This Unfathomed Secret

Featured

 “At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (1836)

What do I know?

Is what I know back in the city — outside the gates of the forest — more “knowledgeable” than the knowledge of the forest and the farm? Is knowing different from imagining? What is the relation between knowledge and imagination? Are they opposites, kin, companions, enemies? Is one kind of knowledge superior to another? Is one more civilized than the other? Are they of equal value, each in its own right? Or is it all relative, a fool’s question in this world of relativity where one person’s perspective and opinion is as good as another’s, one person’s truth and wisdom another person’s fanciful imagination and foolishness?

Publishing “The Bovine Chorus” yesterday brought the questions to mind. After a day seeking knowledge about the loud mooing that overwhelmed the bird calls on the wetland, I realize my imagination got the better of me. The last conversation was with a retired dairy farmer. “Probably needed to be milked,” he said. “They’ll let you know! Or the farmer was taking a calf away. They can be really loud!” Memory flashed back to my dairy farmer friend Bruce, who showed up on Sunday with a broken hand from having punched a cow. What does a city slicker know about cows and the life of a dairy farmer!

I wasn’t always a city slicker and I’m not much of one now. If I were, I wouldn’t prefer this remote cabin on the wetland. It’s less civilized here. Some would say it’s less knowledgable. Others might say, more given to faulty imagination. Like imagining a bovine herd singing Friedrich Handel’s Magnificat to celebrate a cow birth in Bethlehem only to learn from my old musicologist friend Carolyn that Handel never composed a Magnificat, so far as she could recall, and from my new retired dairy farmer friend that the mooing was probably a protest by cows whose udders ached or who lamented a calf being kidnapped from the holy family.  

“Woe am I!” say I, like Isaiah overwhelmed by the smoke that filled the Temple. “I am a man of unclean [stupid] lips!” [Isaiah 6:5a]. I know nothing worth knowing. My imagination has deceived me. Remember Carolyn back in the city, and the retired dairy farmer. And then there are the books I’ve brought here from the city. Birds of Minnesota and Wisconsin and Colin’s Birds of North America and Greenland with pictures that help identify the Brown Thrasher feeding on the ground and train the eye to distinguish the Trumpeter Swans here from the Tundra Swans, and Mute Swans. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays on history, nature, experience, politics, et al., and The Book of Common Prayer bring the wisdom of the ages that ground me in both nature and tradition, knowledge and a better imagination, a pair of spectacles alongside the binoculars next to the wetland in the time of climate change. I read Emerson again.

“We nestle in nature, and draw our living as parasites from her fruits and grains, and we receive glances from the heavenly bodies, which call us to solitude, and foretell the remotest future. … Literature, poetry, science, are the homage of man to this unfathomed secret, concerning which no sane man can affect an indifference or incuriosity. Nature is loved by what is best in us. It is loved as the city of God, although, or rather because there is no citizen.” 

Just when we thought …

Just when those of us schooled in progressive schools of thought had become confident that the old schools of thought were dead, that old doctrine we love to hate — original sin — begs for reconsideration.

Progressives of every stripe view original sin as toxic waste material best left behind in the guarded cemetery of bad ideas. Whether secular humanist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, animist, atheist, agnostic or whatever progressive school of thought, the idea of progress in one form or another has united us against the nay-saying disparagers of basic human goodness.

Then along comes the American election of 2016 and the year that leaves us in shock. January 20, 2017 the nation’s first African-American President handed the Oval Office and the nuclear codes to the primary funder and spokesperson of the Birther-movement determined to erase all things Obama.

Suddenly the reign of sin and death has made a comeback. The sins are ‘original’ both in the old sense of infecting the entire body and freshly creative beyond imagination.

The idea of “sin” itself —  not just “original” sin — had fallen into disrepute, a relic of unenlightened religious orthodoxy until it started to best describe the behaviors of the Oval Office. The arc of the new American administration and Congress looked anything like a rainbow.

“Sin, guilt, neurosis; they are one and the same, the fruit of the tree of knowledge.” Sound like unenlightened orthodoxy paraphrasing the story of the Garden of Eden?

51F+WLhaYmL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_It was Henry Miller, whose Tropic of Cancer and other books were blacklisted by American publishers as obscene, who looked deeply into himself and the human condition, sounding like the Genesis writer. Or, God forbid, St. Augustine of Hippo or John Calvin.

Neither Augustine nor Calvin meant by original sin or total depravity that life is without an underlying goodness. Like Miller, they pointed to something that is as without explanation as the sudden appearance of the serpent in the Garden of Eden story: our inexplicable proneness to evil and slothfulness in good.

