Genesis 3:8:15 and Mark 3:20-35
Listen to the sermon Pentecost 3B sermon
We have all heard the axiom: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” An axiom is a premise or a starting point of reasoning so evident as to be accepted as true without controversy. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” or this old chestnut: “You should not mix religion and politics” Failure to adhere to the logic of accepted axioms is unsettling.
A long time ago, when I was but a teenager – back in the by gone days of yore—I remember believing beyond a doubt that all I needed to do in order to be successful in life was to learn. I figured any problem in life could be solved merely by studying the problem, figuring out the possible solutions, eliminating incorrect ideas, reviewing past solutions, anticipating possible outcomes and factoring in the various laws which apply to the subject, and arriving at the correct answer. Studying, the facts in a reasonable way, analyzing the various emotions that might arise, and determining what was best possible outcome for the largest number of people; this rational approach was the key to success in life. I resolved to learn all that I could about how people had done things in the past in order that I might succeed in the future.
It helped that I was a history buff. History and English were my favorite subjects in high school and I excelled in both. Math and science, I struggled with; biology and geography I could manage, but algebra, physics and chemistry just about did me in. But I wanted to go on learning and it was made clear to me that if I could not master high school math and science, I wouldn’t be able to go on to university to study anything. So, I worked hard not to learn math and science but rather to pass all the math and science tests.
It wasn’t easy! Physics was just about the end of me. Not only was I incompetent when it came to learning the lessons of physics, the teacher couldn’t teach his way out of a wet paper bag; and besides he was just about the meanest marker in all the world, so I figured I was doomed. So, you can forgive me if I took a little pride in the fact that I actually got around to going to university as what they call a mature student. I didn’t actually go to university until I was 32 years old. I wasn’t entirely sure that I was going to make it through my first year, because in addition to all the subjects that I was wildly interested in, I was required to take a science class…but that’s another story. I was enrolled in a general arts program, majoring in religions of the world, with a minor in psychology. The subject matter in most of my classes was absolutely fascinating and I even remember being grateful to my high school physics teacher for drumming Newtonian physics into my non-scientific brain. You see little Isaac Newton went a long way in the study of theology. It turns out that when you are studying theodicy which is a fancy word for the reason behind the fact that God appears to let bad things happen and evil prosper; well when it comes to theologians trying to explain why God acts the way God does, there’s a whole branch of theology that figures God out using the rules of Newtonian physics. Although I didn’t learn much science in high school, I certainly did learn Newton’s laws of motion. So, I could understand how Newton’s explanation of how the physical world worked, was applied by theologians to explain why God let bad things happen in the world; even to good people. God wasn’t causing bad things to happen we were, because as everyone knows Newton’s third law of motion is an axiom, which is absolutely true; a fact beyond challenge, and I knew because not only did I memorize it to pass the test, but I actually thought I understood it. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Zippiddy do da! there you have it. When two objects interact, the size of the force on the first object equals the size of the force on the second object.
A little knowledge of Newton and you can solve the problem of evil in theology. The bad stuff isn’t God’s fault. The bad stuff happens to good people, not because God is testing them, or because God is capricious, or because God is powerless to act. Bad stuff happens because people who are not good do bad stuff and their action creates more bad stuff. The theology proof asked us to imagine Newton’s mechanized view of reality, by thinking of a pool table. One ball is bad, very bad, that one ball’s badness hits a good ball with force, and that good ball is compelled to move, hitting another good or bad ball it doesn’t matter, one ball hitting another ball with force, has a ripple effect, the ripple effect isn’t chaos, it’s the nature of reality, the way things were originally created, and what is necessary is for enough good balls to use good force as apposed to bad force in order for justice to prevail.
Now it’s been a while, so I’m making a bit of a hash of this, but I hope you get the idea that I thought I was figuring it all out, wrapping my brain around theology; beginning to understand how a good God can let bad things happen to good people. It was the nature of creation itself that was getting in the way. God could still be considered good even though bad stuff happened, because God was not responsible for the bad stuff, we were with all our bashing about on that pool table. It sounds ridiculous now. But at the time it was like being hit with a blinding light; an epiphany of sorts. God didn’t cause bad things to happen, but because of God’s commitment to our free will God would not intervene, but God’s goodness compelled God to be there with us as the bad forces were hitting us. I even figured out that Jesus was thrown into the mix because all those crashing balls were causing so much pain that God was compelled not to intervene directly but to set an example of goodness in the midst of evil; an example that we could look to and follow, so that with enough good people exerting enough good force we could create an equal and opposite reaction of goodness. It was all slotting into place. Here was a theory about God which used reason and logic to arrive at the goodness of God, while demonstrating the need for Christ, and a way forward out of the pain of bad forces and onto a table where the force of goodness was matched with more goodness. Do onto others as you would have them do onto you. Stop all the bad forces with goodness. Everybody get together try to love one another right now. Love, love, love, all we need is love. Love is all you need.
