“When you think of it, really there are four fundamental questions of life. You’ve asked them, I’ve asked them, every thinking person asks them. They boil down to this: origin, meaning, morality and destiny. ‘How did I come into being? What brings life meaning? How do I know right from wrong? Where am I headed after I die?'”—Ravi Zacharias.
Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.
I AGREE WITH RAVI ZACHARIAS: There has been a drastic impact from man’s decision to look within for meaning, purpose, and morality. We have lost our vertical orientation toward God. The battle between theism and atheism is the oldest philosophical debate known to man. The greatest battles over the course of history have been over control of the heart of mankind, which is the basic currency of politics and culture. Zacharias believes, “Right from the start the question was not the origin of species but the autonomy of the species” (1). We say No one is going to tell me what to believe! Our inner turmoil is rooted in the fact that we are a worshiping people, with an innate desire, an instinct and impulse hardwired into us, to seek and understand God. Yet we debate whether the concepts of origin, purpose, morality, and destiny should rest with us (relative to culture, history, circumstance) or with God based upon ontological truth.
“What has happened? The answer is clear. The discussion in the public square is now reduced to right or left, forgetting there is an up and a down.”—Ravi Zacharias
The remarkable harmony Adam and Eve enjoyed with God and the whole of creation, the peaceful dominion they were given over it, was broken the moment they decided to look within for meaning and purpose; for the definition of right and wrong. Chandler writes, “While the earth was once wonderfully subdued, it now yields grudgingly. Where it was once only fruitful and abundant, it now offers the challenge of thorns and thistles” (2). God’s very first commandment issued in the Garden—Do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—does not mean God wants to subdue us and is unwilling to share His “knowledge” with us. To the contrary, He is aware of the insurmountable task of systematically evaluating right and wrong, good and evil, true and false, from a human perspective. We lack the ability to perceive and handle the thousands of nuances involved in determining ethics, justice, judgment, and equality. It’s so easy to become embroiled in arguments relative to these issues. Some of the most infamous broken relationships in history have been over arguments gone wrong.
Most biblical scholars agree that God gave us free will. What they cannot agree on is how to best define the concept of free will—exactly how it operates in our lives. Sadly, our desire to know and control things cost us dearly. Adam and Eve enjoyed a glorious relationship with God: walking with Him in the cool of the day. God provided our First Parents with the freedom to choose. I believe He wants us to choose Him rather than be forced to believe and obey. Accordingly, God said to Adam, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:16-17, NRSV) (emphasis mine).
Essentially, our First Parents staged a mutiny. A tug-of-war began between man and God at the very beginning. Chandler believes this cosmic argument with God has left a “shalom-shaped hole in our hearts, and no matter how much we throw in there, and no matter how long we try filling it, nothing will satisfy but shalom itself” (3). Zacharias believes the moment Adam and Eve chose to look within for purpose, meaning, and knowledge, mankind headed down the slippery slope of secularism, humanism, and moral relativism. Secular and humanistic worldviews say, “We don’t need God!” Moral relativism says, “That might be true for you, but it’s not true for me!”
“Faith gives the understanding access to these things, unbelief closes the door upon them… A right faith is the beginning of a good life, and to this also eternal life is due. Now it is faith to believe that which you do not yet see; and the reward of this faith is to see that which you believe.”—Augustine of Hippo
Skepticism and doubt reign supreme in Western civilization today. When the Enlightenment emerged in Europe in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, emphasis was put on reason and individualism rather than doctrine and tradition. Leaders during this era ( Descartes, Locke, Kant, Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau) taught that reason was the power by which humans can understand the universe and improve their own condition. Enlightenment involved the use and celebration of reason, the power by which mankind attempts to understand the universe and improve the condition of man here on earth. Immanuel Kant sought truth through “pure reason.”
Enlightenment stressed both reason and independence, and elicited a pronounced distrust of authority. For the Enlightenment thinkers, the most important human attribute was rationality. This sounds like a fairly innocuous term: the quality of being based on or in accordance with reason or logic. The difference between man’s logic and God’s is this: Christian rationalism attempts to strengthen not only the physical body, but the spirit as well; enlightening human beings by means of the spirituality it defends. It focuses on spiritual evolution, without prejudices or dogmas. Specifically, the Christian rationalist believes Scripture is the foundation upon which all good reasoning is built. It is the only reliable foundation for all logic and good judgment; the only trustworthy basis for the beginning of thoughts, ideas, actions and practices. The Word of God is intended to be the mind’s bedrock, its compass. This is an a priori argument: relating to or denoting reasoning or knowledge which proceeds from theoretical deduction rather than from observation or experience. This is akin to saying we cannot trust what we see.
