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In Essence

23 September 2009

Back in college (I say, as though it were more than three months ago), a professor of mine had typed the following on a standard sheet of paper and, using copious amounts of scotch tape, adhered it to his office door:

We have not succeeded in answering all of your questions. The answers we have found only serve to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel we are as confused as ever, but we believe we are confused on a higher level and about more important things

I’d like to think that I’m the sort of person who enjoys complexity.  It shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone who’s had more than a five minute conversation with me that I am fascinated by–some would no doubt say ‘hung up on’–the details of questions, their intricacies and applications, their paradoxes and their contradictions.  To me, this is where the true beauty in life and in human thought can be found: we forego, I think, our greatest path toward an examined life by insisting on definitive answers, if for no other reason than that the untidy, uncomfortable, and altogether perplexing ones are the most accurate reflection we have of our existence.  Professor Newman, I think, chose to affix this statement to his office door as something of a mantra for students of religion–a mantra that gained added meaning as he taught Jewish ethics and post-Holocaust theology.  To him, I imagine, it suggested the importance of perseverance and the willingness to be strung along by knowledge in the hope that the infinite twists and turns of thought will, in the very distant end, spit us out on a level of confusion that is at least palatable. I, for one, always took it as a reminder that sometimes confusion is not a liminal zone between knowing and not, but simply all there is.

A couple days ago, I found myself having a conversation with one of the Japanese friends I’ve made over here.  It was one of those conversations that comes when a friendship is somewhere between ‘what’s your name again?’ and ‘Hey, what’s going on?’, where both parties are being very familiar while still trying to learn basic things about each other.  Questions about family members, what Wisconsin is like, where I went to school, and what I studied while there.  My truthful answer to this last question, though, led my friend to remark: “I really don’t understand Christianity–you’re Christian, aren’t you?”

Now, there’s nothing I like better than a discussion about religion.  In fact, there’s no better forum for the exact sort of complexity I treasure than this particular topic.  Religious conversations, in my experience, tend to branch off into so many other things, the sorts of topics that allow you to really know a person, and how they view the world.  I count certain conversations that have started in just such a manner as being among the most incredible, thought-provoking moments in my life, and so I make it a point never to pass up the opportunity to talk about religion with anyone who’s interested.  I should also say that I mean this in the sense that’s about as far from proselytizing as you can imagine–after all, the only thing about which I’m truly devout is pluralism, and God knows there’s too much uncertainty inherent in my own theology  for me to dare try and sell anyone else on it.  Besides, having this sort of dialogue with any sort of ‘goal’ in mine is the surest step toward making sure that one doesn’t actually listen to a damned thing.  Just as I was getting very excited for what I hoped would be a really interesting conversation, and one that might give some depth to what, up to that point, had been a pretty superficial friendship, I stopped.

There’s virtually nothing about my approach to faith that is simple.  The very essence of my beliefs is predicated on the notion of uncertainty, or, as Augustine eloquently put it: “If you have understood, what you have understood is not God”.  I am unable to trust definitive answers, be they claims about the literal meaning of scripture or the unqualified, no-strings-attached philosophy of “God is love”.  All I can have are conjectures and flat-out hunches about God, Christ, discipleship, community, and love, not one of which is static.  Instead, they are all entrenched in a beautiful sort of war between the evidence of things not seen, and that which I so plainly do.  To me, this is the epitome of necessary complexity, when uncertainty is, in the end, far more truthful than any comforting alternative.  I don’t believe, as some have told me with more than a little disdain, that I’m complicating things to the point of obscuring the all-important ‘big picture’.  Uncertainty, rather, is the only picture that exists in the first place.

My Japanese is fair, but explaining my understanding of Christianity with it was simply out of the question.  I would wind up talking in circles, making little if any sense–which might have been fitting considering the topic at hand.  Even if I’d had the proficiency to express something this abstract, though, I questioned whether it would have been the “right” answer for the situation.  While my friend had certainly asked for my insights into this problem, I think it’s fair to say that she wanted something concrete, something basic–something you might find if you looked up Christianity on WikiPedia, say.  That’s not necessarily a bad place to start, either.  The concrete is a useful foundation for the abstract.  But it occurred to me, right then, that I had never needed to have a “concrete” explanation for it before.  Not that I hadn’t thought about it.  It had just never been necessary.

This is the real language barrier into which I have been running headlong since I arrived almost two months ago.  I have adapted to not being able to navigate conversations as quickly as I am used to, but I have yet to learn how to be at peace with forced simplicity.  It’s one thing to muddle through a basic conversation with the help of a dictionary and lots of circuitous grammar, and quite another to have a concept that is so important to you fall so far beyond your linguistic arsenal–not to mention the fact that the only explanation you feel is honest is not the sort of explanation your audience is seeking.  Perhaps that’s the greatest privilege of speaking one’s native tongue: the ability to express thoughts not just quickly, but with true honesty as well.  This will come with time, I hope.  But there is still a long, long way to go.

My friend–who, I’m sure, had not intended to set off such a bout of introspection–gave me something of a quizzical look.  After another moments pause, I answered: “It’s…difficult.  Even most Christians don’t truly understand it”.  As I’d assumed, this was not quite the answer she had been hoping for, but she took it in stride.  It wasn’t the whole of my thoughts on the matter–not even a quarter of them–and there’s probably not a single question she had that had been answered by my reply.  Maybe I should have tried for something more genuinely helpful.  Then again, maybe not.  But it was what I could manage.  And if nothing else, my non-answer had the virtue of cutting to the very essence of the thing.

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