I was recently in Washington DC to do an event at the headquarters of National Geographic. I have a friend there who is a member of the staff team – and is a Christian. He organises an event every couple of months, which a Christian speaker is invited to address. They invite anyone at National Geographic who might be interested to come along for a sandwich lunch and a lively, thought-provoking talk followed by Q&A and discussion.
It was the third time I have been there, and it was a real privilege to be invited back again to speak. The first time I was there I spoke on “Science and Beauty”, the second time was “What Does it Mean to be Human” and this time I spoke about the “Pursuit of Happiness”. That’s a talk I do a lot – particularly in places like this where people are working incredibly hard, as the culture in journalism is quite ‘driven’. In those kinds of contexts, it’s very easy for people to base their identity on their work, performance, pay-grade, how many cover-stores they’ve landed – and so forth. So in my talk I addressed the question of where identity lies.
The conclusion of the talk was the story of Charlie Duke, who was an astronaut on Apollo 16. In his autobiography, “Moonwalker” he describes how he tried to find his identity in speed, excitement, adventure – ultimately in going to the moon. However, he found that once he’d been to the moon; where to go next?! That linked into National Geographic quite well, as they’ve given extensive coverage to the Apollo Programme recently because it is the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing.
We had a great Q&A session after my talk. There was one question in particular that stood out. A woman seemed to be struck by the fact that the things we usually look to in order to find happiness don’t work; and had figured out the religious implications of that. Her question was ‘is it possible to find ultimate happiness in a secular way – without reference to any form of spirituality?’ I basically, but rather gently said, ‘no’, and explained why I thought that the three lower levels of the human search for happiness, such as food and sex (animal happiness), success, or even in serving others, all run out, because they are not designed to be ultimate.
Finally though, when considering the kind of ultimate happiness which comes from living for something genuinely bigger than ourselves (something Christian believe only truly comes from having a relationship with Christ) then that kind of happiness reflects back on the other things, because we can then properly enjoy things like food, sex, success, and serving others because they don’t becomes ways in which we desperately try to find identity. Rather – they become good gifts, that we can enjoy and give God thanks for. As such – the whole package makes much more sense.
So, it was hugely enjoyable and a great privilege to be back at National Geographic, and engaging a lively and thoughtful audience outside the church; with a distinctly Christian and gospel-centred world-view.
Andy Bannister is director the Solas Centre of Public Christianity