April 2018

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

NL #31: Oysters' essential questions

NL #31: "When human beings try to describe God, we are like a bunch of oysters trying to describe a ballerina.We simply do not have the equipment to understand something so utterly beyond us, but that’s never stopped us from trying.” (our minister Jim Carther quoting Barbara Brown Taylor referring to Robert Farrar Capon's Hunting the Divine Fox).

I remember first being interested in the question of what we cannot know because our minds don't have broad enough experiences when a museum educator visited my fourth grade class. She asked us what color things were: our jackets, our socks, etc. and then she used a black light, which showed me that white was purple and that what I thought was clear and immutable was, in fact, just a figment of my eye's experiences.

Maybe earlier than that, Dr. Seuss got me thinking. After Green Eggs and Ham, my favorite Dr. Seuss book was Horton Hears a Who. It still is. I can imagine worlds within worlds, getting smaller and smaller just as space gets bigger and bigger: universes like those wooden dolls that fit into one another. I can imagine not having the capacity to sense those other worlds. After all, I can't hear a dog whistle.

Perhaps because of this habit of mind, I love words that try to capture the unknown. One of my favorite words is "conundrum", a word I first recognized from a Dublin philospher-cab driver.( I went to Ireland because there were so many Irish poets travelling the US circuit and I'd read Joyce and wondered if everyone in Ireland wandered the streets and settled into the pubs speaking lyrically. They do. )

As a teacher, from time to time I would write on the board (first a chalk one and then a white one) Walt Whitman's quotation, "Do I contradict myself? / Very well, then. I contradict myself./ I contain multitudes." If anyone understands the fickle concept of the self, it's teenagers.

We are more complex than we imagine and our God, fittingly, is too. That's tight.

I realize that not everyone thinks that's tight. My brain, having sustained a liberal Southern Baptist upbringing, two tumors, a splitting of my cerebellum and radiation, is not the average brain. Lots of folks prefer answers to questions. A student once asked me, "Why do you always answer a question with a question?" In one of my best teachimg moments, I responded, "Why do you think I do that?" The student paused to think and then brightened, "See! You did it again!"

Perhaps the world is divided into those who love answers and those who love questions. (Yes, I know, the world is divided into people who divide the world and those who do not.) Perhaps we are all either Hamlet the philosopher or Horatio the pragmatist. As Hamlet says to Horatio, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

That's what I want to say to folks who are so clear on knowing the nature of God through literal readings of scripture and those who know human nature through their own lens: "There are more things in heaven and earth,...Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Do oysters have eyes? Could they even see Swan Lake? (Of course, I don't really understand ballet--or opera or baseball--either.)


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