Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe

What did you dream about this week? On this anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many are dreaming about peace, the end of terror, war, and the triumph of good. When C. S. Lewis first delivered the BBC radio talks that he would later publish as Mere Christianity, it was the height of WWII when millions dreamed about the victory of good over evil and a world set right. Could this desire for justice, decency and fairness itself be a clue to life’s meaning? This is what C. S. Lewis wanted to know…from the trenches of the First World War where he fought and was wounded…to the halls of Oxford where he began teaching English and meeting with men like J.R.R. Tolkien to discuss writing and the deepest questions of life. What Lewis discovered moved this brilliant professor from atheism to Christianity: a surprising clue to life's meaning that is confirmed in Scripture as well.

There is a Clue to life’s meaning: The Law of Human Nature. The first time we had a glimpse of what Lewis refers to as the Law of Human Nature, otherwise known as the Moral Law, may have been  in our childhood bedroom while quarreling with our brother or sister, or in the cafeteria at lunch when someone cut in front of us in line. We said things like "That's not fair!" or "How would you like it if I did that to you?" Or perhaps it was the relief we felt when we finally told our parents the truth.  The Law of Human  Nature, or the Moral Law, is the voice that calls us away from what is hurtful, selfish, and cruel, and toward that which is just, fair, honest, and good...but how difficult it is to follow that voice.

When we think about the millions who died in the gas chambers of Nazi concentration camps, we ask ourselves, “How could that happen? Or How can we stop this from happening again?” But as N.T. Wright points out in his book, Simply Christian, we can’t seem to stop it…from the more than ten thousand Muslim Serbs killed under the direction of Slobodan Milosovic in 1992; to the genocide that took place in Rwanda in1994, to the thousands who have died in the Darfur region of Sudan. Oh yes, we clearly saw the evil of South African apartheid; but only because we remembered the long history of slavery in our own country, and the mistreatment of African and Native Americans. Paul stated a powerful truth when he said in Rom. 7:21, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” We know what we ought to do…but we do not or cannot seem to do it…or so it seems.

Yes, the Moral Law is real…it’s truth echoes like a voice inside each one of us, and it’s message is timeless and universal. Paul in Rom. 2: 14-15 points out that this “law” is something the Gentiles (i.e., those who have never heard of the Jewish law) understand “by nature.” E. Peterson translates the same verse this way: “When outsiders who have never heard of God's law follow it more or less by instinct [the Greek word here means 'nature'] they confirm its truth…God’s law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but woven into the very fabric of our creation.  There is something deep within [us] that echoes God's yes and no, right and wrong”(Rom. 2: 14-15 / E. Peterson).  Lewis was fascinated by the historical "illustrations" of this truth, the reality of the Moral Law, that can be found in the writings of ancient civilizations....

The Book of Leviticus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Ancient Egyptian confession of a righteous soul declares, “I have not brought misery upon my fellows…I have given bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked.” A Babylonian text says, “Slander not…[and] Whoever meditates oppression, his dwelling is overturned.” An Australian Aborigines tribe carried around a woman crippled from birth until her death at age sixty six. “They never desert the sick” said an observer. A Hindu writing says, “Utter not a word by which anyone could be wounded.” and Confucius says, “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you” (from C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Appendix). Where does this inner voice, this moral conscience come from…a voice that cries out for justice, and fairness and a world that is set right…a voice that calls us to live in a way we know we ought to, but don’t?

There is a Power behind the Law: A ‘Something’ or ‘Someone.’ It should come as no surprise that there has been a good deal of effort focused on trying to explain away this voice, this Law of Human Nature.  One idea is that it is simply our instincts. But here is the problem with that idea, and Lewis points it out. We have all kinds of instincts; an instinct to protect our family or tribe – an instinct for self preservation, for sex, for food and so forth. But that’s not where the Moral Law comes in…it’s when we have to choose between obeying one instinct or another; between saving our own lives, or risking our lives to help someone else; between satisfying our drive for sexual pleasure or protecting someone else’s dignity that we feel the law at work, and hear the voice urging us to do what is right.

Another way of explaining the Moral Law is to say that it is nothing more than doing what benefits us personally. But hold on, is it not true that doing the right thing is often more costly than beneficial? We could cheat and get a better grade, but we don't (partially out of fear that we may be caught) but also because an inner voice says that it is simply wrong. We could lie but choose to tell the truth despite the consequences; and when we don’t obey that law, we have a sense that we have failed to do something we should have or should not have done.

But if this law cannot be explained as "instinct" or the desire to "benefit" personally, where does this voice come from? Lewis, like Paul, suggests that the fact that “we do not exist on our own” (that each of us, along with the entire universe obviously depends upon something else for its origin and life) along with the fact of the moral law (a voice calling us to do right and turn from evil), are sign posts pointing us to 'Something' or 'Someone' beyond the world that we can see and touch and taste and feel. Listen to the words of Paul… For “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). And what we may conclude from this voice, this law that operates within us, across time and culture, urging us toward a particular kind of action is this: that 'Something' or 'Someone' is not merely ‘an unblinking cosmic stare’ -- but actually cares about justice, about goodness, and about what is right!

