What are the best steps to find a meaningful life? What can we learn from the most influential thinkers in history about how to find truth and meaning? In this interview, Sean and Scott talk with Os Guinness about his latest book: The Great Quest. Os shares his personal journey to faith and they discuss practical ways for living an examined life.

Os Guinness is an author and social critic. He has written more than 30 books. Since moving to the United States in 1984, Os has been a Guest Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies, a Guest Scholar and Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum and the EastWest Institute in New York.

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: Welcome to Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, Professor of Apologetics.

Scott Rae: I'm your co-host Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics.

Sean McDowell: Today we have a special guest who we welcome back to the program. We've had him three or four times, one of our favorite guests. Maybe I shouldn't say that Scott, but when he comes out with a the book-

Scott Rae: But it's definitely true.

Sean McDowell: But it's true. When he comes out with a book every six months or one year, we are right to the phone to see if we can get Christian thinker, Christian writer, Christian speaker, Os Guinness back on and he has a new book out called The Great Quest that we're going to explore today. Os, thanks for coming on.

Os Guinness: Well, my pleasure to be with both of you. Thank you.

Sean McDowell: So I pulled up the title of your book on Amazon and right below it said, Guinness: The 250 Year Quest for the Perfect Pint. Is that the quest we're talking about here?

Os Guinness: No, not exactly. No, a far deeper one that goes much longer back and much wider and anything to do with pints.

Sean McDowell: I couldn't resist. You're taking it like a champ. Well, let's jump into your book, both Scott and I thoroughly enjoyed it. And what's interesting is you've written both timely books and certain timeless books. And I think this book is both. And it's on living an examined life. So before we get into the premise of it, I'm curious if you think the search for meaning is different today than it is in previous generations and times.

Os Guinness: Well, so many generations are very, very different. So when Louis wrote Mere Christianity, you had a certain situation in postwar Britain. And we're an extraordinary moment today. The crisis of Western civilization, which is very much part of the crisis of faith in the west, then you've got an incredible crisis in America with a shift between one revolution, the American revolution and the ideas coming from the French revolution. So faith is at the center of all the big discussions today.

Os Guinness: And at this very moment, you have the rising tide of nones so called. And much of that is ridiculous. It's a respond to opinion polls and the lack of plausibility because of the scandals in the church and so on. I often say the old phrase, forget the polls and think for yourself. And so we're an extraordinary moment, but faith is at the heart of this moment, both controversially and in other positive ways. So I think it's a wonderful time to think through is the faith in Christ true and what would that mean?

Scott Rae: Os, one of the things I appreciate about the book is some of your own transparency about your own journey to meaning that you experienced personally. I'd love for our listeners to hear a little bit more about that. So tell us a little bit about your own journey to meaning, when did it start and how did you end up believing the things that you do today?

Os Guinness: Well, I always say thank God I'm a child of the sixties and the late fifties, you had to think through everything back to square one. Now, in my case, I'm a missionary kid. So I grew up with missionary parents in war torn, revolutionary torn China with an incredible amount of violence and evil and all sorts of things like that around me. So I had a very realistic view of life. But it was when I was at school in England, that I started to really think through life for myself. My parents were in Asia and I was back in Europe, so there was no immediate influence of their lives on me. And I read a lot.

Os Guinness: And at the end of the day, I knew the Eastern religions, having grown up there. So at the end of the day, the big challenge for me came down between the secularists, atheists, agnostics, people like Nietzsche and Sartre and Camus, Camus was my hero was a teenager. And on the other side, people like Blaze Pascal, GK Chesterton, CS Lewis. And for two years, I read and read and read and read. And finally, I was convinced that the Christian faith was true.

Os Guinness: And I'm so glad that I came to that conviction and to my own personal faith before going to university, because suddenly you got into the world of the free speech movement, films like Ingmar Bergman, Fellini, the counterculture, drug, sex, rock, and roll. And a lot of people just washed away. It was a wonderful time to think things through to the roots and know why I believe what I believed. And of course the more you stretch your faith against the alternatives, the strong it grows.

Sean McDowell: Os, you write a quote in the book. You say, "The truth is that the urgent need of our times is a fresh seriousness about human existence and a renewed openness to ultimate questions." Can you explain what you mean and why you think that is the urgent need of our times?

