I heard an ad on NPR the other day that confused me. It began by asking if you were tired of all the politics and opinions that you hear on the radio. If so, they had the cure: Listen to Science Friday where, for one hour a week, you could listen to “facts.” Science, they were suggesting, dealt in only “facts,” unlike politics. One topic to be discussed, the ad said, was “how global warming affects your daily life.” (Now there is an “opinion free” topic!) But what really confused me was—after highlighting the factual nature of science–their show would further discuss the many still unknowns of the universe. Here is wonderful irony of modern science so beautifully captured: To rely purely empirical foundations on the one hand, while having to admit that with all research, rigorous observation and study, there is still so much about life and the universe that still remains a mystery. I found this admission refreshing, that even with our huge advances in modern scientific knowledge, even Science Friday has to admit that there is still much that we don’t know. In short: There are many questions still unanswered!
This seems to be the theme of the Raeper and Edward’s book A Brief Guide to Ideas. It suggests that questions about life, God, society, knowledge and the universe have been asked for centuries, and many of these questions are still seeking answers today. In fact, what I find so stunning in this book are the persistent flood of questions by the authors; hundreds of questions that – even after 3000 years of the smartest minds pouring over them– are still being asked by philosophers and every day people. Here are only a few of the hundreds of questions:
- Is there a point to the universe? Is there order behind nature?
- How do I know who I am? How can I know I am the same person today as I was yesterday? What is it in me that causes me to be alive?
- What can we know? How well can we know it? What are the limits to what we can know?
- Is justice a God-given or eternal value that is absolutely true for all people at all times and in all places?
- Can human beings know someone’s thoughts or actions by non0sensory means? Can the future be foretold?
- Have you ever wondered why you exist at all?
Why so many questions? The authors suggest that “philosophy is about everyday life.”[i] It is our nature as humans to ask questions, to seek answers. Life itself challenges us to ask questions. Which means we all do philosophy, but on very different levels. The poorest person suffering in the inner city ghetto will be asking important questions just as much (if not more so) than those in the most privilege position.
This study reminds us of three important points. First, that so many of these questions we ask have been asked for centuries by some of the smartest people. We are in good company if we are seeking answers to life. Second, these questions cannot be reduced to easy answers, to the mere accumulation of facts, or mathematical or scientific formulas. Tough questions resist easy, pat answers. Third, people are still asking many of same questions. Recently, it was believed that our modern, enlightened minds would provide all the answers to life’s hardest questions. The failure of modernism to do this has resulted, I believe, in a world even more hungering for answers, finding life just a frustrating and mysterious. Modernism didn’t figure it all out!
I have long been captivated by this search for answers about life, society, the universe. My approach to philosophy though is one of great humility. I have stacks of philosophy books that I have yet to read. It takes me a few weeks to physic myself up to start into a new book, because I know that 90 percent of what I will read will go right over my head. I figure that if these questions have been argued and sweated over for centuries, they should be a challenge to understand. Life is about seeking, discovering, growing; not necessarily about arriving. What the Brief Guide reminds us is that even great Christian thinkers have also been pouring over these very same questions. That encourages me to keep pursuing, to keep slowly plowing along, to keep wrestling.
We Christians live in paradox, where we have definitively found and proclaim Truth, but we still seek truth. Because the ultimate truth is a person, and that person is a conundrum (divine and human), we must admit that we will never fully grasp the truth now, but by seeking Jesus, we have a guide into all truth. Therefore, learning becomes a life-long process, where Jesus lightens our path as we seek answers about all areas of life. I guess that is why I keep taking up these books of philosophy–no matter how frustrating and challenging–it is an adventure into deeper understanding of my life in Christ and in the world…and it keeps me humble. We can admit, like Science Friday, that we to have certain “facts” about our faith, but the world our God created and God Himself are still great mysteries that are worth exploring.