Ravi Zacharias - The Quest for Meaning in a Post-Truth Culture
So we're here to deal with issues of truth, and it's wonderful that the host of the committee inviting you has a name like clay. We all have feet of clay, so it's wonderful to be invited, to be hosted by a team here that recognizes how important these truths are, albeit with our frailties and our weaknesses. You know, the story is told that very recently, Cristiano Rolando, the world-famous soccer player, was being interviewed by the media. And he told the interviewer that he thought God had sent him into the world in order to teach the world how to play soccer. "Futbol", as they call it there. And so, they were quite astounded by that statement, that God had sent Cristiano Rolando into the world to teach the world how to play soccer. So they interviewed his nemesis, Lionel Messi. And they asked Messi, "What do you think of Rolando's statement"? He said, "To be honest with you, I didn't realize I had sent him".
Isn't it interesting how we think that only athletes have this superman theory about themselves? Muhammad Ali described himself as the greatest, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," that he would knock any nemesis out of the ring. And almost any great athlete seems to find that need to be a braggart, and refer to himself or herself as the best there is. But it's not really true only of the athletes. It's also true of writers, philosophers, and in some sense, we also think of our own invincibility. The fact of the matter is, the Romantic poets were writing. Robert Southey made the comment, when Romantic poetry was reachings its heyday, he said, "Man has been born again. We have come of age. The whole spirit of the enlightenment was that we found new answers. We've now found new ontic referents. We've found new ways of epistemological certainty, how to get to the truth".
And as we come into this post-modern era, it's not good enough for us to be modern. We are post-modern. As of the chronological reality of our belief has been supreme in its epistemic value, that we really know the truth in our time. I turned 71 this year, and I've been an itinerant for over 40 years. I have never, ever seen the world in such uncertain times. If you go to almost any major country, whether it's the Philippines or whether it's India, or here, and even France, and almost everyone will tell you they never expected for the current political situation to be a reality for them. They never expected the kind of leadership they presently have, and everywhere I go, they ask the question, "What hope do you have to give us"?
I was recently speaking at the United Nations in September, at the opening of their prayer breakfast, and I won't name the individual I was talking to, but he made the comment. He said, "If you go to every ambassador here," every ambassador, "You could name them for me, and you could sit down across the table, and I have sat with every one of them, and I've asked them this one question: 'do you have any hope for the future?' and everyone will go into a long speech of what they think the future may hold, but not one of them will answer it in the affirmative". Not one of them will answer it in the affirmative, because our definitions and all the answers we're looking for are really standing on the quick sand of cultural changes and political theories which are in conflict and contradiction, one with another. It was during the time of war that Winston Churchill came on the scene, and he made this comment. He said, "truth is the most valuable thing in the world. It is so valuable that often it is protected by a bodyguard of lies".
truth is the most valuable thing in the world, so valuable that often it is surrounded or protected by a bodyguard of lies. Natan Shcharansky, the former justice minister of Israel and political prisoner for some time, released, went back to his homeland. Years afterwards, he asked if he could go back to the prison where he had been housed for many years, the Lefortovo prison in Russia. And his wife was with him this time, and as they were approaching the entry to the prison, he put his arm out, and told his wife, please, to let him go in there for a few minutes alone. He said, "Because this is where I really found myself. If you don't mind, I'd like to go in there alone for the first few minutes". And he went into that place, and stayed not a few, but several minutes. When he came out of there, you could tell the eyes were moist with the emotional hearkening back of what it is he had gone through during those years.
And after the ceremony was over there, he asked if he could go to the grave of Andrei Sakharov, the Russian physicist who had given to the Soviets the atomic bomb. And he asked specifically with the reason in mind why he wanted to go there. He wanted to send a message, and he went there and laid a wreath at the grave. Came back to the battery of microphones waiting in front of him, and here's what he said. He said, "Mr. Sakharov, who gave to this nation the atomic bomb, made a comment before he died. He said, 'I always thought that the bomb was the most powerful weapon in the world. I always thought that. But the bomb was the most powerful weapon in the world.' He said, Sakharov said he changed his mind, for the most powerful weapon in the world was not the bomb, but the most powerful weapon in the world was the truth". It is not the bomb, said he. It is the truth.
