Saturday, May 24, 2014

Start with why

Most people, it seems, approach questions of religion and Christianity from the starting point of their experiences of Church and Christians. It's no surprise, then, that their evaluations vary; some hate it, some love it, and many are somewhere in between, often moving from one position to another. Much depends on how their relationship develops with the people in the Church and its leadership, and their experiences are a common theme in their varied stories of conversion and deconversion.

Personal experience, however important, is not the whole story. Not according to the Judaeo-Christian world-view. There is a reason for everything – a “why” to our experiences, Church, religion and indeed life, death, the universe and everything. Why are these things here, and what possible purpose do they serve? In approaching our questions, we too should start with “why”.

It's a question atheism tries strenuously to avoid for a very simple and profound reason. If there is a fundamental “why”, or a reason for everything then, fundamentally, there must a God or, at the very least, a God-pseudonym. That God may be different than the God of someone else's religion, but that God is still there, and atheism (literally meaning “no-God”) is defeated. The only proper recourse available to the atheist, then, is to say that there is no “why” and everything is meaningless (including the atheist's own outrage at religion, ironically).

Cynics avoid the “why” question because they have failed to find a satisfactory answer. They are right, but only in part. I don't believe that any of us can fully comprehend the answer, which means that we will never be fully satisfied, but this says more about the limits of our comprehension than the “why” that we attempt to comprehend.

Much popular religion answers the “why” with generic response about making us into better people. This, I think, is lazy and narcissistic. It doesn't tell us why being a better person is a good thing (beyond the expedience of avoiding conflict), nor what a “better” person looks like, and it fails to inform you that being a better person only works up to the day when you get Alzheimer's. Indeed, it substitutes the “why” with a “how” or “what”. It also focuses your attention on yourself, as if the only person who needs to be satisfied with the outcomes is you. It tells us nothing about the value of people who are not “better” - the handicapped, the incapable, the failed people in life, the sinners. Furthermore, it assumes that if we are true to ourselves (2), then we would be intrinsically good, but there wasn't a tyrant in history who wasn't true to himself.

I find it tremendously significant that the Bible doesn't start with our experience, and it doesn't even start with the Church. In fact, it starts with “why”.

The opening verse of the first book, Genesis, starts with the reason for the creation of the entire cosmos
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1, NASB). 
The reason that there is a Cosmos is God (3). 

And here we are; by whatever process that got us here. We are here, ultimately, because of God. The rest of the Bible flows from this singular starting point, such that all history, experience, religion, politics, life and death is an outworking of this “why”. Of all God's good creatures, we humans are uniquely made in His image, which is why we search for the “why”.

In opening his Gospel, John echoes the words of Genesis, and expands them using the language of reason. Writing in Greek, he uses the word “logos” for the fundamental reason for everything, which we translate as “Word”. It's not an entirely accurate translation, because we think of words on a page, but John was thinking of the reason, or wisdom that brings these words into being (4). In the same way, the “logos” brings the Cosmos into being, and everything in it, including our experiences, Church, religion etc etc. John puts it like this
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. (John 1:1-4, NASB).
What does this "logos"/“why” look like? Is it something we can comprehend? Do we even have the faculties to comprehend it, or will it always be beyond our reach? Can we see God? John writes that although many tried, none fully succeeded (John 1:18, NASB), despite all the rites, experiences and revelations of the Old Testament, which goes all the way back to the beginning.

John's Gospel provides a revolutionary response to the question that nobody, in my opinion, has bettered. He starts with the abstract question “why” and brings it down to earth, where we can touch it, feel it, hear it, smell it, see it.
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 NASB).
We might not comprehend all of the “why”, but now we know what it looks like. It is not a set of abstract laws or precepts, nor a system of belief, though it embodies law and belief. It intersects our experiences, but it also stands outside them as an independent entity. It is one thing, but not everything, though it lies beneath, behind and over every thing. It is not a culture, or religion, or a political system, a pattern of rites and rituals, though none of these things have meaning apart from it. It is the person of Jesus Christ, wholly human and, uniquely, wholly God. John tells us that we can see God, and we have seen God, because we have seen Jesus. The author of Hebrews says the same thing (Hebrews 1:1-2), and so does the remainder of the New Testament.

From this starting point, we can begin to answer the “what”. What are our experiences, if they are not our witness of God? What is Church, if it is not the human people who are gathered around the human person of Christ? What is religion, if it is not the marks we make on our lives to signify their meaning? What is politics, if it is not our attempt to create a better environment for our fellow humans, made in His image? What are our lives, if we are not the sons and daughters of God?

We can even begin to move on to the “how”. Critics of Christianity often point to disagreements between Christians, which, shamefully enough, have often triggered violent unrest (the Reformation Wars, for instance). The irony is that Christians and critics alike go to war on things that they believe best answers the “why”; it's just that they have arrived at opposing positions. In these conflicts, one side, or both, may be wrong, but the “why” remains.

We live in a time that strenuously attempts to minimise or avoid the “why”. Our media, for instance, never wants us to venture too near the question – it wants us to remain dumb and compliant to it's insistence that we buy a new car, or a different brand of pizza. Thinking New Atheists tell us it is the wrong question to ask (why?). Critics of Christianity and the Church want us to focus on the disparate outcomes, and give up asking. Popular religion tells us it already has the answer.

John's Gospel tells us that where any of these don't frame the question and the answer to “why” in the human person of Jesus Christ, they miss the mark.

The next time you think about religion, or about any of life's important questions, start with “why”.


1: I borrowed the title from Simon Sinek, his book of the same title and on-line talk. He talks about business leadership, but it's a great question in all contexts, especially in religion.

2: The quote “to thine own self be true”, is not from the Bible (as some assume), but it comes from Shakespeare's Hamlet, as Polonius farewells his son Laertes prior to an intelligence-gathering mission. 
Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!
(Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 7582)
In context, then, Polonius is not talking about using one's internal conscience as a yard-stick to measure the truth of something, which is how we commonly understand it. He is actually advising Laertes to rely on his own material resources and not to get entangled in the business and politics of those on whom he is to observe, evaluate and report back on.

3: Not a semantic trick – God is the reason for Creation, and God gives the reason for the Creation.

4: Demonstrated in Genesis 1 in which God's creative acts are brought about by “... and God said ...” Genesis 1:3 etc.

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