I am a fan of Matthew Inman’s online comic, The Oatmeal. The themes found in his work overlap in many ways with my own passions – Inman’s drawings often focus on loneliness and longing and love and hope, subjects that I seek to encounter in my preaching and in my writing.
I am occasionally startled, however, by Inman’s skepticism even hostility towards faith. A friend on Facebook, for instance, recently linked to a panel from The Oatmeal that defined theology as, “like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there, and shouting ‘I found it!’” and contrasted it with science, which is “like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat using a [profanity] flashlight.”
Like a lot of anti-theistic arguments, Inman’s thesis strikes me as problematic in at least a couple of ways. First, I don’t believe that theology and science are in competition. Rather, I figure that these two disciplines are in a complementary relationship; efforts to privilege one over the other strike me as dissonant and odd. I don’t get the argument that Darwin made the Bible irrelevant any more than I get the notion that the Book of Genesis somehow rebuts the Big Bang Theory. To borrow a quip from Terry Eagleton, being asked to choose between science and faith feels a lot like being asked to choose between a toaster and Mozart; I don’t see a good reason why we can’t have both.
Second – and as we celebrate Christmas, this is where I would like to spend a little more time – I’m not convinced that theology is necessarily about searching (for a black cat or for anything else). If I were to apply Inman’s metaphor to my own life, to my own encounters with Jesus, I would say something like:
I was in a dark room and I encountered an impossibly beautiful light. Insofar as I shouted anything, it wasn’t, “I found it” (I’m not sure that I was looking for anything), but rather:
“Something – or someone – found me.”
I would venture to define theology as the work of crafting words and symbols and practices and communities and acts of service within which to respond to that light.
On Christmas Day, we hear the famous words from John’s Gospel:
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There is a light that is looking for you and for me. It looks for us in our loneliness, in our lostness, in our hurt. It looks for us in our delight, in our wonder, in our possibility. The light comes to us in Baptism and in the Eucharist. And it comes as well in our biggest griefs and our biggest jubilations and in our most mundane moments in between.
The darkness may sometimes appear to us to be complete. But it is not. The light is coming. And the darkness will not overcome it.
You and I may or may not be searching.
Either way, thanks be to God, we will be found.
The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.