Who Says So?
By Pastor Tom Thresher (9/25/11)
Hear an audio recording of this Sunday's reflection:
Sermon(format: mp3 audio)
Read the text:
Does it ever feel like our world is getting crazier and crazier? This is something we relate to.
I want to talk today in the context of ancient wisdom — the ancient wisdom that Jesus offered us.
Usually that piece of scripture — it says, Okay, by what authority do you teach, Jesus?
And he says, Well, I’m going to ask you guys a question, and if you can answer it, then I’ll answer your question.
The interpretation I’ve always heard — the obvious one — is that he says, I’m going to ask you a question, and since you guys didn’t answer my question, I’m not going to answer your question. So there! We’re done!
It’s like a power move.
I want to suggest to you — and I’ll come back to this in a couple of minutes — that he actually did answer their question on where his authority came from.
I want to put this in the context of a book I was reading that was really fascinating this summer. It’s called The Watchman’s Rattle. They used to have a watchman who would watch out at the frontier, and if there was danger he would shake a rattle.
This woman — she’s a sociobiologist — Rebecca Costa works with E. O. Wilson and is looking at the question of: Why do civilizations collapse?
Her primary study was looking at the Mayan civilization. The popular explanation is that the Mayans were hit by a severe drought, and it destroyed the culture.
She’s saying, Wait a minute. That does not make any sense. These people knew that drought and water were the main issue for their survival where they lived. They had a tremendously sophisticated system of canals, of cisterns. They knew how to manage it. It doesn’t make sense that a drought would destroy this civilization that was so well prepared.
The question is, why did the Mayan civilization — why have different great civilizations collapsed over time?
And the argument is that it’s not because something bad happens to them that they collapse, but that there is a time beforehand that leads up to this, that sets the preconditions so that when something catastrophic comes along, this time the civilization collapses.
And her argument is that the precursor — what sets it all up — is when a culture reaches its "cognitive threshold."
Now what this means is that a society becomes more complex than our mental capacity to deal with it. It gets more complex than we can handle.
And she says there are two signs — there are two symptoms — when a culture is reaching its cognitive threshold.
The first is gridlock. They can’t make a decision.
The second is that beliefs start to supercede facts. Evidence moves to the background, and beliefs become more important.
Does this in any way sound familiar? In the Mayan civilization it became very stark. They couldn’t make a decision, and the belief systems — the superstition — became so powerful that they would drain the cisterns and make human sacrifices within them. It got that absurd.
I wonder, have we reached — are we reaching — a cognitive threshold in American culture?
The psychologist Robert Keegan, whose process we use extensively for transformational prayer, says that probably less than half of the American population has the cognitive, the mental complexity to deal with the demands of modern society.
This is frightening.
Our society is not getting simpler; it’s getting more and more complex, while our capacity to deal with this complexity is not growing at the same rate.
What we’re confronted with was this extraordinary gift that really got traction in the 15th and 16th centuries. We call it reason. We call it rationality.
It’s very hard for us to think that reason and rationality and science were something new that emerged in the world. They had been around, but they reached a critical mass among the population beginning in the 1500s, and it gave spark to the Industrial Revolution, scientific theory, the Reformation. Everything changed.
The world we live in is a product of reason and rationality.
One of the things that we forget — and it’s an ancient wisdom — is that any great gift comes with a pricetag.
We do not want to pay the pricetag, but it is coming due now. The complexity that we have emerged into is starting to overwhelm us. It’s very frightening.
And what I’d like to suggest is that there truly is a way out of this.
Much of our culture wants to step backwards into simpler, much less complex times, where belief and superstition gave very comforting answers. And we can go the way of the Mayans.
But all of the spiritual traditions ask us to be bold — ask us to be courageous — and step forward into the unknown, into a new way of knowing that is unfamiliar — that is frightening because it’s unfamiliar — and to trust in ways that we find terrifying.
Jesus was pointing this out two thousand years ago.
He gave the Pharisees an answer about authority. They’re in a culture that’s overwhelmed, and they’re reaching back for authority. They’re saying, By what authority do you say these things?
He’s not blowing them off. He’s saying, I will point to the authority that I bring to this, and I’m going to ask you a question about John’s baptism.
And within the cultural framework of that time, it was an unanswerable question. It was not a question that they could answer, and they actually gave the right answer.
They said, “We don’t know.” We literally don’t know.
That was his answer. He pointed directly to the Source of his authority, what we call the “not knowing mind.” The Buddhists call it “beginner’s mind.”
In the Christian tradition, it was known by a 14th century mystic as “the cloud of unknowing.” We are asked to enter a new way of knowing that is beyond reason — literally beyond reason.
I want to share with you a couple of tastes of this.
The first comes from Richard Feynman. He is a Nobel-winning physicist — actually helped build the first atomic bomb, became this wise philosopher-physicist. Here is someone who has investigated the cosmos, who is one of the developers of quantum theory, who is at the forefront of what rational knowledge can know.
This is the voice of an individual at the forefront of our way of knowing, which is science. And where science as a spiritual path has led him is exactly into not-knowing.
A reading from the Tao Te Ching:
When they lose their sense of awe, people turn to religion.
When they no longer trust themselves, they begin to depend upon authority.
Therefore the master steps back so people won’t be confused.
She teaches without a teaching, so people will have nothing to learn.
Our culture mistakenly translates that as passivity and not engaging the world. As Catherine talked about this summer, the Taoist tradition has this tradition they call wu wei — actionless action.
It is the ultimate in awareness and knowledge, of knowing — as Socrates said — that I know nothing and therefore am the wisest of all. And that from knowing nothing, an intelligence that created the universe, that flows through each and every one of us, starts to become available now — an intelligence that is capable of dealing with the complexity of our world in a way that is often profoundly foreign to us and demands our trust.
Let me give you another short view of this different way of knowing. It’s great fun. This little video clip is actually entitled Wu Wei:
Isn’t that beautiful?
Reason cannot do that. Reason can build a skateboard that will allow him to do that, but someone like that — and you see it in all of the arts, you see it in sports — there is an intelligence and a wisdom riding the skateboard that has nothing to do with the rational mind.
That is actionless action. It is hardly passivity. It is hardly inaction.
If there is a role in this world for the church, it is precisely in this realm. We are the community — we are the institution — that has permission from our culture to invite people into a new way of knowing — into a terrifying, frightening way of knowing because it requires my surrender. It requires my humility. It demands that I let loose of everything I think I know and have this thing we really don’t want to bother with, called faith.
It’s a terrifying path. But if there’s an institution in our country that has permission to go there, we are it.
It is my belief that the way past our cognitive threshold is into the world of not knowing, into the world of profound trust and profound faith.
We can do that. If we can’t do it, I don’t know who will. I don’t see any other institution having the permission or the capacity to actually pull this off. We may not be a dying institution after all. The world may need us in a way they can’t even imagine.
May we move forward together.