Sunday, March 13, 2011

Avail Yourself of the God Positioning System

Monroe County
 I remember, as an undergraduate in the early 1970s, reading Jean-Paul Sartre's novel Nausea. I read it on the recommendation of one of my favorite philosophy teachers, Michael Gelven. Gelven really knew his existentialism, and I was attracted to its themes of meaninglessness and absurdity in light of the absence of God. Even though I had recently come to believe in God, I was convinced that the atheistic existentialists had it right about life's "meaning" in light of God's non-existence. That is, if God did not exist, then everything is possible (since there are no objective moral values). Existentialists, reacting to Hegelian-type rationalism, emphasized the limits of human reason. Human reason, on atheism, has serious, big-time limitations.

One of the novel's characters never left me; viz., that of the "Self-Taught Man." He spends his life in a library with the goal of reading all the books in alphabetical order. By doing this he thinks he can learn all there is to know. This is a foolish task, because he spends a lifetime but never even gets out of the letter 'A'. Everything the Self-Taught Man knows he has gotten from a book. If it's not written in a book, then it's not real for him. His obviously failed attempt to know everything is absurd, as is life for Antoine Roquentin, the main character of Nausea.

One time, 25 years ago, I made a trip to my favorite bookstore in the world. It's the Seminary
Co-op Bookstore at Chicago Theological Seminary, which is next to the University of Chicago. I almost did my doctoral work at U of Chicago Divinity School (but chose Northwestern U.) At that time U-C's divinity school had these professors: Paul Ricoeur, Martin Marty, Langdon Gilkey, and David Tracy to name a few. They had all influenced me, esp. Ricoeur. On a visit to U-C I was introduced to Martin Marty. I was in on office. His desk was piled with books. I thought, "This is my kind of environment!" U-C's divinity school used the Seminary Co-op Bookstore as their own. This bookstore had the ultimate feast of theological and philosophical texts, unlike any other I had ever seen. There is a lot of learnedness in this place and I want to swim in it.

On that day, long ago, when I walked into my kind of bookstore, I had an "Antoine Roquentin Nausea" experience. (Really, a mini-nausea experience, not one of full-blown existential angst.) I looked at all these books, old ones and brand new ones, and saw that, among the thousands of academic texts, I had read very few. There was the table with all the new publications, displaying books holding recent research and  fresh reasoning. Of the books on that table I had read not one. I felt ignorant. I am, and we are.

Philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset once called scientists "learned ignoramuses." He wrote, in The Revolt of the Masses:

“Previously, men could be divided simply into the learned and the ignorant, those more or less the one, and those more or less the other. But your specialist cannot be brought in under either of these two categories. He is not learned, for he is formally ignorant of all that does not enter into his specialty; but neither is he ignorant, because he is ‘a scientist’, and ‘knows’ very well his own tiny portion of the universe. We shall have to say that he is a learned ignoramus...a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with all the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line....That state of ‘not listening’, of not submitting to higher courts of appeal which I have repeatedly put forward as characteristic of the mass-man, reaches its height precisely in these partially qualified men.”

We are all, more or less, learned ignoramuses. We're all, when it comes to knowledge, partially qualified. And that, I am certain, is an understatement. We may have moments when we feel we know a lot. These moments are delusions.

I have met a few people in my life that I found truly brilliant. One was Reginald Allen. Arguably he was the greatest Plato scholar in the world. Which meant he was also one of the top Aristotle scholars in the world. I was one of six Northwestern U. doctoral students in his seminar on Aristotle's Metaphysics. I knew I was in for something special when the occasional N.U. professor dropped in just to hear Allen lecture and teach. One day, e.g., the brilliant philosopher Ed Curley sat in the class. We sat around a large wooden table, in heavy wooden chairs, with the walls lined with books. Dr.Allen would walk in and begin to teach. He knew the entire thing in its original Greek. I thought, "I have never seen anything like this before." I was in the presence of human brilliance. And I liked him as a person, too. But in reality he was but another learned ignoramus like myself. No one was more learned in ancient Greek philosophy than he. That being said, I cannot assume this qualified him to change a light bulb, much less to play like Yo-Yo Ma or do brain surgery

This morning I preached on 1 Corinthians 1:10-25. The new Jesus-followers in the Greek city of Corinth were greatly enamored by the human intellect and eloquent, humanly wise orators. They would debate, among themselves, the beauty of the teachings of Paul, Apollos, Peter, and even Jesus. They engaged in boasting about the virtues of each. Into this Greek environment comes Paul with his upside-down message of "Christ crucified." "Christ crucified" was a logical contradiction to both Jews and Greeks. It functioned as an oxymoron, like "Microsoft works" or "Anarchy rules." "Christ crucified" makes about as much sense as "boneless ribs."

Into this big-time teaching-and-learning environment comes Paul, himself no dummy, with a message that's looking foolish in terms of "learned" people. God did it this way, Paul said, so as to frustrate the intelligence of the intelligent. (1 Cor. 1:19) Even the weakest sophia of God is far superior to the sophia of persons.

From the POV of Jews (who wanted powerful, Exodus-type signs) and Greeks (who wanted "ideas" packaged in eloquent, culurally acceptable speech-packages) "Christ crucified" was insane. It was "foolish." "It was," writes N.T. Wright, "the craziest message anybody could imagine." In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul insisted that this core message, which in itself was the power of God and the wisdom of God, not be dressed up in the clothing of intellectual and cultural respectability so we won't be ashamed of it. We are not to seeker-sensitize "Christ crucified." If we do, it will lose its power. (1 Corinthians 1:17)

We don't know everything, see everything, or understand everything. We don't even come close, right? But God does.

A few years ago Linda and I traveled from Monroe to Columbus to attend a funeral. It was in a town east of Columbus. We had never been in that area before. Our son Josh asked if we'd like to borrow his GPS. That sounded like fun to me. We typed in the address and took off. When the British voice (which sounds more intelligent to me than other voices) said "Turn right in 400 yards," I obeyed. The GPS took us straight to our destination. I thought it would even tell us where to park in funeral home's lot. But on the trip home something happened.

I like to take different roads and see places I've never seen. Linda does, too. So I pressed "alternate route" and off we went. We were driving on a place we'd never been before and the GPS said, "In 400 yards, turn right." But that did not feel right to me. Stop here. How could I know? I had never been in this place before. So I ignored the British voice and went straight. "Turn around in one mile." Then, "Turn around." Then, "Turn around, you ignoramus!" Linda did not use these words on me as I drove on.

We got lost. Finally I submitted to the voice that had a global perspective. We headed back to Monroe.

I am an ignoramus. "Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth." (1 Corinthians 1:26) Even if we are "wise by human standards" we still know very little.

If there was no God then would be time to despair as the nausea sets in. But God came to us in the form of a person. I now see this as a brilliant idea, as the sophia of God. If I trust in and submit to him, and not in my own very-partial understanding, he will make straight my path. (Proverbs 3:5-6) There is a God Positioning System available to us. Avail of it.