I was delighted with my new understanding and they way in which the God I was learning about fit so nicely into the Newtonian world view as I understood it. But remember the axiom I began with: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. One day, during a second-year course in which we were studying the patristic explanations of the cross, we were arguing about the relative merit of a God who would demand human sacrifice when my carefully constructed vision of God was blown sky high. My defense of the goodness of God was challenged by a kid who had more than a little knowledge and whose broader knowledge of science just about robbed me of my sanity as I watched my carefully constructed vision of the goodness of God fall into the abyss. “Sadly,” this kid said, “Sadly your argument for the nature of divinity is constructed on a false premise.”
The arrogant little sod, “What false premise?”
“Newtonian physics of course. You’ve fallen into the trap of viewing reality as a mechanism which follows laws established by Newton’s world view.”
“Newton’s world view?” What was this guy talking about, Newton’s world view was reality, Newton’s laws of motion wasn’t just Newton’s opinion, they are facts. Our attempts to understand who and what God is, have to conform to the facts.
“But.” He said, the reality is that Newton’s laws of motion are obsolete, Einstein’s theory of general relativity supersedes Newton’s laws.
I went out of my mind. I’m not exaggerating her folks. I’m not using rhetoric to make a point, I lost my mind. It didn’t happen right away. It took a few weeks, but I did what I always do when I can’t understand what is going on, I studied. I went to books, I couldn’t figure it out, so I consulted experts. I asked all the science geeks I knew, and theology geeks know a lot of science geeks and even though I didn’t understand much of what they said, I knew that Newtonian physics, all those laws that I had been taught were indisputable facts were now being challenged by Einstein’s theories of relativity. My grasp on the divine and the nature of my reality was smashed by so many forces whose relativity compelled me to question the very nature of reality. My carefully constructed reality, was nothing more than balls smashing into one another and my tiny little brain just couldn’t take it, I was unhinged. I felt like I was losing my mind.
Over the years, I’ve become accustomed to having my carefully held assumptions challenged. A while back, a science geek explained Schrodinger’s cat to me, and my entire understanding of it’s either true or it’s not true died in a box; I wasn’t in my right mind for a very long time as I tried desperately to understand how a cat could be both alive and dead at the same time.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing; especially if you build your worldview around it. Take Adam and Eve and that snake… For years I understood that story not as the history that so many people insist that it is, but as a metaphor designed to explain how we humans fell from grace. Human’s in my worldview were sort of sophisticated billiard balls who couldn’t quite manage to be all that billiard balls were designed by their creator to be, too many rough edges, so we keep doing bad things and bad things happen to us and to other people because one thing leads to another. And God, well God is a gracious God, and so, God just can’t help God’s self, so God just goes on loving us, God loves us so much that God becomes one of us, and suffers with us, somehow that suffering, changes us and God forgives us just because God, not because we deserve to be forgiven, but because God is gracious. Then one day, old Matthew Fox comes along and asks me to remember that Adam and Eve weren’t real, that the human condition is not a result of the original sin, that we are not the product of original sin, but rather originally blessed, fearfully and wonderfully made. Suddenly my carefully constructed notion of God’s grace, which is predicated on the notion of our fall from grace begins to unravel and I feel like I’m not in my right mind. Touch stones that I once relied on to guide me begin to move and I am so disoriented that I can’t help but wonder if my mind is even capable of relating to whatever this Reality is that we call God.
