Monday, August 4, 2014

The Questions God Does Not Answer

Journalists famously ask "Who?," "What?," "When?," "Where?," "Why?," and "How?" Too often, we approach religion as though we were journalists, asking questions that are unanswerable and feeling cheated when we do not get the answers.

I heard a sermon recently about Jesus's famous miracle of feeding five thousand. This preacher's interpretation, which is not new, was that as Jesus encouraged everyone that there would be enough, a miraculous bout of generosity struck all those there, who opened their personal lunchboxes and knapsacks to share with those around them. This interpretation is starkly different from the "sho 'nuff miracle" interpretation that teaches that Jesus touched the five loaves and two fish and miraculously multiplied that meagre meal into enough for all the eaters, with twelve basketsfull left over.

Let's look at the actual scripture, from Matthew: Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. Interestingly, neither interpretation is clearly established - or obviously denied - by the scripture.

We are clear on the "Who?" question - it is Jesus. We are clear on the "What?" question - feeding the hungry. In this instance, we know the "When?" - shortly after the execution of John the Baptist. The "Where?" question is explained, sort of - in a solitary place near a body of water, presumably the Sea of Galilee. And we can study the "Why?" question - we can debate about it, and we may come to some rational conclusions.

What is strikingly missing from the discussion is the "How?" question. We are not told. What we are told is that there is a problem, and there are some raw materials, and there is Jesus, and then the problem is solved.

Think about the creation story, as I have discussed before. We get the "Who?" (God), the "What?" (creation out of nothing), and the "When?" (in the beginning). We do not get an answer to "Where?" directly, but the extrapolation is "everywhere." The "Why?" answer is once again one for study and discernment. But there is - to the distress of many and despite the protestations of some - no discussion of "How."

There are a very few miracle stories in scripture where the "how" is given some lip service. Exodus tells us that the Red Sea was parted with a wind. First Kings tells us that Elijah's food was brought by ravens. And if we want to stretch it, we can say that the gospels tell us that the blind man was healed by some dirt and spit. So, there is some mention of means in these stories, but I challenge anyone to recreate the miracles - we do not really know "how" even when the story gives a little hint.

On the other hand, there is no indication at all of a "How?" in these stories: every kind of animal finds its way to the ark; Lot's wife is turned into a pillar of salt; Sarah becomes pregnant long past her childbearing age; the plagues rain down on Egypt; water comes from the rock; Aaron's rod buds and blossoms; the donkey speaks; the fire consumes the soaked altar; the lions' mouths are closed; the fiery furnace is survived; the fleece is wet, then dry; the virgin conceives; water becomes wine; Jesus heals; Jesus passes through the crowd unseen; Lazarus arises; the coin is in the fish's mouth; Jesus is transfigured; the disciples are able to speak in multiple languages; and on and on and on. And in not one of these stories is there a hint of how it happens.

And does that matter?

It is not just the evolution/creationist battle that focuses on the "How?" to the detriment of "Who?" and "What?" Debates over miracles characterize many late-night discussions and have led far too many away from the faith.

The Buddha taught that there are certain questions that are "non-edifying" - asking them serves no purpose, and the answers would not be helpful even if they were ascertained. Frederick Buechner applies this idea to Christianity, noting how many times God does not answer questions directly. Perhaps the easiest example to recall is from the Book of Job. Job cries out for chapters and chapters, asking God to explain the cause of calamity that has befallen him, demanding that God answer both the "How?" and the "Why?" that captivate him. Instead, of course, God does no such thing. Buechner argues that God could well have answered the questions, but what good would that have done? Could Job have understood the divine mystery if it were laid out for him? Sitting across from the empty chairs that once held his children, would he have even wanted to work through the logic of the supernatural forces at play?

Instead of providing the answers, of course, God shows Himself to Job. And that is enough.

When Adam and Eve are hiding in the garden, God comes looking for them. When the fiery furnace is opened, a Fourth Person is seen in the midst of the flames with the three Jewish boys. When the water becomes wine and withered hand is restored, Jesus Himself is there. When the tongues of fire appear, the Holy Spirit arrives like a mighty wind.

When the questions come, God is there. And the need for the answers evaporates.

I don't know how the food got multiplied for 5000+ people. Perhaps it was divine magic. Maybe it was mass generosity. Maybe the laws of physics work in ways we cannot grasp.

Why does it matter? There was a need, there was Jesus, and there was satisfaction. Isn't that enough?


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