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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Eff-ing the ineffable

"We keep saying God is ineffable--but we keep on eff-ing him!" --Don Cupitt

You've probably heard the old Buddhist story of the Blind Men and the Elephant? If so, skip down a bit.

If not, here's a jokey Victorian poem that puts it neatly (read it aloud, enjoy the bouncey meter):

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach'd the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -"Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he,
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
--John Godfrey Saxe ( 1816-1887)

Any resemblance to an actual Elephant is entirely accidental

What's interesting to me in this story is the omniscient point of view of the narrator. He knows there's more to the elephant than those with less sight have seen. He's not blind, and sees the whole of the WHATness of the elephant entire.

Problem is, we're not him and no one else is either. We're all the blind, and there is no omniscient narrator to instruct us on the folly of our ways. It's tempting to say that in matters theological, the blind lead the blind, and that the theological project is to spin ever more elegant and compelling analogues between, say, the SPEARness of the spear and the TREEness of the tree.

The story uses 'seeing' as an analogue for engagement with the true nature of an object, and reminds me of Plato's Myth of the Cave, wherein chained captives mistake shadows of objects for truth of the object itself. From this, Plato gets his notion of "forms" the ideal things which are most true ("horseness" is the form of all horses, etc.).

"No, no, no! Since they all have four legs, they must all have a common nature!"

At the heart of this approach is an assumption about what we mean by truth--that when our descriptions CORRESPOND well to the nature of the thing itself, we have truth. But if we can't ever actually get at "the thing itself'--that which is beyond our experience--how can we measure how well our descriptions match the actual nature of things?

There are approaches to truth other than this correspondence theory. Most of our theological training seems to take the COHERENCE model--that is, how well our descriptions fit other descriptions that have been found reliable in the past. It's easy to see the weakness in this 'house of cards' approach, where each questionable description relies on other questionable descriptions and the whole rickety structure can be brought down if just one part is thrown into doubt.

Oh the humanity!

Neither of these approaches are entirely reliable. "What is truth?" asked jesting Pilate, a question especially difficult when we're trying to "eff" the ineffable. I suppose all theology is predicated on faith, which St. Paul calls "The substance of things hoped for. The evidence for things unseen."

If belief is the only criteria for approaching the ineffable, the trouble is you can believe anything--fairies in the garden, Big Foot, junk bonds. "I believe I'll have another gin-and-tonic" is about the extent to which I'm willing to rely on belief alone. But if not belief, and not correspondence, and not coherence--what, then?

Absolutely general skepticism about the world looks challenging, but it's really not. Unless you're absolutely mad, you don't live as though nothing can be reliably known. We trust, for example, the authority of science, when we could not possibly verify scientific claims with our own senses and intellect. We thus take on faith things like the Big Bang, the speed of light, sub-atomic physics. I'm sure there are a few people that thoroughly 'know' these things which are otherwise ineffable to us, but I don't know any, and so that sort of knowledge remains a sealed, gnostic priesthood of the few.

Why not admit that we take most of what we think we know absolutely on faith? That my wife loves me, that my daughters are really mine, that my house is a sound investment, that certain acts like charity, mercy, pity, temperance, are good in themselves? Maybe I'm utterly wrong about one or more of these. Maybe what I take to be truths as solid as a spear, tree, or a rope is REALLY something utterly other and beyond my ken?

I believe I am eff-ably happy.

We can only do the best we can, blind as we are, seeing 'through a glass, darkly.' Work needs to be done. Children need to be raised. The garden needs tending. Every day you get up, and get on with things, is an act of pure faith.

I can eff that.

1 comment:

  1. ^_^

    Welcome to the real world. Certainties left at the door, tentatively somewhat reliable theories by the umbrella stand.. you'll pick up a few more while here. Try to leave it better than you found it and try the relationship punch, it has an odd flavor but overall we like it.

    XD. Ok forced metaphor... hope you're keeping well Rob.