And the more I hear the words of somebody like Winston Churchill and Andrei Sakharov, I say to myself, when we will also come to the same conclusion? Wasn't it Martin Luther King, who at the inception of the Nobel Prize, made an incredible speech, and he closed it with these words: "I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality". Think of that joining of phrases. Unarmed truth, and unconditional love. Neither of those come to us on the empirical sciences. They come to us from a philosophical worldview, a metaphysical worldview, or dare I suggest some spiritual commitment of sort? Mahatma Gandhi, who was on the front-end of India's fight for liberation and freedom, Mahatma Gandhi went even beyond the rest of them, and went one step further, probably a step too far, but he made this comment. He said, "I believe God is truth, and truth is God". He almost embodied the abstraction of the notion of truth. It was Nietzsche, the atheist, who said this. "One may sometimes tell a lie, but the grimace that accompanies it tells the truth". The real truth, said he, about objective truth is that the latter is a fiction.
Every candidate for truth must first be expressed in language, and language is notoriously unable to get us to reality. Words, like a hall of mirrors, reflect only each other, and in the end point back to the condition of the users, without having established anything about the way things really are. truth is the name we give to that which agrees with our own instinctive preferences. It is what we call our interpretation of the world, especially when we want to foist it upon others. But then, this footnote. But I am still too pious that even I worship at the altar where God's name is truth. One of your distinguished professors wrote a brilliant article that I read this morning on the notion of truth in the post-modern world. My goodness, it's so densely textured, and heavily punctuated with some of the finest quotes from both east and western philosophy, and the closing line is asking a sage of old, what is your advice then to the contemporary scene? Said, "Live with the truth". So you can write page after page, like a pendulum swinging from the writings of Confucius, all the way to the writings of Jesus or our post-modern times, and when the closing line of an article in the pursuit of understanding the post-truth culture says that, "The advice I give to you is to live with the truth, and live by the truth".
I have a very dear friend who sadly was charged with something that 'til this day he swears he never, ever did. In fact, the charges were so ludicrous that he hired sort of a low-paying attorney to defend him, because the very accuser was so psychologically unstable. He was sure he'd be walking out of that court room at the end of the trial. Instead, he was handcuffed and had only time enough to look at his wife and say, "I love you". And he was given a 35-year sentence. A few weeks later, I went to visit him in prison, and my whole body was sort of quivering when they put me alone, into a long corridor. One door shut behind me, another door shut behind me. Huge iron doors slamming behind you. You're all alone in this corridor, 'til you go up a set of stairs, and then there's a revolving gate, and there's a rather muscular looking security person standing, asking you for your name, that you'd been cleared, and I went in, sat across the glass.
Within a few weeks, he wasn't even a shadow of himself. He looked like a dehumanized person. I shed more tears, and his lips were quivering through it all. And all he could look at me and say, "I swear to you, I never did what they're charging me with. I cannot believe they have put me here for 35 years". I spoke to the leading citizen of that state, and he said to me, he said, "Ravi, I hate to tell you this, but our laws are so antiquated and so old and so cruel, so harsh, that that's the result we are now seeing in a case like this". He's desperately to get an appeal, only so that the truth can be presented at the trial. Now, you may come and say, as rightly you may say, you know, "How do you know he's telling the truth"? But you'll just reinforce the point I'm making. The point I'm making is that the truth matters. The truth matters. If only in one life, at the age of 70, you're put away for 35 years. You've saved all your money for your life, with your wife, to travel through the world in your retiral years, and all your money is now going in trying to prove that you're innocent of all of this. It tells you and me truth matters, how much more important it is that the truth matters for life itself?
But I want to segue way into the final point of this talk, because I think the issue is not just truth. If you are honest with yourself, as I have been in my university days, and now, you see, I came to know Christ when I was 17-years-old on a bed of suicide in Delhi. I'd never opened a Bible. I'd never thought of God. Yes, I attended all these religious festivals, but I went there because the food was free. That's why I went. They served you all these sweets and all this stuff. And yet, I realized what it was that was the inner-ache of my heart. The inner-ache of my heart was to find meaning and purpose in life. Those are not just terms. I have recently become a grandfather for the fifth time. My daughter gave birth to her fourth baby three weeks premature, but this beautiful six-and-a-half pound little boy is now in our home. His wife is assisting them as they move back to their own. And you hold this tiny, little bundle of six-and-a-half pounds in your hand, and when he opens his eyes and looks at you, and you marvel at a little life like that, and you ask yourself the question, what kind of a world is this little one going to grow up in? Does life have any purpose or meaning?
