Basic Confusion

Apr 21, 2005 |John Thomas

Struggling with the meaning of life? Maybe your friendly sales clerk can help.

The professor was doing his job, so he couldn’t be blamed for what I was about to do. I was desperate. I wheeled my sister’s brown Corolla into the strip mall parking lot, grabbed my wallet off the passenger seat and ran inside. I went straight to the counter, flashed my mom’s credit card, and told the waitperson that I had just come out of philosophy class, that my life was meaningless, and to bring me the biggest, thickest Bible she sold.

I was a victim of PHIL2003, a course whose description was harmless enough:

Introduction to Philosophy: An examination of such basic philosophical topics as the existence of God, the nature of the human mind, the relationship between appearance and reality, the forms and limits of human knowledge, freedom of the will, and standards of right and wrong. Includes both historical and contemporary readings.

It was my habit whenever I came across the word “basic” to lose interest in whatever followed. Basic mathematical blah, blah, blah. Basic grammatical structure yawn, whatever, etc. Usually the word “basic” can be read with some assurance that whatever follows won’t result in wanting to pull a Thelma and Louise off the nearest cliff. But when “basic” is followed by the words “existence of God” and “nature of the human mind” and “relationship between appearance and reality” at a secular university, be prepared for possible negative outcomes.

That’s how it was for me anyway. That first day we dove in deep. Does God exist? Well of course He does, Silly! Next question, please. How do you know you’re not just part of someone’s dream? Well, I, uh ... How do you know that what you’re currently experiencing is reality? Because, er, uh … I remember glancing down at my course schedule to make sure I hadn’t wondered into the wrong class. Wasn’t this supposed to be about basic something-or-other?

Halfway through the semester of PHIL2003 my belief in the God of the Bible had taken a pounding. I often found myself staring at walls, ceilings, my shoes, pondering “basic” things like who started God? I was usually the kind of person who enjoyed surface conversation and light-hearted fun, but I suddenly found myself sullen and brooding, irritated that the masses so blindly dismissed the deeper questions, engaging in such futile pursuits like eating and sleeping and breathing. Everyone and their breathing!

Back and forth I morosely swung. My friends did their best to understand, patiently nursing my concerns and questions and grim warnings about PHIL2003, the bane of my existence. I was in a rut and going deeper. I couldn’t get that eerie “Dust in the Wind” song out of my head. Duuuuuust in the Wiiiiiiiiind, All we are is dust in the wiiiiiiind!

I was shaken to the core of my soul and reasoned I had only two choices. The first was to embrace the “no God” theory, or its more moderate sister-theory, “no way of knowing one way or the other,” which, granted, have their short-term benefits. The idea of pursuing pleasure without any regard for morality was, well, what most others on my campus were doing and I have to tell you, it looked pretty darn good. I had always told myself that the reason girls seemed to lack interest in me was due to my high moral standards, not my shyness, thick glasses and occasional acne outbreak. Casting off my moral anchorage was just the thing my social life needed. Co-eds beware!

But then again, I reasoned, the downside of atheism and agnosticism is the whole pesky business of life being pointless and the universe void, and thus the thought of 80 plus years of meaninglessness, while still having to work and pay bills, is unappealing at best. Also, there’s the possibility of being wrong, and the Bible being true, so you have the whole hell issue. I figured it’s O.K. to be wrong about some things, but the Lake of Fire is not one of them.

The second option was, of course, to stick with the “God exists” idea, which would handicap my social agenda but help me avoid the gnashing of teeth problem. As appealing as the guy-gone-wild worldview was, the thought of God being silent, or worse not there at all, was a living death proposition, and one that haunted me constantly.

Apologetics material was scarce in those days. There was no Josh McDowell, no Boundless webzine, no J. Budziszewski helping us stay Christian in college, so I did what believers like me do whenever we’re confronted with a crisis of faith: I bought a newer, heavier Bible.

I wasn’t the first student to stagger into the local Christian bookstore on faith-support. Like an ER doctor specializing in belief-battered students, the lady across the counter knew I needed the hard stuff. She stepped away for a few minutes and returned with a huge Bible, a three-pounder easy, and then prescribed me a thin little book authored by someone who, in his knickers and long chin-beard but no mustache, looked like one of those characters on the Ricola throat lozenge commercial. The only thing missing from his picture were curly-toed shoes, some mountain goats and one of those long horns. Riiiiicooolaaaa!

“What is this? Who is this guy?”

She told me his name was Francis Schaeffer, and the book was called Escape from Reason. She said take it and read it and I’d feel better in no time.

“I’ve seen a lot of students like you in here. Trust me, this is what you need. Schaeffer will help you get through that philosophy class and beyond. D’you want your name on that Bible? I can do it while you wait.”

“No thanks.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted my name forever inscribed on a Bible. What if I decided to go the other way? I might want to return it for a refund and buy something by Carl Sagan or Karl Marx or any of those C/Karls who didn’t like God’s message. No, I wasn’t ready to commit to a name imprint.

I hurried home, and with the Scriptures in one hand and the Ricola guy in the other, I started reading, careful of course not to soil the crispy, gold-rimmed pages of my new Bible.

Schaeffer can’t be summed up in a paragraph, but the gist of Escape from Reason is this: Modern man -- he who believes “God is dead” and has placed his trust only in reason -- has come up short on answers to the big philosophical questions (existence, angst, meaning, etc.). He is then faced with two possibilities. Either he can return to the answers found in the Scriptures, or he can try to live as though life has meaning even though he does not believe that it really does. Schaeffer argued that men in the Western philosophical tradition largely opted for irrational existence, escaping the requirements of reason, hence the title. Schaeffer’s conclusion to this problem is that Christians must return to a serious belief in the Scriptures and their ability to answer the big philosophical problems, and that we must live our faith consistently in front of the world.

Ding ding ding!

The more I read, the more I wanted. I volleyed between Schaeffer and the Bible, scouring his scripture references. A light was coming on. Things were making sense again. Muddled confusion slowly gave way to clarity. I paced excitedly about the room, talking out loud to him.

“Of course, Francis! Exactly, Francis! That’s what I’m saying, Francis! I know, Francis, I know!”

Finally a rational view. It was like this Schaeffer fellow had been sitting in my philosophy class and was now explaining everything to me through the lens of Scripture. Soon I was ripping through the pages of my new Bible, leaving crinkleage all throughout the Old and New Testaments. My earlier thoughts of a refund vanished. My faith was being restored and that’s all that mattered.

I spent the next several days reading and praying and calling my friends to tell them the good news, which they all received with relief and rejoicing and “Francis who?” I thanked them for being patient with me and for praying for me and for enduring my recent incoherent ramblings. I also took plenty of time to thank God for His truth and His faithfulness and His patience and His love that endures forever. My life was getting back on track and peace was returning. But there was still one more thing to do.

Back at the Christian bookstore, I found the lady who’d helped me before.

“There’s something I need to do,” I said, and handed her my recently purchased Bible.

She smiled a huge smile and said, “I’ll get the imprint machine.”

Copyright 2005 John Thomas. All rights reserved.

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