Brad Inwood said, “The Enlightenment devalues prejudices and customs, which owe their development to historical peculiarities rather than to the exercise of reason. What matters to the Enlightenment is not whether one is French or German, but that one is an individual man, united in brotherhood with all other men by the rationality one shares with them” (4). We can see in this statement that the authority of the church and of Scripture began to be questioned. A period of objective inquiry concerning the world and mankind ensued as a result of this philosophy. Of course, reading between the lines reveals an attitude that subjective inquiry (no matter the subject matter it pursues) is “illogical.” Inwood added, “Beliefs are to be accepted only on the basis of reason, not on the authority of priests, sacred texts, or tradition.” Alas, this was the Age of Reason.
To its credit, Enlightenment believes in some immutable Truth waiting to be discovered by experience, unbiased reason, or the methods of science. The downside of this worldview is its tendency to define such ontological truth through human reason, or on empirical evidence alone. Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality. It is part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics. Skeptics of this school of thought believe that “truth” is always relative to cultural, group, or personal perspectives. This is essentially known as moral relativism. Further to this is the concept that we interpret our experienced reality through a pair of conceptual glasses—situation, personal goals, past experiences, values, the body of knowledge we possess, the nature of language, the zeitgeist, and so forth.
Theological determinism is a form of predestination which states that all events that happen are preordained or predestined to happen, typically by a divine will. Some call this “destiny.” Friedrich Nietzsche was against determinism. He said, “Every man is a unique miracle; we are responsible to ourselves for our own existence. Freedom makes us responsible for our characters just as artists are responsible for their creations.” Nietzsche and other Enlightenment thinkers believed if man lives according to the morals or the will of a divine being, then he is a slave. They believed everyone who wishes to be free must become free through his or her own endeavor. In other words, freedom does not fall into anyone’s lap as a miraculous gift.
The Most Important Question
Rationalism, empiricism, agnosticism, idealism, positivism, existentialism, and phenomenology are all part of the discipline of epistemology: the study of how we know. It is certainly helpful to ask “how,” but it is the why that contains the basis for existence. Why are we here in the first place? While science is equipped to answer the how of life, it is not qualified to answer the why. Zacharias believes the points of tension within secular worldviews are not merely peripheral. They are systemic; they are foundational. For example, for the atheist, sorrow is central and joy peripheral, while for the follower of Jesus, joy is central and sorrow peripheral. There is an intellectual side to life, but there is also a side where deep needs are experienced. Sorrow often occurs when we fail to understand why things are happening to us.
More consequences for life and action follow from the affirmation or denial of God than from any other basic question.—Mortimer Adler
I am most impressed by how succinctly Ravi Zacharias expresses the four fundamental questions of life: Where did I come from? Why am I here? How should I live? Where am I going? These questions fall into four basic categories: origin, meaning, morality, destiny. Regardless of our worldview, each of us longs to answer these fundamental queries. Moreover, how we answer them has a direct impact on our actions! For instance, relativism says, “That might be true for you, but not for me.” Whatever is of significance is reduced to value according to the preferences and biases of this or that person, culture, or point in history. This is actually an offshoot of naturalism. If nature is all there is, then there can be no transcendent or absolute source of moral truth, and we are left to construct our own morality. By definition, morality would be contingent upon the person, situation, or moment in time. Obviously, this makes for a rather murky and ambiguous existence!
According to Thomas Hobbes’s concept of empiricism, “mind” is nothing more than the sum total of a person’s thinking activities. Chemical signals received in the dendrites from the axons that contact them are transformed into electrical signals, which add to or subtract from electrical signals from all the other synapses, thus making a decision about whether to pass on the signal elsewhere. Electrical potentials then travel down axons to synapses on the dendrites of the next neuron and the process repeats. Based on this basic neuroscience, Hobbes denied the existence of a “non-material” mind. Accordingly, he concluded there are no objective moral properties or concepts. Instead, there is only what seems good and pleasing for the individual.
