As many of you probably know, one of my favorite expressions is, “Just because you have a problem does not mean that there is a solution.” I love this expression because it’s true, and because it confronts the deeply-held, false myth that “every problem has a solution.” This belief that “every problem has a solution” is engrained in us almost from birth. We are assured in a million ways by a million people that nothing is impossible. We cling to this myth because it makes us feel powerful. We somehow have come to believe that as a species, we are entitled to success: in all things, and at all times.
Like all myths, this one has some basis in reality. As a species we have encountered many problems, and we have found solutions for many of them. In the face of larger animals, we evolved opposable thumbs and learned to use tools and weapons. When we needed to migrate into climates not suitable for our hairless bodies, we developed clothing and shelter and learned to harness fire. To cross oceans we made boats; to travel faster we invented planes. To cure illnesses we created medications, and to solve engineering problems we developed math.
Clearly, many problems do have solutions. But if we are honest, we know that not all problems can be solved. Some marriages fail, some children go off the rails, some cancers cannot be cured. Some conflicts — inevitably it seems — end in war.
The church is not immune to this assumption of success. We have encountered many problems along the way, and we have either solved them or… well, when we can’t solve them we just shove them under the rug. Problems under the rug are no longer seen, and so the illusion that we are powerful remains intact. Sadly though, it is these hidden problems — the ones left unattended to — that most often trip us up as a species: in relationships, in global political conflicts, and also in the church.
Today’s story of the Ascension is a form of shoving a problem under the rug. It is a pseudo-solution to a problem that the Church has never solved. For two thousand years, people have asked, “If Christ was raised, where is he? Where is this man who overcame death, who came back from the grave? Why can’t I see him? Why is he not holding press conferences or something?” It is a legitimate question. And it is a question to which we have no good answer. Instead, we mumble sheepishly that he had to slip away for a bit, but that we are awaiting his return. This creates another problem, which is that we cast our entire religion into a passive stance. Year after year, decade after decade, century after century, the world says, “Well?” And we keep saying, “Honest, he’ll be right back! Really, just wait an itty bit longer. To which the world finally says, “Why bother?”
So: is there a better solution to our missing Jesus than the Ascension? No, not really.
One option some people take is to veer toward Pentecostalism. They say to the great, impatient world, “OK, the purpose of the church is not really to wait around for Christ’s return. The purpose of the Church is to live in God’s Spirit! God is now! God is here! Umm, not in the person of the Risen Christ (whom we do seem to have misplaced), but in this other thing called the Holy Spirit!” To which the world replies, “If the church is about living in God’s Spirit, why did you need Jesus in the first place? What’s the point of a messiah if you can come to God directly, like we all did before he showed up?”
An even more radical move, made by people like John Dominic Crossan, is to say that the resurrection never happened: Jesus died on the cross and he did not come back. We are his followers in much the same way that Buddhists follow Buddha, Muslims follow Muhammad, etc. Gulp. So much for Easter.
We Christians have a problem at the dead center of our faith. We can keep Easter and the problem of our missing messiah; or scrap Easter, focus on the Holy Spirit, and essentially give up on the divinity of Christ.
In truth, my dear friends, all great world religions have a central problem: those unanswerable catches in their otherwise fleshed out theologies. Hindus and Buddhists have no answer to global climate change or unchecked population growth. Their central tenet of reincarnation is based on everything staying the way it is now. In the event of human extinction — or even a vast de-population — these religions crumble into meaninglessness. No more humans means nothing to reincarnate into, and their religions die with humanity. Muslims are stuck in an intractable nationalism. Their faith was designed for a very particular culture, time, and language. Their crisis is that Islam only really works if you are a fourth-century Saudi Arabian. They keep squeezing people from around the planet into archaic dress, into a foreign language, into a prayer position that demands they face a homeland they do not claim allegiance to. Modernizing is simply not a part of their theological wheelhouse.
Incidentally, the problems that Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims face are easy-peasy for us Christians. Unlike Hindus and Buddhists, we have a highly developed end game: we celebrate the end of human existence. It brings on the return of Christ! Our religion not only survives past human extinction, it kind of demands it. The earth, we have always claimed, is not our final kingdom; it’s just a rest stop on our way to glory!
We scratch our heads at the central problem plaguing the Muslim world. “Why do you force women to wear burkas?” Watching Trump uncomfortably line dancing with a bunch of dignitaries dressed in archaic robes, I heard someone mutter, “Why is it that everything they do is so old fashioned and… weird?” The truth is that Muslim problems simply don’t make sense to us. Since the days of St. Paul, we Christians have cherished a faith that is easily adaptable to any culture, any language, any place. On the other hand, our problem — the fact that we have a risen but missing messiah —is easily absorbed by other theologies. Hinduism (and to some degree, Buddhism) have divine humans coming and going all the time. And as for the Muslims, they happily buried their founder in the ground and never thought he was coming back.
So what is the lesson for today? What do we do, right here, right now, with this story of the Ascension? What do we do with all the various theological problems we create with our elaborate triune divine-human matrix?
Well, the first thing we do is agree to admit that there are some problems — even in our cherished faith — that do not have satisfactory solutions. In fact, since we have such a beautiful and elaborate theology compared to many other faiths, we have more problems than most.
Second, in the face of our honest self-reflection, we resolve to see the problems in other religions with a bit more compassion. I know the speck in their eye may seem weird to us, but they are no weirder or larger than the various specks in our own eyes.
Finally, though, let us accept that problems do not mean that our religion — or theirs — is somehow insufficient. Religions were never meant to completely resolve the mysteries of God. Understanding God is not like solving a calculus problem (hard but achievable). When discerning the nature of God, we will only ever have shadowy glimpses of the truth; and that’s OK.
Like our brothers and sisters and those in-between of all the great world faiths, we live and move and find our being here in the imperfection of our beliefs, while trusting in the one who is perfect.