Roger Olson, “Why I am an ‘Evangelical Arminian Christian’ Part 5: My Fifth Principle: Answers to Life’s Ultimate Questions Must Be Revealed (And Received)”

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*First read my first four posts in this series. This essay continues a series about why I am an “evangelical Arminian Christian.”

5) My Fifth Principle: Answers to Life’s Ultimate Questions Must Be Revealed (And Received)

As I move on in this series of “my principles,” what I say will increasingly assume readers’ knowledge of the previous essays. Unlike many television shows, I will not “summarize” the main points after each “commercial break.” I will simply depend on readers, and especially commenters, to have read through the series so far.

Lots of truths matter; the search for truth is multi-directional. But the most important truths lie beyond the mundane, beyond the utilitarian, beyond the immediate and pressing needs of daily problem-solving. All that is to say that “cash value” is not the most important question; the most important questions of life have to do with ultimate, not penultimate matters.

Some will say, and at least pretend to believe, there are no answers to life’s ultimate questions, but wise men and women have always pressed toward them. Inquiring minds want to know. And all minds become inquiring minds—about life’s ultimate questions—in certain circumstances.

What are life’s ultimate questions? For me, and for many others throughout history, they are (among others): What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the “good life?” Is there a God or something/someone(s) beyond us (transcendence and not just transcending)? Is there life after death? Where and how can I find hope in the midst of suffering? What is true? What is good? What is beautiful?

I believe treating these questions dismissively as having no real or definite answers is lazy and ultimately impossible; they intrude and impinge. They can be repressed, but not dismissed.

Philosophers, whether professional or amateur, have attempted to discover answers to life’s ultimate questions for millennia. Some, especially in the twentieth century and since, have given up and focused solely on analysis of language. To me that is sheer escapism and an abdication of philosophical duty.

On the other hand, having said that, my opinion is that philosophy alone cannot discover any definite answers to life’s ultimate questions. Philosophy can and does (sometimes) helpfully bring the questions to expression, but philosophy alone cannot answer them.

But we need answers; we live from answers. Every mature person has some apprehension of answers even if only dimly conceived. We cannot live by bread alone; we need some vision of ultimacy to ground ethics. Right and wrong depend on a vision of ultimate reality, meaning and purpose.

My considered opinion, working principle, assumption verified by life experience and thought, is that if there are answers to life’s ultimate questions they must be revealed by ultimate reality itself. We cannot free ourselves from Plato’s cave by ourselves; unless we are liberated from it to the light of truth we will forever stay chained in the shadow play of guessing at truth.

In this principle I presuppose no particular set of answers or method of their revelation. I only presuppose, reasonably, I believe, that if the meaning of life is to be discovered at all it must be by receiving its revelation from beyond ourselves. Here I do not presuppose that “from beyond ourselves” necessarily means something supernatural; perhaps, although I doubt it, such revelation could come through what Plato called “anamnesis”—remembrance of a latent and suppressed truth within ourselves. That would still be a form of revelation. My point is simply that answers to life’s ultimate questions cannot be created or discovered by sensory observation and discursive thought alone.

Also, the sheer fact that a bewildering variety of claimed revelations of such (viz., answers to life’s ultimate questions) exists says nothing to me about the issue of truth. For me, the issue of truth can only be settled, however tentatively and with humility, by means of the criteria I stated before—coherence and experience.

It is, of course, impossible to examine all the claims of revealed answers to life’s ultimate questions; there are simply too many “out there”—in the world now and historically in the past. My tendency, like most people’s, is to accept the one in which I was nurtured but (!) with the proviso: insofar as it continues to pass the tests of coherence and experience.

Now, some will object that any revelation from beyond must not be subjected to finite testing; if it is truly “from beyond” it provides its own proof of truth independent of creaturely testing. I ask what “proof” that would be? The answer is usually something like “Kierkegaardian defiance”—fideism. Even Kierkegaard, however, was not open to every claimed revelation—however powerful and transformative it might be. I believe every mature, reflective person does and mustapply logical and experiential tests when confronted with any claimed revelation of ultimate truth—his or her own or another’s—insofar as making a decision about it is important.

[Link to original post and comments at Roger Olson’s blog]