What gives our lives meaning and purpose? Where do we find wisdom for living today? What does God really want for our lives?
As a candidate for certification in spiritual direction, these are the major questions occupying my intellectual study and my private devotions these days. My home library, already a superabundance of faith-related books, is awash with works by authors posing these as key questions for Christians traveling through brave new technology-shaped world of the 21st century.
Questions of meaning, purpose and wisdom also capture my attention as a lifelong United Methodist observing the many proposals for change coming before the 2012 General Conference. We United Methodists have played fruit-basket-turnover every four years for generations now. In that respect, the prospect of change is not new.
However, the impetus for doing something to stop the decades-old denominational decline has a new urgency for this General Conference session. In looking at the details of the various ideas to be taken up by delegates, it occurred to me that the transcendent questions of meaning and purpose are obscured by measurements and metrics. My sense of this confusion was heightened recently when I turned for respite to the novels of one of my favorite mid-20th century writers, Morris West.
Talk about taking a "busman's holiday" (that's when a bus driver takes a bus for her vacation). Reading a Morris West novel often is like a journey into contemporary Christianity.
A former teaching monk in Australia, West made his fame as a best-selling novelist critiquing the Roman Catholic Church through his fiction. Like the Italian mystic Carlo Carretto, West clearly saw that the Church often behaved like a whore, but remained nonetheless his spiritual mother. His Vatican Trilogy – The Shoes of the Fisherman, The Clowns of God and Lazarus – imagined the effects on the church of forces such as the threat of nuclear war, medical technology, terrorism and even the election of a non-Italian pope from a land oppressed by the Soviet Union. West created the fictional Russian pope Kiril I some 15 years before Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland was elected pontiff and took the name John Paul II. (In a stroke of marketing, the latest reprint of this novel has cover artwork that strongly resembles Pope John Paul II rather than the bearded ascetic the author describes).
Yet these perspicacious settings were merely the framework of his novels. His true gift was to plumb the creative tension between the church's need for administrative order and the messy, unrestrained faith that calls forth love and hope to transcend life's triumphs and tragedies. Decades after they first appeared, West's novels remain instructive to me, not only for outlining the perennial struggles of the body of Christ between order and spirit, but for the ways in which West's protagonists seek out wisdom for living. In other words, the "why" of Christian faith and life motivates the "how" in the novelist's worlds.
It's often said that we find the "how" of things in science, but we find the "why" in religion. As a former senior executive for a United Methodist publishing ministry, I'm well-versed in the "hows" of business, thanks to a certificate in management from Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business and a decade of wrestling with CRM, ERP, ABC, and all the other E-I-E-I-O's of commerce.
Long before I acquired all those management skills, however, I was blessed by two former editors – one a very secular old-school journalist and the other a noted United Methodist clergyman – who drummed into me that while the details were sweetly seductive, what mattered was gaining a sense of the "why," also termed "the big picture." That is, do all those numbers and calculations, projects and programs, fit together into a cohesive whole? Or do the plans or programs grind against one another like sand in a cog? Do they bode to cancel out one another? Is magnitude or size the driving force, or is it the rate or angle of movement? What is the philosophy/theology behind them, or is there a guiding principle at all? Does the guiding principle conflict with the community's values? What kind of identity do these various parts create? Is this truly the best way to achieve the desired outcome? Most of all, who will be helped and who will be hurt by the proposal?
These are the questions I look for in the debates over the many issues coming to General Conference. This, it seems to me, is the kind of critical thinking that is needed as delegates prepare to choose among some 1,600 petitions that will shape the future of The United Methodist Church.
As I continue to gather and post reports and opinions through this educational project, I keep remembering something from one of the 20th century's most original thinkers, Albert Einstein. His now-famous theory of special relativity E=mc2 (energy equals mass times the speed of light squared) revolutionized physics. Professor Einstein kept a sign in his office at Princeton University that read: "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."
The scriptures and traditions of our Christian faith teach us that what ultimately counts are our relationship to God and our relationships with one another, whether one-on-one or in community. Out of these spiritual relationships come all the mission and evangelism with which we are entrusted in Matthew 25 and 28 – in other words, the things that can be counted. Perhaps the best prayer we can make for General Conference delegates is that they find the wisdom to discern which among those 1,600 petitions enhances those qualities that cannot be quantified, upon which all else depends.
A Brief List of Resources for Discerning Wisdom
What God Wants for Your Life: Finding Answers to the Deepest Questions, Frederick W. Schmidt (2005 HarperOne).
Worlds Within a Congregation: Dealing With Theological Diversity, W. Paul Jones (2000 Abingdon Press)
"How to Think Critically," eHow.com
"Our Theological Task," Section 4, Paragraph 104, United Methodist Book of Discipline (available free online through Cokesbury.com).
Works of Morris West