Discovering Our Purpose

CamusNew York Times columnist David Brooks has been talking a lot (in speeches, columns, and his marvelous new book The Road To Character) about the formation of character. He has asked his readers to talk on his book website about their purpose in life and to reflect on where they may have first begun to discover that purpose. See The Conversation

Looking back I can see my life’s purpose taking shape in my sophomore year in college. Not unusual, I know, but that is surely what happened to me. These were the sixties. I knew I was reading and thinking things that were a huge stretch for my family, my church, the community in which I grew up. I knew I was stepping out on a dangerous ledge—the new view was exhilarating, to be sure, heady stuff for a sophomore—but out there on that ledge I could sense a larger purpose taking shape.

To my delight that summer, the pastor of my childhood church asked me to give a “testimony” for the Sunday evening service. “Tell the congregation what college life is like,” he said; “tell them what you are reading and learning.” Ah hah, I thought, this will be my opportunity to let some fresh breezes blow through the sometimes stultifying air of this familiar church. I would speak my sense of urgency that the church must break out of the protective guidelines of its almost-fundamentalist, almost-separatist, self-satisfied posture in the world. A little arrogant, I know, but that’s what I said.

I remember distinctly the core of my little remarks that evening. I told this congregation (my parents, family, pastors, friends—all dutifully listening) that Christians needed to engage the surrounding culture in which we lived. Things were changing rapidly; we could not risk sticking our heads in the sand. We needed to read widely, stay open, learn the language of the day. I announced the need for fresh language, because the world was discarding a lot of old language.

I even remember quoting from the then-popular French existentialist Albert Camus, which, as I recall, went something like this: “Christians must stop giving answers to questions people are no longer asking.” This indictment somehow nailed me between the eyes. I was a little intimidated by its implications, a little frightened, perhaps a little ashamed, but it caused me to reflect: Could I possibly be spouting answers to questions people no longer care about?

Later on I remember stumbling across Lesslie Newbigin’s Foolishness To The Greeks: The Gospel And Western Culture. In all of his books, Newbigin talks about the massive cultural shifts taking place across the world. How can Christians stay at the table of this huge conversation? And then he asked the question that felt directly aimed at me:

From whence comes the voice that can challenge this culture on its own terms, a voice that speaks its own language and yet confronts it with the authentic figure of the crucified and living Christ so that it is stopped in its tracks and turned back from the way of death?

Maybe this sounds a little harsh. I have chosen the language of engagement rather than confrontation. But this statement has it all for me. We are required, says Newbigin, to know the challenge of culture through and through. We need to speak its voice in its own language. But we also need to know, through and through, nothing less that the “authentic figure of the crucified and living Christ.” Only then will we offer a new path back from the way of death.

Since at least the beginning of the twentieth century, Christians have been steadily pushed to the margins of the cultural conversation. We have actually been told we no longer have a seat at the table. I don’t buy it. I see Christians now slowly crawling out of the defensiveness that has defined our posture in the world.

This is the moment, I have come to see, for Christians to say—boldly, winsomely, compellingly—what it is we believe. I fully understand this is not easy, but this is surely what we are called to do in our age of skepticism. We must step up to the table and say what we believe in our age of unbelief. This is the narrative of my life, the purpose that began in that presumptuous sophomore speech. I try to carry out this purpose better every day. This is what we are called to do, isn’t it?