Glory in the Liminal

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct your paths.

– Proverbs 3:5-6 (NKJV)

I was only 13 or so when my uncle asked me something that would change my life. It was just an ordinary visit from him (which albeit didn’t happen very often because he lived so far away), but in the middle of our conversation he posed a rhetorical question:

“Jason, how do you learn things?”

I hadn’t really thought about it too much before that. You learn what you’re taught and you’re taught what is true. After some unsatisfactory guesses from me, my uncle suggested an answer that has stuck with me ever since — you learn by asking questions.

Before you tell someone what your name is, you first need to ask, “what is my name?”. Before you put on your clothes, you first need to ask, “what should I wear today?”. Before you ponder a deep question, you first need to ask, “what should I think about now?” (wow so meta).

Call me a skeptic, but questions are the backbone of knowledge. We cannot answer anything without having first asked a question, and it is my firm belief that the deepest answers are given to those who ask the deepest questions.

Though recently, I’ve been increasingly bothered by what happens when we don’t get an answer.

An article I read earlier this week asked if mystery may be more important than knowledge — if the journey of discovery is more vital to the human experience than the destination. I’m inclined to say yes, for the most part. I believe that, if the answer is beyond our capabilities, we should be comfortable with not knowing everything — after all, humans are limited and fallible.

I’m not comfortable with not knowing the answer if it is within my reach. I suppose that’s my training as a scientist — reality becomes only more beautiful when I understand the intricacy of its design. Personally, I’d love to analyze the music, run the equations, or exegete the passage if it means I get a good answer.

But that’s exactly the problem: in epistemological terms, the value of our questions has been limited by the value of their answers. The postmodern, Google-minded, instantly-gratified millennial has no patience for aimless questioning — we have lost our appreciation for mystery.

It seems kind of like a cop-out, really. What’s the point of asking a question that has no tangible answer? Why embark on a journey with no destination? I think this correlates closely with our generation’s Point A-to-Point B-mindedness. As a whole, we simply don’t have time to stop and smell the roses; we need to get to where we need to be as soon as we can.

But this mindset is philosophically self-destructive — the journey cannot simply be about the destination, and the question cannot simply be about the answer. The journey of knowledge must have intrinsic value apart from its conclusion because it is more important to think deeply than it is to blindly accept what we are told. This leads us to an interesting correlative: the deepest questions are those without immediate, or even apparent, answers.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
– Isaiah 55:8-9 (ESV) 

Jesus modeled this during His earthly ministry quite frequently. Even without doing an exact count, we know the Gospels record Him asking far more questions than providing clear answers. This frustrated the Pharisees and teachers of the law, who wanted things to be black and white. I imagine them wanting to shake Jesus by the shoulders, yelling at Him to just answer their questions.

But that wasn’t the point. The God of Mystery invites us to explore the truth by intentionally withholding direct answers and subverting our expectations of what it means to be wise.

I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.
– Matthew 11:25b-26 (NIV)

I find this simultaneously beautiful and horribly frustrating. How awesome is it that God chooses to involve us in His process rather than ordering us around like pawns? Taking the philosophically scenic route gains one an appreciation for wisdom that would be disappointingly lost otherwise — even more valuable is the humility learned by traveling it.

So perhaps it’s not just okay to not know something completely, but it’s even better to embrace that mystery. Because let’s be honest — if we totally understood Him, He wouldn’t be God. Everyone’s a bit of a heretic, so let us not have confidence in the power of our fleshly minds. The fact of the matter is that we don’t know a lot of things, and sometimes we can better serve the God of Truth by living in the tension of our questions and not desiring His answers over His promises.

The middle ground is always uncomfortable, and most of the time it feels terribly unsatisfying. But it’s the perfect place to build bridges between two sides that always seems to be at war with each other, and it often serves as a safe space where we can all be allowed to make a few mistakes (you know — like real, actual people).

There is glory in the liminal.

Here we make the best of what we know, striving ever imperfectly to follow Christ in whatever way we can. Here we work with mercy to draw a divided people together, narrowing the gap of misunderstanding and hatred. Here we will search for answers and live into the best ones we do find, while also maintaining a humble skepticism of our own views and prizing the glorification of God over a certainty that may never be complete.

And we shall trust Him to guide us through the journey, to the Kingdom where even greater glory awaits.

O great mystery
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the newborn Lord
lying in a manger!
– Fourth Responsory for the Matins of Christmas Day, “O Magnum Mysterium”

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