Once upon a time, a long time ago in the city state of Athens, some people began to think about the ways of the world. “Why are we here?” “What is the sky made of?” “Is there a difference between a rock and a tree?” and other such questions seemed to occupy the Ancient Greeks more than the rest of us.
To be fair, maybe they just wrote more books. I am sure people in China, Peru, Greenland and North America were also looking up at the stars and saying, “What do you think those are?”
We go through life asking a lot of questions as well. It seems to start as soon as we can express ourselves when our favourite word becomes “Why?”
This, my friends, is this simple definition of philosophy; it is the human’s attempt to answer all of those “why” questions.
Have you ever thought what you would come up with if left to your own devices? If school , parents, church and friends did not influence your decisions, could you answer “Why are we here?” or even “What are the stars?”
The Indo European Way
So where did all this thinking lead everyone? Well – to many explanations about human reason, and what it is possible to know is “true”... You see, Greek Classical Philosophy sort of ended up being summarized by Rene Descartes when he said, “I think, therefore I am.”
The one argument I would have against it, is it was all in their heads. It was all personal. It was all about what we imagine to be true being truer than what is around us each and every day...
Alexander the Great spread the Greek culture and philosophy further than we might realize; from Western Europe right through to Asia. And religion became influenced by this way of thinking... the gods were absent, but powerful, and the duty of all us followers was to meditate, to know the truth, to understand...
But there was another way of thinking out there – another way of understanding life – not just as “thinking” but life as “being”; the Semitic way of thinking. Here we are taking about the Arabic and Jewish way of seeing God as connected to us in a very real, very deep, very physical way. “Before I knew you, you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
This is not Zeus up on Mt Olympus playing chess. This is the God who counts hairs on people’s heads, who watches tiny sparrows playing in the wind – who has a hand, as it were, in the world.
All of the Psalms are written to this personal God. They still ask the why question, but they are asking it in the same way we might ask a parent. “Why did you let me do that?” “Why weren’t you there when...”
Sound familiar? Well, although our roots started in the Greek camp, Jerusalem won the day in our thinking about faith.
So do you do that? Do you ask ‘Why’ in a very personal way to God? Do you expect an answer?
Putting the Mystery Back
Of course – God does not answer, or the answers are not what we would like to hear, or the universe is just tricksy and bad things do happen to bad people.
Our tradition reserves the right to keep a little mystery. The Bible is chock full of times and places when we strive to understand God and are left with no answers. Moses wants to see God’s face and is told he can only see the “backside” after God has passed by. Elijah wants to be reassured by God and ends up in a cave in the hills where he hears the “still, small voice of God in the silence. Job, after losing everything, questions God’s wisdom in all of this and ends up, essentially, being told – where you there when I made the oceans, or measured the mountains? No? Then stop asking dumb questions.
And here today, a hundred years after Jesus death, give or take, we read in the book of Hebrews that we have come to something that cannot be touched – that cannot be explained. God is like a consuming fire; impossible to get close to.
It’s like this; for thousands and thousands of years we have definitely wanted answers. The wisest of the wise know that there are some answers we are just never, ever, going to get. Whether it is that we are too young, too undeveloped, too arrogant, too close minded... whatever you want to think – the thing is that there are some things that are impossible to figure out.
There is a story about Oliver Wendell Holmes, Senior, who was a doctor. As such he was very interested in the use of ether. In order to know how his patients felt under its influence, he once had a dose administered to himself.
As he was going under, in a dreamy state, a profound thought came to him. He believed that he had suddenly grasped the key to all the mysteries of the universe. When he regained consciousness, however, he was unable to remember what the insight was.
Because of the great importance this thought would be to mankind, Holmes arranged to have himself given either again. This time he had a stenographer present to take down the great thought. The either was administered, and sure enough, just before passing out the insight reappeared. He mumbled the words, the stenographer took them down, and he went to sleep confident in the knowledge that he had succeeded.
Upon awakening, he turned eagerly to the stenographer and asked her to read what he had uttered. This is what she read: "The entire universe is permeated with a strong odour of turpentine."
There are some things we are just not meant to know.
Ok so why all this philosophy after a weekend when most of us probably went to the beach, or BBQ’d or kayaked or otherwise enjoyed the sunshine?
Well because humanity has developed two complete religious systems: one based on classical greek philosophy which emerged as Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism, Shamanism, Norse and Roman and of course, Greek mythology... From this way of thinking humans exist for the sake of humanity. Our greatest good is to become the best individual we can. The way to religious truth is to “know thyself” as completely as possible....
The second stream, the Semitic, classified mostly by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, says that humans exist for the sake of God. The greatest good is to follow God as closely as possible. The way to religious truth is to open yourself up to the voice of God....
They are all leading to the same place – and as systems, they both will ultimately fail.
So what is the answer? Well, as Buddha, Ghandi, Confucius, Mohammed, and even Jesus would tell their followers – the true path is the path in which you recognize your neighbour, and your God, as intimately connected to yourself.
This is the ultimate point of the healing of the woman on the Sabbath... a woman is in need... God would help that woman no matter what day it was.... so should you.
You see – the point is not what we think – it never was – the point is what we do. That’s what we need to start hearing clearly again...
The rich young man came to Jesus, he had studied all manner of philosophy, he had gone to all kinds of churches, he had even gone to Bible Study faithfully... now what did he have to do? Go, sell all he had, give it to the poor, and start doing what Jesus was doing.... stop thinking and start doing...
“Why are we here?” who knows, we are, now dig in. That, ultimately, is what the voice of God sounds like.