Yesterday, my family and I were at the beach.  It was a cloudy day, with high surf.  Not a great day to be swimming with small children.  The only thing swimming out in that rough water was a spectacular school of dolphins.  As for us humans, it was back on shore near the lifeguard tower where the red flag was waving in the breeze.  The red flag is meant to alert swimmers of dangerous surf and rip tides.  Rip tides are powerful undercurrents that can pull a swimmer out into deep water; and even cause drownings.  It's not unusual, though, for swimmers to ignore these warning flags and venture out anyway, which is why lifeguards must keep a close watch.  Turning your back on the ocean even for a moment, on days like this, can be deadly.  Now I know I'm stating the obvious when I say that those red flags are a lot like our moral conscience.  Many of us, given the same stormy conditions and dangerous curents, will see the warning signs and sense that 'Something' or 'Someone' is waving us back to shore.  That common human experience of 'danger' or 'hesitation' is an experience that we can be thankful for, a sign that points us to the Mind behind this universe, and the things this Creator finds important.  On the other hand, knowing what the Power behind this universe 'cares about' is a sobering thought when we consider own own actual behavior...

There is Cause to Be Uneasy. We have broken the Law, and continue to do so. What we’ve been saying thus far is that there is a Moral Law, a voice that is calling out to us…urging us to do justice, love mercy, and treat people as we would want to be treated. Secondly, we’ve been suggesting that there is a Power behind this Law…a 'Something,' or more likely, a 'Someone,' a Mind that has a bigger plan for us than we may want to admit, a Someone who cares about goodness and setting things right...Someone who is flying the warning flag and waving us back to shore when we're indangering ourselves or indangering others with our behavior.

Now here is the unnerving thing…if this is true, then much of what we do, or often fail to do, must be very displeasing to the One behind all this. In fact, much of human history must grieve, must sadden, must pain the One who made us. Paul puts it simply in Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That this world has suffered under evil is as obvious as anything we know. In the Book of Genesis, the account of Creation, we read that "The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die’" (Genesis 2: 15-17). Without going into a detailed analysis of this incredible passage, let us simply say this. The Genesis account describes the painful experience of our freely chosen disobedience…how much it grieves God’s heart, and how deadly it will prove to be to us personally, relationally, ecologically, and spiritually.

How many times have you said to yourself…if only I could live that day over again… if only I could take those words back again… if only I could have just one more chance to do it right…if only I had been more honest, if only I had kept my promise, if only I had taken a stand, if only I hadn’t made that phone call, if only I hadn’t lied, if only I hadn’t insulted that person, if only I had finally said, “I’m sorry.” If only…if only…if only. But the more disturbing truth is that we have not only offended our family members, and our friends and co-workers and classmates…we have hurt and offended the One who cares so much about goodness and justice and setting this world right.

Unless we understand this…we can’t understand the good news either. C. S. Lewis says in his Mere Christianity, “Of course I agree that the Christian religion is in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort, but it does not begin in comfort. It begins in…dismay.” There is a clue to life’s meaning – the Moral Law. There is a Power behind the law – Something or Someone. There is Cause to be uneasy: because we have broken that law.

Did you know that following WWI, which was supposed to be the war to end all wars there have been, to date, 97 more wars? Yes, I counted them. Yesterday, on the way to the beach, our family drove by the thousands of flags that were displayed above Pepperdine University, a testimony to the thousands of lives that were lost in the terrible terrorist attacks on 9/11 nine years ago…and a reminder too of the thousands who died after that in continuing conflict and war. Every one of those flags was a testimony to the cry in our hearts for justice, for goodness, for a world set right again.

Now keeping all this in mind, I found a fascinating article about a University of Wisconsin study done in 2007 when 100,000 wishes from people from around the world, printed on confetti and dropped from the sky during the famous New Year’s Eve “ball drop” in 2007 were catalogued and analyzed. Here is what they found. The #1 wish worldwide, regardless of country or nationality was not financial stability, was not getting into college, was not getting more sex, was not finding that true love. No, the #1 wish of people worldwide was….PEACE ON EARTH! What the Bible calls "shalom" -- a right relationship with God, with other people, and with the earth.  Shalom!  Peace on Earth! It's what we hunger for. Incredible isn’t it? If anyone looked at our planet and its history from some distant alien world, they would have to come to a very different conclusion about our true desires and dreams…but they wouldn’t be able to see in our hearts; where the law is at work, where the voice is heard, the voice that is calling us to turn back, to do justice, love kindness, put things right again.

But here is the good news: the dreams we all seem to be having for peace on earth, for justice and putting the world to rights…are not just wish dreams in the night bubbling up from our subconscious, they are the voice of an unwavering God who actually wants us to live in such a way that world peace, God’s shalom, is possible – and if Christians are right – that voice became human in Y’shua Jesus and did what had to be done to bring it about -- God’s peace, forever and ever -- one life at a time.

O God, there is a passion in us for justice and fairness, for making right the things that are wrong.  There is a voice calling us to live the way we know we ought to, and condemning that which we know can only lead to more hatred, violence, abuse and destruction.  Yet for all our best efforts, we find that we continue to fall far short of our best aspirations and that when we want to do good, evil lies close at hand.  Can this broken world be rescued?  Can we be rescued?  We’ve heard today that the voice calling to us is the voice of God, and that this voice became human and did what had to be done to finally bring things right.  Not all of us here may be sure about this yet, but we pray - beginning right now – that you would reveal yourself to each of us in a way that we can truly understand and believe. Amen.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Bk. I. 1-5
C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, Ch. 1


Anonymous said...

I read the whole thing! Very insightful. It's true that very often the dark side is very close at hand when we want to do good. For me I don't have huge regrets from the past. But I will say that in a lot of social gatherings, saying less is more.

Steve Craig said...

Thanks for reading. I do think we hold a lot of things inside... things that only God knows about. He knows our struggle with "the dark side" -- but he also offers us his power and forgiveness.