Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Ignorance and Mystery

We are sadly unaware of the magnitude of our own ignorance, and we fail to reckon that we are called to live with mystery.

For Lent, I purposed to spend in silence half of each drive to and from Annapolis each week, about four hours a week. I usually listen to lectures or books on CD, but instead I turned off all audio and just meditated as I drove through Pennsylvania and Maryland between Hershey and Annapolis. I hoped that I could better hear what the Lord might be saying about the decisions that lie before me.

What He laid upon my heart that first day was the immensity of my ignorance. As I breeze along the roadway I intersect the lives of millions of beings of which I know, essentially, nothing. My eyes scrape the surface of a long tunnel of perception, catching the photons reflected from the outer few molecules of the trees and leaves, trees I will see several times a week but never in my life touch or know. In the distance a farmhouse I regularly admire, but I know nothing of its inhabitants, nothing of the loves and angers and disappointments that surely go on within those walls that I shall never enter. Houses everywhere, marking the habitations of persons and families I do not know. Closer at hand, cars pass me. I recognize their brands, can guess at their ages, but what do I really know of them? That minivan that just passed has a piece of plywood cut to cover its rear window. There is a story there, a history of error or accident, of loss and disappointment, perhaps the last straw that broke up a marriage and left children confused and hurt—but I do not know it. Someone knows it. The woman driving the minivan knows it, but she knows nothing of me, does not know what makes me drive to Annapolis to study the books of men and women long dead. She drives away. I will never see her again. Thousands of lifelines pass each other this ordinary Monday evening, thousands of souls thinking their own thoughts, living real lives that are not mine.

I turn the eyes of my mind to consider the structure of this world. I can imagine the xylem and phloem of the trees that pass by, idling now in winter, awaiting the rush of sap upward in the spring. I know that there are subtle clocks there, already preparing the buds. I know that there are animals out there, hidden in those trees, with their own clocks running to awaken them when spring comes. I know that there are millions of cicada nymphs in the ground beneath, sucking their own life from the roots of those trees, their clocks awaiting the seventeenth year to come forth, mate and die. What do I know of these? Nothing much. I cannot even comprehend the numbers involved.

I think inward, into my own body. As a physician, I “know” how this works, surely. But of course, I don’t, not really. I cannot comprehend the fact that billions and billions of my own cells in my GI tract and in my bloodstream will die today. Or that perhaps one, or many, will not die, but will shake itself loose from its nuclear control and begin to grow uncontrolled, one day to bring the rest of me down to the grave. In my mind, I can acknowledge that it has probably already begun, but I do not know. I do not know whether a plaque in my coronary artery is about to rupture and clot. I know almost nothing about my own actual body. I understand some theory, but I do not know the particular thing.

Even my own history I know only slightly. My parents are gone now, and there are things that happened in their lives that affected mine, that I remember only as sounds through the door, as sadness in their eyes, a photograph here, a sketchy note there. I have no objective vantage point from which to know any of this. It is mostly gone, and is completely unknowable now. “Dark, Dark, they all go into the dark…and we go with them.” (Eliot)

In discussing Genesis and the placing in Eden of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Derek Melleby pointed out that this tree shows that we were meant, even before the Fall, to live without knowing all, to live, in fact, knowing that we did not know all. To be content while knowing that God knows things that we do not. To live with Mystery. “We are but of yesterday, and know nothing” (Job 8:9) I think this is one reason I love Ecclesiastes, because it states plainly that the ultimate meaning of it all is hidden from us “under the sun”, so we need not feel that we are missing something when we cannot make sense of it all. It is why I love it that God did not tell us what the Seven Thunders said, but did tell us that they said something, so that we would know that we do not know. Even after the resurrection, I am convinced, we will not know “all”. We will know Him face to face, but we will never know all that He knows.

Perhaps a key lies just here. Perhaps knowledge of persons is not the same thing as knowledge of events or things. I am always drawn back to the hunch that the world is fundamentally personal, that when the sky is rolled up, we will see that all that was fundamental was personal beings, and all the rest merely created context. There is mystery enough here to keep me still a long time.

1 comment:

  1. Angela Strauss3:48 PM

    Hi Joe
    Angela Strauss here - I was taking a quick peak at Summer's blog and she had linked to yours... I found your reflections on not knowing very thought-provoking. Every year during Lent I wish I was a Catholic. I envy them their regular fasts and services that help keep fidgetty souls focussed on the season. What we do not know seems like a very wise place on which to base Lenten meditations. Angela.