Seven Questions that Define your World
My dear reader, I have a confession to make…
I am addicted to consuming information. There, I said it. Podcasts. Audiobooks. The weekly newspaper. YouTube. RSS Feeds. I just can’t stop. Something about me wants to try to get it all! But that’s not the end of it. I have hundreds of hours of podcasts just waiting for me. The list never seems to get smaller. As soon as I have caught up on one podcast, I add two more. And what’s worse, I would have many more hours to listen to, but I’m already listening at high speed.
Okay, I get that what I do might be a bit strange. It’s not really normal to consume vast quantities of information. You are more likely to find someone binge-watching the latest show on Netflix than ‘binge-learning’! However, for someone like me, today is the best time to be alive. There are more opportunities to learn than ever before. You can learn almost anything however and whenever you want, and therein lies the danger. As the volume of consumable information has grown, the amount of effort we must expend to sort the true from the false, and the helpful from the unhelpful, has also increased. If we exclude nothing and consume everything, then we risk polluting ourselves and we destroy the chance to think creatively. If on the other hand we exclude too much, then we miss out on learning. All truth is God’s truth, no matter where it comes from.
In addition, it is important to be aware that not everything we consume, we consume willingly or consciously. What does society define as ‘the good life’? Do we all have to live in the perfect house, have our next exciting trip planned, and be physically fit or is it actually all about living an environmentally sustainable life? Not only that, but we are the most entertained people that have ever existed. When we entertain ourselves with the latest movie or video, we often switch off the thinking part of our brain. Without even a thought, we open ourselves up to ideas and beliefs which are untrue and contradict our beliefs. My goal for this first article is to provide a set of tools, which we can use to discover truth and uncover the unspoken assumptions in the world around us. In further articles, I hope to use these questions to explore trends and perspectives that are relevant to us today.
To live in this world as Christians, we must be able to identify and understand the ideas we encounter daily. The ideas that are embedded in so much of what we consume are usually part of a worldview, a perspective on how to answer the big questions of life. Similar to a map which helps the navigator chart a course through an otherwise stormy sea, a worldview helps one to navigate life and make sense of what is happening. If we do not identify the assumptions and ideas which underpin so many of the messages we receive in our media-saturated culture, we risk being taken captive by them. The Apostle Paul explicitly warned us against this in his letter to the Colossians:
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. Col 2:8.
We can only defend ourselves against worldly wisdom and deceptive philosophy, if we can detect it. James W. Sire in his excellent book The Universe Next Door outlined seven such questions which are especially well suited to this purpose. In this article, I aim to introduce these probing questions with short examples to illustrate, I will go into more detail in my next articles.
1. What is prime reality – What is really real?
Is there an aspect of reality, the beginning point for all existence, that does not depend on anything else for its existence? If you follow the chain of causation backwards, will you at some point find something that just exists and has no cause? Does only the universe exist? Is our entire experience of reality just an illusion? Consider the Matrix. In this movie, the main character Neo transcends reality and can control the world around him when he realizes that it does not exist. This teaches the idea that all of reality is an illusion. In contrast, Christianity affirms that God has created a real and discoverable world which exists separately from our perception of it.
2. What is the nature of external reality?
This question is related to the first, but tries to draw in ideas related to our perception by questioning if anything is real outside of ourselves. Is the world around us created or independent (un-created or self-created), chaotic or orderly, physically real or just made up out of spirit? Is our own subjective experience of reality the only important thing or is there an actual real world out there? The movie Inception suggests that reality can be subjective, a world you create for yourself and which only exists in your dreams can be just as good as the real one. Christianity argues that God is the source of all reality. Everything comes from him and because he is the creator, he can define what is real or not
3. What is a human being? What does it mean to be human?
In essence, this question is about identity. Possible answers might be: a complex biological machine, a god, an illusion, a person in the image of God, a blank slate. For example, the idea that an individual is a blank slate is related to the philosophical debate of being and becoming eloquently explained in the movie Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne (as Batman) explains to his friend, “It’s not what I am underneath but what I do that defines me”. Bruce is defining himself by being the Batman, a hero who defeats evil and saves the helpless. This expresses the culturally relevant idea that we create our own meaning and that each person must decide this for themselves. On the other hand, Christianity holds that each person is created by God in his image with the purpose to love and serve God and man. We do not choose our purpose, it is given to us.
4. What happens to a person at death?
When we die, are we annihilated or reincarnated? Does the person who dies transcend reality or just go to be on the “other side”? This is an important question because it has a large role to play in answering what the purpose of life is. Logically, if we all end up in the same place (non-existence), it does not matter how we live. Without lasting consequences, our choices in life are meaningless because everyone dies no matter if they were a good or bad person. Greta Thunberg and extinction rebellion accept that life ends in death, but reject the logical conclusion of this fact. They argue that because all we have is this life, no measure is too great if it stops our extinction. If Christianity is true however and there is life after death, then how we live now may have lasting consequences beyond death. Maybe saving the environment is not the only thing to be worried about.
5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?
Are we able to know things because we are made in the image of God and endowed with rationality? Or rather, are our rational faculties the result of the long and gradual process of evolution? Though obscure, this question is critical. Before we can start making conclusions from what we know, we must first answer why it is possible to know anything at all. One contemporary school of thought argues that your destiny in life and worldview are primarily determined by how you were brought up. A logical consequence of this view is that objective reality is impossible to grasp, you can only see it through the lense with which you were raised. This stands in contradiction to Christianity, which holds that knowing Christ is to know the truth and to be set free from the corruption of this world.
6. How do we know what is right and wrong?
Every worldview has a perspective on whether right and wrong is grounded in reality or illusion. No one can deny the existence of right and wrong; the mere fact of living forces us to make moral choices every day. How you live shows what you think is good or bad, right or wrong. But how do we distinguish right from wrong? Right and wrong could simply be determined by human choice or by whatever produces cultural or physical survival. In the Star Wars movies, there is no good or bad, only balance. The light and dark sides of the Force must remain in balance, it is bad for either side to gain dominance. Christianity, however, teaches that we are created in the image of a good God with a conscience that helps us to tell right from wrong.
7. What is the meaning of history?
Christianity would argue that history is a linear series of meaningful events that shows God’s redemptive work of reconciling man to himself. This is the purpose or meaning of history. However, others might argue that history is a meaningless collection of events or an eternal cycle of rebirths, where in each life you are living out the karmic consequences of the previous. A modified version of the last option is expressed in the movie Groundhog day. Phil Connors is not able to escape the same day until he becomes a better person. The meaning of history according to this film is to escape the endless cycle by improving yourself.
These seven questions are by no means exhaustive, but, when applied, provide insights into the many different worldviews we encounter and open up further avenues of inquiry. Further, it is not possible to stand neutral on any of these questions. If we refuse to pick a worldview, then we have unknowingly already assumed a worldview. Moreover, living in the world forces us to act, and how we act shows what our worldview actually is. We cannot escape answering these questions, the only decision we have is whether or not we will try to answer them. To not do so means that we are living with blinders on. Life is important. Living it in an ignorant manner is surely more dangerous and risky than not.
So when you find yourself surrounded by a cacophony of news and entertainment, don’t forget to ask a few questions of what you are learning. No message stands on its own, it is always connected to a series of deeper beliefs which we need to expose if we are to sort the truth from the lies. As Paul said:
But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; 1 Thess 5:21
May this be true of us in our daily lives.