Friday, August 26, 2016

Incapable of knowing . . .

     In his book, The Habit of Rivers: Reflections on Trout Streams and Fly Fishing*, Oregon State University professor Ted Leeson tells of an Oregon river he considers his "home waters" -- the Deschutes (pictured above).  ("Home waters" are those that anglers like to think they know best, to which they return regularly. We have our favorite "holes" in those rivers, places we like to believe we can call the fish by name.)  Leeson writes of the river:

The size and depth, the forbidding velocity of the current, the sheer volume of water, all exceed the proportions of comfortable imagining, and much of what is there seems beyond reach or rapport. You can become familiar with the river, but it defies the intimacy of my ideal. Yet the place is magnetic for precisely this reason: It confronts you with your incapacity to know (p. 91).
    "It confronts you with your own incapacity to know."  I've been considering that phrase for the last few days. A place we know well serving up surprises over and over again, confounding us. I certainly do know the experience of standing in the river getting more and more frustrated because the fish that were there last time seem to take delight in mocking me. The proverb attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus springs to mind, "You cannot step in the same river twice"**. A similar experience confronts many campus ministers: "what worked last quarter may not work this quarter."
     Standing on the verge of another academic year, this reminder of our limited ability to "know" seems appropriate. At schools of all sorts, where we (hopefully) impart knowledge, humility ought to be the flip-side to our endeavor. I remember hearing another analogy -- perhaps attributable to another Greek philosopher -- that learning is like increasing the wattage of a light bulb.  More watts means more light; one can see further.  Yet, the circumference of the area that is illumined by the bulb increases as the wattage does. And that means that the boundary where light and darkness meet is greater.  In other words, the more we know, the more we know we don't know!
     I am reminded of the psalmist's realization:
         Out of the mouths of babes and infants
         you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
         to silence the enemy and the avenger.
         When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
         the moon and the stars that you have established;
         what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
         mortals that you care for them?
         Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
         and crowned them with glory and honor. (Ps 8. 3-6)

We have been "made . . . a little lower than God, crowned . . . with glory and honor". We did not make ourselves, although we are quick to crown ourselves. Yet the river will always confound us. A healthy humility would serve us all well these days. 


 *  New York: Lyons & Burford, 1994.**  As quoted in Plato, Cratylus, 402a

Friday, August 12, 2016

Disaster relief . . .

    Beginning tomorrow evening (August 13, 2016), our Jewish neighbors will begin their observance of Tisha b'Av (the ninth of the month of Av).  According to one of the sections of the Mishnah (a collection of rabbinic teachings, compiled in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE),
Five misfortunes befell our fathers ... on the ninth of Av. ...On the ninth of Av it was decreed that our fathers should not enter the [Promised] Land, the Temple was destroyed the first and second time, Bethar was captured and the city [Jerusalem] was ploughed up. (Mishnah Ta'anit 4:6)

In other words, the observance of Tisha b'Av is a day of remembrance and mourning for these tragedies that had happened to the Jewish people.  As the centuries proceeded, other disastrous events become associated with Tisha b'Av (such as the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492). The mourning fast is observed in much the same way as the solemn day of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement); it is significant.      As negative as those experiences were --- and certainly the destruction and sack of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE (depicted in the Arch of Titus above) was devastating --- Jews have also seen the tragedy as presaging hope.  As found in another ancient Jewish text, the Jerusalem Talmud (compiled towards the beginning of the 5th century CE), the following is recorded (regarding the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans):

"On the day that the Holy Temple was destroyed, a Jew was plowing his field when his cow suddenly called out. An Arab was passing by and heard the low of the cow. Said the Arab: 'Jew, Jew! Unyoke your cow, free the stake of your plow, for your Holy Temple has now been destroyed.' The cow then lowed a second time. Said the Arab: 'Jew, Jew! Yoke your cow, reset the stake of your plow, for the Redeemer has now been born...'" (Berachot 2:4)

An un-named commentator on the above passage noted:  "The redeemer, and with him the potential for redemption, was born the moment after the destruction."*        "The potential for redemption was born the moment after the destruction." The Hebrew prophets had railed against their compatriots for leaving aside justice, for over-attention to ritual action, to complacency born of their belief, perhaps, that, as God's chosen people, no calamity could befall them. And the warnings of the prophets came to pass -- either as a divine punishment or as the "natural" result of their self-indulgence. The Temple was destroyed -- not just once, but twice.  Yet the Jewish people and Judaism survived. The horrors were not the end of the story, and, because of a steadfast faith and commitment, some found enough seeds of redemption in the rubble to rebuild.       I have found myself thinking about these themes for quite some weeks/months.  Whether it has been racially-motivated violence on the streets of the United States, or terrorist attacks here and abroad, or the de-evolution of our political system, it often seems that things we claimed (or at least hoped) were "good" are being destroyed. And our standard reaction has been shock, mourning and, on the part of some, stubborn retrenchment. Yet I cannot allow myself to get caught up in that downward spiral of negativity; I refuse to go down that dark road.
        The Talmudic story related above provides a different possibility. How can we see the seeds of redemption in these current tragedies? The observance of Tisha b'Av is one of mourning. But it is also one of hope. It is turning away from the rubble and towards the future. There is an expectation of something better.
       While I do not doubt that other religious traditions hold similar visions of a hopeful future, the two with which I'm most familiar are in dramatic agreement that the old must make way for a better future. From the New Testament book of Revelation: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away" (Revelation 21.1). And, of course, that passage is nearly a quotation of another passage from hundreds of years earlier: "For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind" (Isaiah 65.17).
       We clearly cannot re-create the past.  But we can recognize that there is relief from the "disasters" in a confident hope for a better future . . . a future we can help create.