Unanswerable Questions - An Excerpt from Paradox Lost
How do you handle questions you can't answer? Do you feel like you need to understand everything? Or do you instead avoid difficult tensions? How we respond reflects our trust in God.
In today's excerpt, Richard P. Hansen gives us permission to live in the tension. As he warns us of the dangers of letting fears shut us up, he also challenges us to keep asking unanswerable questions. Doing so reminds us that God is God and we are not. Hansen argues that instead of driving us to doubt, these questions can draw us into deeper relationship with God, the only One who knows the answers we seek.
Paradox Lost will be available in May from Zondervan Academic and is available to pre-order today.
Cheryl’s letter made my day.
Responding to a journal article I had written about preaching biblical paradox, she quickly moved from words of appreciation to the issues my article raised that were still vexing her. She wrote, “How can God still work his plan in my life when my free will keeps getting in the way and messing things up? How can he ‘restore the years the locusts have eaten’ when I am the one that invited those locusts to come and devour my life? How can he ‘work all things together for good’ when I keep getting in there with my free will and messing with his plans? On a larger scale, how can God work out his plan in the universe when men and women still have a free will to do their own thing apart from God’s will?”
Good questions all! How human free will and God’s sovereignty—two equally valid biblical notions that seem constantly at odds with each other—fit together has plagued the best minds Christianity has produced. Cheryl did what many over the centuries have done: she sought out other opinions. “I emailed several of my friends and asked for their input on this question. Along with some very good answers, I also received an answer of ‘You think too much.’ This answer bothered me a great deal, because in some respects I think the body of believers has been conditioned not to ‘think too much.’ We have been told (or it has been implied), ‘Don’t think too much about things that can’t be explained.’ ‘Just take it by faith.’ ‘Don’t ask too many questions; you’ll make God look bad.’ And so on.”
I regularly encounter the same responses. Having pieces of truth scattered across the table without knowing where they fit in the puzzle can be threatening. It is doubly threatening when others tell us all the pieces should fit together (and that their puzzles have been assembled for years!). When you stop to consider, it is ludicrous to think that the God who gave humans the gift of intelligence could really be worried about looking bad when we ask questions. Yet earnest Christians often consider reason an enemy of faith. And if there is anything that gets reason riled up, it is paradox, defined by philosopher Gordon Graham as “anything which is intellectually objectionable but nevertheless unavoidable.”
Cheryl’s wrestling with the paradoxical could have led her to conclude, “It’s not worth the effort! Next time, I’ll just swallow my questions.” But she refused. “What I came away with from my struggle was not an attitude that says, ‘Well, I’ll never do that again’ but rather a greater sense of how awesome God is and a strange sort of comfort stemming from the fact that I could not get my arms around this complicated concept.”
It is Cheryl’s “strange sort of comfort” that both intrigues and affirms me, for I have felt it as well. A good deal of the perplexity, inconsistency, tension, and wonder of our lives, and the Christian faith itself, stems from paradox. Our very inability to get our arms around it releases us from our need to control it. As Cheryl says, we gain “a greater sense of how awesome God is.”
“If I Had Not Struggled . . .”
Cheryl ended her letter to me with these words: “I finally was able to rest in the fact that ‘there is a God and I am not he.’ What peace I gained from that knowledge! However, if I had not struggled, I never would have come to know that peace and comfort, as well as a deeper knowledge of God.”
Wrestling with Christian paradox, we reengage intellectually, and reexperience emotionally, that “there is a God and I am not he.” …It was through her struggle to hang on to the paradoxical tensions of faith that Cheryl was led to the strange comfort that “there is a God and I am not he.”
Living with such tensions is increasingly how I seem to spend my days. As I listen to people, I find I am not alone. While many inside and outside the Christian community yearn for a simple either/or world—the black hats (villains) and white hats (heroes) become easy to pick out as they ride toward us—real life often resides in both/and tensions. Such a nuanced view finds little support in a political culture that dumbs down complex issues to thirty-second sound bites, or in some churches that do the same with fill-in-the-blank sermon outlines.
During the height of the Cold War, Soviet scientist and human rights activist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Our tendency to divide good and evil into mutually exclusive social or political polarities is rampant today. New York Times columnist David Brooks suggests we need leaders like Abraham Lincoln, who was a great president because he made room within himself for self-correcting tensions: a passionate advocate, but able to see his enemy’s point of view; not afraid to wield power, yet aware of how much was beyond his control; extremely self-confident, but at the same time extremely humble.
Dare we suggest that truth might sometimes reside within the tension created by opposing polarities? Dare we propose that the best policy choices may reside somewhere between Democrats and Republicans, left and right, MSNBC and Fox News? Have we lost our ability to live within (or even recognize) such tensions because we spend most of our time in echo chambers reverberating with the predispositions of people just like us?
In the Christian arena, can we admit tensions within our faith and risk being labeled unfaithful, unbiblical, humanistic, or secular or being told, “You think too much”? Is it possible to affirm right and wrong, moral absolutes, and biblical authority while also suggesting that truth sometimes resides between opposing absolutes? Ability to live within such tensions, polarities, and ambiguities, while not allowing them to paralyze our thinking or acting, is urgently needed today. (Pgs 15-18)
Let's answer Hansen's call to think deeply. Pre-orders of Paradox Lost are available May 3, 2016.
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