 J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the bomb, lamented, as though peering ahead to 2017-2018 when two little boys in the White House and North Korea would call each other names while playing with nuclear matches:

  • Despite the vision and farseeing wisdom of our wartime heads of state, the physicists have felt the peculiarly intimate responsibility for suggesting, for supporting, and in the end, in large measure, for achieving the realization of atomic weapons. Nor can we forget that these weapons as they were in fact used dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.
    • Physics in the Contemporary World, Arthur D. Little Memorial Lecture at M.I.T. (25 November 1947)

The old biblical serpent is never far away. The vulgarity of sin and death is the story of our time.

Gillray_Shakespeare_Sacrificed_20_June_1789

1909 painting The Worship of Mammon, the New Testament representation and personification of material greed, by Evelyn De Morgan.

Eating from the ONE and only tree of all the trees from which we cannot eat without bringing on our own destruction —  the forbidden Promethean kind of knowledge that divides the world into good (us) and evil (them) — we now wonder how the Seven Deadly Sins not only sit upon the throne of the enlightened democratic republic we thought we knew but infect all who, quite originally, only see evil outside ourselves.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall….” – Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 18, 2018

Preaching to Myself

The longer I live, the less I know. The less I have lived, the more I think I know.

“Knowledge puffs up; but love builds up.”(I Cor. 8:1b)

These words seem strange to those of us who value education. But peeking into the internal squabble within the First Century CE Corinthian church (First Corinthians 8:1-13) may also give us an unexpected peek into ourselves in 2015.

There is a tension between knowledge and love. The better educated among us see the relation between knowledge and love as complimentary. Love and knowledge grow together into ever expanding circles of freedom, like snakes shedding their skins and lobsters shedding their shells for bigger skins and shells that can hold their more mature selves.

Yet we are sometimes scornful of the less educated, the concrete thinkers, the legalists who are certain about what little knowledge they have. We are quick to join Paul’s opinion that “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge ….” (I Corinthians 8:2). A little knowledge is a very dangerous thing. True education leads not only to increasing knowledge but to increasing awareness of one’s own vast ignorance.

We think of Copernicus and Galileo who challenged the prevailing knowledge, and those who judged them for their unbelief, a new “knowledge” that has changed the human view of our place in a vast, expanding universe. Or we think of Darwin and the Scopes Trial – the showdown between the knowledge of evolution and the ignorance of the creationists. We think of the difference between enlightened biblical scholarship that interprets Scripture through the eyes of love’s expansion and the biblical inerrantists who insist that the Bible be taken literally, such that the book is closed on matters of human sexuality.

“‘All of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up; but love builds up.” 

Paul makes a masterful move here in the chess game of the knowers. He says that all the “knowers” know little, and that those who know more – the stronger in faith – are in greater danger than those who know less – the weaker in faith.

He is writing to the strong, the ones who are more advanced in the knowledge of the liberty to which Christ has set them free. “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” Knowledge itself puts us on trial, the trial of humility, the trial of love. Paul calls for the stronger to be humble lest what they assume to know become the new idolatry that places Christ’s weaker followers on the cross of educated privilege.

The Christian claim of faith is not our knowledge, no matter how great or small. The claim of the disciples of Jesus is God’s knowledge of us. It is God’s knowing us that is the heart of faith for followers of the crucified, risen Christ. It is God’s knowledge -the wisdom of love – into which we are baptized as novices. One might even say, we die to every claim but love.

We are saved by grace through faith, not by works. For the likes of me and my progressive friends and colleagues in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and for members of the church who are choosing to leave the PC(USA) because of what they regard as excessive liberty, knowledge sometimes becomes the new “works” that substitute for justification by grace.

To be justified (i.e. made “right” with God) by grace through faith, as Paul understood it, represents a 180 degree repentance, a reversal of the direction and flow of the human-divine encounter from us to God to from God to us. Paul later speaks of the practical implications of love with respect to all claims of knowledge:

“And if I ….understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (I. Co. 13:2)

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it his not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (I Corinthians 4-7)

I am among those who remain puzzled by what to do. It’s far from simple. Paul’s description of the Christ-like life is centered, but it’s not simple. The patience and kindness come hard when faced with what I am sure are the weaker, more homophobic folks whose view of Scripture supports their opposition to the full inclusion of LGBTQ members. I boast of a greater knowledge based on love. In the name of love, I become arrogant. I am rude. I have a short fuse. I want to separate myself and the more enlightened from the less enlightened, the weaker, as Paul might say. In their presence I quickly become irritable, resentful of their presence in the Body of Christ. I do not bear all things. I do not believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. I do not believe that if I understand all mysteries and have all knowledge but have not love, I am nothing.

Though Paul was writing his letter to the tumultuous church at Corinth in the middle of the First Century CE, his words still speak. They arrive unexpectedly like a surgeon’s scalpel removing a cancer for the sake of the Body of Christ. The gospel cuts with a knife, but it is always for the sake of healing, a dying to ego for the sake of the resurrected Body of Christ.

Gracious Lord, by your healing mercy, keep me in the knowledge of Your love.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015.