Os Guinness: Well, the triumph of secularism in many circles is a very shrunken view of reality. My mentor, Peter Berger would say we live in a world without windows. In other words, we live in a world that you can only approach through the five senses. What you can touch, taste, see, measure, calculate what Americans call measurable outcomes, but that's a shrunken world. And you can see we need take, say the human dignity. If we understand ourselves and humans, in terms of everything under the sun, you get down to we're tool makers and selfish genes and naked apes and this sort of thing, in other words, understand humanity downwards and you have a very low view of man. But when you bring in the Lord and you understand humanity upwards and we're made in the image and of God, quite different. And without transcendence, without the sense of the Lord, God himself, many of our views are shrunk.

Os Guinness: Now you think back to the traditional world, the unseen world was not unreal. You didn't have to be a Christian or a Jew, you could be a pagan and worship the spirit of the waterfall. That even so the unseen world was more real than the seen world. Whereas in the modern world, what's seen is real and anything unseen is not real. You remember the famous remark by Burtram Russell, "What science cannot discover, man cannot know." Well that is preposterous. You take freedom, science can't discover freedom. Or love, science can't discover love. And the very deepest things are not discoverable by science. Science is wonderful. The scientific method's incredibly fruitful. We're in favor of it strongly, but it has its limitations. And without knowing God, we're down to this shrunken secularist worldview, which is a disaster.

Scott Rae: I'd say that even Russell's statement itself is one of those things that science can't validate.

Os Guinness: No, you're right.

Scott Rae: You ask, I think, a really striking question in the book. You ask, "If meeting and purpose are so important to us, then why are so many people so careless about pursuing them today?" What would you say to that? Sort of answer your own question that you raised.

Os Guinness: Well Socrates's famous line about the unexamined life is not worth living, is probably the most quoted saying outside the Bible. And yet if it's true, many, many, many people, including intellectual people, are leading lives not worth living. Now why is that? And I've sort of ransacked answers back through history and in my own experience and the two major ones I think, are diversion and bargaining.

Os Guinness: Diversion, the idea you can see from Pascal or as TS Elliot said, "Humans can't face too much reality." So as Pascal says, "We surround ourselves with diversions." Busy, entertaining distractions. You think of triple screen gazing or some people just can't leave their mobile phone today. Our world is a world of total diversions and it stops people thinking about the meaning of life. Or bargaining's a little different. People say, "Yes, it's important. But later." When I graduated, when my kids are a little bit older, when the mortgage is paid off, when I've retired, later, later, later, and finally there's no more later. And Jesus said in one of his parables, "God says to a man, 'You fool. Tonight, your soul's required of you.'" And so on. So those to me are the two main reasons why people put it off, but anyone who realizes the meaning of life is absolutely basic and we need to think it through.

Sean McDowell: So I'm curious what you think is at stake in this quest and the search for meaning and why people should even care, especially because there's just a sense that truth is elusive and so hard to discover anyways.

Os Guinness: Well, meaning is incredibly important to every life. Everyone wants meaning, belonging and a storyline. Meaning gives us a sense of what the whole world's about. Belonging gives us security that we know where we fit in in our part of this. And the storyline is that the truth we come to see provides that story, the popular word today, narrative, through which we understand our life as it unfolds and works out. So meaning is incredibly important, meaning, belonging and a storyline. Of course, I'm arguing in the book that there's a rational way to see the deepest sense of that is faith in Christ.

Scott Rae: Let me follow up on that just for a moment. It seems like in culture today, meaning has become almost entirely subjective and it's divorced from the kind of narrative and ultimate questions that you're prescribing in the book that we look through so carefully at. How do you respond to people who say, "I create my own meaning, I forge my own path. And what's meaningful for me may not be meaningful for somebody else." How do we rescue the notion of meaning from this entirely subjective realm and move it back into a realm that's a bit more objective to think about?

Os Guinness: Well, as you know well, that's the product of postmodernism and it's kind of shredding of certainties and certainly truth, objective morality and objective reality and so on. So you end up with a purely personal truth that's highly subjective. So you have relativism, emotivism as Russo puts it. What I feel is good is good. What I feel is bad is bad and so on. And you get down to constructivism, everything's a matter what I constructing and so on.

Os Guinness: Well, on the surface, that looks terrific. In other words, postmodernism gives you an entitlement to your own truth, his truth, her truth, Oprah Winfrey style. But in fact, if that is true, if truth is dead, all that's left is power. And you can see that means everything's manipulable. So you're down to the world of George Orwell and you can say at the end of the day, all truths are equal, because we're all entitled to our own, but some truths are more powerful than others. In other words, those who glory in this relativism will find themselves on the receiving end of manipulating power.

