I teach a class called Faith, Living, and Learning. One of the assignments in the class is called “The Big Questions.” It is an assignment that includes both a team presentation and an individual paper. The teams (usually groups of four or five students) are to come up with what they think are important questions about life in the following categories: ontology, cosmology, and theology. After coming up with five strong, agreed-upon questions, each group is to interview five people, soliciting the interviewee’s responses to the questions. The group being interviewed is a diverse mix. One person must be over 65; another must be between 13 and 17. One person must come from another culture and be bi-lingual. The fourth person must come from a faith background other than Christianity. The final person could be anyone the group chooses. Finally, the group reports their findings to the class; then each student submits a paper with his or her own responses to the questions. It is a good assignment that always makes for some good class conversation. No two answers on any of the questions have ever been identical. The “Big Questions” assignment makes for some very interesting conversation, but above all, it teaches my students that these are the kinds of conversations that are most fulfilling. We need these conversations; they shapes us, improve us. They make us think and make us ask more questions, which is a good thing, a good spiritual practice.
Our reading this week reminded me of my HUM 310 assignment. The thinkers covered in A Brief Guide to Ideas: Turning Points in the History of Human Thought made me ask a lot of big questions. I have read about, studied, and even taught others about many of the thinkers in this book. Some were new; however, most were familiar. It was was good ground to cover again, important ground. As I read along, I thought of a question that really made me think. Would I have felt differently about this book in my late twenties than I do now in my late fifties? Absolutely! In my early twenties I would have rejected most of the thinkers as heretics. Now in my fifties I read with interest. I could see how people could perceive things the way they did. I could especially understand those who started as people of faith but ended up otherwise. I, too, have had my doubts – lots of doubts. I get this. Doubt makes sense to me now. Doubt is part of the human condition, and is a very important part.
This book covers philosophy, psychology, politics, religion, Christianity, science, feminism, and the paranormal. Not too many stones are left unturned. So what is the thesis of the book? Why was it written? To whom was it written? I like the fact that in the introduction the authors say that they are writing about Western thought. They do not pretend that their book covers all thinking – no book does. They even admit to their readers that some of the concepts in this book are difficult, and that is true. From what I can deduce, this book is not evangelistic; rather, it is informative. Although Raeper and Smith must have their own ideas and conclusions, they leave the readers to synthesize the information on their own ground. I appreciated this perspective. The motives for this work seem to be pure and clear. Raeper and Smith want their readers to think for themselves. For me at least, that made the text an enjoyable read.
The characters who stood out to me were Erasmus, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Carl Jung. The topics that stood out to me were psychology and fundamentalism. Why these men? Why these topics? Many reasons.
When I first got married, I was a committed fundamentalist Christian. I was also a pastor, but I was an atrocious husband. I knew everything about the Bible but little about relationships. Were it not for a close friend, I might still be a flaming fundamentalist, but I would have been divorced and would have done countless harm to many if I would have stayed on that path. But God intervened in the form of a growth psychologist named Frank and also in the form of a self-help, Jungian book called Born to Win. That man and that book turned me into a human being. Without psychology and a humanistic intervention, I would have been a different person today. In my story, unlike other Christian stories, I was saved from the faith as much as I was saved to the faith. Perhaps this is why I “get” the philosophy of humanism, even though I do not necessarily agree with it completely. Obviously, I am not in full agreement with the atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, but I understand his reaction to Christianity. In my view, Feuerbach went too far; however, he did have something to say that is worth listening to. According to the text, “the secret of theology is anthropology” was Feuerbach’s mantra. He believed that by studying God a person would discover more about human beings. But for Feuerbach, “the Human is, in fact, God.” The study of humanity is an important study, but this thinker went too far, missing the point of the incarnation of Christ. Why? My guess is that Feuerbach had met some people who turned him off to the faith, people like me in my twenties. This probably included family since he came from a family that included churchmen. This is only conjecture, but one thing is true: We each have the power to influence others, for good or for evil. How am I influencing others in regards to the things of faith? Father John Powell said it this way, “We are shaped by the words people say – and by the words they refuse to say.” Mark this well – we each influence others, who in turn influence others.
Unlike Feuerbach, Desiderious Erasmus was a Christian humanist. He lived in a very different time, a time in which the Roman Catholic Church dominated human thinking and behavior. It was during this time that faith and reason wrestled for mastery, and wrestling with the powerful Church of the day often came at great cost. Erasmus spoke out against the corruption of the church, particularly about scandalous clergymen and about the low state of the monasteries. Ultimately, the church condemned his teachings, but his influence was immense in spite of that reality. Erasmus was for peaceful reform in the church, but unfortunately, the Reformation ultimately turned into a bloodbath. According to an article by Steven Kreis, “Erasmus stands as the supreme type of cultivated common sense applied to human affairs. He rescued theology from the pedantries of the Schoolmen, exposed the abuses of the Church, and did more than any other single person to advance the Revival of Learning.” I like Erasmus’ brand of faith. He wasn’t afraid to stand up for what he truly believed. He wasn’t afraid to ask the hard questions, the Big Questions. His influence is felt until this day.
Life is full of big questions. It is also full of wrestling matches. So, who is right? Who wins? It is my view that we all contribute in some way to the ever-expanding process of knowledge but that no single human has all the answers, at least not in this life. We cannot know everything. Each of us, if we are committed to personal growth, is changing and modifying how we see and understand the Big Questions. I am convinced that when I read this post ten years from now I will wonder what I was thinking then and will have a very different perspective to offer. Perhaps by then my writings will also be banned by the church. We will have to wait and see.
 William Raeper and Linda Smith, A Brief Guide to Ideas: Turning Points in the History of Human Thought (Oxford, England: Lion Publishing, 1991)
 Ibid., 123.
 I read this quote years ago and never forgot it. It came from an important book called Why am I Afraid to Love?
 William Raeper and Linda Smith, A Brief Guide to Ideas: Turning Points in the History of Human Thought (Oxford, England: Lion Publishing, 1991) 162.