Misfit Disciples in an Orthodox World

Misfit Disciples in an Orthodox World
"You had better be a round peg in a square hole than a round peg in a round hole. The latter is in for life, while the first is only an indeterminate sentence." – Elbert Hubbard

Living with Questions: the Virtues of Not Knowing

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Wow! It has been allot longer than I had planned since my last update to this site. I've got a few other blogs and I've decided to migrate most of them over to this one and use this blog entirely for all of my interest. But, man, I have sure been lazy in getting this effort up and off the ground. Thankfully, there are not many of you that know of this site, so I've not left many readers disappointed. 

It is time, however, to go ahead and get the ball rolling. So, here's the first installment of what I hope will be many post relating to matters of faith, scripture, politics, as well as many other intellectual pursuits that I have. 

My early faith tradition did not assign any real value, beyond a mere historical one, to the portion of the Catholic bible known as the Apocrypha. Obviously, there are many many Christians today who put as much value on these scriptures as they do to any other portion of the Hebrew bible. But, the tradition that I was raised in, to their own detriment, in my opinion, did not see the apocryphal scriptures as being equal to or even a valid part of a Christian canon. 

As a result, I came to these scriptures much later in life and it has only been recently that I've spent any quality time perusing these texts. This mission of discovery, or recovery mission, if you will, has led me to some valuable finds and I am sorry it has taken me this long to realize that these scriptures are there and that they have much to say, in tandem with, the scriptures that have come to mean allot to me over the years.

I've recently picked up the late James Agee's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Death in the Family. Early on in this novel, there is comical exchange around the breakfast table between Mary Follet and her young children, Rufus and little Catherine. Mommy is trying to explain to her children that their paternal grandfather is very sick and might die, and the kids are wrestling with the big ideas of heaven and what death means. This little mundane exchange of ideas captures the essence of the multitude of questions that children have asked over time, and the many ways that adults have answered these questions in an ongoing effort to help them understand these very complex ideas:

"Mama," Rufus said, "when Oliver went to sleep did he wake up in heaven too?"
"I don't know. I imagine he woke up in a part of heaven God keeps specially for cats."
"Did the rabbits wake up?"
"I'm sure they did if Oliver did."
"All bloody like they were?"
"No, Rufus, that was only their poor little bodies. God wouldn't let them wake up all hurt and bloody, poor things."
"Why did God let the dogs in?" [evidently, the dogs were guilty of hurting the rabbits]
"We don't know, Rufus, but it must be part of His plan we will understand someday."
"What good would it do Him?"[...]"What good would it do Him, Mama, to let the dogs in?"
"I don't know, but someday we'll understand, Rufus. If we're very patient. We mustn't trouble ourselves with these things we can't understand. We just have to be sure that God knows best."
"I bet they sneaked in when He wasn't looking," Rufus said eagerly. "Cause He sure wouldn't have let them if He'd been there. Didn't they, Mama? Didn't they?" [p. 60]

I doubt there are many of us who can't relate to the exchange above, either as questions that we ourselves asked as kids or questions we've attempted to answer as parents. No matter how smart we think we are, when faced with the inquisitive mind of a child, we can quickly be faced with much that we can't explain or answer. All we can do, as Mary demonstrates above, is do our best to answer these questions as logically and as honestly as we know how. While most children will not accept it, we must also be willing to admit when we do not know something, or understand. 

This leads me to the fact that life in general, and even faith itself, is full of, and can lead to, many questions. These questions will challenge us and often times, make us uncomfortable, especially if we're the type person who has to have all the answers. There are many faith traditions that specialize in having all the answers; but really, its no different than the adolescent questions above, the more we say we have all the answers, the more questions arise and the more we simply prove that we don't know everything. 

This is where my mention of the apocrypha above comes into view. The book of Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus, has the familiar tone of the bible's wisdom literature. Written in the same style as Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, the book is made up of many proverbs. For whatever reason, when I first started thumbing through these apocryphal books, my attention was drawn to this book of Sirach and to its many proverbial statements. Early into the book, I stumbled upon this saying:

“Neither see what is too difficult for you, nor investigate what is beyond your power. Reflect upon what you have been commanded, for what is hidden is not your concern. Do not meddle in matters that are beyond you, for more than you can understand has been shown to you.” [3:21-23; NRSV]

One of the most important faith decisions that I've made in recent years is that I really do not have all answers and that this is okay. The fact is, there are many things that I simply do not know, and many more, that I do not understand. And to be honest, just as little Rufus above didn't know if cats or rabbits were in heaven, if dogs that injure and kill them are there, and if they are, where they might be and why would God let them in... those little questions illustrate so well the questions that can often haunt us and leave us frustrated and exhausted. 

We have constructed entire theological systems to answer questions, developed systematic theologies to give us the answers in neat outlines, to tell us who God is and who we are and what happens when we die... And, I know that these things are very important to some people and that their minds will not allow for ambiguity or contradiction, compromise or uncertainty. And, less there be any misunderstanding, I do not look down on you if you feel that way. I used to be that way. But, it was years and years of trying to keep all my questions and answers straight, trying to make sure my faith would fit in a neat package, that my faith made sense to others, that I finally come to the understanding and resolution that it doesn't always work out that way. And further, that you can have unresolved questions, answers that don't fit, and still be secure and live one's life with a sense of conviction.

Being free to simply say, "I don't know," is one of the greatest freedoms I've ever enjoyed. Not only did that impress me, but when I finally come to understand that even  God doesn't expect me to have all the answers, or that God is okay should I choose to change my mind, impressed upon me an even greater sense of relief!

This new found freedom can be disconcerting at times. It is really hard to turn your back on decades of learned behavior. I don't think we should ever enact this liberty simply because we are too lazy to do the work of reading and praying and searching for the answers. It certainly does not excuse us from the search. But, at the end of the day, when we can't answer some questions with certainty, then I know God understands, and is more than okay with it, and will give us the peace we need to continue on in spite of it all.

So, with this freedom comes peace. But, there are other rewards as well. Just because I don't have the answer today does not mean that I will never have the answer. Being content in this state of limbo, if you will, teaches us a degree of patience. Patience to keep on doing what we know to do, even when do not always understand why we are doing it. 

This patience will help lead us to spiritual maturity. It will build character in our lives and help us grow. This is not just abstract growth in general, but growth, rather, in our faith. Growing in faith is growing in certainty; being certain, beyond any doubt of the answers we do have and the belief that God will take care of the answers that we do not have. 

This will help deal with our pride. Pride tries to get us to lean upon ourselves, to trust in our own ability to sustain ourselves, even upon our ability to define the right question. But, this is often the biggest problem. Sometimes we lack satisfying answers because we are not asking the right questions. Being able to subjugate our lives to God, without having all the right answers, even the right questions, will reap huge benefits in our lives. 

Lastly, the disconcerting nature of not having all the answers will help us to listen. Our understanding God and His will and all that he wants us to know is a work in progress. Genuine faith provides for an ongoing revelation, as God chooses when and how to reveal Himself to us. 

In conclusion, and in light of all this, what are some things that you have come to realize that you do not know about God and eternity? Are there things that others are sure about, but you, not so much? How do you navigate these things? What role does one's heart play in all this?  


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