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By Joshua Vis
Peter Rollins, a philosopher and theologian, makes this incredible observation, “As we approach the festival of Easter we aim to experience something of what Jesus experienced on the Cross. In his cry ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ God confesses the absence of God.”
That statement is confounding and wonderfully unsettling. It moves me to a place of mystery, and that feels like a comfortable place. I’m so tired of needing to know.
The cross is a conundrum, maybe the conundrum, of Christianity. It’s absurd. We tend to understand it by locking it into a formula of salvation. Then we take the formula and apply it somehow. The formula becomes everything. It must be articulated, understood, and adopted.
I once was obsessed with salvation, which meant that I became obsessed with figuring out what the cross accomplished. There must be an answer and that answer must be all that matters. This is where the Protestant church’s obsession with Paul enters the picture. But I’m not going to talk about Paul. I appreciate Paul’s work, but I no longer have any energy for a salvation formula. I’m not interested in arguing about it. I’m more content with no salvation formula.
Ironically, I love ideas and explanations. That’s what is so odd about my current state. Ideas have been everything to me for much of my life. The desire to understand animates me. I have a Ph.D. because I wanted answers.
But over the past few years, I have begun to see that there is something beyond understanding. I am convinced that there is more contentment in the acceptance of not knowing than in the anxiety of needing to know. It’s like realizing that you are clenching a muscle, and then choosing to relax.
I had coffee recently with a couple of gentlemen who had heard me speak and were dismayed. After emailing all of my superiors about their dismay, we ended up sitting down for coffee.
As I conversed with them about their concerns about my ideas on God and humanity, I could see how invested they were in their formula for salvation. It was everything to them. The fact that it was not everything to me was deeply disturbing to them. We were at an impasse, and that was fine with me. It was not fine with them.
They desired to convince me, to change me. I made them uncomfortable. One of them actually said that he hoped that I would have a Damascus Road experience. I told him that I was fine the way that I was. I had no desire for such an experience.
I left them with this idea at the end of our conversation. Maybe there was something positive about this third way I was articulating. Most folks know the orthodox version of Christianity and have lots of options if they want to pursue that version. Disregarding church entirely is another option–and more and more people are choosing that option.
I, and others, suggest a third option. I am in, but not of the church. I am open to new ideas about God and about encountering God. I am fascinated by the human condition. There are lots of people like me. I’m excited to see where this third way takes me! Isn’t it much better than having people disregard God, the Bible, and the church entirely?!
“I am convinced that there is more contentment in the acceptance of not knowing than in the anxiety of needing to know.” Yes!!!!
There’s quite a difference between the sense of abandonment at the Cross and the epistemological openness at the end of the essay. The former has a rich spiritual tradition attached to it; it is a thoroughly human condition. The latter? That too, is rather an old path, though one that often accommodates to the culture rather than producing transformation.
Thank you for posting this. As I accept the journey of not knowing, and even sometimes dabble with embracing it, this reminds me that maybe I am not the lone red flower in a bed of white tulips.
Josh – What role does faith play in this third way of yours?
Thanks, Joshua, for a thought provoking article. Being abandoned by God! What did that mean for Jesus, and what would it mean for us in our experience, to feel the abandonment that Jesus felt? I, personally, doubt that Jesus was ever totally abandoned by God (the Father). Just look at the bigger picture and try to take God out of the crucifixion story. God was always there. But in the fact that God did not answer Jesus’ prayer in the way he would have preferred, might have seemed like God was abandoning him. That Jesus, in his humanity, had to go through human anguish and pain, even to the point of death, may have seemed as though God had abandoned him. But the reality, God was always there, whether Jesus felt it or not.
I think people can feel a similar abandonment, for instance, when God leaves our prayers unanswered or does something totally different than what we asked for. When we or loved ones go through terrible physical pain, one can feel abandoned by God. God is not on our schedule and that fact can feel like abandonment, perhaps similar to the abandonment that Jesus felt on the cross.
We experience the same as Jesus to various degrees when God doesn’t answer our prayers. And certainly, the non Christian who may have doubts about God can feel that if there is a God, they themselves have experienced his abandonment at different points in his/her life.
But Jesus, when he passed from death to life came to the bold acknowledgment that he was never abandoned by God. And perhaps that is or will be the greatest point of acknowledgment for the Christian (maybe even the non Christian) that God has never abandoned us.