The search for truth begins in great questions. Without great questions, a soul never awakens to its own possibilities. The Church has always understood this. In Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, the Council stated:
People look to their different religions for an answer to the unsolved riddles of human existence. The problems that weigh heavily on people's hearts are the same today as in past ages. What is humanity? What is the meaning and purpose of life? What is upright behavior, and what is sinful? Where does suffering originate, and what end does it serve? How can genuine happiness be found? What happens at death? What is judgment? What reward follows death? And finally, what is the ultimate mystery, beyond human explanation, which embraces our entire existence, from which we take our origin and towards which we tend?
Writing much later, Pope John Paul II, in his 1998 encyclical "Faith and Reason, (Fides et Ratio), said of such questions that they "have their common source in the quest for meaning which has always compelled the human heart. In fact, the answer given to these questions decides the direction which people seek to give to their lives." It is, said John Paul II, a "journey of discovery . . ."
Today I saw these questions, and this journey, come to life. It was a remarkable class that illustrated the enduring truth of the Council's statement, at the same time reminding me of the capacity of young men and women to enter profound philosophical spaces. The topic we were collectively investigating was the foundational question for a unit I teach on God's existence. When I first taught this unit, I used to go right into an overview of various proofs, assuming that everyone agreed on the importance of the question. But eventually I realized that that approach assumed too much. Many of my students didn't even see the need to study the question. Shaped by a culture that has turned belief in God to something akin to a preference for chocolate over vanilla, many of them believe (intentionally or not) that God's existence doesn't matter. So before addressing the evidence for God's existence, I ask them to think about the significance of the question.
Because of this, I start the unit with this simple question: "Does God's existence matter? Why or why not?"
While my students regularly impress me, today they led each other out of the cave. As we worked through some of their journal responses, here are some of the questions that they asked (some of the below are paraphrases):
- Why did God give us free will if he knew we would abuse it?
- It's really awesome to talk about these big questions in class, but once we get into reality, it all goes away. It sort of stays in the "cloud." How can we get it to matter in everyday life?
- What is the purpose of life on earth?
- Why worry about God if no one can truly prove his existence?
- Do you really have the answers? (Asked, in a spirit of extreme seriousness, after I had responded to the question about the purpose of life based on a Catholic vision of reality)
These were just some of the topics that emerged during a nearly hour-long discussion. Something had awakened, something had stirred them. Today I saw and heard a group of young men and women embarking upon the foundational questions of human existence, the questions that will set them on their "journey of discovery." We didn't solve anything today, and I didn't try to. I tried only to get them to delight in the inquiries themselves. Soon enough they will, to borrow from Rilke, begin to "live into the answers."