I had a fun, unplanned conversation with two students (both from Asian countries) at lunch yesterday in the cafeteria at Evergreen. In response to their inquiry about a book I had with me, we talked at length about our respective religious experiences—good and bad.
One of them was intrigued by my interest in theology, though made a comment that has stuck with me. It was something like (paraphrased): I like philosophy more than theology. Philosophy just asks questions; theology gives too many answers.
Whether or not one agrees with that assessment—perhaps you have a rather answer-less theology or have resolved most of your philosophical questions—I think I understand the sentiment behind it.
In listening to her talk a bit it seems that, not surprisingly, her ambivalent opinions about religion and theology are colored by past experience. Such as others' dogmatic rebukes of her own shortcomings, presented with a certainty that left little room for doubt and pressured her toward acquiescence instead of giving her the space to think, inquire, wonder, search, and wrestle.
Does theology seek to resolve too many mysteries of life? I don't really think so. I'd say that it’s not theology but the individual or community who is responsible for that.
Theology seems to provide the right language, the right framework, the right questions, and a whole host of examples throughout history of those who have individually and corporately tried to articulate life’s mysteries to the fullest extent they could, in a way that brought some clarity to questions of meaning and purpose but also gave direction for how to rightly live life, day-to-day.
In my experience, it is people who often give too many answers, to others and to themselves. Sometimes I think people can even be a little dishonest with each other, thinking they aren’t prepared to live with uncertainty and mystery—and faith?—so they convince themselves and others that things are a little more spelled out then they are.
“Heaven is exactly like this. Paul without a doubt meant this. The Bible ‘says’ you shouldn’t do that. Prayer always works this way, if you just do it right. That happened for a reason, don’t worry. God can’t be found in your religion. There’s only one way to be a Christian, it looks like this.” And so on. And I’m not sure those things are said as often as they are implied.
I think one of the more freeing (maybe anxiety-producing for some) elements of postmodernity is an awareness of our subjectivity, of our limitations as knowers, and the need for engagement with others to move closer toward grasping Truth. We can be at peace with not knowing everything. We can be honest about our doubts. We can more deeply discover the value of faith and trust. We can find meaning in leaning on others.
Of course some have responded to such an intellectual and cultural climate with an agnosticism that says it’s impossible to make truth claims about anything. Others have reacted and asserted their beliefs more strongly, feeling like it’s a sign of weak faith to do otherwise, or maybe afraid if they’re wrong about one thing, they’re wrong about everything. That’s an all-or-nothing approach I don’t find necessary.
I’m at least trying to be comfortable with the tension, living with something like a humble boldness in how I express my theology (trying). I told my student that I’m probably somewhere in the middle of her spectrum. I have a lot of questions that I don’t yet have answered, some that I maybe don't need answered, but enough things I’m fairly certain about that I’m willing to put my trust in them and count on their truthfulness.
I don’t really feel like I use “I’m sure” or “I’m certain” that often in my religious life. Phrases like “I hope” and “I have faith that...” or maybe even “I haven’t found a better explanation, so, why the hell not?” have more of a place in my spirituality.
And I find that sufficient. I can live with the things I feel strongly about: God is good; love is the key; evil is real; Jesus’ way can transform; the future is bright and hopeful; peace is God’s way; Paul wrote in a culture with very different views about women; the Jewish people have a long history of homelessness and wandering; Jesus’ disciples ate a lot of fish.
And I can live with mystery and unresolved questions. How present is God in your religious tradition, relative to my own? How do judgment and hell and heaven really work? Who will be saved? What’s the best way to apply Jesus’ way to the ethical quandaries of today, which often aren't easily solvable with quick references to Scripture? How will the suffering of so many innocents find any redemption or justice or meaning? And, what was Ruth really doing that night in the tent to Boaz?
To some of those questions I’m working at finding answers. For others, the answers seem to change. Some of them I realize don't demand answers, because the answers are not necessary for my living of a full, abundant life in harmony with others, with the earth, and with our Creator.
But some of the answers might be pretty important, because they might help us find ways of stopping so many people from hating and killing one another. Even if we can only answer them more fully—not completely—well, that’s a start…and a worthy pursuit.
As I departed, I wished my student friend well on her religious quest. I hope she finds some answers. But not too many answers. Then she’d be a know-it-all. Nobody likes a know-it-all.