Meaning and Mystery
“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12 KJV)
My mom has lately been reading memoirs of Christians who became atheists. (How she got to these books is a long story, but so far I’m not worried that she’ll go down the same road.) I skimmed one of them, about a pastor who left the faith. In it, he concludes that the role of pastors is “making meaning” for people. He thinks doing so is no less important or valuable as an atheist, he just no longer believes that it comes from an external source (namely, God).
In another memoir, a woman who grew up in a Christian family and studied psychology at Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts school, asked God to remove her doubts for so long that she eventually came to believe God wasn’t real. On one level, I’m with her; the more I learn about confirmation bias and human delusion, the less certain I am about anything I think I know. At the same time, I think she made an incorrect assumption that’s all too common in today’s society.
The assumption we should avoid is to think we can know everything with certainty. I mean, you can see why people would think so — after all, the answer to nearly any question can be found on tiny wireless machines we all have in our pockets. Most aspects of math, physics, chemistry, engineering, and biology that were mysteries to the ancients (or not-so-ancients) now have solid explanations. Good scientists will tell you that new discoveries can always change things, but we’re pretty sure that our explanations are, at worst, incomplete.
Thus, when we approach questions of faith, we might assume that we’ll be able to find correct, irrefutable answers. However, when we’re talking about a supernatural God who’s bigger than the universe, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could fully understand him, or that something supernatural could be proved beyond doubt. I think it’s worth noting that the word mystery appears 27 times in the New Testament, sometimes referring to things that have been revealed (e.g., Colossians 1:27) and other times to things that have not yet happened (e.g., Revelation 10:7). I believe that’s why “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6 NIV) — if you wait until you’re sure of everything, you’ll never act.
As Christians, we might fear that having doubts means we lack faith or we’re not pious enough. Perhaps the most famous doubter in history is the apostle Thomas — more commonly referred to as “Doubting Thomas.” Jesus let Thomas touch his scars and didn’t rebuke him for lack of faith. Jesus then blessed those who would later believe without the benefit of physical evidence (John 20:29). It says to me that Jesus understands that people might have doubts, yet still calls us to faith.
As the former pastor noted in his memoir, human beings are constantly searching for meaning. Why do we, alone among the animals, crave to know what happens when we die? Why are we so drawn to causes greater than ourselves? In The Weight of Glory, the great C.S. Lewis writes,
A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist.
The very fact that we long for meaning seems to me a sign that there’s more to life than we can see. It doesn’t mean we’ll never have doubts, but we can believe that our faith has a firm foundation.
In the end, the best way to find God is to seek him. He doesn’t promise to remove our doubt, but he does promise to reveal himself (Acts 17:27, James 4:8) — in part for now, and eventually in full.
Abigail can be reached by email here. For other Lewis quotes on longing, she enjoyed this blog post. The picture is Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of St. Thomas.”