So, when I read this text about Jesus’ returning to his home town only to discover that his new ways of relating to God, challenge his neighbours and his family to such an extent that people began to believe that Jesus was not in his right mind, I can’t help but wonder what it must have been like for Jesus. Jesus was raised to be a faithful Jew; his worldview was established upon hundreds of years of traditions; ways of knowing and understanding which his people held to be true. Suddenly, Jesus’ experiences lead him to challenge these traditional ways of being in the world, as Jesus begins to articulate a new way of being. Out there in the wilderness of unknowing, challenged by the evil that exists in the world, Jesus has some sort of epiphany about the nature of reality, an epiphany so vivid, so compelling that it leads him back into the world to challenge the carefully held assumptions of his own people and to condemn the realities of his people’s oppressors.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Wisdom can cause us to go where angels fear to tread. Axioms, facts, realities, don’t react well to the challenges of newfound wisdom. Carefully held beliefs are based on assumptions that don’t respond well to challenges of any kind. When our beliefs are challenged by the reality that our beliefs are predicated on things that might not actually be true, well it can feel like we are losing our grip on reality. Who are we to challenge beliefs which have served our people for generations? Are we out of our right minds? Perhaps, but maybe we need to venture out of our minds in order to challenge our carefully constructed belief systems. Einstein must have known that Newton was right and if Einstein had not have had the courage to venture beyond the limits of his right mind, well Schrodinger’s cat would be neither dead nor alive and we would all still be woefully ill prepared to meet the challenges of life in a cosmos as spectacular as quantum physicists are only beginning to reveal. Human development is full of stories of people venturing beyond the confines of their right minds.
The good news, the absolutely fabulously good news is that venturing beyond our carefully constructed beliefs is indeed possible. Jesus’ life, death and yes, resurrection show us the way to venture beyond our beliefs, precisely because Jesus life, death, and resurrection demonstrate that life is not about believing in stuff, life is about living; living in a way that is full, and open, and loving, and just, and real. Jesus showed us the way. Jesus showed us that relationship with and not belief in is what life is about. Being touched by the infinite reality that we call God, is mind-blowing. Responding to that touch is mind altering. Relating to, living in relationship with the Divine, responding to the LOVE that is God, is the way, the truth, and the life.
Life, real life, is not about believing, it is about relating to, responding to, living into, and loving out of that which is beyond our ability to name, or imagine. The good news is that we are free to relate to, respond to, live into, and love out of that which is beyond our ability to name or imagine.
The good news is that even if we can’t help ourselves and go on naming and imagining that which is beyond us, our names and our images are just that, names and images, designed to help us to articulate a power that is both beyond us, and so close to us that we can’t even begin to imagine the intimacy. The good news, the wisdom that Jesus embodied in his life, death, and resurrection points to a way of being in the world that is not based on what we know and what we don’t know, or what we believe or what we don’t believe.
The wisdom that Jesus embodied points us toward a way of being that is open to the More, the One, who IS at the very core of who we are, the ISNESS that IS, the I AM, WHO AM, that in whom we live and move and have our being, the Reality that lies at the very heart of all that is, the LOVE that we call God.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Perhaps that’s why one of my favorite descriptions of the nature of God, is a definition attributed to Rudolf Otto, which sees God as Mysterium, Tremendum, et Facinans,- Mysterious, Tremendous, and yet Fascinating. (Yes, I know that “et facinans” does not appear in Otto’s “The Idea of the Holy” but was added later and came into the conversation as a miss-quote. As I said, “A little knowledge..once imbedded in the psyche has a life of its own!)
Mysterious – oh yes, beyond our abilities to imagine, mysterious. Tremendous, from the latin Tremendum, to tremble, so awesome it will shake you up. And yet fascinating, so compelling we can’t help but try to capture in words, thoughts or belief systems. Fascinating, compelling, terrifying, Mystery that is beyond belief. Something so beyond and yet near, that the only way we can relate is to venture beyond our right minds. Beyond our belief systems, beyond our way of knowing, toward the wisdom that we can only see dimly as if we are peering through a glass darkly.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing; some axioms are indisputable. Yet, just like the axiom which instructs us not to mix religion and politics, !; for who can honestly say that Jesus life, death, and resurrection are not political and yet religious, just like Shrodinger’s cat, both political and religious at one and the same time, alive and dead.
Indeed a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, tremendum, terrifying, and yet fascinating. So, bring on the danger, follow Jesus right out of your mind, toward the ONE who is Mysterium, tremendum, et facinans. The good news is that we can be out of our right minds and still rest in the knowledge the one in whom we live and move and have our being is LOVE, beloved and love herself.