Long Journey Home: A Conversation with Os Guinness

Danielle DuRant spoke to Os Guinness in July about his latest book, Long Journey Home: A Guide to Your Search for the Meaning of Life (WaterBrook Press/ Doubleday, September 2001). Dr. Os Guinness is Vice Chairman and Senior Fellow of The Trinity Forum, a leadership academy that helps leaders engage the key issues of their personal and public lives in the context of faith. An author and editor of more than twenty books, Guinness says his "deep concern is to bridge the chasm between academic knowledge and popular knowledge, taking things that are academically important and making them intelligible and practicable to a wider audience, especially as they concern matters of public policy." For further resources, see www.ttf.org

Note: As readers may be unfamiliar with some points of discussion from Long Journey Home, I have supplemented our conversation with quotes from his book and elsewhere. With the exception of the following excerpt from Guinness’ opening chapter, these additions appear in parentheses in the dialogue.

Journeying and movement are bigger themes than ever in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, when travel has become so central that ours is literally a world on the move. The restless journeying in the past of pilgrims, explorers, conquerors, and colonizers has been overshadowed by the restlessness of modern nomads such as immigrants and exiles, businesspeople and tourists. For one reason or another, more and more people have been uprooted and made to feel at home nowhere. But the deepest meaning of journeying is still the oldest one—the sense that the journey is the best metaphor for life itself….

For Malcolm Muggeridge, this theme became the motif for his entire life. "The first thing I remember about the world—and I pray it may be the last—is that I was a stranger in it. This feeling, which everyone has in some degree, and which is at once the glory and desolation of homo sapiens, provides the only thread of consistency that I can see in my life."

Actress Jessica Lange felt the same. "The main thing that I sensed back in my childhood," she said, "was this inescapable yearning that I could never satisfy. Even now at times I experience an inescapable loneliness and isolation…. Oh, God, how I remember that feeling, though. Sitting on the front steps on a summer night and hearing a lawn mower in the distance and a screen door slamming somewhere. It would actually make my heart ache."

One day, a few years ago, I (Os Guinness) suddenly woke up again to this live sense of journey. Facing the prospect of a suspected brain tumor, I was in a hospital in northern Virginia ready to undergo a brain scan. A nurse entered the room briskly and said, "Excuse my asking, but are you claustrophobic?"

"No," I answered.

‘Good," she said. "Some people can’t take the scanner. Our nickname for it is the ‘coffin machine.’"

"Thanks very much," I replied lightly.

Five minutes later it was hard to get her words out of my mind. Both that session and the next turned out to be an unexpected time of personal review. Just as a drowning person sees his life flash before his eyes, so I saw the years of my life scroll across my mind as I lay in my "coffin."

I was born in China during World War II, grew up in the midst of a terrible famine and plague in which millions—including my two brothers—died, and lived to witness the reign of terror that climaxed the revolution of Mao Zedong. Since then I’ve lived on three continents and in a score of cities. Movement and uprootedness have been a staple of my life. And in that coffin machine, the memories of that life came to me not like an archaic black-and-white documentary but as reality. Each memory was alive with sights and sounds and smells. I shivered at the still-unrealized potential of hopes, dreams, and fears.

It was during that extraordinary life-review that I felt again what I first felt in my twenties—the wonder of this brief but glorious journey of life. As Winston Churchill said in the last days of his life, "It has been a grand journey—well worth making once." I, too, saw vividly the sense I had made of this journey since my youth. And I thought of many I know who seek now to make sense of their lives as a journey.

This book comes from that experience. Written for those who care and those who are open, it’s a seeker’s road map to the quest for meaning. 1

Danielle DuRant: I’m struck in Long Journey Home that while you’ve written to the spiritual seeker—whether agnostic or Hindu—throughout the book you speak of the Judeo-Christian or biblical faiths, and you consistently speak of the shared heritage of Jews and Christian and quote several Jewish writers. In fact, when I was reading through it I was thinking of a Jewish friend of mine who is a seeker, and I thought I would love to give him this book. I’m just wondering whether this observation is correct?

Os Guinness: Absolutely. I am convinced that whether Jews and Christians can stand together in the next century will be decisive for the future of the West. Because on almost everything, except of course, obviously, who is Jesus, Jews and Christians are the same—the view of God, the view of history, humanity, the stewardship of money. Point after point, the biblical view, whether it is the Torah or the New Testament, is one. And I think because of the terrible record of the pogroms and persecutions, Christians have to go out of their way and slowly dissolve this tension.

