The More You Know

“The More You Know,” Bob Ryder

Readings
1 Corinthians 8:1b-3…we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge,’ but knowledge puffs up. Love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge. Anyone who loves knows God.

Reflection
Don’t you know, the littlest moments can change your life – experiences so seemingly incidental and casual you barely notice them as they happen.  Yet years later you realize you’re a very different person because of that encounter.  In graduate school, one afternoon I walked past one of my professors and his teaching assistant as they were talking on the quad.  I overheard as one of the other students in my theology class asked them about an aspect of John Calvin’s writings she found confusing.  According to Calvin, the logic of salvation such that if one is saved it is God who is due the glory, but if you end up damned it’s your own damned fault.  My classmate was asking for clarification because it didn’t seem to make sense.  How could something be my fault if things go wrong, yet to someone else’s credit if they go right?  I’d had the same question myself, so I lingered nearby to listen for the answer, and it was the teaching assistant’s reply that stuck with me.  In a tone fairly dripping with condescension, he cut across the professor saying, “It doesn’t matter if it makes sense, you just have to accept it.  That’s how theology works.”  I swear he stuck a pipe in his mouth as he finished the sentence.

Are you familiar with the concept of the butterfly effect?  The idea is that the ever-so-slight breeze created by a butterfly’s wing can cause a ripple effect cascading over weeks and months into a tropical storm on the other side of the planet.  Thirty years later, that miniscule moment on a sunny October afternoon in Princeton culminates in me being a different person – for the better, I hope.  The effect is that I don’t care to reflect much anymore on esoteric points of abstract theology.  If I can’t make sense of it, I can’t just accept it on faith.  I’m much more interested in how we can learn to live pragmatically faithful lives with what we can understand of social and physical sciences.  That’s the background I’m talking against this morning as we think about our spirituality.  I have a story to share – another episode from my education as it happens – and a few thoughts I drew from conversations you’ll hear in two short videos segments I’ll play for you.  Thanks in advance for listening – I’m honored by the gift of your kind attention.

In 8th grade my social studies teacher was Mr. Wozniak.  A towering figure in my adolescent life, I mention him from time to time in our reflections as you might recall.  Mr. Wozniak loved assigning oral reports, and oral reports scared me more than almost anything I can recall from that time in my life – even more than girls.  One reason I was scared of both girls and oral reports was because I had pretty severe social anxiety, so the prospect of having 25 classmates looking at and listening to me was torture.  Had someone told me then I’d go on to make my living as a preacher, I’d about have gone crazy.  “I’m gonna have to do an oral report every week for the rest of my life!”  An equally powerful reason I disliked oral reports was the prospect of someone asking me a question to which I didn’t know the answer. I was sure that the only thing worse than not knowing something was being forced to admit it.

I still recall some of the reports I gave in front of Mr. Wozniak’s class.  One was on the life and administration of then recent Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.  Profoundly scared of getting called out for not knowing a detail about my subject, I worked really hard on the report.  Presentation week arrived, and one by one we gave our reports alphabetically by last name.  I was already sweating by the time we got to the “H’s.”  Tuesday – Hanson, Heller, Justness, Klein, Lauder.  Wednesday – Meyers, Niemeister, O’Neill.  Thursday – Paulson, Peterson, Radcliff, and because Jennifer Reed was absent that day, Ryder.  Biting my lip hard, I made my way to the blackboard and gave my report with knees trembling.  When I was finished Mr. Wozniak and the class took turns asking me questions about my subject.  Amazed, I found I knew the answer to the first three or four, which was a relief.  But finally, Billy Taubenfeld asked me one I didn’t know the answer for, and I stood there frozen.  My face turned red and my throat got tight until finally I croaked out, “I don’t know” and steeled myself for the rebuke I thought was certain to come.  Mr. Wozniak gave our grades immediately as we stood in front of the class, and I waited for him to impose my sentence, praying it wouldn’t be worse than a C-.  “Alright Bob, take a seat.  You get an A, good job.  Marc Sayre is up next.  Marcus, remind us of your topic.”  I was so baffled I couldn’t move to sit down.  “Wait, how did I get an A?” I asked, as the class laughed and Marcus stood by the window waiting for me to go back to my seat.  “You knew your subject and you got your audience to ask good questions,” he said. “You made it interesting.”  “But I couldn’t answer Billy’s question.”  “Nobody has all the answers” he explained.  “Good information makes you want more of it.  Billy’s homework is to find an answer to the question you got him to ask. You did well, now sit down and let Marcus have his turn.”  It turned out that our grades for oral reports were based as much on the quality of the questions we got others to ask as on the content of the report itself.  Billy’s insightful question reflected well on both of us.

