Last week, in one of the classes I teach at my church, a participant brought in a cartoon for us to see. It showed a family visiting a theme park called “Philosophy World.” They were standing next to one of those maps you use to find your away around theme parks, and it had a dot where they were standing, labeled, “Why are you here?”
I thought of that this morning when I realized it was the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the most important theologians Christianity has ever produced. Aquinas lived in the thirteenth century, about the time that Western ways of thinking about God and creation were being challenged by the rediscovery of Aristotle, whose works had been preserved by the Muslims in Turkey and brought back to the West by the Crusaders. I don’t want us to get bogged down in history; the key issue was that Western thinkers had based their logic on divine revelation, while Aristotle believed in the scientific method. Aquinas’ singular achievement was to argue forcefully and at great length that reason and revelation were not opposed to one another, but were twin roads to truth.
I wonder where that conviction is today: whether we share it, and how much confidence we place in it. In the last hundred or more years, science has too often been seen as the enemy of religion, and our faith in revelation has been shaken by our daily contact with people who adhere to a wide range of religious traditions, each claiming the mantle of revelation.
Today, the voice of religion plays a very different role in the public square. For some, it plays no role at all. In other cases, it is used as a marker in identity politics, or discussed as an explanation for conflict, or alluded to as a reason to pass laws that would allow the beliefs of some to constrain the behavior of all.
What’s lost in all this is a common conversation about what is good, how we make that determination, and what is worth living for: the “why are you here?” of the cartoon. We do not know how to engage one another fruitfully across our differences, and so we refrain from discussing those crucial themes at all. In the absence of such discussion, we allow the tacit answer to be: to make money, to have things, to consume. And yet, few of us would argue that that’s enough reason to be alive.
William Kavanaugh writes, “The ‘wasteland’ at the heart of democratic capitalism is like a field of battle, on which individuals wander alone, in confusion, amid many casualties. Nonetheless…this desert has an indispensable purpose. It is maintained out of respect for the diversity of human consciences, perceptions, and intentions. It is swept clean out of reverence for the sphere of the transcendent, to which the individual has access through the self, beyond the mediations of social institutions.” (2008: Being Consumed)
Aquinas would be appalled. It was clear to him, through both revelation and reason, that people need a telos, a purpose at which to aim their lives, and that societies need one, too. Without one, we wander lost in a shifting maze of priorities, unable to maintain attention to any one thing long enough to formulate and sustain an effective course of action.
Martin Luther King wrote, “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” So, what is your telos? What one thing do you yearn for your life to be about? What do you need to do to get there? And how can you find allies in that work?