I love this blog entry from Michael Gungor. You can see the original by clicking HERE.
For someone writing a story about humankind and our tendency towards self destruction, it’s such a strange and interesting choice to pick the fruit from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” as a symbol or heart of mankind’s “fall”. After all, isn’t our knowledge of things like good and evil a good thing? Isn’t it one of the prominent human abilities that sets us apart from the animals?
My dog Oliver, for instance, takes no time to consider the ethical issues involved in barking at the dog next door when he sees him through the fence in the next yard. He doesn’t think, “would me barking right now be an improper infringement upon the personal space and privacy of my neighbor, or is it actually as I feel…that his very presence an act of aggression against my doghood that is justifiably protest-able?”
There are no groups of vegan lions following their moral convictions, nor do North American squirrels have initiatives for clean water for the Llamas of South America.
Humankind’s ability to have the knowledge of good and evil seems like a good thing most of the time.
The author of the Genesis story seems to have some insight however into the double sided nature of human knowledge. Animals don’t consider their personal responsibility in matters of social justice, but they also don’t build concentration camps. There has never to our knowledge been a war between Golden Retrievers and Poodles. And as far as I know, humpback whales have never conquered the sea of the manatees in bloody and courageous battle.
Humankind’s ability to think and reason is obviously a good thing. With it we’ve often sculpted raw creation into magnificent masterpieces like music and architecture and gardens. But the human ability to reason has also scarred the earth’s ecological systems and left plenty of people in mental hospitals whose astounding ability for logic and reasoning has destructively turned in on itself. It’s a good thing to always remember and perhaps to get a tattoo about…there are no mental hospitals for llamas.
I think that one of the most widespread and subtly destructive effects of our “knowledge” is readily seen in almost anyone at almost anytime. I’m talking about arrogance. Arrogance has always been an epidemic on the human race.
If you go to college, the professors are often arrogant and know that they have the correct view of the world. If you go to church, you often hear the arrogant pastors who also have the correct view of the world. These people often talk like they have everything figured out. If you read blogs, you might read arrogant liturgical post-rock musicians who think everybody else is arrogant because THEY don’t have the same understanding of mystery as HE does. Scientists think they know things, and before science, people had their superstitions that they were just as confident in. How many scientific truths have now been proven untrue? How many people have been killed in wars because both sides knew that they were the right ones?
It doesn’t seem that there’s ever really been a time of humanity’s relatively short existence thus far that we were all really honest about the fact that we really don’t have more than a clue about nearly anything.
We don’t like to admit this though. Our ability to have knowledge is so central to our ideas about what it means to be human, that to admit that we are simply guessing is like the concert violinist admitting that the piece is too fast for her to play. It’s embarrassing. It can make us feel insignificant and weak, which can lead to us feeling unsafe. And nobody likes feeling unsafe.
So we pretend that we know things. As I write this, I am in an airplane. I look around right now and see all kinds of people that are trusting their lives to the laws and physics and pilots and manufacturers that are involved in getting these metal boxes that we call airplanes to soar through the air at hundreds of miles an hour, and I wonder how many of these people even have any idea of how any of this works… I know that I don’t…
I mean, sure I remember learning in school about air pressure and the four forces and how the wings of a plane utilize these forces to pull the plane up into the sky, but if you get down to it, I have no idea how or why any of that actually works. Generally, when I hear the explanation of how things work, it only leads me to more questions that I don’t dare ask because eventually either I’ll look dumb or the questions are frustrating and unanswerable. Children seem to be the only honest ones about this kind of thing.
“How does flight work?”
“Under enough speed, the air flows over and under the wing in a way that creates lift for the plane.”
“Why can’t that same principle work if I just stretch out my arms and run really fast?”
“Because the mass and shape of your body are not suited for flight.”
“Because gravity’s pull is too strong on the mass of your body for the miniscule amount of lift that you’d get from running with your arms out to have any effect.”
“Why does gravity hold us down?”
“Umm.. It has something to do with the curved nature of space and time or something like that…”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know, shut up, and get on the plane.”
I would like to offer up the perhaps ridiculous but perhaps true theory that we as human beings don’t know ANYTHING fully down to the end of the questions. We have hints of some things. We can generally answer a few of the first questions, but far enough down the rabbit hole, we get lost…
“Why do we need to eat?”
“If you don’t eat, you die.”
“Well, because your cells need the energy… “
“Why do we have cells that need energy?”
“Because they expend energy in doing the work needed to keep your body functioning.”
“But where did the initial energy that made the initial matter that made the initial cells come from?”
“Well, I guess that depends what you believe. I believe that they came from God.”
“What does that mean though? How exactly does God create? How exactly does that process work? How does something ever become nothing? Doesn’t what you’re saying imply that God breaks the laws of physics that God set up himself? Why would God do that? ”
“Shut up, and get on the plane.”
What I’m suggesting in this blog is that if we are honest with ourselves, that the only intellectually honest posture of a human being on a foundational level should be wide-eyed wonder. The deepest truth that we have is not religion or theology or philosophy or history or science or any other human discipline or system of thought. The deepest truth is mystery. God is mystery. Life is mystery. Love is mystery. It’s all beautiful, and it’s all mysterious, and unless we get to the point of being ok with that, our arrogance will run the day in a failed attempt to feel safe.
What would happen if we approached our disciplines (religion, philosophy, science, the arts…etc) with that kind of humility? I don’t know, but I think we’d probably fight fewer wars and have a lot fewer ridiculous sermons. That would be a nice start anyway.