The Struggle in Unknowing

I am an all-A student.

The reason I am an all-A student is because of my study habits, which consist of me going over the material until I know it by heart. I don’t feel complete until I know almost everything and can answer any question on the test. If I don’t understand every concept, then I don’t understand the system. Sure, I know I’ll forget some things when the test is put in front of me, but I don’t stop studying until I reach the point where I feel like I’ll make an A. I think, Well, I might not get that one right because it’s pretty difficult to grasp, but at least I know I can answer 95% of this material correctly. I don’t stop studying until I feel confident in myself that I WILL, without much doubt, make an A. It has to be a guarantee before I know I’m ready. Some people call this overachieving, but I always considered it the minimum.

This process proved to be successful during K-12 and college. Even when I moved overseas last year, I read everything I needed to know about passport forms, visa applications, plane tickets and going through customs. I knew to never say “pants” or “fanny” when I was in the UK. I had researched professors at Aberdeen and was excited to be studying under some of them.

But as it turned out, going to Aberdeen was something I did not make an “A” in. Yes, we got there in one piece, but I left with my heart in many pieces only two months later. I had prepared myself thoroughly and knew all the answers in the study guide, but that wasn’t enough.

Now, I’m ashamed to admit that I’m still a little too scared to take any more tests. My tendency now is to stay in my room studying where it’s safe instead of putting myself out there again, where there is possibility for failure.  It seems that in life, you can know all the facts and still not be guaranteed success. And you know what? It works the same way in theology.

One very important thing I learned in college was that I don’t know everything, and neither does anyone else. I can know dates, popes, philosophers, the ins and outs of theological concepts, and a lot of big, fancy-sounding words, but I still will not know the exact nature of God. I will not know all the complexities (or radical simplicity) of God’s heart by reading a book, even if it is the Bible. It is never a guarantee that I know, without a doubt, everything there is to know about God. I can assume and suppose and theologize to my heart’s content (and hopefully do so reasonably and intelligently), but God remains mysterious no matter what I think or how I interpret scripture. I may be able to have a better understanding of who God is, but I still see through the glass darkly.

So there is never a guarantee that my musings about the nature of God is at a grade “A” status. I can never know without a doubt that my theological answers are “correct.” I think this is a good start in doing theology, because when we try to build a theological machine off of a foundation of beliefs that we are “certain” about, I think we’re missing the point.

I’m not saying that we can’t say anything about God. Even though the Bible is not always clear and united in its understanding of God, we can (at the very least) see the way that others have understood him in their historical context and compare it to our own experience. God loves. God creates. God forgives. God cares about the poor and broken.

I think God reveals Godself in many different ways, allowing us to interpret what this revelation says about God. But that’s the thing–it’s still an interpretation. How we read scripture involves interpretation. How we view historical events involves interpretation. That’s why I think it’s erroneous for people to see God, the world, and ethics in only black-and-white. You can’t say that there is ONE correct interpretation of scripture, and it happens to be yours. It’s more complex than that, and the Bible deserves a more sophisticated reading that what we’ve been giving it. We see through the lens of our own experience in ways that we don’t even realize, and we can only see as far as our own horizon, so we HAVE to question our own understanding of God/life/scripture (Gadamer, Ricoeur, etc.). Questioning is necessary and healthy and good–part of being human.

As someone who usually sees her minimum requirement as knowing enough of the correct answers to get an A (and is possibly slightly neurotic), it’s a huge struggle for me to simply be comfortable in this unknowing . I don’t feel wholly ready to face life when I don’t know all the answers to who, what, and why. Although I think the concept of God’s mystery is beautiful and necessary, it’s like an itch I can’t scratch–I love talking about theology and philosophy, but it’s the one place I can never be certain. A beloved professor at HSU introduced me to the term for this:  “Cartesian Anxiety” (Get it, philosophy people? Descartes?).

I don’t say these things to imply that my goal in life is to attain certainty, but I’m not comfortable in picking something and mindlessly settling with it, either. I want communion with God be a priority, and in that communion I know I’ll find more mystery. I just want to learn to be okay with that.

Another of my favorite professors taught a class on the Contemplatives (Thomas Merton, Eastern Christianity, St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, etc.) and taught us about centering prayer. It’s like meditation, or silent prayer. You “be still and know” that he is God without using words to pray. You simply be in God’s presence. When your mind gets distracted, you can repeat a phrase that gets you back on focus, like “God is. I am.” When all else fails–when I am at my most skeptical, questioning, and messy–I can come back to this. God is. I am. I am in God’s presence, and it is a cloud of unknowing.

I get frustrated because life includes failures, because the human condition is more than just studying for a test, and because I can’t pin God down within my own understanding. But I think learning to dwell in this mystery is just as important as discovering God in the ways God chooses to reveal himself.

I need to learn to feel whole not because I finally have the right answers, but because God in all God’s mystery makes me whole.

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