In Douglas Adams’ science fiction masterpiece, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is a scene where a group of scientists are building a computer to answer the hardest question in the universe. They build a massive computer that they call “Deep Thought” to answer the question: “the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.” Deep Thought tells the scientists it will take seven and a half million years to compute the answer. After seven and a half million years had passed, the descendants of the original scientists waited excitely to hear Deep Thought’s answer, the very answer all intelligent life had been searching for from the beginning.
“Are you ready to give it to us?” the scientists asked. “I am,” replied Deep Thought, “though I don’t think you are going to like it. The answer to the great question, to life, the universe and everything is… 42!”
The scientists are aghast. After seven and a half million years, the answer that Deep Thought provides them makes no sense. “I think the problem,” Deep Thought tells them, “is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”
This is a very silly story of course, but it is also a satire of many of the great thinkers of the last 300 or so years. Beginning with the Enlightenment, there has been a pervasive idea that the great questions that vex us as a species could be answered with the scientific method and reductionism. It was believed that questions like “Who are we?” and “Why are we here?” could be answered purely through scientific advancement. In social sciences this era of scientific advancement is called “modernity.”
We see the effects of modernity every day in the incredible technological advances that have been made during this period of history. Particularly in the last 150 years, humankind has taken an enormous leap forward. My grandparents used horses as their only means of transportation when they where children, and now I have the sum of all human knowledge accessible to me from the smart phone in my pocket at all times.
But yet, with all of this scientific advancement, we don’t seem to be any closer to answering the “ultimate question” than we were 300 years ago. There are many people now who believe, just as Deep Thought did, that we are asking the wrong question. We can’t ask a computer, an implement of science, a philosophical question and expect to get a sensical answer. We have entered into a new era, which the social scientists call “post-modernity.” This is the era of Generation X and the Millenials. This is the era of people who look at the quest of modernity and see its failure and come to one of two conclusions: 1.) There simply is no answer to the ultimate question, or 2.) There is an answer to the ultimate question, but it is beyond human understanding.
The Church was not immune to modernity, and it has even been suggested that the Protestant Reformation was the garden from which modernity grew. Modernity expressed itself in the Church in different and seemingly contradictory ways. On the one hand there was classical theological liberalism, which denied the existence of miracles, questioned the legitimacy of the Biblical record, and began the so-called quest for the “historical” Jesus. On the other hand was Biblical fundamentalism, the idea that every single word of the Bible is meant to be taken literally and that the Bible has an answer for every single question. Fundamentalism treats the Bible as a science textbook that is to be examined and combed for “evidence.” Fundamentalism makes the same mistakes as modernity, looking for answers to questions that aren’t fully understood. I know this because I grew up in the world of fundamentalism.
In the church I attended as a kid, there was an answer to every question. I was a pretty inquizzitive kid, so there were lots of questions. Sometimes the answer I got was terrible, but there was always an answer. These answers were most often derived from applying the scientific method to various parts of scripture. “What is heaven like?” Let’s look for a precise literal description in Revelation 21. “If God created the world in seven days, when did the dinosaurs live?” There were no dinosaurs, the world is really only 6000 years old, end of discussion. I always found the answers lacking. They were answers, sure, but they never really clicked for me. It was just like asking “the ultimate question” and getting “42” back as an answer. It was an answer, but it doesn’t make sense!
I remember the first time that I went to a church that used a more traditional liturgy in its worship, and there was a curious little phrase that stood out to me. It was during the communion time, and the pastor said, “Let us proclaim the mystery of the faith.” This phrase isn’t anything new, as it goes back all the way back to ancient Christianity, but it was certainly something I hadn’t ever heard before. Mystery?! There isn’t supposed to be anything mysterious about faith, because the Bible has all the answers! Or so I had been told. Imagine my surprise when I learned that this phrase actually comes from the Bible itself.
In the book of 1 Timothy, Paul uses this phrase to describe people who are qualified to serve in the church as deacons. That they must be “committed to the mystery of the faith.” Paul uses the word “mystery” (in Greek, mysterion) to mean something that was hidden that God has revealed to his people. Paul tells us that, yes, there is an answer to the ultimate question and that it is indeed beyond our reach. However, it is not beyond the reach of God, and God has chosen to reveal some of that answer to us. God did this through scripture, through the prophets of old, but most of all God revealed himself to us through Jesus. The Bible, therefore, isn’t a science textbook but rather an instrument of God’s revelation.
The distinction of what this means precisely is summed up well by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, where he tells us that what we understand about life, the universe, and everything is like looking through a darkened piece of glass, much like being on the mirror side of a two-way mirror. We catch glimpses of the eternal truth of God, but only that. When we look through the glass, we can only see that on the other side which is brightest.
As a Christian I believe there is an answer to the ultimate question, and that answer is a relationship with God. This is an answer not derived through the scientific method, but an answer given to us by God himself. He has revealed enough about himself that we can know how to live our lives and experience his love, but he has not given us every answer to every question… and God expects us to be okay with that. Over the years, I have had to learn to be okay with that.
And so, I believe that people can experience salvation from sin and death because Jesus died and rose again. I don’t know how (though I have some theories), but because Jesus was dead one moment and alive the next, I trust and have faith that it is the case. I believe that when Christians have communion, we meet Jesus and experience his presence in a unique way. I don’t know how, but because Jesus said, “This is my body… this is my blood,” I trust and have faith that it is the case. And that is exactly the beautiful thing about allowing mystery to play a part in my religious life: I have found myself trusting in God more.
There are many questions I have about life, the universe, and everything that are still unanswered. But that’s okay. I have found comfort in the mystery of the faith. I don’t need to know everything to know God.
Rev. Stephen Cagle is a United Methodist pastor and serves as an associate at Claremore First United Methodist Church in Claremore, OK. He is the husband of Ashley and first of his name. Stephen has a background in the world of technology and spent many formative years of his life going to hardcore and punk shows. His top three spiritual influences are: John Wesley, Søren Kierkegaard, and the band mewithoutYou.