I didn’t I realize it at the moment, but the butterfly effect of that experience changed my life.  The notion that curiosity is as important and worthy as the knowledge it seeks might have done more to shape me than most of what I heard in the sermons at my church offered from a perspective of certain finality.  The world is complex, full of peril and potential, and each of us finds ourselves alive with limited time to explore and admire and participate in it.  Perhaps nothing gets in the way of living well more than a lack of curiosity, a sense that “I know everything I need to know,” an assumption that success is achieved by accumulating enough answers rather than by asking the next question.  Our lives are enriched by a desire to know more, to wonder, to consider, to learn, to understand better.  It’s every bit as important to yearn for growth as it is to achieve a milestone.  In the long run, we’re better citizens and neighbors for longing to understand than for what we already know.

Alright, that’s the gist of what I want us to consider about faith as sense of curiosity.  The other idea I want to consider is the give and take between kindness and sobriety.  Now, bear with me a moment as I define terms.  Interpret my assertions about kindness at face value.  I’m simply talking about treating others with gentleness and respect, with affection and appreciation for who they are on their own terms.  I’m talking about being open and authentic, generous and patient – taking interest in another’s well-being as we take interest in our own.  Simple enough, yes?  Not that it’s easy to do, of course – it takes a lifetime practice and self-discipline to become a generous listener, to cultivate going out of our way in a moment of need – simple but not easy, as it’s said.  But the concept is straight-forward – we all know kindness when we experience it.  As to sobriety, I’m referring to something more than just normal clear-headedness absent the influence of alcohol or drugs.  For our purposes this morning interpret my assertions about sobriety as our ability to recognize and accept reality even when things are not as we’d prefer to think about them.  I mean our willingness to acknowledge things as they are even when they run counter to our comfortable beliefs.  By sobriety I mean noticing our biases and setting them aside to reach for the truest available version of the world.  I mean learning to resist being fooled by the constant stream of seductive lies coming our way –  lies told to us by others as well as the lies we tell ourselves.

In an article titled, “Why We Fall for Con Artists (and How to Be Con-Proof)” Ellen Hendriksen writes the following…

“We all have things we want to believe in. We all have our own versions of reality…, and … my version of reality is not the same as your version of reality. So we all have slightly different viewpoints and interpret events in different ways, and neither one is objective reality. (http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/health-fitness/mental-health/why-we-fall-for-con-artists#utm_source=SP20171115&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=savvypsychologist)

Add to that the following observation by New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks from a recent article entitled “The Art of Thinking Well”

“It’s when we get to the social world that things really get gnarly. A lot of our thinking is for bonding, not truth-seeking, so most of us are quite willing to think or say anything that will help us be liked by our group. We’re quite willing to disparage anyone when, as Marilynne Robinson once put it, “the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.” And when we don’t really know a subject well enough, in T. S. Eliot’s words, “we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts,” and go with whatever idea makes us feel popular.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/10/opinion/the-art-of-thinking-well.html?smid=nytcore-ipad-share&smprod=nytcore-ipad)

So I’m thinking of spirituality now as the confluence of kindness and a sober assessment of the world.  It’s the relationship between these two competing virtues I’m interested in.  I have a couple short video clips to share that explore the relationship.  See if you can get a feel for the give and take I’m talking about, first in a segment from the TBS show “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.”  In this clip, contributor Alanna Harkin visits Tangier Island in Virginia and discusses with Mayor James Eckridge and other members of the community possible causes for the loss of acreage on the island in recent years.  And a quick disclaimer, both of these videos have brief instances of course language – please don’t let that bother you.

https://www.facebook.com/fullfrontalsamb/videos/2119349841625984/ (0:25 – 6:00)

Here’s another conversation, this one featuring Sarah Silverman in a guest appearance on the HBO series “Real Time with Bill Maher.”

http://americastube.com/video/o8e1y7qmmdwy?sarah-silverman-loves-america-real-time-with-bill-maher-hbo (3:15 – 7:00)

Now no one would argue that there’s a phenomenon called objective reality; that the world is what it is regardless of our beliefs.  There are facts.  There are laws that describe non-negotiable patterns of interaction between matter and energy and between living organisms. Facts and physical / social laws do not adjust to human attitudes, nor adapt to political expedience, and we serve one another best when we strive for the most accurate available reading of the world.  It’s also true that we’re all prone to limitations and distortions in our perceptions of reality.  There are layers of reality we can’t see or hear or measure, we have idiosyncrasies and biases, and we will inevitably and appropriately have disagreements about those distortions.  If we are to survive as a species, we need to develop our capacities for kindness with the same dedication and urgency as we strive for accuracy in our understanding of the world.  The inclination to choose a preferred version of the world based on enhancing the security we derive from it rather than for the sake of accuracy is in my estimation the single greatest obstacle to our surviving and thriving into the future.

Let the faith that we would cultivate at Jesus’ table be characterized by curiosity, sobriety, and a kindness that resists contempt and coercion of those who view the world differently. If Christ’s bread and cup bid us anything, surely they bid us to create friendship and community among the people, creatures and environs of this very complex and beautiful world. Amen.