Mobius

The other day, when I was lost in the backwoods of Kentucky, I received a call from my sister. I was driving back from work at church, my mind filled with thoughts from the previous week, when I realized that the exit which I needed to take on the highway was three or four back. Faced with heading straight on to Cincinnati, I turned off the road at the next exit and began picking my way back west on some winding Kentucky back roads.

The car wound its way through rolling hills and fields filled with corn, its meandering nature following the same course as my mind as it twisted this way and that. After a wandering the country, I noticed that my tank was hovering just above empty. As a gas station appeared, I pulled in and got out.

The smell of gasoline filled the air and mingled with the sound of crickets and the frogs which made their home in and around the Ohio River. Some folk music was gently piped in under the florescent lights of the gas station. I would have stayed a bit longer to listen and watch the sun set had my phone in my car not rang.

As I climbed in and continued my return home, I picked up the call. It had been a couple of weeks since my sister and I had caught up. I smiled as we shot the breeze for a bit. After getting me up to date on things back in New England, she switched the topic.

“Have you ever heard of Rachel Held Evans?” she asked. “I just discovered her and this book I just finished by her just has been incredible.”

“Really?” I asked as I slowed to a stop at a four-way intersection. “How so?”

“Basically, the one big take-away from the book is, and I know this sounds obvious but, bear with me here. It’s that there are multiple ways to interpret Scripture.”

There was a moment of silence as I felt laughter bubbling up in my chest. After chuckling for a few seconds, I apologized, and explained, “Kristen, you wouldn’t believe it, but I find myself learning and re-learning this constantly. If this is the first time you’ve encountered Evans’ work, you have a treat ahead of you.”

The light turned green and I continued down the road, disappearing around another cornfield a few moments later.

Several years ago, I remember sitting down with my older brother over a discovery he had made. As a math and physics person, my brother and I don’t always see eye to eye – in part because we’ve been trained that way. An elegant equation looks like gobbledygook to me. To him, it’s meaningful in some way.

In his hands, Dave had a length of paper, cut to be about an inch wide. He took the paper and twisted it one hundred and eighty degrees once before taping it together. The result was a rather odd shape.

“This,” he began, “is a Mobius strip.”

“The cool thing about this is that it only has one side.”

My mouth dropped open. “What? You’re lying. It obviously has two.”

Dave offered me a pen.

“Try and draw a single continuous line and you’ll see I’m right.”

After making my way around the strip, I was shocked to see that waiting for me at the other end was the line I started with. I flipped the strip over. The pen’s trail was still there. Dave was right.

“Now here’s the kicker,” he continued. “Imagine that you were a two-dimensional person who lived on the Mobius Strip called a Flatlander. You would have no idea that you’re flipping. It’s all flat to you. But perspective matters, as we can see what’s happening in three dimensions.”

Something clicked in my mind. “It’s kind of like living in a cave all your life and seeing the sun for the first time.”

Dave furrowed his brow.

“I mean, I guess. Whatever floats your boat.”

My mind’s been going in circles recently. Or rather, been thinking on them. Perhaps as I drive along winding country roads outside of Louisville and work with people with vastly different backgrounds and life experience as me, it’s causing me to reflect on perspective. And after a summer’s worth of reflection, I have increasingly come to the conclusion that I am a maniac. Or rather, I’ve always been. I’m just becoming more aware of it.

G. K. Chesterton makes the observation that maniacs are deemed so not because of their lack of reason, but because of their perfection of it. “The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactorily […] Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is just as infinite as a large circle; but though it is infinite, it is not so large. In the same way, the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not as large.” For the madman or -woman, the explanations that they create are systematic and complete. But for those who find themselves more clued in on the reality of things, it seems as though the madman or -woman is missing out on so much more.

The theologian Frederick Buechner observed that theology is just like a dung beetle taking up a study of humans with the goal of understanding everything there is to know about them. “If so,” he concludes, “we would probably be more touched and amused than irritated. One hopes that God feels likewise.” When we arrive at the notion that, while God wants to be known and does so most clearly through the person of Christ, and yet simultaneously cannot be fully comprehended as a beetle cannot fully comprehend the complexity of a human person, we realize that in a certain way, we humans have constructed, over the course of many centuries and with the work of many careful and reflective theologians, circles of our own making. We’re Flatlanders, trying to make sense of a three-dimensional reality. When we hold to one school of thought to the exclusion of others, I think that God sees us as maniacs. Or maniacs trying our best.

The nice thing is that special revelation provides us with some correlation of the bigger picture, we hope. Experience typically reinforces this notion. And yet, I must confess that oftentimes we struggle to encompass all of it because we are finite creatures in a universe that is vastly other. While I believe that there are absolutes, I’m realizing that approaching those absolutes are a much harder task than modernity had led us to believe.

Evans writes that “when you stop trying to force the Bible to be something it’s not—static, perspicacious, certain, absolute—then you’re free to revel in what it is: living, breathing, confounding, surprising, and yes, perhaps even magic […] ‘The adventure,’ wrote Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky in Reading the Book, lies in ‘learning the secrets of the palace, unlocking all the doors and perhaps catching a glimpse of the King in all His splendor.’”

This, I believe, inspires humility. I trust and, I would think, know experientially that what I have received in faith is true, it also reminds me that the universe, Scripture, and the Creator it reveals is a much more complicated and multifaceted reality than the way I thought they were like back in my earlier days. Using Scripture as a window to this greater reality, then, logically would generate several meanings when viewed from different places—different rooms in the palace—as we constantly grapple with God.

Here’s hoping that, like Jacob, we might not let go until God blesses us. And may it cause us to walk differently.

