Those who ask, “Why is it so?”, are tempted to think they have in their grasp the key to all answers.

The question appears on the cover of a university publication, accompanying a picture of a scientist. The man is obviously pondering some profound mystery. He stares into the distance, his bench with its complicated apparatus before him unseen. Some anomaly in the phenomena on which he has been working has struck him: he asks his question. And the university sees the man and his problem as a good symbol of what being a university is all about.

And it is a good symbol. A university in its restless quest for knowledge must constantly ask. “Why is it so?” When it thinks it has all the answers and ceases to ask such questions it ceases to be a university. It may be a place where learned men gather. It may have impressive buildings and equipment. Its library may be extensive. But if it has lost the spirit of earnest inquiry it has ceased to be a university, whatever it may call itself.

The question is a good one to ask in many areas of life, some far from a university. An uncritical acceptance of things as they are breeds slothfulness and stands in the way of progress. The forward looking must always be asking why things are as they are and whether they might be improved. There can be no advance as long as we remain in a stolid, unquestioning acceptance of the status quo. The question must be asked.

But there are dangers in asking it. The obvious one is that it can lead those who ask it to think they have in their grasp the key to all answers—in principle, at any rate. This is the constant temptation of the academic. He is aware he has answered many questions that ordinary people cannot answer. He is aware he is asking important questions of which ordinary people do not even think. He can set himself apart from others. Academic excellence and humility do not always go together. They are not always separated, either, and it is a wonderful thing to meet the academic who is humbled before his discipline.

But he is not the only academic: there are others whose pride is real. And for them there can be unbounded confidence in the reliability of their method. Einstein is reported to have said that every really deep scientist must necessarily be religious. His contact with the universe will lead him to see that there is more there than nontheistic assumptions can account for. But not all scientists agree. For some of them the posing of the question and their attempts to answer it are all that matter.

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This easy assumption that because I can ask the question I can answer it runs through much of modern life. It is behind a good deal of the current rebellion against authority, for example. We ask why parents should have authority—or police or legislators or whoever takes our fancy at a given time. If we find that we can give no answer we take it for granted that there is no answer and no reason why such people should have authority.

I am not arguing for an uncritical acceptance of all authority figures. It is clear that many have claimed authority unjustly and also that many who are rightly in positions of authority have exercised their authority improperly. There has been room for change and for the recognition that in the past we have all too often given too much authority to too many. It is well that the situation should change.

But there are bad reasons as well as good ones for challenging authority. True, it is necessary to ask, “Why?” But if we find ourselves unable to give a reason, that does not mean there is no reason. There is room for a decent humility here.

It is worth reflecting that in any case, few of us in fact do without an authority of some kind. It has often been pointed out that in some of the modern cults young men and women are invited to throw off their submission to traditional authorities like parents, but then are required to submit totally to their messianic guru. They have not ceased to be subject to authority: they have merely exchanged one authority for another.

The same can be said of many who are outside the cults. The authority of one’s peers can be compelling. So can it be with the authority of “the party” or of one’s class or others.

I am not arguing that we should not ask the question. It is a good and necessary question and in many areas of life it should have been asked long ago. I am saying that we must be very careful about what we do with the answer. Rightly used it can be of incalculable benefit. Wrongly used it can destroy us. It can be made the justification for a strongly materialistic way of life.

There are many in the communities with which I am familiar who see a traditional respect for ideals and principles. They ask, “Why is it so?” and find themselves unable to give an answer. Perhaps they find the wicked flourishing like a bay tree (as the psalmist did), which deepens their conviction that there is no answer. So they accept the triumph of selfishness and wrongdoing as just the way life is. They give themselves over to a self-defeating life that concentrates on its own success. This “success” generally turns out to be concerned with the multiplication of goods and pleasures.

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And, of course, our question can lead to the ultimate blasphemy. Because they see no reason for the existence of things as they are, many of our contemporaries go on to assume that there is no reason. They cannot work out why God should make things so, so they assume that there is no God and no making of things. Man is made the measure of everything. What man cannot explain (they hold) cannot exist. This is an obvious fallacy.

I do not mean that Christians should argue for a “God of the gaps,” a God who is progressively nudged out of the universe as our horizon of knowledge extends. I am not saying that we should believe in God because our scientists cannot explain everything. I am saying that our ability to ask the question, “Why is it so?” does not give us unlimited rights. It never gives us the right to say, “Because I find no reason there is no reason.” It does not justify us in denying God.

Indeed, the question is worth asking in the religious sphere. It cannot be denied that through the centuries there have been many who have reported that they have experienced the love and the power of God. It cannot be denied that in our own day there are many who report the same thing. While there are places where the church shows little vitality, there are others where there is abundant life.

In both areas the question should be asked. In the one the easy, atheistic or agnostic solution is challenged. The phenomena are real and are not to be denied. Why are lives changed when people put their trust in Christ? Why is “the peace of God” a reality in so many lives? Why should we not accept the testimony of those who report that they have come to know God?

In the other, believers are called to search their hearts. There is no lack of love or power in God, even though God’s people do not always respond to them. The church should never lack love or life or vigor. If it does, the question must always be put, “Why is it so?”

Leon Morris is principal of Ridley College, Victoria, Australia.

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