A comically involved, complicated invention, laboriously contrived to perform a simple operation.
—“Rube Goldberg,” Webster’s New World Dictionary
Designating a device that is unnecessarily complicated, impracticable, and ingenious.
—“Rube Goldberg,” Oxford English Dictionary
Theology is a diversion. It is not serious like doctrine, respectable like history, or helpful like therapy. Theology is gratuitous. It works by way of detours. Doing theology is like building a comically circuitous Rube Goldberg machine: you spend your time tinkering together an unnecessarily complicated, impractical, and ingenious apparatus for doing things that are, in themselves, simple.
But there is a kind of joy in theology’s gratuity, there is a pleasure in its comedic machination, and ultimately—if the balloon pops, the hamster spins, the chain pulls, the bucket empties, the pulley lifts, and (voila!) the book’s page is turned—some measurable kind of work is accomplished. But this work is a byproduct. The beauty of the machine, like all beauty, is for its own sake.
Theology, maybe especially Mormon theology, requires this kind of modesty. As a scholarly discipline, Mormon theology is for people who like that kind of thing. The Church neither needs nor endorses our Rube Goldbergian flights. The comic aspect of the arrows we wing at cloudy skies must be kept firmly in mind. The comedy of it both saves us from theology and commends us to it. It is painful to watch a theologian who thinks he’s finally bolted together “the one true Rube Goldberg machine.” But there is joy in a shared comedy that invites us to laugh and wonder as ordinary religious objects are lovingly pressed into doing unusual and amazing things.
Thomas Aquinas is a model. At the end of his life, embraced by God’s own mystery, Thomas throws up his hands and claims that all he’s written—the sum of Catholic theology—seems like straw. Theology is only worth doing if, in full light of this admission, we can take Thomas’ confession as a punchline to be celebrated rather than a disgrace to be brushed under the rug.
Self-aware, such comedy never starts from scratch. It never gets its feet planted. Like an amateur juggler, theology weaves around the room chasing its borrowed pins. Theology works with found objects. It repurposes ordinary stuff in pursuit of ad hoc projects. Nothing is ordered to specification. Our Rube Goldberg machines are made out of ordinary, mismatched, everyday religious objects. Start with a couple of doctrines here, a few rituals there, a pew, and a prayer, then throw in some historical qualifications for good measure, grease the wheels with a sociological observation or two, and wind the whole thing up.
The more ordinary the stuff, the more material the objects, the sturdier their composition, the better for theology. You can’t build a working machine if you rely too much on supernatural ephemera. When the gears crank, the wheels turn, and the hammer swings, you want that head to connect—whack!—with a satisfyingly solid thump.
Good theologians need two skills above all others: they must be shameless packrats and they must be imaginative tinkerers. Because they work with found objects, theologians need to be collectors of religious texts, rituals, and objects of every sort. The collector needs to gather a wide variety of objects from a wide field of sources—Eastern, Western, ancient, modern, literary, scientific, etc. Working just with what is at hand, it is best to have a lot on hand.
Repurposing these ordinary gestures, altars, and texts—sometimes subtly, sometimes wildly, sometimes both—for theological ends requires invention and sensitivity. Tinkering requires patience and care. The only way to successfully exapt an object is to be sensitive to its given shape, heft, strength, and history. Then, in light of this attention, the object can reveal what untapped work it is able do it. Constellated into an unnecessary apparatus, the object can show both itself and the objects aligned with it as possessing a new and surprising strength. Yoked together, the whole thing can shamble along handsomely, showing us the gods and moving us closer to them.
Engaged in this work, theology has only one strength: it can make simple things difficult. Good theology forces detours that divert us from our stated goals and prompt us to visit places and include people that would otherwise be left aside. The measure of this strength is charity.
Theological detours are worth only as much charity as they are able to show. They are worth only as many waylaid lives and lost objects as they are able to embrace. Rube Goldberg machines, models of inelegance, are willing to loop anything into the circuit—tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, Democrats, whatever. This is their joy. Here, the impromptu body of Christ is a Rube Goldberg machine.
In charity, the grace of a disinterested concern for others and the gratuity of an unnecessary complication coincide.
Theology helps us to find religion by helping us to lose it. Theology makes the familiar strange. Theology ratchets uncomfortable questions into complementary shapes. Theology recovers the trouble that is charity’s substance.
When, in the end, all the levers are pulled, all the buttons are pushed, and all the switches are switched, it is a small, hard, round, red, shiny ball of charity that rolls out of the detour machine—or, otherwise, theology is nothing.