And at the age of 17, when I turned my life over to Jesus Christ, I had only a faint idea of what it was I was doing. But now, after four decades of with walking with him and following him, I'm so convinced of the meaning that he actually gives, which is what I want to unfold for you. But here's the connection. One of my great heroes was a man by the name of Malcolm Muggeridge, probably considered by many one, if not the greatest journalist of the 20th century. They generally toss it up between him and Gk Chesterton. There are a lot of similarities in the change in their own life. I remember spending a few hours with Muggeridge a few months before he died at his home in england. It was an incredible afternoon, just with a lunch of bread and cheese, to talk to this man and listen to all of his peripatetic days of journalism, and why he ultimately turned his life over to Christ as well, once upon a time living a blasphemous life. He made these two comments on truth that are so perceptive.
Listen carefully. "truth is very beautiful, more so I consider than justice, today's pursuit, which easily puts on a false face. In the nearly seven decades I have lived through, the world has overflowed with bloodshed and explosions whose dusts has never had time to settle before others have erupted, all in purportedly just causes. The quest for justice continues, and the weapons of hatred pile up. But truth was an early casualty, and the lies on behalf of which our wars have been fault, and our peace treaties concluded, the lies of revolution and of counter-revolution. The lies of advertising of news, of salesmanship, of politics. The lies of the priest and his pulpit, the professor at his podium, the journalist at his typewriter. The lies stuck like a fish bone in the throat of the microphone. The handheld lies of the prowling cameramen.
Ignazio Silone told me once how, when he was a member of the old common turn, some stratagem was under discussion, and a delegate, a newcomer who has never, never attended before made the extraordinary observation that if such-and-such a statement were to be issued and made, it wouldn't be true. Therefore, it ought not to be made. There was a moment of dazed, stunned silence. And everyone began to laugh. They laughed and laughed until tears ran down their cheeks, and the walls of the Kremlin seemed to shake. The same laughter echoes in every council chamber and cabinet room. Wherever two or more are gathered to exercise authority, it is truth that has died, not God". He said this in the 70s. But then, he made this remarkable statement which often we don't connect with the abstract notion of truth.
Here's what he said. "And how relevant it is for our very day, right now, in this Sargasso Sea of fantasy and fraud, how can I or anyone else hope to swim unencumbered? How can I learn to see through and not with the eye? How take off my own motley and wash away the make-up? Raise the iron curtain and put out the studio lights? Silence the sound effects and put the cameras to sleep? Can I ever watch the sun rise on sunset blvd., and set over forest lawn? Can I ever find furniture among the studio props? Silence in a discotheque? Love in a striptease? Read truth of an auto cue? Catch it on a screen? Chase it on the wings of music? Can I view it in living color with the news? Hear it in living sound, along the motorways? No. Not in the wind that rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks. Not even the earthquake that followed, nor in the fire that followed the earthquake, but in that still, small voice. Not in the screeching of tires either, or the grinding of brakes, nor in the roar of jets or the whistle of sirens, nor in the howl of trombones, the rattle of drums, or the chanting of demo voices".
Again and again and again, that still, small voice, if one could only catch it, and in his book, "The green stick: a chronicle of wasted years", he goes on to refer to that voice as the voice of God. If you could only catch it. Not in the sound of trombones or the whirring of engines on the highways. Not in a discotheque, not in the studio lights. Even as you and I sit here tonight, one of the greatest moguls of Hollywood is being shown for a life of repeated, constant debauchery. Really? An industry that has given us so much of that same type of living in your living room and mine suddenly finds a man was living that same thing out in private and was all of a sudden a disgraced individual. You know what it proves to me? You could be living with the most beautiful people around you. You could be living with the wealthiest people around you. You could be living in a setting that the world envies and longs to be with, and your heart can still be empty as you desperately pursue sensual or other types of pleasure to find some self-authentication and some meaning. That's your search. That's my search.
And when Jesus stood before Pilate, it's a grim scene. Pilate looks at him and says, "Are you the king"? Pilate says, "Are you asking this on your own, or has somebody else set you up for it"? Isn't it fascinating how Jesus always questions his questioners to open them up within their own assumptions? Are you asking this on your own, or has somebody else set you up to ask me? You know, the reason is because intent is prior to content. To give truth to somebody who loves it not, says George McDonald, is to only give them multiplied reasons for misinterpretation. To give truth to somebody who doesn't love it, all you're giving them is more ammunition to misinterpret what it is that you've actually said. And then, finally, Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world, Pilate. If it were, my soldiers would have fought to defend me and protect me, keep me from this arrest". Pilate says, "You are a king then". Jesus said, "Yes, for this cause did I come into the world to testify to the truth, and they that are on the side of truth listen to me".
