On Cave Discoveries, Curiosity, and Experiencing God

Photo: Robert Clark for National Geographic

This morning, National Geographic published a fascinating and mind-blowing article about a recent archeological discovery of a new human ancestor. It is being hailed as one of the biggest fossil discoveries in fifty years- and that’s before we even understand the scope of it. (My friend Cat and I were lamenting on Facebook this morning that we wish we had an archaeologist friend we could ask all. our. questions. but since we don’t, we will just keep re-reading the article with our mouths agape and wait for the follow up.) And though I can’t speak to the science and history part of it all, it did make me think about the surprise of discovery, and what that has to do with God.

Have you noticed that so many of the best discoveries are just the hugest assortment of insane coincidences?! One of my favorite archaeology stories (what? you’re surprised that I collect nerdy interesting archaeology stories?!) is the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which was an immensely important find for biblical studies. And it all happened because a Bedouin shepherd boy- YOU CANNOT MAKE THAT UP! A LITTLE SHEPHERD BOY!- was begrudgingly chasing down a lost sheep LIKE OUT OF A PARABLE and he just so happened to go to the mouth of this cave. He grabbed a rock to toss in there to coax the sheep out, and instead he heard a noise, like the rock had hit a pot and broken it. He went inside to investigate and he found a collection of tall clay pots. Some of these pots held within them scrolls that date back a thousand years earlier than our then-oldest biblical scroll. It was the find of the century.

A shepherd, you guys. In a nation that hosts I don’t know how many archaeologists per square mile. A little Bedouin shepherd boy found the biblical find of the century.

And now Homo Naledi, as he’s being called, brings with him the same kind of crazy discovery story. Two guys who call themselves “recreational cavers” (which..sign me up) were in South Africa doing whatever recreational cavers do, when they happened upon a cave of some pretty stalactites. One of them wanted to take a video, so his friend shimmied into a fissure in the cave floor to get out of the frame. He moved his foot to find a holding, and he discovered empty space underneath it. It was a vertical chute into a hidden cave where literally over a thousand bones in pristine condition were waiting to be discovered. All because a guy wanted to take a picture of some stalactites.

What are the odds?

That’s the thing about discoveries: you can’t plan for them. You can’t orchestrate them, or force them, or will them into existence. When they happen, it is never in the way anyone would have chosen. It’s clumsy. Nobody ever looks smart after a discovery- just lucky. 

When I went to the Holy Land, we visited Magdala, the town where Mary Magdalene came from. Archaeologists had been digging all over the place for years trying to find it, and every location had come up empty. Then some developers decided to build a hotel, and since it was in a protected area, the Israel Antiquities Authority had to come through to do a little sweep and make sure they weren’t building on anything important. They found a beautiful stone replica of the Temple under a water pipe, 20 inches below the surface. Twenty measly inches! They kept digging, and lo and behold, the stubbornly hidden Magdala was discovered. (I tell the full version of this story in my book.)

Discoveries remind us we can’t control things as much as stumble upon them, which reminded me: this is about all we can say about experiencing God, too. We don’t experience God because we’re better explorers than other people, or even more dedicated to the cause. There are archaeologists who have dedicated their lives to searching for remains of things that nevertheless stayed hidden. We just stumble into it, often without rhyme or reason. 

Why does it feel thrilling when it’s fossils or scrolls and frustrating when it’s God? Partly because we aren’t recreational faith-divers, for one thing I’m sure. We want God to be more reliable than that. We want God on a map, or in a diagram, or a set of books. And though I think it’s fair to want those things, I can’t say I think we will ever get them. God is just never as on-the-nose as we’d like. I think there was a time when I wanted God to be that way, but now I’m rather delighted God isn’t. I’m thrilled, actually. It’s the thing about God that’s always been my favorite, even when it’s been the most frustrating thing. God is not a cheap plot twist or a saw-it-coming ending. God is this unpredictable mysterious Deep, and sometimes we shove our foot in it entirely by mistake.

God is this cave of wonders right beneath our feet, this discovery just twenty inches under the surface of our everyday lives. When it comes to the meaning of life, most of the time we stumble into it like shepherd boys on an entirely different errand. 

It might be worth pondering this- the idea that to find God might mean simply being curious, knowing that curiosity and adventure tend to lead also to stumbling, or looking a little foolish.

One humbling note of caution from our cavern-tale: once archaeologists began excavating the cave of illustrious bones, it became clear that some people had been in the cave before, maybe ten or twenty years ago. They had seen the bones, and moved a few around, even. Clearly they had no idea what they had found. Worse, they just moved on and didn’t mention it to anyone.  If finding God means being curious, then lacking curiosity may be a sure way to keep the depths of God hidden from you in plain sight.

Stay curious, my friends.


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