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

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