If you were given the assignment of picking the shortest word that summarizes the Christian understanding of many Biblical truths, a strong case could be made for that little conjunction ‘and.’ Despite its brevity, a lot of truth can be packaged into those three letters – and a lot of mistakes can be made when we substitute ‘or.’
A certain little tyke used to drive his father nuts on long car trips with an endless sequence of questions: “Which is stronger Daddy, a bulldozer or a big truck?” “Which is stronger, a big truck or a jet airplane?” etc. etc. until the father would finally beg off in exhaustion: “Please, no more questions today!” Of course, the real problem with answering those childish questions was that they were over-simplified – as if a simple either/or choice could characterize a complex set of attributes and contexts. But that’s the kind of questions children ask because they’re trying to organize the world so that it makes sense to them.
We adults may chuckle at such charming unsophistication, yet we often have the same problem when we try to wrap our minds around truths about God and His ways. Is there one God? Or are there three Persons? Is Jesus truly God? Or is He truly human? Unlike the naive comparisons of the little boy (how does one compare the ‘strength’ of a truck and an airplane?) we are now talking about true absolutes: ‘one’ is numerically different from ‘three;’ Divine is undeniably different from human. Yet, the universal Christian answer to those questions is to embrace an apparent illogic: God is one God and three persons; Jesus is true God and true man.
Our mind reels at such contradictions and to the degree we mentally reconcile them (and many people never do) it is often by assuming that one or the other alternative is actually an illusion (e.g., that we worship three separate Gods who simply behave as one) or as some kind of compromise (e.g., that Jesus is sort of divine and sort of human). Yet, Christians have historically insisted that such interpretations miss the essence of Divine Truth – the reality of God’s nature can only be expressed by ‘and’ in all its perplexing contradiction: in some unfathomable manner, both of the irreconcilable absolutes are utterly and simultaneously true.
But doesn’t that violate all reason? Doesn’t that illustrate that Christian faith is ‘illogical’ and therefore some sort of made-up fantasy? That’s been the accusation of skeptics for thousands of years, and even many Christians settle for thinking that the ‘truths’ of their faith are more symbolic than actual. Yet, the last hundred years of scientific progress suggests that the Christian practice of understanding God’s fundamental truths in terms of ‘and’ rather than ‘or’ is also the way we must understand nature at its deepest and most fundamental levels.
If you’re one of the millions of viewers who tune into TV’s Big Bang Theory, you’ve heard the characters refer to the famous thought-experiment known as Schrödinger’s Cat in which the renowned physicist reasoned that the hapless feline in a sealed container was simultaneously both dead and alive. This sounds like a ludicrous notion (and it IS at the scale of actual cats), except that the modern scientific consensus is that at its deepest sub-atomic levels, physical reality must indeed be understood as the superposition of multiple possible states. This is certainly not to suggest that God can be represented by quantum mechanics! But perhaps we should not be surprised that when we drill down to the deepest facts of nature we see in God’s Creation echoes of His own Divine Nature – ultimate truth expressed by ‘and’ rather than ‘or.’
Just as one will commit grievous errors in physics if one doesn’t recognize the ‘wave/particle duality’ (all quantum-scale entities are both particles and waves), one will grievously misunderstand God and His ways if we try to force Him into an either/or box. Ours is a God of perfect justice and perfect mercy, a God who knows the future and answers prayer, an Eternal Being and one who experienced death, a Father and a genderless Spirit. And – you get the idea! To know God, we must accept His unfathomable ‘ands.’
(The word ‘and’ is also at the heart of some of the most distinctive aspects of Lutheran theology – a topic we’ll be exploring in future Fish Hooks.)