when the light you have seen begins to become a fire inside of you that fuels a passion for life and living. God, the universe, and everything in it are well able to present you with challenges that will require this commitment. Solomon, the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes wrote: " But if a man lives many years and rejoices in them all, yet let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. All that is coming is vanity." (Ecclesiastes 11:8) This is the final and ultimate thing to understand in your life, that there will be many days to come where you will not be alive to make a difference. Today is your day to make your mark while you are able. Remember, though, that a commitment to a worldview or philosophy of life is not and end to a process but rather a beginning of one, a life lived with meaning and purpose.