There is a terrible mistake in Jewish liberalism: the idea that secularity equals security. I think that is a very dangerous idea and Christians have to do their part to overcome it. So when I wrote Time for Truth, there’s no daylight at all (regarding the postmodern view of truth), but Jews and Christians are absolutely one on truth. And, you may have seen on the back of that book, Elliott Abrams, 2 a Jew, was willing to endorse it. Obviously Long Journey Home argues at the end of the day that Jesus is Lord and God, and Jews can’t accept that. But there is an enormous commonality.

DD: You note early on in your book that you don’t attempt to set out "proofs" for God’s existence as much to indicate paths and "signals of transcendence" because the latter approach engages both the heart and mind. And, to me, it is much more effective because when readers come face to face with these signals of transcendence, they almost have to do an about-face, if you will, from themselves as human beings in order not to see. Would you comment on that further?

OG: Well, I have chosen the image of the journey because I think it is the deepest and most universal image in human life. And a number of my friends who are apologists say, "Well, that’s not logical." And I come back and say that it is actually more logical than their approach because their approach, working from logic alone in syllogisms, is logic alone! But good apologetics, I think, is logic brought to bear on life. Because the hardest journey is the journey from the head to the heart to the will. So an individual actually moves and finally bows to God. And so, to actually describe the course of a real human journey—which is partly logic, partly will, partly heart and so on—is more logical because it is the description of reality, rather than those whose arguments are purely logic in a narrow sense. And very few human beings live on pure logic alone, even philosophers.

DD: I noticed you go back to "what is real" throughout the book and that one would be escaping reality, if you will, by ignoring these signals of transcendence. You don’t point out all the hard evidence for Christianity; you are approaching it in a different way.

OG: I obviously owe a great deal to Francis Schaeffer. His approach, started from Romans 1:18—you know, unbelievers hold the truth in unrighteousness. His approach was usually negative, pushing them out to the logic of their contradictions. But Schaeffer did have the positive there, though he never majored on it. That is, pushing them towards the logic of their aspirations. Because it is the truth held in unrighteousness.

Now Peter Berger, I think, has both. The negative is what he calls "relativizing the relativizers." The positive is what he calls pushing them to see the "signals of transcendence." (Peter Berger discusses these ideas in A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural, New York: Doubleday, 1969, 1990. And Os Guinness observes in Long Journey Home, "Perhaps the most important type of triggering experience [in the quest for meaning] is what sculptor Alberto Giacometti called ‘a hole torn in life.’ When he was nineteen, Giacometti was shocked by the death of an older friend, an experience that obsessed him constantly for a year. For the next twenty-five years it became a point of reference for his tireless, searching mind and a key factor in his artistic growth as the sculptor of the fragile and impermanent. Such catalytic experiences are what … Berger termed ‘signals of transcendence.’ As Berger explains…a signal of transcendence is an experience in our everyday world that appears to point to a higher reality beyond…. The signal’s message is a double one: The experience is both a contradiction and a desire. It punctures the adequacy of what we once believed while also rousing in us a longing for something surer and richer.")

So I use both approaches in this book and I think the signals approach is much more human. It unlocks the heart and mind. Obviously a good example is C.S. Lewis. I think many Christians have read Surprised by Joy, but they don’t think of the logic of that nor use that approach with other people. So I am trying to create a human apologetics. When I go on university campuses to speak, I go in a pair of blue jeans and never stand by the podium. In other words, I try and say in a non-verbal way, "I am a human being talking to human beings. This is not an academic lecture." I may be a social scientist , but I want to talk as a human being to human beings. That’s what engages them on the journey.

DD: Yes. That brings me to my next question regarding your examination of Eleonore Stump’s essay "The Mirror of Evil" and Phillip Hallie’s study of the tiny French village that rescued thousands of Jewish children during World War II. 3 I’m struck by your observation that "Evil hardens the heart to the point of tearlessness and it takes goodness to crack the heart open." Would you comment on this and particularly the role of goodness—as a positive apologetic—in drawing us to God?

