Sometimes when I travel I bring my flash cards so I can study on the plane. From time to time I’ll find myself sitting next to a friendly chap who will strike up a conversation. Inevitably, the question of occupation will arise and they’ll ask what I do for a living.
“Oh, I’m a graduate student,” I say.
“Wonderful!” they reply. “And what is you’re studying?”
I tell them I’m studying theology, that I am actually a Christian, not necessarily a Catholic, no not a priest so yes I can get married…and I am as a matter of fact. Oh, thank you! Yes, we’re very excited.
Around this point in the conversation that they feel the need to inform me they are an atheist or agnostic of some fashion or another. They say it kindly, without any sort of vendetta or agenda attached. Often times they mention it with a sense of longing or nostalgia.
“That’s wonderful of you, really,” they say, “Sometimes I wish I could believe in that, used too actually. Was raised Catholic. Mom was a prayer warrior to the day she died, better than Mother Mary herself. Me, I dunno. I grew older. I just fell away, I guess. Now… now I just can’t find any proof for Him, ya know?”
Although we are still having a conversation, they surely aren’t talking to me. Their eyes are staring down the aisle, off into a distant world of backyards, catechisms and sexual education. For a moment they are there and I am stuck awkwardly cradling my Hebrew flashcards wondering if it’d be rude to begin reviewing them again. Then they snap out of it.
“Well, that’s great,” they say. “Best of luck to you.” And like that, the conversation is over.
I’m reminded of a story of two men who were walking through a forest when they stumbled upon a garden. The first man says that there must be a gardener who made it. The other says it came about by natural circumstances.
“Well,” says the first man, “lets stay and see!”
They stay for the night and do not see a gardener though in the morning there are signs that the garden has been tended.
“He could have come while we were asleep,” the first man counters.
So they set up barbed wire fences and traps to catch the gardener, desperate to find proof. In the morning, the garden is still flourishing but there is no gardener. The second man offers this as proof that none exists.
“And even if there is a gardener,” he says, “what difference is there between a gardener for which we have no proof and no gardener at all?”
All this goes to say that I was driving to class this morning and found myself stuck in traffic. As I was sitting there, I watched the exhaust from the car behind me loft lazily into the frigid morning air. Up, up, up it drifted. Then a car in the other lane drove by causing the air to shift, moving it suddenly so that it danced sideways in an eclectic and unprecedented manner.
Medieval monks believed that God was so providentially involved in history that they would meditate upon historical accounts. This does not answer the questions of theodicy, holocausts, AIDs or the personal conundrums of my own heart. But mystery is the character of the Divine and if it were not such then my degree would not be called the “Masters of Divinity” but rather the “Masters of I’m Bored Out of My Mind”. That is the beauty of it all. With wonder comes perplexity, the desire to know.
Don’t look for proofs, Marilynne Robinson said, don’t bother with them at all. And when I find myself sitting next to a man who struggles with a nostalgic perception of religion, my Evangelical tendencies create an urge within me to reach into my backpack and produce some sort of tract to whip out and place in front of him, like a rabbit from a hat. In five steps I can walk him through the “Roman Road to Salvation” and save his desperate soul. Ta-dah!
But I can’t do that. Because I can’t show someone proof when proof isn’t to be found. The gardener isn’t going to show up because the gardener already has shown up; can’t you see? He made the garden; I’m holding the flashcards in my hands for Pete’s sake.
So that’s what I do. I watch the exhaust cloud dance in the morning air and that’s all the proof I need; the rest is faith. The rest is fleeting evidence that the Divine can and is revealed to me, to us, in some small fashion or another. The rest is mystery. The rest is beautiful. The rest is yet to come.