When I was nine, I wanted to be a detective. With my official children’s guide, I researched invisible ink, tracks and Clues. I was confident that as soon as I actually encountered a mystery I would solve it. As a nine-year-old, I was deeply disappointed that there weren’t children being kidnapped so I could discover the culprit. As an adult, however, I am grateful to have had a childhood so privileged that the only mystery I encountered was why Santa Claus’ presents were wrapped up in our own wrapping paper. (That one I worked out for myself. More or less.)
When I was 17, someone asked me why God allowed disasters to happen. Fumbling over my answer, it was her question that stuck with me. For the next decade, I went on a quest to solve the mystery, reading books upon books of philosophy and theology to find a way to tie all the ends up neatly, just like a detective novel. I also found ways of reconciling how miracles happened in the Bible, with a mixture of natural and supernatural means, seeking to unite science and religion seamlessly.
I found answers. But it was the questions that stayed with me.
I wanted to solve the mystery. Others are happy to label the problem as an impenetrable mystery and hold it there. There’s merit in that. But I’m a questioner.
Sometimes I have asked ‘but why?’ questions and received the response, ‘We can’t know: it’s a mystery’, which can sound suspiciously like the Christian version of, ‘Shut up and don’t ask difficult questions’.
Sometimes I have asked, ‘but why?’ and received the response, ‘There’s no mystery, here’s how it works…’ – which also sounds remarkably like a Christian version of ‘shut up’.
We stick solutions on the question, or we shut down the question.
Sometimes we rush to definite answers because we fear the question.
Sometimes we dismiss the question because we fear the answers.
I don’t wish to caricature: there is merit in both approaches. It’s good to search for answers and use our minds for theology and philosophy. Simultaneously, it’s important to realise our limitations. There’s wisdom in acknowledging our lack of knowledge. Usually, the best approach is a combination of both.
Today, however, I’m wondering if there’s a different way of approaching paradox and mystery.
Take, for example, the annual question of the incarnation. It is a mystery: how could Mary be impregnated by the Holy Spirit? Is there such a thing as a God-sperm? Was it a pre-fertilised egg from heaven? How can one person be all-knowing God but still seem surprised when the disciples lack faith?
I see the mystery as a diamond in the middle of a huge lump of rock.
We can get a hammer out and smash our way to a solution – two neat answers to every question, a nice clean line – but the diamond is damaged in the process.
Or we could use our foot and kick the lump of rock away – we risk either not finding or damaging the diamond, so it is futile to try.
But suppose we take the huge lump of rock and the tiniest rock hammer, and we tap, tap, tap away, trying to get at the truth. It’s slow-going, and we may never hold the whole diamond in our hands in this lifetime. But we know there is a diamond somewhere in there, and so we persevere with care, trying to find the shape and colour of the truth.
In approaching mystery, we rush to solve it or shut it down. But what if the third option is savouring it? What if wonder is a more appropriate response to the mysteries of God?
Think of the shepherds, who wondered. Think of Mary, who pondered and treasured it all in her heart.
My friend Amy Robinson reminds me to reclaim our ‘wow’ in life – reframing what we take for granted as something to revere.
I consider a walnut, hidden beneath a hard shell, secretly delicious. Salmons swim upstream back to their home. I have a son, created from my DNA, who is like me but unique. Every day, there is wonder.
There are mysteries, and our response can be ‘wow’.
Even in death and suffering, there is a wow, of sorts, as we pause to face a darkness we cannot understand. I struggle to find the wow in suffering. I wish there were no suffering. There is a place for wrestling and anger and questions. I watch friends enduring horrendous amounts of pain, and I weep and rage with frustration for them. Suffering is not good – never good. But watching someone persevere in the face of suffering is like admiring an explorer climb an impossible mountain: it indicates the tip of a diamond, even in the darkest of places. Seeing suffering close-up is is awful and aweful.
I ask myself: what is the goal of theology? I used to think it was to get to the point where we no longer ask questions. But this side of heaven, questions are God’s invitation to wonder at this world, wrestle with the things of God, or hold, with quiet awe, the incomprehensible secrets of birth, death and everything in between. Wow.
Over to you:
- Given that there is merit in all these ways of approaching mystery, what’s your approach: solve, label or wow? How happy are you with your approach?