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EPISODE 06: Our Deepest Desires
As human beings, we are created with desires. We all long for meaningful relationships, lives that reflect goodness, engagements with beauty, and the freedom to pursue our lives with integrity. But where can our restless hearts find fulfillment for these universal longings? Philosopher and apologist Greg Ganssle argues that the Christian story grounds and explains the things that we care about most. With grace and insight, Ganssle explains how the good news of Jesus Christ makes sense of—and fulfills—our deepest desires. Instead of arguing philosophically or deductively, he unpacks the key features of our deep concerns and shows how the elements of the Christian story align best with those features. Arguing that it is only in the particular claims of the Christian faith, not the atheistic story, that our universal human aspirations can find fulfillment and our restless hearts will be at peace.
Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I am Randy Newman, your host, and I am delighted that today on the podcast, my conversation partner is Greg Ganssle, who has written a great book called Our Deepest Desires. Let me tell you a little bit about Greg before I ask him to join in. Greg currently is a professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology at Biola, out in Los Angeles. He, for many years, was with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ, now called Cru. He was involved in a really fantastic ministry called the Rivendell Institute at Yale University for many, many years, and he has given a great deal of thought about our desires and why we have them and where they point. And the subtitle of his book is How the Christian story Fulfills Human Aspirations. Greg, it's a delight to have you on the podcast.
Thanks, Randy. Always good to be with you.
Made for Another World
Well, Greg, this book is about desires, and it is so reminiscent of many things that C.S. Lewis said on a number of occasions about our longings and the hope chapter in Mere Christianity, where he said, “If I find a desire in me that no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” And I think that that's a theme as an undercurrent in your book. Is that right?
Yes, it is an undercurrent. What I'm trying to do is not so much use our reflections about our desires to support the claim that the Christian story is true, although I think you can make a good line of argument this way. I'm mostly interested in stimulating the notion that, if we reflect on our desires, we should see that we want the Christian story to be true. And as I say in the introduction to the book, I think a lot of people today believe the following statement: “I'm pretty sure Christianity is false, and it's good that it's false.” I want to challenge the second part of that statement in this book. I want people to see that they actually think it would be great if it were true. And that takes, of course, the kind of reflection on our desires and what grounds our deepest sense of what is good and right in a way that—we don't always think that way every day.
Yeah. So, reading your book, it felt different than so many apologetics books, because, as you've already alluded to, so many of the books are, “It's true, and here's why you should believe that it's true,” and yours is coming at it more of the desire side of, “It's true, and isn't that great?” And, “Doesn't that satisfy?” Or, “Isn't that what you're looking for?” Am I getting close to why you wrote the book?
Oh, absolutely! That's exactly what I was interested. And the other thing I should mention, and I realize this is a little bit difficult, is that the book is not written primarily for people who are already followers of Jesus. It is written for those on the outside, looking in. And you can't kind of put that on the back flap of a book.
Well, you can, but I think that might hurt things a little bit.
It might hurt things. So I'm trying to lead someone who's on the outside looking in into a series of reflections where they can recognize, “Yes, I have these desires. These do shape how I place myself in the world,” and then they can see the connection to the Christian story.
Well, you know, I speak quite a few times, and I try to push for the need for pre-evangelism, many, many conversations and articles and books that lead people to the point where they're ready to hear the Gospel. There are so many people in our world today who... they're just not ready to even listen to it. It's a non-starter. It doesn't connect with them at all, and we say to them things like, “Would you like to know God personally?” And they go, “Well, not really.” And we say, “Don't you feel bad about your sin?” And they go, “Sin? That's a weird topic. I don't know what you're talking about.
So there's a lot of prep work or pre-evangelistic work that many people need before the gospel makes sense. And your book, I think, is just a great display of that. You take people right up to a presentation of the gospel, but you don't present it. In your very epilogue, you have suggested places to go to hear more. I think that this book is unique, and I hope there will be a whole lot more of these kinds of books, written by a lot of different people.
