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Always Beginners

By November 16, 2005 No Comments

It is only human nature to grip too tightly and compress the certainties [of the Christian faith] into too-limited, too-simple formulations. Part of us wants truth to come in portable sizes. In trying to explain who Jesus is, for example, Christians can manage to reduce him to the good moral teacher in sandals, the wise founder of a social justice movement, a model CEO, their personal life consultant, the knight who defends their version of the truth, or even–if the worst contemporary worship songs are an indication–the perfect boyfriend.

If I were viewing Christianity from the outside, what would I think of the small, fold-up, portable truths that are sometimes presented as the sum of the faith? Would I find them compelling? Would they invite me to find true answers for my deepest questions and longings?

The simple formulations have their limits, but we do need them. We must have ways to talk about God and salvation, death and life, suffering, time, and eternity–we must try to explain things in words. Sometimes we let these formulations flatten the mysteries, and sometimes we use flattened mysteries to hurt one another. That’s when the Spirit needs to remind us, through each other or the Bible or some other way, that we have not owned the mystery, not yet. There is always so much more beyond the words, beyond what we see, beyond what we now understand. So much more is waiting to be revealed to us as we travel further along on this pilgrimage.

Thomas Merton remarked that, when it comes to prayer, “we will never be anything but beginners.”1 He could have said the same of the Christian life as a whole. Those who have spent a lifetime journeying faithfully with others, who have earnestly sought the presence of God, who have suffered and held to hope–such people do gain in wisdom, trust, joy, radiance. But they know, having glimpsed God’s glory, how much more there is, how far they still have to go. All of us on this journey–saints and stumblers–perceive the mysteries more or less dimly in this life, yet we live in hope that our longings for wholeness will be satisfied, that one day God will reconcile all things to himself. Then we will fully comprehend the deep connections, the purpose and pattern of it all. Paul wrote: “Now we see but a poor reflection; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

Here and now we put our trust in the certainties of the faith not because they completely contain truth but because they teach us how to trace its breadth and depth. They lead us to the center of all truth, the ordering principle of the universe, which is not an impersonal force but a loving person. In Jesus Christ we see this loving person most clearly–Jesus the Wisdom of God, ordering the household of all things from before time and into eternity with strength and sweetness.

May you find many places where the veil [between the physical and spiritual world] is thin. May you receive the full riches of complete understanding. May you know the way to the mystery of God, which is Christ, for in him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, all provision for the journey, and the journey’s end.

Contemplative Prayer, Doubleday, 1971, 37.

Debra Rienstra is associate professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This column excerpts the concluding section of her latest book, So Much More: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality (March 2005, $22.95, cloth) by permission of Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching early British literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for The Twelve as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.