When I was a 14-year old boy, in that strange midway point between childhood and adulthood, I found myself standing in the school playground one day and wondering to myself: If all life amounts to is that we live for 80 or 90 years and then we die and that’s it – game over – and whatever we have achieved, whatever we have loved and whatever we have become inevitably disappears into dust, well not only is that a pretty sad story, it’s also a meaningless one. Rather like a video game where no matter how well you play, or what choices you make, it’s always the same end result, every time. Blank screen. You lose.
As a young teenager, I was not in the habit of asking deep philosophical or spiritual questions. I grew up in a happy, ordinary, non-religious, Australian home. My closest thing to a religion at the time was sport. Each day I was either playing or training in one or more sports. But I had recently suffered a knee injury which meant I had to rest from training. I wouldn’t have considered myself an overly reflective person but with all this extra spare time it got me to thinking about life.
And I remember thinking: You know, that just doesn’t feel like the right story. I wonder if it really is the right story? Because if it is, what’s the point of it all?
It was the beginning of my journey to try and discover, if I could, what life was really all about. Now, rarely do we articulate questions like this out loud, or to each other. I certainly didn’t at the time. Plus, life is busy. And we have so many digital entertainment options to distract our minds that these deeper questions of the heart rarely find space to surface.
But the questions are there, nonetheless. We all have them. It’s no surprise then that when Covid-19 forced us all into lockdown and a slower pace of life, scores of people found themselves searching online for answers to questions like “what is the meaning of life?” or “is there a God?” Across the country, church leaders reported huge increases in the number of people tuning into their online services.
All of us long to know that who we are matters – which is a question of significance. That what we do matters – which is a question of goodness. That what we experience is real – which is a question of truth. That our relationships are meaningful – which is a question of love. And we all of us face what is perhaps the greatest challenge to hope and meaning in this life – which is the question of pain and suffering.
Value, goodness, truth, love, hope and suffering. These are the things that matter. For these are the questions we must grapple with as human beings if we are to find a sense of meaning, coherence and purpose to our lives.
And yet, many believe that our notions of meaning (or even goodness or love) are ultimately nothing more than biological aids to survival and reproduction; and that any deeper meaning than that is an illusion. Personally, I find do not find this view compelling. Not only because it seems to undermine our deepest intuitions about life and our lived experience as
human beings, but also because it appears to undermine rationality itself. For if we believe that our brain and its perception of reality is controlled entirely by our genes which are themselves geared simply towards the evolutionary aims of survival, then not only can our deepest instincts about life not be trusted, our very reasoning can no longer be trusted either. For, they too must primarily serve evolutionary success, rather than truth. But if that’s true, I not only have no good reason not to trust my reasoning, I actually have a good reason not to trust it.
Well, could it be, that the physical world is not the only world. Could it be that a human being is actually more than just the sum of its parts; more than just meat and bones and chemicals? Interestingly, that’s what Jesus of Nazareth believed and taught. As he famously said, “man cannot live on bread alone”. By this he meant there is a spiritual dimension to who we are that physical things just cannot satisfy. And just as our physical hunger points to the existence of that which can satisfy our physical hunger, so too our hunger for meaning points to the existence of something beyond this physical world.
Christian faith makes sense of the operation of things like physics and chemistry, but it also also holds that a human life is more than merely these things. That there is a spiritual dimension to who we are that physical things alone can neither fully explain nor fully satisfy. And in proclaiming that we are not all here by accident, but here on purpose, because a good and loving God wanted us to be here, Christian faith affirms our intuitions that every person really is valuable; that there is such a thing as right and wrong, good and evil; that truth does exist and can be known; that love is something very real and very precious; that hope can be found even in the midst of life’s tremendous suffering and pain; and that our lives, in consequence, really are meaningful.
If I could somehow speak to my younger teenage self just beginning to ask the big questions of life, I would tell him that his intuitions are right: that the story he has been told about life is not the real story. And that there is a better story that truly does make sense of all of experienced reality, from our need for meaning and significance, to our desires for truth, goodness, love and hope. And I would tell him that exploring faith doesn’t require him to leave his brains at the door. That his brain would, in fact, take him on a journey to Christianity, not away from it. And that it would be the greatest adventure of his life.