Traditioned Notes in the Dark

I’ve been restless lately. Some nights, I would find myself unable to sleep for hours on end. On others, I would wake hours before the sunrise, unable to go back to sleep. On those nights, I would get out of bed and find somewhere to sit on the floor of my apartment. And every time, as I tried to reach the door of the bedroom, I would always stub my toe on the corner of my roommate’s desk. Every time.

The reason why I can’t sleep is because of the doubts I have. To be honest, I sometimes doubt whether God’s out there – wherever that ‘there’ is. Or if he is, if we can reach him or know him. Sometimes, I doubt whether what I’m studying is worthwhile or some joke whose punchline ran out long ago. And sometimes, as I sit in the dark, I doubt whether the person I’ve become is worth anyone’s time.

Last night, I had written a question on a mirror I have in my office. It’s kept me up for several nights now. It’s still there: Christians hold that Scripture is infallible and authoritative, but which interpretation is that which lends itself to being infallible and authoritative? Why do we have so many denominations with different readings of the same text? Who is right at the end of the day?

Below the first question, I wrote, what if how I interpret Scripture is completely off-base from what the biblical authors intended? What God desires? What if I’m wrong? What if I am leading people astray when I speak?

It’s one game to say that a collection of writings is inspired, but another altogether to interpret it responsibly. What if I’m wrong? What if I just wasted three, going on four, years of education? 

I wrestle with the notion that all of us stumble around in the dark when it comes to truth. But I know in the back of my head that we do. We throw out notions of what truth, goodness, and beauty are, hoping we’re close with our estimations and definitions. And then people structure their lives around our approximations.

But still, it doesn’t help when I stub my toe on every expectation I come across. I’m supposed to be a youth pastor after I graduate. I’m supposed to know answers to people’s questions about life. I’m supposed to be assured that the source that I’m taking truth from is solid, that it reveals special revelation and that I can access it in a straightforward manner.

And yet, in my time studying theology and the humanities, I have become much more aware of how tenuous truth claims can be.

What if my human, American, middle class, (etc.) lens skews the ultimate truth which the authors of Scripture into my smaller, culturally-bound, limited version of the gospel?

I am left with the notion that God has the truth at the end of a fishing line and holding just out of reach, out of reach because we can’t escape our own humanness to see the world outside ourselves.

I attended the recital of a friend of mine recently. He plays the cello, you see, and has been for much of his life. And it shows. That evening, he sat, for much of the performance, alone on stage. After being accompanied by a pianist for Charles-Camille Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, she promptly left him to continue.

The room was silent as he picked up his bow and placed it in its starting position. As he started to play, his right arm directed the bow one way, then another; his left flicked up and down the fingerboard and neck. He swayed in time as if directed by some unseen conductor. And occasionally, I noticed he closed his eyes, a smile resting on his face as if he, too, had come to listen to the piece.

When I was younger, I wondered why classical music has remained so popular considering all the other genres offered nowadays. I must admit, I’ve grown to appreciate it over the years since then. But as I saw my friend perform J.S. Bach’s Suite No 2 in D Minor, I realized that it’s not that the innovative newer genres take away from classical music’s significance or effectiveness. Instead, Bach, Saint-Saens, and others have expressed some element of the human experience that resonated with people in such a way that it still connects to audiences to this day.

The new stuff we hear on the radio we might hear for a while, but soon, it’s something else. A catchy tune or attractive lifestyle might be appealing for a little while, but after a little bit, it’s gone, replaced with something else. And we move on because it all tends to be empty. The innovators stab in the dark trying to create something relevant or new in the moment. But it tends to be just that, a moment kind of thing. Some do stick around, too. But who’s to judge what will last and what will fade?

A professor of mine remarked that a text that outgrows its context loses all meaning altogether.[1] For a text to have nothing to frame it is to render it ultimately meaningless. This, he remarked, is the problem that atheists have with stating that the universe has no context outside itself.

But the same could be said for Scripture. Scholars all over the spectrum have argued for their own position as correct using the same text. For every theologian, there is an equal and opposite theologian. But if they come up with radically different notions of what is true, good, and beautiful, what hope do we have for knowing who is correct?

I rested against a cabinet in the kitchen of my apartment, feeling the coolness of the night air flow in from a window a roommate of mine had propped open. The room was still dark. I had not seen it fit in lighting it. Off to my left, my hand traced the pattern of the kitchen tiles, my mind still full of questions, doubts, and fears.

Somewhere outside, a bird began to warble out a tune. I found out the other day that birds inherit the songs that their parents sang, appropriating it for its own use. [2]

Well, why not? If it worked for them, it might just work for the bird now, too.

I thought back to my friend and his recital. The songs he played were not his own, but in a way, they still were. Even though he had no hand in its creation, in that moment, he entered a larger community of people who had performed and found a piece of their own story in the traditioned notes. Tradition, G.K. Chesterton once suggested, is the living faith of dead people. [3] It’s a way that has worked well in bringing about a well-lived life–if nothing else. And right now, it’s all I can really ask for.

I blinked. “At least it’s something. And something is better than nothing.”

Pausing, I turned to look at the window. “At least, I think…”

I moved to get up and return to my bed for a few more hours of sleep. Closing my eyes, I whispered. “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

I was out in moments.

 

[1] Michael Bruner, Ph.D., (Lecture, Communicating the Gospel Through Film, Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA, March 22, 2017).

[2] Skyla Herod, Ph.D., “Harlowe and Skinner: Behaviorism Colloquy.” (Lecture, Nature, Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA, March 30, 2017).

[3] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 53.