On Attempting to Comb God’s Hair

A friend of mine has convinced me that people who do maths at university study truly wacky things. For instance, he claims that he once took an 18 lecture course to show that you can’t comb the hair down on a hairy sphere. Eh?

Imagine a circle with hair growing out of it. You can comb it down – just start with your comb at one point, and comb it down all the way round.

But when it comes to a hairy sphere – ah, now you’re in trouble. You can start combing the hair down, but you’ll always find that somewhere or other you’ll create partings or mohicans. It just won’t lie flat.

I feel something like the same way about my beliefs about God. I have various beliefs that I think are true – I’ve got these from a mixture of reading the Bible, listening to other Christians, thinking for myself (heaven forbid!)… and I feel as though I should be able to arrange them all neatly together, without any scrunches.

So far, it never quite works.

It *nearly* works – they do fit together and tie in together quite a lot. For instance, I remember feeling reallly satisfied when I realised I had an answer for the question ‘Why do we divide the Bible into two main sections, not three or fifteen?’ It’s a trivial example, but it’s pleasant when you realise that your beliefs fit together to make sense of unfamiliar questions.

But it doesn’t *totally* work. Fort instance, I can’t fully reconcile these things, all of which I believe: (a) God knows everything about the future; (b) God is totally capable of acting to bring about any outcome he wants; (c) we have real choices. How can all three be right? I’m not entirely sure. I’m not willing to abandon any of them, because they all make sense and seem important on their own; but together they seem to make a mohican.

And my point is?

Well it certainly isn’t ‘Give up’. I think we can make progress in making sense of what we believe – we can talk to each other, wrestle with the issues, read books, think hard, decide to be ready to change our minds, abandon some beliefs, correct others, be prepared to let the Bible disagree with us and change us – maybe some of the knots in our hair can be disentangled. The branch of theology that tries to lay out a set of beliefs in a well-ordered way, Systematic Theology, is really valuable, and none of us has investigated it enough, I’m sure. Life is too short.

But my main point is that, if you feel as though your beliefs are a bit provisional, messy, and contradictory, then you’re in good company. We all have to put up with this, while trying to seek out more understanding as time goes on. We aren’t God, and it would be a huge surprise if we could describe him and the world fully and without distortion.

I seem to remember that there was a happy sequel to the sad “can’t comb the hairy sphere down” story. Although I can’t imagine it at all, I seem to recall that if you have the 4-dimensional equivalent of a hairy sphere, you *can* comb it down. I wonder if our attempts at having no tensions in describing God are doomed to failure for now, because our descriptions are always going to be on too low a plane…?

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  1. David

    First I must thank you for a cool article it made me smile (but only in three dimensions sadly !). Anyway, at risk of sounding dumb, I want to know is where does it say that God knows the exact future.

    I ask this because it’s one of your big three things and the only one I would question. I know this is going down the whole predestination thing but I am interested since I have neglected to even look at it and you obviously have.

  2. Hi ~~,

    Glad you enjoyed it! Before I start, just to say it wasn’t my intention to major on the question of predestination – my point is that there are areas of tension for all of us, in all sorts of areas.

    If you want to think about the Bible’s take(s) on God’s foreknowledge, you could have a look at eg Ge 15.12-16 (representative of very many fact-based prophecies in the OT), Deut 31.20-21, 1 Sa 23.10-12, Psalm 139.16 (especially), Is 42.9, Is 46.10, Is 48.3, second half of Daniel (a very thorough prophecy of the next few hundred years of local politics), Mt 20.17-19, Acts 2.23, Rom 8.29, Eph 1.4-5, 1 Pet 1.2 for instance.

    As you mention, one approach would be to suppose that God doesn’t know *absolutely* everything about the future, but I’m not sure that gets rid of the mohican – he at least seems to know such a large amount about the future, and potential futures, that he could win any game of chess (or game of putting us in a position where we choose what he wants) with us anyway. Sometimes I feel a lot of tension over this idea (and sometimes not).

  3. davidb,

    I loved the way you article was so simplistic in language and explanation and yet revealed a very interesting and complicated reality that I, and I am sure many others, are part of.

    I has provoked some thought for myself, which I beleive to be a good thing.

  4. Late entry: Janice…

    Think I’ve got pretty lazy about this. I’m not into pondering things – I’ve just got to the point where I feel like I can’t make things match up so I just go on thinking both opposite/contradictory things and assume that’s ok because ‘God moves in mysterious ways’

    All of this ‘battling it out’ makes me feel like I should be thinking a bit more… Or maybe my ‘gifts’ are elsewhere?

  5. I definitely don’t think everyone should sit around cogitating on everything all the time, but if it turned out you were sweeping stuff under the carpet that was actually causing you difficulties, that would obviously be bad. So maybe somewhere in between?

  6. (a) God knows everything about the future;
    (b) God is totally capable of acting to bring about any outcome he wants;
    (c) we have real choices.

    How can all three be right?

    I’ve been wondering the same. I’m glad to see it phrased so succinctly.

    God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. Okay. Then God would know the future, my future, and would be able to let me know.

    What I’ve discovered is that when I ask God or Jesus to tell me my future, I draw a blank. I believe that’s because if we really did know our futures, we would try to live them out as quickly as possible so we could get off this plane and into heaven.

    That probably sounds far fetched, but I’m looking forward to going to the other side.

    I think God has given us missions, and it’s up to us to discover them, with God’s help. So when we pray for guidance, we have to be willing to let God’s will into our lives. Willing to let God rule us. Willing to understand God’s will.

    And then, I think the answers come in various ways:

    through others
    through circumstances of our lives
    through scripture
    through god’s words spoken as a whisper in our souls

    But back to the conundrum. If God already knows our future, how can we have free will?

    Any situation provides one with infinite choices. We make one and move on. God is aware of the infinity of choices, and God also knows which choice we are going to make.

    We don’t. We don’t know until we make a choice. The future is dark to us. But the future is, in reality, just a series of NOW moments. So the future doesn’t really exist.

    In the meantime, we have to ask for help to make the right choice in our sucessive present moments.

    Suppose our life course, as mapped out by God, contains some pockets of terrible sin. Terrible suffering, all because of our mistakes and wrong choices. Can God intervene?

    Of course God can intervene. If we pray, sincerely, to have our will be responsive to God’s will, God answers.

    But God knows that we are going to pray, and that we’re going to be helped. That the angels will play interference.

    We don’t. We’re in the dark most of the time. The trick is to turn out the material senses and tune into the spiritual senses. Then hopefully we get answers, and are steered in the right way by God.

    This is the only sense I can make out of God’s determination for us and our sense of free will.

  7. “God is aware of the infinity of choices, and God also knows which choice we are going to make.”

    So how is this different than predestination? It might be a gentler way of saying it, but still implies we really don’t have a choice or our next moves are already known and can be accounted for by God.

  8. great article, but what the hell is a “mohican?” As a member of the mohican tribe- (yes, there are some of us left…www.mohican.com) i was puzzled by this reference. thanks,

  9. Hi Anita,

    Great to hear from you! I was using the word ‘mohican’ to mean a certain haircut from, I think, the 1970s:


    I do hope this didn’t cause offense; please forgive me if this is an improper or offensive term.

    One of the wonderful things about the internet is meeting people with great heritages from around the world – I’m so pleased to have heard from you!

    Best wishes, DavidB

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