Yeah, I totally agree. When you think about evangelism and apologetics, and of course, I think every evangelistic encounter involves apologetics, because we're holding forth the gospel as a compelling vision of life. We have to be sensitive to what are the obstacles and also the opportunities that are at work in the consciousness of the person with whom I'm speaking. And as you say, today the overwhelming majority of people, in the West at least, do not see their need for forgiveness or for a relationship with God. And even if they think God is real, they're pretty sure that the Bible-believing Christians are not the ones that have gotten the story correct.
So we do have a lot of work to do, and I think a big part of that is shifting from exclusively focusing on the truth question to focusing on things like the imagination and the desires, painting a picture of the reality of the gospel that can be responded to, not just cognitively, but affectively. Now we'll always have to be discussing the truth question. That’s never going to go away, and I'm glad it's not going to go away, but we certainly need more attention to what difference it makes.
Yeah. Well, I always feel the need because I know that perhaps some of our listeners are feeling a sense of a little bit of pushing back on this, or I know that when I speak, I very often have a few people with raised eyebrows, and what I want to say is: Just remember to compare how Jesus spoke to Nicodemus in John chapter 3, as opposed to how Jesus talked to the woman at the well in John chapter 4. Nicodemus was a religious man who already believed the scriptures were a revelation from God, and so He could dive right in and talk theology with him. But to this woman, He spoke about water and He spoke about thirst, and, “Wouldn't it be great if there was a kind of water that when you drank it, you weren't left thirsty anymore?” And then He talked about her moral life and the five husbands and the guy she was living with. And this was all very much affective and emotional pre pre pre evangelism. And again, so your book, I think, is in this same category, more of John 4 than John 3.
So let’s dive in, rather than just making an apologetic for an apologetic. So you chose to go after four different desires that are perhaps pointers to help people figure out, “How do I make sense of life?” And the four pointers are persons, goodness, beauty, and freedom. So why those four? And why don't you just kind of dig into each of them in whatever order you want and what you're trying to say in those sections of your book?
Well, that's a great question, and it requires kind of a roundabout answer, which will reveal the way these things emerge in my foggy brain. I began to think about persons when I was teaching some worldview stuff, and I realized that I used to say things like, “Well, you know, the religious Jewish, the Islamic, and the Christian worldview are relatively the same, right? “Because God is real, and there's creation, and moral reality is grounded in God, and all of these things. And of course, those are common elements.
But I realized, as I thought that way, I was completely neglecting the incarnation, the distinct element that renders the Christian story absolutely unique. And the implications of the incarnation for what it means to be a human being are huge, right? We know what it means to live as humans because God lived that life in front of us, God Himself in the person of Jesus. And so I began to think of Christian worldview as having to be centered on the incarnation and not just on creation.
So both of these elements in the story are important, and this is what led me to think that everything we care about is connected to human beings. And I tell some stories in the book to elucidate this. And what I'm trying to show is that persons is very deep in the Christian story, because God is personal, because of the incarnation that we know what it means to be a person. And so if you think about the four elements in the book, it's the person one that doesn't quite immediately fit. Because the other three, goodness, beauty, and freedom, kind off it together, and they fit together this way.
The traditional transcendentals in Christian theology are goodness, beauty, and truth. And so I wanted to write about those, but I realized, “I can't write about truth, because as soon as you start talking about truth, everybody shifts into debate mode.” And so I approach truth through the concept of freedom. And that's why one of the chapters in the freedom section is Freedom and Truth. And in a sense, I'm giving an apologetic for the reality of reality and the value of truth in that section. So the book is really framed around these traditional theological categories, goodness, beauty, and truth. But I wanted to get into it through persons, and I wanted kind of to disguise the truth question a little bit, in something that is more directly or immediately appealing to most of the audience.
