I work at an outdoor school, and on a regular basis, I field nature questions from the thousands of kids, parents, and teachers who come through our center. “What kind of snake is that?” “Is it venomous?” “Who would win in a fight, an anaconda or a crocodile?” In college, I studied environmental science, and sometimes I happen to know the answer (fox snake, nonvenomous, depends on who attacks first). But it’s just as often that someone asks me something I don’t know. There’s a lot in the world that I don’t know. There’s a split second of panic or embarrassment, and then I remember (every time, I have to remember) that it’s okay to not have all the answers. In fact, “I don’t know” can be more powerful and memorable than “That’s a woolly bear caterpillar.” When you answer “I don’t know,” you take yourself out of the position of an omniscient guide, and join your asker on the journey.
The same principle applies when people ask questions about faith. While of course we always should be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is in us, chances are at some point someone is going to ask you a stumper. When that happens, authenticity and honesty will get us much farther than bluffing our way through. We are very small beings next to an infinite God. It’s kind of expected that we won’t know everything.
I’ve been reading the Gilead trilogy by Marilynne Robinson – a striking series for sure, for its grace and peace and the gravity it gives to theological questions. One of the main characters, Reverend Ames, is an old Congregationalist minister whose wife endured poverty and exploitation during the Great Depression. Her raw experiences and his steady belief lead to some challenging conversations. Through these conversations, one of my favorite things about Reverend Ames is his willingness to both engage with the hard questions and to admit when his questions seem to be left unanswered.
I feel it would be presumptuous of me to describe the ways of God. Those that are all we know of Him, when there is so much we don’t know. Though we are told to call Him Father. And I know it would be presumptuous to speak as if the suffering that people feel as they pass through the world were not grave enough to make your question much more powerful than any answer I could offer. My faith tells me that God shared poverty, suffering, and death with human beings, which can only mean that such things are full of dignity and meaning, even though to believe this makes a great demand on one’s faith, and to act as if this were true in any way we understand is to be ridiculous. It is ridiculous also to act as if it were not absolutely and essentially true all the same. Even though we are to do everything we can to put an end to poverty and suffering.
Like Reverend Ames, how can we embrace the complex demands our faith makes on us, demands we don’t always understand? How do we admit that we too are confused by some teachings?
The 13th– century philosopher Rumi wrote “Trade your cleverness for wonder.” As a teacher, that means that I’m constantly challenged to learn more about the world around me. I get to share my students’ excitement and curiosity, and I’m reminded that the world is a wilder, more wonderful place than I can ever know. As a Christian, it means that I avoid the glib, easy answers. I lean into hard conversations, and I remember that faith is not incompatible with doubt, and I’m reminded that my God is a wilder, more wonderful God than I can ever know.