THE BLOG
01/17/2012 11:24 am ET Updated Mar 18, 2012

My Doctorate in Tebowing

True believers have spun into overdrive regarding the Tim Tebow miracle: a synchronicity that falls into the same category of mystic coincidence that sent me to get my doctorate in religion from Vanderbilt University in the first place.

In fact, the questions the Tebow phenomenon raise -- and just as important, the answer I came to regarding it -- was the most valuable thing I learned from my broad and deep exploration of the History and Critical Theory of Religion, my particular field of expertise.

Tim Tebow, as you undoubtedly now know, is the NFL Football player who is famously committed to John 3:16, a verse from the New Testament that has long fueled Christian missionary zeal. What recently made him headline news was either the coincidence or the miracle, depending on your vantage point, that in the first round of the playoffs against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he finished the game with 316 passing yards. Yes: 316 or, to the Biblical-minded, 3:16.

Before we all go down on our knees in an act of, yes, "Tebowing", I have to ask the tough question. While there are those who believe that God is working mysteriously and imminently through Tim Tebow's life to not only make him a famous footballer, but to bring fans to Christ, what about someone else, equally devoted but less fortunate? Is there not a soldier somewhere in Afghanistan who recited John 3:16 just as zealously and whose passing at enemy hands did not constitute any miraculous coincidences worthy of the nightly news? Was God working any less mysteriously in one case than another?

While this is a category of question that has always been both confounding and intriguing to me, the urge to come to personal resolution has only accelerated with age. While some get through their twenties or even their thirties believing that their good fortune can be credited to God, I know of very few in their forties and significantly fewer who reach fifty plus who hasn't had something happen to them that has shaken their faith in a personal and imminent God.

If God can be everywhere with each one of us all the time, where was he when my mom fell out of the bed in her nursing home. I cannot shake the memory of the black and blue mark on her body that went from thigh to chest. I'm not asking here for a 316 yard pass here. But would it have been asking too much to know that my devotion to various Psalms and verses could at least have prevented the rail from giving way?

All this said, I am not a cynic. In fact, I believe that God does work imminently in our lives. There are those times I have prayed for healing, and it has come. There are times I have asked God to bring someone with whom I'd lost touch back into my life, and "accidentally" bumped into them in an elevator. That kind of thing that is now the answer to the question: "What is a Tebow?" So yes, I can believe that God is with Tim Tebow and his 316 yards, and that God is in my own miracles and coincidences, as well.

But my heart is also with the soldier slain seemingly without meaning on the battlefield and my mom's black and blue mark. For there are also those times when God's mysteries are not apparently miraculous and personal. I cannot always find God's hand in the things I encounter and that happen to me and others. A friend receives a serious diagnosis or someone who I know to be a good and worthy person tragically loses his or her job. Are these Tebows, too?

So, to make a long story short, I went for my late-career doctorate to figure it out. What do the scholars, theologians, religious leaders, chaplains, religious historians, psychologists, mystics, social scientists, and so on have to say about this? And here was the answer: the piece of information that finally brought me peace of mind and solid theological ground to stand upon -- the thing that made my seven years investment of time worthwhile.

It's a paradox. That's it. That God can be at once imminent (that every bird that falls from a nest thing) and transcendent (that God works in mysterious ways thing) is the answer. And what's more, I buy it.

So personally, I like to think that God is in the Tebow passes. But I am also making the serious, concerted effort to grow spiritually mature enough to embrace the knowledge that just as surely, God is not the perpetrator of the bad things that happen to us. Instead, I believe that God is with us when they do. And happily for me, this is miraculous enough.