* Why, it’s for you! *
Greetings from Firenze, Italy—also known as “Florence.” I’m in a café drinking cappuccino at the moment. It might seem strangely forward of me to start off reporting on my circumstances like this, as we don’t yet know each other; but since this is to be the first in a series of columns, and since you are my target audience, I hope to change that. So please allow me to introduce myself: I’m Dr. X.
I mean by the X that I’m no one in particular, of course. Not much of an introduction, I know, but it can’t be helped: I have to remain anonymous to protect my subject. Even my gender’s a secret. I hope that adds a bit of intrigue if nothing else.
I should nevertheless report briefly on what qualifies me to write a column about getting to know Why. As for my professional qualifications, suffice it to say that I’ve pursued advanced studies with profound minds in each of the Big Three (philosophy, science, and religion) and have lived and worked on several continents, sometimes as an academic. Maybe you’ll make me larger than life if I leave the rest to your imagination.
But my professional training and experience are arguably less important than my long acquaintance with the subject of my column, and this is because my subject is a person I’ve been getting to know ever since he first started getting to know himself. He came to me “to talk” while struggling with his identity some decades ago, and our bond has been growing ever since. I call him Why.
As a young man, Why asked “why?” so often and with such seriousness that his relatives feared for his well-being. “You think too much,” his mother often said. In other words, “You ask too many questions about things you’re just supposed to know already. What if the answers don’t come out right? What if you lose your soul?”
Lots of children ask questions that terrify their parents, of course. But most of us quickly acquiesce in someone’s answers—usually the answers of whoever dominates. You might think academics are beyond this; but those who honestly remember writing their dissertations will say it isn’t so. Faced with dozens of philosophical perspectives, mountains of literature, intimidating professors, and a time limit—what do you do? Do you read all that literature, meditate over it, slay your biases, and let Truth slowly dawn on you? Certainly not. You acquiesce, more or less. And you do it because uncertainty is unmanageable, to survive and maybe reproduce. So it is in the sciences as in the humanities—don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Wisdom is what predominates in the resulting struggle for survival.
When I first met him, Why was struggling desperately to acquiesce in the dominant perspective of his home culture, which included Bible-thumping of all varieties. He had come to my university as a young-Earth creationist to study philosophy and geology, only to be plunged under a Flood of doubt and confusion as a consequence. Thus began his long fight for life and sanity against the threat of meaninglessness.
Thankfully, he’s survived. Even better, he’s survived as Why. I mean to say that he never stopped asking questions, never quite acquiesced. He surrendered the faith of his parents, but not in exchange for someone else’s. Instead, he learned to pursue doubt, sustain uncertainty, and value diverse opinions however strange to him. And now, decades later, he’s Doctor Why: a highly trained systematic philosopher—and a promising one, his professors say. I’d like to think I had something to do with that.
Why feels he’s moving “full spiral” these days. “Not full circle,” he quickly adds. “Not back to the Evangelicalism I started from, but spirally into a perspective that includes it and what I left it behind for.” He thinks he’s discovering an alternative to both exclusivism and relativism: a philosophy of nature that promises to underwrite the ecumenical, environmental, liberation, and peace movements by bringing opposed viewpoints into synthesis and emphasizing the value of others. He says his life—even the world—is coming to make sense once again because of it.
I’m thrilled for him. What’s more, despite my incredulity, I’m intrigued by his emerging inclusive vision. Unsettled and engaged by it even. You might be too, if you heard it. You might even help me determine what to make of it.
So, with permission—and, I dare to hope, with participation—from Why, I’ll here recount his intellectual development and reflect critically on it. I write as a well-informed representative of the dominant intellectual culture here in the West: as a philosophical naturalist inclined toward the political left. But I promise nevertheless to faithfully represent Why’s own perspective—despite taking some poetic license with it. Along the way, I hope to model a fruitful dialogue between two rather opposed personalities.
The farthest out of Why’s present speculations is that reality itself tells a Hero’s Tale and it’s up to us whether it turns out Tragic or Comic. I seriously doubt that’s true (to the extent I understand it); but I don’t doubt that it’s inspiring—and unsettling and engaging, as I said earlier. So I hope you’ll join me here each month to follow along on Why’s long, strange, and often difficult journey. May it resolve finally into a comedy—even if not one of cosmic proportions.