Stuff Worth Knowing

There is the old joke about the helicopter pilot, lost in Seattle air space in the fog with a panic-stricken passenger. Suddenly, out of the fog looms a tall building. The pilot, running low on fuel, grabs a bullhorn and shouts to one of the people in the window, “Where am I?”

The man in the window, shouts back, “You’re in a helicopter!” The passenger panics even further when he realizes that’s all the help they are getting, but the pilot smiles knowingly, charts a course and makes it safe to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

When they land, the amazed passenger asks how he did it. The pilot replies, “The guy gave an answer that was perfectly true, but utterly worthless. Therefore, I knew he had to be a Microsoft tech support guy, so I plotted a course from Redmond, Washington to SeaTac Airport and here we are!”

I think of that joke sometimes when thinking about how our culture tends to approach life. I think one of the biggest disconnects between how we are actually made by God and how the world speaks to us is more or less suggested by this joke.

St. Augustine said long ago that God made us for himself and that our hearts are restless till they rest in him. We all ask, in our heart of hearts, huge questions: Who am I? Where do I come from? What should I do? Where am I going? In so doing, we reveal ourselves to be larger than the world itself.

And so the world responds by offering us answers that are smaller than we are. Answers that are true, but stupid. “You are made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. You came from your parent’s DNA. You should work, buy, consume, and die. You are going to rot and provide nutrition for an earthworm.”

All these answers are true, so far as they go, but they don’t go far. They’re small. Like the answer of the Microsoft Tech Support guy in the joke. But because they are true, any normal person who feels a normal desire to punch the mouth of the person giving such answers is told, “You just can’t face reality.”

But this is false. As false as saying the helicopter pilot in the joke is bound to hover where is till he runs out of gas and crashes in the fog. There is something outside Redmond. There is something–Someone–outside this universe.

The falsehood relies (like all falsehood) on a grain of truth: we are creatures of earth, needing earthly things and having a not-too-pleasant earthly destiny in store for our mortal bodies. But it is still false to ultimate reality. For it snookers us by preoccupying us with less noble things of earth that are more easily knowable so that we don’t seek the more noble things of Heaven that are less knowable. And we often play along. It’s easy to talk about the weather and sports and politics, after all. But we feel embarrassed and daunted and dumb trying to talk about the thirst for honor, beauty, hope, meaning, and love that is the endless hunger of our soul. Nonetheless, somewhere, somehow, someway we have to do it. We cannot take the easy way of filling our lives solely and exclusively with food, politics, art, science, and business. If we do, the day must come when we scream, “They are nice as far as they go, but so what?”

It is the Great So What? that is the ultimate question of our culture. All worldly philosophy is, in the end, the attempt to pretend that “You are in a helicopter” is an adequate reply to you and me, who are faced with Ultimate Questions of Life and Death and who find such true-and worthless-replies strangely unsatisfactory. The whole of the Christian revelation is the staggering reality that God can guide us to a safe landing and our true home, beyond the world.

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