Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Mystery of Understanding

This is a small trek into the jungle of understanding, largely because I am in the process of reading a book called “Discerning the Mystery” by Andrew Louth. The topic is that of theology as an essentially non-rational human encounter with the divine (my words, not his). The subtext seems to be that reason is over-rated, at least when it comes to serious things having to do with God. The trouble started because of the effects of the Enlightenment, which have led to a sort of fatalism, whereby “conscious that other men were men of their time, we are conscious of the way we belong to our time and feel constrained to think in certain ways.” Science determines all.

Into the mix comes Hans-Georg Gadamer – a great name if ever I saw one – who defends “an experience of truth that transcends the sphere of the control of the scientific method.” Science is one way of finding truth, but not the sole way. The author stipulates that “in reality science as a human pursuit of truth is much less privileged than the claims of the Enlightenment might lead us to suppose.” Elements such as tradition and the tacit dimensions of life, the non-propositional personal knowing based on unwritten rules and father-to-son sorts of skills and crafts (Cf.  Michael Polyani), reveal a pattern underlying any of the human apprehensions of truth , a pattern that is curiously similar to  that found in the writings of  the Fathers of the Church (early theologians from the first few centuries after JC). The point seems to be that one must essentially live the mystery of faith in order to gain any real understanding of it. Discerning or learning the truth of faith happens through the thoughtful and reflective living of all that “faith” refers to and is part of. There are no shortcuts. Thinking is not enough.

When Einstein was asked to provide the ultimate explanation of the world, he is reported as having said, “I cannot tell you in words, but I can play it on the violin.” You will perhaps smile at that answer as if it were a fleeting glimpse of an essential truth, but very hard to put into words.

Near the end of his life, St. Thomas Aquinas, probably one of the most prolific and revered theologians in the church, whose writings still form the backbone of much formal theology, had some sort of vision of things which made him exclaim, “I can write no more. I have seen things that make my writings like straw.” Whatever it was that he saw, the understanding gained profoundly transformed his knowledge about knowledge, even though it was based on that first knowledge.

A friend of mine, presently a retired U.S. federal attorney, earned his PhD in Mathematics from the University of Chicago in three years (a really smart guy). He told me that the “key” or “solution” in his 27-page dissertation came to him while walking to dinner one day. However, he said, he would never have found that insight or solution without all of the work that he had done prior to it. In other words, one must enter into something wholeheartedly in order to bring oneself to the place where understanding might emerge. To repeat a favorite notion that I have used before, from Herbert McCabe: As we enter into a mystery, we increase our capacity for understanding it.

Another way of making the point is via a poem about poetry by Billy Collins (apologies for not properly laying out the lines):  Introduction to Poetry “I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide or press an ear against its hive. I say drop a mouse into the poem and watch him probe his way out, or walk inside the poem’s room and feel the walls for a light switch. I want them to waterski across the surface of a poem waving at the author’s name on the shore. But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it. They begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.”