Many years ago now, I wrote a book about world religions. More specifically, it was the response of different religions to the most important questions we could ask.
And surprisingly, that little book, Four Monks Walk Into A Pub did quite well for itself.
I suppose part of the success came from the genuine surprise that there were actually very different answers to the fundamental questions about life, and that religion (whatever religion that happened to be) endeavoured to provide answers.
The book also made it easier for people to decide for themselves which response, or rather which way of living proposed by any of these world views, actually corresponds to the questions we all ask. In that way, it fulfilled a real need. People had questions, fundamental human questions, and the book streamlined the various answers for the reader.
More recently though, I have become aware of a deeper problem, one which lies completely outside the scope of that book or even a general ignorance about the religions of the world.
For greater clarity, allow me to put the problem in the form of several questions.
What if humanity has become oblivious to the ultimate questions?
What if ...
Humanity has become oblivious to the ultimate questions?
What if rather than asking, “What happens when we die?” we instead ask, “How do I die without being a burden to those still living?”
And what if rather than asking, “What is a human being?” we ask something like, “How do we eliminate humanity’s ecological footprint?”
What if we spoke in such a way as to avoid the ultimate questions ever being raised at all?
The result, I believe, would be a generation or more of individuals who see religion as ultimately irrelevant.
We're seeing this now.
Having forgotten the questions, or at least their importance, religion itself has lost its anchor and people have begun to look for a new purpose for worship, a new reason to go to church, a new and compelling justification for why we should “rest” on the seventh day.
And all of these, no matter their ingenuity or the initial excitement they cause, ultimately fail because worship, gathering, even rest from servitude flows from religion; it does not give birth to it.
This is becoming a reality.
I encountered this months ago when I sat down with two friends of mine for a coffee. Initially, the conversation began pleasantly enough. We spoke about work and family, but soon enough things naturally led to the ultimate questions, the reason for work and family.
And while one of my friends (an agnostic at the time) was very intrigued to have his deepest questions raised by another, the other friend merely waved his hand and remarked, “I don’t care about that 'stuff'." (Yes, I cleaned up his language so that I could repeat it here).
It was then that I realized that a shift was slowly but surely taking place among us.
For the first time in perhaps … millennia? large segments of a population are not just cutting themselves off from the answers of one religion or another to better align themselves with what is true, but they are actually severing the connection to their own fundamental and innate human questions.
Trust me, St. Patrick did not have to deal with this.
We have to admit that things are different now. Even in communist countries, tyrannically-run nations, or the pagan ancient world, the ultimate questions were raised; it is only their choice of an answer that differed.
But today, it is no longer a choice over which worldview gives the best answer and which is ultimately true; it can’t be because the questions are no longer being given the time of day.
Enter the evangelist.
One of our tasks as evangelists then is to once again raise these fundamental questions to the level of consciousness. And we do that by taking what is superficial about our conversations and relationships and scratching beneath them.
Some missionaries call this “elevating the conversation” and others call it “going deeper,” but whatever words we want to use, the goal is the same.
Humanity, and by that I mean your friends, neighbours and family, are happiest when they know that they are living in accordance with the questions they have.
What is the purpose of my life? Why should I be good to my neighbour?
These and many other questions are already in them.
All we have to do is remind them that these are still worth asking, because once we do, the choice of which religion or worldview answers our questions best becomes a journey that they want to go on.