Blogging Toward Kansas City, Part 3: “On Not Knowing”

BarnFullPaintingOpen200x200x72Watching my grandchildren get to know God’s great world is one of the most magical things I’ve ever experienced. I’ll never forget my infant grandson crawling on a dock by the Olympia waterfront tracing and retracing with a tiny index finger a knot he spied in the wood.

Or my granddaughter at a similar age, not yet able to talk but saying so much with her gestures and face, slamming shut my unacceptable book choices (she knows what she wants read and reaches down for another option from the book pile if I choose wrong) before agreeing Richard Scarry’s book on rabbits was worth her time. On one page in the middle of rabbits a yellow bird shines out. I had earlier pointed the bird out to her. Now I asked her, “Where’s the bird? Can you show me the bird?” Tiny index finger headed toward the yellow. Miracle.

These two know so little. And yet as minute by minute they take in more and more, they’re touching so much grandeur. I want to learn from them. I want to learn how to do less seeing the world only through the fog of what I already know. I want with my mental index finger to do more tracing with awe the knots and birds I’ve barely begun to understand.

That’s why I include the column below, “On Not Knowing the Truth Before We Find It,” as Part 3 of “Blogging Toward Kansas City.” Though written in 1995, it touches on several factors still affecting my thinking and connects for me as well with the fresh new lessons my grandchildren are teaching me.

Ohe factor is the focus on finitude, on how much we can’t know and the consequent humility and need for each other this calls us to.

I wrote this column in the latter stages of completing a PhD  in rhetoric and communication at Temple University, where I was exposed to and influenced by the thought of Hans Georg-Gadamer. His project was philosophical hermeneutics or, to put it more simply, the process of how we come to understand something.

Gadamer was convinced that for finite humans there could be no universal, God’s-eye-view, because, as I quoted in Fractured Dance, “One perspective darkens another. A universal perspective comprising everything is a contradiction in itself which at most the metaphysical concept of God could assume” (Gadamer, Truth and Method, 1997, 95-96, in Fractured Dance: Gadamer and a Mennonite Conflict Over Homosexuality, 2001, 270).

Repeatedly I found in Gadamer’s thought echoes of the Apostle Paul, particularly 1 Corinthians 13 in which Paul highlights faith, hope, and love as the greatest of these—and points to the boundaries of human understanding. We see the limits especially in that ageless verse 12 reference to our seeing now as if in a mirror, darkly, because we will only be able to see in full—or, as Gadamer might put it, as if through God’s eyes—then, face to face with God.

If this is so, then how profoundly we need each others’ partial glimpses of truth. How truly we need to journey toward understanding anything together—amid and toward faith and hope and above all love. Otherwise we lock ourselves into that tiny slice of truth which is all any given person can individually grasp.

Researching and reporting the story I tell in Fractured Dance—of what befell Germantown Mennonite Church, the congregation I had pastored eight years before, including when I wrote Part 2 of “Journeying Toward Kansas City”, also affected my thinking. I felt that my own understanding of how to proceed while pastoring at Germantown looked ever more fallible in hindsight.

And I concluded that a great tragedy of the process that culminated in Germantown’s excommunication was how little evidence, as Gadamerian researcher, I could find that participants (including me as delegate in addition to researcher) in the discernment truly understood—or even sought to understand—each other across our differences. Great trauma ensued for many, the wounds still often raw to this day. This intensified my aching for approaches that honor the finitude of all positions taken in relation to a divisive issue, draw us toward affirming commonalities even amid differences, and jointly put our index fingers on the knot whorls and golden birds of God’s universe.

A second reason I include the column is that it seems to me to take us at least a step or two beyond the stereotype (and sometimes reality) that highlighting how little we can fully know of God’s truth in this life is more a progressive than a traditionalist move. The column gives us respite from our apparent current impasse in any quest to understand sexuality together by gnawing at a different riddle: amid various understandings of how the earth and life came to be, might views grounded in evolution or intelligent design generate some common ground for mutual learning?

I realize divisions in this area at times remain as fierce as ever. Yet sometimes instead of declaring war, adherents of various views actually work with each other. My favorite example of this is in a “Statement on Creation and Natural Science” prepared by science professors at my own alma mater and current employer, Eastern Mennonite University. The statement carefully notes various ways of understanding creation. Yet precisely because it does not impose stark either/or choices it leaves me with a sense of the wonders of God’s handiwork far grander than if I were told either affirm God’s creative work in precisely these ways or choose evolution and nary the twain shall meet.

