A Theology of Ideas

What is this pictured here?


Without hesitation, you would say grass. If not, you’re stupid (just kidding). If you did say grass, I’d say you are correct. No tricks here. But, let’s think about this a bit more.

You’ve never had experience of this particular grass (neither have I). In fact, you don’t know where this picture was taken. Who knows? Maybe it’s really high-quality AstroTurf. I don’t think that it is, but it could be, right? Well, let’s put that nonsense aside for a minute and assume that it is indeed grass.

So, how do you KNOW that it is grass? One might say, “well we can perform a scientific test on this stuff and find out if it is grass or not.” That would be true. However, in order to do that, you have to begin with an idea of grass. Only then do you have something to test to determine whether it fits the category. If you don’t have the idea of grass, then all you have is a bunch of unique, green blades that come out of the ground. None look exactly alike (though the differences are not always detected by the human eye), so we could potentially give each blade its own unique name. We lump them into one general category called grass because it helps us live in the world. But, again, let’s put that nonsense aside.

There’s a deeper problem …

You cannot test this particular grass because it’s not really grass … it’s a picture of grass. Those are pixels on a screen that look like grass – maybe pixels on a cell phone or computer. You are not seeing grass, but a visual representation of grass through a picture that I Googled and put in this post. Whatever is pictured here probably was grass, but what we are seeing is a screen with a picture on it.

Ugh. This is exhausting and stupid. Why can’t we just say it’s grass? We can. But this exercise is important for one big reason: Ideas matter.

Many of us live as if ideas don’t matter. We wrongly assume that the physical world is tangible and real; while ideas are changeable and based on personal preferences/opinions. Not only is that self-contradicting (the assumption itself is an idea which would make it changeable according to its own criteria), but it’s unlivable. You and I order our entire lives around ideas. Our ideas are what we believe to be true about reality. You cannot do otherwise. It’s the only way we can have meaningful conversations about anything. These ideas help us describe and navigate through this world.

Grass is a concept that we use to describe the green blades we encounter every day. So, we see the green blades coming out of the ground and call them ‘grass.’ If you didn’t have these ideas, life would be much harder if not impossible.

Don’t believe me? Think for a moment about time.

We all use the concept of time, and it’s very helpful. It’s how we know what time the movie starts, or what exact moment we should show up to a place for work or a meeting. In reality, we aren’t sure exactly what time is. In fact, recent findings show that time, as we know it, doesn’t exist, but instead something called ‘spacetime’ (for more on that, ask someone who loves physics and then buckle up for the nerd-a-coaster ride you’re about to go on). Nonetheless, “time” helps us navigate the real world and live a better life. Even though we might have some things wrong about time, we also have some things right and those things help us live in this world.

So, again, you and I live according to these concepts/ideas. We assume that these ideas accurately agree with reality (until we are shown that we are wrong). The kicker of it all is that we MUST live according to ideas and concepts. There’s no neutrality. To NOT make a decision is a decision in itself. It’s a decision informed by what you think is true, and that is guided by an idea or concept. So, it’s important that you get your ideas right. If not, you are literally out of line with reality.

There are some ideas that many don’t believe are that important. I say that because they spend little-to-no time thinking critically about these ideas. I want to offer a few questions. Your answers to these questions determine how you live. In other words, the ideas you have in answer to these questions literally change how you look at everything. Here they are:

Does God exist? If so, what is that God like and what does this God expect of humans (me)?

How do we know what is right and wrong?

Why is it possible to know anything at all?

What is good and how does a person live a good life?

What is the nature of the world (universe)?

What happens after death?

What, if anything, is the meaning of history in general, and my life specifically?

While you may or may not have thought about the answers to these questions, you are living answers to these questions. You have ideas, examined or unexamined, by which you order your entire life. And, those ideas matter.