For practical, as well as theoretical, reasons, this is an important question and, in various forms, it has arisen several times among us. On a recent Saturday, a large part of our conversation revolved around this question, which argues for its importance as well as its complexity. For instance, we asked, “What is it about someone’s devotion to something that raises it to the level of religious devotion?”; “Why am I a Christian and not a Muslim?”; “How can I know the truth?”; “How is it that I can know anything at all?”; “How do I know if I know Jesus?”
The human condition manifests in many ways, and one of them is this: I must have a reason to get up in the morning, to face reality, whatever that is. Just getting out of bed in the morning evokes unavoidably deep questions for us that will never, ever occur to any other creature on earth:
- Who am I?
- Why am I here? (What is my purpose? What am I going to live for?)
- What am I to do? (How can I live a significant, as opposed to a meaningless, life?)
The most frustrating aspect of all these questions is that we are not born with the answers. Even when we enter adulthood, we know but fragments of the answers, at best. Just as hunger drives us to find and consume food, our existential hunger drives us to find answers to life’s greatest questions. That good answers are difficult to find explains why so many people fill their lives with work, hobbies, sex, media, drugs, religion… none of these provides answers, but at least they dull the pain by distracting us from the fact that life is an unexplained mystery.
You may find it curious that I included religion in that list of distractions. Religion, in general, professes answers to our crucial and fundamental questions about life. Religious authorities proclaim, “Jesus said, ‘My peace I give to you.'” Most hear those words, and then go away hoping that peace will come. Some convince themselves against all evidence that they are peaceful. A few notice that simply knowing is insufficient, because deep down inside they are still dissatisfied, restless, and without peace.
In the final analysis, religion is not the answer because religion is only the finger pointing at the answer. For many people, religion is a distraction because they fail to distinguish between the finger and what the finger is pointing at. Clearly, the key question is, “What is religion pointing at?”
Help on this question is not absent, but frequently comes from corners of Christianity that are largely unexplored by evangelicals. In my case, the search for help led to St. Ignatius, mostly by accident. In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius asks frequently: What do you want? In the spirit of Ignatius, I would paraphrase that question: What do you really, really want, deep down inside?
Unfortunately, our deepest desires and needs are frequently hidden from view, buried under mounds of personal baggage, societal norms and expectations, and wrong-headed dreams and wishes. The distractions of life “work” because distractions address superficial desires and needs while leaving the inner life untouched. Walking along a road one day, Jesus called a blind man over and asked him, “What do you want?” What a silly question to ask of a blind man! Or was it? What if the blind man, rather than responding with “I want to see the world around me,” had said, “I want to see God” or “I want to see as You see”? But, alas, all he got from Jesus was his sight.
In defense of the blind man, I should confess that it took many weeks of considering Ignatius’ question “What do you want?” before I realized that the question was not about the trivial stuff that I want. It was asking what I really, really want and that is when I discovered that I had very little idea what I want.
That we even possess an inner self or deep desires and needs is uniquely human. And being human, delving into the inner life and discerning our deepest desires and needs is not optional, though most people live their entire lives knowing little or nothing about what is at the center of their inner selves. The consequences of such ignorance have shaped our shared history, often in negative ways, from petty quarrels to devastating world wars.
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (emphasis mine)” What if people stopped and asked themselves, “Wait! What do I really want?”
As insightful as the discovery of an inner self might be, it is still not the “thing” to which the finger of religion is pointing. Poking around at the very core of my self, I further discover that something is missing. This sense of the missing is felt with the heart; it cannot be known with the intellect. The missing results in what has been described variously as restlessness, uneasiness, or hunger. So, I start looking around for pioneers who have returned from exploring the inner self and found what they were looking for.
My personal search for pioneers led to Jesus and the gospels, to St. Ignatius and the Spiritual Exercises, and to a small group of other pioneers who would help point the way. An early pioneer was St. Augustine who wrote, “Lord, you have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” This pioneer is telling me that the thing for which I am looking is not an answer, not a what, but a Who.
Considering that I had found all other paths that I had traveled to be ultimately unsatisfying, what was there to lose if I got hold of a map drawn by the pioneer St. Ignatius? It may strike you that my approach has been to simply throw darts at possible solutions to my very human problem. Indeed! I have thrown many darts and I threw this last one in hopes that it would at least hit the target this time, even if I missed the bulls eye.
“Target” is a metaphor for sound guidance on the question, “Where do I begin in my quest for whatever the finger is pointing at?” Excellent resources are available but, in my experience, the local church is not one of them. For me, the Spiritual Exercises together with the wisdom of the Jesuits have been crucial, providing me with the direction needed to embark on the journey. Indeed, the most common metaphor in the search for God is that of a journey into the unknown in search of a Treasure of inestimable value.
The question then becomes, not “Have I hit the target?” and not even “How do I know that I know Jesus?, but “Have I started on the journey?” The answer is “Yes,” but this is a journey with no end, because there is no end to God. As Paul wrote, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!”
Empedocles observed, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” That Circle can, with certainty, be found. The pursuit of God is not a futile search. “You will seek me and find me,” Jeremiah wrote. Yet, it is a search from which we will never rest, but in which we will ever find Rest.