Hello again. I’m Alister McGrath, and I’m a professor of Christian theology at Oxford University. In the next few articles, I am going to explore some of the reasons people give for finding Christianity credible and life-changing. Some of these are rational, based on the way in which faith makes sense of life. But some are linked to the human desire for meaning and significance, and others to the way in which faith builds personal resilience.
In this article, I’ll explore one of these. I’ll look at some ways in which Christians see their faith as helping us to make sense of the enigmas and riddles of our experience. The Christian faith is here seen as lighting up the shadowy landscape of reality, allowing us to see things as they really are. The French philosopher Simone Weil (1909-43) came to a deep appreciation of the power of religious faith to shed light on our world. Here’s what she had to say on this.
“If I light an electric torch at night out of doors, I don’t judge its power by looking at the bulb, but by seeing how many objects it lights up. The brightness of a source of light is appreciated by the illumination it projects upon non-luminous objects. The value of a religious or, more generally, a spiritual way of life is appreciated by the amount of illumination thrown upon the things of this world.”
The value of a religious or, more generally, a spiritual way of life is appreciated by the amount of illumination thrown upon the things of this world.”
If you’re a scientist or a lawyer, you will be familiar with this way of thinking. We judge a theory by how well it makes sense of what we observe and experience. What is the “big picture” that makes most sense of the evidence? In the end, the theory that will persuade a jury is going to be the one that weaves as many as possible of the clues together into a coherent narrative. If there are several ways of interpreting this evidence, the best theory is likely to be the one that is most comprehensive, the simplest, and the most elegant. It’s all about looking for the big picture that makes sense of individual snapshots, the grand narrative that makes sense of individual stories, and the grand theory that connects together the clues into a satisfying and coherent whole.
So what sort of clues are we talking about? Let’s look at one. We dream of better worlds – worlds of justice, peace and meaning. The world we see around us often seems to fall short of our aspirations. Somehow, we seem to possess deep intuitions that things shouldn’t be like this. We observe suffering, and long for a world in which pain, suffering and death were no more? Surely there has to be a better world than this?
Now maybe these are just consoling thoughts, designed to shield us from the harsh realities of life. Sigmund Freud dismissed them – without any evidence – as what he called “wish-fulfilments”. Yet they might be clues to what life is all about. They might point to a voice calling us, telling us of another land – a land that we once left behind and can find again, or a land that we might hope to inhabit in the future.
This was certainly the view of J. R. R. Tolkien, the famous author of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien held that the imagination was the key to the meaning of life. Tolkien interpreted the biblical idea of the “image of God” to mean that we all have a homing instinct, an inbuilt sense of our true origins and destiny. We just know that this isn’t the world that we’re meant to inhabit. We’re meant to live in a better world than this.
That’s what C. S. Lewis thought as well. When Lewis was an atheist, he found himself yearning for a world of passion, beauty and meaning which his rather trenchant atheist worldview told him did not and could not exist. Listen to what Lewis has to say about this dilemma. “Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.” His imagination told him there was a better world; his reason told him that this was nonsense. As an atheist, Lewis believed that he had to learn to live with the bleakness of a senseless world and his pointless existence.
Yet slowly but surely, Lewis realized that our longing for significance was a pointer to something that lay beyond the thresholds of our experience. It was a clue, which suggested that human beings were created for something better than the world that we know.
Let’s look at this in more detail. Lewis argues that most people – certainly including himself – experience a longing or a desire for something that simply cannot be had in this world. Now some people argue that this is just “wishful thinking”. Yet Lewis gradually came to realize that there is another way of making sense of this feeling of longing: seeing it as a pointer towards another world. Here’s what Lewis had to say on this: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Lewis argues that Christianity tells us a story and gives us a way of thinking which makes sense of all things, which makes sense of the deep human longing for beauty, significance, and meaning. For Lewis, Christianity speaks of human beings having been created in order to know God, and to come home to the New Jerusalem. We are in exile on earth, during which we anticipate our return to heaven. We are in captivity in Egypt, awaiting our entry into the Promised Land of milk and honey. Though physically located in one place, we anticipate and mentally inhabit another, where we believe that we truly belong.
It’s an important line of argument. Back in the fifth century, the theologian Augustine of Hippo summarized this idea in a famous prayer to God: “You have made us for you, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” You’ll find this approach developed further in N. T. (Tom) Wright’s interesting book Simply Christian, in which he talks about four “echoes” of God’s voice in the world – echoes that we hear, and which cause us to rethink the way we see the world and ourselves. Wright argues that our longing for justice, our quest for an authentic spirituality, our hunger for meaningful relationships, and our delight in beauty, are all clues to what we are really looking for. They help us work out who and what we are, and find fulfilment. And above all, they help us to find God who is the source of this voice, and is calling each of us. It’s like the Old Testament story of the calling of Samuel, who heard God calling him, but was not sure what this voice was, or what to do about it.
For Wright and for Lewis, Christianity gives us a way of making sense of our world and our experience which helps us understand who we really are, and become the people that we are meant to be. Now that’s important. But there are other reasons why people come to faith. I’ll talk about one of these in the next article – the desire to find meaning in life. That’s become increasingly important as a result of the many uncertainties around in the world today. So I will look forward to exploring these with you in the next article in this series.
Alister McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford. His latest book is What’s the Point of Theology? Wisdom, Wellbeing and Wonder, published recently by SPCK.