Perhaps some would assess that the statement does favor the progressive over the traditional in acknowledging the factors a theory of evolution foregrounds. Yet on the other hand ardent materialists would likely flinch from the powerful foregrounding, throughout the statement, of God’s creative work. For me, at least, all positions touched on contribute to an outcome far more magnificent than if perspectives were primarily placed in combat.

I see perhaps less rather than more evidence that this type of magnificence emerging from pooling our finite understandings is emerging in relation to sexuality. There we do seem caught more in battle than in a project of thinking and praying and discerning together in which all perspectives contribute to a breadth and depth of understanding grander than any of us alone could achieve. There we do seem to be doing more knowing the truth before we find it than actually seeking it in the whorls and birds. Still I dream toward the type of approach the EMU statement on creation exemplifies. I worked at this in editing the 2007 volume Stumbling Toward a Genuine Conversation on Homosexuality, and I see it in embryonic form in the 1995 remarks below.

On Not Knowing the Truth Before We Find It

The conference speaker’s proposal startled his audience. There at a Temple University rhetoric conference, John Campbell told fellow secular scholars that if they really believed what they claimed to believe, they’d want both creationism and evolutionism taught in public schools.

Many of Campbell’s listeners were academics whose project is to show how scientific thought isn’t based entirely on facts but includes the same forms of argumentation we all use when we try to convince someone our view is right. One way we persuade another, for example, is through choosing appealing words.

This is why the labels in the abortion debate have changed over the years. People are no longer anti-abortion but pro-life, because who wants to be against life? People are no longer pro-abortion but pro-choice, because who doesn’t want freedom to choose? Even if there are unchanging facts hiding under each label, the way we view these facts changes according to which name we use for them.

Campbell’s own project has been to show that Charles Darwin was aware of this power of the right words to make one view of the facts seem more persuasive than another. That’s why Darwin chose the label “natural selection” to describe his theory of evolution.

What Campbell stressed at the conference was that based on the facts he had observed, Darwin could as reasonably have chosen the phrase intelligent design. Natural selection isn’t itself a scientific fact. It’s a name intended to make persuasive Darwin’s view that something is in charge, but it’s nature rather than God. If Darwin had been comfortable including God, he could have been true to what he was seeing by describing it as the result of intelligent design.

The scholars squirmed. Many agreed with Campbell’s understanding of science. They agreed that science is made up as much of subjective interpretations of what humans observe as of provable facts. They agreed that to apply this reasoning to evolution was to conclude evolution was only one of several ways of interpreting the evidence. But they sure didn’t like the notion that this meant creationism should be taught as a legitimate alternate view of the evidence.

At least some of these academics, whose lifework has been to show how you can’t be sure of anything, had no interest in holding lightly to evolution. When push came to shove, they were fundamentalist evolutionists. Evolution was just plain the way it had to have happened, and that was that. Period.

But as discussion of Campbell’s proposal continued, it became clear that one reason the scholars were fundamentalists was fear of other fundamentalists.

Campbell had argued that public schools waste the energy of millions of Christian parents and students by trying to cram evolution down their throats. Such schools convince Christians you just can’t reason with secular humanists, so you have to fight them tooth and nail. Campbell dreamed of the creativity that would be released if schools instead aimed to teach the facts without the labels—then invited students across America to wrestle together with what theory best made sense of the facts.

The scholars liked this vision. But they couldn’t buy it, they said, because Christians wouldn’t genuinely search for the best theory. Instead they’d take over the school boards and the schools. They’d cram six-day creation down everybody’s throats, whether this fit the facts or not. “You just can’t reason with Christians,” the scholars said.

As I listened to the scholars and thought about Christians, I concluded each had a point about the other. Whether fundamentalist evolutionists or creationists, we’re so sure we know our destination before we start the voyage you wonder why we bother to travel at all.

I wished, that day, that with Job we’d all hear God thunder, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? . . . Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:1-4). I wished that with Job we’d realize how often we utter what we do not know (42:3). Then we could begin the adventure of journeying toward truth without knowing it before we find it.

Michael A. King is blogger and editor, Kingsview and Co;  dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC. This column was first published in Christian Living, September 1995. King is grateful to the late editor David E. Hostetler for being willing to support this type of writing in the original Christian Living Kingsview columns.

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