For Christmas, my friend gave each of his grown grandchildren a book on Christian faith. He hoped they would read it; he communicated how important he believed this matter to be. One of his grandchildren wrote back, very thoughtfully but sadly. He admitted that every time he received his grandfather’s Christmas letters, which inevitably communicated about faith, it made him feel bad. He was unsure what message his grandfather meant to convey. If it was a matter of ethical living, then implicitly he felt judged as not good enough, whereas he believed that he was a good person. If, on the other hand, his grandfather was concerned about religion, didn’t he understand that there are different ways? He didn’t hold it against his grandfather that he was a Christian; why should his grandfather hold it against him that he wasn’t?
It was a classic misunderstanding, endemic in our era. Faith is understood to be about ethical living or about spirituality. It’s almost unimaginable that faith has anything to do with truth. That it might be a matter of urgent news.
David Brooks gets at the same concern in a recent column in which he writes of meaning. Meaning goes beyond material success or happiness, and is undoubtedly a proper object in life. But the quest for meaningfulness has devolved into a warm feeling devoid of meaningful standards. You get meaningfulness from doing something that you deem meaningful. There is no lesson for anybody else. You couldn’t argue about the right way to find meaning. You could only share what you find meaningful.
My generation of Christians certainly has contributed to this state, for we have communicated a message that is fundamentally individualistic and utilitarian. We have not said: we must answer to the God who made us, who has revealed himself in Jesus. We have said: come to faith, you will feel better.
As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, God is humble enough to take us on our own terms. If our motives for coming to him are selfish and short-sighted, he welcomes us nonetheless. That doesn’t mean, however, that there are no consequences for speaking of the gospel as though it were centered on our desires.
Does Christian faith makes you feel better? Does it teach you ethics? Yes and yes, but only because it announces truth. This truth is that we did not make ourselves but were created by a Power and a Personality to whom we owe gratefulness, if nothing else. Furthermore, that Power has shown himself. He has indeed offered to be in relationship with us. And so we can find peace with our very nature and with the nature of the universe of which we are part. And so we can know how to live meaningfully.
A Roman governor in the first century asked, “What is truth?” That’s a difficult question, and always has been. But it’s something even grandparents and grandchildren can discuss.