Contrary to popular opinion, theology—pondering the relationship between created beings and God, between science and the wisdom of tradition—isn’t boring or ponderous. It’s dynamic. It’s wondrous. It’s artful imagination activated to discern how we can most lovingly live together on this good earth—for the glory of God.
“Wonder is my second favorite condition to be in, after love,” writes author David James Duncan. “And I sometimes wonder whether there’s even a difference: maybe love is just wonder aimed at a beloved.”
Most of us are in touch with how the beauty of nature awakens wonder—the starry night sky, the butterfly, the brand new baby….
What may not be as readily apparent is how disagreements, destabilizing uncertainties and contradictions can also evoke wonder and awaken theological imagination. There’s nothing like the tension of opposing perspectives or the breaking apart of what we counted on or thought was certain to provoke us to wonder what more there is to be discovered of God’s inscrutable, confounding ways.
From what I know of the Bible, it was when people were upended and shaken to the core that they really began to pay attention, and astonishing things happened. As Shane Claiborne reminded us during the concluding MC USA convention worship service in July, the liminal space we are in is powerful because it’s when we don’t know what to do that miracles happen.
My wondering mind takes me to Fiddler on the Roof, the longest running Broadway musical—adapted to film and many community stages. The central drama is finding an appropriate match for the three eldest daughters of Tevye and Golde in an early 1900s Jewish Russian village. Each match moves farther away from the established tradition.
Tevye first reflects on how suitable Motel, the tailor, a local Jewish boy, is as a match for his eldest daughter Tzeitel: On the one hand, he’s only a poor tailor. What kind of a match would that be? On the other hand, he’s an honest hard worker. On the other hand, he has absolutely nothing. On the other hand, things could only get better for him; they couldn’t get worse.
Tevye does this again with his second daughter, who takes up with a revolutionary, socialist Jewish young man. He weighs the pros and cons: on the one hand, on the other hand, and finally gives his blessing.
And then his third daughter comes along. His third daughter marries a gentile, a young Orthodox Christian man, and the wedding happens without the father’s permission, in the Orthodox church. When the daughter comes to plead with her father to accept them, we listen in on Tevye’s internal debate:
Accept them? How can I accept them? Can I deny everything I believe in?
On the other hand, how can I deny my own daughter?
On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith, my people? If I try to bend that far I’ll break.
On the other hand—
There is no other hand! No. No. No.
And what follows is a painful scene of the father turning away from his own daughter who remains alone, weeping in the field.
Because theological wondering grows directly from the acute pain provoked in our most intimate relationships, there is nothing abstract about it. Admittedly, there’s no end of ways some theologians have disembodied their work into sterile, stratospheric abstractions. The most life-giving theological wondering, however, happens within the messy marvel of everyday relationships.
And it’s not just real relationships that create quandaries for our theologically perplexed minds. Again, contrary to widespread opinion, the Bible doesn’t offer some uniform, tidy consensus about all things biblical and theological. Rather, it’s filled with apparent contradictions and conflicting perspectives. Here are just a few (the list could go on for many pages):
The biblical narratives speak of:
- a world God declared to be good and then destroyed in a flood;
- a God described as a raging, devouring fire and as One whose wings shelter us;
- a God whose fierce anger and jealousy threaten to destroy and whose steadfast love and mercy never come to an end.
- instructions to wipe out the Canaanite tribes in conquest of their land and instructions to welcome the alien and stranger;
- calls to be a separate, holy people distinct from the world and calls to go into the world, becoming all things to all people;
- many instructions about what makes persons ceremonially unclean, and instructions to not call anything unclean that God has made clean;
- Jesus’ assertion that God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world and that those who do not believe are condemned already.
How can this be? Don’t we have to choose one or the other of these perspectives? Isn’t one right and the other wrong? Doesn’t one have to be discounted so we can promote the other?
Theological wonderers are those people who are crazy enough to want to move in closer to apparent contradictions and conflicts, because we know that precisely where the tension is greatest God’s Spirit is most likely at work birthing something new. I personally have experienced the most profound breakthrough ah ha’s when in the greatest pain.
Tevye’s question is always a live one: How much can we hold together before we break? Before we turn away because our faith simply can’t stretch that far?
In my theological wondering, I prefer to ask the question this way: How might we discover that the sinews of our faith can actually stretch in ways we hadn’t imagined were possible?
Might it be precisely when we feel most at risk of breaking, that the Spirit is actually opening us to deeper faith: faith on the one hand and on the other? Faith that when held with both hands, becomes more whole, wondrous and worthy of the One “who created within himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace” (Ephesians 2:15).