There’s this farmer, and he has these chickens, but they won’t lay any eggs. So, he calls a physicist to help. The physicist then does some calculations, and he says, “I have a solution, but it only works for spherical chickens in a vacuum.”
I heard this joke on the The Big Bang Theory, and I got it. After all, isn’t the other truism about science that if it moves, it’s biology, if it smells, it’s chemistry, and if it doesn’t work, it’s physics?
But it also gave me pause for thought. The idea behind the joke is that theoretically, science can solve any such practical problem. But in practice, random variations in the conditions of the subject (the chickens), or the surrounds, often confound attempts at perfect solutions. Applying the formulae only to spherical chickens in a vacuum removes those random variations and makes everything neat, tidy and easily solved.
And I wonder how often, in the church, we do something similar? We believe that theoretically, our faith can solve any seemingly intractable problem in human life. But in practice, human life is even messier than the farmer’s chickens, and we seem to live in conditions more closely resembling a jungle than a farm. Our attempts to get everything neat, tidy, and easily solved are often frustrated as human complexity outruns our ability to reduce it to simple formulae.
Where we then get it wrong, it seems to me, is that instead of acknowledging our own limitations in humility, and waiting with patience, trust and hope for the outworking of the Holy Spirit in the lives of our brothers and sisters, we turn around and blame them, and indeed ourselves, for our failure to meet those ideal conditions. We castigate men and women struggling with issues and situations bigger than they are, call them sinful and even call their salvation into question. This abusive behaviour has driven many a son and daughter of God from the church and even into despair, and it hardly reflects the gentleness, love and mercy of God.
It seems to me that we need to say, like Job after the revelation of God’s awesomeness, “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.” Some things are too great, too complex, and too wonderful for us, and to attempt to reduce our brothers and sisters to the spiritual equivalent of spherical sheep in a vacuum seems the most arrogant refusal to recognise this.