I remember teaching one of my favorite poems, Robert Frost’s Mending Wall, to a class of high school students. Its conclusion is less than clear. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” but “Good fences make good neighbors.” Which is it? Are walls between people good or bad? The poet leaves it ambiguous, a stand most students acknowledged as real. Some, however, needed an answer. Good or bad? Always right or always wrong? They couldn’t handle the uncertainty.
Part of the attraction of good literature is its beautiful mystery, its ability to make us think in new ways, imagine concepts, and see vistas we had not before. The funny thing is, what we don’t question in good reading material we consistently question in our theology.
Everything to do with God has two sides. Good or bad. Right or wrong. Always or never. We leave little room for mystery. This came to my mind this morning reading the beginning of Hebrews.
The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God.
What is God’s character? Holy. Separate. Absolutely forever set apart from all that is human and of the creation. In other words, not like me. In every way possible, so not like me.
And yet. God became like me. I don’t comprehend this. I have no template for the idea that an infinitely superior being whose very nature is set apart from all of creation became a part of that creation. The reality of it is beautiful, sweet, what C.S. Lewis referred to as joy – “the inconsolable longing in the heart for we know not what.”
No matter how many systematic theology books I read, I will never be able to explain this. (And neither will those theology writers.) Some theology is simply not systematic. It’s mystery.
Evangelicals have not handled this well, historically.
This matters, because as postmodern thought becomes more prevalent in the church, we must grapple with mystery. Postmodern thinkers coexist peacefully with ambiguity. They wear it comfortably like an old flannel shirt. Most of us who cut our theological teeth on deductive apologetics do not.
But why not? If we can appreciate and comprehend mystery in man-made literature, why can’t we accept it in something that is originally and inherently so “other” that we know we can’t begin to understand it? Why do we find it so threatening that some, usually younger, believers, embrace and even crave the “not-knowingness” of encounters with the Holy?
There are a host of sociological, historical, and psychological reasons. But I think, deeply, a lot of it has to do with our concept of God. To say I’ll accept mystery in one area of my knowledge of God is to run the risk that I’ll miss what is certain in another. If I admit I my never understand one thing, what if another thing is quite clear and I don’t catch it? I may not know all I can know about God. I may take something as not knowable when it is.
I may be wrong. And I don’t want to be wrong. I don’t want people to see me as wrong. I don’t want God to see me as wrong. But here is where my concept of God has gone astray. We have been taught to see God as Father, but to too many, it seems, that image conjures someone watching over our shoulder, checking up on our homework, making sure all our chores are done correctly and in good order. We imagine God as the eternal professor, marking our papers as right or wrong, A or F. Is your knowledge of the subject absolutely complete and accurate? All right, you pass.
The trouble is, this is not an image in the Bible.
In fact, in the Bible we see a lot of people who did wrong, thought wrong, and believed wrong who were beloved by God, befriended by God, and molded by God into his person. This itself is a bigger mystery than we can wrap ourselves around.
I am a modern thinker. I like things clear. I did not spend three years in high school debate discussing how something might or might not be valid. I knew what I knew, and I liked it that way.
But I am also tired of wrapping God up neatly in my personal box of truth. God does not do boxes well. I know from life that answers aren’t always at the ready and some of the most beautiful things cannot be logically explained. I have to be prepared to admit this is true theologically as well if I am to do life and church and faith with those who move more fluidly between black and white than I do.
“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made…whose kingdom shall have no end.”
On these truths, far older than my own, I will stand. Some others, yes, I’ve studied long and hard enough to believe them of great importance in God’s kingdom work. I believe they are true, not ambiguous. I am willing to have walls if absolutely necessary to forward that kingdom vision. That list of non-negotiables, however, shouldn’t be too long, as I am by nature prone to be a legalist. I need to guard against my own errors before those of others.
On others, I’m learning to listen. I’m trying to invite the mystery that there may be more than I had considered about them. I want to hear out thinkers who wonder and posit and want to stand beside me in agreement that there are things we may never know that should not keep us apart.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” but “good fences make good neighbors.” Ah, good theology as well as good poetry.
This post is an excerpt from Jill’s upcoming book, Just Hear Me Out: Conversations in the Generation Gap, which currently exists only on the computers of the two authors. But stay tuned.
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.