Two emails this week, both from Australia, raise questions about doubt, belief, and the Big Questions. Indeed, their questions come at things rather obliquely, in terms of a single pretty big question: Why bother?
The first question comes from a man who works with young people and he asks on their behalf. He knows some of my writing and in particular the Four Questions I use (having learned them from others) to get at the essence of each world religion I teach—and, indeed, the essence of anyone’s worldview:
1. What is the nature of reality? What is really Real?
2. What is the most we can hope for in reality—versus the best we might be able to imagine? What is the summum bonum, the Highest Good?
3. What keeps us from enjoying that “best,” that highest good? What is The Problem?
4. What can we do to enjoy that best? What is The Solution?
So: What is real? What’s the highest good? What’s the problem that keeps us from that? And what the solution?
Buddhism, for instance, says that we are stuck on the wheel of reincarnation that cycles us through life after life of suffering. Suffering comes from frustrated desire: We want what we do not have and we want to keep what we must inevitably lose. The best we can hope for is to cease suffering, but our desires keep us connected with this hopelessly disappointing and haplessly unending existence.
Following the Noble Eightfold Path leads us to see the truth of the matter (enlightenment, or bodhi—from which we get "buddha") and eventually to the cessation of all desire, which leads to the release from reincarnation and the stopping of suffering (nirvana).
My questioner then asks this on behalf of his young charges: “Why do, or should, the four questions matter to them?” Why focus so much on these huge questions over which the world’s greatest thinkers have deeply differed—from the Buddha, yes, to Moses, to Kong-zi (whom we know as Confucius), to Jesus, to Shankara, to Muhammad?
The second question is like unto it.
I'm just slowly reading through your book Can I Believe? at the moment and am wondering what your comments might be with regards to someone like myself who is agnostic about the matter…. Why make any commitment at all, one way or the other? Why not just acknowledge that we don't know with any absolute certainty, which seems to be the case, and find a way to live life in the grey on this matter?
Let’s establish first that if you don’t care about what is ultimately real, what is the best life can offer, what keeps you from enjoying that, and what you can do to improve your situation, then no one can make you care. I like to think that I’m a reasonably persuasive communicator. But even reading a whole book of mine can’t persuade anyone to care about life’s ultimate questions.
And lots of people manifestly don’t care. They’re focused on what I would call (borrowing a powerful phrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer) penultimate matters: getting a job, getting ahead, getting that special someone, getting out, getting laid, getting while the getting is good.
Consumerism trains us, in fact, to focus on the immediate and short term, what can be readily spotted and appraised and obtained. Some of the best minds in the world funded by most of the companies of the world relentlessly teach us that life does in fact consist in the abundance of the things which we possess (Luke 12:15) and in the extent and depth of the pleasurable experiences we can enjoy.
The good life is, indeed, the life of keeping up with the Kardashians: bling and glitter and luxury and self-indulgence and endless shopping. And if you don’t see yourself in such grotesquerie, then it might be in what we might call the Canadian version: peace, order, and good government. A nice quiet life.
Socrates, Lao-zi (founder of Daoism), the Buddha, Jesus, Francis of Assisi, Blaise Pascal, John Wesley, Søren Kierkegaard—all of these wise ones found that they first had to wake up their audiences to consider the Big Issues when those audiences were manifestly content to be focused on the relatively small stuff.
The first questioner added a second concern: “Why should we demand that the answers ‘ought’ to be correspondingly true and coherent?” Thus the second questioner’s wondering about why we can’t just admit we don’t know things for certain and then—well, then what? What follows from acknowledging, as I myself freely do, that none of us mortals know the answers to the Big Questions for certain?
Let's go with “why ought the answers be true and coherent.” I suggest that that’s what we expect from Google Maps, from financial advisors, from life coaches, from professors, from medical doctors, and from anyone else whose counsel is going to deeply affect our lives. We don’t want those people to “wing it,” but to actually know what they’re talking about, to believe it, to be able to prove it, and to be invested in it enough that they don’t change their minds (and advice) on a whim.
So the counter-question: Why would you possibly be interested in descriptions, explanations, and prescriptions that are not true and coherent?
Likewise, just because we can’t be certain about very much doesn’t mean that we should then conclude (as if anyone could possibly come to this conclusion in any serious way) that all options are equally valid, or equally uncertain, and therefore it doesn’t matter which option you select.
Again, we don’t think that our GPS is infallible—but it beats whatever else we have on hand to find our way, so we trust it. We don’t think our financial advisors can somehow beat the market (unless we are crazy), but we do think they are more right more often than we would be on our own. We might spend a little time on the Internet acquainting ourselves with what might possibly be wrong with us before we see our family physician, but we would need an awfully good reason not to take his or her advice once we have discussed our health with him or her.
The two questions dovetail in that we all live our lives in fact according to the answers we do believe about the Big Questions. If we avoid consciously considering them, as many of us do, it doesn’t mean that we escape the implications of them.
Choosing to live a certain way—to earn and save and spend one’s money as one does; to invest in and conduct personal and professional relationships as we do; to devote our time and attention and resources to these hobbies and causes versus those—always in fact depends on what we do think is real, what is best, what is wrong, and what we can do about it.
It's important here to note, then, that some of us might have troubling feelings from time to time, feelings that the world might be quite different than what we are assuming it is. Maybe concentrating entirely on the material and emotional welfare of me and my family might possibly be shortsighted and ultimately counterproductive precisely for the eternal welfare of me and my family, as well as other people around me.
Some of us are indeed haunted by the possibility that we are investing badly, choosing badly, acting badly compared to how we could and should act.
There is, after all, the inescapable reality of death awaiting us all—and whatever lies beyond death. If nothing lies beyond death, then it is foolish to act as if something important does. If something does, then surely it is likewise foolish to act as if it doesn’t.
We owe it to ourselves, our loved ones, and possibly others as well (our neighbours, our nation, our world, our Creator) to pause at least from time to time to see what we can find out, what answers make the most sense. We do that about avoiding a penniless retirement. We do that about avoiding diabetes and cancer. Why not do that about avoiding a deeply misguided apprehension of death and the hereafter?
Can I Believe? Christianity for the Hesitant is thus a book aimed to help people identify and confront Christianity’s answers to the Big Questions. I hope the second questioner therefore will press on in his reading and then ask God—if God there be—to help him believe what he currently cannot.
And I hope the first questioner will at least stop to ask those questions, whether of me or of someone else who purports to be helpful on these matters. For the answers to those questions loom all around us, whether we recognize them or not. Ignoring them, or taking supposed refuge in agnosticism, won’t make them any less real.
The universe is whatever it is. Best to take some time to find out what you can, while you can. Don’t wait for the universe to impress its reality upon you when it’s too late to alter your course and you can do nothing other than collide with it.