Monday, September 16, 2019

Knowledge Of Our Limitations

September 15, 2019 – Evensong on Sunday of Proper 19

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.

If you ever overhear someone offering pastoral advice to someone who has experienced a tragedy and you hear that person say that the explanation for why this terrible thing has happened is found in the Book of Job, please do all of us a favor and take the Bible out of that person’s hand and whack that person on the back of the head with it. Job does attempt to wrestle with the deepest, unanswerable question of human existence, but, when it comes to why terrible things happen to good people, the only comfort Job offers is to confirm for us what thousands of years of philosophy and theology have deduced: there is no answer.

Keep in mind that Job is not a record of history but an intellectual exercise concocted by those who want to explore the hypothetical collision of the world’s richest and most righteous man with the evil deceiver, the Great Opponent called Satan. Step by step, in one horrifying catastrophe after another, Satan takes away Job’s property, his children, and his health—and all with God’s permission. Sympathetic friends, who sit with Job in mournful silence for seven days and seven nights, cannot resist the need to explain the inexplicable. One by one, they tell their friend that a good and just God would not allow such things to happen unless Job deserved it. “Even if you cannot think of what the fault is,” they beg him, “repent and confess, and God will show mercy.” But Job knows in his heart that he has done nothing wrong. And, in that way that only makes sense in an intellectual exercise, he cannot repent when there is actually nothing from which he can turn around.

Eventually, Job, too, is unable to persist without an answer, so he demands a reckoning from God, but the audience he receives is more terrifying than illuminating: “Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this. Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness, that you may take it to its territory and that you may discern the paths to its home? Surely you know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great!” Unlike the reply of a petulant teenager, God’s version of sarcasm is truly frightening. It exposes the infinite gulf between Job’s ignorance and the mind of God. But it also exposes the innate spark of curiosity and the drive for knowledge and discovery that belongs to the species that was made in the divine image—that sense of inquiry that got Job into trouble in the first place.

Where is the way to the dwelling of light? What is the home of darkness? Where are the storehouses for the snow and for hail? How can one find the source of the distribution of light? Whence does the east wind originate? What causes the rain to fall in the desert places where normally no rain will fall, and how is the cycle of drought and flood essential for sustaining an ecosystem that vacillates between barren wasteland and verdant growth? These are the mysteries of Job’s day—the questions that filled the imaginations of ancient scientists. And Job’s inquiry, and the response that he receives from the Almighty, reflect a universal human desire to understand, to comprehend the world around us, to plumb the depths of interstellar space, and to mine the unfathomable mind of God.

Our quest for knowledge has helped us answer many of the questions that God threw back at Job, but that search has also confirmed for us that some pursuits are beyond our grasp. Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or lose the cords of Orion? We may understand the ordinances of the heavens, but can we establish their rule on the earth? One field in which scientific knowledge is exposing human limitations is climate science. As climate change promises one horrifying catastrophe after another, how long will it be before we wish that we could lift up our voice to the clouds and call the waters down upon the parched earth? When will we recognize that, although God may be the only one who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, our actions have the power to cause the dust to run into a mass and the caked clods of earth to cling together?

Our study of how the world works has helped us understand the relationship between rising levels of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other greenhouse gasses and rising global temperatures. But, as Dr. Walsh preached this morning, our knowledge of that relationship has not helped us avert disaster. Citing an article written by Jonathan Franzen in this week’s New Yorker, she wondered whether the kind of apocalyptic devastation envisioned by prophets like Jeremiah might, for us, be inevitable. Why would rational human beings ignore generations of science to the detriment of future generations? How immediate must the negative impact be before we will accept the warnings of modern ecologist-prophets? It seems as though the more we learn the more we, like Job, discover our own limitations. But that may also be our greatest hope.

The source of our species’ true power is our insatiable drive to learn. The pursuit of knowledge is our greatest aim. How we use that knowledge—and, in fact, whether we use that knowledge—is, in every generation, our yet-to-be-answered question. Honest and open inquiry is humble. It admits and even embraces its own limitations. And those who seek not only data but truth bear the responsibility for communicating those limitations. The more we know the more we realize how much we do not know. The more powerful our knowledge makes us the more we recognize our own powerlessness. And that is where our hope lies. Our hope as a species depends upon our willingness to confront our limitations, to accept them and embrace them and adapt to them. In an age of increasing understanding and increasing peril, those whose task is the faithful and pure pursuit of knowledge are the prophets from whom we most need to hear.

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