OG: Yes, I think it is particularly important because you know the argument: "After Auschwitz there can be no God." But as Viktor Frankel points out, the person who wrote that declaration had never been to Auschwitz. In fact, more people deepened or discovered faith while in Auschwitz than lost it. And you see that great seekers were tortured by doubt, like Dostoyevsky. In The Brothers Karamazov he makes the famous remark, which is based on his own experience, "I do not know the answer to problem of evil, but I do know love." Because of Jesus. No other God has wounds. Dostoyevsky had looked at, for almost a day, Hans Holbein’s painting of the descent of Christ from the cross, and the suffering and the agony He had gone through for us, for all the evil in the world. And his heart was cracked open—by goodness. And you have that amazing quote from Chaim Potok, who is so overcome as an observant Jew by the Pietá in Rome. ("Chaim Potok’s Asher Lev [a central character in his novels] witnessed to the deep effect of seeing Michelangelo’s Pietá in the Duomo in Florence: ‘I was an observant Jew, yet that block of stone moved through me like a cry, like the call of seagulls over the morning surf—like the echoing blasts of the shofar sounded by the Rebbe. I do not mean to blaspheme. My frames of reference have been formed by the life I have lived. I do not know how a devout Christian reacts to the Pietá. I was only able to relate it to elements in my own lived past. I stared at it. I walked slowly around it. I do not remember how long I was there that first time. When I came back out into the brightness of the crowded square, I was astonished to discover that my eyes were wet.")

And, of course, it is always the same isn’t it? Heart-cracking goodness. Stump’s point is you only really appreciate it—goodness—when you see evil, and suddenly goodness is the real mystery. The mystery is not, why evil? The mystery is, why good?

DD: I have to say I was surprised about the comment that more people in Auschwitz actually kept their faith because that is not the popular portrait we encounter.

OG: Yes, there’s the myth. It’s propaganda, and it is time we blew a few of the atheist’s myths.

DD: Your friend David Wells writes in an essay that our understanding of God is "measured by our determination to own His ownership of us through Christ in thought, word, and deed."4 In Long Journey Home you conclude, "We find God only because we are found by God," and "Although we start out searching, we end being discovered." Would you comment on this, and particularly the implications regarding calling?

OG: Well, for me, there is this wonderful paradox. At the point of conversion you see two things that look contradictory but they come together. On the one hand, a seeker is never more himself or herself than when they choose to make the step of faith. They are never more themselves. You see this in C.S. Lewis and hundred of seekers. They know there is never a more free act than that decision to bow to Christ. On the other hand, that very same moment is the moment when they realize all this time they have been seeking—and they are suddenly aware that they have been found. The hound of heaven has tracked them down. In the words of Joy Davidman, Lewis’ wife, "God came in." And both those things happen together; you are never more yourself, and yet God does it supremely.

DD: Of all the people whose stories you tell us, I think Bertrand Russell moved me the most because he seemed so close to the truth of Christ, and yet so fearful of allowing himself to be broken open and to let God’s love have sway in his life. Whose life or lives moved you the most in your research, and why?

OG: Russell was known as a humanist with an isolated rational intellect. And yet, Russell is anything but. He was driven by all sorts of deeper longings, such as the longing for love and home. And his story is, I think, a very poignant one. Now the art historian Kenneth Clark was courtly, patrician, the gentleman of gentleman. And yet he too was driven by these deep, deep longings. And, of course, most intellectuals are like that. It’s a pretense that the intellectual is purely the person of the disembodied mind. The real story of real people is something very different. I don’t agree that biography is philosophy. There is more to philosophy that just biography, but we need to recognize the humanness.

DD: So of all the stories of the individuals you researched and wrote about, who made the deepest impact and why?

OG: Well, some of the stories are purely pagan from beginning to end, like Michel Foucault’s. I find that overwhelmingly sad. Or I love the real story of Van Gogh. Simone Weil is a kind of oddball and I think she is most amazing. I put those in mainly because I deeply admire them and love them.

DD: In Long Journey Home, it seems you’ve come full circle with your book Doubt (published in the United States under the title In Two Minds) in that you traverse similar territory—disbelief, fear, and longing—and both books seem to have come out of deep personal experiences in your own life. I am wondering if you might comment on this and perhaps these experiences, and tell me how writing Long Journey Home was similar or different than writing In Two Minds?

OG: You’re very perceptive. In Two Minds was later called God in the Dark. 5 Yes, if you look at the intellectual framework, and the four stages, they are exactly the same. In In Two Minds, of course, someone (a believer) is going the other way—the stages of belief weren’t adequately understood, so they doubted rather than believed. And Long Journey Home is for seekers who are coming to believe, hopefully with a good and adequate basis. The big difference is I wrote In Two Minds nearly 30 years ago. But the intellectual, theological, philosophical framework is exactly the same. I wonder how many will be as perceptive in seeing that. The big difference is I am much richer in my understanding of stories. In Two Minds had fewer illustrations, whereas Long Journey Home is rich in stories and experiences. So that the framework is there, which is in In Two Minds, but for many people it will appear to be as invisible as the backbone in the body. Thirty years on I am a much richer person, and hopefully I am a wiser apologist.

