A Mystery Larger Than Any Answer We Could Ever Know
by Rev. John R. Mabry, Ph.D.
A Homily for Ordination
I was raised a Southern Baptist, and as those of you who have heard me preach before know, there’s still a lot about this tradition that I love and embody—like an appreciation for scripture, and my tendency to pound the pulpit! Another cherished part of my tradition of origin is the giving of testimonies, and I intend to give my testimony today.
I was raised in a world where almost anything could be forgiven. You could be a child-beater, a thief, even an ax-murderer, and God would welcome you with open arms so long as you were repentant. There was only one unforgivable sin: believing the wrong thing.
And, of course, we Baptists—specifically Southern Baptists—knew we had it locked down. We were suspicious of other kinds of Christians. We weren’t too sure about American Baptists—they seemed like traitors to us. And Methodists? Highly dubious whether they were going to heaven—they sprinkle their babies, after all, and how wimpy was that? And Catholics? As one evangelical humorist put it, we thought that when Catholics died they just put them in a chute in the basement and sent them straight off to Hell—do not pass go, do not collect $200 (thank you, Mike Warnke). So when it comes to Jews or Buddhists or Hindus? Forget about it. We didn’t think for a minute that God actually heard the prayers of the Jews, and those other guys worshipped idols.
And I believed that. Heck, I preached it—at the ripe old age of 16, up on top of the table at the roller rink with my big red Bible in my hand telling everyone they were going to Hell. Ah, those were the days.
Then something unexpected happened. I broke out of the insulated Southern Baptist world, and made friends with people who had different ideas about God, and was really freaked out when it hit me, “They weren’t evil.” (Because, you know, I always thought they were.) But the big shift happened one day when I asked my friend Bob what God was.
Now Bob had been raised by Hippies, which to me at the time, was not very far removed from having been raised in the outback by wild dingoes. Nevertheless, what he said changed me forever. He spun a vision of the universe as a vast, seemingly chaotic, but ultimately intricate and ordered Dance. All the creatures knew the steps—the animals, the planets, the stars, the angels, the demons—they all knew the words and had all the moves to this cosmic hokey pokey—and its complexity and beauty was a glorious thing.
The only beings who did not know the dance steps were—you guessed it—human beings. And our religious traditions were heartfelt and yearning attempts to get back into step with the Cosmic Dance.
Of all the theologies I had ever heard from the pulpit, none spoke to me as powerfully as this one. I cried for three days after hearing it. Because the moment I heard this vision, my world came to an end. I was, quite literally, born again. In that moment, I became an interfaith person.
I would guess that many of our ordinands have conversion stories of their own. We all started out somewhere, and none of us would have guessed that we would end up here. What, are you crazy? Yet, despite our best efforts otherwise, this is where we have been led.
A lot of people we meet are confused by this interfaith path. For some, it simply means holding out the possibility that other kinds of Christians might still be saved—a major stretch for those of us who grew up in conservative Christian homes. But “interfaith” is bigger than that. Some people are afraid it is a cult, a new belief system that just kind of puts all religions in a meat grinder with a vaguely New Age Hindu-ish kind of religion coming out the other side. But that’s not right, either. The interfaith movement professes no beliefs of its own. Although some of us have eclectic approaches to spirituality, those approaches often look nothing alike, and many of us continue to be committed Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, or Taoists.
So just what does it mean to be interfaith? It means that we have discovered that the world is bigger than we once thought it was. It means that we hold our faith in a larger context than we used to—a context large enough to acknowledge the validity and efficacy of other people’s metaphors and images and mythologies, without for a moment forsaking our own.
In order to embrace such a perspective, however, we have to give up a lot: We have to relinquish the spiritual arrogance that says, “I’m right, and everyone else is wrong.” It means we have to give up the notion that the Divine plays favorites, accepting some people and rejecting others. It means we have to set aside the notion that we have all the answers, that we have it all figured out, and be humble enough to kneel in silence before a Mystery larger than any answer we could ever know, or any belief we could ever hold.
For only when we are ready to admit that we don’t know it all are we teachable. And students at The Chaplaincy Institute are nothing if not teachable. They have come to this seminary because they are so very aware that they do not know it all, and are eager to learn. And a full year of study later—they still don’t know it all. And they are still eager to learn. And I hope that they always will be. Because the Divine mystery is so great, so vast, that human beings will never—in our current configuration—comprehend it. There will always be more to learn, more to discover, more to unpack, more weirdness to glory in. It isn’t about having the answers, it’s about being in love with the questions that will never be answered.
Likewise, when these students go out into the world to begin their work, their ministry will not be one of answers or certainty. There is no answer to the cancer patient who says, “Why me?” There are no answers for the young parents who have lost their child. There is no explanation for the magic that occurs at a wedding or the birth of a baby. These are mysteries that cannot be explained, circumscribed, or quantified. Our students don’t go into these situations armed with an armload of dogma, but with the same humble openness of spirit that led them to study at ChI in the first place.
We talk about leadership in our program, but it isn’t the kind of spiritual leadership that tells people what to think or how to act. For those of us walking the interfaith path, it is enough to simply invite people to dance in the Cosmic Dance.