Sunday, October 30, 2005

Focus Entails Elimination

Yesterday, at a conference featuring Steve Garber and Byron Borger, we noted that the Biblical concept of knowledge includes, necessarily, responsibility to and care for the beloved, and is not simply rational or abstract or detached "head knowledge." We watched U2's music video "Numb," and noted that the modern glut of information coming at us from all sides has the effect of deadening our concern for any of it. It is easy to say that we should be personally involved, and should care for that about which we have knowledge, but it seems that today we are presented with so much information that it is manifestly impossible for a human being to care about all of it.

Perhaps we need to make a distinction between knowledge and acquaintance, to preserve the deep Biblical concept of "yada," Hebrew for "knowledge." We are simply "acquainted" with those myriad facts or ideas that enter our eyes or ears each day in this modem world, but about which we care nothing. We might say that we only "know" those persons or ideas about which we care and with which we are personally involved. All the rest is not knowledge but mere acquaintance.

It would follow that a person who is truly knowledgeable in this Biblical sense, is therefore truly concerned and involved. It also explains the moral dimension that the Bible attributes to both knowledge and ignorance, in which knowledge is virtuous and ignorance blameable. It is hard to see how head-knowledge, in the modern abstract and detached sense, could be anything but morally neutral. But if knowledge necessarily entails responsibility and care for the known, then increasing knowledge means becoming increasingly responsible and involved, and ignorance means irresponsibility and carelessness.

There remains the problem of focus. Given that we are deluged with information, how do we select which items will enlarge our knowledge and which should remain facts about which we are merely acquainted? This selection process, it seems to me, is a matter of "attention" and is analogous to our normal human sensory function of the same name.

As you sit reading this, the nerves carrying sensory information from your trunk and extremities, your ears and nose and even some of your internal organs, are all still functioning, sending information continually to your central nervous system (CNS). You are ignoring nearly all of it. Even in your visual field , as you look at these words, you are getting visual input from the edges of your monitor. Perhaps you can see the keyboard at the bottom of your visual field. But the attention function of your CNS is filtering out all the data that isn't pertinent to your reading this article.If you wish, without moving a muscle, you can note the precise position of the fingers on your left hand, or the sounds coming from outside, or the fullness of your bladder. If you do, you will decrease the attention you are devoting to the reading.

Attention -- focus--entails elimination. Persons with attention deficit disorder have difficulty ignoring sensory input that is not pertinent to the task at hand. Even those without such disorder regularly eliminate distracting elements from their environment when they wish to focus. We understand this. The crowd is hushed as the golf champion makes his putt.

I would suggest that in this modern age, if we wish to truly know the things and persons that should be known, we will have to do some eliminating. This elimination will not be the same for everyone, of course. Perhaps less time reading the paper. Less time on the computer. Less time with the cell phone on. Less time reading and more time praying, thinking and doing.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Notes on the Lord's Prayer

At Kairos, we are studying the Lord's prayer. This will take you to some notes on the first words, "Our Father" .

Monday, October 24, 2005

"First Things": The Journal

My son recently gave me a gift subscription to "First Things," a publication of an organization called The Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York City, whose purpose is, "to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society." I am finding it very interesting, reading almost every article in each issue, which is unusual for me. The articles are scholarly but approachable for the well educated generalist. It is edited by Richard John Neuhaus and has a distinctly Catholic flavor which may put off some on-fire Protestants. Recent contributors include Antonin Scalia, Avery Cardinal Dulles and John Haldane.

One of the things I appreciate is that First Things now puts its past issues online in their entirety. The website includes a blog by Neuhaus. While I enjoy being able to refer readers to articles online, such publication clearly compromises their ability to sell subscriptions. I would recommend, as a way of materially supporting Christians engaging the culture, that those of us with means to do so patronize journals and artists by actually purchasing their work if we find it good and would like to see more of it.

Saturday, October 22, 2005


What a wonderful word is "Amen."

The Daily Office used by the Northumbria community and printed in Celtic Daily Prayer has us pray,

"Who is it that you seek?
We seek the Lord our God.
Do you seek Him with all your heart?
Amen. Lord have mercy.
Do you seek Him with all your soul?
Amen. Lord have mercy.
Do you seek Him with all your mind?
Amen. Lord have mercy.
Do you seek Him with all your strength?
Amen, Christ have mercy."

How could we answer an unqualified "yes" to these questions? I do not even know what is the real extent of my whole heart, soul, mind and strength. I doubt that I have ever applied myself entirely to anything. I know, not only from scripture but also by experience, that my heart is deceitful.

Yet I wish it were not so. I would like to be better than I am. As I kneel and consider the query, "Do you seek Him with all your heart?" I say, "Yes, I wish it were so, I want it to be so, but I fear it is not completely so." I say, "Amen", "so be it", "may it be so truly." My affirmation carries within it a petition, an expressed wish that this intention become a reality. It expresses the tension between the now and not yet, the Kingdom that is here and yet still coming, my love that is present but not perfected.

A great word for those living in the Kingdom, on Earth, between the two Comings.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Prayer as Watershed

(And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.) T.S. Eliot

Heading west from Downingtown on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, one passes a sign that reads,"Now entering Chesapeake Bay watershed." From this point west, until the beginning of the Mississippi watershed, any drop of water -- (or toxic spill) - -that falls to the ground will find its way into the distant Chesapeake Bay, in another state. I find the idea compelling. There is a line, real but invisible, to one side of which all water flows to the Chesapeake, and to the other side of which all flows to the Delaware. The place itself is very nondescript, without any remarkable ridges or elevations apparent. It's just a slight rise in a meadow. It isn't even the highest point between Philadelphia and the Susquehanna. Its nature as a watershed is a function of its elevation relative to its immediate surroundings, and in turn of those surroundings to the terrain surrounding them. The drop of rain falling on that spot doesn't know anything about the extended terrain, yet because of the nature of that terrain will inevitably end up in the Chesapeake, not the Delaware.

As we consider the topic, "Prayer'', in our Kairos study group, I am struck by the extent to which one's approach to prayer reveals the larger topography of his or her conception of reality as a whole. When one begins to talk about prayer, and even more when one sets out to pray indeed, she must confront the shape of her world, as that world is structured and represented in her mind. Is the future fully determined or open? Is the world simply matter-and-energy or is there real personal agency? How does God relate to us? Is He concerned only that we come to desire what He desires, or does He allow our desires to influence His own? What does it mean for God to change His mind? What is the nature of Time, chance and causality? What do we make of the irreducible imprecision of language? Why would God use such a medium?

At the point of prayer one finds practical implications of virtually all theological and philosophical categories and questions. The natures of God, Man and the cosmos. The sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. What it means to know anything, to hope or desire, to imagine and dream. Time and eternity.

Let us go often into this field, and see how the land lies.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Daily Office online

For those of you who enjoy utilizing the Book of Common Prayer in your daily worship, but find it distracting to have to flip back and forth between sections, or find it difficult to decide just where in the church calendar we happen to be just now, here is an easy solution. This site provides the whole morning worship online, (including karaoke music to accompany the hymns!) I pull it up on my handheld tablet, together with E-sword for my prayer-list, and am ready to go.
(By the way, the completely free E-sword is one of the best computer-based Bible resources available. You have to pay a little to load a copyrighted Bible like NASB or NIV, but the searching, commentary indexing and study-note taking features are great. I now use it to develop all my lessons, as well as sermon-notes, etc. Combined with a tablet PC, it's like having a library in one's hands.)