We all want answers. To survive in this world, we need them in response to the largest and the smallest of questions. If I need to discover the details of Ron Paul's foreign policy, I "Google" it. And, like many Christians today, if I need to discover God's answers for suffering, I can "Bible" it by flipping to the concordance and looking it up. Whatever kinds of answers I need, I have them all at my fingertips.
Or so we're told. Both Google and the Bible are marketed as curiosity-satisfying tools that can quench our thirst for knowledge. Man gave us Google to meet information needs and God gave us the Bible to meet spiritual ones. Our Bibles come equipped with concordances that act as hyperlinks, pointing us to pages that will tell us what God thinks about most any topic we can imagine.
Google's stated mission is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." How could such a mission be harmful? There is no doubt that search engines like Google have made our lives significantly easier and more inter-connected. Easy access to information has leveled the global playing field and provided an opportunity for cross-cultural dialogue and the spreading of new and different ideas.
According to Google co-founder Larry Page, "The perfect search engine would understand exactly what you mean and give back exactly what you want." This idea, that we can find all the answers we seek through our phones and laptops, not only appeals to our human nature, it offers us comfort and even spiritual solace. Ambiguity, confusion, and uncertainty can be banished all with a click.
And as some Bible publishers and pastors suggest, the Bible is God's search engine. In it, you find answers to all of your spiritual questions. In fact, that is why the Bible exists in the first place: to meet your needs, including the need to know all things and to know them easily. Pastors and Bible publishers market the Holy Book as a spiritual encyclopedia, capable of answering every question we have about God and his world.
Timothy Beal, in The Rise and Fall of the Bible, shows how perceptions of what the Bible is have evolved over the centuries. He argues that our "Bible-as-God's-encyclopedia" idea is based more on "biblical consumerism" than the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is based on an attempt to meet the desires of human beings rather than a dedication to the intention of Scripture: an encounter with God. Thus, when we approach the Holy Scriptures with the same intention as a search engine, we seek not a divine encounter but the satisfaction of our "need" for answers.
Several years ago, writer-director-producer J.J. Abrams ("Lost," "Alias," Super 8) delivered a now-famous TED talk about the relationship between mystery and storytelling. He says that stories need "mystery boxes"—something the audience hopes will be opened and revealed by the end of the story. To effectively tell a story, you need elements of mystery, because mystery creates a space for imagination and possibility. "Mystery," says Abrams, "is more important than knowledge."
In the Jewish tradition, the name of "G-d" itself is a mystery—written in English with a gap to acknowledge the inadequacy of the word to express the concept. The unfilled space leaves room for possibility. This practice reminds the reader that some things, G-d especially, are incapable of being fully known. Reminding oneself of this is essential to remaining aware of an oft-forgotten truth: without mystery, there can be no awe. And without awe, one cannot encounter G-d.
In today's world, the unknown is interpreted not as a means for experiencing mystery, but instead a reflection of our insufficiency. We want answers, because we are told that we must have them. But where does this leave G-d? When the space for possibility is replaced with a dependence on search engines, and sacred stories are reconstructed into a divine encyclopedia, we do ourselves a great injustice. We create a culture that abhors uncertainty and doubt and we lose the power of the indefinable.
As a child, I was taught that answers were essential. In fact, I was told that if I failed to have certain beliefs, I would be in danger of hell fire. "If you're not 100% certain, than you're probably not saved," my grandfather would say. Answers were essential because they determined my eternity. Yet, twenty years later, with all the answers in the world at my disposal, my questions are louder than ever. In fact, I've come to believe that my desire for answers and the methods I use to acquire them have actually blinded me from what I need most of all: mystery and G-d.
2/1/2012 5:00:00 AM