The Sense For Our Deepest Desires
Yeah. You say, early on in the book, which I think over-arches over all of these four points, you say that the claim that this book will explore is that the Christian story makes sense of our deepest longings. The Christian story uniquely makes sense of our longing for the good, the true, and the beautiful, or the good, the beautiful, and freedom wrapped up in truth. I love this one sentence: You said, “In the Christian story, the most fundamental reality is personal.” Now, I realize that some people are going to just say, “I don't know what he's talking about there.” But it's an assumption that people have got to unearth or see before them for the other things to make some sort of sense. Can you unpack that a little bit for us? “In the Christian story, the most fundamental reality is personal.”
Yes. Okay. So the Christian story begins with God. God is who God is and God is not who He’s not. I think that's the most fundamental fact. And of course, through the Scriptures, we're given much more information about God than that. God is triune. God has the attributes that we tie up with the concept of personhood, intellect, affections, will, acting for reasons. And the most fundamental reality—by that I mean everything else that exists is dependent on God Himself. And so He is most fundamental, but He is personal. He thinks, He acts, He loves, He has preferences, all of the things that are ingredients of personhood. And of course, in the Christian story, we're made in His image. And then there's the incarnation, which ratifies the value of personhood even after sin enters the world.
But if you contrast that to most secular stories, and I have this long quote from Bertrand Russell there, which is often used. Personhood is very strange in atheistic worldviews because it came about completely by accident. And all of the features that make us persons are accidental. There is no plan, there is no forethought. We just kind of emerged on the scene. Sometimes I think of the image that we've been spit up on the beach like Jonah from the whale. That's the [UNKNOWN 16:22] version of how personhood emerges. And just contrasting those two stories, you see, “Wow! If personhood is connected to everything I value or the deepest things I value, then the Christian story makes better sense of my value than the secular story.” So that's the basic approach I was going on.
Well, and you just said something that... I think you said it several times in the book or in some form or another: The Christian story makes the most sense out of reality. The atheist or the secular or even other religious views don't make sense of the world as much as we need it to make sense.
You said, if atheism is true, relationality is a shallow thing in the universe. And I think that's so important. And I always want to push this in the direction of, “Okay, so how do I say this to non-Christians that I'm engaging with?” Well, there's probably a whole lot of non-Christians that I don't have this conversation with, because they're not thinking about these issues. But there are a bunch of people who this is exactly what we have to talk to them about before the rest of what we're going to say makes any sense. And sometimes I want to say to people is, “If we're just an accident, why are we even having a conversation? Why are we talking to each other? Why do we think that talking to each other makes a difference or is a good thing?” I don't know if I'm saying it very well. I think you say it better in this book.
Well, it's hard to communicate things like this in a couple of sentences. And in a conversation, you've got one or two sentences at a time. And there are two kinds of approaches: One is to find a couple of sentences that show the shallowness on an atheistic view, but the other is to show the richness on the Christian view. On the Christian story, God Himself is relational. Therefore, relationships are important in a deep way. And of course, that makes sense to the way we live, because they're most important to us. And then you could flip the coin and say, “Well, if the secular story is true, you’ve got to wonder why we care so much about relationships. And is that caring connected with reality?
Yeah. Good. Let's move to the second category in your book, about goodness. So what do you mean by goodness? And how is that a pointer to God and to eternity?
Well, that's a good question. I mean, I'm speaking of goodness to include but be more broad than just moral categories. And I make the point that there are lots of ways to be good or to be bad. I'm a bad basketball player, and that's not really a moral thing, fortunately. And when we analyze what does it mean for something to be good? It is that it works the way it's supposed to. My car is good if it starts and if it runs. My refrigerator is good if it continues to keep the food cold. I'm a good basketball player if I accomplish the goals within the rules. So goodness is tied to purpose, right? Something as good if it fulfills its purpose.
And so it makes sense that our value of goodness is tied to some kind of cosmic purpose. And then I have to talk about... I'm trying to elucidate a recognition that we desperately desire goodness. And because there's a big cultural attitude that goodness is boring. I tell the story we like movies that have evil characters and this kind of thing, and I try to help people recognize that. But when it comes to reality, we strongly prefer goodness. All of our heroes—apart from celebrities, our heroes are moral heroes. And we really want people like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa. These are the qualities we aspire to. So that's some of what I'm trying to do there is elucidate this recognition that we deeply desire goodness, and that it's tied to purpose.
