Robert (gurdonark) wrote,
Robert
gurdonark

moving beyond doctrine

"Suppose two friends go to see some celebrated building, and return home to describe it. One has seen only the north side, and the other only the south. The first says: “The building was built in such a manner, and has such and such stories and ornaments.” “Oh, no,” says the other, interrupting him, “you are altogether mistaken; I saw the building, and it was built in quite a different manner, and its ornaments and stories were so and so.” A lively debate might follow upon the truth of the respective descriptions, until the two friends should discover that they had been describing different sides of the building, and then all would be reconciled at once".--Hannah Whitall Smith



I puzzle a fair bit lately on the idea of simultaneously contradictory deeply-held truths. I should not say, actually, that I puzzle, because I actually don't so much puzzle as relax in the reality of this idea.

I'm not suggesting that contradictions are inherently true, or that there is no truth. But I do take a lesson from Mr. Newton.

That fellow Isaac Newton was a lovably bright eccentric genius. He worked out an entire law of mechanics, of the way the universe inter-related, which met the needs of his time. Some even imagined that he had solved the key issues of physics. This is not surprising--the things he found and figured led to such a plethora of progress and follow-on discoveries as to make his finding seem at the base-root of reality itself.

I hold a bachelor of art's degree in physics, which is a little like holding a Master's in Theology with no intention of becoming a preacher. As my degree is now some 26 years old, and
used primarily for routine mathematic correlations and as a source of cautionary tales about leaving rooms in which fluorescent light bulbs have been (rather improbably) shattered, I can hold forth with at least as much authority on topics of physics as the customary doctor in physiology can hold forth on the personal lives of anonymous troubled call-in participants.

With this incredible amount of astuteness, therefore, I will summarize Newtonian physics as being all well and good, but in fact workable only because it is a special case approximation based on realities obtaining in our own small Solar System and similar correlative bodies. That all sounds more accurate than it is, but the reality is that Newtonian physics fails to work in a lot of contexts beyond the obvious day to day physical realities of our little planet.

My notion of contradictory-simultaneity is that it's just not easy to put one's finger on an idea or image, and instead, one uses as metaphors things that don't really fit together, but instead,when added together, give a pleasing asyncrhony which approximates the idea sought to be expressed.

I carry this a step further, and it is perhaps a dangerous step, if metaphysics is in fact dangerous. I often find that two people with completely diametrically opposed ideas can in the ideal reach a sympathy of spirit which can lead them to great things, despite using entirely differemt words and ideas for what they are doing.

I've never had much patience with litmus-testing people too rigorously about matters of
faith and skepticism. It's hard enough to love any one person for any short stretch of time to begin playing Jeopardy with the theology of kind people who see the world completely differently than oneself. That fellow John Wesley was less open-minded than, in my view, he might have been, but I did like that although he himself was fixed in his principles, he also said

"I dare not, therefore, presume to impose my mode of worship on any other. I believe it is truly primitive and apostolic. But my belief is no rule for another. I ask not, therefore, of him with whom I would unite in love, Are you of my church, of my congregation? Do you receive the same form of church government, and allow the same church officers, with me? Do you join in the same form of prayer by which I worship God?"

The construct succeeds even if one leaves behind the talk of God per se. So many people today live in a culture which is post-God. We imagine this is a new thing, but even the kind of non-assiduous study of history in which I engage from time to time convinces me that it is a very old and constant thing, this skepticism.

In my own mind, I maintain a belief in an afterlife and a simultaneous belief that the literal existence of an afterlife is almost beside the point. On a more trivial note, I rather believe that a prehistoric creature lives in the Loch Ness, but also believe that science has thus far found no trace of that creature. I believe simultaneously in string theory and in its utter failure to meet the case at hand in modern physics.

I think a lot about matters of faith and faithlessness. I'd have to imagine that if one knew me in real life, one could credibly remark that whatever personal notions I have on this are at best a footnote in how I live my life. More than this personal shortcoming (i.e., faith as fantasy),
I often think that the debate about these kind of ultimate realities are beside the point. X wishes to believe in this formulation of faith. Fine. What does X do for others? Y wants to sleep in this domestic configuration rather than in that. Fine. How does Y help people? This social gospel way of looking at things isn't particularly noble--and I certainly don't live my life as some kind of noble do-gooder.

But I have some sympathy for the folks who judge this television show called American Idol. Wayward audiences "vote off" talented performers from time to time, while more attractive or quirky but less talented performers stay on the show and advance to the next round. "This is a singing contest", the judges intone with exasperation. I think, sometimes, that life is a singing contest.

It's not a question of who has the most virtue. I find that many of the people who come to mean a lot to me are not people of spectacular virtue, or kindred beliefs, or successful survivors of a hundred thousand litmus tests of doctrine. I find instead they are people who are looking, and sometimes finding. They are people who not only like the questions, but hope to solve a few. They are people who wish they were kinder than in fact they are. Often they are people who can look me in the eye and tell me what they think and feel.

In the meantime, sometimes there are the inevitable problems of communication and formulation.
I believe, for example, that love can only really effectively be shown by those who can reach agreements with other people from time to time. Yet almost any agreement requires concession and acceptance of less than everything one wishes. This conflicts with the worthy idea that no person of principle ever gives an inch on any matter of integrity. Yet if every important decision is a matter of integrity, then no agreements can be reached. It all doesn't add up, but the mismatches are not so much error as terminology.

I am in a time when I am connecting with things I have long believed, and expressing them to myself. Yet I try to remind myself that what I believe is not nearly as important as how I behave and ultimately who I "am". I decline to insist upon articles of faith for friends (or even strangers). It may be that all roads may not lead to glory, but my own road is not to be paved with forcing glories on anyone.

I've become deeply skeptical of painting a picture for someone, even as the stained glass I begin to see threatens to lose me in wonder, and thereby to save me. When it is all said and done, it's not about my individual journeys, but the chances to find fellow travelers--of whatever faith(s)--along the way. I imagine a great corporate brain in which differing ideas fire like synapses. The test of such a brain is not the endless groove of similar impulses, but the amazing thoughts people of good will in a body can add their notions and think.

I am not sure I know the answers, though I have faith in a good few of them. But I know that I treasure reaching out to the questions, and embracing them, and ignoring them, and moving on from theory to action.
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