Pilate asked the most important question of his life, but did not wait for the answer. He said, "What is truth"? And turned around, and walked away. Don't make that mistake. Don't make that mistake. If you really pursue the truth, find out what the truth says, where it is leading you, and be willing to go in that direction. I wanna give you about a handful of snippets on this. What is it that really brings meaning for you and me? What is the meaning we really look for? We can talk about it as purpose, significance. As I unpackaged this years ago in my book, "Recapture the wonder", I looked at four components that everyone who talked about meaning would bring in, in one way or the other. And these are the four. A sense of wonder, or a sense of awe. We always look for that. When you walk out and look at that starry sky, you look at it, it is what Immanuel Kant said. Talked about that the two wonderful things, the starry hosts above, and the moral law within.
But this spectacular view that you can see in a night sky, I remember one of the astronauts with NASA who was a pilot on one of the missions into space, he and two of his colleagues left Houston and came to visit our office, because he'd been listening to one of my CDs while he was in space, on the CD entitled, "Who is God"? And he said, "Every time I looked at my window and looked at that blue, little speck we call our home, earth, I was stricken with awe, and wonder, on what a minute part of this vast universe it is, but how spectacular it really is". He came to present us with a picture that he'd taken from there, along with that CD, and framed it. I have a very treasured place for it. I have covered the globe for four decades. I've seen some of the most beautiful sights. Whether you see the Taj Mahal, or you stand at cape point in south Africa, or you see some of the beautiful creations of the works of art in walking through museums, and you say to yourself, wouldn't it be wonderful if we could find a state of mind which existed with perpetual novelty? Wouldn't it be wonderful if we had a state of mind which could exist with perpetual novelty, that awe?
You tell a story to a child, and they are waiting for this story to bring that punch line to it, listening in awe. But wonder is fascinating, and fantastic. What we need is not just that which is fantastic, we need that which is fantastically true. We need that which is fantastically true. And so, you move through life, you look at that third component, which is love, and the celebration of a commitment between two lives. My father-in-law was a chemical engineer in Toronto, Canada. My wife and I have celebrated 45 years of married life. My wife, Margie, hails from Toronto, Canada. Last week, I was in Toronto and we were driving on on university ave., and I turned and pointed to, my friends have said, "That's the office where I went to see my father-in-law to be, to ask permission for marrying his daughter". I said, "It's as vivid in my memory as it is now. I walked outside that building for about a half-an-hour, getting all the courage to see if I could go up, and what this engineer would quiz me with".
He passed away at age 85. And as he was dying, for several days, he hadn't spoken. Three of his four daughters and his wife were standing around his bed. He fought that diagnosis of a tumor. He didn't want to go that soon and that suddenly. From diagnosis to death, it was about four months. And I was on my way to get to Toronto, and never made it. I'd seen him a few days before that, but he'd lost the capacity to speak by then. Just before he died, he spoke again. And he looked up into the ceiling, and he just started these words. "Amazing. Simply amazing". And then, he looked at his wife of 60-some years, and said, "Jean, I love you". And he was gone. What a way to bid this world goodbye, to lift your higher heart towards the heavens, and turn to your eyes towards the one you have honored and loved.
That's the third component of meaning. Wonder, truth, love. Love. And finally, security. Wonder, truth, love, and security. To know that life doesn't end with your three score years and ten. A couple of weeks ago, we buried our colleague, Nabeel Qureshi, at the age of 34. Dead of cancer. Boy, he fought it. He fought it all the way, fought it. We traveled together, and yet, right in the end, all he could say was that he had that hope, that hope that didn't have to be ashamed. The hope that comes beyond the grave, and I want you to think of just one thing. If there is no life beyond the grave, not only are your goodbyes permanent, but hear me carefully now. Where is the sense of the quest for justice? Isn't that the one ethic we still have with us? We look for justice.
We look for justice. With no life beyond the grave, even justice becomes a mockery. Wonder, truth, love, and security. How do we live this out? I give you four thoughts. With eternity, morality, accountability, and charity. We don't just live for today, we live for the eternal perspective. We don't just think of right and wrong, left and right. We think of up and down. Morality is much more than just doing that which is right. See, Jesus Christ didn't come into this world to make bad people good. He came into this world to make dead people live.
Eternity, morality, accountability, that I recognize my own frailty, I recognize my own weakness, I recognize my own need of the Savior, and charity. I live in a world of so many dissenting opinions, I have to learn to love my fellow human being, whether I agree with them or not. What brings meaning? Wonder, truth, love, and security. How do we live it out? Eternity, morality, accountability, charity. Existence, essence, conscience, and beneficence. These are the teachings of Christ to your heart, and mine. truth has a direct result in meaning, and that which God had joined together, let no man put asunder. Thank you for giving me a hearing. God bless you!