We'll return to my conversation in just a moment. I do want to invite you to take a look at our website, cslewisinstitute.org, and avail yourself to the many resources that we have there. We have over 40 years’ worth of articles and recordings and events that can be tremendously helpful. Check out the different ways that we can help you share your faith or grow deeply in your faith and consider also supporting the institute. If you click on the button that says Donate, we would love to have you as a ministry partner. Now let's return to the conversation.
Well, I'm really glad you said that this has got to be a deeper conversation than just a few sentences, because I think what a lot of people want to do is they want to make a very, very quick connection between talking about goodness. “Don't you like goodness?
Don't you want the goodness of a good relationship, a good marriage, a good family? And, hey, that must be pointing to God, right?” And it does. It is. But I think it just has to be a longer conversation that gets to where we're saying, “There must be something planted in us, the way Ecclesiastes says God has placed eternity in our hearts.” And that's a longing for goodness, for rightness, for the Hebrew concept of shalom. Right? These are the things we're talking about, right?
I think that's exactly right. Although people who are Christians are often pressed with the notion that society just keeps getting worse and worse, this is one place where we're seeing great opportunities, because there is a more widespread concern for issues of justice right now than even five years ago. And justice is about goodness, right? It's about what ought to be. And of course, if there's a way things ought to be, then there has to be some kind of purpose. It is not justice if it's just the way I want things to be. There has to be a way things ought to be. And we can rehabilitate... I mean I don't talk about this so much in the book, but we can rehabilitate the concept of judgment, because if there's no judgment, there's no justice.
All right, so wait a minute. You got to unpack that a little bit for us. When you say we can rehabilitate the concept of judgment, how do you mean it's rehabilitated?
Well, the average American, for example, hates judgment, any kind of judgment.
Right. “Thou shalt not judge,” is the one verse that people know from the Bible.
That's exactly right. And yet the average American longs for justice, and what we can do is help them see, “Look, if you really long for justice, you long for some kind of judgment. “And we don't have to talk about final judgment, although it's very easy to get there. We want things to be straightened out. And the Christian notion of judgment is, in a sense, the only hope for justice in the world. Because what we want is.... The problem with judgment is we don't want other people to judge us, because other people are selfish and they don't know enough and they don't care. Well, what if there's a judge that does know enough, that does care? That's the judge we want in the world. And this is why we see it, especially, I think, in the Psalms. The comfort the psalmist places in the judgment of God. “Vindicate me, O Lord. “Because God judges justly. So there's a certain cultural moment where the issue of goodness and the way things are, the way things should be, can be, in a sense, the opening part of a discussion to help people see, “Don't you want God to step in and stop child molestation?” Of course we want Him to step in and do this. And He will.
Beauty as a Pillar
You know, I sometimes joke that, whenever I do this podcast, I'm required to quote C.S. Lewis, and I've already butchered one of his quotes, but this one I have actually in front of me, so I think I'm going to get it right. But in Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis’s recounting of his spiritual journey to faith, he said, toward the end of the book, “Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary. Nearly all that I believed to be real, I thought grim and meaningless.” And so he’s saying, “I was drawn to goodness and beauty and justice in these mythologies, but I thought they weren't true. And the stuff that I thought was true was just kind of meaningless and ugly and dark,” and that contradiction was what propelled him to go, “Wait a minute. These two things can't be so disparate,” and I think you do a great job with that in the whole section on beauty. That was my favorite part of your book. I was a music major, and so music and beauty and art are some of the most important pointers to the gospel, and yet they're very often ignored or omitted. Speak a little bit about beauty and why that was one of your four main pillars in this book.