Os Guinness: Now that's just one of the problems of this, but we need to uproot it. It is absolutely deadly. Rabbi Sachs, whom I follow on this point, he says a lot of people talking about climate change. What we need to understand is cultural climate change. And he doesn't say this, but I go on to it, there are three parts to that. One is philosophical cynicism through what you've described, postmodernism, nothing is true and nothing is certain, that leads to moral corruption, and that in turn leads to social collapse. And that was the binding in relationships and so on is unglued. And you can see America's suffering from this cultural climate change, which is far more damaging than climate change. And yet many people are unaware of it.

Sean McDowell: One of the sections in your book that really got my attention was the difference in how you say the Greeks and the Jews search for truth and meaning. Can you explain what that is and how that's relevant for our quest today?

Os Guinness: Well, a lot of people disagree with me about that, but as I see it, the Greeks put the whole emphasis on reason and they developed a system of understanding. Whereas you see in the Bible truth is approached through a story. Not in the sense it's only a story. No, but in the sense that people encounter God and truth in existential real life. And the importance of that is take say, the famous theistic proofs, the arguments for God. I don't think they work philosophically. They're far too complicated for most ordinary people. But the real problem is you don't have to stake your life on it. You can sit in an armchair, read this argument, that argument, do I believe it? And then sit back and say, all right, I believe there is a God theoretically, but do I believe in him or not?

Os Guinness: And I don't think that's the way people approach it. I think people start in a search and they stake their life on it. And it's existential in the sense what they discover has to affect their existence. And of course, in the course of that, like Moses of the burning bush or like Saul on the road to Damascus, we encounter the Lord in reality, in truth. And it's a very, very different way, the Jewish way from the Greek way. And I personally think far too much apologetics has gone the Greek way and we need to get back to the Jewish and the biblical way.

Scott Rae: But you would certainly acknowledge that some of the arguments for God, at the least, give a plausibility structure in which that in encounter with God, people can make sense out of that.

Os Guinness: Yeah, but I don't think.

Scott Rae: Go ahead.

Os Guinness: No, credibility and plausibility. Credibility is all about whether something is or is not true. Plausibility, whether it seems or appears to be true or not. And the theistic proof should be about credibility, not plausibility. Now they do show you that certain people, let's keep names out of this, are brilliant thinkers and they believe, and that's wonderful. Whether we go back in history to people like [inaudible 00:16:13] Selma and others or whatever, but I don't think that's the way to coming to know the Lord that you see is the biblical way.

Scott Rae: So let me follow up on that just a bit. You had mentioned as a part of the Jewish way of people coming to faith, the term you use in the book, I love the term you use, that oftentimes people are jolted into a search for meaning. Can you explain to our listeners a little bit more about what you mean by that? And some other examples of that?

Os Guinness: Well, the first phase or stage in the search is always a time for questions. As a question or life is called into question, what happens, their previous worldview is shattered or shown up to be inadequate in some way. So a question mark comes into life. Now, then the question is, how does that happen? Sometimes it's a health crisis. Sometimes it's a massive thing, like the collapse of the Soviet Union and people seeing through Marxism.

Os Guinness: But what I'm intrigued is what Peter Berger, again my mentor, called signals of transcendence. In other words, little experiences people have in their life, take CS Lewis, Surprise by Joy, and these experiences puncture what they used to believe is simply not adequate. And it also points beyond what they used to believe to something else that would have to be true if the experience is meaningful. And so they become searchers, they're not believers. The old faith is punctured and they're pointed to the search. And that's why this is all part of the phase one and that beginning of the search.

Os Guinness: And I've got a book coming out in September to follow up this one, but it's simply called Signals of Transcendence.

Sean McDowell: Oh, very good.

Os Guinness: I got another book that jumped in the way, but signals of transcendence, I've got 10 chapters with 10 different stories. One is Lewis, because it's so famous, but many aren't, of people who had signals of transcendence in their lives, that raised questions and they became seekers. Now, you know Lewis was a seeker from being an atheist for more than 10 years. So the signals don't jump you to faith. They just jump you out onto the quest.

