Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advent Four: Rejoicing in Mystery

Will information save us?

The news has been full of discussion of NSA data and metadata collection. Has all that information kept us safe?

The question is linked with discussion of Edward Snowden: was he right to share information that had been withheld? Traitor, or hero? What does he know that still hasn’t been released? When is information helpful, and when does it cause harm?

Do we know?

In many ways, we’re the most knowledgeable generations that have ever walked the planet. We may not have the information in our heads, but we have it at our fingertips. What don’t you know? Google it, and there it is.


Sometimes, I fear, all we know blinds us to all we don’t know.

I’ve watched that in medicine, as doctors struggle to see symptoms that don’t line up with clearly-identified illnesses. If they can’t diagnose it, maybe you don’t have it. 

A friend told me just this morning it took two months to convince his doctor he had Lyme disease, even though he was always exhausted, even though he ached from head to foot, even though he works outdoors and spends every free minute birding or gardening. Four months later, he’s still recovering. That’s just one disease with huge unknowns, just one example of how what’s known sometimes blocks and blinds us to all that’s still not known.

This is true as well in regulation of food. I could write pages about testing protocols for new food technologies. Developers have a short list of things to test for, and no requirement at all that they test for unexpected, unpredicted outcomes. What’s known is heralded as safe; what’s not known is ignored, sometimes leading to those mystery symptoms doctors dismiss because they don’t line up with known, diagnosable illness.

The more I explore the edges of what we know and don’t know, the more amazed I am at how insistent we are on the narrow frameworks that correspond to our grids of knowledge, and how hard it is to see anything that lies outside the margins.

The periodic table offers an interesting visual example. In 1869 Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev started arranging chemical elements by atomic mass. His system allowed him to predict the discovery of other elements that fit his chart, but gave no indication of classes of elements still to be discovered.

A century and a half later, scientists are debating the value of his table, with its subsequent additions and alterations. Was Mendeleev’s table a demonstration of ultimate reality, or simply an interesting way to organize information? Some scientists argue that “there is one true and objective periodic classification”. Others suggest that that way of thinking may cause distortion of what is known or hinder discovery of elements yet unknown.

Some alternative periodic table designs
Our assumptions about knowledge and our instinctive attempts to sort and categorize can lead us to great breakthroughs and valuable discovery.

They can also stifle science and cause real physical harm.

And they can blind us to realities that don’t fit our mental grids.

For materialists, all experience results from material causes.

Physicalists, embracing “physicalism,” a modern upgrade of materialism, expand causes to include non-material phenomena that can be studied through the senses (x-rays, gamma rays, light).

If you start by assuming only one dimension, it’s hard to acknowledge dimensions beyond it.

But reading the Christmas story once again, I’m struck at how easy it is even for those who believe in spiritual realities to miss what’s there to be seen, simply because it doesn’t fit expectations.

The Advent Four readings point to the interplay of prophecies surrounding Jesus’ birth. 
Isaiah 7:10-16 speaks of a sign that will be given.
 Psalm 80 sings of a coming shepherd, “the son of man you have raised up for yourself.”
 Matthew 1 ties Jesus’ nativity back to those two passages, and to others predicting a child born from the line of David.
 In Romans 1 Paul describes himself as “, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God-the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets . . .” 
Dig back through the prophecies and the subsequent gospel narratives and it becomes clear: the study the Hebrew scholars gave their lives to made it almost impossible for them to see Jesus as their Messiah. He didn’t fit their construct of coming Warrior King.

I find myself wondering: how do our own more modern constructs narrow our vision and obstruct our understanding?

I’m intrigued by the prophecy and narrative surrounding the Christmas star. Intrigued at the disinterest of the religious scholars of the day; intrigued at the continued intensity of debate surrounding that reported miracle. Intrigued by references to “Balaam’s oracle”, by what we know about the trail of prophecy, by what we still don't know. 

For today, though, I find myself joining the shepherds on the hill outside of Bethlehem.

What did they know of prophecy? Politics? Physics? World religions? 

I imagine they knew how to tell when the weather was changing.

Knew the different qualities of silence, the sounds creatures make as they travel through the dark.

Knew things we no longer know, while knowing nothing of the things that most consume our days. 

I picture their astonishment at the appearance of the angel. 

Amazement as they listened to the announcement. 
I imagine the overwhelming sound of angels singing, the wonder and awe of it, the harmonies of heaven shattering the silent darkness. 

Did it happen?

I believe it did.

I believe in a world inhabited by love, grace, angels.

A world where songs of praise break through the grayness of our days, where mystery breathes in buds, babies, moments of kindness, deep conversations that plunge beneath the slick surface of aggregate information. 

I can't prove it.

But I can live in it. And find joy in it.

My job, today, is to provide lunch for the eighty or so parishioners who gather after our 11 AM service. Three kinds of chili, cornbread, my own sweet cider slaw.

After that I have cookies to bake, presents to wrap. I’m hosting Christmas eve dinner, with groceries still to buy.

In these final days of advent, days of checking off lists, gathering supplies, I find myself caught somewhere between the practical and penitential, aware of what needs to be done next, aware of what lies beyond the reach of my lists, longing for the inner silence, the openness of heart that will bring me closer to the mysteries wrapped in swaddling clothes and waiting in a distant manger.

Yet, busy as I am, I find myself singing, whistling, humming familiar songs of joy.

I rejoice in knowing there is more than this, the beautiful “this” of trees and ornaments, the painful “this” of conflict and sorrow, the beloved “this” of family and friends.

More than the “this” of our accumulated knowledge, our complex grids and frameworks, our aggregated data.

There is healing for ills we attempt to explain away.

Wisdom beyond our Google-driven knowledge,

Love, and the mysteries of incarnation, God-with-us.

Shining across centuries.

Streaming around the edges of our one-dimensional structures.

Singing with voices of angels and shepherds. 

Lighting up the dark December sky.

Angel Appearing to the Shepherds, Thomas Cole, 1833-34, New York
Other Advent posts on this blog:

Metanoia,  Dec 4, 2011
Voice in the Wilderness,  Dec. 11, 2011 
Common Miracles,  Dec. 18, 2011
The Christmas Miracle, Dec. 24, 2011 

Marys' Song,  Dec. 19, 2010 
Christmas Hope,  Dec. 24, 2010