Well, of course, beauty is one of the traditional theological transcendentals in the middle Ages, and this was the most difficult section for me to write, because I'm not trained in the areas of aesthetics or music or art. And so I had to do a whole lot of wrestling, and I did some reading about beauty. There's some people I quote, people like Roger Scruton and Elaine Scarry, who've written fine books on beauty. One of the things I was going after is—and this might wrinkle some of your listeners. I think the Christian story tells us that the world is a good place, and even after sin enters it, it's twisted, but its goodness is there. God created a good and beautiful world and turned us loose to cultivate it, to bring, as I say in the book, to bring good and true and beautiful and useful things out of it. And that mandate, which comes from the opening chapters of Genesis, is still in place.
When Adam sinned, and God pronounces the curse, He doesn't rescind that command. He just says, now, it's going to be hard because there's going to be thorns and thistles and you’re going to have to labor with the sweat of your brow to do the thing I place you in the world to do. And so maybe I'm taking the long way around here. The world is not as responsive to human cultivation as it was designed to be because of the distortions of sin. But it's still responsive, and it's still a good place, and there's still beauty to be had and beauty to be made. And all this is rooted in God as Creator. So God creates a beautiful world and then He creates artists that are made in His image. And the mandate in Genesis, to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it, is a creative mandate which is not only about beauty, but it includes beauty. Part of human nature and our purpose is to cultivate and create beautiful things. [UNKNOWN 30:59] because I went on a long tangent there.
Well, I want long tangents when it comes to things about beauty. I think we have got to point to beauty and exalt it and enjoy it and say how it points to a beautiful Creator. And you think about thorns and thistles. Yes, but those thorns are very often on rose bushes, with really, really beautiful roses of a variety of different colors and just stunningly, unnecessarily beautiful things for us to enjoy and just look at.
So you're right, our world is broken and fallen and harmed terribly by the fall and by sin, and yet there is still so much crying out of this world was originally created beautiful, and we still see some of that beauty. And I think what we want to try in our evangelistic and pre-evangelistic conversations is to try to help people feel the unresolved tension of that. “Why is the world so beautiful and so ugly at the same time? “Why is this rose so beautiful, and yet when it dies,” it's like, “Why does it die?” And I long for justice, and when I see it, I'm overjoyed, but then I see a million examples of injustice. So it's this tension that I believe the gospel resolves.
So let's dive into the fourth section about freedom, which is really also about truth. How are those two connected? We talked about it a little bit earlier, but if you don't mind coming back to it. How is our longing for freedom and our longing for truth intertwined?
Well, I think there's some really simple ways that we don't think about very often. For example, if we're going to be free—and we mean personal freedom—we have to have accurate diagnostics. What is it that's keeping us from being free? What are the hindrances? What is the true path to freedom? So there's just a very kind of straight forward sense that we can't begin to think about personal freedom unless we can diagnose what is causing us to be enslaved.
And here I turn to John, where Jesus says His famous thing, “The truth will set you free,” and He goes on to talk about how people who walk in sin are enslaved to sin. And I kind of have to explain what that means for my audience, right? If I rebel against God and I affirm my intrinsic or my deep habitual rebellion against God, I am stepping away from the source of flourishing. And it's only as I submit to the truth that God is the source of freedom that I can begin to experience freedom, so the freedom and truth are closely intertwined, because God is the source of freedom.
Have you ever wondered what heaven is going to be like? What will it look like? What will we do there? We all have questions about heaven, and we, the C.S. Lewis Institute, are delighted to invite Dr. Randy Alcorn, who has spent decades literally researching the topic. He's written award-winning books on the topic, and he's going to be presenting a live stream event for us through the CS. Lewis website on January 22 at8:00 p.m. Please check out the website, cslewisinstitute.org, and find out the details about the Randy Alcorn event. I think it’ll be really great.
Again, I think a lot of people want really, really short, Twitter-length expressions of these things. And I think what you're saying, what I'm saying, is these things are too rich and big for those kinds of short summary things. But we do want to be able to give people launching pads or something. So, for me, one of those is, “Well, we usually think about freedom to... freedom to do whatever I want. But a more important freedom is freedom for... freedom for living the kind of life that really is a good life. Not freedom just to be able to do whatever I want, but the freedom to be able to fulfill the purposes for which I was born.” So sometimes freedom for versus freedom to. Do you have any other kind of Launchpad for that? I don't even know if I'm expressing it as well as I need to.