Sean McDowell: Well, one of the things that jolted me in your book in a sense was the story of your wife. I've never had the privilege of meeting her. I paused and I thought, whoa, that is incredible, just didn't see that coming. And she experienced a kind of signal of transcendence in her life that really led to transformation. What was that story and that signal of transcendence that she experienced?

Os Guinness: Well, I've got a chapter on her, in the book that's coming.

Sean McDowell: Oh good.

Os Guinness: But put very simply she was at USC, did some fashion photography, one summer on a whim, launched suddenly into Korea. So she left college and went from San Francisco to Paris, to New York and became one of the top seven fashion models, cover girls in the world. And she at the age of 21, was on the cover of Vogue 12 times. And she was engaged to a French barron who was a mega-millionaire. His family was so old, they were allowed to ride into Notre Dame Cathedral on horseback.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Os Guinness: Anyway, he was friends of all sorts of people. And one weekend, they'd go to Paris every weekend, one weekend they were with Salvador Dali and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were there and people like this, it was an extraordinary surrealistic party. In those days you had women with antlers in their hair and men with jewel encrusted, narrow jackets, you name it.

Os Guinness: But at this particular party, Salvador Dali had his pet cheetah, what's called a little ocelot. And it had been declawed, defanged, de everything. And it was pacing around the room between the guests with a golden chain and so on. And Jenny looked at it and for an awful moment, she thought, this is an incredible caricature of what it was meant to be. And then she looked at the people with all the fancy dress and it just struck her, we too are caricatures and an abyss of meaninglessness opened up. And she said to her fiance afterwards, "We have got to search for the meaning of life."

Os Guinness: Anyway, that was the beginning. And a long while later she came to faith. But that's another story and a fuller story in the next book.

Scott Rae: Well, I think our listeners can look forward to when we have you on when that book comes out too. So we look forward to hearing those stories. So I think it'd be helpful for our listeners if you would just summarize the four stages of the quest for meaning that you outline in the book. We've talked about, the first one is you talk about raising questions, but what are the other stages? I guess, what guidance would you have for people who are kind of in the middle of this?

Os Guinness: Well, the danger of what I'm saying is that people turn it into a method, one, two, three, four, or a kind of prescription that becomes mechanical. I don't mean it like that. I've talked to thousands of people, as you guys have, and read the stories of countless people. And so this is a generalization based on that. And we're talking about thinking people coming to faith, not everyone comes that way.

Os Guinness: Stage one, a time for questions. As I said, that is when people realize their previous worldview, faith world, philosophy of life, inadequate. Questions, that's what makes the seeker, the searcher.

Os Guinness: Stage two, a time for answers. Now that sounds obvious. You have a question, you look for answers, but that stage is very critical, but there's more to it than just that stage. It's comparative because of course there are 1,001 answers in the world, there's a supermarket of answers today. But I would argue that the big three families of faith, eastern, the secularist and the biblical, and you need to compare that and people do, they think through and that stage, the key is you is adequacy. If I was to believe this or that, would it be adequate? Would it have illumination to throw light on my life and problem?

Os Guinness: The third stage, a time for truth, a time for evidences. And that's very, very key because in a post modern era, as you know, many people leave that out. I've got a problem, Jesus is the answer I believe. And they haven't convinced it's true, which is one of the major reasons so many people are dropping out. If it was true, it would be true if no one believed it and if every poll in the world was against it. And if it was not true, the Christian faith was not true, nobody should believe it. The only final reason to believe is that we're convinced that it is true Jesus is Lord. He did rise from the dead and so on and so on.

Os Guinness: The fourth stage, a time for commitments. None of the earliest stages by themselves run off. There has to be that moment when the whole person, the mind, the emotions, the will, step forward, not a leap, but a step of faith that's the whole person.

Os Guinness: And I think those four together, make up the four stages that lead to a faith that is fully responsible, but also fully rational. Not reason alone, but not against reason.

Scott Rae: Yeah. I so appreciate the emphasis here, but it raises a question, for Sean and I both, I think in our experience, especially with students today, we found that they are less frequently asking the question is Christian faith true? And they're more commonly asking the question is Christian faith good? How would you respond to that? And sort of recenter the conversation on, I think the ultimate question of, is Christian faith true? Because I grew up in the '60s also and that's the question we were asking at that time, is this true? And those things mattered deeply. Our experience today is that question doesn't matter quite as much as the question, is Christian faith good?

