Wesley Hill: God of the messy

Raymond J. Nogar was a mid-20th century philosopher of science. He wasn't a bad lay theologian either.

An unavoidable reality of institutions is that they’re messy.

Theologically, that’s good.

I was reminded of this recently while re-reading a book I first picked up at the recommendation of my friend John Wilson. Originally published in 1966, “The Lord of the Absurd,” is a travelogue of sorts, written by the Dominican priest and philosopher of science Raymond J. Nogar who tells the story of a lecture tour he took soon after the publication of his previous book, “The Wisdom of Evolution,” which explored the relationship between evolutionary theory and divine providence.

A book like this doesn’t seem relatable to the kind of discussion we’re trying to foster here at Faith & Leadership. Science and evolutionary theory fall a bit outside our remit. We’re focused on questions about developing leaders, strengthening institutions and encouraging healthy communities.

On second glance, though, I wonder if Nogar’s message may be precisely the thing we need to hear.

Many of the people whom Nogar met on the speaking circuit he recounts in “The Lord of the Absurd” wanted him to talk about the order he saw in the universe, the evidences for a Divine Mind at work behind the seeming chaos of the world. Some of them had read studies by the celebrated Catholic thinker Teilhard de Chardin, in which Teilhard argued for a beautiful narrative of evolutionary progress, and they wanted to know what Nogar made of Teilhard’s ideas.

Nogar’s response to their questions cuts across disciplinary lines: “When Father Teilhard looks out (and inward) upon reality, he sees everything, without exception, as part of an orderly, harmonious whole. I just do not think that is the way the truth of the matter stands.”

Then, taking the apostle Paul’s teaching with full seriousness -- that the cross of Christ is scandalous and foolish to normal human reasoning (1 Cor 1:18-25) -- Nogar writes:

“Father Teilhard’s vision [of order and beauty in the cosmos] seems to have all the qualities of the old myth of the eternal return, in which history is really incidental and novelty is, at bottom, only apparent. In his cosmic order, even Christ the Lord of history finds His “place” at the center, and the contradiction of the Cross is quite logical and expected. In that world, there is no terror, no trickery, no trouble…. The God of the strange world of Father Teilhard is not the one I have come to believe in. His is the God of the neat; mine is the God of the messy. His God governs with unerring efficiency; mine provides with inexcusable waste. His God is impeccably regular; mine is irresponsible. His God is the Lord of order; my God is the Lord of the Absurd.”

Nogar grasps the nettle here. The shock of the Christian story is that when Jesus shows up, he comes as an intruder, splitting families apart (Matthew 10:34-39). He comes as a reckless spendthrift, dispensing grace with abandon, lavishly, profligately (Matthew 20:1-16). He upsets business as usual, throwing parties for all the wrong sorts of people -- the “tax collectors and sinners” -- and wasting his gifts on a few backwoods hillbillies from Galilee (Luke 5:27-32; 15:1-32). He overturns the status quo, rather than put his seal of approval on it (Luke 5:33-39). He ends his life strung up on a tree to die, not celebrated as the long-awaited dispenser of all wisdom and goodness (Mark 15:25-39).

There’s a warning here, I think, for those of us who seek the flourishing of our churches and institutions, those of us who are trying to cultivate the ordered efficiency of strong leadership. These goals are admirable, even essential, but what would it mean to build a leadership strategy -- a blueprint for the growth of our institutions -- around a vision of the One whom Nogar calls the Lord of the Absurd, the God of messy, scandalous grace?

Wesley Hill is a PhD student in the Department of Theology & Religion at Durham University in the U.K. You can follow him on Twitter at @wesleyhill.