Want to start an argument? Bring up religion or politics. Want to start a thoughtful discussion? Mention purpose!
New York Times columnist David Brooks, who was one of Chuck Colson’s favorites, has a new column that I think Chuck would have loved. Brooks, who is on a tour promoting his new book, “The Road to Character,” says that people he meets are searching for purpose.
“They feel a hunger to live meaningfully,” he writes, “but they don’t know the right questions to ask, the right vocabulary to use, the right place to look or even if there are ultimate answers at all. I find there is an amazing hunger to shift the conversation. People are ready to talk a little less about how to do things and to talk a little more about why ultimately they are doing them.”
A generation or two ago, Brooks says, there were lots of public authority figures talking about why—some of them good, others not so much. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel were household names. Author Harry Emerson Fosdick and philosophers Hannah Arendt and Jean-Paul Sartre led very public discussions on the meaning of existence or the nature of evil. And Brooks forgot to mention Billy Graham! Back then there was an appetite for street-level philosophy—and maybe there still is.
Also, schools back then were more than job training programs. There was a coherence to the educational process that, as Neil Postman wrote about a few decades ago, has been replaced by the acquisition of skills. So education no longer pursues a purposeful vision, it pursues a career alone.
This is largely the result of knowledge becoming ever more specialized. “Intellectual prestige,” Brooks writes, “has drifted away from theologians, poets and philosophers, and toward neuroscientists, economists, evolutionary biologists and big data analysts. These scholars have a lot of knowledge to bring, but they’re not in the business of offering wisdom on the ultimate questions.”
Chuck Colson used to ask four “ultimate” or “worldview” questions, critical tools that we can use in searching for purpose. Question one: Where did I come from? Two: What’s wrong with the world? Three: Is there a solution? And Four: What is my purpose? As Vaclev Havel observed, it’s not that we aren’t finding answers to these questions. It’s that these questions are no longer being asked.
Of course, questions about purpose can only be answered in the One who purposed us. As Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
Our hearts certainly won’t find rest in money. Gallup did a survey of 132 countries and found those with lower per capita economic output actually had higher rankings for meaning. And generally lower suicide rates, too. Why, when so many of us in the West equate wealth with happiness? Well, it turns out those countries are more religious, giving people a sense of purpose. Even among wealthier countries where religion plays a more prominent role in people’s lives, we report higher levels of meaning.
Increasing numbers of Americans, of course, are going outside of organized religion, seeking to construct their own meaning. Yet those self-made answers rarely quiet our restless hearts. As Pascal said, “It is in vain, oh men, that you seek within yourselves the cure for all your miseries. All your insight has led to the knowledge that it is not in yourselves that you discover the true and the good.”
The Christian worldview, based on biblical revelation, answers all four of Chuck’s questions, explains both our human dignity and our depravity, and points us to a fixed reference point by which we can orient our lives: God Himself. “Man’s chief end,” the Westminster Shorter Catechism states, “is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”
— by John Stonestreet
Stonestreet is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and is heard on Breakpoint. Copyright© 2015 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries.