"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Thinking About the Limits of Human Knowledge, the Catholic Tradition, and Resting in God

O LORD, I am not proud;
   I have no haughty looks.
I do not occupy myself with great matters,
   or with things that are too hard for me.
But I still my soul and make it quiet,
like a child upon its mother's breast;
   my soul is quieted within me.
O Israel, wait upon the LORD,
   from this time forth for evermore.
~Psalm 131

Sometimes, when I'm reading through the online world of blogs, I start feeling pretty dumb.  There are a lot of people who know a lot more than I do, even in those fields of knowledge where I focus my energies (e.g. history, theology, ecclesiology, literature, etc.), to say nothing of all those important topics about which I know very little indeed (e.g. biology, medicine, psychology, mathematics, economics, all things mechanical, ad infinitum).  It can be a bit overwhelming, particularly today, living as we do in the information age.

Recently, while considering the futility of attempting to learn everything, the following passage from Don Miller's Blue Like Jazz came to mind.
My most recent faith struggle is not one of intellect.  I don't really do that anymore.  Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don't believe in God and they can prove He doesn't exist, and some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it's about who is smarter, and honestly I don't care.  I don't believe I will ever walk away from God for intellectual reasons.  Who knows anything, anyway?  If I walk away from Him, and please pray that I never do, I will walk away for social reasons, identity reasons, deep emotional reasons, the same reasons that any of us do anything.
This was one of those passages that grabbed me and stuck with me.  One does have to be careful about taking this kind of sentiment too far, and simply dismissing all rational and rigorous thinking as unimportant.  I certainly don't believe that; in fact, I place great value on the life of the mind, and intellectualism in the best sense of the word.  And yet I do think the intellect can take one only so far, and that at some point we all have to say, 'well, I guess I really can't figure it all out', and neither can anyone else, no matter how many years we devote to learning.  There will always be more to learn, and there will always be areas in which people can't seem to agree, with compelling arguments on both sides.  I think this is particularly true in matters of religion.  I consider myself to be pretty orthodox as regards matters of faith and doctrine (even though I'm an Episcopalian, gasp!), but I have to admit that I really identify with Miller when he asks, 'Who knows anything anyway?'  I think this is why I have always felt so at home in the Anglican tradition.  Despite my own adherence to orthodoxy, I am ever open to the possibility that I could be totally wrong about all this stuff.  I don't view this as a lack of faith on my part, but simply as intellectual honesty.  I can make definitive declarations about the nature and reality of God all I want, but really, what do I know?  If I'm honest, I have to say that in all these things, I do not know, but rather I believe. 

Although this realization has the potential to be frustrating (and, if taken to extremes, to degenerate into a kind of nihilism), it can also be incredibly liberating.  God doesn't expect me to know everything.  He does expect me to do the best I honestly can with what I have been given, and to ever be wrestling and seeking for truth (which I do confidently in the belief that 'He is not far from each one of us').  That I can do.  Incidentally, I think there is a correlation between my coming to this realization and my being increasingly drawn to a more catholic (as opposed to a more Protestant, reformed) understanding of the Church.  It takes much of the pressure off of the individual.  (I think of the times I've heard preachers say something like, 'Don't take my word for it; go look up the chapter and verse yourself.'  This seems to imply that we should not trust the pastor, that we should not trust anyone.  What kind of community is that?)  I do not have to go it alone, compelling my very limited intellect to serve as my own personal pope, seeking to interpret the Scriptures verse by verse in the isolation of my own study.  Rather, I am simply one of a great communion of saints, founded on the cornerstone of Jesus Christ, built up by the apostles, and continuing through the centuries down to today to be 'built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood'. This is not to say that individuals, and even the Church corporate, can never err.  We are still human, after all (and this is another reason why I remain at home in Anglican Christianity with its concept of a 'reformed catholicism', comprehensively drawing on the riches of catholic tradition tempered by an acknowledgment of the need for continual renewal amidst human failings and advances in knowledge that result in significant changes for societies and individuals).  But I nevertheless take great comfort in being able to lean on the centuries-worn traditions that have strengthened countless Christians before me.  I will continue to struggle in a God-ward direction, but along the way I can trust that I am walking a path that many have trod before, even in those moments when my own doubts and shortcomings are most apparent.

I was hesitant to begin this post with Psalm 131.  I've always loved this Psalm, but I think it easily opens one up to charges of a unenviable sort of 'blind faith' that is complacent and un-seeking, and to the oft-heard 'religion as a crutch'.  As already stated, I believe strongly that the Christian life should be one of continual seeking after truth, pressing further into God; i.e an inquiring faith. As to the 'crutch' criticism, I would ask: What sort of critic ridicules a wounded man for leaning upon a needed support?  And how much more absurd when one recognizes that all alike are wounded?  As Hemingway observed, 'The world breaks everyone'.  Those who deny the woundedness of their own human nature are either naive or dishonest.  Much as we rugged individualists are loathe to admit it, none of us are truly independent.  True health and wholeness are dependent upon the love and support of others: family, friends, and ultimately (though often unseen and unacknowledged) upon God.  Only when we confess this can we begin to live with peace and fulfillment.  For myself, I count it wisdom to join with the Psalmist in recognizing that there are indeed some things that are too hard for me and, owing to the finite nature of this mortal life, there will sometimes be great matters about which I will choose to not occupy myself.  For surely now more than ever we need to be reminded to occasionally still and quiet our souls, like a child upon its mother's breast.      


A Prayer for Guidance
O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light riseth up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what thou wouldest have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in thy light we may see light, and in thy straight path may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

1 comment:

  1. It is good for you to not have knowledge in everything, how would it be possible to remain humble? Thank you for the breastfeeding reference!