Wednesday, February 03, 2016
The Treasure of All Knowledge, Part 1 of 2
- Colossians 2: 1-5
An engineer friend of mine owned a favorite painting of a mathematical set of spheres of uniform size painted in black and white in different lighting from different angels. It was far more of a scientific study of shape and light than an artist’s framing of reality. I told him he “liked” that painting (which was not the painting pictured above, but was similar), because he was like that painting.
I did not mean that as a subjective judgment of his poor, inner, private taste in art, but that is hard for most who would read this to even believe. I meant to say that his identity is tied to his scientific way of thinking of the world. Therefore, I meant to say that his preference for that painting was an affirmation of how he identified himself in and before the world.
He thought of himself as a scientist who knows objectively, universally, and rationally. He thought of himself as having trust in objective reason; he was skeptical about inner, subjective experience as a valid way of knowing in and about the world. He was dominated by left-brained thinking. That’s what he was good at, and it’s how he navigated through life (quite successfully, I might add). That such a way of identifying himself and moving through the world was even an option in comparison to a more “subjective” way of thinking, living, and practicing speaks to and implies the kind of brokenness at the core of our world.
[DISCLAIMER: I’m pretty sure my friend’s scientific studies and explorations were or are partially fueled by curiosity and love, but I’m trying to make a point here, lol. Why is modern science so exclusively the angle by which subjects were approached with the given love and curiosity?]
The kinds of wounds I have in mind involve painfully inflamed openings between “experience” of the external world, on the one hand, and analytic internal thinking on the other. I have in mind cuts between superstition and knowledge, or between “relativism” as compared to what is taken to be universal and absolute truth.
Those whose way of knowing of and in the world is trained by the speculations of modern science are so skeptical of the make-believe that, even if they are committed to belief in a religion, they generally presume religious rituals to be “empty.” Under such assumptions, which are really assumptions about how and what we know, humanity’s relationship with God could never be practiced as the acting out of a story.
Those who assume that interpretation of scripture is done by a private, independent, autonomous, transcendent, and individual subject in search of the singular intention of the original author also tend to see the concern for the particular in post-modernism and therefore forcefully and violently throw postmodernism in the “relativism” box. The fact that post-modernism doesn’t necessarily belong in the relativism box and yet gets placed there automatically further implies an apparently unbridgeable gap between action and speculation as modes of knowing in and of the world. Enactment is the engagement of a subject.
Similar kinds of breaks or fissures in our world occur between left and right brained thinking, between aesthetic and scientific ways of knowing or seeing, or between trust in “subjective inner experience” and trust in “objective rational thought.” These are differences in how and what different groups of people go about knowing in our world, how people navigate their way through life. The break between left and right brained thinkers is generally so severe that architects and engineers usually don’t even understand each others’ languages. This is partially a question of how we identify ourselves.
I also have in mind similarly impassable and antagonistic gaps between history and science as compared to religion, between politics and religion, or between dominant classes or cultures and those who are marginalized by the powerful. The historian and scientist alike generally assume a required suspension of disbelief in order to engage or believe in anything religious at all. Politics is assumed to be so absent from questions of salvation of our souls that to question the de-politization of the gospel is generally first met with blank stares of information not registering in the brain, as if trying to install software that is incompatible with the hardware being used.
The struggle between classes, races, or cultures has erupted into violent tragedies that have put this wound on obvious public display, but most people on both sides of the fissure are too wedded to their claim and pursuit for a place of power in the world to see this primarily as an opportunity for reconciliation and healing. The question is why I mentioned this in the same breath as the break between science and religion or between politics and religion. It is said that knowledge is power, and that appears to play itself out here.
Those who identify themselves as scientists or historians tend to identify themselves with a particular way of knowing, and that identity is partially a stake in a claim of what is truly authoritative and powerful in our world. Politicians are generally doing the same; they make the claim that they know what really moves the world and, thus, how to direct it properly. Those who bind themselves to a religion also tend to do the same.
