When I was in junior high school, I strongly preferred the kind of test questions that had easy answers: fill in the blank, true or false, even multiple choice. I knew these questions had one clear right answer, and if I had studied the relevant material for that particular subject, I could comfortably come up with the correct response.
Not so with short-answer or essay questions, especially the ones that asked me to make a judgment call, such as "Which side presented a stronger case, and why?" I was never sure exactly what the teacher wanted, so I could not be confident that my response was "right." The idea that there could be more than one right answer to a question had not yet penetrated my simplistic worldview. Everything was either right or wrong, period. (Is it any wonder that math was my favorite subject?)
There is a lot to be said for clear, easy answers. For one thing, we don’t have to agonize over decisions if we have a simple understanding of right and wrong. For another, we don’t have to worry about the evolution of ideas: right and wrong are objective, not subjective, so the answers are always the same. Two plus two will always equal four, and parallel lines will never, ever intersect, no matter where we go or how long we wait.
Our human desire for simple answers extends into our understanding of God and faith. We want to know what is real and true. We don’t especially like ambiguity or complexity, even in our religious beliefs. Our rational minds struggle with paradoxes, when two seemingly conflicting realities are both true. We want there to be one right answer.
And I’m not just referring here to fundamentalist Christians. Sure, liberal Friends like me can criticize the simplistic nature of fundamentalist faith, and most of us reject it altogether. We don’t find clear, easy answers in the Bible for all of life’s difficult questions, as "they" do. We’re not as certain who’s going to heaven as "they" are, and we’re not even sure if we believe in heaven. We perceive the desire of fundamentalists to know right from wrong unconditionally as childlike, and we think we are more mature and wise than that.
I suggest we think again.
Liberal Friends use a different set of guidelines, but, I think, are also tempted to settle for the easy answers. Fundamentalists rely primarily on their understanding of the Bible and, to a lesser extent, on church tradition. In the liberal branch of Quakerism the measuring sticks are personal experience and reason. If something fits within our experience or if it seems rational, we probably accept it as true. If it’s outside our personal experience or doesn’t mesh with our scientific understanding of reasoning, all too often we reject it as silly, improbable, or even impossible.
Take the resurrection of Jesus, for example. I suspect most liberal Quakers, if they believe in the resurrection at all, understand this to be a spiritual rather than a bodily resurrection. A dead person coming back to life certainly contradicts everything we know about biology, and I haven’t heard any contemporary Friends claiming personal experience with such an event. So we find it easy to say, no, Jesus did not literally come back to life. That’s a simple answer, one we can live with comfortably.
But what if Jesus really was restored to physical life after he died? I’m not trying to convince you that this actually happened, but rather, to challenge you simply to reflect on that possibility. Set aside your rational understanding of the universe for a minute and just imagine this scenario, if you will. What would such an event mean for us?
For me, belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus means that I believe God is not limited by the same rules that limit humans. God can even overrule the laws of nature, if God so chooses. That’s certainly not logical. I’ve never experienced a dead person coming back to life. But I am not willing to say that bodily resurrection is impossible, because I don’t know for a fact that God is limited by our human understanding of logic and reason. If God did indeed choose to restore Jesus to life after the horror of his cruel death, then I know that no matter how dark my days might seem, there is always hope because good will ultimately triumph over evil.
Am I comfortable saying I believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus in today’s scientific age? Most definitely not. Especially among well-educated folks such as I find in most of our liberal meetings, the laws of science and reason are held in very high esteem. I certainly can’t explain how the resurrection could be true in light of what is understood about the human body, but I’m not inclined to settle for the easy answer just because it’s convenient. I’m willing to live with the paradox of the unexplainable contradictions.
Our human desire for simple answers is nothing new. Jesus recognized this same problem among the people around him. The Pharisees criticized the disciples for harvesting grain and healing the sick on the Sabbath. The law clearly prohibited working on the holy day, and here were unambiguous violations. It should be an open and shut case. But Jesus said it’s not that simple.
Jesus wanted to turn the world upside down and shake the foundations of the established order. Everything people thought they knew was now called into question. The last will be first and the
first will be last (Matt. 20:16). How can something be first and last at the same time? Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it (Matt. 10:39). What does that really mean? We are called to be perfect, but God created us with imperfections—so how, then, can God expect us to be perfect?
When I study these words of Jesus, I find him teaching that paradox is, in fact, an integral part of the kingdom of God. We can no longer rely on our established ways of understanding the world. God’s ways are better than ours, but up close they can seem mighty peculiar and even unnerving. Part of what we are called to do as we work toward establishing God’s realm here on Earth is to give up our human desire to understand and be in control of everything. If we can learn to live with paradox, then we can learn to trust God more fully. If, on the other hand, we still need to lean on the crutch of easy answers, then our faith is not yet as strong as it could be.
In the world as we understand it, two plus two equals four and parallel lines do not intersect. But in "base three" arithmetic, two plus two equals eleven, and in non-Euclidean geometry, parallel lines can indeed intersect. Our human frame of reference is not the only one that’s "real." If we cling too tightly to our way of understanding reality, we might miss God’s reality.
When liberal Friends like me find contradictions between our own experience and religious tradition, or between reason and what we read in the Bible, we often are quick to dismiss tradition and the Bible as irrelevant. Are we really so different from the fundamentalists who choose to overlook personal experience and reason when faced with these same contradictions? Can we find a way to consider all potential sources of God’s wisdom without discounting our personal experience and without abandoning reason? We just might discover, if we are willing to give up our desire for easy answers, that we find God among the paradoxes