A while back I saw an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson where he talked about solving Rubik’s Cube. He described how he’d learned to do it while he was a grad student in astrophysics. The thing is, he never learned any algorithms—specific sequences of turns that you do to manipulate the cube and solve it. He’d simply worked at it, wrestling for an estimated 80 hours while he was supposed to be studying physics, until he figured it out.
Tyson used this as a metaphor for working on the forefront of science. There are no solutions to consult, he said, no answers in the back of the book. You just have to work at it and figure it out. In other words, you’re on your own with the puzzle. Nobody has been there ahead of you to show you the way. You have to figure it out without the benefit of ready-made solutions or short-cuts.
When I watched the interview, I found myself becoming jealous. I taught myself to solve Rubik’s Cube in the 8th grade by using a set of algorithms I learned from a book that belonged to my dad. I worked at it and memorized the various sequences and patterns, practicing over and over until I was able to solve the cube in a little over 1 minute. It was fun, and I enjoyed taking the cube to school to show off my newfound skill to my friends and teachers. But I never even tried to solve the cube just by figuring it out. When Neil deGrasse Tyson described his efforts to solve Rubik’s Cube, I knew he’ experienced a sense of accomplishment and thrill of discovery that I’d never know. I couldn’t help feeling like I’d robbed myself of the chance to figure out the puzzle on my own. After all, I can’t very well un-learn the sequences I worked so hard to master. I could try to develop new ones—which I have done—but it’s not the same. I found myself wishing I could tackle the puzzle fresh, without the stuff I’d learned, so I could experience what it was like to try to solve it on my own. Would I be up to the challenge? I would never know.
Thankfully, I was able to do the next-best thing thanks to my wife. This year for Christmas, Amy got me a 5-by-5 Rubik’s Cube, also known as the Professor’s Cube. It’s just what it sounds like—a Rubik’s Cube with 25 squares per side instead of the traditional 9. This makes for a much higher degree of difficulty. There are 98 pieces in the 5-by-5, compared to 26 pieces in the 3-by-3. The 3-by-3 has on the order of 10^19 possible combinations, while the 5-by-5 has on the order of 10^74 possible combinations. I was excited when I got the 5-by-5 puzzle, because I knew it would challenge me and stretch my abilities. The sequences I’d learned to solve the 3-by-3 would be useful, but they wouldn’t get me all the way to a solution. I would have to adapt them, modify them, and discover entirely new ones in order to solve the puzzle. I could apply what I knew, but I’d also have to chart new territory and find my way through unfamiliar situations. It would be a bit like trying to figure out the regular Rubik’s Cube from scratch.
It took me 12 days. I don’t mean 12 days of playing around. I mean 12 days of hard work. I blew off workouts to work on the cube. I’d mess with it in the evenings when my wife and I were watching TV. Well, she was watching TV. I was working a 5-by-5 Rubik’s Cube in front of the TV. I’d do it on my lunch break at work, and during my kids’ nap times on the weekends.
I had to get creative at a couple of spots, which required some thought and experimentation. But there were 2 spots where I got completely stuck. I tried everything I knew, and nothing worked. I would literally lie awake at night thinking about possible sequences and solutions. In both instances, the first time I got past it was a complete accident, and I didn’t know exactly what I had done right. I solved the cube after 12 days, but I couldn’t quite repeat it because I hadn’t yet fully understood the process. It took a few more tries before I knew exactly what to do and could solve it confidently and easily. In the process I discovered at least 3 new algorithms—on my own!—and modified several more to fit new situations. Now, after several months of practice, I can solve the 5-by-5 Rubik’s Cube consistently in under 20 minutes.
Neil deGrasse Tyson used solving Rubik’s Cube without algorithms as a metaphor for working at the forefront of science, where you’re in uncharted territory and have to figure things out as you go. But I think what I did–learning to solve a higher-order cube by applying and modifying what I already knew–is a better metaphor for theology. Good theologians don’t invent or reinvent anything, and Christian theology holds that some things simply have to be revealed–we can’t achieve a complete knowledge of God apart from God’s revelation to us in the Scriptures and in the person of Jesus Christ. Instead, theology seeks to push the boundaries of our understanding of God by applying God’s revelation in new circumstances to learn new things. We remain grounded in Scripture and tradition even as we discover new ideas and ways of expressing what we know of God.
Greg Jones, theology professor and former dean of Duke Divinity School, has described this process with the term traditioned innovation, a way of thinking that brings the past and future together. It’s not pure innovation that goes off on its own, unmoored from the past. Neither is it strict adherence to tradition that refuses to change or adapt. Instead, it’s a way of innovating that respects and remains faithful to tradition. It’s a preservation of tradition by a willingness to change it in the face of new situations and circumstances. It’s learning how to solve a 5-by-5 Rubik’s Cube by adapting and applying the techniques you first learned to solve a 3-by-3.
It’s also exactly the kind of theological thinking we see throughout the Bible and Christian history. It’s what the prophet Hosea did when he called Israel to be faithful to God’s covenant using his own marriage as a symbol. It’s what Isaiah did when he spoke of the coming deliverance from Babylon as a new Exodus. It’s what the author of Matthew did when he portrayed Jesus using imagery that evoked Moses and Israel. It’s what Paul did over and over when he quoted Scripture to support his conviction that God’s grace and salvation had been extended to the Gentiles. It’s what the early church fathers did when they looked at the whole witness of the Bible and concluded that God is Trinity, One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These theologians didn’t just preserve the tradition they inherited, but remained faithful to it by extending it and finding new expressions of it.
This kind of innovation requires being grounded in tradition, steeped in it so completely that it shapes your thinking and guides improvisation. I was able to innovate my way to solving a 5-by-5 Rubik’s Cube because I had learned how to solve a regular cube at an early age and practiced it for 20 years. I didn’t just read a book of solutions as a teenager. I memorized the algorithms and got to the point where I no longer needed the book. Then I practiced, over and over, until I ingrained the various patterns and sequences not just in my mind, but in my muscle memory. When I got ready to tackle the 5-by-5 cube, I knew what to try and when, and with a little bit of observation (or a lot!) I could see why it wasn’t working and what I needed to do differently. In the same way, the biblical writers and theologians of the early church were so familiar with the language and themes of Scripture that their thought patterns and attitudes had been shaped decisively by them. They could improvise and innovate in a way that was faithful to tradition because they had been so thoroughly formed by tradition.
That is the task of theology at its best today. Hopefully it’s what church leaders are striving for as they face the many challenges and new situations of life in the 21st century. It’s what I’m striving for in my own way as I try to ask how to hold the Christian faith and space exploration together. It’s why I’m reading physics books and theology books, why I’m paying attention to Scripture and to equations. I hope that I have been formed–and continue to be formed–by the Bible, by prayer, by church, and by all the rest of Christian tradition so completely that I can innovate in a faithful and fruitful way. I hope other theologians working on other questions will say the same.
New and harder puzzles offer an opportunity to practice traditioned innovation, whether those puzzles are theological, scientific, or just for fun. Earlier this week I started trying my hand at a Megaminx, a 12-sided “cube” puzzle. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m only just getting started. More traditioned innovation in the world of Rubik’s Cube awaits. I hope. In the meantime, I will continue to pursue it at the intersection of science and theology. I encourage you to practice traditioned innovation in your own life, work, and faith as well.