C.S. Lewis famously compared Christianity with the sun, because just as it is through the sun that we see all things, it is through Christianity that all things become intelligible: “by it I see everything else”, he wrote. Christianity gives us a worldview. If one is a Christian, one is not merely affirming a set of propositions about God, Christ, and creation, but rather one is tethering oneself to a person – the creator and redeemer of the world. This person who stands behind history is thus also the person who gives history its meaning and calls us to see ourselves within it. Christianity bids us to not see how the story of the universe revolves around us, but to see us as a part of a larger story in which God is the main character. It forces us to locate ourselves within a story that is already being told, and invites our participation into that story.
Faith, therefore, is not merely an intellectual assent or an act of the volition – a singular moment that can be bracketed away from the other moments in our lives, but rather that which motivates all of our other acts. It is by faith that we order our actions (in both thought and deed) into a single whole, and it is by faith that we are able to locate that whole within the unfolding story about which Christianity speaks.
So, Oliver O’Donovan writes this profound train of thought:
…faith not only initiates, enables, and shapes a life; it accompanies it, acquiring concreteness through the actions which it animates. There may be paradoxical tensions between the inner and the outer aspects of an active life, between (let us say) the humility of a scholar and the proud boasts he makes for the truths he has discovered, or between the affectionate disposition of a ruler and the harshness of the judgments he makes. Yet such paradoxes must, in the end, be resolved in a coherent narrative. We cannot simply stipulate, with the romantics, that it is the inner person that counts, and that outward actions neither add to not detract from the innocence without… Faith is the categorical act, the source of a life’s activity, and precisely as such may be known from the acts that spring from it.
Faith, then is a beginning, and beginnings point beyond themselves; they anticipate subsequent developments. Faith thus anticipates the conditions of worldliness and temporality that affect all action; it is an oppenness to world and time, a competence to appreciate meaning and to form purposes. – Finding and Seeking, p. 27.
Before this, O’Donovan writes
[The Reformers] sought to understand what makes a string of actions cohere as life, and asked what makes a life as a whole worth living, acceptable to God as a totality. The separate acts that go to make it up cannot bear the burden of conferring meaning on the whole. Their meaning must be given by the life, and not vice versa. Faith is the moral center of the life, around which other acts cohere and find their larger justification. – Finding and Seeking, p. 26
Faith, therefore, is what enables us to give a coherent account of all of our actions, and it allows us to see those acts not as moments of random flickers connected merely by the string of time, but rather as intelligible expressions of a life who is a part of the story of God. It gives purpose to those events and acts, and it provides the context in which we deliberate about the future and reflect on the past.
This provides a nice account, it seems to me, of the distinction between a well-lived, flourishing life, and a life that merely ‘exists.’ It accounts for our desire to say that the life that we live in is a life that is filled with meaning rather than a life that is incoherent. The well-lived life is one in which one can say: “the reason I did this for that period of time was because God was doing this, and I had to follow” – it is the antithesis of the aimless wanderer who sees no purpose or unifying person or reason behind his actions. It tells us the coherent story of a fall, of a redeemer, and of a mission for a people – to witness to a future kingdom in which sin and suffering is no more, and to proclaim the good news that the Messiah, Jesus, had come to forgive us of our sins. It forces us to locate our vocation, weeks, days, relationships, and thoughts into this pre-existing story, to participate in it through our individuality and personhood.
This is why a secular account of virtue and ethics will always be wanting. It provides no thick and meaningful narrative into which we can find ourselves – no ultimate purpose for our living. In that context, there is no possible narrative that we can give that unifies the various events that obtain in our lives, no narrative that connects our actions.
It is in this way, too, I think, that we can think about Cornelius Van Til’s transcendental approach: it is Christianity that gives us the necessary pre-conditions for living and thinking consistently, because it is in God that we find our purpose – it is only through Christianity that we can see all things rightly.