The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
February 3, 2019
Though out of his love for God he couldn’t stop trying to figure God out, Pulitzer Prize-winning Presbyterian author, Frederick Buechner, would make fun of his attempts to comprehend the incomprehensible. He wrote, “Theology is the study of God and his ways. For all we know, dung beetles may study man and his ways, and call it humanology. If so, we would probably be more touched and amused than irritated. One hopes that God feels likewise.”
We can understand God truly; but, given His surpassing greatness, we cannot understand God fully. Augustine observed: “Since it is God we are talking about, we do not understand. If we could understand, it would not be God about whom we are talking.” Indeed, God’s magnificence humiliates even our best insights about Him. Good theology puts a bad beating on our intellectual pride.
Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of all Roman Catholic theologians, created in his Summa Theologica one of the supreme intellectual achievements of Western civilization. Yet, Aquinas realized that he could never get God quite right; and that, compared to the ineffable, inconceivable experiences of God he’d had, all his books were, as he put it, only “so much straw.”
One of the great challenges for believing in God and trying to know Him better is all the uncertainty, imprecision and mystery with which one has to put up.
Of course, the deeper one gets into any great reality, the more one has to put up with uncertainty, imprecision and mystery. That’s true even with respect to the physical world.
Most astrophysicists today think the universe is pervaded with the incomprehensible stuff they call dark matter. Scientists haven’t yet identified what exactly it is – or even proven it exists – but it is not for lack of trying. Despite decades of efforts to detect it – from gamma-ray telescopes in outer space to cryogenic subatomic particle monitors in the earth – the tantalizing reports of success remain as unreliable as Elvis sightings.
Astrophysicists have also hypothesized another mystifying reality called dark energy. Some have concluded that dark energy comprises 68% of the total universe; and dark matter, about 27%. That means only 5% of the universe is within the reach of our intellectual grasp. In other words, everything we call scientific knowledge is based on a pittance of what there is to know about the world. Ninety-five percent of it is hidden from us. Even with all our advances, modern science is 95% in the dark about the universe it seeks to explain.
Einstein said that a scientist is like a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. “The child,” Einstein said, “knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. It dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books, but doesn’t know what it is.”
Einstein said scientists see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but without completely understanding those laws.
Einstein refused to be frustrated by scientific agnosticism. He actually embraced it and enjoyed it. He said the marvelous and majestic mystery of the world moved him to wonder and rapt awe. He relished the sense that, behind what we know. “there is something our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly.”
In this acceptance of our limitations before the surpassing greatness of the physical world, Einstein echoed a sentiment expressed by many people of faith before the surpassing greatness of God.
In today’s scripture lesson Paul spoke of believers’ having “the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is Christ himself.” Yet, while asserting we can through Christ come to know God in the most important ways and to a great extent, Paul also acknowledged that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”. In other words, in Christ believers have all the truth of God, but having it is not the same as understanding it. In Christ God and His ways are both manifested and still hidden – kept hidden, and safe for us, until that day when, as Paul said elsewhere, we shall know God as we are known by God.
In the meantime, the best we can do is look to know Him as if indirectly in a dusty and dim mirror.
The desire to know, whether it be in the physical or the spiritual realm, is a good thing; and God Himself encourages the desire. When it comes to knowing God, however, our problem is not just how surpassingly great God is, but how desperately wayward we can be. As with all desires, we divert and distort the desire to know God. We seek to know Him better, not to love and trust Him more, but to control Him more in the illusion that we can manipulate Him into serving our preconceived ends.
It takes a kind of maturity to accept out humbling limitations and to abide by them. And sometimes Christians are as bad as scientists who refuse to accept the limitations reality imposes and fake a confidence to which they have no right. We believers do well to acknowledge that sometimes the ground under our feet quakes and shakes the foundations of our faith, that sometimes we pray and end up deeply disappointed, that sometimes we seek God with all our heart and still do not find Him, that sometimes we look at this world, with at least a fifth of its inhabitants Christian, and wonder whether our faith really does make a positive difference.
Yet, we don’t have to apologize for our inability to answer every challenge definitively.
For our struggle to believe is honest and real, and actually makes our faith more winsome to those considering committing themselves to it.
Jonathan Lunde, who teaches at Trinity College, tells of a graduate assistant he had one term who was wrestling deeply with issues of truth and faith. The two of them met regularly in his office to discuss her struggles over believing. When at last her faltering faith started to take hold again, Jonathan asked what accounted for the change. He supposed it might be some insight she had come upon, some case for the truth of Christianity she’d been convinced by, some answer to a question that settled her doubt. No, she said, “It was people.” When he asked what she meant by that, she told him that what helped her most was people who wrestle as deeply and honestly as she with doubt – and who still lead lives of authentic and attractive faith.
There is no faith apart from remaining in the dark about much and lacking enough knowledge to quiet all doubt. But that’s OK with God – and OK with a lot of us who believe with all our heart. I, for one, am not interested in a God who does not humiliate my capacity to understand, who is not so great that His surpassing greatness confounds my comprehension. I want a God whom I can know in my heart but whom I cannot entirely wrap my head around, a God who keeps surprising me anew by opening up new vistas of His wondrous magnificence and awesome holiness.
Let us pray!