Of course, there is also the isolation of and between heaven and earth. Modern Christians know their way around Narnia but can't transition to the real world. This is precisely because of the reified modes of knowing in our world are assumed to be governed by the above wounds and antagonisms.
Christians mistake indicators for the real thing (our world is flat). The only mechanism modern Christians know of to connect Narnia to the real world belongs solely to the internal logic of Narnia itself. There is no interrelation or interlocking between the imaginary and the real. Hal Lindsey, Left Behind, and the millenarian movement, as attempts to force such correlations between the conceptual world of what’s written and the concrete world of what happens, are examples of symptoms of this break between heaven and earth.
Of course, here, Narnia, as an imagined reality, and scripture, as a system of meaningful words in the mind, both work as analogies for heaven. Narnia is locked away from reality, because concepts are assumed to be dualistically separate from the world to which they refer. Words in the mind are assumed to be dualistically vaulted away in a separate compartment from the bodies of sound that press out from them, because how we know is partially a question of how we identify ourselves and understand our world. Narnia is separate from reality, scripture separate from the world, when man is the ghost in the machine and the world is the Clockwork Universe.
These breaks between the thinking man and his body and between the autonomous, secular universe and the Epicurean gods establish the antagonisms between the figures who pursue power and authority in our world. Post-Enlightenment, we are dis-integrated humans living in a dis-integrated world because of dis-integrated modes of knowing.
I would suggest, then, that the break between heaven and earth, like the rest of the fissures that dominate our world, is partially due to the prevailing notion that knowledge is power. The resurrection of Jesus Christ, the glorified King of all of creation, has always been a threat to power.
We live in a broken world. To any Christian, this is obviousness and readily acknowledged. Porn, adultery, and divorce are common, even in the church. The world is still at war, and all Christians believe that won’t always be the case. Bitterness, anger, and unforgiveness still rule the day in many a family or personal interrelationship.
There are some wounds, some cuts in the flesh of the body of the world we live in, however, which are less obvious to most and less readily acknowledged as such by most Christians.
What every single one of those breaks have in common is that they all come from the story the Enlightenment tells. Each of the above wounds is a fruit of what the Enlightenment tells us what knowing is. To live those wounds is to live out that story, to know the way the Enlightenment tells us to know. To live in any or all of those areas of the inflamed flesh of our world is to identify with the Classical Liberalist story of reality and humanity told by the Enlightenment, to affirm our place in the world as established by Enlightenment ways of knowing in and of it – just as my engineer friend with the scientific painting of a series of black and white spheres.
To see that these are, indeed, wounds, however, is to live in and inhabit another story. To resist the automatizing urge and temptation to give allegiance to one side or other of our wounded world, both sides of which are inflamed, is to live a story that heads in another direction. To desire and work for reconciliation and healing is to head where the gospel directs us rather than towards the transcendently, objectively, exclusively scientifically knowing subject who makes free choices autonomously with no interference from foreigners or tyrants. It is to start to wrestle with the differences and wonder where and how unity is possible in the midst of such presumed division.
In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright discusses how the church’s belief in the urgent imperative to improve society was given up on at the same time - late 1800’s/early 1900’s, the climax of Enlightenment thinking - as when the church quit believing in resurrection. Instead of believing in the resurrected son of compassion, the church began settling for disembodied heaven. This was because man had come to think of himself as a disembodied ghost who moves a ragamuffin machine. Because the world had become a clock wound by a Deist god at the beginning of time and left to operate on its own.
In the face of such breaks, then, how is a unity possible? How can the world be so unified if such breaks or fissures are built into the very fabric of how our world works (quite practically, I might add)? How can we even begin to imagine such a unity between the many divisions in and of the world for which the Enlightenment is so responsible: between subjective and objective knowledge, between religion and politics, between superstition and reason, between the powerful and marginalized? Once we can even begin to imagine it, how can we then live it out?
N.T. Wright recognizes in Surprised by Hope that Wittgenstein begins to provide the answer: “It is love that believes the resurrection” (p. 72).
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