Friday, January 20, 2012

The Why Questions

A common criticism leveled against Christianity is that religion is for the weak. Christians are people who don't have the intellectual and emotional strength to stand up on their own, so they need a crutch. I've heard this accusation answered in a few ways. Some would answer we don't need a crutch, but a stretcher, because not a single member of humankind can actually stand on their own. We are all dying, fragile, broken, sick, and we must all fall on the mercy and life-giving power of God through Christ. Another one I've heard is that being a Christian is more like jumping off a cliff, because the life that Jesus calls us to is far from safe and sheltered. He calls us to a life of adventure and risk and it actually takes a very strong person to jump off a cliff, hoping to be caught by the arms of a loving God. It's a leap of faith, said Soren Kierkegaard.

Yet the critics persist and claim that Christianity is for the weak-minded. Over the past few years, I have come to believe that the opposite is true. The scientific mindset focuses on questions of "what" and "how"- what can we observe with our five senses and what chains of causality can we discover to explain how "what" has come to be. If it is not observable with our senses, say those who focus exclusively on the scientific worldview, then it does not exist or at least is not worth speculating about. Those with a spiritual mindset are not content in stopping with those questions, but they want to progress to the "who" and "why" questions. They don't reject the scientific questions and explanations (or at least they shouldn't) but they want more. They want to know why things have come to be, and who, if anyone, is behind the reasons, if they can indeed be discovered.

I'm convinced that the scientific questions are the easier ones to answer, whereas the spiritual questions are the harder ones. The scientific questions deal with what can be seen and touched, but the spiritual questions deal with the invisible and the elusive. I would argue that the spiritual questions require a tougher mind.

In my on-call shift yesterday I attended the death of a 39-year-old man. He had been perfectly healthy until one year ago, when he started feeling back pain, and two weeks later he was given the diagnosis of untreatable cancer. He went on hospice a few months later. When I arrived at his home, his mother and his 2-year old daughter answered the door. His father, sister, and girlfriend were all sitting at his bedside - shocked, angry, tearful.

The scientific mindset could easily answer the how and what of this situation. Normally healthy cells became damaged and cluster, then metastasizing to other parts of the body, eating away at healthy cells and his body's natural defenses, leading to death. The "why" questions are much, much harder. The easy out is to say there is no "why" - life is an arbitrary result of a cosmic accident and so searching for reasons is futile. People live and people die and that's it. 

To sit with the "why" questions is to sit in mystery and ambiguity. We do not shelter ourselves from grief and heartbreak, but we enter into it. We do not know where it will take us but we know life and death must not be dismissed as a mere accident. It takes real strength to acknowledge emotion, to cry out in pain and despair, and to search for hope when surrounded by hopelessness.

One of the marks of emotional maturity is the ability to hold things in tension, to move away from a black-and-white mindset and to acknowledge ambiguity. The why questions take us right into the heart of ambiguity. The why questions are for strong people.

The why questions are not often answered specifically, I've found, but if we sit with the whys long enough, we may find ourselves entering into the mystery of one who bears the marks of death on his hands and feet.