As I walked in, I noticed the clean white sheet of paper on his desk and thought nothing more about it. It was at that moment in my life that I was unraveling. Now permanently separated from my spouse, my anxiety and aching body were signs enough. Yet, my weekly appointments with my therapist were helping me recognize that I was surrendering one story about myself, for one yet to be even partially understood.
As we concluded the session, he reached over for the sheet of paper. The paper wasn’t blank; it had been faced down. The human mind records extra bits of detail in moments of significance. I can smell the wet salt sea air tinged with ripe seaweed from the small boat harbor not far from his office. I can hear the hum of a stand-alone air conditioning unit behind me, providing gentle white noise to silence other voices. The firm, straight-back chair, and the green checked cushion held my aching back in place for as long as I could sit. The sheet of paper. On the facing side was an elegantly typeset quote:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet.
It was the first handhold on the long, steep climb out of the well of anxiety and depression. Anxiety demands answers. We deny anxiety power when we accept that questions are a part of the fullness of life too.
To be sure, there are certainties, typically related to the materiality of our lives, the science and physics of it; but that isn’t all there is. When answers conclude, a surplus of meaning is just beginning. I could walk out of my therapist's office and witness one of the most awe-inspiring scenes I know: the pacific sunset. There are scientific certainties in the event. We know much more about the sun's workings on our planet than the ancients did. We know now about the refraction of light through water and the particulates in the air. However, the science of it doesn’t touch why I find it beautiful or why that daily, breathtakingly gratuitous explosion of color turned my heart toward the most important question I know: whatever it is, we gesture at with the word “God.”
The journey I began in my therapist's office that day taught me to talk about faith differently. Some well-meaning Christians reject affirming creeds and classic doctrinal writings because they rightfully suspect mischief: confusing certainties with meaning. Certainties, like technology, give humans terrible power over one another. However, Jesus’ story has particular contours that, when left unexplored, leave the faith wanting, or worse, deformed and dangerous. Let us not call these boundaries, dogma, or fundamentals; then, let us call them, rightfully, essential questions.
So then, what are the essential conversations that emerge from the story of Jesus properly told? The theologian Dan Migliore helped me find words for this. I have adapted the list he offers in his book Faith Seeking Understanding (1). Migliore affirms that Christians are confronted by inexhaustible mystery in all the central affirmations of the Christian faith.
the wonder of creation;
the shocking humility of God in Jesus Christ
the transforming and healing power of the Holy Spirit;
the persistence of sin and the miracle of forgiveness;
new life in communion with God and one another;
the call to mission
the Resurrection promises that evil and death are not the final words.
When I stand and say what I believe using ancient words. I affirm not a litmus statement of belief but a living toward God shaped by this classic, life-giving, life-long conversation. Be patient, then friends, toward all unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves. … Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
(1) Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Third Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 214), p 3.
Rev. Mark F. Sturgess