Nancy Pearcey introduces the concept of thinking Christianly in her book Total Truth. She addresses this idea under the heading “Divided Minds,” indicating that many Christians today are dual-minded, caught up in the fact/value, public/private dichotomy, restricting their faith to the so-called “religious sphere” while adopting whatever secular views they’re exposed to in their daily lives. Harry Blamires, in his seminal book The Christian Mind, makes a very troubling and profound statement:
There is no longer a Christian mind!
What does that mean? Blamires believes Christians often lack a proper biblical worldview. Certainly, as spiritual beings most Christians continue to follow a biblical ethic of prayer and worship, studying Scripture, and sharing the gospel with others. But as a thinking being, the modern Christian has fallen prey to secularism. I realize that sounds strange, but it is no less true. Unfortunately, many believers tend to hold a secular point of view in everyday matters. They get sucked into conversations laden with secular or scientific principals and participate mentally as if they are not Christians, espousing concepts and categories typically held by non-believers. Ravi Zacharias says, “Christianity is a belief grounded in freedom. It is also, and here is where it contrasts most sharply with humanism, a belief in an absolute” (3). Secularism and humanism are tied to a relativist viewpoint regarding truth and morality—all value is reduced to value according to the preferences, biases, and circumstances of a particular person, culture, or age.
According to Pearcey, “Thinking Christianly means understanding that Christianity gives the truth about the whole of reality; a perspective for interpreting every subject matter.” Augustine of Hippo said, “Moral character is assessed not by what a man knows but by what he loves.” This puts a new perspective on these words spoken by Jesus: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15, NRSV). Paul said, “It is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:16-17). Christians like to focus on the latter part of verse 17—the promise of glory. Spiritual growth demands that we do not jump ahead. Growth requires baby steps; increments of progress. Just like academic programs in college, there are prerequisites for each level.
Our sanctification as Christians begins by suffering and dying with Christ. Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). There is a specific order to our sanctification: we must first die to this world in order to live with Christ in His resurrection. It is only through dying to self that we can live through Christ. This is how we are able to live our theology and not just learn it. Martin Luther said, “It is through living, indeed through dying, and being damned, that one becomes a theologian, not through understanding, reading, or speculation.” Pearcey believes it is nearly impossible for non-believers to accept Christianity solely in the abstract. As believers, we know what the gospel looks like when lived out in practice. Hart says theology, far from being esoteric and inaccessible, must be rooted in basic elements of human existence (4).
True theology must be a lived theology or it is merely a collection of information. Close study of the Pauline epistles reveals a subtle movement from the indicative to the imperative; from theological theories to practical applications. This is at the core of Paul’s remark, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). It is only through Scripture that we learn how sin corrupts our very interpretation of reality. John Henry Newman draws a very smart conclusion in this regard: “Christianity is dogmatical, devotional, practical all at once; it is esoteric and exoteric; it is indulgent and strict; it is light and dark; it is love, and it is fear.” Kevin Vanhoozer believes as Christians we must learn doctrine in order to participate more deeply, passionately, and truthfully in the drama of redemption. Intellectual apprehension alone, without the appropriation of heart and hand, leads only to hypocrisy.
I think one of the most profound statements contained in Scripture is “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). Eugene Peterson puts it this way: “First pride, then the crash—the bigger the ego, the harder the fall” (MSG). There are fewer powerful hindrances to spiritual growth than pride and self-sufficiency. The hardest lesson I learned during four decades of active addiction was thinking I was unique; smarter than the average bear. Every time I tried to manage my addiction, it kicked me to the gutter. Not only did I end up getting drunk or high, I betrayed the very tenet of Christianity: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength… [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31, NRSV).
It is pride that led to disobedience in the Garden. Adam and Eve decided to look to themselves for meaning, purpose, and morality rather than to God. This is when man lost his vertical orientation and chose to define good and evil from a secular or humanist perspective. The result has been constant posturing and arguing over ethics, justice, judgment, and equality. To the secularist, morality is contingent upon circumstance. However, Scripture is the only reliable foundation upon which all good reasoning is built. It is the basis for logic and good judgment; the only trustworthy basis for the beginning of thoughts, ideas, actions and practices. Scripture is intended to be the bedrock of existence; mankind’s compass. Christianity provides the truth about the whole of reality; a perspective for interpreting every subject and every situation. We can only become grounded in truth by thinking with the mind of Christ. This is what Nancy Pearcey means by thinking Christianly.
(1) Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Secular Gods (New York, NY: Hachette Book Group, 2017), 15.
(2) Matt Chandler, The Explicit Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 112.
(3) Zacharias, 162.
(4) Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1995), 79.