Question and Answer
In a question and answer period after one of his lectures, C.S. Lewis was asked which of the world's religions gives its followers the greatest happiness. Lewis paused and said this: "While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is best."(1)
No doubt each word in his response was selected carefully, as he gently challenged the assumptions of the questioner. When happiness is identified as the most important thing, it is the self we seek above all else. And by alluding to this 'god' in terms of worship and religion, Lewis makes a helpful juxtaposition. In fact, it is one steeped in an age-old creed professed by many: By jettisoning the divine, by getting out from under the tyrannical arm of God, we believe we are wholly free to pursue that which is pleasing, and that which we please.
Yet in this lies the danger, for even in matters of enormous consequence we may seek that which we think will make us happy, and not necessarily that which is true. We become our own god, the measure of all things. And yet reality, as Lewis alludes, doesn't seem to back this theory up. "While it lasts," he prefaces. In other words, self-satisfaction wrought at the expense of all else is always fleeting, unreachable, or unfulfilling. Instead of happiness we more readily find boredom and depression.
While worship of the self is readily tried, much is sacrificed upon the altars of this religion: truth for one, pleasure as it was intended for another, but also—ironically—the very self we were aiming to please in the first place. One immediately thinks of Oscar Wilde's poignant depiction of Dorian Gray. So then, will we conclude that the self is not, in fact, the most important thing? Will we conclude that the foundation upon which we asked the question in the first place is faulty? Unfortunately, more often we do not.
Even when we are faced with empirical evidence that shows the inadequacy of certain truths we live by, rarely do we look at the underlying suppositions that led us to embrace the truth in the first place. It is hard to go back to our foundational assumptions and start over, if we ever consciously saw them in the first place. It is much easier to keep walking with our assumptions firmly intact.
The Public Life of Christ, Gaudenzio Ferrari, 1513, Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Varallo Sesia, Italy.
This is one of the most uniquely fascinating things about Jesus Christ. As a teacher, he worked within the assumptions of the individual and the individual's imagination, opening each questioner to the choice before him to see more. That is, to the questions of many, he responded with a question of his own. Thus, to the paralytic man at the pool waiting to be healed, he asked, "Do you want to get well?"(2) At once this seems a ridiculous thought, an entirely insensitive question. And yet, who among us can't think of someone who lives as if they do actually seem to prefer their pain?
Again, when the rich young man who loved his wealth and possessions inquired, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit the kingdom?" Jesus asked in reply, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone."(3) In other words, are you willing to consider your assumptions of the good life? Are you willing to consider the source of it all? Are you willing to hear God himself in my answer? His words probe deeply into places in our minds we have taken for granted, concepts we are conditioned to accept without further thought, assumptions that have grown invisible to our own eyes.
An ancient proverb states that the purposes in the human mind are like deep waters, but the intelligent one will draw them out. Many have discovered that Jesus is this intelligent one. He is the truth of God incarnate, the wisdom of one fully human, the gift of a present answer as he draws out the very purposes of our own questions. Will we allow him to examine our unquestioned assumptions and walk with the paralytic into new life? Or will we walk away empty and uncertain like the rich young ruler who possessed much? Mercifully this teacher makes room for our questions with the same care in which he is preparing rooms for us even now.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) C.S. Lewis, "Answers to Questions on Christianity," Q. 11, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, Ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 33-34.
(2) See John 5:1-14.
(3) Luke 18:18-19.