DD: Well, In Two Minds continues to make an impact on me; it really does. So it’s good to see it back in print.

OG: It’s my most disappointing book in the sense that it’s in print, but Americans, for example, don’t admit they doubt. It is un-American to doubt, so I think there are very few books on doubt. Since doubt is so unpopular, nobody admits it.

(I [Danielle] find Guinness’ characterization of In Two Minds as lacking stories to be curious because it is his story that comes through, and the reader senses that Guinness has traveled this hard road himself. In this book he investigates the roots of doubts, roots which often go deeper than the abstract questions of the intellect. Writes Guinness: "Sometimes I almost feel on fire with the immensity of this: each of us is a person, alive, growing and relating. From the moment we wake to the moment we fall asleep we think, we feel, we choose, we speak, we act, not as isolated individuals but as persons among people. And underneath everything lies trust. From friendships of children to agreements among nations life depends on trust.... The highest reaches of love and life depend on trust. Are there any questions more important to each of us than, Whom can I trust? How can I be sure? This is why when trust goes and doubt comes in such a shadow is cast, such a wound is opened, such a hole is left.... Doubt is not primarily an abstract philosophical or theological question, nor a state of morbid spiritual or psychological anguish. At its most basic, doubt is a matter of truth, trust and trustworthiness. Can we trust God? Are we sure? How can we be sure? Do we trust him enough to rely on him utterly? Are we trusting him enough to enjoy him? Is the whole of living different for that trust?")

DD: We have come to our last question, which is, if you would like to add anything else to what we have talked about or comment on something further?

OG: Long Journey Home is my intent at an apologetic. I promised God I would not write on apologetics, in other words, methodology, until I had written a genuine apology. Because I believe that eighty percent of American apologetics is academic, impractical and quite useless. It is fit only for seminaries. And even much of the practicing apologetics is either often directed to Christians—in other words, it is done in Christian meetings—or it assumes and requires such openness and interest that you have to be well down the line. You know, "1001 Reasons Why Jesus Rose From the Dead." You have to be very interested in Jesus and the resurrection to read that sort of stuff. So I am trying to write a book for the modern seeker that assumes nothing except that a person can read and that a person can think enough to care about the meaning in life—I start way back there.

Let me paint in the cultural background of this. I am not a culture warrior, but if I were, I would say that it is useless to try and win the culture wars without winning leaders to faith. But we don’t do it. I am not a missiologist, but if I were, I would say that in America the largest , most important unreached people group are thinking leaders. But we don’t try to reach them. So this is my attempt to have a book that really reaches the thoughtful seeker at the highest level, and that’s what I’m trying to do.

DD: And, of course, you’re doing that in The Trinity Forum.

1 Reprinted from Long Journey Home. Copyright © 2001 by Os Guinness. Used by permission of WaterBrook Press, Colorado Springs, CO. All rights reserved.

2 Elliott Abrams was President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, and was recently appointed to the National Security Council as Special Assistant to President Bush.

3 Eleonore Stump's "The Mirror of Evil" is found in Thomas V. Morris, ed., God and the Philosophers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) or online at http://www.faithquest.com/philosophers/

4 David Wells, "The Theologian’s Craft" in John Woodbridge and Thomas Edward McComiskey, eds., Doing Theology in Today’s World (Zondervan, 1994), 173. Wells writes, "There are few lines quite so poignantly applicable to the theologian’s craft as those of the medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote of ‘The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne’…. [Our] understanding of God, of ourselves, of the world comes so slowly, so painfully slowly, that ‘lyf’s’ summer passes and the winter arrives long before this fruit is ripe to be picked. Or so it seems…. [But God] is not a quantity that can be ‘mastered’ even though he can be known; and though he has revealed himself with clarity, the depth of our understanding of him is measured, not by the speed with which theological knowledge is processed, but by the quality of our determination to own His ownership of us through Christ in thought, word, and deed."

5 God in the Dark: The Assurance of Faith Beyond a Shadow of Doubt is published by Crossway Books (Wheaton, IL).

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