January 05, 2007

Right Answers

Back in college, when a friend invited me to join a group of students that met once a week for Bible study, I was thrilled. Most of the students I knew—even those who, like me, were recipients of large church scholarships—had little interest in reading the Bible. Until I received this invitation, the only Bible study I could find on campus was led by a Catholic nun; and sometimes I was the only student who showed up.

My friend's group met in a second-floor classroom during lunch. It was led by Ray and Lisa, two people who didn't look much older than us college students. They worked full-time for Campus Crusade at the big public university down the road, and were trying to start a chapter here at my school.

The first time I attended, we pulled out our Bibles and began reading. We discussed what we read, and then we prayed. I loved it. I could really feel the Spirit. I had many questions about God and faith, and the people from Campus Crusade seemed to have all the right answers.

As the weeks went by, though, I discovered that I had many questions that weren't being answered. And the answers that I did receive only led to new questions. The people from Campus Crusade seemed confident, and I admired their confidence and waited for that confidence to come to me, but it never did. Increasingly, I found myself wondering how they could be so sure of everything. It was all black and white to them.

Then one day Ray invited me to go “witnessing” with him. We walked around the campus, and Ray would walk up to people, ask them if they were saved, read a few verses of scripture, and then, sometimes, offer to pray with them. It was one of the most awkward, unnatural experiences I'd ever had... and it gave me some new questions to think about: Is salvation simply the result of saying a short “sinner's prayer?” Is the primary goal of Christian living really nothing more than convincing people to say this prayer so that they could be “saved?”

I kept looking in Ray's back pocket for the small notebook in which he kept a tally of how many people he had “saved.” I never saw it, but I was convinced he had one. And I wondered if, in there somewhere, there was a tally mark for me, an insecure Christian with more questions than answers.

At the end of the school year, my friend graduated. Indeed, most of those in our Bible study were graduating that year. Ray and Lisa asked me if I'd be the club president the following year. (In order to be an official campus organization, the group had to have student officers.)

I told them no. I may not have had all the right answers, but one thing I did know: I could not be the president of a club which believed keeping a tally was more important than loving and doing acts of service. Also, in telling them no, I was making the decision to hold on to my questions rather than exchange them for answers that weren't quite working.

I still have a lot of questions, but I'm no longer obsessed with finding all the answers. Last week, with my family, I attended the planetarium show at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. The show described how, for hundreds of years, humans believed in the earth-centered universe described by Ptolemy, the ancient Greek astronomer. An earth-centered universe explained what he saw: the sun, moon, and stars in their courses above, all rising and setting, appearing to circle the earth. And since the Bible mentioned a rising and setting sun, it must be true, right?

The problem was, some of the stars acted differently. They followed strange courses, and sometimes even appeared to reverse direction. Turns out they were planets.

In 1543, Nicolas Copernicus suggested that the sun, not the earth, was the center of our solar system. Galileo later confirmed Copernicus' theory. Yet their understanding conflicted with the “right answer,” and they were scorned by many and condemned by the church.

The planetarium show then went on to discuss the big bang, and recent discoveries regarding things like dark matter. I realized, sitting there in that dark planetarium, that these are our current “best understandings” of the universe we observe. The big bang theory is the best explanation we have for what we can see and experience in the universe, just as the earth-centered universe was the best explanation Ptolemy had for what he saw and experienced. It is likely that future observations and experiences will cause our current theories to be revised.

Scripture and religious tradition are based on the observations and experiences people have had of God. The thing is, there is always more to be discovered. Barbara Brown Taylor wrote in Leaving Church (thank you Larry & Carolyn for the gift card!) that “if it is true that God exceeds all our efforts to contain God, then is it too big a stretch to declare that dumbfoundedness is what all Christians have most in common?”

Generally speaking, I no longer believe in right answers. Yes, there are certainly some basic beliefs I hold close, like love God and love one's neighbor. But I also believe that mystery can be so much more powerful than certainty. I believe in the questions.


Tim Diebel said...

I appreciate your reflection and your continuing sense of discovery. I offered a related reflection on my own "inconclusions" recently that might interest you, which you can find at http://captionsfccdm.blogspot.com/2006/12/more-questions-than-answers.html. Blessings.

Carolyn said...

Great post! You are welcome for the gift card...I am glad it was put to good use!