July 18, 2017

Knowledge, Faith, & Bears

Humans look upward by nature. Whether we look upward to the unknown beyond the stars or upward to the divine, we all, by the very fibers of our being as a species, look up. From our hominid ancestors stepping up on a flat-ish stone to reach a fruit that others couldn’t to building space shuttles to reach beyond the confines of earth entirely, man is characterized by his discontent with the ground. It almost makes you ask, “What did the ground ever do to us?” or, “What did the… well, up ever do for us?” It’s more than that, though. It’s in our nature to seek, to ask, and to know. And, the moment that we attain a little knowledge, then we can’t wait to know more. Humans are knowledge junkies, we’re positively addicted to and fat with knowledge, and have come to rule the world through our insatiable thirst for the stuff.

Spiritually speaking, we not only thirst for what we don’t know, but we thirst for what we’re a part of—for completion of some sort or perhaps understanding what part we play in the big production of life. This is personally what led me to the study of theology in the first place. I looked up and pondered the heavens, both the material heavens and what might be beyond, or behind, them. You might call this regressive thinking. Even now, you’re probably sitting at a table, or similar type of furniture or fixture. Think about how that table came to be. Maybe it’s made of wood. Someone had to take wooden boards, cut them to size, and assemble them properly to make said table. To get the boards, someone had to cut down a tree. To get the tree, a seed had to take root in the soil and grow for a number of years. To get to the seed, a more primitive plant of some sort spent millions of years evolving through a harsh environment to develop just the right set of traits that allowed it to survive the harsh elements. I could go on, and on, and on.

It’s the questioning that drives us, that defines us humans as unique in the world.
But, where does it stop? Does it stop at the Big Bang? Does it go further back even than that, or can it go further than that? Even the brightest scientific minds can’t say for sure at this point. Likewise, even the brightest theological and philosophical minds can only speculate and make assertions based on Scripture accounts. As for me, I take comfort in the fact that none of them can actually answer the question, though. If they did answer the question, then what would be the point of asking anymore questions? It’s the questioning that drives us, that defines us humans as unique in the world.

One of the biggest mistakes that a person can make in any walk of life is to be too sure of himself. A scientist that considers his conclusions air-tight sets up quite a fall for himself when the next colleague comes up with a new experiment that brings it crashing down like a Jenga tower. A philosopher that thinks he’s figured it all out (you know, life, the universe, and everything), will quickly stumble over his own words the moment he clashes with a thinker from another culture or tradition with totally different ideas. There’s an old saying, which no one seems to be able to nail down to a specific person for credit, that goes something like: “The journey is the destination.” You might also say that getting there is half the fun.

However you want to phrase it, the point is that it’s our compulsive need to look up that keeps us moving and getting out of bed every day. And, for those who haven’t seen the broad end of the bad luck stick in their life just yet, I promise you that there’s plenty of reasons to not get out of bed on any given day of the week. In that way, it’s all about hope—hope that tomorrow will be better or different, hope that there’s something higher and bigger than us, whether it’s a creator, higher knowledge, or just more stuff to discover. When I first began to really ponder theological questions, the first concept that I had the hardest time figuring out was this: What is faith? At the time, I thought what I found (or failed to find) was discouraging. But, in time, I came to realize that it was all part of the process.

A particularly profound thinker of antiquity by the name of Augustine suggested that faith was “thinking with assent,” basically meaning that you ponder about transcendent things while taking for granted some basic principles that are given to you (like precepts of religion). While I’d say he’s partially right, it’s definitely not the whole story. Luckily though, I can’t give you the whole story either—I say luckily because, if I could, I wouldn’t have much reason to get out of bed tomorrow morning. I’ve come to understand faith as having more to do with hope. You can have faith in a lot of things. You can have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that your spouse loves you, or any number of great and small things, but they all involve certain degrees of hope, not actual knowing.

I don’t have faith in the existence of bears, because I don’t need to.
I know bears exist. I’ve read about them, seen photos of them, even seen them first-hand in zoos. I don’t have faith in the existence of bears, because I don’t need to. There’s really no question about it, so the story of whether bears exist and what their place in the world is has pretty much come to an end for me. Since I’m not a bear-ologist, there’s not even any reason for me to study them more closely—I know generally where they live and to stay away from them in the wild. Matters of faith are much more intellectually and intuitively challenging, though, or at least they should be.

If you say that you “know” God exists then, well, you’re just wrong. Even if you enjoy the most intense level of powerhouse faith in any religion, you don’t actually know that God (or any god) exists, and if you think you do, then what you’re really enjoying is blind faith, since to truly "know" something is to have a first-hand experience of it in some way that is preferably verifiable and testable. Even if you had a near-death experience or are one of those folks who actually did die and was resuscitated and you had a spiritual experience, even then you don’t truly “know” that God exists. There are all sorts of things that can and do interfere with that hypothetical “knowing,” e.g., lack of oxygen to the brain, lucid dreaming, hallucinogenic chemical side-effects, etc.

The more you know, the more you discover you don’t know.
Don’t take this as discouraging though, because it’s actually some of the greatest of inspiration. The more you know, the more you discover you don’t know. It’s the human condition, if you prefer to call it that. We look down to the things we can know and we look up to the things we can’t know, not in full anyway. I know that bears exist, and subsequently don’t care to seek out new bear-like frontiers.

I don’t know who my creator is, or how it all came about, when it all came about, what my place is in the infinitely gigantic network of existence, or even where I’m going from here. I have faith in some aspects of these things, but thank God, I don’t “know” any of them for sure, because then I would stop looking up and reaching out, which is kind of the answer to life, the universe, and everything—to go above and beyond, out and yonder, to do more and to be more, and perhaps even discover new frontiers of bears along the way.