Heaven Won’t Fit in Your Head
How Not to Pursue Theology
I have long been a mental maniac. I ruminate over unanswerable questions, turning the concepts of God and the universe over in my head to examine them from different angles, seeking to find clarity, certainty, and even mastery of the “metanarrative.” As a young adult, by some mixture of my pride and the societal value placed on intellectual aptitude, I considered that hyperactive mental posture to be positive, if not godly.
Enter G.K. Chesterton. He met me a century after he wrote Orthodoxy with words that were conviction to a prideful soul and balm to a tired mind:
To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits. (8)
“My mind cannot begin to hold the multidimensional mysteries of the universe.”
He confronted me with the stark reality that my mind cannot begin to hold the multidimensional mysteries of the universe. It cannot retain ages, nations, or species, much less shape them.
Magic in the Mystery
Chesterton opened a door that the almighty God walked through. His sarcastic diatribe against Job began to hit home: “Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it?” (Job 38:12–13). The questions are obviously rhetorical, but I hadn’t thoroughly considered how they applied to my arrogant, anxious thought life. Trying to figure out the world from a God’s-eye view was both sinful and maddening.
But my experience of God didn’t end in his mockery of me. I’m not sure that it even started there. He was simply asking me, with a knowing smile (in my mind’s eye), to breathe, to be a happy little creature in a vast world of his making. There was nowhere for me to run from his reality and no wand in my hand to change it as I saw fit.
“Mystery became magic where it had formerly been madness.”
Armed with my newfound smallness, creatureliness, and acknowledged mental ceiling, I began to wade into his infinite sea without trying to calm its waves. I began to embrace my place, owning my relative nothingness, and I watched the wide world, whether the things seen or the things unseen, become less wearisome and more wondrous. Mystery became magic where it had formerly been madness.
Head in the Heavens
Honestly, some twenty years after my first reading of Orthodoxy, the struggle is still very real. My god-complex will fight to the death, desiring control and stability on its own terms. But my patient heavenly Father is more relentless than my mind. He continues to impress several lessons upon me that began with Chesterton’s admonition.
1. The fathomless truths of God are meant to induce awe, not anxiety.
Our triune God sits in the heavens and does whatever he pleases (Psalm 115:3). He declares the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10). He wrote the law behind the universe. He just is. Those are mysteries that inevitably bring the poet to his knees with his gaze fixed, wonder-filled, upon the heavens.
To the theological logician, such glories are unsettling. I remember John Piper saying once that if the deep mysteries of God don’t draw you to worship, put them down for a moment until they can. Repentance is often needed, but then again, we can handle only momentary glances of truth into the preexistent Godhead. Awe is the aim, not divine understanding. “Such knowledge,” the creature confesses, “is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:6).
2. “Because God is God” is an acceptable answer.
When I was a new parent, I idealistically avoided the “because I told you so” or “because I’m your dad” refrains. I have come to embrace them, not so much because of their inherent convenience but because they allow my children to humbly and contentedly bow to a wiser authority. They must confront their clay-ness and allow themselves to be molded by their parental under-potters. Rebuttals must end. “Why?” questions, when chased to their end, inevitably yield the same answer: “Because God is God.” When we receive those words with the proper posture, they excite in us a sense of what C.S. Lewis calls the “Numinous,” an experience of the yawning gap between his being and ours.
3. The cross of Christ makes the awe-ful deity exhilarating.
Numinousness on its own isn’t necessarily a comfort. Some of my children (as well as most small dogs) find thunderstorms dreadful. Rightly so. They are the rumbling expression of the power of a mysterious God. I was similarly rattled as a child, but I have come to embrace the storms because I have come to understand that my Father sends forth the lightning, and he has told every bolt where to go (Job 38:35).
He has demonstrated his love for me, but that cozy fact doesn’t diminish the exhilaration of his God-ness. It enables me to cease my fearful attempts at control. I am simply chained to the mast with a front-row seat to the storm. I am still afraid, but afraid in a profoundly new way. Lewis illustrates the Christian numinous experience by citing The Wind in the Willows, as Rat and Mole approached the god Pan:
“Rat,” he found breath to whisper, shaking, “Are you afraid?”
“Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid? of Him? O, never, never! And yet — and yet — O Mole, I am afraid.”
4. Even in glory, we will not have all the answers.
I often hear people comfort each other in trials by offering the hope of full understanding of all God’s purposes once we meet him after death. I am not convinced of this at all. While Jesus prays for our oneness with the Godhead in John 17, he doesn’t promise that we will become gods ourselves. I find it far more likely that our glorified selves will respond like Job’s on the tail end of God’s aforementioned rebuke:
I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. (Job 42:2–3)
Communion with God is not primarily the procurement of knowledge; it is learning to admire God as he is while admitting who we are.
I am still far from a perfect poet. I’m still prone to analyze where I should bow. I am still learning to sing,
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me. (Psalm 131:1)
But my forgiving and unfathomable Father is ushering me deeper into the happy surrender of poetic admiration.