Os Guinness: Well for obvious reasons, Scott, as we said earlier, postmodernism has ruled out truth. So truth doesn't come in. And then people are not just interested in the evidences. They're interested, as you said, in things like justice and freedom and goodness and peace and things like that. And the question, this is more the challenge of phase two, which faith gives you the deepest answer for the questions you have?

Os Guinness: The current issue on many, many campuses is justice. Now I would say people should compare the dominant view in the campuses, which you can see in Black Lives Matter and CRT and all that stuff. I would argue that it's absolutely disastrous. In other words, all you do is set up a conflict of power, because there is no truth and there's no ideal justice. You have a conflict of power that ends in what's called, the Romans called it the piece of despotism. In other words, you have an unrivaled power able to put down all other powers, but along the way that is merciless.

Os Guinness: Even Douglas Murray, the danger of The Madness of Crowds, he's an atheist, is one of the features the radical left is his lack of mercy, cancel culture and so on. But the other problem is authoritarianism. You end up inevitably with the radical left view of justice in authoritarianism, a Caesar, a fuhrer, a president for life, you name it.Compare that with a biblical view of justice and you come out quite differently.

Os Guinness: So absolutely right, we don't start with evidences. That's stage three. Actually you said in the '60s, that was the issue. It may have been in some circles and in England we had books like Who Moved the Stone and so on before Sean's father. But at La Bree and with many of the radicals in the '60s, it was the presuppositions, the assumptions, which were all about justice and freedom and so on, which had to be considered first. So a lot of the student concerns are right.

Scott Rae: So just one short follow up on that. You described the three competing worldviews as faith, ultimately faith positions, would it be fair to say that everyone is a person of faith regardless of their worldview?

Os Guinness: Absolutely. Now we have to say, in other words, secularism is not religious in the sense of a belief in the supernatural, but it has a fundamental worldview. And you can read the great atheists, like Bertram Russell, Christopher Hitchens, Dawkins and so on and there's no question they have a worldview, and it's what the sociologist called the functional equivalent of religion. But it is a worldview, a philosophy of life, which does for the atheist, exactly what faith in Jesus does for us as Christians. So they are fundamentally religious too, in that sense.

Os Guinness: And that was why Calvin was dead right when he said, "The human heart is an idol factory." We're all producing something that gives us a sense of meaning and belonging. The odd thing is you have so much mocking of meaning today by the intellectuals. I mean the Oxford book on the meaning of life says something like it's only for mad men and comedians. That's absolutely mad. Everybody needs meaning because the alternative, meaninglessness is unlivable.

Sean McDowell: Os, your book is shorter than many, but obviously meaty and it's just packed with content. But I'm curious, how do you envision the book being used? Is it for Christians to understand the journey they've been on? Is it to give to a seeker? Is it to give to somebody who hasn't been yet jolted into meaning and maybe this will do it? How do you anticipate this book being used?

Os Guinness: My hope Sean, whether it comes out I don't know, I wrote it primarily for seekers. And I meet a lot of people who I'd put in that category, who are really wondering about the meaning of life. Now as a secondary purpose, I do hope Christians will enjoy it to understand why they believe what they believe. For example, many people have read great books like yours and your dad's on the situation of evidences. And they need people talking about other things and they need to have a bigger picture of some of this. So I hope it will be helpful to Christians, but primarily for Christians to give to seeking friends.

Os Guinness: And not many people have read it so far. It's not out as a book, coming out in March, but I'm gratified that the few who have read it have been really helped.

Sean McDowell: Well, I'm always looking for book suggestions to give to non-believers and this is one that's going to be at the top of my list. I think it's fantastic. It's interesting. I read it through twice. I took some notes and I'm anxious for our listeners to get a copy and I hope they will and share it with somebody. It's just balanced and really, really well written. So we look forward to having you back. Now I'm intrigued about your next book, which sounds awesome. But for now I hope our listeners will pick up a copy of The Great Quest by Os Guinness. Thanks for writing a great book and thanks for joining us again on the Think Biblically Podcast.

Os Guinness: Well, thanks Sean. And thanks Scott. It's always a pleasure to be with you.

Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. The Think Biblically Podcast is brought to you by Talbot School Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our masters in Christian apologetics now offered fully online where I teach. Visit biola.edu/talbot to learn more. If you enjoy today's conversation, please give us a rating on your podcast app and consider sharing it with a friend. Thanks for listening. And remember, think biblically about everything.