No. That’s a very good one, because “freedom to” focuses on actions and “freedom for” focuses more on the kind of people we are. And in the beginning of the book, I talk about the fundamental question, “What kind of person do I want to be? What kind of person am I becoming?” And if we can help that conversation shift from, “What do I want to do?” to, “What kind of person do I want to be?” then a lot of these issues are going to resonate more deeply. So I try to ask that question when I have a chance. And sometimes just reporting, like in a conversation, I can say, “Well, one of the fundamental questions I have to ask myself is what kind of person am I becoming?” and that helps me think, “Am I walking the way I want to walk?
And sometimes, one of the greatest ways we can show love to a person is by asking that question that perhaps many of them have never even thought of: “What kind of person do you want to be?” We always say to little kids or, I don't know, kids in elementary school, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And what we usually mean by that is what kind of job do you want to have? What do you want to be? I want to be a doctor. I want to be a lawyer. I want to be a builder.
I want to be employed.
Right. But the question is, what do you want to be? And so may be a better way to word it is, “What kind of person do you want to be?” And then, “Well, then how do you become that?” What do you need to be doing now, so that, in fact, you do become more peaceful, joyful, loving, giving, kind, as opposed to bitter, angry, resentful, narcissistic? I mean, the list goes on in both directions, in both very, very different directions.
Yeah, exactly. And that's why the related question is, “What kind of person am I becoming? “Because many people don't recognize that they are surely becoming one kind of person or another by their habits of thinking and acting. And habits of desiring.
So if people can see, “Oh, my gosh! I am becoming this kind of person,” that can help kind of retool the imagination for thinking about things like freedom and goodness and beauty.
And I just want to also add that one of the most helpful things we can say in conversations with non-believers is to wrap all of this discussion in interpersonal care and concern, so it can be expressed in a million different ways, like, “Well, you know, I'm really concerned about you,” or, “I really care about you. I want the very best for you.” “You know, I keep asking you these questions, and I guess maybe they could be annoying, but I don't mean them to be annoying. I'm really hoping that these kinds of questions can be helpful for you.” And I think that that changes, not just the content, but the very flavor of these kinds of interactions we can have with people.
Yeah, I think that's right. And a subtext of the discussion we're having is that.... I mean, you began by talking about pre-evangelism, and we talk about apologetics, and sometimes it's easy to get the notion that pre-evangelism or apologetics has got to be kind of analytically philosophical or this kind of thing. And of course, I love analytic philosophy, right? It’s what-
That's what you teach.
That's right. Yeah. But what we're really talking about is that the gospel itself is pre-evangelism. So I tell people my new favorite verse for apologetics is the fruit of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience.... And I've often said, in various contexts, well, you know, there's a sentence in the New Testament, and I usually paraphrase, that says the result of allowing God through Christ to indwell me and shape me is this list of character qualities, and that's the kind of person I want to be.
And so the gospel itself has the resources to make these connections in people's hearts and minds, I think.
Well, I'm afraid we've run out of time, but we could talk so much more, and I love this kind of stuff. And I really am so grateful for your book. It's called Our Deepest Desires: How the Christian Story Fulfills Human Aspirations. I recommend it for our listeners who are Christians, to read it, to think more deeply about how this Christian view makes sense of the world. And I recommend it for people of other faiths or secular faith for them to read it, because this book will challenge them to show how the Christian worldview makes sense of reality. Again, Greg, we could keep talking for quite a longtime, but I'm afraid we need to sign off. So thank you so much for being a part of Questions That Matter. The question of why our desires matter has been the theme of this. So thanks so much for being part of this.
Thank you so much. I'm really glad. I love the title of your podcast. It occurred to me once that people don't really want answers, but they want a question worth asking.
This is what you’re doing
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