This morning I wrote to a friend who has lost something precious, his faith in God. What does one do when they lose faith? At the beginning of the 20th Century, most so-called Christian nations were at war with one another, which caused a crisis of faith among millions of people. Though we have had waves of optimism and hope, many today are once again drifting from the solid ground of a faith-based relationship with Jesus Christ.
Rene´ Descartes was a mathematician and philosopher who was called upon to address a crisis of skepticism about 360 years ago in the context of the Thirty Years War, a religious war that ravaged Europe. Descartes closed himself off from everyone and everything in order to consider this problem of skepticism. In his mind, he eliminated all faith or belief in anything, in order to prove something.
If we deny all that we see, hear, taste, smell, touch, then all that remains is thought. Those thoughts are not limited to the sight of a sunrise, the sound of a baby’s cry, the taste of a crisp apple, the aroma of coffee, or the feel of cool water. We have the capacity to create worlds within our minds that come out of our imagination. We can make that world ugly or beautiful. Our imaginations can create a world filled with emotional pain, or one with joy that spreads everywhere.
Descartes coined the phrase, “I think, therefore I am.” In his search for faith, he found reason, which gave him and subsequent generations a new hope to believe. Well, that faith was only enough to overcome skepticism about reality, about our existence. However, that trust in the current reality is necessary for hope, right? It’s necessary for reason to choose to get up and face the reality of each day, and to begin to create a new reality of life, of love, of hope. And so it did. The expansion of knowledge, experimentation, and creativity has been breathtaking over the past four centuries. Descartes small philosophical contribution helped foster us into the industrial revolution, the scientific revolution, and the information age.
Humanity has built Western society on this Cartesian philosophical premise. This philosophy of Foundationalism gave rise to the modern nation-state, which was agreed upon at the Peace at Westphalia, ending the Thirty Years War. Because of Descartes, every major institution of modern democracy was something that could be trusted, even as we trust the chair on which we sit. Generations have had a faith and trust in reality, which gave us reason to believe our existence has meaning. It was that faith that led a U.S. President to declare, “We choose to go to the moon.” And we did. The whole world watched as one human being took “one small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind.” This was the reality I grew up with.
However, a new generation is emerging; a generation whose trust in reality has been eroding over the past half century, and more particularly since the beginning of the 21st Century. All of today’s young adults saw skyscraper buildings and commercial jets fail to protect the thousands of people who died on September 11, 2001. Like a tsunami, a new age of skepticism has crashed on this generation. No longer can we trust the institutions that have served us in the past. Our governments, our news media, and our neighbors become suspect.
To respond to the age of skepticism, many seek hope by fighting social ills, like racism and injustice. But then they fall short of finding hope because they align themselves with social groups that tend to be combative toward those with a different perspective.
Like Descartes, perhaps it is time to once again take thought. That’s a worthwhile place to begin. Taking thought may not lead everyone to Christ. But I believe the only reasonable response to this amazing reality, fragile and broken though it may be, is to worship in thankfulness. If taking thought does not result in thankfulness, we may find ourselves with reason to give thanks and nobody to offer that thankful heart.