What do you do when you stumble upon a truth that is too big for theology?
The question reminds me of another one: Where do the ducks go when the lagoon in Central Park freezes over?
Recognize the words? It’s from Salinger’s famous The Cather in the Rye (spoiler alert), and it is so subtly asked in the novel that the careless reader is bound to gloss over it. It also remains unanswered, which is significant. There is an idiotic attempt at a response by a nameless cab driver, but that does not count. If anything, his answer adds to the mystery.
Why does the question matter? Because it encapsulates the aimlessness of the protagonist Holden Caulfield’s wanderings. Everything remains open-ended, it seems. His efforts at meaning-making and finding answers lead him nowhere. Ultimately, he fails to discover where one goes when your circumstances become unbearable. That’s the point.
No one knows, it seems. Least of all the grown-ups.
So what does Holden do? This is where the beauty comes in, and, in my view, the single element that has catapulted the book to the top lines of must-read lists for decades. Salinger manages to say more through a single image – a catcher in the rye – than libraries of philosophy have done for centuries.
Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.
When your life becomes unbearable, and you wish you could spread your wings and fly away from it all, but you cannot – because there simply is nowhere to go – then there is a single sensible thing left to do: Help others not to fall into the abyss that your life has become.
Yes, I know. Not everyone interprets the book in this way; as though there is some moral compass to discover in it. The book has little to do with Christianity, and no one can be exactly sure what the famously elusive Salinger was thinking when he wrote the words above. Yet, somehow he tapped into the collective psyche of the human race by confronting the aimlessness of mortal human existence with a viable and practical alternative; to give up the quest and substitute it with a life of selfless service.
If you get this, you can skip reading the book. You can skip the profanities and references to sex (although moderate by today’s standards). It’s not a book Christians have generally felt comfortable reading or recommending. But we can certainly note that Salinger does a brilliant job of using a single unanswered question as a premise for painting a beautiful scene of a life dedicated to the well-being of others and, in the process, a life that becomes progressively oblivious to its own pain.
This life-out-of-death motif is central to Christianity. It underlies the sacrificial theme of both testaments. It illustrates what Jesus meant when he said that if you seek to find your life you will lose it, but if you lose your life you will find it. Here’s the connection.
To be clear, we do not serve to escape or forget our pain. We do so because Christ is our life and it is his divine nature to love and serve. The catcher-analogy breaks down at a point. Yet, at a practical level, to be other-centered is a great way to forget about yourself and your own misery. No rational person would deny this.
Which brings me back to my own question above: What do you do when you stumble upon a truth that is too big for theology?
Ironically, as I am writing, my friend Siju from India posted in the comments section of last week’s blog-post. His words so perfectly and serendipitously describe where I am heading with the question above that I will borrow them (Thanks Siju!):
Bible study done by the natural mind happens in the realm of the flesh/natural which consists of “IMAGINATIONS, ARGUMENTS, PROPOSITIONS & CONCLUSIONS” which do not have the SUBSTANCE of LIVING BREAD that gives/maintains life. And such bible study (or ministry ) inevitably ends up in debates such as “Calvinism vs Arminianism”. It is like a hungry man given a fantastic menu in the restaurant, it tantalizes him but he is still hungry! And he does a deeper study about the dishes that he thinks will satisfy him and finds out their recipes and is thrilled for a time because of the discovery but faints because he has yet not got the meal!!! He then slanders this hotel and goes to another hotel and repeats the same thing but still does not receive the meal that can sustain/maintain his life with “vitality to perform daily tasks “, “pleasure satisfy his longings”, and “comfort in times of troubles”. New Covenant learning and ministry is NOT “learning and transferring concepts” but the broken and hungry being fed with “Living Bread by the Father” ( https://biblehub.com/matthew/5-6.htm ) and due to a “love overflow” ( https://biblehub.com/psalms/23-5.htm ) the same person is able to distribute “Living Bread in brokenness provided by Christ from the Father”.
The “study of the dishes”… What a powerful way to describe the practice of theology apart from partaking of Christ as the living bread from heaven!
The point is that there is no answer that can satisfy the yearning of the dying soul (Hence the Catcher-analogy above). The life that God alone can give is not an ideological construct and can never be reduced to one, which also happens to be the main point of last week’s post on Ravi Zacharias.
In the garden, God became an idea – an intellectual concept – the moment the humans sank their teeth into the forbidden fruit. By opting for an alternative source of life, namely the knowledge of good and evil, humanity subjected their notions of God to that source. And so God (god?) became a recruit into the thought-world of humans instead of the Creator outside of it.
In the process, God-talk became an intellectual and speculative thing, on the same par as Siju’s menus served in the different hotels apart from any real food that possesses the power to still appetites.
The idea of God as our life is too big for theology. In fact, it is not worthy of the designation “idea”. It is too real. Too incarnate. Too experiential. Too accessible. Too inviting. Too irresistible for the hungry and thirsty.
And the charge, that we will all lose our mental faculties and instantaneously become heretics if we dare conceive of life as something to partake of instead of reduce to a creed (menu?) of our choice, is too outrageous to be dignified by a response. As discussed elsewhere, the Biblical idea of heresy has to do with the act of choosing opinions and causing divisions in the process.
So where does one go?
You exchange the quest for a new lifestyle. You give it up. You walk away. You leave it all behind. You become like Salinger’s catcher in the rye. You become like Siju’s feasters at the banquet of living bread.
In short, you begin to conceive of Christ as your life, and his doctrine as a moment-by-moment adventure of impartation and response that will constitute a type of learning that can only be described as the school of Christ. You will soon find that not only your God-awareness but your other-awareness will increase with leaps and bounds.
This does not exclude study or discussion or deliberation. Rather, it provides the groundwork for it. Some of us have found that we cannot stop talking after we’d walked away.
There are great discussions in the rye, believe me. But they are wholly different to the depressing ones we had before we packed our bags.